The Scandal of the Incarnation

ol_crucifixion

Icon of the Crucifixion (source)

Tertullian once said that “the flesh is the hinge, the decisive criterion, of salvation”. What did he mean by this? What he meant was that the full assumption and renewal of the “flesh” by God the Son in the incarnation is of utmost importance for mankind’s redemption. If God the Son did not assume a fully human nature, if he did not renew it completely, then mankind is not fully saved.

Irenaeus, echoing Tertullian, says this about the incarnation:

There was no other way for us to receive incorruptibility and immortality than to be united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be united to incorruptibility and immortality without incorruptibility and immortality first becoming what we are, the perishable putting on imperishability, the mortal putting on immortality (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54), ‘so that we might receive adoption as sons’ (Gal 4:5)? Advurses Haereses, III 19, 1

In other words, salvation is not possible unless God takes on human flesh. This is where the early church come up with the formula of the great exchange: God becomes what man is, so that man might become what God is. Irenaeus says it this way: “The Son of God became the Son of Man, so that through him we might receive adoption. This takes place when man receives and bears and embraces the Son of God” (Ibid, III 18, 7). God the Son takes what is ours — the fallen flesh — and bestows upon it a participation in his divine sonship. Irenaeus continues by saying:

The Word of God became man, assimilating Himself to man and man to Himself, so that, by His resemblance to the Son, man might become precious to the Father… When the Word of God was made flesh… He restored and made fast the likeness, making man like the invisible Father through the visible Word” (ibid, V 16, 2)

Crucial to the gospel is the flesh, the worldly. God has descended to earth not to get us out of the world, but to recreate and refashion the flesh according to the divine pattern of life. This is what the early fathers call theosis or divinization: it is to participate in God through the descension of God the Son into our fallen situation. The gospel is principally the glorification of the flesh through the humiliation of the Son. It is the ontological raising up of mortal humanity that lies in death, endowing man with God’s own eternal glory.

This of course sounds scandalous, and it is! The shock of the gospel is, as Balthasar says, that “God becomes nothing, so that nothings might become God” (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p 53). How can the ineffable God raise us up in this manner? Surely this is too good to be true! But it isn’t: God has united himself to man and has risen him up to such great heights in Christ.

One reason the doctrines of incarnation, theosis, divinization, are so scandalous, is because Gnosticism, though not explicit, is a common presumption within western Christianity. Gnosticism was the earliest of the church heresies. Gnosticism in its most elemental form was “the belief that the lower, material sphere, the ‘flesh’, the world of the ‘psychic’, was contemptible, something to be vanquished, while the higher, spiritual world was all that was excellent, the only thing worth cultivating” (ibid, 1). Therefore the goal of redemption was not for God to glorify the flesh, but for man to escape from the material world into the spiritual life of God.

There were numerous myths about how the material world came to be. In any case, the world was understood within Gnosticism to be a lower or fallen state of being. The fall within Gnostic myth was the imprisonment of the spiritual in the material. Even more, to think that God, the highest of all beings, would not only embrace the flesh, but become flesh, was unthinkable. Irenaeus explains:

[The gnostics] reject the commixture of the heavenly wine. They only want to be the water of this world and will not admit god into commixture with them. And so they remain in the Adam conquered and cast out of Paradise. They fail to see that, as at the beginning of our formation in Adam the breath of life which comes from God was united to what had been formed, animating man, and showed him to be a rational animal, so, at the end, the Word of the Father and the Spirit of God, united to the ancient substance of Adam’s formation, made man living and perfect, capable of knowing the perfect Father (Advurses Haereses, V 1, 3)

What results from this Gnostic mindset is a radical anti-materialism. The end goal of the spiritual life is not for the world to be fitted with God’s life, divinized, but rather for man to find the spiritual god outside of the world. For this reason, the Gnostics were anti-sacramental, anti-worldly, rather, in favor of a higher spiritual “knowing” which lifted them out of the world. Balthasar explains:

