Plenary #7: “The Apocalypse and the Theological Aesthetic of Theo-Drama” (Guffey)

“The Apocalypse and the Theological Aesthetic of Theo-Drama”
By Andrew Ryan Guffey

Balthasar opens the fourth volume of his Theo-Drama with a brief examination of the Apocalypse. By this move, Balthasar indicates how the “action” of the theo-drama occurs “under the sign of the Apocalypse.” Should this surprise us? The book of Revelation, as Mark Lilla, John Gray, Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz, and Jonathan Kirsch (just to mention a few) have recently reminded us, has roamed freely throughout the provinces of political theology in the history of Western politics. In the drama of European history the Apocalypse has been leased by ideologies, and it has inspired daemons. And yet there is a fundamental difference between Balthasar’s engagement with the Apocalypse and Thomas Müntzer’s deployment of the same. For Balthasar, the Apocalypse outlines not an ethic, but an aesthetic. The Apocalypse is not prescriptive for world history, but descriptive and interpretive. This is somewhat paradoxical given that the Apocalypse makes its most explicit appearance in Balthasar’s work in the Theo-Drama, the part of the Balthasar’s triptych concerned with the good, with action—in short, with ethics. Even so, in the edifice of Balthasar’s trilogy, the Apocalypse functions not as a summons to a particular course of action or a particular apocalyptic (bellicose) ethic, but rather as the core of a theological aesthetic of history. Given the forum for this essay, I will simply sketch a few features of this role of the book of Revelation in Balthasar’s thought.

The first thing that should be mentioned regarding Balthasar’s use of the Apocalypse is the influence of Adrienne von Speyr’s work. Theo-Drama IV opens with a description of the perspective of John the revelator. What John “sees is not a representation of successive historical events—or even of their archetypes—but a sequence of images that, though most closely related to reality, possesses its own intrinsic eidetic truth” (15). His following quotation of Adrienne reveals his debt to her here: “Truth is not presented to us in a developmental form—the only form we know on earth—but in an absolute, fulfilled, accomplished form. . . . This means that all earthly concepts of time are suspended; it is impossible, therefore, to give a temporal interpretation of the visions” (15). This quote comes from Adrienne’s commentary on the Apocalypse, which Balthasar frequently references throughout his opening section of Theo-Drama IV. Adrienne here reports that the visions and images must not be interpreted chronologically or as analogues to any historical situation, either in the author’s time or our own. The book of Revelation is definitely NOT a script for the world’s end, or a code to interpret the political movements of history.

Truth is presented in the visions of the Apocalypse, according to Adrienne, in an absolute, fulfilled, accomplished form. By this she does not mean the visions should be read synchronically as opposed to diachronically. The visions are only loosely temporally related, and so should not be read at all temporally. “[T]he images must on no account be resolved in terms of ecclesiastical and world history familiar to us from other sources” (46). Instead, the visions should be read according to their sequence—as revelation. The images, after all, are not subjective, but objective. This is one of the more strange claims Balthasar makes for the nature of the Apocalypse. Adrienne says in her Apokalypse (Vienna: Herold, 1950), “The Apocalypse is the revelation of Jesus Christ—a revelation which God the Father imparted to the Son’s beloved apostle, and which the Son conveyed to him through his angel in a visionary way” (15, translation mine). Balthasar builds on her fairly simple insight: “Revelation comes from God” (TD IV, 17); “The truth of the revealed images is in God; it is guaranteed by the fact that he is their Revealer. . . . Thus we must assume that an objective world of images exists in God; excerpts from it are communicated now to this prophet, now to that, until in the Apocalypse of John a kind of summa is distilled from it” (16). The content of the vision, the images themselves, carry the character of objectivity, and this because they come from God. Here, the very nature of the Apocalypse is most closely related to section III of Seeing the Form (Glory of the Lord, vol. 1): “The Objective Evidence.” Following on the heels of “The Subjective Evidence,” which most nearly represents fundamental theology and the conditions for perception of Glory, the “objective evidence” represents the content of the form, or the work of dogmatic theology. This requires that there be an objective form for revelation. (That form, of course, is Christ, mediated by Scripture and Church, attested by the Father, History, and the Cosmos.) There also must be, therefore, an objective content of revelation. This requires a circumincession of faith and knowledge (subjective and objective). For our purposes, this division of revelation into subjective and objective evidence helps us to understand Balthasar’s claim that the images are objective. Rather than a pastiche of imagery drawn simply from OT images or Hellenistic astrological motifs, Balthasar understands the images of the vision to be elements of the objective revelation translated from God to John.

This point goes directly to the question of Balthasar’s hermeneutic of Scripture. The Apocalypse is not simply a pastiche of images from the imagination of John, subjectively interpreting and conveying his environment in the vein of Jewish apocalyptic. John is conveying an objective revelation, which is prepared by his subjective condition (of faith). One common theme for Balthasar is that the practice of theology must not become divorced from the practices of holiness. For Balthasar, faith and discipleship, saving and sacramental grace are necessary to any authentic theology. This corresponds, for instance, to his discussion of the spiritual senses in the first volume of the aesthetics, and really to the whole portion of that volume concerned with the “Subjective Evidence.” Even so, although the seer may be subjectively prepared by means of the community of faith and the Scriptures, the content of the vision—the entire visionary cycle—is objective revelation. The objectivity of the content, grounded in God, is what provides the Apocalypse with the authority over its subject matter (though, of course, we cannot overlook its validation by inclusion in the canon, either). But what, then, is the subject matter of the Apocalypse?

