Faith as a Balancing Act of Life
By Willibald Sandler
[This chapter published in: Gottesentdeckungen. Ed. Chr.Kanzian, Thaur Verlaghaus 1999 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,
http://theol.uibk.ac.at/itl/51.html. Willibald Sandler is a professor of systematic theology in Innsbruck.]
1. Happy life – a matter of right balance
2. The lost balance in modern society
3. The ways of the religions
4. Israel’s way in the Old Testament
5. The narrow way in the New Testament
6. The way of the cross as God’s way to us
7. Our discipleship on the way of the cross
8. No fear of abysses
Life seems comparable to a balancing act on a tightrope or high-wire. We are all tightrope walkers. One can miss life and fall down from the rope. A person is a being of tension and a being of the happy medium who moves to his center and simultaneously pushes outward. Everyone lives in polarities and must learn to endure tensions.” (1)
Imagine a narrow ridge walk on a mountain hike. The difficult terrain breaks off steeply. At the beginning of the crossing is a child and at the other end the father. The child stares uncertain at the steep footpath. Normally balancing ourselves over such a distance would not be a problem. However abysses and chasms threaten. “What if I take a single wrong step?” Much is at stake so one is frightened. Then the father cries: “Don’t look down, look at me! Climb up. It is very easy!” The child obeys, takes a few steps but glances at the depths. A slight swaying to the left is followed by an overcompensating step to the right…
This uneasy episode can be a metaphor for life, a parable for human relations with God and for the eclipse of God when the focus on God is lost – in glancing at the abyss – and life falls out of balance. Lost balance is an experience painfully familiar to us – on our personal path through life in dealing with fellow human beings and also considering the course of all humanity: loss of balance in the encounter of people and nations, loss of moderation in dealing with the resources of nature. The worldwide efforts for peace and ecology were never as great as today. But aren’t these efforts the desperate attempts of an inexperienced pilot trying to bring his aircraft spinning out of orbit under control again?
The narrated episode suggests a simple way out for this misery. We need only direct our focus again to the divine Father. Then we and the world will find the balance again. What is “focus on God”? Go to church? However isn’t the church in Austria and worldwide fallen apart or thrown out of joint? Doesn’t it share in the general loss of the happy medium in a suffocating way? If the metaphor of the tightrope walk or ridge walk shows an answer, it is not through a cheap self-evident “morals:.
1. Happy life – a matter of right balance
A person is a being marked by tensions. He attains his/her happiness in finding the happy medium within these tensions. He/She is drawn between exertion and relaxation, work and leisure time, breathing-in and breathing-out, giving and receiving, holding and letting go, speaking and silence. 2 The happy medium must always be rediscovered since it isn’t always the same but is situation-dependent and one loses it again and again. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time for dance, a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing..” This was the wisdom of the Old Testament preacher. 3
This diverse tension of human existence means that a happy life cannot be realized according to general prescriptions. The realization of a meaningful life is not simply a question of knowledge, efficiency and consequence. The happy medium can always be missed in two directions. It can be belittled and also exaggerated. An overstrained zeal can miss happiness, not only comfort and negligence. A happy life is an art, not a powerful act. It is a praxis that must be practiced like a trade and not merely studied. 4 As in learning a trade or sport, one is well advised to rely on proven traditions and not only trust one’s own skill.
Such traditions are found in myths and praxis-oriented philosophies. Plato compares the way of the human soul with the journey of a winged chariot drawn by two very different horses, one noble and the other untrained, a picture for the inner conflict of the person between high ideals and base desires. This hardly manageable team must be kept in the heights where the feathers of the soul can grow. Whoever leaves the high path becomes lost in the lowlands of wild competition and the spiritual wings threaten to break. 5
Aristotle intensely interested in the practical-ethical application made the golden mean into a central idea of his theory of virtue. For him, moral diligence was an art aiming at a middle between too much and too little: bravery as a golden mean between fear and daring, generosity between miserliness and extravagance, sensitivity between arrogance and disreputable behavior and sensitiveness between timidity and impudence.6
After a year of the severest self-mortification, Buddha took a middle way between radical asceticism and a life of pleasure. He imparted this insight to an overzealous student with a comparison to the sound of a lute: “Don’t pull the string too tight or you will tear it. Don’t make it too loose or you wont be able to play on it.” 7
Since time immemorial, instructions of happy life have been part of religious ways of salvation. They add another moment to ethical-philosophical teachings. The discovery of the right balance is not merely a personal accomplishment or art but is a gift of God. However personal effort is not excluded. Another basic tension exists between one’s activity and God’s grace received gratefully.