The Gnostic impulse secretly or openly animates all those modern world-views which see body and spirit, bios and ethos, nature and God, in antagonism or opposition… One of ancient Gnosticism’s favourite doctrines, vigorously satirized by Irenaeus, is the glorification of the ‘eternal quest’, the idea being that the supreme principle, the ‘Groundless One’, is unknowable. It is not difficult to see why this emotional attachment to seeking, which despises as bourgeois, should have revived in our own times. But the clearest proof of the continuing relevance of the second-century struggle against Gnosticism is the fashionable interest, within the Christian church, in Zen meditation. This is essentially anti-incarnational. All sensible images, all words and concepts must be removed, so that there is nothing left but the unfathomable void in which a supposedly superobjective insight (gnosis) can flourish. However mutually contradictory these currents of thought may at first sight appear to be, they are united in their ‘spiritualizing’ flight from matter and the ‘flesh’. Modern materialism seems to be an exception, and yet it too is opposed to the Christian principle of Incarnation. (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p 5-6)

Balthasar explains here the modern influence of Gnosticism: the quest to find God by emptying oneself, by ridding oneself of the objects and materials that “get in the way”. God is that unknowable spiritual principle to which we must escape. This, to Irenaeus, is anti-Christian, precisely because it is ant-Incarnational.

Balthasar concludes his thought:

In practice, [modern Gnostics] regard matter as something to be dominated, and in man himself as the way to power. Myth and Christianity are opposed on every point. Myth seeks the ascent of man to spirit; the Word of God seeks descent into flesh and blood. Myth wants power; revelation reveals the true power of God int he most extreme powerlessness (ibid, 6)

Gnosticism is ignorantly rampant in western Christianity. What we must return to is the scandalous gospel of God’s own descent into man’s fallen situation; his very gift of life to raise us up; his very desire to unite heaven and earth!

Advertisements

Prayer as Heavenly Sight

000pdx641

Heavenly worship from John’s Revelation

Hans Urs von Balthasar, toward the end of his magnificent work Prayer, introduces several theological tensions in the act of prayer. One of these tensions is the contrasting reality of heaven and earth. Balthasar explains

Creation evinces a mysterious tension which is identified in the very first words of scripture: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”. As the subsequent course of salvation history shows, this opposition is not simply cosmological but also theological, contrasting God’s being and place with man’s being and place. What is absolutely clear is that earth is not heaven, even before man puts a spiritual distance between himself and heaven as a result of the fall.  Even before the fall there are times in paradise where God makes himself present, walking “in the cool of the day”. And afterward we often read of Yahweh’s “coming down” (Gen 11:5, 7, 18:21, etc), we read of Jacob’s ladder linking earth and heaven, of God’s “looking down” on the earth… (p 277)

So there is a contrasting reality of heaven and earth. Heaven, where God dwells is not earth where man dwells. “But”, as Balthasar says,

this is not the way God desires to reveal his heavenly mystery to earthly men. The Son “comes down”, and in him heaven becomes tangible on earth… Mankind’s yearning to look into God’s dwelling place is satisfied, beyond all imagining, through God’s arrival in the house of man “to come and eat with him” (Rev 3:20)… In Jesus, heaven is no longer an image but a Person. (p 278)

What did God do through the incarnation of the Son? Paul says in Ephesians 1 that he united heaven and earth. God and man were brought together in a vital union. This is why so many of the theological masters along with Balthasar explain the very person of Christ as the kingdom, or as heaven and earth united. Man and God are no longer in separation, but are in a cooperative synergistic union. This is the point of the hypostatic union: God and man are united in the person of the divine Son.

But it is not simply that in Christ, heaven and earth are united; because Christ died, rose, and ascended. He was not simply united to our human nature: human nature was resurrected and ascended in him! Balthasar explains:

To contemplate Holy Saturday is to contemplate the collapse of heaven into the horrors of the nether world. But the Son of heaven rises from the dead, and the forty days he spends with us establish the fundamental sense of Christian existence: our beloved God, who became man, who became “heaven on earth”, who thus wooed our love on earth, and whose love we only reciprocate when he had died for our sake — he is now “earth in heaven” (p 278)

By “earth in heaven”, not “heaven in earth”, Balthasar means to say that in the person of Christ, earth is raised with Christ. The cosmos which had fallen was raised up to participate in Christ’s resurrection. Put another way, in his resurrection, Christ accomplished not simply the defeat of death, he accomplished the final union of heaven and earth in his person. But it is not simply that Christ rose; he ascended into heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand. Balthasar explains further that “by the ascension to heaven the Man Christ… has taken our humanity to heaven with him, authentically, although hidden” (p 284).

