In Praise of Useless Things: Another Post on Contemplation

One recurring theme on this blog is the necessity of contemplation. In my study of Balthasar especially, and in encountering the tradition through him, I have been struck again and again by the central place of contemplation not just in Christian spirituality but also in Christian theology. If the statement that theology grows out of contemplation does not seem immediately apparent to you, you are not alone. One of Balthasar’s continual laments is the bifurcation of theology from spirituality and the resulting expulsion of contemplation from theology. But Balthasar’s own work and his re-presentation of the Christian theological tradition shows again and again that the really meaningful theology of the church has been forged in the crucible of adoration and obedience, in word it has been birthed from contemplation.

Balthasar’s contention is that there is no truly deep and meaningful theology which does not come from a place of prayer, particularly contemplative prayer. But his argument is deeper than that because contemplation isn’t meant for just the “Spiritually” and “Theologically” inclined. No, Balthasar insists, in his book on prayer, contemplation is the birthright of everyone. So while I have come to see that contemplation is vital for the theological task, I want to make this broader point too. I have come to see that quite apart from theology, contemplation is central to being human, whether one is formally engaged in studying theology or not.

Another guide who has helped me realize this is Josef Pieper. Over the past few months, during the lockdown, I have been slowly reading Josef Pieper’s book Leisure, the Basis of Culture . It is in many ways the most helpful thing I have read in a long time, and most certainly the most helpful thing I have read in quarantine. Working from the Latin for the psalm, Pieper renders the famous phrase “Be still and know that I am God,” in this way: “Be at leisure and know that I am God.” Leisure is the contemplative stance, an openness to receive what is as it is, to receive the goodness of creation as a gift. This is perhaps always counterintuitive, but it is especially so in a time when I want to control things, to make things happen. Stillness, leisure, contemplation are all of a piece and are all aspects of intellectus (which Pieper, along with the Medieval tradition, distinguishes from ratio). Both intellectus and ratio are necessary and healthy aspects of the human mind, but Pieper’s concern is that we have surrendered ourselves to “total work” because we have come to believe that it is only ratio that matters.

But we need intellectus because it is through intellectus, through contemplation, that we experience the “useless” things of the world, that is things that are valuable in and of themselves, rather than things that are instrumental for getting me something I want. The “useless” ’things are what I actually need to live with integrity and with wisdom. Without such useless things, I have no chance of loving my neighbor, because after all my neighbor is never a means to an end, but someone to love.

Contemplation is a letting be and an openness to the goodness of Being, and ultimately to the one who is Goodness in himself. I have no time, I say. I have no space. I cannot. Oh but I may, and I must, if I want to receive what matters. There is a silence that must proceed any speaking that bears any weight at all.

Austin Farrer too holds up the necessity of contemplation while lamenting its loss. (Iit is not a unique problem of the internet age!), and reminds

“The chief impediment to religion in this age, I often think, is that no one ever looks at anything all: not so as to contemplate it, to apprehend what it is to be that thing, and plumb, if he can, the deep fact of its individual existence. The mind rises from the knowledge of creatures to the knowledge of their creator, but this does no happen through the sort of knowledge which can analyse things into factors or manipulate them with technical skill or classify them into groups. It comes from the appreciation of things which we have when we love them and fill our minds and senses with them, and feel something of the silent force and great mystery of their existence. For it is in this that the creative power is displayed of an existence higher and richer and more intense than all.” Reflective Faith: Essays in Philosophical Theology

The truth is that the contemplative stance, the space within from which to truly see and to truly receive, is already within us. Yes, that room may have fallen into disrepair, but it is still there, and by grace it can restored and inhabited again. Or so says Balthasar:

“Man is the creature with a mystery in his heart that is bigger than himself. He is built like a tabernacle around a most sacred mystery. When God’s word desires to live in him, man does not need first of all to take deliberate action to open up his innermost self. It is already there, its very nature is readiness, receptivity, the will to surrender to what is greater, to acknowledge the deeper truth, to cease hostilities in the face of the more constant love. Certainly, in the sinner, this sanctuary is neglected and forgotten, like an overgrown tomb or an attic choked with rubbish, and it needs an effort—the effort of contemplative prayer—to clean it up and make it habitable for the divine Guest. But the room itself does not need to be built: it is already there and always has been, at the very center of man.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer

For a helpful discussion of some of these issues, I would recommend this episode of the Word on Fire podcast called “Distraction and Useless Things”.