In Christianity, the central virtue is love. 8 Is the law of a happy medium also valid for Christianity? Can one love too much? Affirming this question means belittling the Christian ideal to a small-minded mediocrity. However there are exaggerations that seem like too much love while in truth falling behind a genuine love. Does a mother love her grown-up child too much when she cannot let her go? Here the truly greater love requires renouncing on one’s own need for nearness and love and affection. The happy loving relation is marked by a fruitful tension of nearness and distance, intimacy and respect, personal disclosure and permanent mystery of lovers. Interpersonal love is like a tightrope walk that can fail in two directions. Love can grow cold through the distance of indifference or suffocate in an intolerant and monopolizing nearness.
2. The lost balance in modern society
Finding the happy medium between informality and fetters is a challenge for a happy life in partnership, family, relationships and soci9ety. A radical imbalance now exists in these dimensions. The longing for sheltering communities has strongly increased after a long history of liberation of individuals from intolerant community and social bonds. While the current euro-american culture gains worldwide influence through globalization, a contradictory picture results in the relation of individuality and community. On one side, an increasing individualization prevails. Traditional, communal bonds of families, tribes, villages and regions dissolve. People long again for home and tradition. Many are ready to abandon their independence in favor of close and often intolerant communities. 9
The market that lives from stimulating and satisfying every kind of need promotes subtle forms of communal identity. Brands promise communal identity and no longer only advertise with quality and good price. Whoever wears products by Nike, Levis or Benetton declares him/herself – intentionally or not – a member of a worldwide consumer community. 10 Television and the Internet convey the illusion of a close intimacy 11 and entice people to declare their most private self-disclosures.
Thus our age is characterized by individualization and (growing) isolation and also by ever more ingenious simulations of community threatening private life. The emancipatory struggle for liberation from narrowing bonds is burning. The longing for residence in community and tradition is unstilled since the new forms of community offer only a purchasable substitute, not genuine security. Thus our modern world culture lacks a happy medium of individuality and community on two sides. Simultaneously there is a deficiency in close sheltering nearness and a deficiency in respectful distance allowing a free space in inviolable dignity to individuals. 12
What is valid for the relation of individuality and community is also true for other areas where a meaningful realization of life requires the happy medium between extremes. Our world has become a colorful bazaar with the most contradictory offers of meaning. Whoever starting from hedonist self-realization aims at a minimum of pleasure as the highest goal is like someone practicing rigorous asceticism through sports, diets or spirituality. Possibilities exist for a solitary search for meaning and retreat into the narrowness of seemingly intact communities or for flight into a political activism where the most remote is nearer than the neighbor.
Freedom and bonds are often communicated together very unsatisfactorily. People have the freedom to choose their commitments in which they lose their freedom. Through books, lectures and seminars, everyone can mix together a very personal meaning cocktail and yet this freedom is only superficial or simplistic. All this moves in the framework of a very intolerant achievement-oriented society in which everything depends on whether one is inside or outside, whether one keeps pace with its hectic speed or lags behind and ultimately falls by the wayside. As long as one functions in one’s social role, what one does in one’s leisure time, whether sports contests, cultural events, television, prayer circle or Zen meditation is irrelevant or secondary.
3. The ways of the religions
The modern secular world society is very tolerant toward religions as long as they are content in covering one niche alongside others in the supermarket of possibilities. However God cannot be understood in life as one offer among others. Thus religion cannot regulate the tightrope walks of life. To make this possible, the religious orientation needs a central place in human life pervading all things. Religion cannot be a leisure time hobby. Whoever acts this way doesn’t need to wonder about powerlessness.
Religion claims to show people a happy medium to the tightrope walk of life. Christianity teaches love as the happy medium of individuality (in freedom and responsibility) and community. God is sought as the reality determining all things, in the root ground of subjectivity, the hearts of fellow persons and the goods whose claim both brings people together and against one another.
