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Discerning What Is Christian | The Foreword to Hans Urs von Balthasar's Engagement with God | Margaret M. Turek

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Six years after the promulgation of the conciliar constitution Gaudium et Spes (On the Church in the Modern World), Hans Urs von Balthasar published this programmatic little book under its original title In Gottes Einsatz leben. [1] Both texts aim to set forth an understanding of the role of the Church in the world. Both appreciate that a dynamic program of openness to the world is an exigence flowing from her missionary nature. Indeed, in the years leading up to the Council, von Balthasar had been urging the Church to dismantle the barriers protecting her from the world, precisely in order that the Church be free to fulfill her mission. In an earlier (and equally programmatic) work, Razing the Bastions, von Balthasar had called for "an ever deeper and more serious incarnation" of the Church in the world. [2] Since the Church exists to bring the salvation of Christ to all, he had argued, she must follow Christ's path of "descent" into the world and assume Christ's form of life. This entails acting and suffering for the sake of "the least" among us (Mt 25:40) and bearing responsibility in and with Christ for the destiny of all.

Yet while the Council Fathers in Gaudium et Spes enter into dialogue with the whole of humanity, recommending measures for the building up of society in the light of the Gospel, von Balthasar here sets forth "a discourse ad intra, within the Church". [3] This inward turn on his part does not signify a turning away from the world. Such a reversal he could only regard as a desertion of the Christian mission. Rather, von Balthasar speaks chiefly to the Christian for the purpose of priming him to be an effective and credible instrument of God's involvement in the world. This preparation requires above all a reflection on the indispensable elements of Christianity. "Every program of mission to the world", he insists, "must at all times contain what Guardini called 'the discernment of what is Christian'." [4]

As in most of his works, so also here von Balthasar directs our gaze to the figure of Christ crucified. In beholding him, the discerning eye seizes on "the whole essence" of the Christian faith: "that we should understand that the love that characterizes the life of the Trinity has been manifested in [Christ], and in him has been abundantly proved." [5]

Abundantly, indeed. For von Balthasar, the hallmark of the true God, that which renders the mission of Christ wholly credible as God's definitive engagement with the world, is love that radiates the quality of "excess", the "ever greater", the "yet more". Deus semper major. In the face of the recklessly self-forgetful character of God's crucified love, the only appropriate response is summed up in the Ignatian motto "ad majorem Dei gloriam", and in the Johannine exhortation, "so we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers" (1 Jn 3:16). The more the Christian grasps the lengths to which the triune God involves himself for us, the greater grows his own ambition to live no longer for himself.

This means, to be sure, that the form and measure of God's action in Christ provides the model for Christian action. Von Balthasar, however, is acutely aware that something more is involved. If Christian action is to be effective as a sign and instrument of God's saving love, it is not enough to attempt to imitate the God of Jesus Christ by standing in solidarity with the poor, the stranger, and the oppressed. Neither the life of the Trinity nor the life of Christ is to be regarded as a mere paradigm to guide programs of social and political involvement. The crucial factor is that Christian action participates in the absolute freedom of God's interpersonal love. Christ, through his Incarnation and the bestowal of his Spirit, imparts to us a participation in the infinite freedom of his divine Sonship, by virtue of which we are made capable of taking part in his trinitarian mission. Hence the significance and success of our openness to the world depends upon the Trinity's prior opening of its sphere of divine freedom to our participation. "Only if we start from this 'Alpha' will our involvement lead us to the 'Omega' ", [6] that is, to mankind's ever greater destiny of solidarity in God as "sons in the Son".

One of the outstanding merits of this little book emerges from these observations. Without taking up a polemical stance, it is equipped to perform a prophetic and critical function against a "secularization of salvation". All that it affirms about God's revelation in Christ as "an invitation into the realm of... divine freedom" [7] is pregnant with the insight that the transformation God intends to effect in us is nothing less than "divinization". By rousing the Christian consciousness to a renewed awareness that man's full and final liberation coincides with his "divinization", von Balthasar enables us "to judge clearly how basically unsatisfying it is for man ... to have as his ultimate goal the civilizing and humanizing of the world". [8]

Another of the book's virtues is that its "program of mission to the world" eliminates the false dichotomy between action and contemplation. According to von Balthasar, Christian action derives from and is sustained by contemplation, even as contemplation has its source in action: for "[w]hat we are looking at when we contemplate the love of God is 'Christ giving himself in love". [9] In contemplating this, God's active involvement, we are spurred to play our part in the action.