What all of this means is that Christ’s descent and ascent — theologically divided into four parts: incarnation, descent into hades, resurrection and ascension — is the movement of heaven to earth and earth into heaven. Or to put it more relationally: the Father sends the Son so that fallen man might be brought back to the Father. This is a movement of heaven down and earth up.

Paul explains this movement in Philippians 2:5-11 as Christ’s humiliation and exaltation. But it is not simply that Christ was humiliated and exalted. Heaven and earth were brought into a union that, as Balthasar says, is hidden but real. And believers are, as Paul aptly says, “raised with Christ” and “seated with him in the heavenly places” in Ephesians 3. This is again a hidden reality that cannot be seen with the eyes. And yet it is true: humanity (indeed the entire cosmos!) has been joined in a union with the Father in Christ.

It cannot be seen with eyes. However, there is a way to see it — and finally we get to the title of this article: prayer is the means of locating, finding ourselves in Christ before the Father. Christ has been raised and has ascended to the Father; and so have baptized believers! We have been raised and seated with Christ in heavenly places. The principle means of seeing this reality is in prayer.

Balthasar explains:

This irreducible tension, [that Christ has united heaven and earth], is part of our whole Christian life, and thus it belongs particularly to Christian contemplation.

The view of the Fathers, and of Augustine in particular, follows from this. Contemplation makes present the heavenly dimension and truth of the Christian life; action is the working-out of this truth in the transient conditions of this world (p 284)

Prayer is the sight of the reality that “we already have a share, concretely and authentically, in this union” of heaven and earth (p 287).

I have for about a year now understood prayer in terms of finding my place in the Son before the Father. This the tension: we do not see it, but we are in Christ seated in heavenly places. The world in fact has been risen in him. The universe itself is raised and included in God’s triune life. This reality is located by contemplative prayer. It is seen, as Paul says, with the “eyes of the heart” and not by physical sight!

 

 

The Cross of the Womb

9977a01e8d7c1312e57e668bcced5fc0-byzantine-icons-byzantine-art

Byzantine icon, “The Visitation”. Mary visits Elizabeth “in haste” at the announcement of the angel

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his devotional work The Threefold Garland, details Mary’s consent and conception of Christ. Mary said a magnificent “Yes” to the voice of the angel (“I am the servant of the Lord”), and so conceived the Messiah in her own womb. Her obedience was miraculous, surely aided by the Spirit. And yet, as Balthasar says, while Mary was obedient to the calling of God, the calling was a mystery. It was shrouded with darkness: who was this son going to be? How will he be the savior of her people?

Balthasar explains:

It may be that Mary felt a slight anxiety at what might be awaiting her… She knows she has been expropriated into God’s whole objective history of salvation, and that at the same time she has been placed on a pedestal, since the center of this salvation history is here living and growing within her own center, eventually to emerge from her. But this does not arouse any panic in her, for by her own consent she has surrendered to the… mystery… (p 36-37)

Mary has surrendered to the mystery of God’s plan of redemption. She knows he has come to save her people Israel, and that she is even an integral part of that. And yet, this is all she knows. She is therefore surrendering herself, giving herself up, “crucifying” her own questions and doubts in order to offer herself as a fitting agent of God’s salvation. As Balthasar says quite eloquently, she allows herself to be “borne along by what [she] contains” (p 37). As much as the Son was carried in her womb, she herself was carried along by the Son in his mission to save. In this way, Mary is already a disciple of the Lord, following him along the way to crucifixion. She is offering herself to be used by the God of Israel.

But, Balthasar continues by explaining that as much as Mary surrendered to a mysterious path, one which entailed her self-offering, Christ’s did as well. And why? Precisely because as much as Mary was carried by her Son and his mission, so He was carried by her! And this being carried entailed a voluntary “yes” to the will of the Father. A voluntary kenosis of the only Son of the Father into the helpless abode of Mary’s womb.