For a more general introduction to Christian contemplative practice, I would recommend, Into the Silent Land by Martin Laird. It was given to me by a dear friend who was a man of prayer, if I have ever met one.

Truth and Love, Love and Truth in Lent

Photo by Mak on Unsplash

“God is love. This does not mean, of course, that his essence is substantial love, while his other infinite properties are dissolved into this love. There is an order here: love presupposes knowledge, while knowledge presupposes being. But the love that stands at the end of the sequence as the goal of its unfolding stands, in another perspective, at its beginning as the basic impulse underlying it. Eternity is a circulation in which beginning and end join in unity. By the same token, everything that has a ground, every truth claim that needs grounding, occurs within this order, but the order itself is sustained by the ultimate ground, which is love. To be sure, God is eternal truth and by this truth all other things are true and meaningful. But the very existence of truth, of eternal truth, is grounded in love. If the truth were ultimate in God, we could look into its abysses with open eyes. Our eyes might be blinded by so much light, but our yearning for truth would have free rein. But because love is ultimate, the seraphim cover their faces with their wings, for the mystery of eternal love is one whose superluminous night may be glorified only through adoration.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic: The Truth of the World. (272)

If Balthasar is right then a loveless truth is no truth at all, nor is a truthless love any love at all. Moreover, if he is right then he gives us an apt reminder of what Lent really is—a season of truth and a season of love. It is, to take a phrase from the Book Common Prayer’s liturgy for Ash Wednesday, an invitation, an invitation into self-knowledge, which is a truth without which we can never truly repent, and also an invitation into love, because it is an invitation to know ourselves in the light of God and to know him as the Lord of mercy.

Here is that invitation:

“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.” Book of Common Prayer, 1979

The invitation is in the name of the Church, yes, but the dear hope is that it is God inviting us through his church into this season. For if it is truly God who invites us into repentance, then it is an invitation grounded in love. And whatever truth emerges through “self-examination and repentance” is truth, however seemingly painful and insurmountable in the moment, grounded in love.

Without the grounding of love, such self knowledge might prove unbearable. To put it another way, Lent without love is a terror, just as life without love is a terror. The season changes, and the emphasis may now be on repentance, but God’s character does not change, so the invitation into a holy Lent is a loving invitation to come to see ourselves honestly, and as much as we can bear it, to come to see ourselves as God sees us.

Not that love does not have its own terrors. As Dovestoesky said, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” And Balthasar recognizes this too. The seraphim cover their faces in the presence of holy love. Though we, as Paul says, behold his glory with unveiled face, we are still gazing upon the unfathomable mystery of glory and love. Adoration then is its own holy terror that remakes into the image of the one whom we behold. And this after all is our greatest end.

Theology as Ascetic Practice: Rowan Williams as Lenten Theologian

“For Williams, therefore, the point of theology is not solve our puzzles or answer all our questions. Nor is it the hubristic enterprise of creating unassailable systems of thought. Theology rather is a spiritual discipline, a labour of intellectual asceticism. It is the cultivation of patient, attentive adoration of the mystery of God. Theology and spirituality meet in contemplation, where we are no longer describing God from a distance, but participating in a mystery that penetrates the whole world of human experience. We ‘are questioned, stripped naked and left speechless’ by a reality we cannot control.” Ben Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams, quoting from Rowan Willams, The Wound of Knowledge

These words from Ben Myers excellent treatment of Rowan Williams’s theology, Christ the Stranger, not only speak to a core theme in Williams’s thought and spiritual practice, but also to an idea that I have blogged about frequently, namely the interplay of theology and spirituality and the abiding and unfathomable reality of mystery.

If the sentence, “Theology rather is a spiritual discipline, a labour of intellectual asceticism”, were tattooed on the forehead of every would be theologian, (I include myself here), we might end up with less theology in the world, but the theology we did have would, I dare say, be the richer for it.

