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Theological Notebook: Nathaniel on Moltmann; My Notes on Von Balthasar's "Seeing The Form"

An interesting essay by Laird Nathaniel Hannan at Blackfriars, Oxford on Moltmann, and some thoughts I had in response can be found here.

My own work this last several days has been on John and the Temple and Hans Urs von Balthasar's Theological Aesthetics. I'll provide some summary thoughts later today, but I include here below my detailed reading of the part of the first part of the Theological Aesthetics (Seeing The Form) that I prepared for last Monday's seminar. It is focused on the "Subjective Evidence" for Christianity, particularly through the experience of faith. That is, it's part of an exploration on how the experience of faith isn't "just subjective" in the sense of "you could be just pulling this out of your ass," but is in fact part of a real understanding of the (objective) truth of Christianity. This is my summary of 170 pages, and, I suspect, is so thick as to probably be worthless to anyone who hasn't read the material. Consider yourself warned. Still, if you're curious for a glimpse, here it is.


Notes for The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, pp. 131-301


II. The Subjective Evidence
A. The Light of Faith
1. Pistis and Gnosis


Von Balthasar begins his discussion on “the Light of Faith” by noting the centrality of “faith” for Christianity and that for Christianity faith is not primarily the subjective act (fides qua) but instead must be understood as always containing “the whole substance toward which this act is directed (fides quae), by which this act alone can be understood and justified.” (131) This introduces in our material the matter with which Von Balthasar will continue to concern himself: the union of the subjective and the objective in Christian faith. It is critical for Von Balthasar that a theology of faith be ordered to the Objective.

Von Balthasar also quickly introduces (131) what will be a second critical emphasis to his theology of faith: the idea that “faith” is a concept of totality–the whole person is involved in faith. This is an insight he particularly attributes to the Old Testament, where the anthropology had not yet been broken down to a variety of sub-aspects of man.

It is during his discussion of faith in the New Testament–and the subsequent advent of Christian gnosticism–that Von Balthasar draws the distinction between pistis and gnosis, or faith and knowledge. Against the gnostic vision of a surmounting of pistis by gnosis, Von Balthasar highlights Paul’s insight that true self-understanding comes only through faith: that is, only in the context of real knowledge of the objective conditions of the self. The fact that knowledge is subjective does not jeopardize its potential to be objective. (133-134)

Von Balthasar’s intent, then, in the face of a challenge by gnosis to supplant pistis, is not to deny gnosis, but to properly place it in context. (136) In the New Testament, he sees true Christian gnosis as not a warrant for faith, but rather as a gut-level certainty from which later searching and knowledge proceeds.

In dealing with the later Alexandrian theology, gnosis was what one had when they had truly appropriated their pistis. The true gnostic’s faith leads beyond the kerygma to the Logos itself: faith was not in a proposition, but a person. (137) Therefore theology could not be abstracted from faith. (139)

The challenge for Christians today is to similarly avoid a division between faith and knowledge, to avoid holding that faith means “believing certain propositions to be true” (140), and to derive the authority or warrant for Christian faith in a knowledge of the Logos. And Christians must come to understand that this knowledge needs–and cannot have–any justification but itself, for the Logos cannot appeal to any other logos.

2. Delineating the Form of Faith


If we are insisting that pistis (believing) and gnosis (seeing/knowing) remain united, and that we are going to strive to maintain the scriptural form of gnosis that is a living encounter with God, then the next task is to examine the response to revelation in man, and man’s correct attitude in that response. Von Balthasar excludes two extremes: fideism and rationalism. The proper attitude is philosophic.

The philosophic enterprise cannot be detached from the theological, as the object of both is Truth. (143) The detachment of philosophy from theology that has occurred ultimately came when Christian thought tried to absorb Philosophy but in doing so robbed itself of the naked philosophical impulse for Truth and thus allowed itself to fall into a more positivistic self-affirmation. In something of a reaction, philosophy no longer recognizes any revelatory content to anything but its own process of reasoning. Once we grant the unity of the object of Theology, Philosophy and Myth, then we can make methodological distinctions between them without castrating each approach. The openness to the theological vision–that which has occurred in history–prevents philosophy from distorting itself by an a priori editing of content. (146)

