von Balthasar's Engagement with God

Hans Urs von Balthasar opens his Engagement with God with the observation that, "The world of today, when faced with the Christian Church, is filled with a sense of profound mistrust" (pp. 1). He goes on to claim that the probable reason for this is that people are more likely to "put their faith in the kind of activity that effectively changes the world, whatever the ideological background to this may be," and the church is no longer on the cutting edge of such innovation. So then, considering the wealth of options for political movements across a wide spectrum, if the church understands such action in the world, such 'good works,' as only being possible as works of the church, then "she would be likely to speak of a hidden presence of 'grace', to be discerned wherever men acted in this way, and to describe a man engaged in such activities as an 'anonymous Christian'." (At this point, the sudden and apparently underhanded reference to Karl Rahner made me laugh out loud.)

While von Balthasar appreciates the universal thrust of this line of thinking - for, after all, Christ's salvific ambition has greatly exceeded the boundaries of the visible church - he also wishes to proceed with caution. The gift of this interpretation is that it reminds us that "the Church at heart stands open to the world. But it creates the impression, particularly for those outside the Church, that the visible Church is nothing more than an institution, burdened with a quantity of rules, laws, and precepts as to what is to be believed and how life is to be conducted, whereas the very essence of the life of this institution can equally well be found outside its walls, scattered all over the world" (pp. 2). In other words, once the theory of "anonymous Christians" is widely accepted it becomes apparent that the political fruits of her purported purpose are pursued plentifully outside her walls, leading to the reduction of the church's role to the purely formal, and therefore robbing her of her credibility.

The thrust of his argument, however, is not to leave behind Rahner's concern for the universal, opting instead for the inwardness of the church so as to preserve credibility. Rather, he's going to pursue the "anonymous light" of Christianity exactly in its universal particularity. For von Balthasar, it seems as though this light is none other than the resurrected Christ, one who cannot be re-crucified - but whose disciples can. Thus the theme of Engagement with God "is to ask ourselves the question, what is this power or this brilliant light, from where does it derive, and what is the connection between the source of power that nourishes the Christian and his involvement with mankind?" (pp. 5).

For von Balthasar this quest will involve the fact that freedom, that ever present goal of modern humanity's thought and politics, is to be truly found not in any of its modern manifestations, but in the true Christian. What the modern world seeks so interminably - even restlessly - the church already has in Christ. It is the church and not Marxism, free enterprise, or Enlightenment reason; Christianity and not Freud's or Nietzsche's or deconstructionism's attempts to liberate us that "provides the one glimmer of the light of freedom in a world of murder and senselessness" (pp. 7).

The world's mistrust, as we said at the outset, is a problem, but not one whose answers can be found in the world itself (a move that dooms us to a further loss of credibility). The answers are already with us, in the legitimate freedom found in the person of the resurrected Christ.

I find von Balthasar's notion of 'credibility' intriguing. (I'm wondering if I should have picked up his Love Alone is Credible before this one.) It reminds me of Hauerwas' use of 'intelligibility', though it seems to go a step further. Hauerwas' concern in that one particular word 'intelligible' I think is more basic - he wants to make sure that we are saying something coherent, that the things the church says and does have at least the possibility of being understood by the world, and for that matter, by the church itself. 'Credibility' seems just a touch stronger, requiring intelligibility but then demanding that that which is intelligible be also believable. Hauerwas has a similar concern as well, and I think this is always what he wants to get at eventually when he uses 'intelligible'. He wants Christian witness to be understandable by both the Church and the world so that all might believe. I wonder to what degree von Balthasar's development of 'credibility' will end up differing with Hauerwas here. The emphasis on freedom is so far an attractive addition,

Stay tuned as I try to figure out not only 'credibility', but also how von Balthasar will deal with the universality of extra-church political action qua good works, connecting that to the particularity of the truly free life of discipleship to the resurrected Christ.