Friday, March 6, 2009
Hans III: The Third Way
So, after both the cosmological reduction and the anthropological reduction, we find that neither one can provide us with a genuine account of Christianity. Religious philosophy leaves us high and dry. Our own "experience" of existence just leaves us with ourselves for company (company which, however great, is rather overrated). Is there any way, then, Hans asks, that we can "perceive the genuine evidence of the light that breaks forth from revelation without reducing that light to the measure and laws of human perception?"
This is, of course, a dreadfully important question. As I read this book, I find myself thinking over and over, "Hey, I know someone who thinks that!" or "I think I've explained the faith that way too often!" The reason it's so important is that, if we're reducing Christ to our own ideas of goodness and right and beauty and to our own needs, we're not really getting at who He is. We are, in fact, hiding Him or hiding from Him. And I don't want to do that.
Hans presents two alternative approaches to his third way.
Eros. First, we can begin to think in terms of personalism: One person cannot presume to master intellectually another person's gift of love. I can't break down my husband's love empirically or even explain it in terms of his "humanity"--the minute I do, I lose him.
Beauty. The second approach to love is through beauty. "In the experiences of extraordinary beauty--whether in nature or in art--we are able to grasp a phenomenon in its distinctiveness that otherwise remains veiled. We encounter something we could not have invented, but which is nevertheless deeply compelling. It satisfies us in a way we could not have satisfied ourselves.
These two approaches are, of course, just "signs." Von Balthasar emphasizes that, unlike a piece of art, God's love is not something "produced," nor does it exist in order to "fill my need." But both eros and beauty come together and are transcended by God's revelation of his love.
Divine love replaces human love as "agape"; divine beauty is "glory." Von Balthasar insists that both terms are needed for us to perceive that majesty of divine love: because it is beauty, it possesses an authority. When this authority shows itself, it demands our obedience; we long to be obedient when we see it, because it is at once so glorious and so intimate.
He has a beautiful little meditation on authority in the middle of the chapter--addressing the authority of the ecclesial office (bishops), the Bible, and the "living proclamation of the Word." All three, he says, are "merely word." They do not take on flesh until God himself takes on flesh: "The sole authority is the Son, who interprets the Father in the Holy Spirit as divine Love." The authorities we obey here on earth have authority in obedience to Christ's mission. They--the Church--"prepare man to perceive the manifestation of God's love and to give it its due." This is a lovely way to think about Church authority and all the "rules" that some people find so puzzling; they exist to prepare us to see God face-to-face and to give his love the reverence it is due.
The rest of the book will examine aspects of this "Third Way" of love. Von Balthasar prepares us by warning: We must interpret Christian revelation "either wholly in terms of the self-glorification of absolute love or else we simply fail to understand it." Receiving the beauty of love--the glorious majesty of God--requires the eyes of faith, eyes that neither presume too much nor shrug with false simplicity.