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Friday, September 24, 2010

Von Balthasar, Rahner, and Milbank

I read two things today - an article, "Von Balthasar, Rahner, and The Commissar", New Blackfriars, 79 (1998), 26-33, by Philip Endean SJ, and a bit from POSTMODERNITY: Christian Identity in a Fragmented Age by Paul Lakeland. I found it interesting how Hans Urs von Balthasar's critique of Karl Rahner and post-Vatican II theology seemed sort of like John Milbank's (and Radical Orthodoxy's) critique of secular pluralist society and liberal Christianity.

First, here are a couple of paragraphs from Lakeland's book, in which he mentions Radical Orthodoxy's John Milbank (p. 68-70) ......

Milbank's thesis is quite simple. The 'nonfoundational metanarrative' of Christianity incorporates a social theory that is entirely adequate to, even vitally important to, our postmodern age, and that is distinctly superior to those secular social theories with which Christianity is thought by so many to need to engage in dialogue ... While Christianity can utilize the insights of social science, it accommodates itself to the paradigms of secular science at its peril. Christianity does not have to conform itself to the assumptions of the world: rather, the world has to conform to the vision of the Christian tradition ....

[T]he Christian metanarrative claims to be an interpretation of universal history. It rejects, he says, the Jewish claim to explain the mysteries of human community and salvation, and he *seems* to say that it must conclude that all non-Christians, "however virtuous seeming, [are] finally on the path to damnation." He argues that Christianity exhibits "the exemplary form of human community," and thus that it cannot admit that the social sciences might carry out a more fundamental investigation in this matter without abandoning its claim to truth. Christianity, he concludes, makes "a gigantic claim to be able to read, criticize, say what is going on in other human societies," and this "is absolutely integral to the Christian church." For Augustine, says Milbank, the political community is based on the necessary coercion that must exist in any society in which there is residual sin, and so it cannot be a realm of justice, whose basis is charity. Thus the political is imperfectly social, whereas true society, in the alarming words of Milbank .... "implies absolute consensus, agreement in desire, and entire harmony amongst its members, and this is exactly (as Augustine reiterates again and again) what the Church provides, and that in which salvation, the restoration of being, consists."

And, here's part of the article by Fr. Endean on Rahner and von Balthasar. It's best to read the whole thing, as I left much out, including the footnotes. The article can be found at Fr. Endean's site .......


Von Balthasar, Rahner, and The Commissar
- Philip Endean SJ

Von Balthasar's attacks on Rahner are scattered over several works. Sometimes their expression is very technical, and complex personal factors also play a part. But von Balthasar expresses his concerns vividly and concisely in a bitterly satirical dialogue near the end of a polemical text which he published just after Vatican II: The Moment of Christian Witness. A 'well-disposed commissar', a figure symbolising the culture of modernity both in its easy secularism and its nightmare terrors, arraigns a Rahnerian Christian. In less than three full pages, Rahner's theology is made to look ridiculous. For Rahner, God always transcends objects in space and time: we know God only in and through them, as their permanently mysterious, elusive ground. But the commissar refuses to distinguish such talk from secularist atheism .....

In The Moment of Christian Witness, the issue appears as one about the kind of security we can expect religion to give us. The uncertainties and vagueness of what, in the 1960s, was called 'progressive' theology cannot sustain the faith of a martyr. The original German title refers to Cordula, an apocryphal young girl saint. When the martyring Hun attacked, she managed to hide. Then, however, she realised that it is only through death that we find life, and thus emerged from hiding, submitted herself to death, the Ernstfall. Thus she became a credible witness. Von Balthasar is inviting a Roman Catholicism infatuated with Vatican II to see itself as Cordula in hiding, and challenging it once again to embrace the call to martyrdom. Contemporary theology, he implies, is too impressed by the uncertainties which a historical critical method generates; respect for legitimate Christian diversity has keeled over into excessive tentativeness, even destructive scepticism, about Christian obligation. The so-called Conciliar renewal misses the whole point about laying down one's life. One might summarize his whole message as a plea to the Church to read John's Gospel straightforwardly, and take it seriously. We must ignore the evidence in the text of neuroses and persecution-complexes; we must stop feeling anxious about the gross disrespect for Judaism this strand of Christianity encourages. Just see it as witness to God's absolute, unconditional, and unquestionable presence among us, a God in creaturely form, a God you can die for .....