It must be said, that linking prayer with theology, or saying that theology begins in prayer is not uncontroversial, but again I would say as someone situated in the church, who has to stand up and speak about God, I have to hear these words. I have to be driven to my knees. If not, how else would I dare to ever say anything? Balthasar famously said that theology begins on its knees, and as a churchman this is intuitively the case, and to forget it is to risk more than I am willing to venture.

Beginning in wonder and nourished by contemplative receptivity, for Balthasar, there is no real theology that is not marked by both adoration and obedience. If this is true, how then does William’s own spiritual practice, his own asceticism shape his theology? Myers speaks convincingly of the austerity of Williams’ theology, an austerity that he says comes from Williams formation in Russian Orthodox theology and, more importantly, contemplative prayer.

Williams’ thought is not just rooted in ascetic practice, but also in an ascetic frame of mind, for Myers also describes Williams’s approach as a Lenten theology. He helpfully adds that though such theology might be a necessary corrective to overblown and overly optimistic accounts of the faith, “A theology of Lent is a great thing: but one cannot live by ash alone.” This is so nicely put and so apt, I had to quote it, but I also wanted to say that as we move into Lent in 2020, perhaps Williams might be an able guide, and perhaps he can lead us first into the silence of the wilderness, where we can wait, where we can prayer, and where we might hear anew.

Vanity and Humility in Theology: Some Thoughts from Austin Farrer and Balthasar

“If we are never to say anything unless we said everything, we should all be best advised to keep our lips sealed: but we are all vain enough to think that if we express within a limited compass what in fact interests us, it may have the luck to interest our indulgent friends.” Austin Farrer, from the Preface to The Glass of Vision

With this statement Farrer provides a fitting mantra for the blogger and the theologian alike. Thank God for indulgent friends!

Jokes aside, Farrer expresses something profound in these words. Though he speaks of vanity, he exhibits humility, and in doing so points to something crucial for anyone engaged in theology.

Faithful theology requires some mixture of vanity and humility. Vanity because the theologian presumes to speak about God. Humility because though the theologian may speak in expressive and illuminating ways, though the theologian may clarify difficult concepts and may even (we must hope) move readers and hearers to worship, the theologian never speaks comprehensively, totally, or with finality.

For this reason, Farrer’s quote put me in mind of a couple of sections in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, vol 7: The New Covenant where Balthasar discusses the nature of theology as an ongoing task. As Balthasar puts its, “The subject of theology is not to be ‘mastered’ gradually by the understanding through a series of approximations that circle round the subject: rather, every approach in thought is continually ‘judged’ anew by the absolute superiority of the subject. For this subject is the absolute trinitarian love of God, which discloses itself and offers itself in Jesus Christ, which disarms by its humility and simplicity every ‘stronghold’ of would-be mastering thought that ‘rises up’ (2 Cor 10:5)” (GL7, 15).

Theology therefore is “an interpretative act of standing and circling around a midpoint that can indeed be interpreted, but is always in need of interpretation and has never been exhaustively interpreted” (GL7, 103)

Though the task never ends, theologians are not condemned to a Sisyphean fate. The circle is reciprocal not vicious. Think revelation received, revelation interpreted, revelation lifted back up in thanksgiving. Think love at the center of it all.

All that being said though, theology begins and ends in silence. (For more on the necessity of silence, see these quotes from Benedict XVI in the previous post).

From my Commonplace Book: Vocation, Silence, and Knowing

One of my English professors in college had us keep a commonplace book where we wrote down important quotations, interesting images, central ideas, etc. from the things we were reading. It’s a practice I’ve more or less maintained since college, and when I taught high school English, I had my students keep a commonplace book as well.

A commonplace book is like a travelogue of the mind or a kind of map for the ideas and images that have served as landmarks. Mapping the world in this way is not an attempt at mastery but a desire for orientation, the desire to see what can be seen, to know what can be known in a lifetime, while recognizing the limitations of a single person to map the world in any comprehensive way. Loren Eisley reminds us of this with his striking image of the human journey in time and the desire for knowledge as a kind of caravan:

“We have joined the caravan, you might say, at a certain point; we will travel as far as we can, but cannot in a lifetime see all that we would like to see or learn all we hunger to know.” Loren Eisley, The Immense Journey

Here is a picture of one of the pages from notebook. Good luck reading it.

