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 Fr Aidan Nichols


No Bloodless Myth

Chapter 2: Rationale for Aesthetics

Balthasar's task, then, on completion of the theological aesthetics and looking ahead to the construction of the theological logic whose first humble building-blocks were put in place by the general ontology of his theological logic, is to identify what he calls a '
network of concepts and images' in which to express the unique divine action which is revelation's content. The Prolegomena will take that as their task.

Life as drama

And this is where dramatics comes in. For insofar as existence is composed of actions, of events where one or more agents by their collaboration, competition or conflict conspire to change the course of affairs, life is naturally dramatic. It is the function of theatrical drama to exhibit the dramatic quality of existence itself and so to hold up a mirror to the drama of life that we may not only better understand it but also reorient ourselves within it according to whatever light the dramatic author, as interpreted by his cast, and their director, can throw. Balthasar writes:

As human beings, we already have a preliminary grasp of what drama is; we are acquainted with it from the complications, tensions, catastrophes and reconciliations which characterize our lives as individuals and in interaction with others, and we also know it in a different way from the phenomenon of the stage (which is both related to life and yet at a remove from it).

And as to the stage itself he comments:

The task of the stage is to make the drama of existence explicit so that we may view it. For the stage drama is the missing link: it transforms the event into a picture that can be seen and thus expands aesthetics into something new (and yet continuous with itself), while at the same time it is already translating this picture into speech. [1]

Theatrical drama is therefore the linguistic portrayal in graspable form of the drama of existence itself. Where better to look, then, not only for a speculative grasp of the divine irruption into existence which is the dramatic event of the Word of God, but also for encouragement to us personally to enter into relations with the theo-drama and play out our own roles by way of response to that singular divine action which spans the successive covenants of creation and Old and New Testaments, and leads up to their prospective consummation at the eschaton, the end of time?

Balthasar emphasises the inherent difficulty of the task a
theological dramatics sets us. In the first place, if God is to 'play' through human beings and, ultimately, at the plot's turning-point (the Incarnation), as a human being, then he must, to a greater or lesser extent, go incognito, and this means in its turn that:

by entering into contact with the world theatre, the good which takes place in God's action really is affected by the world's ambiguity and remains a hidden good.[2]

And in the second place, despite - or is it because of? - that very ambiguity, such a dramatics stringently requires a self-involving response of engaged action from ourselves.

good which God does to us can only be experienced as the truth if we share in performing it (John 7.17; 8.31f.); we must 'do the truth in love' (Ephesians 4.15) not only in order to perceive the truth of the good but, equally, in order to embody it increasingly in the world, thus leading the ambiguities of world theatre beyond themselves to a singleness of meaning that can only come from God.[3]

And so, commensurate with the difficulty of the project is the scope - if successfully attained - of its reward. A final integration of the scattered and partial meanings which existence offers can hardly be called a bagatelle.

Unifying the theologies

And if the content of such a theology could hardly be more important, the same is no less true of its form. A theodramatic theory, Balthasar suggests, is ideally suited to the task of unifying all those partial approaches to theological method which, in their own far from satisfactory fragmentariness, are all too typical of the dislocated condition of modern theology. Writing in the early 1970s, what exactly does Balthasar have in mind? He lists nine motifs of theological methodology. Each one has got hold of something and yet, if it is to deal theological weal rather than woe, needs not only all the rest but also a comprehensive structure of theological method in which to articulate its relations with them.

The nine ideas, each of which attempts to provide Christian reflection with a philosophical or theological principle of order, are in turn: '
event' - namely, the 'actualism', or vertical divine 'eruptionism' of those two influential Protestant biblical theologians Rudolf Bultmann and, with whatever significant differences, Karl Barth; secondly, the salvation-historical approach; thirdly, a concern with 'orthopraxy', right action, as against orthodoxy, right thinking or, perhaps, worship - since the term doxa can mean both; fourthly, a theology based on the notion of 'dialogue' both in inter-subjectivity between God and man and in the general openness of the human being to a wider truth; fifthly, political theology, the European parent of the later liberation theology; sixthly, the theology of the future, also called the 'theology of hope'; seventhly, a theology of 'function' by which Balthasar means the theological appropriation of structuralism, then the latest news from Paris (we must remember that the Theodramatik was started in that bygone era when those who wished to be considered à la mode called themselves merely modern, not post-modern); eighthly, and connected with the previous point, a theology employing the psychological and sociological key concept of 'rôle'; and, lastly, a theology which takes as its axis the problematic of freedom, and freedom's inseparable co-theme, the meaning and destiny of good and evil. All of these Tendenzen, in Balthasar's opinion, converge upon one centre, where alone they can meet, integrate and bear fruit for theological thought. That centre is theological dramatics.
Let us pass the nine in succinct review.

