Christianity and Utopia, by Hans Urs von Balthasar

The Possible Impossibility, by Hans Urs von Balthasar, p. 526-529 The Glory of the Lord vol. VII: Theology: The New Covenant.

The heart of Christianity ultimately stands face to face with what belongs to Utopia. Each knows that, in order for man to be able to be what he is, the impossible must be made possible. It is pointless to equate the impossible and the possible in such a way that both disappear into the empty freedom, which man possesses, to be both God and the devil. This synthesis breaks down when confronted with the charge of caring for one’s fellow man: man is the guardian of his brother. But my brother is quite as much an ‘impossible’ person as I myself am; thus it is only together that we can struggle, in an endeavour borne up by Utopian hope, towards the point at which the impossible turns around and becomes possible, real and necessary. The Utopia has the glory in its vanguard, and is driven by the impulsive force of today’s impossibility. Death has no more right to exist—no suffering, no lament, no pain—and every tear must be wiped away; what existed earlier must have passed away (Rev 21.4). Something in the world and in man justifies us in such a hope: the knowledge that we are ‘unfree’ (Rom 8.20), slaves under an alien domination (Rom 5.14), and that a vertical intervention straight through the horizontal ‘futility’ of our time is overdue and must come, if the present time is to be able to exist at all in its impossibility.

But those who advocate Utopia presume that they can become fathers of the future without having been children of the past. They want to create without having received—and that would mean being God himself. The fact that they lay claim on their own behalf (with a view to the absolute future) to the very paternalism against which they are revolting, speaks against them, as does the fact that they appropriate to themselves the absolute power to bring about transformation, while their present impossibility is evidence that they do not possess this power. The kingdom which they would like to create bears the name of ‘righteousness’, an Old Testament name; but the secret intention is the New Testament element hidden in this name, love, which is the inevitable goal, if not indeed itself the means by which righteousness is to be established on earth. But how can one who has not received such a love generate it himself? Only the one who encounters it, knows it; only the one who is—incomprehensibly—addressed by it is able to reply to it (out of the grace and power that are love’s own). This is why Jesus points the mature persons who wish to enter the kingdom, back into the unquestioning readiness to receive that belongs to the children who live in the condition of love’s gift.

For Christians, the vertical intervention of the kingdom of God has already been accomplished, in Jesus Christ, breaking right through the course of world history. The lightning-flash of God’s glory has struck the earth: eternal time has made its impact felt in the time of men, eternal love has poured out all its blood in the death of a human being, has rested in the irrevocability of Hell, and has ‘prepared a place beside the Father’ (Jn 14.2) for those doomed to futility. The kingdom is reality. God has established his covenant with such power that man can no longer dissolve it, even in union with the powers of the apocalyptic beasts. Because the kingdom was, it will be. But is it—now, for us, on earth? Everything in the world contradicts it, and who could point to it even as only something in the process of coming into being? ‘All day long, I hear the question: where is your God?’ (Ps 42.4). What can Christians make publicly known? That which became an event in Christ is so hidden for the world, so vulnerable—and so ineffective! Or was it only to be a beginning, so that now it is up to the Christians to give shape to its continuation and to accomplish the ‘greater works’ that Jesus promised (Jn 5.20; 14.12)? But what could they accomplish at the best of times, assuming that one were to forgive them all that they left undone and all that they have done utterly wrongly? Here we see for the first time the burning question that is posed to the only possible alternative, Utopia as the primal act of generation ex nihilo: is it possible to live as a Christian in a human manner, within world history? Is it possible to live out of faith in a definitive eschatological event which has taken place, hoping for the break-through of this event in the whole of world history, and with a love for God and for men which gives evidential character to existence on the basis of such a faith and hope? What a difficulty!

We encountered this difficulty earlier, when we considered the imitation of Christ—the invitation to accompany Jesus on a way, the final point of which, in this world, had to be betrayal (for the One was to bear all the others); and, on the other side of this gulf (indeed, as a fruit born of this gulf), the mission to bear witness to the good news through word and life. It must work. It cannot work. It works nevertheless. And it is this third stage that makes the first (‘It must work’) an inexorable obligation, even when the pain of the second stage becomes all the sharper as one goes on. Finally, it is the third stage that is decisive: ‘it works nevertheless’, because we Christians are the interpretation of Christ’s condition as one who has made the gift of himself. This condition was the centre of his existence, at a deeper level than both his claim to authority and his powerlessness, since he handed himself over to the Father, to the Spirit and to the Church to be used and shaped. His self-giving and his Eucharist are the guarantee that, at the point where the strength of our creative commission and the witness of our suffering break down, something continues to bear even what belongs to us towards the kingdom. This cannot be neatly calculated in worldly terms. Psychologically and sociologically, Christian existence is always doomed to draw the shorter straw, because there is no earthly scale of measurement which can be applied to its contents. Such a scale of measurement cannot and must not exist, if faith is to remain itself. Such a scale of measurement exists neither for the non-Christian nor for the Christian himself, who can only hang in faith, not stand in faith.