Friday, March 27, 2009

Hans is found! (Part IV)

The book has resurfaced at last, and so I am back on board with the scintillating tale of Love Alone is Credible. Part I is here. And Parts II and III are also available, but not in hardback.

After introducing the glory of divine love, von Balthasar breaks into an account of the human experience of that love: "The Failures of Love."

When a man encounters the love of God in Christ, for the first time he realizes what genuine love is and also that he himself does not possess true love. His own failure to love has two parts: it is finite and it is frigid. (What a glorious adjective!) This failure is a call to conversion of heart, "which must in the face of this love confess that it has failed to love until now," and a conversion of the mind, "which must relearn what love after all really is."

The first failure of human love is its finitude. All of our little loves and desires are limited by time and nature. While some loves (erotic desire) can be gateways to a lifelong fidelity (marriage), not one of our human relationships accomplishes the journey our hearts desire. Spouses die or are unfaithful; the beloved's "faults and limitations become unbearable." Children find their parents' love to be smothering. Love, as it changes, becomes frigid, and dies.

We suffer from these contradictions in love: Our hearts know that "the here and now ought to be eternal--and at the same time ought not to be (lest it become an unberable hell). Thus, the heart remains a mystery to itself." We are aware of our heart's paralysis--it is torn between the desire to last forever and its inability to last forever. Nothing in the natural world gives us a solution. Human philosophies recommend resignation, or simply shrug off the impossibility of love, or compartmentalize our various loves into little boxes that cannot inform our lives as wholes.

The Christian answer, therefore, cannot primarily be a new "teaching" or knowledge. Gnositicism is guilty of making Christ into some secret knowledge that saves us. Rather, "the revelation of love must in the first place be an action that God undertakes ... The key to understanding the action lies solely in God's presentation of himself to human beings on the stage of human nature ... Indeed, the fact that God's love transforms [sinful man], converting him or hardening his heart, expresses not the essence of that love, but its effect." In the light of human standards, God's love will appear "foolish," but only because God does not tailor Himself to meet our expectations.

Thus, von Balthasar insists, a true experience of divine glory is received only in "the abiding shock." God's action breaks in upon our lives in the concrete struggles of daily life; it is the action of a Wholly Other. We cannot conceive a sufficient "reason" for this love. It is so perfectly piercing and beautiful, we cannot imagine why God would ever come to us in this way. Divine love is a scandal--a stumbling block: "The scandal is here [for man to] draw his eye to the uniqueness of the love that manifests itself and, in its light, to reveal his own inchoate, creaturely love quite concretely for the nonlove that it is."

Bully for Benedict!

Here's some perspective on the recent rash of criticisms leveled at the Church for refusing to promote condom use in Africa. As per usual, watch for the lack of hard, factual evidence. It's a sign of ideology untethered from reality.

Twitch of the mantilla to the First Things blog.

UPDATE: Here's another response from Inside Catholic.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

March 25, Annunciation

Fiat. Serviat. Magnificat.

This Annunciation is by John Collier--an interesting take.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Fading back to life.

Another week of another bout with flu--this time Philosopher Mom was in bed for three days while Scientist Dad valiantly sacrificed Very Important Experiments with rodents for Very Imporatant Experiments with small children. What a man.

In the process, I violated every last one of my Lenten resolutions. It would be easy to say I was a victim of the circumstances. After all, when you've been in bed for hours and can't sleep, surely you're excused from sacrifice?

But my realization was... I'm not exempt. There is no moment of my life--even when delirious with flu--that I do not need to "return to God with my whole heart." And I noticed that, sadly, there is not a moment in my life when I'm not thinking things could be better or more conducive to holiness. Surely, if I wasn't sick right now, I would be less grumpy. Surely, if I had a few hours to myself, I'd be more patient later on. Surely, if this kid would stop chattering, I'd be able to be a better mother.

But everything, every moment is from God's hand. He's not sitting up in the sky wishing I had it "better" or "easier." He's inviting me now to let his will reign.

