Response to “Balthasar and ‘Contradictory’ Material in the Gospels”
By Meg Shoeman
With much appreciation of Heather Reichgott’s perceptive reading of Balthasar’s view of “contradictory” materials, I would like to offer a few questions for the meaning of such materials for the lives of ordinary church folk. As a would-be minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) – a denomination composed of many persons sincerely trying in various ways to make sense of the faith in Christ we share – I’ll especially want to consider the implications of these questions for congregational ministry.
Heather is quite right to say that the realization of differences across biblical texts often strikes lay people as a bit of an earthquake. How do these people with all of their anxieties and weariness go about picking up the pieces of such a potentially faith-shattering catastrophe? Some of the relevant questions for church people here center on confusion, embarrassment, and arrogance.
For one congregation in whose life I’ve shared, the problem appears to be confusion. “It is so hard to understand differences like those Heather discusses; therefore we aren’t going to think much more about them. Instead we will live our lives out of a neat harmonization we’ve constructed in our minds over time through images found in Sunday school and we will try to be ‘good people.’ Moving beyond this makes our heads spin.” The immediate pastoral implication of this congregational pattern is heartbreaking, I think. This congregation is constantly striving to make the moral grade and they don’t have much to go on. That is, their phobia of looking more deeply has caused them to miss seeing the one person who can make good – Jesus as he says he is and as he is.
In the face of contradictory narratives, the second congregation’s problems center on embarrassment and arrogance. “To begin with, we’re enlightened. We don’t take most of this resurrection stuff to be literally or actually true anyhow. Resurrection is a metaphor that gives us hope for the good we can do and the more enlightened people we can become in this life. The apparent incongruity of the gospel accounts only serves to prove our point – we won’t fall for the sort of pie in the sky theology that asks us to look at an ‘event’ whose actual occurrence we find to be scientifically impossible. Our job is to change the world, not ‘conform our minds’ to the preposterous.” What does the preacher rightly preach to this group?
Fortunately in recent years Balthasar has increasingly been recognized as a top of the line contributor in 20th century academic theology. As a candidate for parish ministry, I am happy to note after Heather’s observations that Balthasar offers also a keen and joyful practical theological frame. According to Balthasar the preacher can in good conscience and indeed must, preach the same thing to both congregations. “Whatever he (Christ) establishes and institutes has its meaning only through him, is dependent only on him and is kept vital only by him” (The Glory of the Lord: Vol. I: Seeing the Form, 463). What glorious good news this is in the face of so many human questions, fears and strivings.
To take the person Jesus on his own terms is to see him for who he really is. Confusion is clarified into relationship with a real person in place of a contest of moral goodness or a memorization game of timeless heartwarming stories. Embarrassment and arrogance are turned on their heads when confronted by the subject whose credibility is intrinsic to himself and science takes on a whole new meaning.1
Breaking in on the dull and joyless efforts of those who feel a need of all the answers here and now, Balthasar steals the scalpels from our shaky hands and reminds us of the sobering truth, “only a corpse can be dissected.” As pastors then our place is to proclaim the whole Jesus as his beloved friends and various interlocutors bore witness to him. This approach may well not be always popular, but it seems the only proper way for us to be found faithful with a faith alive to the Lord who is living.
1 As I study Balthasar I am continually reminded of the critical realism applied to theology especially by Thomas F. Torrance. See his Space, Time and Resurrection (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1976), 17: “[The incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ] forced themselves upon the minds of Christians from their own empirical and theoretical ground in sharp antithesis to what they had believed about God and in genuine conflict with the framework of secular thought or the world view of their age . . . as ultimate events bearing their own intrinsic but shattering claims in the self- evidencing reality and transcendent rationality of God himself, and they took root within the Church only through a seismic restructuring of religious and intellectual belief.”