With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The Mystical Messiah I

The following will make up a series of posts drawn from some research I did last semester on mystical theology and spirituality. It is, in large part, little more than a reflection on Alfred Wikenhauser's Pauline Mysticism: Christ in the Mystical Teaching of St. Paul and Albert Schweitzer's The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, which I was deeply struck by. It will be evident to anyone who has read this work that for the sake of space I limited my focus to only certain dimensions of Schweitzer's account. This topic is rich enough, as Schweitzer's account makes clear, to encompass detailed treatments of ecclesiology, sacraments, ethics, and eschatology. To draw these out fully is a project for another day (or career). This is, then, incomplete in nature. Since I began writing, I have begun to read more and more on Paul and am only now beginning to obtain the kind of familiarity necessary to point out with any justification where Schweitzer's account may be lacking or incomplete. So I may in fact disagree now on certain matters, from a historical-critical perspective, which I was unable to accurately question before. Nonetheless, I thought it would be good to post and perhaps spark some interesting discussion....

When I reflect on what sources have influenced my own personal spirituality, there is little doubt that the great mystics of the Catholic tradition play a prominent role. In particular my heart sees kindred spirits in those holy men and women whose mysticism is utterly saturated with and shaped by the person of Jesus Christ in all the concrete dimensions of his humanity. It is this obsessive focus upon the Word Incarnate that I believe most visibly separates these saints from the mystics of the pagan schools (like Neoplatonism), because here the ascent to union with God can only be properly conceived of in terms of Christ. In many ways Jesus is the most fitting locus of any mysticism, insofar as He embodies in His very flesh the most radical union of God and man, and His sojourn into an earthly life was characterized by a mystical union: of embracing humanity and carrying it back to the Father. Jesus Himself can thus be said to be the first true mystic (the Cross being the greatest of His “dark nights”). Indeed, from the days of Christianity’s birth, the path of holiness was thought of through the dynamic of discipleship: Christian spiritual life was simply a “following” of Christ and a deepening share in His very life. It is therefore unsurprising that in figures as diverse as Maximus, Bonaventure, Bernard, and Julian, the mystical path is described precisely as a profound participation in the experiences of Christ. It seems then that Christ’s experience naturally lends itself to imitation, as the truest exemplification of what Christian spirituality means.

However, much of the language surrounding these mystical accounts of Christ is notoriously ambiguous and theoretically unintelligible. Many phrases and descriptions of spirituality, which have become common in the broader Christian tradition, seem to strike the ear with a deceiving familiarity. For they truly signal a divorce from their original home, the context in which the concepts and words were rendered intelligible. They are, it seems, much like immigrant concepts: all around and familiar yet always somehow foreign. For I have long wondered what exactly people mean when they ask “Do you have Christ Jesus in your heart?” or when they say “I am united with God in the spirit.” It seems obvious that the supernatural content of these utterances require a stretching of language beyond our normal meanings and senses. But an account of how this language is stretched and how to make it intelligible is rarely provided. While the tradition has preserved the concepts and the rhetoric of the past, it has not always preserved the context which those concepts and that rhetoric grew out of. We shall thus seek to discover the precedent within the Christian theological tradition for these mystical concepts that center around Christ specifically. Yet to gain a clearer understanding of how these notions function within our own time, before turning to the origins, we shall use as a point of departure for our study the Christology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

A. Balthasar and Christology “From Within”

Hans Urs von Balthasar conceives of Christology in a way that is unique in modern theology. Rather than approach the Gospels with a hermeneutic geared toward emphasizing Christ’s divinity (“Christology from above”) or His humanity (“Christology from below”), he offers an approach that bridges the false dichotomy by exploring the insight about Christ that is revealed in the lives of the saints and mystics of the Christian tradition: what Mark McIntosh calls a “Christology from within.”[1] According to Balthasar, the saints and mystics have a special access to the inner reality of Christ because their existence is defined by a dramatic participation in Christ. They therefore become icons to the Church, windows into the reality of Christ providing data for the systematic reflection of Christology analogous to and consistent with the Scriptural deposit. They offer a vantage point of Christ’s divine-human existence from the inside out. This Christology is then a study of Christ insofar as He is made present in the very lives of believers.