That said, we can now approach Christian revelation, which can be read in two ways: as a set of historical signs to which the reasonable mind can respond (Neo-Scholasticism), and as attention to the illuminating fact of God’s presence and Being (Alexandrian/Augustinian illuminism). The two foundations for this process of illumination are the dynamic, pre-disposed mind or spirit of the one apprehending the vision of God and God’s act of granting the illuminating light. Modernism dissolves the objective character of this revelation. Subjective striving or experience threatens to become the base or measure of revelation. (149)

The two tendencies each have deficiencies and need to be unified. The problem of the first reading is its presumed “secularity” and the problem of the second is its atemporality or disengagement. And they both need to be purged of the common deficiency of seeing the historical facts of revelation as “signs” pointing to something beyond themselves which must then be believed. The historical facts of revelation—considered as “signs”—can only be justified in this usage if talked about in the terms of truth and goodness. It is only useful in light of the transcendentals. (150) The dualism of sign/signified, form/content, Gestalt/Gehalt is only overcome by use of the third transcendental: beauty. (152) The content is seen in the form. Failure to perceive one is failure to perceive both.
His argument is that the aesthetic is necessary. Without a knowledge of beauty, our knowledge of truth and goodness remains distorted. Truth becomes pragmatism and formalism; goodness becomes utilitarianism and hedonism. (152) The appreciation of the beautiful for its own sake foreshadows the attitude of faith. In Christ we have a true form. But Jesus is only intelligible as God Incarnate. The aesthetic schema allows the infinite to be revealed in finite form. (155)

3. Elements of the Form of Faith


So faith is the theological/aesthetic act of perception. Now we will deal with subjective evidence (but with the unavoidable interaction of objective elements) for faith on three levels: philosophy/theology, myth/revelation, Christian/non-Christian experience of God. (155-6)

a. God’s Witness in Us


We can begin at the philosophical/theological level to examine faith. Faith is tied to a participation in God, for the individual is already in a spiritual context. (157) Contact or awareness of Being/Logos enables both self-awareness and object-awareness as the prime Reference is given by which all other reference is possible. (158) The philosophical act both opens man to and threatens man with infinity. In man’s innermost finitude, he finds God in Being, and in so finding Being as Love, finds infinity no longer threatens, but welcomes. The threat of infinity is taken in the Incarnation—as part of our objective encounter with Being as Love. (159) The interior revelation that we experience was cast by Thomas in terms of Being, by Augustine in terms of Love. Both are correct as these are united in the Trinity. (162)

We cannot call faith something of nature, because God is not of nature. The aesthetic experience is not mere sensation but real recognition of, reaction and submission to God. The experience has a true result or effect in us. The beautiful form causes a reaction. (163) God’s Being—before all else—starts our analysis of our encounter with God with a particular “givenness.” We do not know this givenness as the direct vision of God yet, but we are given our first intimations that will or can steer us to that eternal vision and life. (164) Three points follow from this that we must consider: 1) All theological effort must open itself to the experience and thereby the guidance of this light of faith/apprehension of the Being of God who is Love. 2) As we open ourselves increasingly to this experience of God—in the manner of the saints—there is a gnosis and a pistis made to unfold in the person simply on the basis of this experience. (165) 3) A natural religious a priori can exist whereby the light of faith given to all humanity may express itself through the rise of a variety of religious forms and faiths. These lack, however, the historical self-demand of faith of/in Christ. (167)


b. God’s Witness in History


Revelation must occur in history, and we can assess the credibility of supposed revelation by examining its “fit” with regard to everything else. (172) This is “Seeing the Form,” and it is the central (and aesthetic) problem of apologetics. (173) Von Balthasar wants us to realize that the proper question for fundamental theology is not modernity’s self-defeating “What basis acceptable to reason can we give to the authoritative claims of this man who claims to be God?” but rather, “How does God’s revelation confront man in history? How is it perceived?” Modernity makes the mistake that we noted earlier of thinking in terms of “content” verses “signs” (or “evidence”) without realizing that content and form are one. Even a continuing transcendental appeal to the good does not suffice for rescuing modernity from its trap because that has still allowed the existential dimension of faith to be played off against the “historical-critical,” leading revelation to being reduced to a subjective function of the self. Aesthetics—seeing the form—is the way out of this impasse. (174)