This salvation claim becomes dubious through the weaknesses in which church communities are also captive. The church can miss the happy medium… The possibilities of the churches must be earnestly scrutinized because the need for orientation is great and other reliable instructions for the tightrope walk of private and public life are not in sight. Despite all failure, couldn’t church institutions still have the key for the happy medium of life and pass it on? Paul speaks of a “treasure that we have in earthen vessels”.14 This treasure should be explored despite the unsightly or homely vessels where it may be hidden. How can the believing orientation in God help people find the happy medium on the tightrope walk of life? This question leads us back to the genesis of the Jewish-Christian faith.
4. Israel’s way in the Old Testament
Israel experienced Yahweh as the “God of the way”. Israel’s experiences of accompaniment on the way proved the nature of this God. 15 God is the one who led Israel out of Egypt and in the future will lead his people to freedom. Conversely, Israel understood its own identity entirely from its God.Israel is God’s creation and property,16 the community of those whom God chose out of all nations and calls to great things. The center from which everything was understood was God’s covenant with his people.
Experience on the way also means that the knowledge about God’s identity and their own identity was gradually revealed in a long experiential history with turns and fractures. From the exodus experience alone God could be understood as a victorious God and thus equated and confused with worldly success. However over a long way of hope and disappointment, privation and comfort, victory and defeat, Israel was cared for by the transparent signs of God’s loving care and learned to find God in all things: in failure and success, suffering and happiness. Thus unlike its neighboring countries, Israel could remain faithful even after the total political collapse during the Babylonian exile.
Israel in this most extreme situation of prohibition expanded its faith in God’s power and provident care instead of admitting the failure of its own protecting God and replacing their God with the deities of the conquerors. Israel knew God as the Lord of all history and all nations. From its unhappiness, Israel did not conclude that God lost power or withdrew his loving care. Other interpretations were explored. Perhaps God only tested or inflicted a deserved punishment on his people. Israel complained and wrestled with its God where these explanations were not convincing, when the (acid) test was incredibly overstrained and punishment appeared excessive. Israel did not let God go and persisted in trust that God will keep the covenant with his people and finally provide the final deliverance.
The experience of the way gathered over centuries is summarized in the creation accounts. God created the whole world and is Lord over times, orders and the powers of chaos. God created the world and humankind good and accompanies them in loving care. The original creation is described with the picture of paradise. The person walks in happiness and freedom before God, a picture for the happy balance between God and the person and between people. However this harmony already fell apart in the beginning. That people didn’t want to be given what was most valuable and what was promised them, namely to be like God but set out on their own initiative destroyed the desired good. 17 Their focus turned away from God and back to their own existence separated from God. And “they knew that they were naked” (Gen 3,7). A deep experiential distress, a fundamental inadequacy, an unquenchable hunger seizes the person who has lost the focus on God. The return to paradise – symbol for a perfect effortless balance of human existence before God – is blocked. Envy and greed drive people into ever deeper abysses of malice. All this is not a punishment arbitrarily inflicted by God but the inner consequence of the freely chosen withdrawal from God. God does not expel but rather proves himself as the one who protects and keeps alive people straying or losing their way. 18 In the line of this engagement, God offers his covenant to an elected people, liberating them from slavery and leading them on a long way of education to ultimately redeem all humanity.
With the deepened understanding of God’s loving care, the insight in personal inadequacy grows. Again and again people experience themselves as unable to keep the covenant with Yahweh. 19 Thus the realization develops that the final and complete liberation by God must include an inner transformation. 20 This insight recalls proclamations in the OT that God has the power for such transformation, that God is still Lord of the most extreme abysses and can cushion people in their total crash in sinful distance. How this will happen whether through God’s powerful judging intervention 21, through a peaceable transformation of the people inviting all nations to pilgrimage to God’s Mount Zion 22 or on the way of a representative suffering bringing about an inner change of sinners 23 remains open in the context of the Old Testament.
5. The narrow way in the New Testament
This is the situation in which Jesus proclaims the message of the dawning kingdom of God: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” 24 God’s reign is the regained harmony of people with God and with one another. Speaking in the metaphor of the tightrope walk, the hand of the helping Father wondrously approaches the people staggering in the abyss. “You need only grasp this hand. Now is the chance!”
