Hans Urs von Balthasar: Theo-Drama, Vol I, Introduction, Parts A & B

The Theater Of Epidaurus

The Theater Of Epidaurus

The confrontation between divine and human freedom has reached a unique intensity; the contest between the two has moved into the center – the really dramatic center state – of the problem of existence.  The old theology recognized that God’s noninterference in free human decisions implied the possibility of damnation, while making allowances for God’s absolute freedom to bring a sinner to repentance through “irresistible” grace.  Here also, however, the two things were juxtaposed in a certain naivete.  Now we have to look the question in the eye: What is the relationship between divine and human freedom?  Should we supposed that God accepted some limit of [Divine] freedom when [humanity was] created, by whom [God’s] world could be brought either to perfection or to destruction?  Is [God] powerless in the face of autonomous [humanity’s] “No”?  And how is this divine powerlessness related to the Godforsakenness of [the] Son on the Cross?  Things that flitted like shadows at the periphery of the old theology now move into the center. – Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theo-Dramatic Theory, Vol I, Setting The Stage, p. 50


First, may I apologize for the extremely long time between posts?  I have, for lack of a better word, been utterly lost as to what I wanted to read.  I am turning to von Balthasar’s somewhat less massive (compared to his Herrlickheit) Theo-Drama in hopes that I will feel moved to continue.

Picking up any particular volume by the good Dr. Hans Urs Cardinal von Balthasar (he received his red hat from a grateful Vatican for his defense of the Holy See very near the time of his death) without at least some familiarity with his life and work is more dangerous than any other 20th century thinker of whom I’m aware.  That von Balthasar always begins his work with a Preface that places the particular work within his larger theological project makes him, like Barth who did something similar, a blessing among authors.  We get a sense both of the place of the work, and its larger purpose as guided by the end toward which von Balthasar is writing.

Thus it is that reading just the first fifty pages of von Balthasar gives one all ready the sense of forward motion, that he is not just padding and piddling around, but in fact is leading readers toward a particular goal.  In this instance, an apologia for this particular approach to understanding Divine Revelation.  While recognizing its limits, particularly if we become a tad too literal in our understanding of the metaphors employed (particularly, he mentions, the notion of “world-stage”), he insists that, in fact, it is precisely Drama and theories of the stage that offer a more fruitful approach to understanding the tensions, dialectic, and place of Christian revelation than those then currently employed.

He then offers friendly criticisms of the limits of then-current trends – Event, History, Orthopraxy, Dialogue, Political Theology, Futurism, Function, Role, and Freedom and Evil – pointing out ways a Theo-Dramatic theory not only enhances their deficiencies, but offers a way forward through the bramble of each, without ever once believing he has exhausted either current approaches to theology or does not recognize objections and limits of such an approach (to such objections and limits he turns next in his Introduction).

The quote above, from the very last page of his discussion of “Trends” in then-contemporary theology, offers, I believe, the best summary moving forward of the most important question any theology must address.  Questions of Divine and Human freedom, evil and Divine justice and love, and matters of predestination and Divine Grace and its possible extent or limits are, for now, matters that need far more – and far better – treatment than any even now contemporary theology has done.  None of this is to say that the Church should abandon affirmations of Divine Goodness in the face of evil, Divine Justice in the face of oppression and ubiquitous anti-human and anti-Creation violence, or the paradox of Human and Divine Freedom and matters of predestination and grace.  It is only to suggest that we continue to be confounded by current answers offered, rejecting previous attempts that seem to contradict the testimony to revelation in the Scriptures, and seek if not definitive answer, then perhaps answers that allow we contemporaries to set to one side the objections offered not only by those outside the Church, but the hesitant faith of far too many within the Church.

Modern [humanity] no longer wears those spectacles, lent to [us] by the Christian faith, through which the spectator once contemplated the world and saw it transfigured: God had pronounced the world “very good”, perhaps in anticipation of the time when all its negative aspects would be balanced and cancelled by the Son’s sacrifice on the Cross.  But now [humanity] discovers the world’s dark side: aggression, the will to power, reciprocal annihilation, and, in the sphere of history, the tragedy of a civilisation which seems to be proceeding toward self-extinction.  A light has gone out; the landscape of existence seems drear and alien.  At no point can sin’s overthrow by Christ’s sacrificial death be tangibly grasped; faith is impotent in the face of crushing brute reality.  Just as the Christian has to struggle in a new way for the possibility of faith, the non-Christian is presented with this nagging question: Is there any other person or factor left to be blamed for the condition of the world . . . or must [we] regard evil as a mere force of nature?  The idea that “Heaven and earth are full of the glory of God” and that such a world calls simply for praise and thanksgiving – such an idea causes even the Christian to doubt; [our] neighbor[s] persuade [us[ that [we} would be wiser to apply [our] efforts to changing this botched world.(p. 49)

While I would not go so far as to claim that we moderns or contemporaries have in any sense “discovered” the world’s dark side.  On the contrary, I would say previous epochs were all too aware of death, violence, destruction, dehumanization; it is only the past century that we achieved the technical means to achieve particular ends on a massive scale.  All the same, it is precisely the immensity of the potential destruction, encompassing much if not all the human race and perhaps much of what lives on our little planet that has so many worried.  It goes without saying that some, at least, who go by the name “Christian” who endorse such extreme measures, offering vigorous apologias for everything from nuclear armament and their use to the destruction of the environment in terms some claim are “Christian”, who confuse, anger, and sadden so many.

That is why, in my view, a theory that embraces the inherent tensions and contradictions of the Christian faith and life is both necessary, yet should be viewed with utmost skepticism before it is fully presented.  Theo-Drama certainly seems it might suffice.  Final determination should await its full unfolding.