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Renewal with God Behind Us: Man Determines All

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 28, 2014

In the first section of Who Is a Christian?, Hans Urs von Balthasar discusses the difficult situation the Church finds herself in today (or, to be more precise, in 1983 when the book was published; for background, see the previous installment, Hans Urs von Balthasar on Renewal that Matters). He notes the widespread confusion and the painful isolation of Catholics and their Church in a world which has drifted so far from its attachment to Christianity as to make communication almost impossible. He laments how the loss of religion transforms morality from a pursuit of love, to a natural common denominator, to a statistical norm, or even to a mere rule of law.

Von Balthasar also recognizes that our contemporaries know nothing of the Church except for what they have culturally retained in their long and very negative memories of the Church’s worst historical moments. He is not wrong in calling this the “burden of the dead”, which the Church cannot help but carry wherever she goes. He also observes the long decline of a vibrant Christian culture into a quaint museum. And he probes into the “average and unreflecting assumption” of what it means to live a Christian life in the face of all this, which is almost nothing, and which makes no effort at all to take seriously the fundamental question in the title of the book: Who is a Christian?

The result is an immense frustration within the Church, and about this frustration von Balthasar says two things. First:

So the Christian must shine? But how? Now we are back to the dread question with which we began. Everyone feels that, at any rate, things cannot continue as they are. It will no longer do. Everyone has the opportunity to see himself, to see his Church, for once through the eyes of strangers, from outside, as it were, as others do and, in so doing, to start up in alarm.

This discontent is no small thing, von Balthasar acknowledges. But the problem is that most solutions make unfortunate assumptions. Thus his second introductory point: “The question of who a Christian is has been assumed without reflection in every attempted reform of today’s Church.” The result is that far too much of the called-for renewal has gone off in directions which are not true to Christ. This was, I would say, astoundingly evident in 1983, though some progress has been made toward von Balthasar’s solution since that time. What von Balthasar tries to do is to answer that question first of all, so that an authentic renewal might flow directly from the answer.

Main Lines of Renewal

Before doing so, however, von Balthasar offers “A Critique of Current Trends”, a demonstration that by proceeding “with God behind us”, renewal in key areas has been fundamentally evasive and largely fruitless (at least as of 1983). (“With God behind us” is an expression signifying unreflective, culturally-driven assumptions about what it means to be a Christian, as opposed to proceeding “with God before us”, as our light and goal). In short order, the author critiques our conceptions of both the nature of reform and the main lines of reform in turning toward Scripture, focusing on the liturgy, fostering ecumenism, and embracing the temporal world.

Von Balthasar’s style makes this tricky reading. At one moment we are with him in recognizing the importance of each aspect of renewal covered here, but in the next we are watching, horrified, as a lack of understanding of what it means to be Christian causes each initiative to bear bitter fruit. In a section entitled “The Ambivalence of the Necessary”, von Balthasar acknowledges the value of today’s excitement over all the efforts at renewal that are being made: “Who cannot see that improvement, aggiornamento, à-jour-mettre, updating, is in itself a praiseworthy activity or that today, in the course of this renewal, a host of good and, indeed, eminently praiseworthy things are happening?” (29)

But a certain immature enthusiasm has emerged in all this “spring cleaning”, so that whatever overturns the “tiresome established order” seems called for “just so long as it is thoroughly modern and open-minded.” And so von Balthasar raises again the question so few have wanted to answer:

Witnessing this creative “destruction” and inspired “clean-sweeping”, one does not have to be particularly perceptive to pose the question of by what kind of gold standard all this paper money is actually backed. Surely, in the life of the Church, such clean-sweeping has always been associated with an interior cleansing, or conversion, and the deeper this conversion scours, the more it ought to hurt; otherwise, one might begin to think it no more than empty words. [29]

Four Dangerous Streams

Hence the ambivalence of the necessary. This ambivalence is reflected in the four mainstream processes of renewal which von Balthasar considers. For example, the return to the sources of Revelation, most notably Scripture, has been accompanied by a tendency to limit the interpretation of Scripture to what “modern man” can comprehend, so that “man (truly a mythical giant!) is upheld as the measure of what the Word of God may or may not say, may or may not expect or ask of man” (36). Similarly in liturgical renewal, the increasing awareness of the participation of the whole community, “the Ecclesia”, in the Eucharist, so vital and laudable in itself, has been accompanied by our modern tendency to make man the measure of all things, with little sense of man being in the Presence of God. Where is mystery? Where is adoration?

I could recite a litany of razor-sharp insights and apt phrases from von Balthasar’s dissection of these trends and their shortcomings. But I will confine myself to highlighting the other two great areas of renewal. Thus von Balthasar praises the Church’s marvelous commitment to the unity of all Christians through ecumenism, as if in response to the Master’s dearest wish, for “One is the master and you are all brothers” (Mt 23:8). But have we Catholics plumbed the depths of our Faith to see how different facets of the truth can contribute to our understanding of the whole? Or have we simply accepted a lowest common denominator and dismissed as unimportant everything on which agreement is lacking?

And what of our movement toward the world? It is one thing, surely, to recognize the good in the world, and to shape and purify what we find there in the light of Christ. But it is quite another to define the Christian as one who, in a preeminent way, commits himself to representing the values that the world finds good, as if the Christian is really just the best sort of humanist. If we add to this the notion of social evolution, the Christian begins to see himself as nothing but the loudest voice in affirming the inevitable. Von Balthasar knows well how this sleight-of-hand is made to appear religious: People talk, in circles, of recognizing in secularization the very divinization of the cosmos, now come of age through the activity of modern man!

Thus does von Balthasar demonstrate that our working assumption “with God behind us” actually “rests on a hidden subtraction, namely, that the Christian dimension is (no more than) the truly human(e) one” (51). With this in mind, he returns to his key question: Who is a Christian?

We must therefore resolve to turn around and approach what seemed to be behind us as something before us. To have the question before us, together with our effort to answer it, is the right approach, for the answer will necessarily come to us from the source from which our Christian life itself is given, namely, God’s living Word. [54]

In my final installment, we will join von Balthasar in this indispensable task.


Previous in series: Hans Urs von Balthasar on Renewal that Matters
Next in series: Renewal with God before Us: Christ Determines All

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Show 1 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: John J Plick - Jul. 28, 2014 10:46 PM ET USA

    Have we really become such fools in our arrogance..., and even further do we need one(s) to explain it?? The Trinity does not "wait" on us! It does not wait for our approval or disapproval. It is not impressed by "modern" man... Who created whom?! God has seen fit to offer "man" across the Ages an escape from the Hell he deserves. Shall we do Him "a favor" by accepting His offer?

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