I recently filled up a notebook, so I thought I would collect some of my commonplace quotations here that dealt with similar themes. One benefit of keeping a commonplace book is the ability to review the themes and preoccupations that emerge over a period of time. As a preacher and teacher of scripture and as a student of theology, one perennial theme for me is the need for intellectual modesty and humility. Every intellectual pursuit has temptations and presumptions, but presuming to speak for and about God might be the biggest presumption of all. And yet as Pope Benedict XVI notes, it is the vocation of the theologian to speak, but before speaking one must listen:

“Silence and contemplation: speaking is the beautiful vocation of the theologian: in the loquacity of our day and of other times, in the plethora words, to make the essential words hear. Through words, it means making present the Word, the Word who comes from God, the Word who is God.“

The theologian speaks the word of God, but the theologian must first hear the Word and then speak. Theology then begins in contemplation, with closed lips and open ears. But the theologian does not stay silent. There are words to speak precisely because there is a Word who has spoken. There is a Word that has made and that even now upholds all things. There is a Logos that makes the -ology of theology not only possible but vital.

Such an approach to theology, one that begins in silence and then speaks, guards against two dangers. On the one hand, there is the danger of hubris, the delusion that in saying true things about God that we have said everything about God. On the other hand, there is the danger of paralyzing agnosticism. It is a kind of fear to say anything about God since it is impossible to say everything about God. Though this fear might masquerade as humility, real humility and silence in the face of mystery do not result in an agnostic throwing up of the hands or in a despairing resignation, but in a desire to more deeply indwell the mystery and then to speak truly of it.

Naming and knowing can be forms of appreciation and can be real knowledge, even if they are not comprehension and mastery. As Robert McFarlane says, “I perceive no opposition between precision and mystery, or between naming and not knowing.” Robert McFarlane, Landmarks

And mastery itself is the wrong goal. As Balthasar reminds us, “Problems do not exist in order to be solved; we can never get ‘behind’ Being. We always look with mild contempt on everything we have solved. Problems should become more luminous in the light of the great mystery in which we live, move, and have our being.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Grain of Wheat

Moreover, the God we speak of is love, and so we know him truly by loving him. “The person who prays begins to see: praying and seeing go together because—as Richard of St. Victor says—‘Love is the faculty of seeing’…All real progress in theological understanding has its origin in the eye of love and its faculty of beholding. “ Joseph Ratzinger, Beholding the Pierced One

In sum, what begins in silence ends in praise. Praise and thanksgiving are the fruit of true theological reflection.

Bonhoeffer on the Interplay of Mystery and Joy

In the latter part of his biography of Bonhoeffer, Charles Marsh carefully works through Bonhoeffer’s prison writings. The prison letters have come to be seen as some of Bonhoeffer most important and challenging theological work, and in this post I’d like to reflect on two recurring themes from those letters, namely the themes of hilaritas and arcnaum. Hilaritas is Christian joy that embraces the this-worldliness experience of life and Being, while arcanum is the unfathomable mystery of God as God. I’d like to suggest that these two themes are deeply entwined, that the proper response to mystery is in fact joy, that the recognition of arcanum is not a throwing up of the arms in the face of mystery but a joyful embrace of life as life and God as God.

Bonhoeffer’s reflections on these themes speak to his understanding of the vocation of theology. In a purely academic setting there might be no place for mystery at all, expect perhaps to solve it or to dispel it. But this is not how Bonhoeffer ever saw his own theological vocation, and especially not in prison at the end of his life. As Marsh writes: “It was a great mistake, Bonhoeffer said, to think of theology’s purpose as being the unveiling of mystery, ‘to bring down to the flat, ordinary wisdom of experience and reason!’ Theology should rather, as its sole mission aim to ‘preserve God’s wonder as wonder, to understand, to define, to glorify God’s mystery as mystery,’ ‘In the arcanum,’ he said, ‘Christ takes everyone who really encounters him by the shoulder, turning them around to face their fellow human beings and the world.’ Theology’s task was to preserve the eternal mystery in a catastrophically demystified time.” (from Strange Glory)