Where this chance exists must be explained: in the fascination that radiates from Jesus as a person who lived from a never known familiarity to God and as a result maintained perfect balance. Encounter with this figure frees the view to God again and enables the return to balance. The chance must be seized uncompromisingly in order not to remain a suspicion, presentiment or dream. The chance can be missed. In his interactions with people, Jesus experienced a brief flickering of great possibilities. The tender flame suffocated in comfort, prejudices or competing interests. 25 People disclaim God’s offered hand for the most different reasons. Jesus warns and threatens not out of wounded pride but because he had to make clear to people that there is no alternative to this divine offer. Whoever disclaims God’s offered hand ultimately loses his happy center. However Jesus’ warnings went unheard. Can the person still be saved? In this situation, Jesus speaks the uneasy words:
“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life and those who find it are few” (Mt 7,13f).
In the past, this and similar New Testament statements had to take the rap for the threat that many people will certainly go to hell. The context should be recognized. Jesus sees the danger and names it by name without giving up. God’s will of salvation doesn’t simply break in the resistance of people. Even in the situation of rejection, Jesus holds to the trust that God’s reign is near. If God’s reign cannot be realized directly, then realization will occur in another unknown way.
For Jesus, the commission to be God’s personified saving hand for reluctant persons was a difficult tightrope walk. The abyss of resignation threatens on one side, the disappointed withdrawal to an indifferent distance toward his people and the divine mission that he observed for them. The abyss of aggression also gapes: to be coldly condemned by his people and to confront people with the consequences of their obstinacy without believing in an improvement. In both ways through outward distancing in resigned indifference or through inner distancing in aggressive condemnation, Jesus would have missed his commission, the effective proclamation of God’s imminent reign. 26 The increasingly narrow path of a solidarian faithfulness toward God and humanity ran between the two temptations. Jesus holds to the reluctant, respecting their resistance without forcing them. While misunderstanding, ingratitude and rejection mount, Jesus continues to be engaged, canvassing and warning not out of a raging defiance but in unshakable faith in the sought-after, in trust that God’s imminent reign, the regaining of balance desired so long by the people, can still prevail through a happy turn against all appearance.
There is no prescription or general law that can find this way between the chasms. Only continued listening to the word of the divine Father enables Jesus to keep his balance. Again and again he withdrew to prayerful dialogue with his heavenly Father. Thus he showed the happy medium between the chasms of aggression and resignation. The prophetic song of the servant of God emphasizes this connection between hearing the divine word and maintaining balance in times of shock:
“The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I turned not backward. I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint; and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near” (Isa 50,4-8).
Jesus remained in solidarity with the people and mission up to the torturing consequences. “I gave my back to the smiters… I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” Enduring the tormenting nearness without falling into aggression, Jesus did not curse the beloved others who acted like enemies or repay them with their own coin but held out the other cheek.” 27 No aggression occurred in turning back on oneself according to the motto “Strike out and you wont be sorry!” and also no prophetic collapse of the prophetic opposition amid the unanimous accusations of the adversaries according to the motto: “You are right, strike me! I don’t deserve any better.”
Jesus did not break under the burden of the reproaches against him. 28 He maintained his dignity in the endured humiliation. “The Lord God helps me; therefore I know that I shall not be put to shame.” Keeping oneself in solidarity with others is a nearly impossible balancing act in judging against ultimately self-destructive conduct. Contrasting the good in the other from the bad with which they identify, separating between sinner and sin and making possible the conversion of the sinner and reconciliation with the enemy is a nearly impassible path in the storm of unjust blows.
Jesus only survived the tightrope walk between aggression and resignation in unconditional trust in his divine Father on a path that became ever narrower at whose end was his death on the cross. The “narrow gate” can still be missed on two sides: either through the refusal of the cross – a refusal that would have been bought by a resigned withdrawal from his sending 29 or aggression against his rivals turned back on himself. The stubbornly provoked death would ultimately be an indirect suicide. 30 Jesus did not evade death on the cross and also did not seek it. He accepted death as an inevitable consequence of remaining faithful to the commission to keep open God’s reign to his people, the “many” who ultimately include all people.
