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Renewal with God before Us: Christ Determines All

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 30, 2014

As I outlined previously, Hans Urs von Balthasar found the main lines of Catholic renewal sullied by various human evasions—by our pervasive eagerness to soften our goals according to human standards. It is in the third section of the book we have been discussing that he finally sets forth the answer to his title question. He regards the section title as another way of approaching the same problem: “God before us, or Who Is a Christian?”. The issue of effective renewal depends completely on the answer to this question.

Von Balthasar explains that the whole Christian dispensation depends on the new-found ability of men and women to collaborate with God in the work of redemption by allowing God to live and work within and through them. The Son of God made this possible by His self-emptying obedience to the Father in His Incarnation as the God-man Jesus Christ; and of course through His completion of the Father’s will in His passion, death and Resurrection. Now a new order of creation has been established by which the Holy Spirit can be sent to us, and through His action the Holy Trinity can dwell within us, and make us in our turn loving instruments of God’s holy will.

Just as Our Lord’s love brought Him to perfect obedience to the Father’s will, so too for the Christian is human obedience to God perfected in love. The whole Christian message is summarized in the one thing needful, the inclusion of all commandments under the law of love, the lack of worry about what we are to eat or to wear, because all we need to do is live by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Von Balthasar laments that these concepts are now so familiar to us that we scarcely think about what they mean. In practice, we too often assume that they are operative when we are living them only tangentially, in the palest of bleak imitations.

God’s Work

How is it really possible that we can join in God’s work, when we are so different from God? Von Balthasar answers:

Obedience freely given in love—this is the place where incomparables touch, to the point of forming a single identity. On the human side, this obedience of love bears the distinctive name of faith. This faith, as a human act, is an inchoate attempt to deliver oneself up (“Lord, I believe; help my unbelief”) that is caught up by the Lord into his own obeying, indeed, even at the first attempt coaxed forth, inspired, sustained, and brought to fruition through grace and by the power of his pattern and example. [65]

Now, since God’s faithfulness is infinite—that is, unlimited—when we are taken up in God’s faithfulness, all the human limits to our self-giving are stripped away. In fact, “our faith in Christ is tested precisely in the removal of all such limits to self-giving.” Our “obedient devotion can likewise be unconditional and without limits, as a response and surrender to the power of God’s grace, which allows and enables it.” To conclude:

It is an act that in its fullness means faith—love—hope: loving faith, which hopes all things, or hope-filled love, which believes all things, or believing hope, which loves all that God wills. It is the act that lies at the core of the Christian identity—so that we have found our way unexpectedly to the answer to our question: “Who is a Christian?” A Christian is a person who “lives by faith” (cf. Rom 1:17), who, in other words, has committed his entire existence to the one chance that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, obedient for us all unto the Cross, has opened up to us—the chance to participate in the world-redeeming, obedient Yes to God. [65-66]

Not Our Power But God’s

This makes all the difference. As von Balthasar put it, “The absolute Yes—that is to say, absolved of every (conscious or unconscious) restrictive condition—of Jesus Christ and his Mother—Bride—Mary—Church is the standard against which the Christianity of the Christian is measured” (71). The power of this Yes increases in direct proportion to our own self-emptying, our complete trust, as St. Paul put it so aptly, that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). We must reread this entire verse:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Only when the old man steps aside, moves out of the way, can God work through us, so that we work at one with God. As von Balthasar somewhat wryly comments by means of one of the subtitles in this section of the book, “only for the poor is it a message of good news!” But it is the message and the method by which Christians and Christianity itself triumph when they are humanly weak but strong in God; and they likewise decline rapidly when they are humanly strong but weak in God. Von Balthasar poignantly asks:

Is it any wonder, then, that we all and forever flee this moment, that Christians defer and delay it—suppress it and ultimately forget it? One could paint the history of the Church in this light as the history of all the things she offers to God as substitutes in order to escape the act of real faith. So we find ourselves back in the zone of the ambivalent, where things very good in themselves can be the expressions of a hidden evasion. [76]

Von Balthasar closes this section with a reflection on what it means “to practice” this faith. Boiled down to practical steps, it means interior participation in the Mass; profiting regularly from Confession; living the feasts, fasts and spirit of the Liturgical Year; and constantly interpreting and reinterpreting one’s life in relation to God. At the root of all of this is the self-emptying and perfect trust which characterizes authentic faith.

Renewal and Evangelization Require Self-Emptying

The book concludes with a section designed to apply this lesson to effective renewal. Interestingly, the section’s title is “Expropriation and World Mission”, and in it von Balthasar explores the issue of how a Christian ought to serve the world, and how not. He utterly rejects the facile notion (once so admired in the writings of Teilhard do Chardin) that everything will automatically evolve toward some Omega Point of fulfillment in Christ. (Earlier he had similarly dismantled the vapid secularizations of the infamous Leo Cardinal Suenens, who was so lionized by the world in the period leading up to the publication of von Balthasar’s book.)

Instead, von Balthasar emphasizes the primacy of contemplation over action; he relies on self-emptying and welcomes struggle: “Only in the battle between God and the world is peace to be found; only when the Christian is rendered powerless is he saved by God’s almighty power” (115). He advocates a lowly Church, filled with Catholics maintaining a single commitment to Christ in everything they undertake, and living in hope and prayer. But in 1983, he did not see much of that (even though, I think, we are beginning to see a little more of it today). Perhaps, then, we should close by recalling what, to his shame, von Balthasar did see. Insisting on how wrong it is to emphasize “getting busy” over attentiveness to God, he wrote:

He who will not listen first of all to God has nothing to say to the world. He will, like so many priests and laypeople today, be “anxious and troubled about many things”—to the point of unconsciousness and exhaustion—and will thereby miss the one thing needful; indeed, he will tell himself so many little lies in order to forget or justify this omission. We can hear such justifications everywhere today, on the lips of laity and priests. [84]

Although von Balthasar did not succumb to negativity in the book, I am rather partial to ending my exploration of his ideas just here, on what ought to be taken as a warning note. Rounding out this devastating criticism, he concluded: “It is enough to make one shudder.”


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