Balthasar explains:

But precisely this attitude of the Mother is nothing other than her integration into the attitude of her Child. Every child must begin by letting itself be borne. And this Child in particular, even when it is big, will never outgrow its childhood: even when he acts as an adult he will always let himself be borne and impelled by the will of the Father as manifested to him by the Spirit. Now he is undergoing his first, physical training as he is carried about bodily. It is training as in a novitiate, when a person is ordered around like a child. This is the first training in what every Christian must always be able to do: let himself willingly “be led where you do not want to go”, as Jesus will say to Peter (p 37-38)

This is a miraculous passage by Balthasar: as much as Mary must surrender and be led by the Father (and the Son), so now the divine Son must surrender, and even before birth, self-offer himself to be brought along and carried about by his Mother.

Balthasar continues:

The child in the womb does not know where it is being borne. Nor will Jesus know where he is being “driven” by the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:12): it may, for instance, be into the wilderness and temptation… Now this child, later on as a man… the Son will let himself be borne about as a thing that one can dispose of — and this is he who bears the sin of the world, and therefore, the world itself.

Only one — the Father in heaven — sees all of this, sees where the triune decision to save has led. In Mary, the Son is already under way; already he begins to be driven about in the world, and no one, not even the Father, can call him back. (p 38-39)

Already in the womb, the Son is being given by the Father. He is being handed over to be handled and controlled by human hands. And in this way, even the womb is a cross: it is a place in which the Son willingly offers himself. As much as Mary surrenders to the will of the Father, the Son surrenders infinitely more to that same will, and allows himself to be borne about. This is the loving kenosis of the Son of the Father!

A Theology of Divine Election

cropped-christ-cross-11.jpg

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his work Engagement with God, discusses the many facets and ways in which God engages and relates to the world, and also the ways in which man relates to and reflects God. In it, he outlines a rather full-orbed theology of divine election. Election is really the theology of the entire book: how and why God chooses mankind.

Balthasar begins his first chapter by defining the doctrine of election in terms of free love, which is unmerited or deserved. He says this:

All ancient peoples have their gods. The God of Israel, however, is distinguished from all other gods by the fact that he brings into being a people to worship him by his own free sovereign act of choosing — whether we look at the first manifestation of this choice of a people — when God called Abraham — or at his choosing his people when he led them out of Egypt at the hand of Moses (who himself had first to be called by God), thus making something like a nation out of a miserable collection of uncultured and demoralized slaves; before all this, in each case there is a free act of the divine initiative that can neither be foreseen, demanded, nor deduced. (p 13)

God’s choice of Israel can neither be foreseen, demanded, nor deduced; there is no reason for it. God chooses and creates a people solely from an free act to love. Balthasar will later go on to define election as “not primarily a manifestation of power but a revelation of love” (p 15). The content of election is not God’s bare sovereign power to choose — though choosing is involved — but rather his free sovereign love.*

The point here is that election is God’s free love. It is not based on anything lovely or meritorious in the one loved, but is solely based on God’s choice. For Balthasar, this is where any and all engagement of man with God starts. Man does not engage God, rather he is engaged by God.

But what is the purpose of this electing love of God? What is God’s goal in giving this free love? Balthasar explains:

As we saw, the reason for God’s choosing man lies in His love, free and groundless. [This free love] promotes as response the free, reciprocal love of the chosen, because free love can only be answered with love given freely. Therefore the love of God requires of those whom he chooses a free return of love.

This must always be borne in mind when considering the “commandments” and “laws” of the Old Testament. After all, in the final analysis the tone of these is “may” rather than “must”… [Israel’s] loyalty to the covenant is effected wholly and entirely by the loving kindness and grace of God that goes before. (p 20-21)

God’s free love, in other words, is meant to promote a free response of love from the one loved. The commandments are not properly about doing what one “must”, but what one may in loving response to God. Because we have been loved unconditionally, we are in turn urged to love unconditionally in response. God elects freely to produce free lovers in response.

Later on in this work, Balthasar will also stress that election by God not only causes free obedience and love back to God, but also promotes free love to fellow man. In fact, this is how God continues to engage the world today: God freely loves man in Christ, that man in Christ may freely love their fellow man. Properly speaking, we are freely loved by God so that God’s free love can continue through us for the life of the world.