A further gain is that Engagement with God can serve as an introduction to the second part of von Balthasar's massive theological trilogy: Theo-drama: Theological Dramatic Theory. [10] In non-technical language he broadly sketches some themes that are central to and developed at length in Theo-drama. Here we can note only a few that highlight the form of Christ's mission to the world. Christ reveals the essence of true freedom in being obedient "even unto death" (Phil 2:8). Christ discloses the nature of true power in letting himself be rendered powerless as a function of boundless love. In Christ we encounter a love sufficiently free to hand itself over to the autonomy of the other, a love sufficiently powerful to endure to the end the forces hostile to love. Indeed with Christ it is a case—the unique case—of love human and divine, without confusion or separation, bearing God-forsakenness in atonement for sin, once and for all (1 Jn 2:2; 4:10). Christ unveils, finally, the fulfillment of human freedom in being raised bodily from the dead and returning home "to the open spaces of divine freedom" in the bosom of his Father. Thereby Christ proves that he is the very embodiment of God's mighty act of liberation". [11]

All this bears upon the credibility of the Christian's engagement. "For as Christ of his free love yielded himself willingly ... to death, and dereliction," [12] so the Christian is called to be at God's disposal in readiness to serve his brothers and sisters without counting the cost. The credibility of Christian action as an engagement with God for the sake of the world resides in its grace-engendered likeness to "the foolishness" of divine love (1 Cor 1:25). Only this form of life "can penetrate the 'secular world' as 'leaven'." [13] The costly discipleship that hazards everything is the mark of authentic Christian involvement.

Von Balthasar anticipates our protests. "It will be objected that such a program of action demands the character of a saint. This may well be; but from the very beginning, Chris- tian living has always been most credible, where at the very least it has shown a few faint signs of true holiness." [14]

Margaret M. Turek

St. Patrick's Seminary and University
Feast of St. Patrick
March 17, 2008


[1] In Gottes Einsatz leben (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1971). English translation: Engagement with God (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008). Henceforth EWG.

[2] Razing the Bastions (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993) p. 71. German original: Schlefung der Bastionen (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1952).

[3] My Work in Retrospect (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993) p. 103. Henceforth MWR.

[4] MWR, p. 52.

[5] EWG, p. 41. My italics.

[6] Ibid., p. 40.

[7] Ibid., p. 6.

[8] Ibid., p. 69.

[9] lbid., p. 47. My italics.

[10] Theo-drama: Theological Dramatic Theory in 5 volumes (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988-1998).

[11] EWG, p 27.

[12] Ibid., pp. 27-28.

[13] MRW, p. 57.

[14] EWG, p. 61.

Engagement with God | by Hans Urs von Balthasar

The brilliant theologian and philosopher Hans Urs von Balthasar writes about God's involvement with man and man's involvement with God in the Old and the New Testaments. He shows how that interaction of the divine with the human reveals the meaning of true freedom that man is always hungering for but often strives after in wrong and dangerous ways. He shows that God's free revelation of himself in Christ is an invitation to enter into the realm of absolute and divine freedom, in which alone human freedom can be fully realized.

From the true Christian there radiates the kind of freedom that is constantly being sought after by the non-Christian. In modern times, the freedom of man is a theme that preoccupies everyone. Atheistic philosophies are wholly taken up with this preoccupation. The Enlightenment was concerned with the freeing of reason from the "fetters of faith". Marx wrote about freeing man economically, and Freud wrote of freeing man from the bondage of a past as yet unmastered.

As opposed to those whose search for freedom urges them onward into a barren void, the Christian stands as the messenger of freedom accomplished and a freedom attainable by all. A true freedom of the sons and daughters of God.

"Just as Love Alone Is Credible captures the essence of the seven-volume The Glory of the Lord, so does Engagement with God explain his five-volume Theo-Drama. But here he does more: by setting his account of the drama of Christian discipleship against the anti-Christian ideologies of the 1960s he brings his theology to bear on the highest cost of discipleship--martyrdom--by seeing the martyr as the mirror of God's own involvement in the human race through his own martyred Son. One can hardly read a more sober, and yet exhilarating, account of what it means to live committed to God's own commitment to the world." -- Edward T. Oakes, S. J. Author, Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs Von Balthasar

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:

Author Page for Hans Urs von Balthasar | Ignatius Insight
Books by Hans Urs von Balthasar published by Ignatius Press | Ignatius Insight
Introduction to Adrienne von Speyr's The Book of All Saints | Hans Urs von Balthasar
A Résumé of My Thought | Hans Urs von Balthasar
Jesus Is Catholic | Hans Urs von Balthasar | An excerpt from In The Fullness of Faith
Love Must Be Perceived | Hans Urs von Balthasar | An excerpt from Love Alone Is Credible
Church Authority and the Petrine Element | Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Cross–For Us | Hans Urs von Balthasar
A Theology of Anxiety? | Hans Urs von Balthasar | The Introduction to The Christian and Anxiety
"Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary" | Hans Urs von Balthasar | An excerpt from Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed
Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Apologetics | Fr. John R. Cihak

Margaret M. Turek, S.T.D., is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Patrick's Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California. She is the author of Towards a Theology of God the Father: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Theodramatic Approach (2001).

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