Much could be said on the significance of Jesus’ resurrection. Speaking figuratively, resurrection means that the narrow way that Jesus went and that led him to the cross was not a cul-de-sac. There is a light at the end of the tunnel! A narrow gate expands the seeming hopelessness into a new chance of reconciliation. “Peace be with you” were the first words of the Resurrected. 31 Speaking in a parable, the Christ event in the incarnation, cross and resurrection means that God runs after and meets halfway the person staggering in the abyss.32 He is even thrown by them in the darkness to cushion their eclipse of God. 33 In this way, the cross is the opening of a new way for people, God’s answer to the threatening situation that the way is narrow and only few persons will be saved. Jesus answers the desperate question of the disciples `Who then can be saved?’: “With men this is impossible” (Mt 19,26). God’s greater possibility against the human lack of orientation was reality on the way of the cross.
6. The way of the cross as God’s way to us
Is this comparison only a comforting picture or can it change our thinking? What was the effect of Jesus’ way of the cross on the muddled situation of God’s rejected reign?
First of all in Jesus’ cross, God neither resigned nor aggressively punished the rejection by people. That rejection signified a rejection of their own happiness and their own balance. God’s extravagant care proclaimed in the parable of the lost son appears in Jesus’ solidarity up to the cross. 34 Even if how God’s reaching the obstinant sinner is not clear, something decisive about God’s nature is revealed in this event. Not resigned with the rejection, God seeks new ways in a creative fantasy of love, reaching people who had long lost him from view and didn’t want to rediscover him at the moment.
God pursues the person who says No and encounters him/her in a new form. God appears anew in the humiliated form of the crucified to one who experienced God as a kingly ruler and refused submission. Thus God leads the sinner in a new situation of decision and respects his earlier refusal. The No was not yet spoken against a God appearing in this new form. What if the sinner persists in his rejection of God in this form? We don’t know. Through the Christ event in the incarnation, cross and resurrection, we know that God didn’t simply resign to this No of the person and his self-chosen loss of balance. 35 This gives hope for every person, however dark are the abysses in which he/she has strayed. We cannot abandon anyone because God abandons no one.
7. Our discipleship on the way of the cross
The ethical dimension of Christ’s way of the cross was already intimated. Jesus’ narrow way that led him to the cross is not only his exclusive way where he comes to meet us. This is also the way opened up for us as Jesus leads us as a mountain guide: as a way that we can follow to regain the lost balance for ourselves and others. In “discipleship to the cross”, we must be crucified with Christ to rise from the dead with him. This is a central idea of the spirituality of Paul. 36 In the testimony of the martyrs, this ideal was flesh and blood again and again through the centuries of church history up to today. This praxis still has a great significance today, even without explicit persecution of Christians. There are situations where any true engagement would be senseless and therefore people give up. Only arranging oneself with the present injustice seems possible. Jesus’ situation was such a situation. 37
Peter’s reservation against Jesus’ descent to Jerusalem 38 and the expected catastrophe has a pragmatic meaning: “Who is helped if you are driven into death? Then you cannot do anything for anyone. Stay and turn to others.” The passion with which Jesus rejects this proposal casts a light on its seductive plausibility. Jesus remained faithful to his way against this realistic and enticingly obvious argument. The resurrection faith means at least that such a decision is not senseless from the first. A similar situation results when politicians must expect that resistance against an injustice could cost their political mandate. “Who benefits when you are politically ineffective?” The situation of regime critics in the Third Reich was similar. What is the use of unnecessarily provoking the unjust regime if the critic is liquidated and family members or fellow priests fall under heightened pressure? Such pragmatic reflections blackmail into silent approval with prevailing injustice. Where injustice is solidified structurally, the way of the cross is the only way out of corruption and further strengthening of the unjust system, 39
Not only hours of political steadfastness point the way in the direction of the cross. At the beginning, the golden mean between nearness and distance characterizing love between persons was underlined. This balance is somewhat stable in a functioning relationship and can cope with disturbances. How can the happy medium be rediscovered when relationships are thrown off balance, trust is shaken and the ideas of true nearness and distance between the partners differ? What happens when the other – really or presumed – goes astray and should be restrained in love? One thinks of the strains of a parent-child relation when the grown-up child separates and sets off on his own possibly disastrous course. In such cases, love becomes painful solidarity with the other. When parents do not leave their children in indifferent tolerance or forcibly oppress them, only a sorrowful tightrope walk remains between resignation and aggression as described as Jesus’ way of the cross.
