When confronted with the most egregious acts of human violence and error, we are quick to recognize them as symptoms of original sin. But we are not as quick to do the same when it comes to quarrels in theology, animosity in debates among the churches, and other love-lacking vituperations that occur within the ambit of religious discourse. We know that God has put us on earth so that we “might grope after him and find him” (Acts 17:27), but often we behave as if the groping is behind us and God permanently found. We speak as if God were our possession, not we the possession of God. Rarely do we experience the Psalmist’s ache, “For you [God] my body yearns; for you my soul thirsts, in a land parched, lifeless and without water” (Ps. 63). We treat theological systems, timeworn rituals and group identifications as water enough. We dare not suspect that our piety is saltless and sinful! And yet, by relying on what’s known and habitual, we miss God’s awesome call to holiness and our unique mission in Christ. Instead, we go on asserting ourselves and our bulwarks – and in so doing lose God.
In his 1972 book on Christian Pluralism, Truth is Symphonic, Hans Urs von Balthasar reminds us that revelation, far from accrediting our “coherent systems of absolute truth,” dismantles and demolishes them. The claim to explain existence, the temptation to fix our worldview, the “titanesque urge to gain control of the world formula,” all these too result from original sin. When we obey solely our own conception, the course of our own deductions, we disobey the mystery of God and falsely delimit what can occur in his name. To be in Christ Jesus is to put on the “mind of Christ” (Phil 2:5), but this means surrendering our mind’s eye to God’s revelation – and not as a thing of the past, but as the active power of God’s Word continually restoring everything to its eternal beginning in Him. Practically, it means recognizing the poverty of our human reasoning, the insufficiency of our propositions, and that we sin whenever we privilege ourselves as an origin of speech and idea over the one true origin in God.
It is common today to try to settle theological disputes with appeals to authority – e.g., a teaching body like the Magisterium, a principle like sola scriptura, a Catechism or Confession, a certain brilliance of this or that mystic or theologian, or perhaps simply a personal experience or charism. Such appeals succeed when we confidently place our trust in that authority. The problem is that none of these authorities are the God of revelation himself, nor could they rival his power. At best they may inspire us to open our hearts to Him – but then we are far beyond the domain of dispute. The problem points directly to the solution. Instead of appealing to a heteronomous or autonomous authority, in all things religion we should appeal to the authority of Mystery itself.
That is “authoritative” which has the capacity to induce Mystery and conduct us into it. That is “convincing” which convicts us: which humiliates our self-posited certitudes, overflows the meager cups of our categories, and transports us into an encounter with the love of the living God. Balthasar calls this the criterion of maximality: “the expression must cause the act of God’s love for us to appear more divine, more radical, more complete and at the same time more unimaginable and improbable” (p 65). If ever an expression causes us to retreat from the mystery – indeed through its very lucidity, authority, etc. –, it has failed us, for it has distracted us from the one thing necessary. Our expressions ought rather empty out – and empty us – into the mystery of the Word in the beginning as the final authority over all.
The criterion of maximality dictates that our expression, at every point, involve and enact a total act of faith. We are prone – another effect of original sin – to focus on the formula or theorem more than the thing itself, or on the argument we can win more than the life we must lose for Christ. But faith embraces the reality behind the sign in an act of total existential trust and surrender “to the ever-greater, incomprehensible love of God.” That act in God alone is primary; whatever secondary matter detracts from it or erodes it can surely be called a work of the devil, who tempts us to appropriate the mystery for our own narrow ends, even within the Church. The vigilance of faith is to treat as primary only what really is primary. Once we see that the criterion for truth is proximity to God’s mystery, we can reevaluate all we do and say according to a simple rule: Does it bring earth heavenward, or not? Does it conduce to reaffirm our Yes in God for all eternity, or not? Does it draw us deeper into the mysterium fidei, or not?
All the dogmas of Christianity point to the mystery that “the God who is love is there for us.” When St. Pope John Paul II commemorated the 40th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium in his Apostolic letter Spiritus et Sponsa, he reiterated that communicating this mystery – the Pascal Mystery – is the central purpose of the Church and the Liturgy. “The mystery proposed in preaching and catechesis, listened to with faith and celebrated in the Liturgy, must shape the entire life of believers who are called to be its heralds in the world,” he wrote, and he exhorted pastors to “ensure that the sense of mystery penetrates consciences, making them rediscover the art of ‘mystagogic catechesis’, so dear to the Fathers of the Church.” But for this to happen, no non-mysterious means will suffice. Indeed, none of our ratiocinations are adequate to the task, for it calls upon a dimension in us that exists prior to reflection, where we say Yes or No to God with everything we are.
If our words are earnestly rooted in the Word (John 15:5), we may consent to them as we do to God in prayer, as integral aspects of our mission in response to his call. But if they are not that, we must beware how easily and extensively words can become substitutes for God, covertly serving Mammon and leading us to perdition. That is why we need the criterion of maximality. Even more than humbling us theologically, it compels us to eliminate every surrogate movement and purify all the movements we do continue. The maximum restores to us this wisdom: that only our encounter with the over-swelling love of God in Christ can make sense of what we do in our religion and justify it. Otherwise – and let us be ruthless in convicting ourselves of this, wherever it may be true – our religion is yet another excuse for sin, and we have missed or misused the miraculous offer of the grace of the mystery of God.
by Timothy Lavenz
April 22, 2022