He examines favourably Rousselot’s theory of the “eyes of faith,” noting that revelation is impeded if the recipient will only accept things that come in a purely natural mode. (175) Faith actualizes a mode of rationality, one which engages more than reason: a mode of rationality encompassing the whole person. Rousselot’s weakness, Von Balthasar argues, is that he is still too close to a Kantianism where there is a “signs and content” (or “evidence and conclusions”) synthesis that is deductive and too subjective. Von Balthasar posits instead a “form and content” synthesis which is inductive and one. The form and content of Jesus are one revelation—not two different levels of a cognitive process. This is contrasted with modernity’s exaggeration of the subjective, from which results a utilitarian notion of dogmas and a subjectivist belief in the origin of religion and its ends. (177) To indicate where one must go from this position, he uses an analogy of the acquiring of objective taste in art (178)—which is startling and difficult as an utterly counter-cultural concept today, where beauty would be insisted as being solely “in the eye of the beholder.” But the objective is what gives form its content. (180) And for faith it comes down to the fact, he will say, that faith’s objectivity is the historical locus of revelation. (181) There will and cannot be in faith any division of the subjective and the objective; of “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith;” of piety and “historical-critical” skepticism. (182) No division of form and content.

It can be objected that the form of Christ is hidden, but Von Balthasar reminds us that the intent of God is to reveal, and so that “hiddenness” is relativized to some extent. (187) There is a fittingness and a continuity between what is seen and unseen that allows us insight. And he reminds us of the ever-useful distinction that to have true knowledge does not have to mean that we have to have exhaustive knowledge. Here this true knowledge or perception is of the unique supernatural origin and the rightness of beauty. (188) The historical actuality of faith opens up an avenue for insight and evidence that is more than mere psychological self-fulfillment. (190)

c. Witness, Exterior and Interior


There is a moment of union between interior light of the “eyes of faith” and the exterior light of Christ’s reality—the moment where “thirst is quenched.” (190) This moment cannot be understood in light of anything but itself because, as said before, there is no outside criteria by which to truly judge it: there is no logos but the Logos. (191) The encounter of the subject and object of faith must first be described in personal categories, although these immediately must become transpersonal since the object can only be understood in light of the trinitarian relationships. (192) The heart of faith is the encounter of person to person and this encounter is characterized by all the simplicity of love, and the completeness of the loving God, a level of love founded on the hypostatic union: Love between the finite and the infinite. (193) Because this is love with the infinite God, the Christian concept goes beyond the seeming all-inclusivity of pantheism by being personal. (194) The revelation of love perfects the creature and firmly sets it in a social reality (mankind, exemplified in the Church) dependent on the transpersonal nature of the Holy Spirit. Faith and dogmatics are intertwined in the necessity of dogmatics for faith to understand itself, (197) and both faith and dogmatics are focused on the trinitarian reality that is the ground and goal of every event of salvation-history. (198)


d. Form and Sign


The form of Christ has context to which attention must be paid, both an historical context and a subsequent context. His “subsequent context” is not necessarily something foreign or alien imposed on him by the later Church. His promises and universal claims create such a context. (198)

There are signs all around Christ, either pointing to him (prophecy) or deriving from him (signs/miracles and words). There are different levels of power and credibility to Jesus’ signs: the primary level is his person itself, the secondary level are the words or claims which are dependent upon the reality of his person. (199) If his person has credibility, then we trust his words and the realities perceived through them, such as the Eucharist. We see that all things have some hint of visibility around him. (200) The ultimate sign of Jesus’ revolves around his trinitarian identity: the Father testifies to him and we perceive the Spirit by the Spirit’s effects. (201) The Resurrection makes visible the new age of humanity and the life of God, and here instead of hints we are hammered with “superabundant evidence.” (202) Faith—this resultant state—then perceives the harmony of the varieties among the mysteries.

What is true about the mysteries believed on Christ’s word is moreso in the signs of miracles and prophesies. These two cut across apologetics and dogmatics, belonging to apologetics in drawing attention to the form, and belonging to dogmatics in drawing attention to the connection between form and sign, although an interesting note is made that these “concessions” of God to doubt also cause difficulty in faith. (204) Signs are evidential only in relation to the intelligibility conveyed in them. A sign of God’s always means something beyond itself, as does prophecy. Von Balthasar quickly moves past—even perhaps discounts—the “literal” level of prophecy to focus on what he calls a certain “harmony” between the Old and New Testaments. (208) The reading of the Scriptures as a whole—and seeing their intertextuality—becomes a sign.