Event. Yes, with Bultmann and Barth, God does judge and save the world by breaking vertically into time, at once in act and in word, both as himself, in the kerygmatic proclamation of the gospel, as with Bultmann, and in his Word-made-man, reconciling the world to himself, as with Barth. But no, this is not a timeless and con text-less happening, for the vertical event of salvation unfolds into a series of times of salvation comparable to the acts of a play, and without this serial unfolding it cannot be rightly assessed.

History. Yes, with the historically minded, revelation is always to be contextually evaluated, and each ecclesial generation with its particular human requirements and distinct historical viewpoint must determine how the salvific event is to be lived and expressed. But no, the horizontal must not absorb the vertical; rather, full justice must be done to the eschatological dimension, already inaugurated in Incarnation and Atonement, which changes the significance of historical time. When God in Christ appears on the stage of world history, one is called to get involved with the unique time of his appearing, to live at the 'turn of the ages' evoked by St Paul. Shorn of this dramatic context, the historicisation of revelation threatens dogmatics with dissolution into cultural history, while the desperate solution to that problem offered by such Transcendental Idealists as Karl Rahner, who find beneath the flux the unitary salvific will of God, the same in all ages but climactically portrayed in the event of Jesus Christ, reduces theology, in the spirit of Hegel, to a glorified philosophy.

Orthopraxy. Yes, its henchmen are right to wish to drag Christianity, as Balthasar puts it, 'out of the scholar's study' and to 'set it on the world stage where it is to act and prove itself'. But no, they are wrong to abbreviate it to a guide to practical behaviour. Orthopractic theology, in Balthasar's judgment, fails to preserve a necessary distance between 'God's praxis which operates on man and man's praxis which takes its direction from God's'. And to know of that divine praxis, in all its superlative priority over human effort, there is required a doctrine of faith, and a right doctrine at that. By a merely apparent paradox, orthopraxy actually underestimates the size of the field laid out for Christian action, and does so by insufficient advertence to its dramatic quality. As Balthasar writes:

For what God's primal act in reality was, what implication it had for the world, is ... something that can only be accepted and pondered in a faith that precedes all personal initiative... Following Christ, which has become possible through his self-surrender, will not consist in doing some right thing but in fundamentally surrendering everything, and surrendering it to the God who has totally emptied himself, so that he can use [that right thing] for the world, according to his own purposes .[4]

4. Dialogue. Yes, the I-thou theologians are right to say that at the heart of the events of Scripture lies the covenant gift to man, in both creation and salvation, of an 'area of independent being where he can freely hear and answer' God's Word, and so, ultimately, collaborate responsibly with the covenant Lord. Indeed, without dialogue, drama is unthinkable. But no, dialogue is not Christianity's only category; the action is not reducible to dialogue. As with all human existence - and this much its theatrical reflection shows, not every plot is unravelled in speech and counter-speech. The key to the protagonists' relations can be some event of which, for instance, only an audience is fully aware. Balthasar points out that, of the many dialogues in which St John composes his life of Jesus hardly one is 'genuine': the more the Word reveals itself the less people wish to hear it. And as for dialogues with non-Christians, when ultimate frameworks have no common boundaries the Christian's last word must be no word at all, but the testimony, the martyria, of his existence or, if need be, of his literal martyrdom, his blood. (Here one may find the source of Pope John Paul II's introduction of the martyrdom theme into his encyclical on fundamental ethics, Veritatis Splendor, whose chief aim is precisely to show that, for a Christian ethics, open dialogue with other ethical views is not enough.)

