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Fr Aidan Nichols


No Bloodless Myth

Chapter 1:Transition from Aesthetics

When Balthasar's theological aesthetics was published his critics commented that this was a quietist work, which treated the Christian disciple as a passive contemplator of a Christ reduced to an icon. They were quite correct in saying that Balthasar regarded many of his modern coreligionists as insufficiently penetrating in their grasp of what had appeared in Jesus Christ. They were right too in reporting how in Balthasar's judgment the first thing to be said about Christ's appearance is that it is an epiphany of the glory of God, holding spellbound those who glimpse it.
[1] But only a very superficial reading of the aesthetics could have led to the criticism that this work has nothing to say about Christian responsiveness in life and action, nor about the narrative content of the Jesus story with its implicit claim to challenge all those other life-stories in which people have expressed their sense of what human living is about.

Meeting the critics

In the first place, Balthasar had made it clear that, in all authentic perception of the divine glory in Jesus Christ, seeing goes hand in hand with transformation. Taking his cue from the Leonine Nativity Preface, he sees that here perceiving is impossible without a being caught up in love. A theory of perception cannot be had in this context without a doctrine of conversion, and so ultimately of sanctification. Not for nothing does Balthasar count the existence of the Christian saints with the evidence for the objective revelatory form. As in traditional apologetics, the lives of the saints are signs of the authenticity of divine revelation in Christ. That hagiology should thus be subsumed under Christology tells us in and of itself that the theological aesthetics are at the antipodes from any consciously anti-activist, merely spectatorial account of Christianity.

And similarly, the second count - the criticism that the Christ of the aesthetics is reduced to an icon, that Balthasar has de-potentiated the power of Christ's words and deeds which are meant precisely to challenge human self-understanding and to elicit the self-commitment of human freedom to the cause of the Kingdom in the world - is also off-target. The art of God in Jesus Christ, in
Herrlichkelt, is explicitly a narrative art. It is the unfolding form of the Redeemer, relayed in the sequential order of the various crucial scenes of his life, which constitutes the true centre or mid-point of divine revelation. The dialectic of disclosure and concealment in the appearing of the divine Glory was resolved in favour of its positive pole only with the Cross and Descent into Hell, as became clear in the Resurrection. The self-emptying divine Love, which is what the Glory of the Trinity turns out to be, thus manifests itself as judgment on human lovelessness and the re-orientation of human nature, at least in nrinciple, to its true transcendent end. What the icon of Christ contains is, in Baithasar's words, a 'synthesis of saving history'; it shows the Father's saving will as at once justice and mercy, the rejection of mankind and its redemption.[2]

However, Balthasar would be the first to admit that the aesthetics cannot lay out all the themes of Christian theology, or at any rate not lay them out with equal cogency and liveliness. From the outset he made it plain that, just as among the transcendentals; the beautiful and the good as also the true are co-constituting, for no one of these is a manifestation of being without reference to the others, so also in the ambit of revelation the aesthetics cannot be separated from a dramatics, still to be written, if it is to have its maximum force. Moreover, he shows that a theological aesthetics opens us of its own nature to a theological dramatics. So far from being merely parallel theological raids on the divine treasures of revelation, aesthetics and dramatics are inter-related essentially, not accidentally - not contingently but of their very nature.

Aesthetics needs Dramatics

How does Balthasar justify this assertion? In the opening pages of the second volume of
Theo-Drama (the first, as we shall see, is given over to Prolegomena), he will do so in three ways.[3] First, he points out how, even among 'intramundane phenomena' - things which have their being and significance entirely within this world - the graceful quality of being in its self-manifestation calls forth a grateful response from the perceiver. A word of being which is eloquent of being's gloriousness calls for an answering word, a response. Expressive form inaugurates a dialogue. It requires from man an adjudication, which must necessarily take place in language. Such dialogue, or linguistic confrontation, is highly germane to drama.
Secondly, to appreciate a form aright, to receive aright its message, depends in some way or other on our having appropriate dispositions. Without a basic readiness to receive what the form has to offer, a willingness to entertain its message, the dialogue between the eloquent appearing of being and human language is more than likely to be at cross-purposes. And for such willingness or readiness to be in place, some engagement on the part of human freedom is required. But what else is this beauty-inspired confrontation in language where human freedom is set in motion, for good or evil, than the dramatic itself - that quality of existence which the theatre brings out, with its many voices, its plots and
dénouements, its dramatisation of choice and freedom, whether against the grain of reality or in harmony with it, all for the sake of enabling us the better to understand our lives and the world in which those lives are set? The beauty of visual art opens up, in this sense, a dramatic dimension. As Balthasar writes:

We need to make it clear that 'l'art pour l'art' is a totally derivative and depraved form of the encounter with beauty: the blissful, gratis, shining-in-itself of the thing of beauty is not meant for individualistic enjoyment in the experimental retorts of aesthetic seclusion: on the contrary, it is meant to be the communication of a meaning with a view to meaning's totality; it is an invitation to universal communication and also, preeminently, to a shared humanity.[4]

Applying this analogically to Jesus Christ who as the mid-point of revelation's objective form is the chief locus of Christian theology, Balthasar affirms that when the divine Word becomes flesh and steps forth among the multitude of figures that surround us - the forms, both cosmic and human, of the world, there comes inevitably a
decision which, because it embraces all other decisions that human beings could ever make, is the theme par excellence of theological dramatics. And this is the question as to whether, in the vocabulary of the Johannine Prologue, the Word's 'own' will 'receive' him or not. This can also be put in more Balthasarian language, which the man himself now proceeds to do, when he asks, Will the 'code-words' of a cosmos and a human history whose own sense and bearings are unclear 'resolve into the Word, the Logos, ultimate meaning' or, by contrast, will they 'shut tight, undecipherable, once and for all'.[5] The divine Theophany, the appearing of the triune Glory in Jesus Christ, is the way into what is truly central for dogmatics, the inter-action, within both creation and history, of man's finite and God's infinite freedom.

