Drama and the Christevent

Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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As the church's obedient receptivity gives birth to discipleship, after the manner of the transition in Ignatian spirituality from contemplation to mission, so The Glory of the Lord gives birth to Theo-Drama. It is out of believers' obedience to the one divine Word that the richness and diversity of the many aspects of the Christian church's life are born. Hence the lives of the saints and the classical Christian theologians are not to be seen as pale copies which obstruct our view of the unchangeable reality of the biblical Word. Rather, because it is in the nature of the Word to generate new forms of life insofar as people are obedient and faithful to it, so too we may learn in the study of such lives and theologies to catch sight of the divine glory as it has transformed their lives and in so doing to discipline ourselves in the same obedience. The saints - and most of all Mary as (for Balthasar) the archetype of the believing church - constellate around the form of Christ which their lives represent and mediate, and this ecclesial constellation thereby participates in the fullness of the Gestalt Christi. Put another way, the forms of life which take shape in the church (in response to the generative Word) participate in an overall event of revelation. And for Balthasar, this event of revelation has all the dimensions of an actual drama between God and his creatures.

Drama, then, is the field of analogy which informs Theo-Drama. And, in characteristic fashion, Balthasar refuses to contemplate the specifically ecclesial experiences and the specifically theological representations of the drama between God and his creatures in isolation from all the analogous dramatic representations that are available for contemplation in literature and the theatre. Just as The Glory of the Lord began with a consideration of the experience of beauty (and related theories of aesthetic apprehension), so Theo-Drama begins with a consideration of a great (though almost exclusively Western) tradition of drama. Drama is the medium in which human beings address questions about agency and event at the widest level, and attempt to do full justice to acting subjects, their freedom and their interrelations. Drama, from Aeschylus to Brecht and Ionesco, represents a cavalcade of human self-interpretation, and its value for Balthasar, following the pattern of The Glory of the Lord, is linked to the degree to which it shows itself related to a higher, Christological, meaning (sometimes negatively, through its fragmentation and its need to be judged and reset - "ab- aus-, und eingerichtet").

Balthasar's assumption is that all drama points to a Christian horizon on which is situated the ultimately dramatic (the theodramatic), which is to say that which safeguards but transforms the humanly dramatic. Starting with the Christological reflections of Heart of the World, and running via his reflections on the triduum mortis (Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday) in Mysterium Paschale, Balthasar presses on towards his sustained meditation in Theo-Drama on the central mystery of the Christian faith: the drama of the passion of the eternal Son (with the cry from the cross sounding at its heart); the Son's subsequent descent into Hell; and his entry into resurrection life. It is in these events that both human action, and the inner life of the Trinity which is the condition for all creaturely freedom, are displayed in the full depth of their interrelation.

Vital things come to light here about Balthasar's doctrine of the person and work of Christ, and the way that his dramatic perspective recasts and reenlivens them. Like Barth, Balthasar asserts an identity between Christology and soteriology: they are not to be separated. In drama, characters are associated with their roles in the overall movement of the play, but there is always a residual distance which persists between the actor and the role. (This is true for Balthasar at a more general level, too, in society and in social "role-playing.") The theological analogue of the notion of role, which overcomes this residual distance, is the Ignatian/Johannine notion of "mission" (Sendung). And it is in Christ's mission, in which human beings have the possibility of sharing, that there is a perfect coincidence of person and work. Christ's person is wholly invested in his work. Balthasar likes to name him, in strongly Johannine fashion, the "One Sent," thus specifying his core identity in terms of his core task. And it is in the nature of the work of salvation - which involves the bearing of the totality of the world's sin in order to initiate and maintain the New Covenant between God and humanity - that it cannot be undertaken unless a "person" is offered in and with the task. The person of Christ alone can accomplish this, because his human life is so wholly lent to the divine movement of love and self-donation. Thus Balthasar is prevented from lapsing into "the kind of purely extrahistorical, static, 'essence' Christology that sees itself as a complete and rounded 'part one,' smoothly unfolding into a soteriological 'part two' . . . the question of [Christ's] work implies the question of his person: Who must he be, to behave and act in this way?"18

