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Graced Encounters: Liturgy and Ethics from a Balthasarian Perspective

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2014

Christopher Steck
Georgetown University


The theological aesthetic framework of Hans Urs von Balthasar can be used to develop a “continuity” model for relating liturgy and the moral life: each supports the Christian's response of faith but in distinctive ways. The fundamental source of Christian faith is the graced encounter with Christ. For Balthasar, this encounter occurs narratively: our stories are invited into Christ's story where we discover a personal God calling us by name. Both liturgy and the moral life mediate the Christian's entrance into this salvific narrative; however, each does so by emphasizing a different aspect of it: liturgy underscores the eschatological fullness of the narrative; the moral life invites us into Christ's story at a point “between the times.” This different eschatological emphasis leads liturgy and the moral life to take on complementary roles in nurturing the Christian's encounter with Christ.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2003

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1 Saliers, Don E., “Liturgy and Ethics: Some New Beginnings,Journal of Religious Ethics 7 (Fall 1979); 173–89.Google Scholar “In corporate worship, Christians engage in activities which articulate and shape how they are to be disposed toward the world” (176). Since the “Christian moral life is the embodiment of those affections and virtues” which reflect our “existence in Jesus Christ,” life practices which shape and nurture those affections are key to living faithful Christian lives (179).

2 Ibid., 187: “It is, we must admit at the end, misleading to speak of the relation between liturgy and ethics as though there were only one essential link to be explicated.”

3 An example of this way of relating the two appears in the essay by Wolfe, Regina Wentzel, “The Ethical Imperative of the Eucharist,” in To Do Justice and Right Upon the Earth: Papers from the Virgil Michel Symposium on Liturgy and Social Justice, ed. Stamps, Mary E. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), 8495.Google Scholar She writes, “Participation in the Eucharist should free us from self-centered concerns and allow us to turn toward others with a loving attitude” (90). I believe her view, while correct, has been given too exclusive a regard.

4 Balthasar, Hans Urs von, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 1 Seeing the Form, trans. Leiva-Merikakis, Erasmo et al. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1982).Google Scholar

5 Balthasar, writes: “‘the decision’ of faith is the presupposition, not only for the act of seeing the event of Jesus correctly, but also for the act whereby the event lets itself be seen correctly” (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 7 Theology: The New Covenant, trans. McNeil, Brian [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989], 115).Google Scholar

6 “It becomes evident, therefore, that in spite of the fact that even though God uses creaturely guises to speak and act throughout Holy Scripture, what is essentially at stake is solely men and women's encounter with the divinity or glory of God. In this respect we can agree with Oetinger when he says: ‘God's glory constitutes not only the chief content, but also the formal foundational character of Scripture.’ This glory (Herrlichkeit) of God's—his sublimeness (Hehrsein) and lordliness (Herrsein), … [is] precisely what constitutes the distinctive property of God” (Balthasar, Hans Urs von, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 6 Theology: The Old Covenant, trans. McNeil, Brian et al. , [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991], 910).Google Scholar

7 Here I interpret Balthasar's ethics in light of his theological aesthetics. As I read it, his theological aesthetics plays no role in his one treatise on ethics, “Nine Propositions of Christian Ethics.” However, it seems to me clear that his theological aesthetics is central to his overall theology. Furthermore, I believe that the ethical approach contained in his theo-dramatics makes most sense if interpreted in light of his aesthetics. Thus I take a different approach than that found in studies of his ethics which ignore the role of his aesthetics. See, e.g., Ouellet, Marc, “The Foundations of Christian Ethics According to Hans Urs von Balthasar,Communio 17 (Fall 1990): 379401.Google ScholarBalthasar's, ethics essay, “Nine Propositions on Christian Ethics,” can be found in Principles of Christian Morality (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 77104.Google Scholar

8 “This love, however, is not an object that one could contemplate (thereby by ‘objectivising’ it) from an impartial stance; it is seen to be what it is, only when one is oneself seized by it” (The Glory of the Lord, 7: 291).

9 Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, 5 vols. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988–1998).

10 In Christ God leads “the ambiguities of the world theatre beyond themselves to a singleness of meaning that can only come from God. … [God took the drama] which plays on the world stage and inserted it into his quite different ‘play’” (von Balthasar, Hans Urs, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, vol. 1 Prolegomena, trans. Harrison, Graham [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988], 20).Google Scholar

11 “A statue can be placed anywhere; a symphony can be performed in any concert hall…. The form of Jesus, however, cannot be detached from the place in space and time in which it stands” (The Glory of the Lord, 1: 198).