And it is precisely at this point that joy enters the conversation because the preservation of mystery is not a dour task, but a deeply joyful invitation into the life of God and into the world itself. Bonhoeffer sums this theme up as hilaritas. Bonhoeffer’s initial reflections on hilaritas emerged from his reading of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics II.2 in prison. In that volume, Marsh notes, “Bonhoeffer discovered the value of hilaritas—good humor—as the quality of mind, body, and spirit most important to animating the greatest human achievements.” But it was more than this too. Hilaritas is also a joyful resistance to the nihilism Bonhoeffer saw around him. It is a refusal to accept the construal of the world as nothing more than power, an absolute determination to not surrender. But it is more than a No; it is first a Yes. As Marsh writes, “hilaritas is “saying the Yes and the Amen in gleeful defiance of the Nothing” (366).

Thinking of the interplay of mystery and joy, I’m struck that the book of Ephesians is both the most extended meditation on the mystery of God as revealed in the gospel and the most breathlessly doxological book epistle in the New Testament.

Joyful doxology is the proper response to mystery. If mystery becomes simply something to be solved, then two possible dangers emerge, one being a throwing up of the hands and the other being the temptation to move on once the mystery is “solved”. Balthasar expounds on this second danger, writing, “Problems do not exist in order to be solved; we can never get ‘behind’ Being. We always look with mild contempt on everything we have solved. Problems should always become more luminous in the light of the great mystery in which we live, move, and have our being.” Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Grain of Wheat

The Lord’s Prayer as a Beggar’s Prayer

I want to start collecting ideas that deal with the classic three topics of Christian catechesis, namely the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer. This is the first post in what I hope to be a whole series of intermittent posts.

In his reflections on Jesus’s poverty in The Glory of the Lord, vol. 7, Hans Urs von Balthasar makes the point that the Lord’s Prayer is a beggar’s prayer. He begins by saying that Jesus’ prayer is rooted in his own poverty, his own absolute dependence on the Father and the Spirit. He goes on to describe prayer itself as “essentially…the attitude of the beggar.”

In expositing the Lord’s Prayer itself, Balthasar says,

“The prayer which Jesus gave as a model of prayer, the Our Father, is a beggar’s prayer from start to finish. It demands God’s coming, placing at its beginning the address of intimacy, ‘Abba’, which was reserved for Jesus alone; it demands that his name will be hallowed, that his kingdom come, that his will be done on earth as in heaven—three petitions which express the same thing in different ways, the prayer that God’s power prevail where men are powerless. Then the prayer begs for bread that is necessary for life, not for a store to be laid up, but from day to day; then it begs for the forgiveness of sins, displaying its own poverty as far as righteousness is concerned (for the one who forgives his debtor waives justice); and finally, the prayer begs to be borne through temptation, for only God’s power permits us to stand fast in temptation. Total dependance on God means that the one who knocks is sure of being heard.”

One can certainly see the connection between prayer and poverty, and a strand Balthasar doesn’t emphasize here is the theme of forgiven debts in the Lord’s Prayer from the gospel of Luke. Wealth and poverty are one of the great leitmotifs of Luke’s gospel. While the themes of poverty and begging are present in all the gospels, Luke’s gospel foregrounds issues of wealth and poverty more than the other three. From Mary’s great prayer to Jesus’ own declaration of the year of Jubilee in Luke 4 to the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, not to mention the story of the Good Samaritan, the material unique to Luke declares from start to finish that the good news is good news for the poor.

So the Lukan variation on the Lord’s Prayer which emphasis the forgiveness of debts rather than transgressions highlights this theme of poverty in special way. But can we take the next step with Balthasar and see the emphasis on poverty itself as a picture of Jesus’ own poverty, his own dependence on God? This is Balthasar’s suggestion, and it is worth pondering.

As the gospel of Luke makes clear, what we call the Lord’s Prayer flows directly out of Jesus’ own prayer to the Father. And to extend the point in Luke 11, as he illustrates the nature of such prayer, gives us a pictures of need and dependence—first the friend in need of provision and second the child in need of sustenance. In prayer we are like this friend and this child, and as Jesus goes on to teach in Luke 18, in prayer we are like the persistent widow pleading for justice. Each of these asks for that which they cannot give themselves. They are beggars. They are in absolute dependence.

