My dissertation is, or will be, a particular take on theological aesthetics and metaphysics in the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, along with a partial intellectual genealogy of that crossway in his thought. But let us not discuss it further. Let us, instead, talk about children.
Children are more interesting than dissertations. Dissertations are, and in most cases should be, forgotten; children are never to be forgotten. I like children. This despite the fact that all my major personality traits work directly against my ability to like children. Children confuse and distress me, and in general attempt the opposite of common sense. They refuse to discuss art or theology, and their version of intellectual candor is shouting “No!” to see if its sentiment can be made more effective through volume. Also, children love to touch things – especially people.
Still, I like children.
There is a two-year-old girl I know who, among other things, enjoys announcing exactly what she is doing. “I am climbing on the box!” “I am jumping!” “I am hiding under the table!” There is delight, it seems, in being able to proclaim the obvious. She loves it even more when adults say what they will do, and do it.
“What are you doing, Anne?” she will ask at least twenty times.
“I am sitting here with you,” I answer at least twenty times.
She never ceases to smile at that even though she can see already that I sit with her, and though she knows I gave her the same reply not five minutes ago. The repetition matters as much as the honesty; she does not tire of hearing the truth of what she already sees. Nor does she tire of conniving me into playing with her in the basement of her house, which I dislike because it is cold. Her little heart does not doubt its ability to convince me that the cold is bearable for the sake of her smile. Even if I deny her the first time, surely I will not on the second try.
The child speaks in a manner similar to the liturgy, which for all its deliberate strangeness causes us to repeat – again and again – the most fundamental facts of our faith. “For you alone are the Holy One,” we say at every Mass, “you alone are the Lord.” We address the Trinity in the same essential phrases, the same words – words that do not grow old because they are always true. On hearing the same Gospel, the same epistle, the same prophet over yet another liturgical year, the basic joy never ceases, just like our reply never does: “Glory to you, O Lord.”
Much like my two-year-old friend, we do not doubt that we will be heard.
Hans Urs von Balthasar will say that our most basic attitude as human beings is one of amazement, delight at the simple fact that things are at all. This is Heidegger’s “wonder at being,” which for him is the element that moves all thought. Presented with the world, we wonder at it – asking questions about it, and desiring to know it better. For Bernard Lonergan, this is our unrestricted desire to know. For von Balthasar, our wonder indicates the beauty of the created world with which we are confronted, and that beauty opens itself up to the glory of God. These two, beauty and glory, are not to be confused – and not to be separated. We cannot control beauty, cannot subject it to exhaustive analysis without destroying it, and instead must receive it; this reception is even more radical when it comes to God, whom we could not dream of controlling, and yet who condescends to greet us. So says von Balthasar in Glory of the Lord I:
The demand the beautiful itself makes to be allowed to be what it is, the demand, therefore, that we renounce our attempts to control and manipulate it, in order truly to be able to be happy enjoying it: all of this is, in the natural realm, the foundation and foreshadowing of what in the realm of revelation and grace will be the attitude of faith.
Surrender is the dangerous keyword in von Balthasar’s vocabulary. Surrender, which for him aligns directly with the self-emptying attitude described in Philippians 2:5-11. This is no unreflective self-gift, no passive offering made by one who neither knows nor imagines otherwise. Surrender is, for von Balthasar, an active response, as in Mary’s humble Fiat, which cannot know all things, but that can in its very vulnerability provide the unrestricted grounds for God’s fruitfulness to come to fullness. Even Mary’s passivity, when the adjective is applied, is not the passivity of a stone. Passivity is, rather, the unique creaturely ability to make itself available. For von Balthasar, even passivity is an act.
Rather interestingly, von Balthasar – as in the quote above – understands surrender to be a fundamental quality in all of creation, even should the supernatural be left aside for a time. Creation, even within itself, desires to give of itself. Von Balthasar does not only mean to imply the rather typical allusion to self-gift: that is, the human subject’s desire to give to another in community, as is most of all expressed through marriage. He does include that, but he also means to discuss the simple act of knowing anything at all. The relationship between subject and object, he says rather fancifully in Theologic I, is also one of mutual surrender – even in the case of the object! “[The tree] unveils its color within an eye that sees color; it whispers only in an ear that hears sound; it presents its unique flavor only in the mouth of another capable of tasting.” The extravagance of the thought does not mitigate the seriousness with which he means it.
Surrender is the companion to wonder, and in thinking of it I am again reminded of my friend the toddler: she likes to keep everything to herself, especially if her younger brother has touched it. This is the opposite of surrender. It is almost as entertaining. Presented with a world of relentless meaning, my young friend responds with an almost jealous sense of wonder at it. It is, as with all two-year-olds, hers. Not yours, not mine – hers. And what is yours is also hers, including you.
Everything, too, has a name. Language is her vast new world, and watching her learn words is as dizzying as it is hilarious. Children acquire language at an astounding rate, even if more than half of its acquisition is passive instead of constructive: children understand more than they can speak.
For most modern theologians, human language is an urgent question. It is the locus of many reflections on our capacities as the image of God. Von Balthasar is no different, though in his case “language” is stretched to include not only words, not only gestures, but creaturely being itself. The Incarnation speaks to us using the grammar of human existence, and this grammar extends in all directions. As von Balthasar explains:
Creaturely logic owes this capacity to God’s artistry; God, after all, made the creature according to his own image and likeness, so that, by his grace, it might become inwardly capable of serving him as a loudspeaker through which to express himself and make himself understood. We are thus concerned no longer merely with the structures of human language but with the “language” residing in the structure of worldly being in itself.
I have observed something like this in the toddler’s younger brother, who, though still crawling, is a remarkably expressive child. He does not speak, but he can smile and babble. His favorite person in the world is his mother, and his whole face lights up when she grins at him. (Von Balthasar, too, privileges mothers.) These smiles and noises of his are of course something akin to language, and indeed on their way to language in the stricter sense. But his most elemental grammar is touch, physical affection, and even the way he clings to his mother’s leg and pulls himself to a standing position is itself a form of expression.
Little has changed with his older sister, who can speak but who for all her vocabulary still communicates fundamentally through physical gestures – these most elemental image-words, shaped by the body. This is especially true of her after a nap, in which case she would rather bury her face in her mother’s shoulder than greet the world with words. Von Balthasar would like to say, I think, that these elemental images continue to form the rest of our “language,” however it is further construed. I would like to say the same.
Which I suppose means that I must grow used to hugs from a two-year-old and her brother.
Or write a dissertation.