12 The Glory of the Lord, 7: 207.

13 In Christ we are “raised from [our] status as God's partner in creation on Old Testament terms to become a quite different kind of partner, determined by the inner-trinitarian love” (The Glory of the Lord, 7: 415).

14 Macquarrie, John, Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1990), 345.Google ScholarMacquarrie, cites Baillie's, DonaldGod Was in Christ (New York: Scribner, 1955), 200.Google Scholar

15 See, e.g., Davis, Henry, Moral and Pastoral Theology, vol. 1 (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943), 256–57Google Scholar where he speaks of the gifts of the Holy Spirit with no reference to Christ, Scripture or liturgical practice.

16 Rahner, Karl, The Church and the Sacraments, trans. O'Hara, W.J. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1963), 3637.Google Scholar

17 See also Schillebeeckx's, Edward important work Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with God (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963), esp. 4789.Google Scholar Recent work in liturgy has underscored the role which the proclamation of the Christian story plays in shaping human affect.

18 Relatedly we have Vatican IIs assertion that sacramental life, where the people of God now encounter Christ, only achieves its full efficacy in active participation. See §14 of Sacrosanctum Concilium in Vatican Council II, vol. 1 The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Flannery, Austin (Northport, NY: Costello Publishing), 78.Google Scholar

19 E.g., Gerard Hughes associates the moral efficacy of grace with its internal workings when he argues against the distinctiveness of Christian ethics by observing that all persons “have grace offered to them, whether or not they ever have the opportunity to respond to revelation as such” Authority in Morals: An Essay in Christian Ethics [London: Heythrop Monographs, 1978], 7).

20 Thus, Balthasar, criticizes infant baptism: it “is inadequate as a model for the sacramental event” (The Glory of the Lord, 1: 579).Google Scholar

21 Balthasar believes that only through the salvation offered in Christ do we find an adequate answer to what he sees as the perennial desire of human existence to ground the temporal in the eternal, thereby transforming the apparent arbitrary and contingent nature of our lives into something meaningful and life-giving. See his discussion of the topic in Part III of Theo-Drama, 1: 481–648.

22 Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, vol. 5 The Last Act, trans. Harrison, Graham (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 32.Google Scholar

23 Ibid., 46: “What, in the Jewish milieu, was the expectation of the ‘evil time’ of the Messiah's birth-pangs, becomes, in the New Testament, a consciousness of living in the ‘end-time,’ or ‘the last hour,’ or ‘at the end of the aeons’ (Heb 9:26), in the wake of the death and Resurrection of Christ. Within this end-time it is superfluous to make qualitative distinctions between periods: the only feature that will ultimately persist… is the ‘krisis,’ the decision, the scission, that Christ has introduced into the world.”

24 The fulfillment of the human person, as he or she looks “yearningly for a partner,” takes place, “not in the glory of paradise, but in the crucifying encounter of the crucified Lord in the sin-distorted face of one's fellow-man” (The Glory of the Lord 7: 470).

25 Theo-Drama, 5: 32. Also: “When does the old change into the new? … The turning point lies in Christ, or more exactly, in the drama of the Paschal transition from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. Christians exist in this event” (“Eschatology in Outline,” in Explorations in Theology, vol. 4 Spirit and Institution, trans. Oakes, Edward T., [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995], 463.Google ScholarIbid., 465: “But ‘being crucified to the world’ and ‘buried with him’ (Rom 6:4; Col 2:12) does not refer just to a future resurrection with him (Rom 6:8–9) but also to a present resurrection with him, however much is still hidden with Christ in God. …”

26 Theo-Drama, 5: 25.

27 Theo-Drama, 1: 20.

28 Theo-Drama, 5: 331.

29 Balthasar, Hans Urs von, A Theology of History (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 13.Google Scholar

30 Oakes, Edward T., “The Search for God's Will,Communio 17 (Fall 1990): 420.Google Scholar

31 Casel, Odo, The Mystery of Christian Worship, ed. Neunheuser, Burkhard (New York: Crossroad, 1999), 38.Google Scholar

32 Kilmartin, Edward J., Christian Liturgy: Theology and Practice (Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1988), 80.Google Scholar

33 If liturgy is done well, it will manifest “the glory of God's love” (The Glory of the Lord, 7: 399).

34 Balthasar, Hans Urs von, “Liturgy and Awe,” in Explorations in Theology, vol. 2 Spouse of the Word (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 469.Google Scholar

35 “Eschatology in Outline,” 464.