As the "One Sent" - or, as elsewhere, the "Beloved Son" (Matthew 3: 17 and par) - Jesus is the actively obedient one, the perfection of whose obedience is the expression and ground of his personal and immediate relation to the Father, as well as of his human faithfulness. Being the Son is not being in a static state; it is being engaged in a personal relationship. "Every worldly dramatic production," says Balthasar, "must take its bearings from, and be judged by, the ideal nature of this [Christological] coincidence of freedom and obedience or of self-being and consciously acknowledged dependence."19 Balthasar sees in this complete availability to the will of the Father, as mediated by the Spirit, the ground of what theology calls the "hypostatic union": the union of the two natures of Christ, divine and human. The procession of the Logos from the Father and the "sent-ness" of the earthly Son are one and the same movement, constitutive of Jesus Christ's very being. He thus takes a doctrine that is often handled in an "essentialist" way (in discussion of essences or natures) and transforms it by handling it in an "actualist" way. The ground of the hypostatic union is not the conjunction of two sorts of "stuff"; it is the conjunction of two "movements" in a single filial dynamic.

Meanwhile, the doctrine of salvation is developed by Balthasar in a way that has both substitutionary (or representative) and participatory aspects. Because of the condition of sin that prevails after the fall (a negative condition of distance-as-alienation which has overtaken and vitiated the positive condition of distance-as-difference that properly holds between Creator and creature), Christ must act for us. No one other than Christ can traverse the abyss that sin has opened up, thus demonstrating the limitless reach of the divine love. But having done this, a possibility is opened up for the human creature to enter into the movement of Christ's mission (the "acting area"). The believer can be brought right into the heart of the drama that Christ acts out in history; the "filial dynamic" of Christ's life, death, and resurrection becomes shareable. The effect of such a mode of life is to take human persons in their defensiveness and self-enclosure, and to set them in motion towards God and others: such a person "feels himself breaking out of his own private world."20 This is what traditional theological language calls becoming united with Christ, or being part of his body, and it offers the possibility of participating in something of the relational character of the divine persons. By handing oneself over, one can be drawn into God's own mutuality, exchange, and love: a wholly new and liberating possibility for the human creature.

It is apparent once again how dramatic concerns enliven the picture - particularly here in relation to Balthasar's soteriology. And again, it is something inescapably personal that is going on. It is as the person he is that Jesus has the mission he has, with its soteriological goal and eschatological reach. And his saving work can continue to take effect in the present, because he continues to be operative in the personal mode in the Spirit, still encountering others and drawing them into dramatic relationship with him. Thus the drama is transposed into the life of the church, within which - and in relation to which - human beings find themselves challenged to have their lives shaped after the pattern of Christ, finding their own genuine personhood as a consequence.

On Balthasar's account, the great inclusive drama of Christ's work (whose full ramifications are only to be worked out eschatologically, in the Battle of the Logos)21 reveals that the yardstick of all truly dramatic action lies in the supra-drama of the trinitarian God of love. But Balthasar's insistence on the fact and continued possibility of the transposition of this pattern of divine self-donation and mutual receptivity into human lives and communities shows his conviction that the supra-drama respects the value of the ordinary dramas of human encounter which can point to it. He is anxious to hold on to this. The outline of the supra-drama, the measure of all drama, can be traced by the eyes of faith in any giving and rendering back of freedom (of love and obedience; generosity and surrender) between a "Thou" and an "I":

[The Christian's] faith teaches him to see within the most seemingly unimportant interpersonal relation the making present and the "sacrament" of the eternal I-Thou relation which is the ground of the free Creation and again the reason why God the Father yields His Son to the death of darkness for the salvation of every Thou.22

We should pause at this point to consider Balthasar's treatment of the "death of darkness" as signaled in this quotation, because it provides the core of his most original theological reflection. The Son descends into Hell, into the absolute God-forsakenness of the dead. He takes upon himself the fate (not only the substance but the condition) of sinful humanity, drinks its cup to the lees, and so embraces that which is wholly opposed to God - and yet remains God. The exploration of this theological motif which has rarely attracted much attention proves surprisingly fruitful. It is a very distinctive development of the concerns of kenotic Christology. The kenosis of the Son, for Balthasar, finds its fullest expression precisely in his willingness to take upon himself the whole condition of sinful human nature, in order to "live it round." The full meaning of the burden which he assumes is glimpsed only when we realize that it means the bearing, not only of the pains of dying but of the state of being dead itself. Balthasar draws here on the tradition of Virgil and Dante, more closely on the mystical experience of Adrienne. The passing into the realm of the dead is a passing into the place that is cut off from God, which is beyond hope, where the dead are confronted with the reality of that which is wholly opposed to God. This is the measure then of the Son's obedience to the Father: that he goes into the realm of that which is at enmity with him in order to bring it back under his rule. The momentum of his obedience carries him into this abyss.

