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  A Theology of Anxiety? | Hans Urs von Balthasar | The Introduction to The Christian and Anxiety

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One would not miss the mark if one were to describe Kierkegaard's lucid and equally profound study of the "concept of anxiety" [1] as the first and last attempt to come to terms theologically with his subject. Prior to this in the history of theology can be found treatments that, at bottom, are no more than what Aristotle and the Stoics were able to say about this passio animæ [movement of the soul]. Since Thomas Aquinas did not develop this topic any further, not even the personal angst of the German Reformer [that is, a salutary fear related to Luther's doctrine of "the bondage of the will"] was able to have a stimulating effect on systematic theology, which soon reverted to the schematic formulae of the Scholastic tradition.

It took the incipient cosmic anxiety of the modern, secular era, as it began to smolder beneath the materialism of the eighteenth century and with greater intensity in the postromanticism of the early nineteenth century (the first squalls presaging today's decline-and-fall psychosis) to convince the great philosophers to let anxiety have a place in the heart of ontology and religion. Schelling, Hegel, and Baader, all three cited by Kierkegaard, were the immediate influences that prompted the Dane to treat this theme as a theologian, even if only in an introductory manner (as he puts it, "psychologically" rather than "dogmatically"). He never could bring himself to write a dogmatic tract, and he deliberately posed his questions within a psychological framework–intending, of course, to let the inquiry lead eventually into inevitable dogmatic truth. As a result, anxiety remains for him a matter of the finite mind horrified by its own limitlessness, and God and Christ are rarely mentioned explicitly in this work, which was in fact meant to be an exclusively Christian book. All this, of necessity, helped to determine the book's later destiny: originally a response to philosophical and psychological challenges, it did not free itself sufficiently from them to avoid dissolving again into philosophy, on the one hand, and psychology, on the other, and so its ultimate fate was a twofold secularization. The half-century that intervened between Kierkegaard and Freud and the thirty years between Freud and Heidegger witnessed such a stormy crescendo in the cosmic and existential anxiety of modern man that this and this alone was left as the theme and object for any analysis of anxiety.

Though meant to be theological, Kierkegaard's penetrating, tormented analyses were the perfect starting point for psychoanalysis and existentialist philosophy as they portrayed the depths and self-encounters of the finite mind from the perspective of contemporary intellectual attitudes, however dissimilar in intention and method the psychoanalysts and the existentialists may have understood their achievements to be. Although from a theological perspective one may justifiably be critical of both trends, nevertheless facts cannot be denied, and one of the facts is that neither mode of thought was developed out of thin air; rather, both took concrete data about the modern world and the real situation of its subjective and objective spirit as a point of departure and model. Indeed, each in its own way, though perhaps with inadequate means, sought to overcome the anxiety crisis of the modern mind.

The absence of a serious theology of anxiety in the face of the rising flood tide, both of anxiety itself and also of philosophical and psychological efforts to interpret and overcome it, became all the more painful when both the phenomenon and the attempts at interpretation rolled over the threshold of the Church and vehemently announced their presence within Christianity itself It was not merely the ever more frequent charges made by outsiders that Christianity was a religion of anxiety or the efforts of Protestant psychoanalysts both pro and con [2] to determine the degree of truth in Nietzsche's assertion with respect to Christianity in general and the Christian denominations in particular. Even more important was the fact that highly qualified minds at the very heart of the Church were taking up the theme and were developing the description and analysis of anxiety. As has often happened in recent times, the poets led the way and rushed into the breach left by the theologians: Bloy, Bernanos, and Claudel in France and, in Germany, Gertrud von Le Fort and many others who were interested in Carmelite spirituality. By now if a theologian is to give this topic the treatment that is due to it (as the proverb says, "Better late than never"), he must not only continue along more dogmatic lines the work that Kierkegaard began but also bring to the current controversies inside and outside the Church, which have been driven by partisan animosity, some measure of clarity and calm.

A first step toward clarification might be to realize that an explicitly theological investigation requires that we turn to the sources of revelation and thereby turn away from the uncertainty of the present age and of human frailty. The correct view and explanation of reality, therefore, is based neither on the human mind nor on the soul, which with their anxiety have been the actual object of most recent research; the true standard and guarantee is, rather, the Word of God, which speaks about mind and soul and their anxiety. This is our guarantee that we can gain some distance from the feverish questioning of the modern soul; from its culture, which is supposedly decadent and doomed to destruction; and from its religious anxiety and religion of anxiety, in which, paradoxically enough, the attempts to cure the patient venture into the disease and collapse into one with it, as if it were an unalterable fact to be accepted as a matter of course.