His last point is that the relationship between “ecclesial faith” and faith in Christ must be read in terms of the same understanding of the relationship between sign and form. (210) Belief is in Christ, not in the Church, but with the aid of the Church. Kerygma is not the same as revelation, but it is an authoritative pointer towards revelation. (213) Something of the mystery of the hypostatic union is revealed in the Christian life lived in exemplary ways: the lives of the saints. (214)

So it is impossible to speak of Christian faith without speaking of light and form at the same time. The light of faith has both interior and exterior qualities, as the grace given us possesses the form of Christ. Christianity unites finite form and infinite content in Christ, and we find ourselves in need for radical objectivity—the turn outward to the form of Christ. (216) The Incarnation is the historically-objective—the glory of God—so in turning to that glory we find that ekstasis and love are objective. And so, to conclude in the terms with which Von Balthasar began this discussion (131): “the fides quae of the Christian is the fides qua of Christ as he faces the Father, and even the Christian’s fides qua lives from the radiance of this light of Christ, which we can characterize as the Christian’s archetypal fides and which shapes the totality of his form by making the whole man into an adequate answer to God’s word.” (218)

B. The Experience of Faith
1. Experience and Mediation
a. Theological Analysis of Existence


The intention of a discussion of the experience of faith here is to show the generalness of the act of faith—that it is not an isolated or “special” act, in the sense of being removed to some other order of human experience. He begins then with noting that the response to beauty ultimately requires the whole person, (220) and that faith is making the whole person “a space that responds to the divine content.” This, he says, was the response envisioned on Sinai with the words “Be holy, because I am holy.” The splendor and difficulty of faith is in being remade to the archetype of Christ. By analogy to an artist striving to conform their art to the vision that they have of it, he notes that obedience is not at all opposed to the beautiful. (221) The Logos is the archetype to which we are striving and human totality is found there in the human, Christ, not in our scarred selves.

The question is raised, “can we know anything about our own faith?” Can Christian faith be a matter of experience? Augustine and Thomas say yes, as a psychological datum. Suárez and the Jesuit school tend to say that faith cannot be known, but only believed. Von Balthasar notes that such minimalism is not consistent with the Church’s practice. (223) The real point is not that we are dealing with my faith, but rather that we are dealing with God’s. That is, God is the center of this “activity,” not the individual. “My” (psychological) faith is unimportant: my move toward and attention to Christ is. Christian experience is growth into Christ’s existence. Certitude is found in Christ, not in ourselves or our arguments. Paul’s proof was that he didn’t commend himself. (225) The proof is Christ in the believer. Christian existence is demonstrated in self-surrender, which is the foundation of faith and the goal of what is to be proven. Christ cannot be replaced as the goal or the form, even by an “historical Jesus.” (227) Goal, Certainty, Understanding—these are only possible in the act of faith. The reality and the act are one. (228) Dogma is only made by those who experience God. In the experience is found proof, coherence, objective intelligibility and subjective comprehensibility. This is not an irrational feeling or “merely subjective” because it is oriented toward the objective trinitarian reality of God. So the person with the (subjective) proof of God, by then living that proof (or act of faith) then becomes the objective proof for God: the saint. (229) [The focus on saints an Ignatian motif in Von Balthasar?]

It is important to note that the move toward the objective and “forgetting the self” for God does not negate the self: it fills the self with a vision and life the self cannot generate on its own. So Christian experience is not subjective (self-generating) experience, but objective. This is no abstract Hegelian dialogue between finite and infinite spirit, however, as it is all mediated by the historical, resurrected Christ. Von Balthasar notes that we must therefore be skeptical regarding any uncommitted, supposedly “scientific” analysis of religious experience, which would methodologically have to be unsound. (231)

b. The Experience of the Logos


The last section being more-or-less Pauline in its reading, we now pass on to a consideration of Johannine theology. Johannine theology is aesthetic because divine glory has taken on a particular form and because in this form absolute Being makes its appearance. (233) John is clarifying his theology in reaction to gnosticism and relaxes in paradox in the belief of the unity of opposites in the Incarnation. (234)

Von Balthasar here defines aesthetic experience as “the union of the greatest possible concreteness of the individual form and the greatest possible universality of its meaning or of the epiphany within it of the mystery of Being.” Kairos is the religiously-neutral moment of connection in any aesthetic experience. John connects this in any instance with the reality of Christ, whether or not this is acknowledged. All kairos—again, whether or not it is acknowledged—is personal. In John, the personal and the ontological are united: Being is Person; Being is Love. Hegel recognized here the Absolute as being both the One and the Many, Unity and Plurality, but John understood better than Hegel, who made the mistake of thinking there was something beyond or behind the personal—that the One had priority. (235) Faith equals self-surrender to this Absolute, which in John, equals love.