And yet it is God who enters into the realm of that which is opposed to himself -and he remains God. Such presence of the divine in the God-forsakenness of Hell is possible only on the basis of the trinitarian distinction between the Father and the Son.

This opposition between God, the creative origin (the "Father"), and the man who, faithful to the mission of the origin, ventures on into ultimate perdition (the "son"), this bond stretched to breaking point does not break because the same Spirit of absolute love (the "spirit") informs both the one who sends and the one sent. God causes God to go into abandonment by God while accompanying him on the way with his Spirit.23

Balthasar has managed, like Moltmann, to recast the traditional doctrine of the immutability of God in a way that brings out the full trinitarian implications of the death of the Son. But he does not make the doctrine of the divine immutability the object of sustained criticism as a result. This is not his main concern or focus. Rather, as we have seen, he stresses those aspects of the divine sending and the divine obedience that are the loving, inner-trinitarian supra-conditions within God's freedom for the suffering into which the Son enters. Christ's action, as Balthasar says, indicates "a drama in the very heart of God."24 "The dramatic dimension that is part of the definition of the person of Jesus does not belong exclusively to the worldly side of his being: its ultimate presuppositions lie in the divine life itself."25

Balthasar's worry, as Mongrain has pointed out, is that Moltmann "runs the risk of identifying the inner-trinitarian suffering and alienation of God with the suffering and tragedies within the temporal order of creation," thus tangling the divine life up with the unfolding of world process. He fears that Moltmann's Trinity needs the world in order to be itself; needs the world in order to actualize itself. His own view, by contrast, is that the space required for the world to be itself is freely, and not necessarily, generated by this trinitarian dynamism. All the alienation manifest within world process is held within a greater diastasis, which is the perfect and self-sufficient condition of relationality between the persons of the Trinity. The "incomprehensible and unique 'separation' of God from himself" is a supraevent that "includes and grounds every other separation - be it never so dark and bitter."26 It is the highest pitch of the "eternal, absolute self-surrender"27 which is between Father and Son in the Holy Spirit, and which belongs to God's absolute love.

Here we glimpse Balthasar's vision of the utter perichoretic self-donation (and simultaneous mutual constitution) of the trinitarian persons in the perfection of their love. Beginning from the events and actions of Jesus' life, and thinking outwards from those, he extrapolates a radically dramatic picture of the complete mutual outpouring of the persons of the Trinity, without reserve. Yet it is not one that compromises the doctrine of divine immutability. Certainly, according to Balthasar, even the Father surrenders himself without remainder, imparting to the Son all that is his; yet because this handing over is complete and mutual (because the Son offers everything back to the Father), the whole divine life remains in complete, dynamic perfection. The self-bestowal of the persons one to another is simultaneously their self-constitution in an eternal triune event of love.

How is Balthasar's use of analogy at work in all of this? Well, the relation of all human action to the supra-drama of the Christian God is a relation of similarity suspended in ever greater dissimilarity. Worldly dramas can, of course, give insight into the constitutive receptivity and relationality of human life. But the trinitarian self-giving and yet perpetual fullness which are revealed to us in the perfect generosity and perfect obedience (or self-abandonment) of Jesus Christ remain in significant measure beyond our grasp. No one worldly drama can be adequate to the representation of this truth.

Nevertheless, as we have seen, Balthasar is prepared to allow a privileged form of participative, mediating representation of this truth to take shape in the church, and above all in Mary, in whose will there is no tension with regard to the theodramatic telos; no resistance. Her own self-abandonment, though formally dependent on Christ's, is the quality the human participants in the Theo-Drama are most encouraged to emulate.28 Her receptivity brings about her fulfillment.

There are ambiguities in Balthasar's thought here. Noel O'Donoghue has pointed out that Balthasar is suspended between conceiving the obedience of faith as pure passivity ("Barthian 'monergism'") and as a creative response to the enabling divine grace (the synergic theology of Scheeben, Adam, Guardini, and Przywara).29 As Balthasar characterizes it, the response of Mary, the type of the human believer, wavers between these poles, and Balthasar's particular applications of dramatic metaphor do not resolve the ambiguities in any decisive way.

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