Political theology. Yes, political theology is right to oppose the privatisation of the gospel, its withdrawal from the public space of society and abandonment of the claim to shape public doctrine in civil affairs. The main scenes of, for instance, the Acts of the Apostles, take place in the public arena, just as in the Hellenic world drama had been directed to the polis. And in the Gospels a king who is not of this world but acts with complete seriousness on the public world stage is bound to be involved in the political drama. But no, the existence of the Christian cannot be classified in secular terms; he belongs to a Kingdom which comes from God through Jesus' dying in expiation of the world's sin and being raised as 'first-fruits of the dead'. To attempt a static copy of the Kingdom by recreating traditional theocratic Christendom would be to betray that eager awaiting of the Kingdom of which the gospel speaks; to attempt its progressive if asymptotic realisation through such basic elements as justice and peace would be to fall back behind Christ into the Old Testament. The dramatic situation of the world, as the Christian knows that to be, goes far beyond the category of politics, and if the political has anything to say about ultimate meaning it must now consent to be taken beyond itself, and be set in relation to this further dimension.

Futurism. Yes, the theologians of hope are right to recover the future orientation which was characteristic of primitive Christianity, but no, they are wrong to eliminate the realised eschatology brought about, as the Fourth Gospel witnesses, in the event of Jesus Christ. Futurism, even when bolstered by appeals to utopian vision and calls for revolutionary transformation, does not in any case succeed in reproducing the full extent of the biblical drama, which, as apocalyptic shows, enfolds both the world and God, and all of heaven, earth and hell.

Function or structure. In structuralism, a functional or structural 'grid' is laid over the contingencies of history in order to render them rationally accessible. Yes, such a notion can have some Christian serviceableness in that, thanks to the divine initiative in salvation, we are entrusted with a mission and hence a function, a function, moreover, which operates within a structure, the Church, which is above the subject, in part constitutes him or her and certainly demands service of them. But no, in and of itself structuralism's would-be total absorption of the free historical subject into a universal code where persons are reduced to the 'speaking of the structures' could never be reconciled with Christian anthropology. Such a privileging of impersonal rules of reciprocity and exchange is, Balthasar comments, a strikingly anti-dramatic undertaking, as well as being otherwise questionable. For if the 'whole' from which the 'function' takes its meaning is a purely finite entity, why should it be deemed to possess a normative character? So only some further factor implanted among the functioning subjects, such as (to orthodox faith) the infinite presence of the incarnate Logos, can both justify the claims made for the structure and rescue the inalienable uniqueness of the persons who carry out its functions. Structuralism, in other words, must submit to theodrama, or perish.

Rôle, understood both psychologically and socio-logically.Rôle-playing as a way of understanding ecciesial and especially ministerial existence, and the frequently concomitant definition of persons as simply 'bundles' of rôles, are recurring features of a sociologically or psychologically informed theology. Yes, to a degree I can find my identity by slipping into the rôle in which society has cast its dramatis personae; this is, after all, one version of being in relation, serving the other in serving the whole, which we found to be, within certain limits, a valid aspect of structuralist thinking. But no, performers cannot be treated as sheerly interchangeable without shipwrecking all human dignity, which depends in part on the uniqueness of persons. Only in a theodramatic setting, so Balthasar predicts, will this tension between rôle and identity achieve satisfactory resolution.

9. And lastly, there is the little matter of
freedom, and its choice of good and evil. So deep-rooted are the world's evils, and, to twentieth-century perception, systemic, that God can be deemed, as by Carl Gustav Jung, to express his freedom in both good and evil, just at the same time as, with the percolating down of the refined philosophical insights of Kant and Schelling, an essential autonomy is ascribed to man, an element of absoluteness found in human freedom. Here Balthasar does not adjudicate between the positive and negative charges of a variety of existentialist theologies and attempted theodicies. Rather does he confine himself to recording the extreme importance of the question, How are divine and human freedom inter-related? As he writes

What is the relationship between divine and human freedom? Should we suppose that God accepted some limit on his freedom when he created man, by whom his world could be brought either to perfection or to destruction? Is he powerless in the face of autonomous man's 'No'? And how is this divine powerlessness related to the Godforsakenness of his Son on the Cross?[5]

Balthasar does not answer these questions at this juncture because these are the very questions that theodramatic reflection, treating in turn the dramatis personae of the world-plot, its development, dénouement in Jesus Christ and last act, the eschaton, will set itself to consider.