But can we say definitely that Jesus gives us a model of prayer that is rooted in his own poverty, his own dependence on the Father? Maybe this is easier to say if we can take Balthasar’s next statement, which is “Another word for poverty is faith.”

All quotes taken from Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: Theology, the New Covenant, vol. 7

The Mission of the Church: Moving Into and Through History

Further reflections on Balthasar’s essay, “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves”

In the last post I looked at Balthasar’s image of the tree of culture from his essay “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves. On the basis of this image, I described his admonition to receive from the past without overly romanticizing any given period, age, or thinker. In sum Balthasar argued, “Don’t so long for the past that you forget the moment that you actually live in.”

In this post I want to look at the same article and examine the larger argument he makes about the three great periods of Christianity, the patristic age, the scholastic age, and the modern age. In proposing this three fold division, Balthasar seeks to articulate what he discerns to be the inner core of each period. As he puts it, he wants, “To press on past all external and superficial features of each epoch, to focus on its innermost structural law, and then to measure each respective formal law according to the structural law of what is essentially Christian as we encounter this norm in the Gospel” (352).

Setting aside whether or not such a goal is even possible, especially in the span of a short essay, if we take his methodology at face value, the most important thing to determine is what he means by the “norm of the Gospel”. So what is the norm of the Gospel? It is that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and because the norm of the gospel is the Incarnation itself, it can never be an abstract principle. By extension this norm, “expresses itself in the level of history in ever-new forms without out being able thereby to call any one of these forms the absolute one” (352). Again he emphasizes that each age has sought to articulate the gospel faithfully, but even faithful articulation is never absolute. History changes so the forms the gospel takes must change too. So whether he fairly represents each period is in one sense slightly beside the point because his primary point has to do with the relationship between the Incarnation and history, a theme I wrote about in an earlier post about his book A Theology of History.

One form the gospel has taken on are the reigning philosophical systems of a given era. That the theology of the church takes on philosophic forms is both a kind of truism and a matter of heated debate. Everyone agrees that is does happen, but not everyone agrees to what extent it is a good or bad thing. Balthasar seems to argue that in one sense it must happen. The norm of the gospel must take on a form: “The Church has been sent to all peoples and to all times; and since she is expressly meant to speak in the form of the visible and the natural, she is also directed to take on the kaleidoscopic variety of the different situations of those times and peoples. Every epoch has its own language, world view, perspective; and the Church must make use of all these in order ’to become all things to all men and so to win all for Christ” (367). The “ever-new forms” include appropriating philosophical systems and concepts in order to articulate the Gospel. For him John’s use of the Logos concept to describe the Incarnation is the prime example of using this appropriation well.

Philosophical systems, such as Platonism for the Fathers and Aristotelianism for the Scholastics, are forms that theologians take on in order to articulate the gospel terms that make sense to a given culture, to a particular time and place. There are dangers in this, and Balthasar acknowledges this. With Platonism there is the possible danger of other worldliness, of escape from creation, and there is the possible danger of pantheism. With the Scholastics the danger is to naturalize everything. But this does not mean that the theologians of the those eras were wrong to adopt these forms.

Problems only arise when the philosophical appropriation becomes untethered from the Incarnation. And the temptation to untether is the problem of the Garden extending through history. The sin of Eden is for Balthasar the desire to ascend to God on our own terms, and philosophical forms can become just that. Gnosticism is the example par excellence. But that does not mean that using Platonic forms is inherently wrong or will inevitably lead to Gnosticism.

It comes back again and again as it so often does for Balthasar to the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh. Christ as the concrete universal, the form of forms by which we measure all other forms. And the movement of Christ into history becomes the norm of the church’s mission. The Incarnation is the movement of the Logos into history, the Word becoming flesh, and as Christ’s body the movement of the Church is into history, into the particulars of each time and place that she find herself in. The Church moves into and through history, not soaring above it or standing beside it, but into the midst of it. From the Garden onward we have tried to ascend to God on our own terms, but the scandal of the Gospel is that God descends to creation, enters history, and embraces the particularity of the human form.

