Room for God-Talk in an Era of Apatheism

A Review


Professor Joseph Drexler-Dreis and Brother Charles

What does it matter whether God exists? Though not directly put by the author, a recent book by Saint Mary’s College Professor Anne M. Carpenter, Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being (Notre Dame: 2015), gives insight into what is at stake for all of us in the answer to this question. Early on in her work, Carpenter asks, “Can the living finitude of earthly beauty betray an openness to what transcends it and not merely an openness to death”(9)? Her positive reply to this question is built on two premises. One, that there is a hierarchy of being – the otherness of God in relation to the created order – and, secondly, that a likeness exists between the two, established by and centered around Christ, that allows communication. The author gives a Christian view of language and art as talk about God that can open us up to God’s own talk.

Carpenter Theopoetics

Carpenter’s book is a study of the theological aesthetics of von Balthasar (d. 1988). She borrows from contemporary theology the term “theo-poetic” to describe the late Swiss theologian’s approach, which she captures in her thesis: “Hans Urs von Balthasar uses poets and poetic language to make theological arguments, because this poetic way of speaking expresses metaphysical truth without reducing one to the other” (184). Her argument is set out in five chapters, each prefaced with an original poem from the author.

The first chapter begins with the problem of earthly beauty that dies, or an earthly beauty that always escapes our ability to control it, which results in a “terror,” or a fear of beauty always being lost. In response, the chapter speaks of two separate but related surrenders. The surrender to beauty in art is like the surrender to God in religion but the two surrenders, though similar, are completely separate. Carpenter borrows from Kierkegaard the phrase “abyssal difference” to make the distinction. The likeness legitimizes poetic language for God-talk and the difference redeems it. Beauty, in the end, needs the possibility of relationship with the transcendent Christian God, made possible through the Incarnation. The redemption of beauty is the subject of the second chapter.

Beauty, the author argues, transcends any cultural/historical privilege, paradoxically, because it is united to heavenly glory in the Incarnation. Jesus teaches us the glory of God and the beauty of humanity. Beauty found everywhere points beyond itself to the promise of glory. No one individual or object, therefore, is an end in itself. Both Carpenter and von Balthasar appreciate the modern sense for the personal, or concrete and particular existence, yet authentic personality, or personality that does not collapse into beauty-as-terror, necessarily involves surrender to God and to God’s grace. The modern sense of the personal, in other words, cannot be at the expense of the cosmic.

Chapter three becomes a meditation on the doctrine of the true humanity and the true divinity of Jesus set forth at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 C.E. in order to draw out a “Christological metaphysics”. Carpenter draws a lesson about the perfection of beauty in the doctrine of Jesus as truly God and truly human in order to illuminate the analogy of being, which gives the world an inner coherence that ultimately rests in God. She writes, “Christ is not the conclusion to be arrived at with the close of metaphysical speculation; he is the unanticipated fulfillment and thus the development of that speculation” (103). She argues that Christ enlarges our notion of being in the same way that “glory” transcends “beauty”. The theme of surrender returns here as a willingness to be formed by Christ. Poetry works with this Christological metaphysics as it bears witness to the limits of creatures’ struggle to express Christo-form existence.

The fourth chapter is about the beauty and truth of language as it pertains to being and God. Language is cast wide to include image-making, that is, art. Carpenter shows how images allow von Balthasar to express a type of ordering that is ultimately necessary for beauty to exist in another modality than terror. For example, von Balthasar uses the image of a mother’s smile to reinforce his metaphysical claims. A mother’s smile, indicating her love, shapes the response of her child. This resonates with the way Christ governs theological language, and as an image can stand alongside of a Christological metaphysics. The chapter continues as a field for the author to exercise theo-poetics. There are some lovely takeaways. Carpenter draws on poetics to respond to the ever-present distance between any particular expression and the truth. As language always reaches for an inexpressible horizon of truth, “[t]he expression is always outstripped by what it expresses” (130). God’s prior love for creation, Carpenter shows following von Balthasar, is that which opens up the possibility of an expression participating in and resembling the truth. Love awakens one “to the world and to the self” (134). Loving, like knowing, requires an obedience and openness to the divine reality. At the same time, following Thomas Aquinas, Carpenter is clear that this singularity of truth gets expressed and resonates in diversity (143).

In the last chapter Carpenter, in dialogue with Dante and Gerard Manley Hopkins, argues for us as unique individuals rich in our own history and loved for and beyond ourselves. The love beyond is our participation in glory made possible in Christ and mediated through worship and the sacraments.

Theo-Poetics importantly emphasizes how von Balthasar’s work can be fruitful for what we could call a theological life. In such a life, theology is a process of thinking and being attuned to Christ, and speaking–or, perhaps better, expressing–out of this attunement. In making an argument for the way in which finitude is open toward a transcendent God, Carpenter makes a claim about the daily struggle to live in relation to God. The importance of such an argument raises questions that matter. One line of such questioning, which proceeds from within the Christocentric terms of von Balthasar and Carpenter, is to ask whether the Balthasarian Christology Carpenter draws out risks eliding the historical concreteness of Jesus’ life. That is, in foregrounding the events of the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection, does the way Jesus’ historical practice inflects those events–i.e., the ways he relates with others, with whom he opts to relate, and the content he gives to the Kingdom of God–somehow get lost? While the kenosis of the Incarnation and Jesus’ surrender on the cross are central to God’s love, might more historical concreteness be needed as we continue the struggle to live a theological life, which Carpenter so crucially puts at the center? Like any good book, Carpenter’s Theo-Poetics, because it makes a claim fundamental in nature, a claim about the very struggle to speak theologically, forces us to grapple with such questions.

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