Briefly Reviewed: December 1985
The Christian State of Life
By Hans Urs von Balthasar
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Review Author: Larry Chapp
The Second Vatican Council gave us Lumen Gentium, and it has been fashionable to treat the latter’s description of the Church as the “People of God” as a mandate for the systematic “leveling out” of all states of life within the Roman Catholic Church. This is necessary, we are told, in order to bring democracy and justice to a Church that has for too long perpetuated an antiquated, medieval view of various states of life that turns priests into princes and reduces the laity to appendages. Unfortunately, this leveling approach monistically reduces obedience in the Church to servility and equates authority with the exercise of raw power. Hence, we see the development of “liberation” movements within the Church herself and demands for “rights” vis-à-vis the Magisterium, which in turn is depicted as the ecclesiastical equivalent of Somoza’s Nicaragua.
In contrast to such a view, Balthasar’s The Christian State of Life presents us with a meditation on the two states of election (the way of the counsels and priesthood) and on marriage, which is at once thoroughly modern and solidly rooted in the Church’s traditional praxis. Taking issue with those who would remove all distinctions between the various states, Balthasar beautifully outlines the scriptural and patristic evidence for the state of election and lays to rest any claim that the Church’s praxis does not antedate the medieval synthesis of the scholastics. He points out that the early Church was not a formless democratic entity devoid of internal distinctions or authority. Quite the contrary. St. Paul recognized various “charisms” within the community and the early Church had an unquestioning acceptance of virgins and ascetics which proves that she did not interpret in an entirely “spiritual” manner the way of “special” discipleship. This “special” discipleship, which later gave rise to monasticism and the enumeration of the three basic counsels (poverty, chastity, obedience), was patterned on the paradigm of the vita apostolica and grounded in Jesus’ calling of the apostles to the radical renunciation of the way of the cross. In this vein Balthasar quotes St. Jerome: “Such as the Church of those believing in Christ was in the beginning, so monks now strive to be.” It is in this sense that the life of poverty, chastity, and obedience came to be seen, not simply as a “sign” of eschatological fulfillment, but as a concrete attempt to express the present holiness of the Church.
Along these lines, Balthasar traces within the New Testament a connection between the “special” call to a life in the way of the counsels and the “office” of priest. The priest, like the apostles, is “called away” from the world to share in a radical way the life of self-giving renunciation. The link between priesthood and special election offers Balthasar an opportunity to expound on the superiority of the “Marian” principle of self-giving over the institutional principle of the “office” as regards the priesthood.
The state of life known as Christian marriage is, despite all the emphasis given to the way of the counsels, not portrayed by Balthasar as a “compromise” for those who cannot live up to the demands of the counsels. It is a unique vocation in its own right, and when lived to its fullest becomes a startling witness to the fidelity of Christ’s love for the Church. Balthasar grounds the way of the counsels, the priesthood, and the lay states all within the one concrete “state” of Christ’s life, a life which exemplifies and encompasses the way of the commandments (the “silent” years in Nazareth living obediently with his family) and the way of special election (leaving his family to pursue radically the will of his Father). Thus, there is a complementarity within the various states of life even though the state of election, seen as a concrete manifestation of the New Creation, is qualitatively “higher.” Grounding all of the states within the one will of Christ, eternally obedient to the Father, thwarts any attempt to see in the way of the counsels a superiority based on sociological considerations. All of the states are an explication of the fundamental structure of our call to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.
This book contains a wealth of theological insight of the type we have come to expect from Balthasar and represents a significant contribution to modern theology.
Yes or No?: Straight Answers to Tough Questions about Christianity
By Peter Kreeft
Publisher: Servant Books
Price: No price given
Review Author: Thomas W. Case
Last year, in a certain seminar at a certain theological seminary in California, the following interchange was heard:
Student A (paraphrasing C.S. Lewis): “Too often, we read old books to ‘place them in their cultural matrix’ or to ‘determine their antecedent influences’ or show how the writer’s ideas are consistent or inconsistent with ‘the horizon of modern thought’ rather than ever asking: is this true or not?”
Student B: “But what is truth?”
Student A (floundering around for a bit): “Isn’t truth something that draws you to it, that is the center of reality, that is objective…?”
Professor (flabbergasted): “A transcendent notion of truth!”