It is worth keeping in mind that for Balthasar it is the perennial temptation to ascend to God on our own terms that most corrupts the gospel rather than a particular philosophical form per se. When we think about philosophical and psychological and cultural forms on offer in our day, using the norm of Gospel in the Incarnation can be an extremely helpful way to determine whether we are trying to ascend to God on our own terms or to descend with him into the particulars of history.

No Golden Age? No problem.

There is no golden age, and that is a good thing.

“We are living in a time when the images of the gods and idols are crashing all about us. The spiritual and cultural traditions of vast regions of the West are increasingly being called into question; indeed, we can go even further and say they are being liquidated, quickly and relatively painlessly. Just as a tree in autumn drops its leaves without pain or regret in order to gather once more new strength from within, to renew its powers in hibernal peace, so too the tree of culture is now being stripped of its leaves.”

So begins Hans Urs von Balthasar’s essay, “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves”, an essay where Balthasar examines those specifically Christian streams of thinking, writing, reflection, and prayer that have nourished the tree of culture in the past.

But this opening points to something that is especially worth taking to heart: Look at the tree, he says. Stop looking at the dead leaves on the ground. Stop lamenting that you live in autumn. Look up. Though the season speaks of coming death, the tree isn’t going anywhere.

The point is worth taking because looking at the tree and rightly discerning the season in which we live helps us guard against a temptation Balthasar readily describes, namely the temptation to return to some golden era, some previous age that is imagined to be better and purer simply because it was prior. First is best, we might say. Earlier is purer. And because of this temptation we might lament living through autumn rather than spring. He argues that we are especially prone to look back to the Patristic period with “Romantic longing”. Why? Because the Fathers were first and are therefore purer. But to return to the image of the tree, the argument of first is best, first is purer, is like saying “I would rather have a sapling than a redwood.”

To be clear Balthasar notes the ways in which there is a purity to Patristic thinking, a spring time newness to things. And there is a sense in which what they faithfully did, what they thought and what they died for, set the parameters and the terms of the conversation that continued in their wake. But they have not said everything. We must keep this in mind because of this temptation to look back on a particular historical moment or a particular thinker and believe that their way is the way, that their way is the only way to approach things.

This does not mean that we don’t have anything to learn from earlier ages and earlier thinkers. Quite the contrary. Take the example of Paul, though we must begin with understanding him in his context in order to faithfully preach what he preached, it is not enough to simply say,this is what Paul said, and then imagine that we have said everything there is to say. We must move to the next step, which is coming to terms with what Paul is saying to us in our time and in our place. Now what Paul is saying will not wholly contradict what Paul said. Remember the primary metaphors Balthasar employs are organic—the tree, the stream—so this is not about radical discontinuity and rupture. But being faithful to the word is something more than being able to say, this is what it meant. We have to be able to say also this is what it meant then, and this is what it means now, because the word of revelation is a living word.

I find Balthasar’s point about avoiding a naive nostalgia about the past especially interesting because I grew up in a context where the church of the book of Acts was held up as the golden age of the church. It was a variation on the argument that first is best, that first is purest. And Balthasar will have none of that thinking. I know people, and I myself have been guilty of this, who have traded the church of Acts as the ideal for the theology of the Fathers as the ideal, but Balthasar challenges both ways of thinking and says, yes, looking back is part of being faithful, and s we should look back, and we should read and learn and understand, but not so that we can perfectly replicate what they did in their time and place, but so that it might source our own faithful expression in our own time and place.

An historical example, he says, is only ever an analogy, and for him the inner paradox of analogy is that for all the similarity, there is always the ever greater difference, which means that we can glean things, yes, but we cannot perfectly replicate them, nor should we try. Take for example an argument that I hear a lot, namely that the time in which we are living in is like the fall of Rome. There is something to this argument that resonates with people, and we can readily find touch points, and it is a reason that some many are finding great nourishment in returning to Augustine and The City of God. Though we should read Augustine and learn what he is saying to us now, the analogy is never perfect. As Balthasar puts it, theology at its best in a given era is the the light of Truth breaking through “a vast number of mosaic shards of broken and smokey glass: in the thousands of many forms in which it is announced, systematized, humanized” (369). Which means that even in autumn, and even in a coming winter, the light comes and is coming into the world, and though we might only be a shard of broken glass, we are still able to let the light shine through. So the question becomes what might it mean to faithfully speak the living word in the midst of an autumn?