Balthasar says this:

The church…is Christ’s fellow servant in his task of liberating the world. She shares with God in his work of sharing himself in Christ with the world. Hence the act of sharing must be at the very center of the church’s life and being. She can only be herself insofar as she accepts the fact that she is the mean of God’s sharing and imparting himself… (p 33-34)

So then, what is the purpose of election? God freely loves us, in order that we may freely and without coercion love and obey him, and spread his love to the world.

*Because the content of election is love, Balthasar, in contrast to theories of individual election, prefers to see election as a corporate reality. He points out rightly that in the Old Covenant, God entered into covenant with Israel as a nation as a whole. He will later argue that in the New Covenant, God’s elects the entire world through Christ. Christ as the elect one unites himself to mankind, dies and rises. In his resurrection, mankind as a unit, as a whole, is in principles raised and united to God. “In Christ men find a common destiny; in him they constitute a new and universal Israel whose common bond is the Son’s destiny that is decisive for every man” (p 30). In any case, Balthasar doesn’t harp on either theory, but rather focuses on what election is and why God engages in this way.

Purpose of Discipleship

take2bup2bcross

What is the purpose of discipleship? What is the point behind the disciplines, the virtues, ethical reform, etc? Hans Urs von Balthasar has a decisive answer that I believe sums up the biblical paradigm.

In his Theo Drama IV (in section III, C, 3, c), Balthasar explains that the purpose of discipleship is to be united with Christ’s life, passion, and resurrection; and to, as it were, have it “reproduced” in one’s own life. This unity with Christ is accomplished by the gift of the Holy Spirit, who as Balthasar says, “recapitulates the entire economy of salvation” in the believer, “since he is the Spirit of the whole historical and pneumatic Christ, crucified and risen”.

I find this to be richly biblical, especially in light of Romans 6. Paul says in this chapter, that in baptism, by the Spirit, the believer is immersed “into [Christ’s] death” (v. 3), “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (v. 4). The purpose of salvation then is to become united with the sufferings and death of Christ such that they become one’s own.

Paul picks this motif back up again two chapters later in Romans 8, saying that this union or participation in Christ involves sharing “in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (v. 17). In salvation then, the believer is united to Christ’s passion, that by the Spirit, it might be born in his own life: death, suffering, resurrection, glory. This is the trajectory of the person united to Christ’s passion.

Paul, speaking of his own suffering, says in 2 Corinthians 4:10, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body”. Paul saw suffering as a way of life, uniting this suffering to Christ’s own suffering by the Spirit, that he might rise with and in Christ’s own (eschatological) resurrection.

Balthasar himself explains,

[T]he gift of the Spirit of Christ, whereby the believer is initiated into the sphere of Christ, is portrayed as a dying-with, a suffering-with, a being-crucified-with, a being-buried-with; the believer shares Christ’s weakness so that he may rise with him, enjoy new life with him, reign with him, be glorified with him, ascend to heaven with him

So then, discipleship is unity with Christ’s passion; sharing in his sufferings; rising in his resurrection. Balthasar aptly calls this process the “paradox of Christian discipleship”, because it goes against grain of the normal human experience: it is only when one “dies to self”, “takes up his cross”, that he experiences the life of Christ. It is only when one suffers, and unites that suffering Christ’s, that he partakes more and more in his life by the Spirit.

Balthasar adds:

Thus the “sphere” in which the Christian lives, which is summed up by the term en Christoi (in Christ), embraces both the historical Jesus and equally the Risen Christ, the Christ of faith, who recapitulates in himself everything earthly. In the life of the Christian, naturally, resurrection in the full sense belongs to the world to come, as in the case of Christ himself. So a Christian’s historical path may well lead to the Cross, as did Christ’s…

The life in union with Christ involves suffering and rising with Christ!

Life of the Trinity: Self-giving love

trinity

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his Theo-Drama IV: The Action, has an excellent (beware, Balthasar is deep!) explanation of the relationship between the persons of the Trinity. For him, life in the Trinity is the starting point of all theology.

