Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Von Balthasar Controversy

At the Easter Vigil, I preached a homily that made reference to the current controversy over Hans Urs von Balthasar's radical ideas on Jesus' 'kenotic' death. It turned out to be one of the most remarked-upon homilies I have ever delivered, with everyone who commented coming out in favor of VB. Unfortunately, a techno-glitch has kept the homily from being podcasted, though I have posted the text here.

The response of our monastery friends contrasted somewhat with the correspondence that has come in to First Things, at least the correspondence they printed, which reveals far more skeptics of VB. Perhaps this has to do with a more conservative readership that includes Evangelical Christians.

The basic problem is that VB saw Christ experiencing to a divine degree what sinners experience when they die: a total separation from God that in Jesus' case was infinitely more painful than what we experience because Christ's divinity is infinitely more intimate with God the Father than our souls are. Jesus Christ entered into an abyss of despair deeper than any human being had experienced, and was raised up by His Father in such a way as to make the reconciliation of even the worst sinner possible (but not necessary: VB is an Origenist, but departs from his problematic mentor here, where the Fifth Ecumenical Council also departed from Origen). When we affirm that Jesus descended into hell, VB means the full existential hell of the damned.

Alyssa Lyra Pitstick objects that Church tradition, perhaps best visualized in the apocryphal accounts such as the Gospel of Nicodemus, show Christ entering hell, not in existential despair, but in a show of power and triumph. She wonders if VB is emptying the Cross of its meaning by locating the height of Jesus' suffering after the Cross in hell.

Because I was preaching a homily and not making a theological argument, I summarized both sides briefly and was more peremptory sounding toward Alyssa Lyra Pitstick's arguments than I am in fact. Her objections seem proper to me in their gist, though I question the actual weight of evidence she adduces. But I have not read her book, and so I hesitate to dismiss her ideas based on the FT articles, though I strongly question her apparent partitioning of hell and insistence on a kind of 'timeline' of Jesus' entry there.

I wanted here to add a couple of my own (monastic!) thoughts to the debate. If anyone thinks they are of interest, maybe I'll send them to Fr. Oakes up at Mundelein or the Fr. Neuhaus at FT. So here goes.

I do believe that VB's teaching is novel. The question is whether it is a development of Tradition or a departure. I also believe that some development on this question is necessary, inasmuch as persons in the modern West face an existential dilemma that has not existed before. Radical atheism is an option that most human persons in history have not had, but one that is not only common today, but is so widespread as to infect Christian belief itself. Many Christians separate their spirituality into a private sphere in such a way as to live as 'practical atheists'. In fact, the tired cliche of young persons desiring to be 'spiritual' and not 'religious' is a symptom of this. We want a private spirituality that has no particular impact on practice. "Practice-wise", that is, practically, our faith then is meaningless; we are atheists in all but name, for we do not believe in God who is objectively knowable through observation of creation, historical events, etc, and who calls us to conversion of life. We instead believe in a false god of isolated interiority.

St. Therese of Lisieux (a monastic!) is an important missing link in this argument for me. She took it upon herself to pray for radical atheists, and God promptly allowed her to fall into a devastating Dark Night of the Soul. VB (and I) believed that this was expiatory suffering (contrary to popular iconography, Therese was a tough young Norman!). If Christ would allow Therese to sink into these depths, surely something like this is to be seen in the Crucifixion and Christ's descent.

On the other hand, the monk in me is uncomfortable with something that Pitstick includes in her version of the Harrowing of Hell that VB oddly seems to leave out (I write that based on having read Mysterium Paschale and bits and pieces of his Theo-Drama on this theme). As an Origenist, one would have imagined VB to be more alive to the reality of the demonic. The presence of personal evil in Pitstick's presentation, while unfortunately somewhat naive in appearance, is in accord with Scripture more than is the idea of existential suffering, real as that might be. That is to say, in a strange way, VB psychologizes where he should be theologizing.

It is interesting to note that VB tends to rely heavily on the gospel of John, somewhat to the diminishment of the Synoptics. There are no clear exorcisms in John, whereas they are (pardon the pun) legion in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

The importance of this for me, again as a monk, is that psychology only tells part of the story. For example, depression is a psychological illness that comes uncomfortably close for us moderns to Evagrius' depiction of the attack of the demons of sadness and acedia. We are not likely to suggest to someone who is depressed that he or she is capitulating to a sinful temptation. We are more likely to medicate, to offer diversions, and so on, that is to treat it as requiring medical and not moral intervention. My experience, and the witness of the keenest of the Monastic Fathers on this point (for me, Evagrius and John Climacus of the Holy Ladder), suggests that trying to fight against sadness and acedia by hunting around for psychological or medical causes only strengthens the demonic attack. What is needed is a frontal assault on the demon himself, with the aid of the Name of Jesus Christ. Sadness is based on a lie, that God doesn't care. Our minds are slower than demonic suggestion, as Climacus says over and over again, and so trying to think our way out of sadness falls right into the demonic trap.

Let me bring this back to VB again. It is worth noting that VB is oddly antipathetic toward Evagrius, the man who most innovatively developed Origen's demonology with the help of the Egyptian monks and nuns. Looking at Jesus Christ on the Cross, could we not see him assaulted by demons in such force that his human psychological state is one in which hope is reduced to a bare minimum or even nothingness by a cacophony of despairing thoughts of demonic origin, without thereby holding that somehow the Holy Trinity itself is stretched to the point of allowing sin into the Divine Life (where it is consumed, acc. to VB)? I obviously have not worked this out in any great detail, and I am not a professional 'theologian' (though I do pray--let the reader of Evagrius understand). However the absence of any spiritual combat outside of the existential struggle within Himself does strike me as problematic in Balthasar, even if his basic insight, that a renewed sense of the depths of Christ's sufferings is needed to cope with modern barbarity, is of acute importance.

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!


W. said...

Thank you for posting this. There is a lot to chew on here. I am a bit familiar with von Balthasar and appreciate what you have said.

In His Merciful Heart,

Travis said...

What an interesting post. I keep finding myself drawn to learning more of Von Balthasar's work, and this is very interesting.

I look forward to learning more on this subject. Thanks for all of the info you have posted.

In Christ.


Deep Furrows said...

Well, I saw this when it was posted.

Recently, I was reading Truth is Symphonic and I remembered the question that you asked about the descent into hell and the demonic. I thought I would post a couple of passages that are more evocative than anything and point everybody to the relevant section of the book (about p37-47). At any rate, it's good to notice another treatment by Balthasar of this issue.

p42-43: "In his experience of being forsaken by God, Jesus Christ was not handed over to sin, to demons. Humanly speaking, he is never more closely and anxiously followed by the Father. For it is in the most complete obedience that he pursues his path into complete darkness. This path is the unswerving institution of the divine redemption of the world, which no demon can approach."


Anonymous said...

Dear Prior Peter:

I was interested to read your thoughts about the solidarity of St. Therese of Lisieux with atheists. I wonder if you have read Thomas Nevin's 2006 book "Therese of Lisieux, God's Gentle Warrior," which has a valuable treatment of this subject. wiht all good wishes,



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