Von Balthasar: Time is for Waiting

This week we’re looking at Hans Urs von Balthasar’s A Theology of History, a title with possibly the funniest elevator pitch I’ve read in a book of theology. This is the first little bit of the blurb: “It is not surprising that, as a Christian, Hans Urs von Balthasar finds the meaning of history in Christ, its center and Lord. What may surprise and stimulate us is the theological mastery with which” – and so on. They’re deliberately soft-balling the book because they know that the basic idea is obvious, but then they’re still trying to sell you on the fact that von Balthasar is very clever and will have some interesting hot takes along the way. And that’s really all we’re going to be talking about with this one – not the core arguments or ideas so much as some interesting little details. Most of the main arguments are really pretty run of the mill: the standard theological opinion on history is that, as with everything else, Jesus sits at the center. History revolves around Jesus, who is the template for how we should move through history as well. It’s all very common theological ideas translated into the context of history, or more specifically the context of time.

The more interesting parts, as I say, are in the finer-grained detail. For instance, we’ve been talking recently about the idea of openness to the divine, and how that translates into vulnerability and anxiety. Von Balthasar argues that Jesus was open to God the Father in much the same way. He quotes extensively from the Gospel of John, showing how Jesus says that he receives “life (5:26), insight (3:11), spirit (3:34-35), word (3:34; 14:24), will (5:30), deed (6:9), doctrine (7:16), work (14:10) and glorification (8:54; 17:22, 24 from another, from the Father.” The very identity of Christ, he argues, his very form of existence “is the uninterrupted reception of everything that he is, of his very self, from the Father.” His perfection lies in that uninterruptedness, in the unbroken reception of identity from God. You can define sin, if you like, as our attempt to draw our actions from a source other than God. Christ’s perfection thus lies in his uninterrupted state of receiving, in never looking to draw his actions or any other facet of himself from any source other than the Father.

And if we’re translating this idea into the context of time – I mean, you can see where it’s going. If we receive all things from God, then we also receive them in God’s time. Jesus “does not anticipate the will of the Father,” von Balthasar claims. “He does not do that precise thing which we try to do when we sin, which is to break out of time, within which are contained God’s dispositions for us.” Jesus receives things from God in God’s time. He experiences time on earth as one who waits – who is open to the divine and who receives according to God’s will. Von Balthasar insists on the corollary virtue of patience, which he sees as the “basic constituent of Christianity, more central than even humility: the power to wait, to persevere, to hold out, to endure to the end, not to transcend one’s own limitations, not to force issues by playing the hero or the titan, but to practice the virtue that lies beyond heroism, the meekness of the lamb which is led.” For us too, von Balthasar suggests, time is for waiting. Like Jesus, our time belongs to God. We wait to receive His will. We make ourselves open and receive in His time. Patience thus becomes the hinge of our movement through time. Time is for waiting.

I dunno. Like I say, it’s not new. It’s not a totally foreign idea. It’s a common theological idea wrapped up in the context of history, the language of time. I don’t really even know why I stopped to discuss it. I went back and forth on it, whether I should just skip it and talk about the next thing. There’s some shit about femininity next week and I am itching to get to that. I guess there’s a certain thematic symmetry, forcing myself to write about how sometimes you just have to accept what’s put in front of you. It’s a little obvious though. Maybe it’s even just the lockdown – two hundred and something days, here in Melbourne. Heading towards two fifty. I took a half-week off, promised myself I’d get some writing done – but I didn’t. Couldn’t do much more than rest. Fucking pandemic wearing me down. The reflection is part of the waiting, I guess. You receive what God gives you, and you spend a bit of time fussing about the whys and wherefores, and then you put it on your shoulder and get on with it.

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