Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988) a Swiss theologian and priest (who almost become a cardinal, but died before the ceremony) was a favourite theologian of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. He is considered by many to be one of the most important - and cultured - Christian thinkers of the 20th century. In fact, he is one of a handful of writers to whom I return for inspiration whenever I despair of the mindless lurching in all directions of so many modern Christian "teachers.” His writing is mystical, biblical and philosophical, with a lyrical beauty. Mind you, it can also be dense, requiring a fair bit of work on the part of the reader. But such work is always rewarded!
I don’t know if it’s just me, but I have been particularly annoyed of late by what seems to be a widespread tendency in most traditions of western Christianity, to trivialise the Cross of Jesus to the point where it is no longer the “trysting place where heaven’s love and heaven’s justice meet.” Balthasar provided a stunning antidote to this reductionism in his book, Mysterium Paschale, which I have written about before. His other work that is relevant is Love Alone: The Way of Revelation, from which I share with you the following beautiful and startling passage (pages 81 to 86):
The sign of Christ can only be deciphered if His human love and surrender ‘even unto death‘ is read as the manifestation of absolute love. His task, in love is to allow the sins of the world to enter into Him who is ‘dispossessed’ out of love of God - to become the ‘lamb of God who bears the guilt of the world (I John 1:29) and my sins.
This is the dogma - the dogma of vicarious suffering, of ‘bearing the guilt of others’ - which in the last analysis determines whether a theology is anthropological or christocentric. But for this dogma, everything can be explained on the level of a knowledge discovered by man - no matter how much historical tradition may be incorporated in it. The real ‘scandal’ which it causes is due to the fact that it cannot be dissolved by gnostic explanations; and the fact that it scandalizes us is a sign and warning that we are at the beginning of an authentic faith. For it is precisely with this act that real, unaccountable, inconceivable love begins and ends; a love, more-over, which qua love is self-evidently divine. Ultimately, only in that act, can one believe absolutely; it alone, if performed, is absolute love, love as the absolute, an incomprehensible epitome of the totally-other God. ‘And we have known and believed the love God hath for us’ (1 John 4. I6).
If this is true, then ‘the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). Faith here means my response to the love that has sacriced itself for me. An answer which consequently always comes too late, because God’s act in Christ, his bearing away of my sins, happened before any answer was possible, before it could even be considered; hence it is the pure gratuity of the act that proves the purity and absoluteness of that love: ‘but God commendeth (proves) his love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us . . . For when we were yet enemies of God, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son’ (Romans 5:8,I0). But how can an enemy be reconciled while he is still an enemy? With God, as we see, this is possible, and St Paul concludes from these inconceivable statements that by our justification through Christ’s death, which reconciled us and made us his friends, we will all the more certainly attain to peace with God through Christ’s life.
From this it becomes clear that faith is primarily directed upon the incomprehensibility of God’s love, which surpasses and forestalls our love. This is the one factual element, the only ‘that’ (Martin Buber) on which faith in the Christian sense is focused. Love alone can be believed - indeed it can and must be believed only as love. To recognise this absolute and its priority over everything, this is the achievement and ‘task’ of Faith: To believe that there is love, absolute love, and that there is nothing beyond it. To believe against all the probabilities of experience; (‘to believe against faith’ as one must ‘hope against hope’), against every so called ‘reasonable’ concept of God, that points to his impassibility or at best to his transparent goodness, but never to the incomprehensible and senseless God of the Christians.
The first thing that must strike a non-Christian about a Christian’s faith is that it is all too daring. It is too beautiful to be true: The mystery of being, unveiled as absolute love, coming down to wash the feet and the souls of its creatures; a love that assumes the whole burden of our guilt and hate, that accepts the accusations that shower down; the disbelief that veils God again when he has revealed himself; all the scorn and contempt that nails down his incomprehensible movement of self-abasement - all this absolute love accepts in order to excuse his creature before himself and before the world. It is too much of a good thing; nothing in the world can justify a metaphysic of that order, and not therefore the sign called ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, isolated, so hard to decipher, so inadequately supported by history. To erect so magnificent a structure on such flimsy foundations is to go beyond the bounds of reason. Would it not be better to be satisfied, like Martin Buber, with the Old Testament, interpreted in humane, ecumenical terms, with its ‘open’ undogmatic faith? We should no longer need to distinguish between anthropological and theological discourse - we should have a faith identical with Jaspers’ ‘open reason’. But we should be declaring ourselves satisfied with ‘wisdom’ - we should have escaped once more by the skin of our teeth, from the absolute ‘scandal’ of the Cross.
Man is led into the open realm in which he can love by the love he believes in because he has understood its sign. If the Prodigal Son had not already believed in his father’s love, he would never have set out on his homeward journey - even though the love that received him back was beyond his dreams. The decisive thing is that the sinner has heard of a love that could be and actually is open to him: the initiative is not his; God has already seen in him the unloving sinner, the child he loves as his son, and it is in the light of his own love that God considers him and confers his dignity upon him.
No one can resolve this mystery into dry concepts: show how it is that God no longer sees my guilt in me but in his beloved Son who bears it for me; or how it is that God sees that guilt transformed by the sufferings of love and loves me because I am the one the Son loves in his suffering. That is why a purely forensic, legal justification is untenable; it is only valid in so far as it recognises that God’s love makes us into the person we are for him in the light of Christ. Attempts can be made to point out the psychological and theological stages of the endlessly mysterious process by which our representation in Christ becomes, through his grace, Christ’s representation in us, and the way in which his love for the Father and for us evokes a response from us - but these attempts reflect only fragments of the process. The deeper God’s justifying love penetrates our being as ‘sanctification’, the more it evokes and strengthens our freedom to love; it is a kind of ‘primal procreation’ that awakens in us the response of love which may be hesitant and inchoate in us but attains to its full stature through the mediation of the Son’s love (and therefore through complete faith in him). For in the Son human and divine love correspond perfectly, and this correspondence, as we have seen, he confers upon the Church in such a way that she can give birth to the Son and his brothers in the world (Revelation 12:17). We are incorporated into this ‘full measure’ (Ephesians 4:13) and to that extent our deficiencies are overcome; we are made able through sanctifying grace to bring to life through Christian action in faith, what we have seen we ought to be in God’s loving sight. The fact that the horizon of the love given to us always greatly exceeds our own, and that the disparity can never be wiped out in this life, justifies everything presented as the ‘dogmatic’ aspect of faith: it may remain immeasurably beyond our capacity to realise this love which is the truth, yet it is no inexistent ‘idea’, but the full reality from which (in Christ and the Church, his unspotted bride,) all our striving and strength stems; that is why our act of faith in an ever greater love is necessarily identical with our act of faith in an ever greater truth which we cannot understand gnostically with the help of reason since it is pure love, a gift which remains for us an inconceivable miracle.