36 Balthasar, Hans Urs von, The God Question and Modern Man, foreword by MacQuarrie, John (New York: Seabury, 1967), 150.Google Scholar

37 “Liturgy and Awe,” 470.

38 Ibid., 469.

39 Karl Rahner criticizes approaches that separate the humanity of Jesus from the divine revealed in it. Such approaches “make Jesus the revelation of the Father” only in the doctrine he gives and not precisely “through what he is in his human nature” (“The Theology of the Symbol,” Theological Investigations, vol. 4 [London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1966], 238).

40 Rahner argues that in Christ, earthly reality “no longer refers to God merely as its cause: it points to God as to him to whom this reality belongs as his substantial determination or as his own proper environment” (ibid., 239).

41 The Christian's “duty is to experience the presence of absolute love, and himself to actualise it, and to make it visible, within his love for his neighbour” The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 5 The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991], 649).

42 “Liturgy and Awe,” 470.

43 “[E]ach individual who can be addressed humanly as ‘Thou’ is raised to the status of a ‘Thou’ for God, because God's true ‘Thou,’ his ‘chosen’ and ‘beloved’ ‘only Son’ has borne the guilt of this human ‘Thou’ and has died for him” (Glory of the Lord, 7: 439).

44 “Liturgy and Awe,” 469; “Loneliness in the Church,” in Explorations in Theology, vol. 4 Spirit and Institution, trans. Oakes, Edward T. (San Fransisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 286.Google Scholar

45 Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, vol. 4 The Action, trans. Harrison, Graham (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 478–82.Google Scholar

46 Ibid., 442.

47 Balthsar, Hans Urs von, Love Alone: The Way of Revelation (London: Sheed and Ward, 1968), 55.Google Scholar

48 Balthasar, Hans Urs von, Who is a Christian? (London: Burns & Oates, 1968), 69.Google Scholar

49 Ibid., 80.

50 Note, e.g., the exclusive emphasis on the “vertical” in his statement, “the essential history is that which is enacted in the vertical plan between heaven and earth” (TheoDrama, 4: 71).

51 For a very helpful study of theological issues surrounding the use of experience in moral discernment, see Farley, Margaret, “The Role of Experience in Moral Discernment,” in Christian Ethics: Problems and Prospects, ed. Cahill, Lisa Sowle and Childress, James F. (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1996), 134–51.Google Scholar

52 The Ethical Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar (New York: Crossroad, 2001), esp. 93–122.

53 Balthasar, Hans Urs von, Prayer, trans. Harrison, Graham (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 33.Google Scholar

54 One might make helpful comparisons here to the transcendental movement of human consciousness that Lonergan, Bernard develops in his Method in Theology (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972).Google Scholar One important difference, however, is that Lonergan implies that a kind of decision on the part of the human agent must be made at each of the four stages (experiencing, understanding, judging, deciding), however much the movement through the stages is spontaneous, something to which we are impelled by the fundamental dynamic of human reason. Balthasar seems to place the primary moral weight on the act of perceiving the world, and the Christ form, truthfully.

55 “When the Incarnation brings a new emphasis on ‘seeing,’ this does not relegate ‘hearing’ to the background; the reason for this … [is] theological, for what appears and becomes visible is in its entirety ‘word:’ everything in the one who appears is an intensified address, as grace and as demand.” The Glory of the Lord, 7: 276.

56 Edward Kilmartin notes this mutual dependence of liturgy and the moral life: “Liturgy is not something that takes place totally independent of routine Christian living. Rather, the daily life of faith conditions believers to engage themselves in communal worship in such a way that they are carried to a new level of religious experience, in and through the celebration of the faith, and are able to accept God's grace more explicitly and intensely” (Christian Liturgy, 83–84).

57 The Jesuit theologian Frans Jozef van Beeck tends toward this position. “[The] eschatological orientation decisively places Christian conduct in the perspective of holiness and glory. Hence, the characteristically Christian commitment to the moral life cannot be conceived apart from worship” (God Encountered: A Contemporary Catholic Systematic Theology (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 1:235.