Welcome back to Lent, little mom.

Monday, March 16, 2009

No duh.

Well, simple logic and moral imagination would tell you this would come up.

If it's okay to harvest embryos for research... why not fetuses? As one "doctor" put it, "If they're going to be terminated anyway, it's a shame to waste their organs."

My one consolation in the darker moments is the fact that our civilization will eventually collapse. (Or, rather, my one consolation is the cross of Christ!)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Where is Hans?

That is a great question. I have no idea.

Somewhere between the influenza and the blissfully warm sunshine days, my copy of Love Alone is Credible was either assumed into heaven or lost in the shuffle. Darnnit. And I was just getting to the exciting part!

So, while my plan was to comment on "Love's Failures" today, that is not at the moment the divine will for me. Instead, here is a little article from Ignatius Press about the book; it also includes a brief biography of darling Hans. This passage sums his project up nicely:

"Balthasar argues that the encounter with beauty in the world is analogous to the encounter with the Triune God. What happens in the "aesthetic encounter"? He sees that beauty is an indissolvable union of two things: species and lumen. Beauty consists of a specific, tangible form (species) accessible to human senses with a splendor emanating from the form (lumen). Beauty has a particular form, is concretely situated in the coordinates of time and space, and thus has proportion so that it can be perceived. The splendor is the attractive charm of the Beautiful, the gravitational pull, the tractor beam pulling the beholder into it. When confronted with the Beautiful, one encounters "the real presence of the depths, of the whole reality, and . . . a real pointing beyond itself to those depths."

If people's eyes glaze over when you walk them through a logical argument for truth, then perhaps the appeal to beauty will be an effective apologetic.

And for more on the Community of St. John (the secular branch of which was founded by von Balthasar), go here.

Speaking of the divine will, Fr. Ciszek's He Leadeth Me is devastatingly challenging. I read it five years ago, but was more interested in the storyline than in the spiritual lessons. Well, this time around I'm simply astonished.

"Zeal for thy house will consume me."

The ruins of St. Andrew's Cathedral, Scotland. Second Sunday in Lent.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Playing with fire.

Jen over at Conversion Diary has a wonderful interview with Fr. James Dominic, OP, about his conversion and call to the priesthood. It is a perfect illustration of how studying philosophy can go both ways: it can be your damnation or your salvation. In his case, it has been both. Fortunately, the latter won out.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Miriam the Cultural Commentator.

Our Lenten resolutions having been flushed (almost literally) down the toilet by the flu, Miriam and I spent the morning watching PBS Kids. Let's just say, Sesame Street ain't what it used to be.

Hitherto, Miriam's exposure to Sesame Street has been limited to the 1969 First Season DVD. She loves it. The cover has a strange little blurb warning that "this release is intended for adult audiences and may not be appropriate for today's preschool children." I have no idea what that means. Correction: I HAD no idea what that meant. Now I do.

Today's episode featured a frantic Telly leaping into his best friend, "Baby Bearw's," birthday cake. The camera shots were quick, the colors were blazing, the dialogue was infantile, the words were so muddled together and spoken in such obnoxious tones that I could hardly follow the "plot."

Miriam watched with growing confusion and distaste.


"Hm. Yes?"

"Why are they talking so fast?"


"Mummy, why are they all yelling?"

Needless to say, we stopped right there is put in good ol' Episode 263 from Season Two. It was quiet. It was educational. She understood. Clearly, she belongs in 1969. Or something. I suppose shows appropriate "for today's preschoolers" need to careen toward no point at all at breakneck pace just to hold said preschoolers' attention. Ah, the breakdown of Western civilization.

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.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Lenten Success.

1. This is really Isabella's success, but still a milestone for Mom and Dad: She popped her two front top teeth this weekend! These are the toughest ones, historically speaking, and Isabella slept no more than 3 hours the night they came through.

