Von Balthasar: Anxiety and the Church

In The Christian and Anxiety, the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar largely focuses on the relationship between anxiety and the individual. However, in the closing pages, he touches on anxiety and the church. We might when we’re feeling a little snippy describe the church as a key source of anxiety in the world. The dynamics of sin and salvation can seem like an exercise in manufacturing and relieving guilt – we talk about fire and brimstone preachers, who emphasise eternal suffering to make people repent, essentially generating anxiety to encourage conversions – and then there’s the infamous Catholic guilt.

Von Balthasar argues that all of that is really quite a superficial misuse of Christianity, which, he insists, “is not a ‘religion of anxiety’ – arousing anxiety through its claims and threats, then numbing anxiety through its forms and rites.” Instead, the actual function of the church – well, it still starts with anxiety, really. The church is still meant to generate some sort of anxiety in people: “the Church constantly demands too much of natural man by asking him to imitate Christ. All of Christianity … will always appear, and rightly so, to be an exorbitant demand, an excessive strain, and thus a threat to and the destruction of natural man and his laws and limits.” However, he says, all of this pressure only exists “that man might dare in faith to go beyond his own nature, that he might persevere and live in that leap of faith.”

As twisted and contradictory as it sounds, there are some interesting examples of this sort of shift happening. I’ve certainly known people in my own life who have been tormented by the question of whether they’re good enough, whether they’re living up to the standard of the church – or what it means that they’re falling below it – but to take maybe the more obvious historical example, we also see this transition in Martin Luther. There are plenty of stories about Luther’s gloomy, tormented soul, and about the transformation or liberty that he felt when he realised that he was justified by faith as a free, unearned gift from the divine. The church asks too much, demands too much, and Luther in turn casts himself into the leap of faith – he trusts in God’s gift, and stops relying on his own merits or activity.

And obviously the Catholic von Balthasar wouldn’t really appreciate us using the Protestant Luther as an example. This is supposed to be about how anxiety works as part of the structure and process of the Catholic church – and I’m sure von Balthasar isn’t meaning to suggest that the necessary and appropriate outcome of that process is the Protestant Reformation. Even so, the example is instructive – both as a direct illustration of von Balthasar’s argument, and maybe also as evidence of some of the relative contours of the Protestant and Catholic faiths. For example, von Balthasar says that all the structures that people find in the church, such as “ecclesial office and the men who exercise it; Sacred Scripture as a tangible word” and “the sacraments as definite forms and vessels of the salvific encounter between man and God” are “but so many supports and handrails with which to teach and train [the Christian] for that one leap away from all handrails.” You can see Luther coming to a similar conclusion, with his belief that the Catholics were corrupting the faith, adding in all these rules and regulations that weren’t necessary. Luther’s realisation was that all of those handrails and structures must be abandoned, or released, in order to make a true leap into faith.

This true leap into faith, von Balthasar says, has Christian fortitude as one of its byproducts. Christian fortitude is “the courage to say Yes in every instance to every word of God that may affect my life.” It’s not contrasted against anxiety, it’s more a sort of bearing with anxiety. It’s defenselessness, openness to the divine: “No one is as unarmed and exposed as the saint is toward God, and therefore no one is as ready to be deluged by every anxiety.”

And then – this could be my Protestant ass just not understanding the argument, but then von Balthasar pivots back to the church in a way that feels like a bit of a jump. He says that the Christian is placed in the church, and that “the church represents God to him” – which – I mean, it sounded above like the church was purely a way of training people to abandon these handrails. Von Balthasar argues that the Christian’s “openness to God becomes in him an openness to the church; it becomes ecclesial obedience.” But he’s already said that the ecclesial office is one of “so many supports and handrails” that is really only there to make itself obsolete – to train the believer into making a leap of faith. Again, this could be me misunderstanding the argument, but I’m not seeing a logical connection between those two ideas.

When we’re talking about anxiety, it’s obviously always going to be focused on the individual experience. Von Balthasar offers some interesting comments on how the church accelerates and transforms that anxiety into this vulnerable openness towards the divine, but where his argument struggles – or at least where I lose track of it – is in the role of the church after that transformation takes place. We could gesture back to some of the Catholic ideas that we’ve talked about previously – to de Lubac on social salvation, on our collective and communal identity as believers, and the church as the living body of God – but then I’m not sure what that does to von Balthasar’s initial argument about the church accelerating our individual anxieties. There’s a tension here between different levels of thought, between the individual and the communal. That’s really the challenge of trying to talk about a psychological experience like anxiety in the context of the structures and institutions of the Catholic church. Integrating those things into each other can be tricky – whether it’s a failing of von Balthasar’s argument, or the limits of my own perspective in not being able to understand where he’s coming from.

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