Does theology have anything to do with holiness?

In this post and in the next few posts, I want to explore some of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s reflections on the relationship between theology and spirituality, or what he tends to call the relationship between theology and sanctity, what we might now call the relationship between theology and holiness.

Now these two words, theology and holiness, might seem a curious pairing to us, and this is precisely the issue Balthasar hopes to address. Theology/holiness, contemplation/action, believing/living—we tend to see these more as dichotomies and dilemmas rather than as dynamically related and mutually informing realties. But the two absolutely belong together, and the fact that they aren’t seen as belonging together is for Balthasar a story of decline and a story of divorce. Their separation is therefore grievous and unnatural. To illustrate Balthasar offers this striking image in the essay “Theology and Sanctity”, saying that theology without sanctity is “bones without flesh” and that sanctity (spirituality) without theology is “flesh without bones”.

Taking this image of the body, we might say that what results from the separation of theology and sanctity is a kind of formlessness, something incomplete and not wholly itself. As he concludes, “Only the two together (corresponding to the prototype of revelation in scripture) constitute the unique ‘form’ capable of being ‘seen’ in the light of faith by the believer, a unique testimony, invisible to the world, and a ‘scandal’ to it.”

Thinking of scripture as offering the prototype, I was put in mind first of Paul, and the way the opening prayers in his epistles are so often road maps to his theological reflections, and the ways, like in Romans 8, that his theological reflections are transposed into prayer and doxology.

I was also put in mind of Augustine and how so much of his work is either actually prayer or is suffused, surrounded by, steeped in, prayer. The Confessions are of course a famous example of this, but you can see it throughout his work. Here is a portion of a prayer from the end of The Trinity that nicely captures Augustine’s deep desire not simply to understand something, or to explain something, but rather to see and be transformed by what he has sought to understand:

“Do Thou give strength to seek, who has made me find You, and has given the hope of finding You more and more. My strength and my infirmity are in Your sight: preserve the one, and heal the other. My knowledge and my ignorance are in Your sight; where You have opened to me, receive me as I enter; where You have closed, open to me as I knock. May I remember You, understand You, love You. Increase these things in me, until You renew me wholly. “

The Trinity, XV.28, taken from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/130115.htm

As another example, I think of Anselm who calls his work the Monologium “an example of meditation on the grounds of faith.” In other words, to use a more famous phrase of his, he is engaged in “faith seeking understanding”, and this prayer from the Prosologium illustrates how central prayer is to that larger quest of knowing God:

“I pray, 0 God, to know you, to love you, that I may rejoice in you. And if I cannot attain to full joy in this life may I at least advance from day to day, until that joy shall come to the full. Let the knowledge of you advance in me here, and there be made full. Let the love of you increase, and there let it be full, that here my joy may be great in hope, and there full in truth. Lord, through your Son you do command, nay, you do counsel us to ask; and you do promise that we shall receive, that our joy may be full. I ask, O Lord, as you do counsel through our wonderful Counsellor. I will receive what you do promise by virtue of your truth, that my joy may be full. Faithful God, I ask. I will receive, that my joy may be full. Meanwhile, let my mind meditate upon it; let my tongue speak of it. Let my heart love it; let my mouth talk of it. Let my soul hunger for it; let my flesh thirst for it; let my whole being desire it, until I enter into your joy, O Lord, who are the Three and the One God, blessed for ever and ever. Amen.”

Prologium, CHAPTER XXVI. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/anselm-proslogium.asp

In these prayers both Augustine and Anselm assume not only a relationship between theology and holiness, meaning that what they believe ought to have some effect on how they live, but also the relationship between love and knowledge, that what they know of God moves them to deeper love of God, and deeper love moves them to deeper knowledge. The divorce between love and knowledge is the deeper issue faced by theologians today, and in my mind it is only in restoring that relationship that we can then heal the divide between theology and holiness. This is why Sertillanges and Griffiths are both such important voices in their respective descriptions of the intellectual life. They both understand the vocation in terms of love and desire. I pray that the same would be true for me and for a whole generation of theologians who hope to serve the church with theology.