Student A (thinking furiously but saying nothing out loud): “But how could you possibly be a Christian if you don’t believe in transcendent Truth?”
Thus was Student A delighted to read in Yes or No?, Peter Kreeft’s all too short catechism of the Christian faith: “This is the only honest reason why anyone should ever believe Christianity, or anything else: because it is true.”
And if you ask, like Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” Kreeft answers: it is true for me and true for you, and true for all times and places, because it is something prior to Time and Place, because it is in fact an aspect of God. And the seeking of it is in truth the seeking of God.
Yes or No? is written in the form of a dialogue between a non-Christian seeker, “Sal,” and a Christian believer, “Chris.” The dialogue is not quite up to Socratic standards because Sal is often shown to be only a mouthpiece for the slogans dribbling out of colleges into today’s street philosophy: what I call California mush: “Everything is relative,” or, “What is true for me is true for me and what is true for you is true for you and we’re both right.” (This latter piece of nonsense is academically glorified in seminaries with the name “pluralism.”)
It is a pathetic comment on our times that we must retrieve the very notion of objective truth before we can begin to speak correctly about religion. This is the first “straight answer to tough questions about Christianity”: if the Resurrection (or any other religious truth) is true, it is true for everyone and everywhere. And its truth does not depend on our believing it.
But then the point is how we can come to believe it. The road blocks are many, and Kreeft is able to knock them down succinctly, one by one. In a negative formulation, it goes something like this: in order to believe that Jesus is God, you have to believe in the Resurrection (for the Resurrection is the chief proof of the Incarnation). To believe in the Resurrection, you have to believe in the possibility of miracles. To believe in the possibility of miracles, you have to believe in a Power transcending the ordinary ways of nature. “It all hangs together,” as Chris says and as Sal admits.
And this is what makes it so tough for a modern “reasonable” person to believe that Jesus is God: he is imbued (whether he knows it or not) with a materialistic philosophy. The highest god he can imagine is something called “the laws of nature.” He cannot admit to a Person forming them and, at will, transcending them, and so he cannot admit to the possibility of miracles. Specifically he cannot believe that a dead body can be raised to life. Nature “doesn’t work that way.” Thus no real Resurrection, thus no Incarnation, thus no Christianity.
And thus modern heretics try to squash the Christian faith into an existential absurdity bound by the tightropes of time and space and the sandbox of the self.
I have touched only on a couple of points in the book. It is a much needed, and welcome, preliminary catechism for young adults. My only complaint is that it is weighted too much toward the “personal decision” type stuff you read in Kierkegaard: as if there were no drawing power from the truth itself. On the other hand I would commend the very interesting speculations on heaven and hell, and overall, see the book’s chief value as demonstrating that faith can be reasonable and reason can be faithful.
Pastoral Letters: 1792-1983 [in four volumes]
By the United States Catholic Bishops
Publisher: National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference
Price: $78 for all four volumes
Review Author: Dale Vree
This treasure chest contains all the pastoral letters and official statements issued by the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, beginning with the first one in 1792, and ending with the 1983 pastoral on war and peace and a brief 1983 “Statement on U.S. Policy in Central America.”
The documents, many of which have long been out of print, cover a multitude of topics, from indecent literature to family life, from Vietnam to conditions in Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s, from racism to celibacy, from ecclesiology to birth control, from abortion to the Iranian hostage crisis, and more.
For those particularly interested in the discussion surrounding the bishops’ current pastoral letter on the U.S. economy, there are numerous documents on economic and social justice issues, perhaps most notably the bishops’ pioneering 1919 “Program of Social Reconstruction,” of which 11 proposals were partially implemented by the New Deal. The Program also contains this still radical and largely unrealized proposal: “The majority must somehow become owners, or at least in part, of the instruments of production. They can be enabled to reach this stage gradually through cooperative productive societies and co-partnership arrangements. In the former, the workers own and manage the industries themselves; in the latter they own a substantial part of the corporate stock and exercise a reasonable share in the management.”
Also especially interesting is the bishops’ 1974 “Statement on Charismatic Renewal,” where they encourage Catholic charismatic renewal in the context of a perceptive discussion of its promises and potential pitfalls.
This basic text belongs in every serious library, and many individuals will find it to be an illuminating and invaluable reference, tool.
©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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