Planning the work

But if, in these nine ways, theological dramatics could turn out to be the overarching form of an apt and all-inclusive soteriology which, in a fragmented theological culture, theological methodologists have so far sought in vain, how will Balthasar approach the construction of this architectonic scheme? How will
Theodramatik itself unfold?

Its construction is markedly different from that of
Herrlichkeit. The latter plunges more or less directly in medias res. Only a comparatively few pages, giving the background to the loss of the dimension of beauty from Christian theology, both Protestant and Catholic, and its slow recovery in a handful of authors, together with some brief remarks on the beautiful as the marriage of species and lumen, form and splendour, separate the preface from Balthasar's exposition of the main lines of a Christocentric, aesthetically conceived theology of revelation. But with Theodramatik, Balthasar finds it necessary to devote well over six hundred pages to prolegomena before we can launch out on an account of the basic dramatis personae of the theodramatic action, the infinitely free God and finitely free man. The reason (aside from sheer fascination with the theatre, expressed in sometimes prolix synopses of plots, analyses of plays) is that the theological aesthetics, by contrast with dramatics, could to a degree take for granted a variety of relevant concepts - many of the key philosophical notions to be deployed theologically in the aesthetics had already been laid out in Wahrheit der Welt, later to become the opening volume of the theological logic.[6] Take ideas like: the plenitude of being; the dialectic of being and appearance; truth as solid evidence and openness to a wider whole; knowledge as both receptive and spontaneous, and as made possible by a light which is a participation in a Light unending; images as the invitation to read off from them form, which is itself the sign and sacrament of the depth of being: for all of these notions, directly pertinent to theological aesthetics as they are, Balthasar could refer the reader back to his earlier work. But with Theodramatik the situation is different. True, there are themes in the general ontology, such as Balthasar's reflections on language and on freedom, which can scarcely be called irrelevant to the theological dramatics. But whereas the notions of beauty in nature and art are already actively entertained in Wahrheit as key ideas in the exploration of the truth of being, the model of theatre, as crucial to a portrayal of human existence, is at best subjacent there. Thus the first requirement in writing Theo-Drama was to establish a repertoire of theatrical concepts which would play an analogous part in the composition of a theological dramatics to that of the fund of ontological concepts in the making of the theological aesthetics. It is for this reason that the prolegomena to the dramatics required a book of their own.

And just as the ontological notions in
Wahrheit der Welt, if scanned with one eye on the theological aesthetics that will follow them, offer a first preliminary sketch of what a disclosure of transcendental beauty might do for us, so to read the prolegomena to the theological dramatics is not only to encounter some fascinating reflections about the theatre and the light it casts on human life but also to gain an initial glimpse of how Balthasar could perhaps apply the key concepts of dramatic theory to salvation in Jesus Christ.

Answering objections

First, however, Balthasar must clear away some objections to the whole theodramatic idea. For while the Church has patronised artists, musicians and poets, her relation with the stage has been more stormy - and there are philosophers, so Balthasar points out, who would find that no mere accident. If for the dramatologist and (somewhat unreliable) lay theologian Rudolf Kassner there can
simply be no analogy between Christianity and the theatre since the Incarnation entailed no disguise, and Christ, consequently, played no part (to which Balthasar counterposes the objection that one who never took a rôle could hardly have a mission), the great Idealist thinker Hegel, in his much more elaborate theory, concurs, treating drama as essentially a pre-Christian phenomenon which, once the divine is (with Christ) subsumed under the universally human, dissolves into ordinary reality, into the prosaic. Balthasar thinks that Hegel came to his conclusion that drama - at any rate as the potent experience it was for the Greeks - is dead, only because he has thrown out of the window the genuinely dramatic - indeed, super-dramatic - elements in Christianity itself. A desiccated orthodoxy and a flaccid liberalism alike may have obscured to Hegel two things which this religion

possessed in the New Testament and ... retains in Catholic dogmatics, namely, the real, active power of the life, suffering and Resurrection of Jesus on behalf of all men, which in turn grounds the active, real power of the exalted Christ to give men an inner participation in his universal mission.[7]

