Friday, February 27, 2009

Hans for Housewives I: The Cosmological Reduction

Here I go on another set of synopses. This is a Lenten discipline, and it very well may take the entire six weeks of Lent. I'm reading Hans Urs von Balthasar's Love Alone is Credible (trans. D.C. Schindler) and want to put it into accessible language. It's a great place to start with Balthasar; the book is short and sums up nicely the project of his entire life. The main difficulty is that the first two chapters are, well, pretty inaccessible to me. But I'm game for a good shot.

Chapter One: The Cosmological Reduction

The purpose of this little book is to understand more deeply what love means, what divine love is, and how we can become lovers of the Divine. It's sources of inspiration are Therese of Lisieux, John of the Cross, and Frances de Sales; Balthasar, however, also calls upon the philosophical traditions of Augustine and Pascal.

He begins with two chapters on partially true systems. These two systems of thought--the cosmological reduction and the anthropological reduction--are the Scylla and Charibdis of Christian thought. He will argue that Christianity "disappears" the moment we fall into one or the other of these traditions.

The cosmological reduction comes from the tradition begun by the Church fathers, including Justin, Origen, Augustine, and Eusebius. Their explanation of divine love was basically "external" or "extrinsic." Christianity is "the fulfillment of the fragmented meaning of the world." Human beings have ever tried to express religiously their desire for divine love, or for God. In all the world religions and philosophies, we see human longing for the transcendent, absolute Godhead. Only in Christ, the Word of God (Logos), are these longings fulfilled.

Therefore, all truths--however partial--and beautiful things are, ultimately, Christian. Justin wrote: "Everything that is good and beautiful belongs to us." Socrates is a disciple of Christ. Buddha was inspired by the Christian God. The beautiful art of China and Japan is beautiful because God--or Christ--is beautiful.

This conviction, however true, led during the Renaissance to Christian humanism. Scholars such as Erasmus wanted to shed their minds of all the "extras"--liturgical pomp, ultra-scholastic theology, devotionals--to get back to the pure Christ, the "pure Logos" pursued by pagan and Christian philosophers alike. Thomas More wrote about the "natural religion" of Utopia, which was in fact quite like Christianity. As soon as the pagan Utopians learn about Christ, they fit him easily into their perfect human religion. He was the one they were seeking all the time, by reason alone.

Again, there are a lot of truths to be had here. Unfortunately for Christianity, in the history of ideas, these ideas led quickly to the complete dismissal of revelation. If human beings can get at the truth of God, the pure Logos, by reason alone, what need is there for an historical Christ? "Revelation, in this sense, becomes a mere outward shell covering the inner religious dimension of mankind." Revelation is just something that got us to Christ more quickly than if we'd had to do it all ourselves.

The "cosmological reduction" means that all religions--with Christianity being the best among them--boil down to one, great cosmic mystery. That mystery reveals itself through our rituals and traditions that evolve progressively through history. We can only justify the fact that we are Christians by pointing to Christ as some sort of evolutionary necessity--the forced expression of the divine God. And love has been reduced to evolution and progress.

Is Balthasar rejecting the fathers? Absolutely not. But he is pointing out the dangers inherent in this way of thinking and arguing about the Christian faith. Do we really want to end up saying Christianity is just one--albeit the best--expression of God's love? Is the love of Christ really something we could have eventually arrived at on our own?

That's Scylla. Stay tuned for Charybdis.


Anne said...

This is fabulous--a very helpful distillation [ ;-) ] of von Balthasar's argument. I'm looking forward to the next installment!

Melanie B said...

Very interesting. Thank you for this. I am pretty positive I'd not be up to wading through this sort of book right now; but I think I will enjoy your distillations. I look forward to Charybdis.

Anonymous said...

I tried to read this a few years ago and just couldn't get through the beginning (although I have read other works of his and enjoyed them very much.) You have encouraged me to take it up again, so thanks. Looking forward to your future postings.

Maica Kozak said...

Thanks Erika! Looking forward to the Lenten posts.

the pauper philosopher said...

i have tried with great difficulty to understand balthasar's views of the cosmological reduction. Despite his brilliance he is not the greatest communicator thank you for making his ideas accessible