For von Balthasar, Christ offers a clear revelation of divine beauty. This revelation is multi-faceted, and can be seen in different ways; but pluralism has its limits. Theology must proclaim this revelation in full-throated confidence. It gives us all something to die for.

Rahner never replied in public to von Balthasar’s strictures on his theology. One quotation from a talk given to a private Jesuit meeting in 1973 can, however, be taken as a rejoinder:

If we were to behave as if our being Christian gave us a ‘world-view’ in which everything fits together harmonically, we would, in the end, be setting ourselves up to be God. This is because the whole of realty is a symphony only for him. To make pluralism into a symphony - as good old Balthasar does - a symphony which we can hear as such: this is fundamentally impossible.

Rahner’s epistemology is more, not less, God-centred than von Balthasar’s. This God-centredness leads Rahner into a disciplined tentativeness. The kind of security von Balthasar seeks in Christianity is an idolatrous illusion.

Von Balthasar is worried that Rahner’s reticent, questioning approach to Christianity cannot foster the heroic spirituality of a martyr. It is not unfair, therefore, to introduce into the discussion one of their Jesuit contemporaries and colleagues who actually was martyred, and who left a powerful literary Iegacy from the period when he was awaiting trial and execution: Alfred Delp (1907-1945). Delp was arrested after the Stauffenberg fiasco in July 1944. He had made contributions on Catholic social teaching to a discussion group planning reconstruction from what they saw as Nazism's inevitable defeat .....

Balthasarian martyrs are so captivated in faith by God's beauteous presence that they can serenely and confidently lay down their lives in response. Delp's martyrdom is rather different. Martyrdom is something which happens to him, where his free choice pIays little part. There is faith in abundance regarding God's presence, but no secure knowledge of how or where this presence is operative, either for Delp at the time, or for us who read his writings half a century later. Delp's moving sense of God's abiding providence co-exists with his personal weakness, and with a powerful self-preservation instinct .... His letters show, all too understandably, evidence of psycho-religious regression, and of relationships being cut off before the ends can be tied. Like T.S. EIiot's Thomas Becket, Delp comes to doubt his own authenticity and sanity:

In these last few days I have been doubtful, and wondered if I have become a victim of self-deception, if my will to live has been sublimated into religious illusions, or what it's all been about."

Set against Delp's letters, von Balthasar's vision of martyrdom appears as a hagiographical abstraction: the actual experience involves a permanently ambiguous process of disintegration, in which the assurance of faith is always in interplay with an unmanageable unknown. A part of the pain lies precisely in the fact that the 'objective' clarity demanded by the commissars of this world is simply not available. For von Balthasar, Christianity offers some kind of miraculous exception to the human condition's insecurity and unfinishedness, and hence will always be a matter of clear lines and authority. God's last word has been spoken, in unsurpassable beauty. It is for us to contemplate, to respond in obedience - but never to doubt. Rahner's vision is structurally different. Christianity offers a promise empowering us to live and accept that insecurity without denial, in faith and patience.

It would be a complex exercise, and probably a futile one, to adjudicate between the two visions. Each answers different human and spiritual needs, and no Church seeking to appeal widely can afford to do without either of them. But Delp's experience suggests that Rahner's vision is more realistic, and ethically and spiritually more responsible. It offers us a Christianity that works with our fragmentariness. By contrast, von Balthasar's alternative, encouraging us as it does to seek the unsurpassably beautiful, can all too easily legitimate evasion and repression.



Anonymous Peter said...

Philip Endean has never forgiven von Balthasar for the latter's book "Cordula" where his theological hero, Rahner, was subjected to a scathing critique by von Balthasar. It is clear that Endean descends to near ad hominem attacks against von Balthasar because he suspects that the latter was motivated by less worthy sentiments against Rahner. Endean does not advert to the more positive appraisals of Rahner's theology by von Balthasar, reinforcing a one-sided view of the Rahner-von Balthasar relationship. But then, usually, the disciples are the less-balanced ones in assessing their theological heroes and their theological adversaries. Enough said.

5:49 PM  
Blogger crystal said...


I think there's more to Fr. Endean's article than pique :)

9:54 PM  

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