Two Signs

Hans Urs Von Balthasar is a thinker who has, more than any other, given me a language with which I can begin understand the artistic vocation and the larger, more general vocation of love.

Tonight I have begun revisiting his book Love Alone is Credible, in which he attempts to explain what makes Christianity distinct and credible. I won’t attempt to explain the book (since, in typical Von Balthasar style, it swings back and forth between the densest philosophical/theological sesquipedalianism  and the most beautiful, poetic glimpses of what can only be mystical insight).

But in the third chapter, Von Balthsar summarizes two human experiences that, while in and of themselves are not adequate to account for Christianity’s credibility, do present analogues, signs of the more primary credibility of God.

The first is the experience of interpersonal relationship. Setting up this concept in the second chapter, Von Balthasar writes:

Does the chasm between the empirical man and ideal humanity not yawn so wide for the simple reason that no individual can be humanity by himself? In order to gain an insight into humanity, the individual must encounter an other…The human being exists only in relation to others; he truly is only in the reciprocity of an I and Thou.

This personalism is not sufficient to explain or to understand God, but it does describe a condition wherein man has access to a sign of how God can be encountered and experienced as “credible”. He continues in Chapter Three:

No I possseses the possibility or the right to master intellectually the freedom of the Thou that comes out to meet him, to deduce and understand ahead of time the way the Thou will act. I can “understand” a love that has been given to me only as a miracle; I cannot understand it through empirical or transcendental analysis, not even in terms of knowledge about the human “nature” that includes us both—for the Thou will always remain an “other” to me.

At this point, Von Balthasar presents a second ‘sign’ by which we might begin to approach the mystery of God’s credibility. This is the sign of aesthetic experience:

In the experiences of extrodinary beauty—whether in nature or in art—we are able to grasp a phenomenon in its distinctiveness that otherwise remains veiled. What we encounter in such an experience is as overwhelming as a miracle, something we will never get over. And yet it possesses an intelligibility precisely as a miracle; it is something that binds and frees at the same time, since it gives itself unambiguously, as the “self-manifesting freedom” (Schiller) of inner, indemonstrable necessity. If Mozart’s Jupiter symphony has a finale—which is something that I cannot anticipate, derive, or explain on the basis of anything within myself—then it can be only the finale that it has; the symphony possesses its own necessity in this particular form, in which no note could be changed, unless it be by Mozart himself. Such a convergence of what I cannot have invented and yet at the same time what possesses compelling plausibility for me is something we find only in the realm of disinterested beauty.

Next, Von Balthasar again reminds the reader that both aesthetic experience and interpersonal experience can serve only as signs of God’s plausibility, but it is at this point we find a passage that contains, for my money, perhaps the best, condensed explanation of the problems folks (primarily Westerners?) tend to encounter when trying to make sense of the vocations of art and love:

[The aesthetic sign] is valid to the extent that, just as in mutual human love, where the other as other is encountered in a freedom that will never be brought under my control, so too in aesthetic perception it is impossible to reduce the appearing form [Gestalt] to my own power of imagination. In both cases, “to understand” what reveals itself does not mean to subsume it under master categories; neither love in the freedom of its grace nor the beautiful in its gratuitousness are things “to be produced” (Rilke), least of all on the basis of the “need” on the part of the subject. Such a reduction to a “need” would be the cynical destruction of love through selfishness; only in the acknowledgement of the pure grace of being loved can the lover also claimed to be fulfilled by that love. To dispel the charm of beauty by reducing its “appearance” into some “truth” lying behind or above it is to eliminate beauty altogether and to show that it was never really perceived in its distinctiveness.”

So in what way have these signs freed me?

I think Christians, particularly those of an Evangelical background, tend to see ‘salvation’ as the goal line, the telos of all interpersonal relationships. To show someone compassion, to “minister” to them, to serve them or “to engage in their culture”—all such activities are aimed at getting people to say a Sinner’s Prayer and thus to find salvation in Christ. All activities, practically if not doctrinally, seem oriented toward this: getting more people on the team.

But to see love as a miracle, as the encounter with the other as other, and to accept the presence of the other in pure giftedness—more simply put, to see a person as a gift, and therefore not something that can ultimately be relegated to my purposes, even if well-intended—this, I am convinced, provided me the freedom to love, even if do so imperfectly, in a way I could not have before. I could shed that creeping and growing anxiety that had become so much a part of my Evangelical life (“let’s get all these people on the lifeboat to Heaven!”), and I finally had a concept whereby and a context wherein the proclamation of the Gospel took on real, phenomenological import (as opposed to only ideological import).

And this freedom not to reduce people to “evangelical objects” is very similar to the artistic freedom I found in the concepts as summarized above. Christian artists tend to be haunted by the expectation that their art be but a delivery mechanism for a propositional truth—the Gospel most ideally, but bubble-gum, teeny-bopper “praise songs” or Ichthus Swag are also considered legitimate—and very often this is exactly what you get from modern attempts “Christian art.” But the first time I encountered the notion that beauty is irreducible to mere proposition—this was like being freed from prison (or so I would imagine)! To know that truth was not reducible to proclamations or even verbal language—that it took the form as well in something experiential, including the experience of the aesthetic—this suddenly gave me a justification for art that was well beyond anything my more narrow Evangelical designs could give it. And it was something much more resonant with what I could sense was the truth of the matter, even if I did not have the language.

But now I suspect, however, that my Evangelicalism couldn’t give me such a language, even if there were an opportunity for such a thing to occur, simply because the roots of these insights are, I suspect, largely incompatible with Evangelicalism’s theological landscape. There is an enduring iconoclastic residue in Evangelicalism, one deeply suspicious of anything like sign. And so I think my movement into Catholicism was something necessary to find the foothold I’ve found in this vocation. How that might be true is a matter best left for another day, but in the meantime, Von Balthasar calls from the table beside me, and I’ve already kept him waiting these past thirty minutes as I’ve struggled to sketch that always-fresh sense of deep gratitude and wonder I find whenever I flip open his books.


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