The Word of God also guarantees us distance from the representatives of the opposite form of cowardice, who ignore the anxiety and bewilderment of the age and, deaf to its lamentation, blithely carry on a serene theology of irrelevance.

The Word of God guarantees an objective distance from those Christian prophets of doom, who apply their misplaced melancholy and radicalism to the task of announcing the immediate and total demise of everything that is of lasting importance in the Church today. They fuse Spengler with the Apocalypse and then imagine that the very fatalism of their vision is their divine authorization to proclaim it. Such prophets are cowards. The Word of God also guarantees us distance from the representatives of the opposite form of cowardice, who ignore the anxiety and bewilderment of the age and, deaf to its lamentation, blithely carry on a serene theology of irrelevance. Freeing ourselves both from that false decadence and from this false escapism, our only alternative is to listen to what the fullness of God's Word says about the very subject that is so harrowing for our age, not merely registering what we hear, but making the effort to understand and appropriate it with respect to the here and now.

Gaining a clear view of divine revelation and giving it a fair hearing will lessen the danger of mistaking a particular, specific form of anxiety, with its specific causes, for the entire phenomenon or even for the most profound element in it, which would restrict the subject from the start. The particular case is the anxiety of modern man in a mechanized world where colossal machinery inexorably swallows up the frail human body and mind only to refashion it into a cog in the machinery–machinery that thus becomes as meaningless as it is all-consuming–the anxiety of man in a civilization that has destroyed all humane sense of proportion and that can no longer keep its own demons at bay. This anxiety underlies almost all modern neuroses–and "modern neurosis" is almost a tautology, inasmuch as there were, strictly speaking, no neuroses in the earlier, humane world (and hence no need for their poisonous antidote, psychotherapy).

A theology of anxiety will view this greatly inflated modern anxiety as only one expression of the ever-present anxiety in men that revelation considers-since revelation deals with each man and each generation; it will apply to this anxiety the standards valid in heaven and thereby–incidentally yet quite fundamentally–it will also provide standards by which to measure modern anxiety. For it is no secret that the theologian has to explain God's revelation, not as something abstract and self-contained, but in such a way as to make it understandable to the men of his own time, whose understanding is conditioned by their particular needs and cares. The moment a theologian lines up the Scripture passages that deal with anxiety and tries to put them in order, he will discover that they urgently cry out for a rational ordering and then for an interpretation. Indeed, there are contrasting texts that nearly contradict one another, or texts that oppose historical events. For this reason, if one wishes to make sense of them and attribute to them the power to explicate human existence, they should be interpreted within a comprehensive perspective on the meaning of revelation, a framework that can never be unaffected by contemporary thought, that is to say, by that very mankind which is ever being considered and addressed in the present by God's Word. To this extent, supratemporal meaning and contemporary relevance meet and intersect in a theology of anxiety.

Such a theology will have to take as its point of departure the words of Holy Scripture that deal in detail with anxiety, its value and disvalue, its meaning and absurdity. To our knowledge, Christian tradition has never really treated these statements from Scripture thematically but has at best dealt with them indirectly (for example, the distinction between servile fear and filial. fear plays a part in the tracts on grace and the sacraments); therefore tradition in this case will have little to contribute. Even in our initial survey of the subject, the statements from Scripture should be arranged so as to indicate at least the outline of an interpretation.

This interpretation is to be developed explicitly in the second part of this book; the multivalence of the phenomenon of anxiety, apparent in the diversity of scriptural references, will be set forth, and necessary distinctions as well as the interrelationships and dynamics among the various levels will be made clear. The consequent rules for a Christian theology of anxiety and also for the conduct of Christian life are to be formulated as a tangible result.

The third part will proceed to penetrate even deeper and attempt to establish the essence of anxiety. This is where the encounter with the philosophical-theological efforts at interpretation by Kierkegaard and his successors must take place, and it will become evident whether the biblical approach can be more instructive and more profound than the great Danish thinker's "psychological" approach.


[1] Begrebet Angest, 1844.
[2] For example, Oskar Pfister, Das Christentum und die Angst (Zurich, 1942).

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) was a Swiss theologian, considered to one of the most important Catholic intellectuals and writers of the twentieth century. 2005 marks the centennial celebration of his birth.

Incredibly prolific and diverse, he wrote over one hundred books and hundreds of articles. Information about his life and work, more book excerpts, and a full listing of his books published by Ignatius Press can be found at his IgnatiusInsight.com Author's Page.

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