2. Cleaned out our bedroom closet and took three garbage bags of (pre-pregnancy) clothes to the thrift store.

3. At said thrift store, found and purchased for $2 a girls' size 10 Easter dress. It is huge on Miriam, flowing all over her toes. Best toy of the year!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Hans Interrupted.

Due to, among other things, a stomach flu, philosophical inquiry is at a minimum today. Miriam had a bright alternative.

Miriam: "Mummy, let's prway the Rosarwy."

Me: (rolling over on couch, trying not to be sick) "Ok."

Miriam: "The firwst Sorrwowful Mysterwy: The hitting with the thorns. The fruit of this mystery is liberty."

Interesting take on that one... But it sure cured the nausea for a moment.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Hans II: The Anthropological Reduction

This is part II of our Lenten Hans for Housewives.

Part I is here.

Chapter 2: The Anthropological Reduction

If the first danger to the Christian understanding of divine love was the tendency to reduce everything to human reason and logic, the second danger reduces everything to human experience (hence, "anthropological"). Our ability to know truth is man himself, "who recapitulates the entire world in himself."

Thinkers who got their anthropology right were, of course, ancient Greeks, the Church fathers, and Pascal (oh, rapture!). "According to Pascal, man is a monstrous chimera that thwarts all attempts at rational interpretation; he is a creature that can harmonize his irreconcilable proportions, his dialectical intertwining of grandeur et misere, only by looking at his reflection in [Christ]." (Side note: Hans Urs reads like poetry or liturgy--you have to go slow to soak in his language.)

During the Enlightenment, this way of approaching Christ's love, however, turns immediately into a secular Christianity. The church (lower-case "c") is just a group of people trying to be "good people." They practice a sort of "natural religion" that honors God but primarily cultivates "the best in man, a religion in which priests have no authority" whatsoever. Christ is simply a good guy who preached a new wisdom--the greatest human teacher, but just a teacher. The idea of an atoning sacrifice has no place in this reduction.

Kant--dear old Kant--marks the apex of this reduction (although I think the Unitarian communities keep it alive quite nicely). The unfathomable depths of human nature produce of their own power a "pure religious faith." That faith deposes reason, which has nothing to do with religion. This is because reason deals with objective truth; religion, in Kant's structure, is all about the subjective. The divine is just subjectivity, consciousness, and inner feeling.

The anthropological reduction is the central error of modernism: "Every objective dogmatic proposition must be measured in terms of its suitability to the religious subject, in terms of its positive effects on and capacity to complete and fulfill that subject." This process does involve some measure of "conversion," but here conversion only means an increasing feeling of fulfillment. If I am not feeling fulfilled by the teaching of Christianity, then that teaching has no hold on me. I am the measure of all things.

The main concern for Hans, however, is not so much the destruction of all teaching as it is this new making of God in man's image. We now justify the ways of God as revealed in Christ by pointing to our own needs. God came, not because He loved us first, but because we needed Him. The underlying assumption, He came because we called. When we stop calling, He stops coming.

The truth of this anthropology, of course, is that we do need to relive subjectively the objective redemption of Christ: "If Christ were born a thousand times in Bethlehem, but not in you, you would remain lost forever ... The Cross on Golgotha cannot redeem you from evil if it is not raised up also in you" (Angelus Silesius). But the tradition never justifies Christ's love in terms of "the pious human subject." "It never measured the abyss of grace by the abyss of need or sin, it never judged the content of dogma according to its beneficial effects on human beings."

That is the basic problem, although Hans Urs goes on for a bit longer, teasing out the meaning of this reduction in more recent thinkers, such as Marx and Kierkegaard. Then he looks forward: "If we cannot verify or justify God's Sign of himself in terms of the world or in terms of man, then what else do we have?"

God, he ends, is going to interpret himself for us. There is no human text or system that will make him more legible or more intelligible. God's way of doing this, we can be sure, "will not consist in anything that man could have figured about the world, about himself, and about God, on his own..."

Stay tuned for Hans's (or, rather, God's) "Third Way."