The second in a series from a chapter in Fr. Nichol’s introduction to the Hans Ur von Balthazar’s Aesthetics, The Word Has Been Abroad.
Yesterday’s post left off with the important corollary to Balthazar’s claim that revelation is necessarily revelation in hiddenness for the simple reason that it is a revelation in being. All knowledge, and not just the knowledge of salvation, begins with a kind of ‘natural faith’.
For the early apologist, Theophilus of Antioch, all human conduct depends on a certain trusting faith both in nature and in Providence. Similarly, against Eunomius, the Cappadocian Fathers argued that even the tiniest creature can be grasped only through its utterances, so hidden is even creaturely ousia. The conclusion is, in Balthasar’s words, that ‘a “supernatural” piety, ordered to God’s historical revelation, cannot be such unless it is mediated by a “natural” piety, which at this level presupposes and includes a “piety of nature” and a “piety of Being,” [Glory of the Lord I, p. 447] The critical history of metaphysics in volumes 4 and 5 of the theological aesthetics will bring this out.
But we still have to consider the second and third reasons why revelation is necessarily as much concealment as it is disclosure. The second is that revelation takes place in the Word, the free divine Word, which as such cannot be captured within the net of the created order. As Balthasar puts it: ‘Creaturely beings, thrown into existence, reveal themselves in obedience to a natural necessity; but God creates freely.’ [Glory of the Lord I, p 448] From which he draws the conclusion that while the contingency, the non-necessity, of the world has the positive effect of revealing God as the world’s free Creator, for nothing comes from nothing, by that self-same fact the world’s contingency conceals God more dramatically than it reveals him, since at no point can we make any firm deduction about the final meaning of his unique Essence.
What, then, one might object, becomes of the claim with which Balthasar opened the entire second part of Herrlichkeit I, with the help of Hebrews, that the form of creation is at all times radiant with God’s glory? His reply, along the lines of his earlier attempt to render the teaching of the First Vatican Council on the divine knowability more palatable to Karl Barth, is that
We will never be able to determine exactly the extent to which this splendor, given with creation itself, coincides objectively with what Christian theology calls ‘supernatural revelation’, which, at least for Adam, was not yet a specifically distinct revelation given in the form of words. A distinction is possible only from the standpoint of intention and in this sense the first word was directed to man as a creature that had come forth from God, and the second word addresses him personally as a child of God’s grace and calls him home to the heart of God.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 449]
Because, then, no creaturely form as such transcribes in straightforward fashion the meaning of God’s sovereignly free Word, a revelation which takes place in that Word must always be to some degree riddling. The revelatory Form will not so much leap to the eye as require strenuous discernment. And because the Word in which it comes to be as form is sovereignly free, the human percipient will not be able to follow the archetype in the image without the willingness to practice obedience. The concept of obedience, drawn from Paul and Ignatius Loyola, [See 'Introduction to Balthasar', above, for the Ignatian dimension.] is crucial to Balthazar’s theology in various of its sectors – not least here where, as he writes:
before [infinite Freedom] created reason must persevere in an attitude of primary obedience that is beyond all demands, longings, enterprises. This is the manner in which God’s Word really touches the creature at the most intimate point of its self-transcending being.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 456]
- what Paul calls the ‘obedience of faith’ (Romans 1:5).
The third and last reason why the revelatory form will necessarily be a form that hides as well as discloses is that it is a revelation in the human. If man is to become the language of God then the unique will have to appear in the ordinary, the super-significant in the insignificant. By and large, supernatural revelation, the revelation of grace in Old and New Testaments, is not so much the establishment of a new form in the world as it is a new manner of God’s presence in the form of the world.
In the Adamic state, Balthasar speculates, God’s speaking of this message – that man is now called to be the child of the Father – would have come purely through a locutio interna: God’s presence through grace would have resounded unmistakably in the voices of nature and of the heart. It is owing to the deafness of fallen humanity that the locutio Dei becomes a locutio externa, a word spoken from outside, for the Old Covenant in law and prophecy, for the New in the incarnate Word and its prolongation as the Word found in the Church.
There is then a penitential aspect to a revelation made through audible and visible human signs. That is so even though those signs are the outward expression of the interior inspiration of prophets and apostles and notwithstanding too the fact that by means of them God can lead human history, despite its self-inflicted chaos, to an even more wonderful fulfillment than that offered to Adam – by way of the glory that emanates from the sign of the cross.
God’s revelation takes place in man by in the first instance judging man. But that for Balthasar has not only a negative charge; it has a positive one as well. In judgment, God both manifests his sublime transcendence over against all that is worldly and at the same time makes known his immanence within the human which he sets out to fulfill by redirecting humanity to himself.