Balthasar is able to think along these lines because according to Him Christ has a uniquely open and inclusive existence: He is able to offer participation in Himself and even in the experiences of His earthly life. As Balthasar puts it: “The individual historical existence of Christ can be so universalized as to become the immediate norm of every individual existence.”[2] This is no external imitation, but a profound sharing of Jesus’ own consciousness. Just as the sacraments (namely, the Eucharist) make present events of Christ’s life that stand in new relations of time and space, holiness in Christians is seen as a constant re-presencing of Christ unfolding in every age. And for Balthasar, the saints and mystics are given to us for the sole purpose of enlightening the Church about the inner reality of Christ, that our understanding of the faith may increase as well as our charity. As every Christology bears the imprint of some community’s experience of Jesus, Balthasar’s Christology can be said to emerge from the community’s experience of Jesus in the mystical union which somehow shares His life with the holy. McIntosh notes:

Through the saints, each moment of Christ’s existence is made continually and really present in His Body, and it is von Balthasar’s aim to enlist these experiences in deepening the Body’s understanding of what has taken place in its Head…von Balthasar is claiming the right to draw on the saints’ own grace of participation in Christ as a direct source for theological construction. [3]

Christ, then, according to Balthasar, possesses an existence with the unique capacity to include souls within Himself, making it possible for them to share in the very experience of His earthly life.[4] Yet how is this possible? Balthasar grounds this capacity in Christ’s kenotic self-giving, which has two aspects. Christ is self-giving in the act of creation, insofar as all things are created through Christ; and Christ is self-giving in the economy of salvation, as He is poured-out in His incarnation. These two aspects are intimately related for Balthasar, and therefore the contours of Christ’s earthly life are by no means accidental. All creation bears in some way the mark of Christ, and thus the patterns of Christ’s earthly life actually give expression to God the Son such that they also reveal the inherent, foundational structures of created historical existence. Creation is…

…shaped and structured and completely conditioned by certain categories. The framework of its meanings is constructed of the situations (the interior situations) of Christ’s earthly existence. Man cannot fall out of this space which is Christ’s, nor out of the structural form created by his life.[5]
Thus, the pattern of Christ’s saving actions informs and reveals the very structures of fulfillment written into the nature of man from His creation. The believer only finds the actualization of his own existence to the extent that he lives according to this mysterious union, allowing the life of Christ to structure his entire being. Christ’s salvific acts have the capacity to actively generate related situations in the life of the believer, such that his transformation and union with God can only be thought of as a movement from self to “Christ-self,” from revealing only oneself to making Christ’s life present again through one’s own life. This is the very nature of the unique Christian mystical ascent.

We can thus see how Balthasar finds resources for a unique Christology and for an account of spirituality that can only be articulated in terms of this union with and participation in the life of Christ. He grounds these accounts on notions of Christ’s life as uniquely open to participation, somehow beyond time and space, able to exist again in the very lives of believers and create in them related situations (such as his dying and rising). Further, he provides an account of how the self-realization of all created humanity comes only through conforming to these patterns of Christ’s life and by making Him present once more. His theory is coherent and illuminating, and represents the kind of constructive theology of Jesus that the Christ-centered mystics presuppose. But our pursuit of intelligibility cannot rest in the immediate theological justification. We are forced to ask: what foundation does such an enterprise have in the theological tradition? What precedent is there for conceiving of Christ’s existence as mysteriously “open to participation” and of the believer as partaking of Christ’s very life? How can one “participate” in someone else’s life that has already been lived? What is the nature of this union and what implications does it have for the existence of the believer? In short, Balthasar’s account presupposes the intelligibility of these concepts within their native context. We must then trace them back to understand what lends this theological dialect its coherence in the first place.

B. Paul as Source of a Theological Tradition

The first signs of a mysticism that is oriented specifically to a mystical union with Christ is found in the theology of St. Paul. The term “mysticism” used in the context of Pauline thought does not carry the same connotations presumed in most modern ramblings about mysticism, such as the dichotomy between individual and community, private revelation vs. public revelation, etc. Paul’s mysticism is irreducible to a series of psychological phenomena. And in contrast to pagan “God-mysticism” (as with pantheistic strains in Hellenism, Buddhism, among others), it is obvious that for Paul whatever we mean by union with God has to come through a personal union with Jesus. It is, as Albert Schweitzer notes, more accurately termed a “Christ-mysticism.”[6] The essence of mysticism for Paul is an intimate and mysterious union with Jesus Christ Triumphant; the nature of which Paul develops not in any single systematic treatment, but through recurrent concepts that underlie his theology across many of his Epistles. Therefore, we shall turn to the writings of Paul to discover the origin of a “mystical” conception of Christ and how such a conception is made intelligible in its original New Testament context. This we deem to be the source of the theological-mystical tradition that runs through such thinkers as St. Maximus, St. Bernard, and St. Bonaventure.

[1] Mark McIntosh, Christology From Within: Spirituality and the Incarnation in Hans Urs von Balthasar (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996), p.21

[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Theology of History, 2nd ed. (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963), p.79-80; cited in McIntosh, p.21

[3] McIntosh, p.26

[4] Ibid., p.25: “saints have been granted a capacity to witness to the ever-new, ever-deeper dimensions of Christ’s living, dying, and rising.”

[5] Ibid., p.22

[6] Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1956), p.13


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