In explaining the life involved inside the Trinity, von Balthasar centers on the “generation of the Son” by the Father. This, to him, is the starting point of the Trinity; it explains and reveals everything else.

Balthasar explains the “generation of the Son” as the eternal action of God the Father in giving of himself in love. Because God is love, he is constantly pouring himself out in love. As a result, this pouring of oneself out demands a Beloved — this beloved One is the Son, who is eternally begotten as a result of the Father’s eternal love.

von Balthasar explains*:

The action whereby the Father utters and bestows his whole Godhead, an action he both “does” and “is”, generates the Son. This Son is infinitely Other, but he is also the infinitely Other of the Father…

So, God the Father’s outpouring of love eternally generates the Son. And this outpouring is such that the Son is eternally begotten, and other than of the Father (other in Person, one in substance).

von Balthasar goes so far to say that,

God the Father gives… his divinity away in such a manner that it is not merely “lent” to the Son: the Son’s possession of it is “equally substantial”

And so, God the Son, as God the Father’s beloved, is consubstantial with the Father. von Balthasar describes this outpouring as the “kenosis” (emptying of oneself) of God the Father. He gives of his divinity, empties himself, such that the Son is equal with the Father as a result of that love.

von Balthasar then explains that the Son, as a result of this love, cannot help but give back:

It follows that the Son, for his part, cannot be and possess the absolute nature of God except in the mode of receptivity: he receives this unity of omnipotence and powerlessness from the Father. This receptivity simultaneously includes the Son’s self-givenness… and his filial thanksgiving (Eucharist) for the gift of consubstantial divinity.

What Balthasar explains is that as the Son receives this “powerless” outpouring, this kenosis, of God the Father, he cannot help but give of himself in an act of eucharistia (thankfulness). And so, the Son pours of himself in kenosis back to the Father. Thus, the Father and the Son give of themselves to one another eternally.

Consequently, this expression of kenotic love between the Father and Son is the Holy Spirit. He is the unity of love between the Father and Son.

Balthasar says that the Spirit is a

seal of that self-expropriation that is identical in Father and Son… [He is] the pure manifestation and communication of the love between Father and Son

So this is the life of the Trinity. It is a Lover, a Beloved, and Love which seals the two. We may call the Trinity a kenosis of love. For each person empties himself for the other. The Trinity is radically other-centered. The Father gives, the Son receives and gives, the Spirit seals and glorifies the other two.

von Balthasar goes on to explain that this doctrine of the kenotic Trinity is the starting point for the rest of Christian doctrine. The doctrines, broadly, of creation, covenant, and cross, are all seen as coming from the Trinitarian life of God.

von Balthasar explains,

We spoke of a first “kenosis” of the Father, expropriating himself by “generating” the consubstantial Son. Almost automatically, this first kenosis expands to a kenosis involving the whole Trinity. For the Son could not be consubstantial with the Father except by self-expropriation; and their “We”, that is, the Spirit, must also be God if he is to be the “personal” seal of that self-expropriation…

This primal kenosis (Trinitarian life) makes possible all other kenotic movements of God into the world; they are simply its consequences. The first “self-limitation” of the triune God arises through endowing his creatures with freedom. The second, deeper, “limitation” of the same triune God occurs as a result of the covenant, which, on God’s side, is indissoluble, whatever may become of Israel. The third kenosis, which is not only christological but involves the whole Trinity, arises through the Incarnation of the Son alone: henceforth he manifests his eucharistic attitude (which was always his) in the pro nobis [for us, in place of] of the Cross and Resurrection for the sake of the world.

This is a favorite passage of mine, because in it, Balthasar ties Christian theology to the life of the Trinity.

For Balthasar, creation itself is seen as an over-pouring of Trinitarian love, in which God creates and gives of himself to free agents. Creation, for him, is “a new ‘kenosis’ on God’s part, since he is thereby restricted, implicitly by creaturely freedom and explicitly by the covenant with its stated terms”. In giving implicit freedom, and explicit covenants, God is thereby binding and limiting himself (even limiting his own freedom) to his creation. Thus, the creation is an act of self-giving love from an overflow of the Trinity itself!