I do not claim that “discipleship to the cross” is commanded to the Christian in every case in such situations. Distinctions in detail are necessary. 40 Still this way is open on principle and is not impossible from the beginning. Considering Jesus Christ’s way through the cross to the resurrection, the trust grows for Christians that such a path is possible without inevitably being lost in the abysses of escalating conflicts or in an unhealthy victim mentality. Christians can go further in solidarity with fellow-persons than without this faith.
8. No fear of abysses
The Christian knows that God is also Lord over the abysses of life and can cushion people when they have lost the happy center of their existence.
This knowledge gives courage for accepting one’s mistakes. I need not veil them from myself or from others. Through the forgiveness offered by God, I know that I can accept myself despite my mistakes and be accepted by others.
The knowledge about God’s assistance on wrong ways and in abysses gives me courage to risk mistakes. Sometimes people in crisis situations see the abysses very clearly. They see that every step can be wrong and persevere in a disastrous paralysis. As a Christian, I can answer and even take a wrong step. I can accept the risk of an error and try to correct the mistake in the next step. I know that I need not be perfect on my way since everything does not depend on me alone.
The knowledge of God’s loving care to the straying also helps me cope with mistakes and disappointments of other people. The knowledge of the continued failure even of well-meaning persons in salvation history preserves me from identifying persons with mistakes and defining them according to the motto “I Know what you are in reality as a person from what you do now.” In contrast, I expect a tense coexistence of good will and unfulfilled weaknesses and desires.
A Christian anthropology is marked by a realism that keeps a happy medium between two extremes: on one side the roadside ditch of a pessimism that ascribes the concrete failure of a person to an incorrigible human nature and therefore doesn’t believe in a real improvement and on the other side the roadside ditch of a disastrous optimism that measures the other by the standard of an ideal human nature and therefore ascribes failure more to personal lethargy. The pessimist tends to abandon the person – another or himself – in view of his failure since he cannot improve himself even if he seeks improvement. The optimist runs the risk of abandoning the failing one because he could but is unwilling to improve himself. Between these extremes, the Christian realist relies on a history of dramatic wrestling between the weak and the strong. 41 A fruitful tension of acceptance and demand for change is maintained where the regaining of the lost center – in all the dimensions – has the best chances.
The Christian church with all its inner conflict in different confessions and organizations can understand itself in this Christian realism between the extremes of idealization and condemnation. The church – as an institution, a local community and represented by every individual Christian – cannot and may not sweep its own failure under the carpet! The church may not refuse the courage of facing its own mission before the whole world in a wrongly understood humility. The church is to be “a sacrament, a sign and instrument for the closest union with God for the unity of all humanity.” This is the difficult tightrope walk for the church, a narrow way on which it must wrestle again and again for the true balance. 43 It would be simply dangerous if it trivialized its historical failure to shine as an unequivocal model for the nations. It would also be simply dangerous in confession of its own errors to fall silent in its salvation claim before the world. The balance of the middle course is complicated: a church that confesses being a “holy whore” 44 and falls between all the chairs of familiar assignments – in awareness that God has chosen the unworthy to be salt of the earth and light of the world. 45 On this narrow path, the church has to face the magnitude of its mission as a community and in every individual Christian as a representative of the church in confession of its own fallibility and weakness. The church may not hide its light under the bushel, even if it entices sneering criticism:
“It is the God who said, `Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to god and not to us. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4,6-11).
1 Werner Fritschi, Die Spannkraft des Bogens. Impulses from Oppositions, 1994.
2 Most of these oppositions were meditatively reflected by Werner Fritschi in: Die Spannkraft des Bogens (see note 1). In theology, Romano Guardini from his early philosophical work from 1925 understood the person as a being of tensions and oppositions. Oppositions and tensions are also decisive for Hans Urs von Balthasars’ dramatic theology.
