Wednesday, March 20, 2013

How does God's revelation confront us?

In the first volume of his theological aesthetics, The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, Hans Urs Von Balthasar wrote something stunning about apologetics, one of those things that is as relevant today as it was when he penned it back in 1961.
The central question of so-called 'apologetics' or 'fundamental theology' is, thus, the question of perceiving form - an aesthetic problem. To have ignored this fact has stunted the growth of this branch of theology over the past hundred years. For fundamental theology, the heart of the matter should be the question: 'How does God's revelation confront man in history? How is it perceived?' But under the influence of a modern rationalistic concept of science, the question shifted ever more from its proper centre to the margin, to be re-stated in this manner: 'Here we encounter a man who claims to be God, and who, on the basis of this claim, demands that we should believe many truths he utters which cannot be verified by reason. What basis acceptable to reason can we give to his authoritative claims?' Anyone asking the question in this way has really already forfeited an answer, because he is at once enmeshed in an insoluble dilemma. On the one hand, he can believe on the basis of sufficient rational certainty; but then he is not believing on the basis of divine authority, and his faith is not Christian faith.


Mass scene from Rohmer's Ma nuit chez Maud

Or, on the other hand, he can achieve faith by renouncing all rational certainty and believing on the basis of mere probability; but then his faith is not really rational. This is the kind of apologetics that distinguishes between a content to be believed which remains opaque to reasons and the 'signs' that plead for the rightness of this content, signs which, alas, prove either too much or too little. How strange it is that such an apologetics does not see the form which God so conspicuously sets before us... [ellipsis in original] For Christ cannot be considered one 'sign' among other signs (at least not as understood in this kind of apologetics); the dimmest idea of what a form is should serve as warning against such leveling (173-174)
This commentary on the temptations of apologetics in our (late/post-)modern age goes a long way towards giving the theology articulated by Jean-Louis, the protagonist of the very best of Éric Rohmer's films that make up his Six Moral Tales, Ma nuit chez Maud. In the film, Jean-Louis, an engineer, resists the power of Pascal's wager, which Rohmer articulated through Jean-Louis' philosopher friend, Vidal, who is also a Marxist. Even as Jean-Louis agrees with Pascal, contra Vidal, about what is at stake, namely everything, aeternity (See Hope is not a mathematical calculation, but it entails a risk).

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