But the notion that the risen Christ remains particular would in any case have been anathema to Hegel: all that ultimately counts in his eyes is the total process. What we learn from Christ's Passion, for the German philosopher, is that the Absolute eternally plays out a tragedy, expressing itself in the world of objectivity, and in that form 'dying' there - yet also rising phoenix-like as the finite is reintegrated in the 'world spirit'. But in this case (once again) the tragic ceases to be an analogy for the Passion. Rather does the Passion embody what all tragedy was attempting to say. 'Analogy, which is essential to a theory of theo-drama, is absorbed in identity' [8]

In pointing out where Hegel went wrong, Balthasar is able to give us a tempting foretaste of the main dishes he will be serving, and especially of the crucial inter-relation of Christology and ecclesiology in theo-drama. Essentially, Hegel misconstrued the relation of the universal to the particular. Every personal mission - and it is the happening of such '
missions' which makes the life of the Church drama-filled and provides the materials for a Christian theatre - contains something of the universally relevant mission of Christ. Just as in the Old Testament there were prefigurations of Christ, so in the plays of Shakespeare, for example,characters can 'post-figure' him.[9] But those missions do not for all that lose their particularity. From their criss-crossings, indeed, there arises:

a genuine and unlimited richness of dramatic tensions, conflicts and
collisions, both inside and outside the Church.

Yet Balthasar's criticisms of Hegel, however fundamental these may be, hardly diminish the force of the latter's claim that, compared with the age of the Attic tragedians, drama is depotentiated in the modern world. The reasons for that loss of power lie not - as Hegel surmised [11] - with Incarnation and Atonement which (as we shall see) have, on the contrary, tightened the dramatic tension of history. Rather do they concern the loss of a framework of ultimate meaning.

If meaninglessness, considered as a mode of action, has the last word, it annihilates itself and ends in Beckett's garbage cans. The alleged absolute freedom which can play the part of both God and the devil (Sartre) dissolves in pure ennui. The attitude of revolt (Camus) is absurd if it is absolutized, since, in order to survive, it must always presuppose whatever it is negating ... Be the content of 'given' absolute meaning never so hidden and ineffable .. . it must be presupposed, to form the framework within which drama can take place.[12]

Actually, Balthasar was not a pessimist about the future of theatre. The plays of Thornton Wilder and Bertold Brecht, with their internally competing 'horizons', show how twentieth-century drama falsifies Hegel's prediction that all tension is being smoothed away in an increasingly 'one dimensional' reality. Despite the ambiguous attitude of both philosophers and churchmen to the theatre (Plato expelling the actors from the polis, Marcel a dramatist himself; Molière refused the last sacraments, Calderon himself a priest), the theatre, Balthasar predicts, will always survive, because, as he puts it, 'life manifests a fundamental urge to observe itself as an action exhibiting both meaning and mystery' [13] Existence has a need to see itself mirrored, and this makes the theatre a 'legitimate instrument' in the elucidation of being. At the same time, Baithasar underscores the ambiguity of this image of a mirror to life. As a mirror, theatre enables existence to attain understanding of itself, but equally, like a mirror, theatre must eventually take second place, to make room for a truth which it reflects only indirectly. What that divinely dramatic truth is, the dogmatic volumes of Theo-Drama will rehearse.


TD I, p.17.

2. TD I, p.19.

TD I, p. 20.

4. TD I, pp. 33-34.

5. TD I, p. 50.

6. Wahrheit. I. Wahrhejt der Welt (Einsiedeln 1947); reissued with modifications as Theologik. I (Einsiedeln 1985).

7. TD I, p. 65.

TD I, p. 67.

9. M. Roston, Biblical Drama in England (London 1968).

10. TD I, p. 68.

11. For Hegel, Christ's life, death and Resurrection made available a general law, of which his own destiny was simply the highest symbolic representation: thus Balthasar's 'Basic Questions in Christology', in idem., You Crown the Year with Your Goodness: Sermons through the Liturgical Year (ET, San Francisco 1989), p. 307.

12. TD I, p. 75.

13. TD I, pp. 78-79.

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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