The popular apocalypticists are correct to think the book of Revelation is concerned with history, but it is not horizontal world history with which it is most concerned. Horizontal human history and experience is littered with pathos—a series of contradictions and antitheses, failed gropings in the dark for some transcendence, some absolute that brings meaning to the whole. Only God in God’s absolute freedom can grant such meaning, and this through the vertical history. Ultimately there can be no reconciliation between the two histories. Horizontal world history cries out for some transcendence, some absolute to offer it meaning, but to no avail. “Inevitably, most of the great interpretations of the world had the ambition of bringing the raging world drama into unity with the divine stillness” (TD II, 34). These are attempts to reconcile the contradictory experience of life in which love and war coexist. The “phenomenon of existence itself . . . in the face of the Absolute, can be simultaneously a liturgy of worship and a battlefield” (TD II, 33). “But neither the simple affirmation of the contradiction [between conflict and stillness] nor the flight from it nor man’s overcoming of it by ‘striving and exerting himself’ (Faust) can explain the mysterious, apocalyptic simultaneity of liturgy and drama” (TD II, 35). This yearning for a resolution, for the absolute, is what prompts philosophy to posit some integrity and meaning to horizontal history, to find transcendence in immanence. Only the vertical history can provide this meaning. Indeed, “the essential history is that which is enacted in the vertical plane between heaven and earth” (TD IV, 71). Interestingly enough, this sounds a great deal like Balthasar’s observation already found in the first volume of his triptych: “[T]he decisive drama is played out vertically between God and the world . . .” (Glory I, 645). The concern of the Apocalypse is precisely this vertical drama and history.

In other words, to answer our question more directly, the subject matter of the Apocalypse is the Theo-Drama. “The last book of Holy Scripture,” writes Balthasar, “presupposes the Christ-events of the New Covenant and opens up the vast perspectives they imply. It links up with the magisterial Old Testament prophecy . . . and so transcends and integrates it. The Book of Revelation, then, will provide a vantage point from which to survey the form and content of the theodramatic action we intend to portray” (TD IV, 45). Here the tension of Balthasar’s apocalyptic aesthetic and his apocalyptic dramatics reaches its peak and he is constrained to clarify: “Form and content cannot be separated: they presuppose each other. The same applies to theo-logy in which we must become involved when we come to describe the action of theo-drama: its form is essentially the form of this content; its content is essentially the concrete unfolding of this form” (TD IV, 45). At first sight this might suggest that our thesis is incorrect—the Apocalypse does not belong to Balthasar’s theological aesthetics or his theological dramatics. And this is true. Indeed, both his aesthetics and his dramatics belong to the Apocalypse. They are two modes of discourse on the same subject matter. On the other hand, however, we must not fail to note the way in which Balthasar argues this point. The coinherence of the theological aesthetics and the Theo-drama are analyzed by the conspicuously theological aesthetic categories of form and content.

The fundamental unity of form and content is integral to the structure of the theological aesthetics. Already in the introduction to Glory, vol. 1, Balthasar argues for the unity of the lumen and species in the beautiful object (20). He comes back to the theme at the end of the introduction: “The appearance of the form, as revelation of the depths, is an indissoluble union of two things. It is the real presence of the depths, of the whole of reality, and it is a real pointing beyond itself to these depths” (118). Balthasar crystallizes these twin thoughts a little later: “This dualism [between ostensive sign and signified interior light] can be abolished only by introducing as well the thought-forms and categories of the beautiful. The beautiful is above all a form, and the light does not fall on this form from above and from outside, rather it breaks forth from the form’s interior. Species and lumen in beauty are one. . . . The content (Gehalt) does not lie behind the form (Gestalt), but within it” (151). That the Theo-drama—the vertical history between God and the world—is the content of John’s Revelation is inseparable from the form of that revelation, that is, the visionary (and now literary) transmission of that which is revealed.

The question remains: In what way does this employment of the structure of a theological aesthetics, in the context of Balthasar’s thought, really properly place the Apocalypse primarily in the aesthetics? The answer should not be hard to discover. The theodramatic action does not encourage a particular ethic, as the Theo-Drama might attempt. Theo-Drama is, after all, a theo-praxy. As Balthasar writes early in the first volume of Theo-Drama, “Theo-drama is concerned with the good. . . . The good has its center of gravity neither in the perceiving nor in the uttering: the perception may be beautiful and the utterance true, but only the act can be good” (TD I: 18). Balthasar’s reading of the Apocalypse is an exercise in interpreting Scripture in a way that leads rather to a new perception of reality, a new aisthēsis, in which doxology, not world history, is the battlefield. To put the matter in ethical-political terms, the ethic of the Apocalypse is doxological, and is thus also a matter of warfare, not vice versa. The prime activity of the theodramatic action is precisely the same as that in the Apocalypse: the activity of God, more specifically, of the Lamb. The soteriological history is the centerpiece of the vertical history between God and the world. It is from within this history, from within God’s pathos, that we act (TD IV, part III). And in the end the battle is the battle of the Logos (TD IV, part IV). We are to live into this history, but first we must see its form in the Apocalypse. This is the work of a theological hermeneutic. It is the work of theological aesthetics.