The paradox of love is that it is the knowing of self and the abandonment of self for the beloved. (237) The beautiful form contains eternity in some measure. As we move toward that in faith, it is not enough to follow Luther and to see this as a one-sided act of God’s. John’s criterion of knowledge of God is not that we have received grace, but that we love. So love is here not understood as a state or a result, but as the onward progress into God. (238) Christian experience in this way is a dynamic dialectic. Experience is where the irreconcilable aspects of life become integrated. John sees the Law and obedience in terms of Love and Becoming—the entry into Being/Love. John’s theology is not eschatological, it is actual: the movement into truth which is present and absolute, thus making faith a certain knowledge. (241)

c. Christian Attunement


Christian experience has been seen to be determined by two aspects: an integrating totality of life and an active power approaching us from God. The first alone would be a gnosticism or Buddhism. By having the second aspect, Christian experience is both subjective and objective. This holistic encounter grounded in the totality of subject and object makes us speak in terms of a Christian attunement to God. (242) Again, this is of the whole person, for the living whole is capable of much that the dissected parts are not, and Von Balthasar repeats the warning that distinctions of the sort involved in talking about the soul’s faculties are ventured only for a better understanding of the underlying unity. Anything else can be dangerously distorting. (243) So, we are open to God in gnosis and love as a whole. Our attunement is to Being as a whole, and in man this has spiritual pleasure. This is more fundamental than specific pleasure-act relationships. [Perhaps their basis?] Attunement is also more fundamental than any fear. (244) Von Balthasar claims that a major and consistent problem in the theology of experience and life is the lack of the whole vision or treatment of people: “feeling” is separated from intellect and will. [Akin to the separation of aesthetics from metaphysics and ethics.] We tend to therefore put more emphasis on emotional states without attention to the broader, objective context. [Pietism an example?] (245)

God possesses the initiative in relation to the creature, and the fundamental attitude of the creature to God is receptivity. Receptivity and apprehension must therefore be fundamental to Reason, too. [Consider our openness or receptivity to the Logos here.] Now the “distinctly Christian fact” is what has happened in salvation-history and that we have been made and prepared for this. (246) We can see two delimiting dimensions of religious experience as a result: the ontic order orienting man and form to each other, and the faculty that can apprehend this form. These two things—the ontic and the experiential dimensions—“in-form” the person, and we can perceive the aesthetic dimension here. The more one is drawn into this, the less attention one pays to their subjectivity itself. [This is the whole drama of Lewis’ Surprised By Joy.] (247)

Grace is then considered and it is seen that the believer must actuate what is contained in grace. Taste and desire for God are given in grace—that is, attunement. (249) Attunement is not immediate, but mediated by a lack of direct vision of God and by the Incarnation. (251) The mysticism that tries to escape human limitations may overlook the fact of God becoming human as being far more of an opportunity for what they hope to gain. We attune to God through the “tuning-key” of Christ and the Church. (252) All of our dispositions then enter into a unity, after the model of Christ. (253) He is a fully integrated person so even the worst that happens to him is absorbed into his mission—his movement into God as a human being. (254) The Spirit then likewise helps us bridge all oppositions. (255) This end of ours—the identity of the Church—is best expressed in the saints. Our giving of love to one another in the mode of the Church is indicative of our giving of love to God, as John notes. (256)

d. Remarks on the History and Critique of Christian Experience


What a mess! “Way too much here to even attempt to bother outlining,” he said conveniently. Suffice it to say that experience is communal/ecclesial, a participation in Christ, which is often mediated to us through the witnesses, the saints.
Tags: books, christology, friends-notre dame era, gnosticism, grace and freedom/nature, mysticism/spirituality, philosophical, systematic theology, theological methodology, theological notebook, trinity, von balthasar
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