And so finally we come to a
third sense in which aesthetics not only prompts but even requires a 'transition to dramatics': the one who has been encountered by beauty is not only challenged in his freedom, he is also branded for life, and thus becomes conscious of election. The elect person feels obliged to proclaim the Logos. Having a glimpse of the divinely beautiful sends the one thus privileged not only in the idiomatic sense of rendering him ecstatic (a coining for which we are indebted to the culture of Pop) but also in the theological sense of mandating him to go forth on a mission. The wonder of Being, communicating itself in the beautiful, tends of its nature to produce dramatic heroes - however ordinary (or extraordinary) their missions may be. Each is at once unique and universal. Indeed the more unique, the more universal - for the stronger the lens, the greater its capacity to focus the light universal. And this is what Jesus Christ is, as Light from Light in human flesh:

The Beautiful, graciously manifesting itself, becomes the incarnated Word, electing those to whom it can communicate itself.[6]

Mysteriously, while pouring itself forth in the raging waters of dramatic missions co-defined by the hard rocks of a fallen world, this river remains, at its Source, what it ever serenely was. That is, for Balthasar, the message of St John's Apocalypse: existence is at once a Liturgy and (to change the metaphor from geological to military) a battlefield.

Aesthetics must, then, as Balthasar remarks at the outset of the first volume of
Theo-Drama, the Prolegomena, 'surrender itself and go in search of new categories'.[7] Thus, although the theological aesthetics was, from one point of view, written with an eye to the theological logic, since it aimed to show that the logic of a theology whose departure point is glory can hardly be rationalist, it would be premature of such an aesthetics to attempt the rewriting of theological logic by its own light alone. A missing stage must be filled in first. Within the revelatory form we must identify the saving event which is that form's active content, and show how the power of the divine action in the Word made flesh encompasses all existence and brings its tensions and conflicts to triumphant resolution. Only so can we assert in theological logic the universal validity of the Christian gospel.

That is clearly vital if, in the words of First Peter, we are to '
give a reason for the hope that is in us' (3.15). Yet a logic crucially dependent on dramatics will not obscure the fact (this at any rate is Balthasar's hope) that total reality - the full range of that to which the concepts of a theological logic apply - includes, and so cannot prescind from, the existential character of life. Contrary to what superficial estimates of Balthasar's theology pretend, his writing is filled with positively eschatological urgency where the need for action is concerned. Should contemplation fail to come to grips with the secular 'now' within the horizon of what has been achieved definitively, it will slip into unreality. We can say, 'Lord, Lord!' in the depths of spirituality and mysticism, we can 'eat and drink with him' sacramentally, but it is all in vain if we do not carry out the will of our heavenly Father. Furthermore, the mere proclamation of the word of salvation - which is incumbent upon us - will not elicit faith if the herald himself does not fashion his life into a dramatic word of testimony. Neither faith, contemplation nor kerygma can dispense us from action. And the libretto of God's saving drama which we call Holy Scripture is worthless in itself unless, in the Holy Spirit, it is constantly mediating between the drama beyond and the drama here. It is not a self-sufficient armchair drama; its very form shows it to be a multifarious testimony pointing to an action at its core that goes beyond all words.[8]

1. See my
The Word Has Been Abroad: A Guide through Baithasar's Aesthetics (Edinburgh 1998).

2. Cf. The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. VU. Theology: The New Covenant (ET, Edinburgh and San Francisco 1989), p. 324.

3. Idem., Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory. II. Dramatis Personae: Man in God (ET, San Francisco 1990), pp. 23-33. Cited below as TD II.

4. TD II, pp. 29-30.

5. TD II, p. 26. As the Irish Balthasar scholar Gerard O'Hanlon has remarked: 'Already within the aesthetics there was implicit in the enrapturement that accompanied the perception of the form an opening to the truth shown in Jesus that the deed of love in freedom is what is at the centre of reality, divine and human. We are asked not simply to contemplate Jesus but with Christian to follow him, be disciples, giving witness even to the point of death to what we have seen in him. Jesus reveals to us that God is love, and by his Cross in particular he shows us that the human response to God's love has to take account of the reality of evil. If God is love, and if, in particular, this love is in dialogue with our freedom and with evil, are we not in the midst of a drama which involves both God and ourselves?' G. O'Hanlon, SJ, 'Theological Dramatics', in B. McGregor, OP, and T. Norris (eds), The Beauty of Christ: An Introduction to the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Edinburgh 1994), p. 94.

6. TD II, p. 33.

7. Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory. I. Prolegomena (ET, San Francisco 1988), p. 16. Cited below as TD I. Yet this in no way implies the annulment of the theological aesthetics. Balthasar can express the 'transition' involved by writing: 'All we need to do is to take what is implicit in our aesthetics and make it explicit in dramatic theory; thus we shall set forth the problems associated with the various freedoms in order to arrive at the dimensions of theo-drama.' TD II, pp. 35-36 (italics original).

TD II, p. 22

Extracts from "No Bloodless Myth" reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher.

Copyright ©; T & T Clark Ltd 2000

Version: 6th February 2008


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