3 Koh 3,1.4f.
4 On this idea of praxis, cf. A. MacIntyre, The Loss of Virtue. On the Moral Crisis of the Present, 1987.
5 Cf. Plato, Phaidros, ch.25-28.
6 Aristotle, Nicaeomachian Ethics, Book II.
7 In a free translation of Mahavagge v.1 in: H. Oldenberg, Buddha. His life – his teaching – his community, 1959. Similar developments are found in Christian saints like Francis or Ignatius of Loyola. These saints saw ascetic exaggerations as resisting God’s will and softened them. Were these times of exaggeration simply false? I hesitate. Perhaps the way of the happy medium could only be reached in passing through a phase of exaggerated renunciation. After a life strongly arrested to the world, the happy medium could not be reached without a temporary counter-measure.
8 Cf. Jesus’ answer to the question of the teacher of the law about the great commandment: “And he said to him, `You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Mt 22,35-40). Jesus quoted texts from the Old Testament. This focus unites Christianity with Judaism.
9 I think on one side of the close symbiotic bonds in small families and on the other side of the inflow experienced by radical sects and youth religions.
10 Cf. N. Bolz, Cult Marketing. The New Gods of the Market, 1995. These products are described as “brands”, a word that originally stood for brandings that cowboys burned into their cattle to mark their collective membership. Not unlike these cows, modern consumers wear their brands through clothing and accessorie3s, badges of membership in international consumer communities.
11 I think of the emphasis on a “global village” going back to Marshall McLuhan to which the world will grow thanks to modern media.
12 This paradoxical result appears in the ambiguous use of the term estrangement or alienation. This word implies the absence of a happy medium of individuality and community from two sides. On one side, alienation means the enslavement of the person within his social and economic conditions and is opposed by a strengthened subjectivity in relation to common interest (keyword: emancipation). On the other side, the term alienation describes the situation of the person who is isolated toward communal and traditional relations and experiences himself as foreign, unnaturalized and not at home in the world. Doing the exact opposite is prescribed as an “antidote” against estrangement: strengthening common interests against an absolute subjectivity. The history of the estrangement term reflects a zigzag path between these two opposite poles of meaning. Cf. the historical survey of the alienation term by H. Ottmann in: Theologische Realenzyklopadie, vol.9, 657-672.
The inner conflict of the modern person between longing for commitment and reserve toward commitment is like that of the romantic described by Romano Guardini in 1927 following Kierkegaard: “The romantic experiences the horror of chaos and consumes himself in homesickness for existence characterized by decency, integrity and security. He also experiences the dread of the paraphrased existence. Timidity lives in him… Glorifiers of form are persons standing in chaos, overrating what they do not have… The counter-pole is the longing for the boundless, the wandering romantic who seeks everything, sees everything and experiences everything and feels every limitation as philistinism.” R. Guardini, 1983.
13 The happy medium between supportive nearness and respectful distance can be completely missed… The church accompaniment can be entirely unsatisfying.
14 “God shines in our hearts… We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4,6f).
15 God’s most famous self-revelation in the OT before Moses in the burning bush was often discussed. “I am who I am” (Ex 3,14). Two meanings seem to complement one another. “I am there for you” refers to community and “I am the one revealed on the way with you” refers to history.
16 Cf. Gen 12,2; Ps 100,3; 1 Kings 8,51-53.
17 To be like God is promised to the person on one side by God as the highest promise (cf. Gen 1,27) and on the other side constitutes the essence of temptation. After enjoying the fruit, the serpent lures Eve and Adam with the promise of being like God. The difference lies in the attitude of appropriation whether one can be given existence by God or wishes to seize it like a robbery.
18 Cf. Gen 3,21 and Gen 4,15.
19 Cf. Ps 51,7; Jer 13,23.
20 The plea of David embittered about his sin “Create in me, a clean heart, O God and put a new and right spirit in me” (Ps 51,12) corresponds to the promise of Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ez 36,26).
21 According to this conception, the “day of the Lord” which is a day of anger and judgment comes at the end of times. Cf. Isa 13,6-22; Ez 30,3-19; Joel 1,15-2,11.