In conformity with the usual Balthasarian principle that, in divine matters, comparability and incomparability with the world develop in direct proportion to each other: the more God makes known his justice in the saints of Israel (the more, that is, he reveals himself), the more colossally unlike them he shows himself to be (and so the more he hides his face). As Balthasar puts it:
The whole ascending period of God’s revelation in Israel is also the time of an ever greater concealment of God, in spite of the ever greater evidence pointing to a revelation which is truly unique and different from all other religions.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 452]
And, illustrating this claim from the post-exilic period:
The return which appears to fulfill the promises is everything but fulfillment, and, while interiorly the Holy Spirit is bringing the canon of the Scriptures to maturity, externally the kingdom is disintegrating even before Christ’s coming, so that Yahweh’s faithful ones can understand themselves only as the ‘remnant’ which survives what spiritually has already fallen into decay.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 455]
The conclusion is that
while he is quite comprehensible in his revelation and even demands the understanding of faith, the God of Israel proves himself in history to be ever more incomprehensible and, as such, he exhibits himself ever more truly as who he is. And only the most living kind of faith, sustained by revelation, is capable of knowing him in precisely this form of revelation as the true and living God
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 456]
This is the pattern which is brought to perfection by the simultaneously consummate revelation-and-concealment of God in the man Jesus. Even without referring as yet to the passion of Christ, the incarnation of the Word – his embodiment as flesh – means the most extreme manifestness of God, for now God is explained to man not chiefly through words or instruction, but through his own being and life. In other words, he interprets himself to man by no other medium than himself.
And yet at the same time, the entry of the Godhead into its human creation is the most complete concealing imaginable. In language drawn, surely, from Kierkegaard’s treatise on The Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle, Balthasar speaks of the Flesh-taking as the ‘translation of God’s absolutely unique, absolute and infinite Being into the ever more dissimilar, almost arbitrary and hopelessly relativized reality of one individual man in the crowd’. [Glory of the Lord I, p. 457] The hiddenness of this individual lost in history would not be so scandalous as an expression of the Word if it were meant to represent the silence of the Word, God’s sheer concealment from all that is not God. But no, this hiddenness is to be the speech in which God eloquently makes known in a definitive manner what he himself is really like.
For Balthasar none of this is intelligible unless we approach the figure of Christ in a way determined by one ecclesial doctrine – that of the Trinity – and one philosophical doctrine – that of God as, in the fifteenth-century cardinal theologian Nicholas of Cusa’s phrase, the Non-Aliud, the ‘Not Other’, which is the positive aspect of his Being as the ‘wholly Other’, the non-competitiveness implied in his unconditional transcendence.
Readers of the Gospels will soon discover that Jesus was in simultaneous fashion extraordinarily humble and amazingly self-certain, that he was incredibly unassuming yet overwhelmingly exigent in his demands, lamblike in meekness yet leonine in angry zeal. For Balthasar these tensions may reveal polar aspects of Christ’s humanity, but they can be understood, and above all, resolved, only when considered as functions of the Trinitarian dimensions of his being. ‘Although only the Son of God is man, his humanity necessarily becomes the expression of the total triune essence of God; only thus can he be the manifestness of absolute Being.” [Glory of the Lord I, p. 458]
But because the Holy Trinity, as the concrete form of absolute Being, is not in competition with any of the forms internal to its own creation, God in Christ can reveal himself as both God and man — not alternatingly but simultaneously.
These complications of the dialectic of revelation and concealment in the sensory form of the incarnation are intensified, yet also cut through and simplified, by the passion and death of the incarnate one. For now we have to discover in the deformity of Christ, his Ungestalt — the ‘he had no comeliness that we might desire him’ of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:2) — a mystery of Uebergestalt, of transcendental form. His being made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) is, in a key statement of Baltharian theology, ‘understandable only as a function of the glory of love’. Thus precisely in the cross and the descent into darkness we have before us pure glory; the concealment now becomes a function of its opposite, the revelation.
Just as an art redolent of the precarious and fragmentary character of earthly beauty can move us to tears because it awakens in us a kind of eschatological hope, a hope aroused by the promise of splendor it seems to contain, so the form of the Redeemer takes the ways of being of a fallen world onto itself so as by redemptive suffering to give them new and unheard of value. Here, despite all that has been said so far about the hiddenness which hangs about the revelatory form, the dialectic of revelation and concealment is basically resolved in favor of revelation, for the hiddenness is now not the non-appearing depth of the being revealed, but the overwhelmingness of its totally open disclosure.
God’s incomprehensibility is now no longer a mere deficiency in knowledge but the positive manner in which God determines the knowledge of faith: this is the overpowering and overwhelming inconceivability of the fact that God has loved us so much that he surrendered his only Son for us, the fact that the God of plenitude has poured himself out, not only into creation, but emptied himself into the modalities of an existence determined by sin, corrupted by death and alienated from God. This [alone] is the concealment that appears in his self-revelation.
[Glory of the Lord I, p. 461]