Von Balthasar: On Anxiety

In his book Catholicism, Cardinal Henri de Lubac comments that “for all of us today the coming of Christ in the person of his church is at the same time both autumn and spring.” We live, he suggests, in both the beginning and the end of history – in both the autumn and the spring of human existence. “In the evening of the world the Cross was the consummation of all things, but on Easter morning a new day was born for mankind.” This tension is reflected in some of the common issues that pop up in Christian culture – they often reflect an imbalance between the not-yet and the already-here. You see it in discourse around sin, for example. One group will declare that sin is defeated, that it’s overthrown – that victory is already here – and the other group will point to all of the suffering and terror in the world and insist that victory is not yet. The push and pull of these different groups can be complicated, and in the worst case scenario, one takes over completely.

For example, the already-here group usually have quite a bit to say in the field of mental health. Things like depression or trauma are refracted through the lens of salvation and sin – you hear things like ‘Jesus is lord over postnatal depression, and you need to live in that promise.’ It’s first and foremost an instruction to New Age manifest the already-here victory of Christ as a solution to your mental health issues – and if you fail, or if you shelve that methodology in favour of medication and a good therapist, your faith can be called into question.

Obviously all of this is deeply destructive and harmful. It’s rampant behaviour in Christian circles, and it hurts people. It’s with some trepidation, then, that we turn to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Christian and Anxiety. The Swiss Catholic von Balthasar was a 20th century theologian and Catholic priest, and he probably wrote too much. He published eighty-five books, according to Wikipedia (my volume of The Christian and Anxiety says it’s actually over a hundred), and – you know, he’s one of those guys. His major work is a fifteen-volume trilogy on beauty, truth, and goodness, and you bet your ass I’m going to end up reading it. Not in this run – we’re finishing up the 20th century Catholics at the end of the year – but one day.

In the meantime, our entry point into von Balthasar is his book on anxiety – which, as you can guess, is one of those problem areas in Christian communities. If you experience nervousness or anxiety, you’re sometimes told it’s because you don’t trust God – it’s treated as a religious failing rather than a psychological condition. And I guess I want to acknowledge here that these don’t need to be mutually exclusive categories. As von Balthasar notes, if God created everything, then everything should in turn be understood with reference to God. I think that’s fair enough – you know, for instance, I think it’s probably good to believe that there’s no depression in heaven. That’s probably a healthy context. The idea of heaven as liberation, as freedom, as restoration to a perfect state – it brings hope. It empowers us to strive to have those things in our lives now – to return to Péguy from last week, this is where I think the idea of hope and repetition is really valuable. There’s something powerful about believing that even if things are bad, we are on a trajectory towards freedom. Whether it happens now or later, in this life or the next, there’s something empowering about the belief that our struggles will be vindicated, and that we ultimately will be triumphant. I think that’s a healthy attitude to have towards mental health issues, or towards anything else that we struggle with. In that sense, the religious context can be really productive. It can be good to frame anxiety with reference to God – if that framing is handled appropriately. Let’s see how von Balthasar works through it, anyway.

In Chapter Two, also titled ‘The Christian and Anxiety’, von Balthasar tells us that “Insofar as he possesses the life of faith, the Christian cannot fear.” He quotes a range of Bible verses that tell believers not to fear, and simply rejects the concept of anxiety outright as something inadmissible into Christian life. “At first this sounds grotesque,” he admits, “and modern man will say that this prohibition by no means eliminates the fact of anxiety from the world.” Nevertheless, he continues, “The Christian can only counter by insisting that ‘facts’ do not eliminate the command forbidding its presence.” This is everything we were talking about before – anxiety as religious failing rather than psychological condition. That’s not to say that anxious people should be abandoned, of course; von Balthasar magnanimously insists that the true Christian “will not haughtily turn away from the anxiety of his fellow men and fellow Christians, but will show them how to extricate themselves from their fruitless withdrawal into themselves and will point out the paths by which they can step out into the open, into faith’s daring. But not one whit, either theoretically or in practice, will the Christian stoop to compromise. He will know that ‘anxiousness’ belongs among the things the Lord has forbidden.”

In these excerpts, we can see the clear interplay between religion and psychology in that Catholic lens. The religious perspective is set above the psychological; the scientific study of what is is superseded by the religious claims about what should be. It’s also an argument that really gives succor to assholes. We’ve talked about this before, when we were talking about the faux-centrist racism of Christianity Today – there’s a point where you have to think about an argument in terms of whose life you’re making easy. If a racist can read your work and feel supported and encouraged in their racist behaviours, there’s a problem. Von Balthasar – at least in these excerpts – makes life easy for that particular brigade of men who believe that anxiety is on some level a choice. Those men can read this stuff, and declare that Jesus banned anxiety, and that therefore all the wussy fem-boys need to stop exploring their emotions and having mental illnesses and so on.

And at this point, I just want to read on a little further. Von Balthasar doesn’t just say that anxiety is bad and illegal – he distinguishes more specifically between a sort of sin-anxiety, anxiety born out of some concern for your own welfare (“which comprises everything that throws a person back upon himself, closes him off, constricts him, and makes him unproductive and unfit”), and divine anxiety. Divine or Christian anxiety is anxiety as expressed in a proper, Christian manner – anxiety focused on other people, rather than on yourself. Von Balthasar uses as his point of reference the death of Lazarus in John 11. Mary and Martha are anxious for Lazarus, who is sick – this, to von Balthasar, is the true and righteous form of anxiety. “This anxiety is laid upon the women in the midst of their concern for their neighbour.” Christian anxiety, he says, is “fundamentally a catholic anxiety” – catholic meaning communal or collective. “As the believer leaps into God, he cannot thereby renounce solidarity with his neighbour and leave him to his fate. His leap of faith, rather, must snatch up his neighbour and bring him along.” Anxiety for ourselves is replaced by anxiety for other people – by a Christ-like hope and anxiousness that other people will come to share in what de Lubac calls social salvation.

It’s an interesting little roadblock for the ‘anxiety is bad’ people. Realistically, those people are motivated by a concern that the church (and society) is becoming overly feminized. They’re the sort of people who will say that men need to be men, and set up male-only church camping trips in the wilderness to assert their masculinity. All of this stuff about anxiety for the other, anxiety as solidarity – they would hate it. They aren’t against anxiety because it’s un-Christian, they’re against anxiety because they see it as feminine. But von Balthasar suggests that our response to anxious people should be anxiety for them – we should be anxious to see them liberated from their anxiety. To return to his comment earlier, we should “point out the paths by which they can step out into the open” – not as an implicit form of condemnation or a judgement against them, not as the first step towards casting out the unrepentant, but as an act of solidarity and love.

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