On a deeper level still, the cross is an expression of Trinitarian kenosis; because in the cross, Jesus pours himself out — he empties himself (Phil 2:7) — on behalf of mankind. He gives himself as a sacrifice for the sin of mankind, which is a pleasing aroma to the Father (Eph 5:2). Balthasar explains that the the Son’s surrender to death on the cross is a “representation of the Father’s trinitarian, loving self-surrender”. This fits especially with Christ’s words: if you have seen Me, you have seen the Father (Jn 14:9). Thus, when we look to the cross — this kenosis of Christ, this atoning surrender — we see the Father in his essence.

And so, Trinitarian self-giving love — kenosis — is the grounding of all Christian theology!

*All quotes come from section III, C, 1

The Mission of the Church? Transforming the Culture

church mission

What is the mission of the church? Hans Urs von Balthasar has a fascinating excerpt from his Theo-Drama IV, in which he tries to explain.

Essentially, his answer is that the church’s mission is meant to redeem and transform the culture. von Balthasar says,

The whole notion of “Church”, in radical contrast to the Synagogue, is centrifugal; not only is the Church open to the world, which in principle already belongs to Christ: she is also jointly responsible for it. It is not enough to preach the message of salvation to the world from outside: this message must permeate it like leaven, becoming disseminated throughout it. What we are speaking of is—in the modern expression —“inculturation”. The cultural materials that exist in the world must be taken up and adapted, albeit critically. Again, this must not be done by the forced imposition of Christianity onto a reluctant substratum; conquests of this sort continue to take their revenge centuries later. Rather, there must be a loving appreciation of the existing values; it must calmly be shown that they are genuinely fulfilled only in the message of Christ.

However, this is difficult, from both sides. It is difficult on the part of the culture that is to be transformed: particularly in its most highly developed form, its Gestalt exhibits an earthly perfection, like a work of art; in its own order, it seems incapable of improvement. The Christian reality, however, lives entirely in relationships of continual transcendence and in principle (not accidentally) breaks open the complacent, earthly forms, putting them in touch with a Catholic universality: thus they must open up to the world around them but also to the world above them. It is even more difficult on the part of the Church; the gospel message is embedded in the structures of the “missionized” culture, a fact that threatens to bring the movement of the missionary Church to a full stop. Inculturation threatens to adapt Christianity to the existing culture; the salt of the gospel is in danger of losing its savor. Amalgams are formed between Christianity and secular culture; at times this produces marvelous cathedrals of art, of philosophy and of piety, yet it is not clear whether these are a pure expression of the gospel.

The Church can only effectively pursue her task, therefore, if she herself alternates between two impossible poles: preaching to the world purely from without and transforming it purely from within. As Church, she must penetrate without becoming “establishment” and advance without leaving unfinished business behind. Paul represents a kind of ideal: he founds communities, moves on, then returns to his foundations, but without finally settling down there. The profile he presents should be that of every community and of each individual: the Church must put down roots where she is, yet without coming under the spell of the place. Here again we find that this paradox, which is baffling at an earthly level, reflects the discipleship of Christ, who comes into the world and leaves it (Jn 16:28) and yet stays with it until the end (Mt 28:20); for it is in his exodos (Lk 9:31)—which is his Eucharist—that he is killed and so remains with us. (Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. 4: The Action, section IV, C, 3)

So then, the church is given the mission of fulfilling, redeeming, deifying the culture. And so the church must go into the culture, and adapt and fulfill it in Christ.

Balthasar is certainly right in saying that in doing this, the church must ride the line between simply evangelizing “from the outside” only (ie, never entering into the culture, but only being a culture in and of itself) and being “institutionalized” or adapted by the culture.

Rather, the church must go into the culture, appreciate it, and then elevate it in the gospel. In other words, Christianity wants to take culture and take it up into God’s own life so that it can participate in his own glory.

This reminds me of a line by Robert Barron, that God is not “a competitor with his creation”. Rather, God’s intention in the gospel is to elevate, redeem, deify creation — and culture, and art, and music, and family et al — through Christ’s death and resurrection. And in this way, as Barron says so aptly, the gospel makes Christianity “the greatest humanism that has ever appeared”. This is the church’s mission.