22 Cf. Isa 2,31; Isa 49,10-23.
23 The fourth song of God’s servant, Isa 52,13-53,12.
24 Cf. Mk 1,15; Mk 4,17.
25 Cf. the parable of the sower, Mt 13,1-9.
26 With humor, the Book of Jonah describes the sudden change between the extremes of an initially nervous resignation and then an aggressive refusal of mission.
27 Cf. Mt 5,39. On his way of the cross, Jesus converted the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount into action. Thus the hardly understandable Sermon on the Mount has a living interpretation in Jesus’ way.
28 The reproaches of the adversaries against Jesus are diverse: he vi8olates he laws (especially the Sabbath commandment), he is a glutton and a drunkard (Mt 11,19), he is in league with demons (Mt 12,24) and above all he makes himself into God (Joh 10,33).
29 As Peter wants for Jesus. Cf. Mt 16,21-23.
30 That Jesus’ death on the cross may not be understood as an indirect suicide is emphasized by R. Schwager. On Jesus’ tightrope walk between resignation and provocation, cf. R. Schwager. Escaping the Net of the Hunter. The Jesus drama retold, 1994.
31 Cr. Lk 24,36; Joh 20,19-21.
32 This idea is formulated drastically by Paul. Cf. 2 Cor 5,21; Gal 3,13.
33 Cf. the passage in the Apostles’ Creed “descended in the realm of death” and biblically according to 1 Petr 3,19f.
34 Cf. Mt 18,12-14.
35 While God’s boundless commitment is moving, it is in no way pleasant for the sinner. Whoever rejects God may be left alone by him and find his peace without him. The resistant or reluctant will be confronted with the consequences of his rejection when God appears to him again in the form of the humiliated and crucified. This is sharp criticism and judgment. However conversion – the return of the sinner to balance with God and his fellow-persons – is only possible through this confrontation.
36 Cf. 2 Cor 5,14f; Col 1,24.
37 The structural injustice to which Jesus could not resign, the systematic exclusion of certain persons and sectors of the population from access to God’s reign, must be clearly explained. In contrast, Jesus sought a universal assembly that did not exclude tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. That inclusivity led to vehement resistance.
38 Cf. Mt 16,21-23.
39 Satanic powers should neither be underrated nor identified in individual persons but located in those institutionalizations of evil where the good seemingly only remains effective in a relative cooperation with evil (through corruption). The declaration that Satan was overcome through the cross has a deep meaning (cf. Hebr 2,14). This way of looking at things stands the test especially regarding historical incidents of collective witch-hunting mania. The identification of the devil in certain persons led to a torrent of denunciations in which the individual accused could only be saved by admitting obsession or fanatical zeal, charging others with sorcery and thus confirming the delusion. In such cases, overcoming the collective delusion was only possible through the voluntary martyrdom of respected persons held to be innocent up to the death sentence. Thus the insane system was made implausible. In his play “Witch Hunt”, Arthur Miller impressively developed these connections Cf. also the feature film of the same name (directed by Nicolas Hytner, 1996) that closely follows the pattern of Miller.
40 Personal overstrain can also take its revenge through loss of authenticity and credibility. Psychological reservations coincide with theological warnings. The way of the cross may not be chosen out of arbitrariness. The way of the cross is a matter of calling. The presence of a calling, purpose or destiny must be scrutinized.
41 This Christian realism is advanced in a differentiated religious doctrine. A person is good by nature and capable of happy perfection, the successful balance. However this possibility is threatened (but not simply annulled) by a deeply rooted entanglement in guilt and inclination to evil expressed in the doctrine of original sin. The person is led by an effective divine grace within this tension of a good nature and deeply rooted exposure or proclivity to evil so that we have reason to hope for every person that the alternative of a final salvation is far more likely than a final failure for all people, not only within the church. This is the doctrine of God’s universal and effective will of salvation (cf. biblically, 1 Tim 2,4 and Karl Rahner in theological development).
42 This was the “definition” of the church at the 2nd Vatican council, Lumen Gentium 1,1.
43 This question is raised very sharply today in the controversial struggle over confessions of guilt of the church, recently in the Vatican document on the Shoah and the church confession of guilt on Ash Wednesday 2000.
44 The church father Ambrosius described the church as “casta meretrix” to express the interlocking of sinfulness and permanent election.
45 Cf. Mt 5,13-16.