Freedom, Contingency and God’s Suffering Love in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar: The Adequacy of the Analogy of Drama for Imagining the God-World Relationship
The following is a working draft of the presentation I will be making at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in the Open and Relation Theologies session on the topic, “A Wider View of Theodicy: The Place of Sufferers, Mourning, Love, and Lament in Theological and Philosophical Reasoning”:
“The Hegelian babble about the real being the true is therefore the same kind of confusion as when people assume that the words and actions of a poet’s dramatic characters are the poet’s own. We must, however, hold fast to the belief that when God — so to speak — decides to write a play, he does not do it simply in order to pass the time, as the pagans thought. No, no: indeed, the utterly serious point here is that loving and being loved is God’s passion. It is almost — infinite love! — as if he is bound to this passion, almost as if it were a weakness on his part; whereas in fact it is his strength, his almighty love: and in that respect his love is subject to no alteration of any kind. There is a staggering perversity in all the human categories that are applied to the God-man; for if we could speak in a completely human way about Christ we would have to say that the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” show a want of patience and a want of truth. Only if God says it, can it be true, i.e., even if the God-man says it. And since it is true, it is also truly the climax of pain. The relationship to God is evidently such a tremendous weight of blessedness that, once I have laid hold of it, it is absolute in the most absolute sense; by contrast, the worldly notion that my enemies are to be excluded from it would actually diminish this blessedness.”
The Journals of Soren Kierkegaard, quoted in the preface of Theo-Drama Vol. 5: The Last Act, Hans Urs von Balthasar
“If God’s nature, theologically speaking, shows itself to be absolute love by giving itself away and allowing others to be, for no other reason than that this (motiveless) giving is good and full of meaning — and hence is, quite simply, beautiful and glorious — the same must apply to [God’s] “making room” for [God’s] free creatures.” — Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. II, 273
In this paper I’d like to propose that Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “theo-dramatic” account of divine and human freedom, on the one hand, and divine experience in humanity’s suffering, on the other hand, can shed light on God’s love for an open and relational understanding of the doctrine of God. For Christian love — both of God and of neighbor — has not only an open and relational quality, but it is also dramatic in that it is embedded in a history the oscillates between freedom and contingency.
By characterizing the relationship between God, history and creation as dramatic, Balthasar indeed proposes a certain receptivity in God. Balthasar says that God is latent in creation and accompanies it. And in order to create finite freedom, God withdraws in such a way that makes human volition possible, while also rendering any external, coercive influence highly uncharacteristic if not impossible. Instead, God’s presence is mediated through the Spirit’s internal guidance and lure. It is a dynamic accompaniment.
God does this, though, in keeping with the classical idea of self-subsistence and fullness of being. And yet by appealing to Gregory of Nyssa’s idea that God is an eternal fountain, Balthasar maintains that this divine fountain of energy, while inexhaustible (infinite freedom), can nonetheless experience wonder and surprise. And if this is true, God can also receive from creation, in Christ and through the Spirit. God gives and allows God’s self to be loved, so in a certain sense the drama of the world brings something new for God.
Moreover, Balthasar understands created, human freedom in the context of Trinitarian life. Human beings are invited to enter into the freedom of Christ. Through this we find our own participatory freedom within infinite freedom, for this is how finite freedom thrives. Persons have the chance to say “yes” to the role that the first person of the Trinity, the “Father” and “eternal dramatist,” has creatively designed for them in his authorship of the “play.” Christ as the second person, the “Son,” is the chief actor and performer in the drama, repairing the damage done by sin when human freedom turned in upon itself — by his loving acceptance of the cross. And the Holy Spirit, thirdly, is the director of the drama, or “producer,” transposing the Father’s intention into the reality of the stage with respect to the various contingencies of such a reality — that is, by respecting finite freedom.
For von Balthasar, the relationship between infinite and finite freedom, furthermore, is a non-zero-sum game. The two are not in conflict with each other, and God’s freedom is not threatened by humanity’s freedom.  At the same time, von Balthasar states that “the idea of the world is from God and in God. Accordingly its whole (non-divine) reality cannot be located anywhere else but in him.” This is the paradoxical and tenuous nature of the relationship between God and the world that makes it so dramatic. But it is also what protects the genuineness of the relationship. Thus, there are two aspects to finite freedom — two poles: a genuine autonomy, on the one hand, and the necessity of an express indebtedness on the other, neither of which can be reduced to the other.
In order to substantiate such a drama wherein both the triune God in Christ and humanity maintain agency — each in accordance with the adequate degree of finite and infinite freedom — two doctrines are of supreme importance, and each one underpins the other. In the first place, the hypostatic union or the divine consubstantiation with humanity through the incarnation is necessary for Jesus to have born and carried the sin of the world. No mere human being could ever do this or serve as the concrete, universal representative for all others. Without a share in the human nature of Christ, God remains an observer and is otherwise unaffected by the drama, leaving the forgiveness of sin unauthorized. Because of the fusion of two natures (though they do not become indistinguishable) in one person, Christ is representative at once of humanity and the Source to which humanity’s owes its being.
So in von Balthasar’s estimation, God takes a risk with this act, and “something in God can develop into suffering.” Despite his commitment to the classical tradition and aversion to certain contemporary anthropomorphic tendencies, such language goes against the grain of traditional theology. Qualification is added by Balthasar in that “the divine is not so interwoven in the drama of history that the conclusion of the struggle is uncertain,” but he says that “the divine is also not elevated beyond the world so that whoever will assume the standpoint of God must elevate himself beyond the dramatic into epic distance.”
Traditionally, God is both immutable (in the divine nature of the Father and the second person of the Trinity) and mutable (in the human nature assumed by the Son). Von Balthasar makes reference to Ignatius who speaks of “the impassible one who suffers for us.” And relying on Gregory of Nyssa, von Balthasar explicates that “[i]f God wishes to save [humanity] by freely choosing suffering, he suffers impassibly; since he suffers freely, he is not subject to suffering but superior to it.” Presumably then, what Christ takes upon himself, without sin or inclination to sin, is the healing of humanity’s fallenness from within. This indicates the tension in God between apatheia and pathos, though von Balthasar cautions that these attributes should only be associated with God whilst keeping in mind the incomprehensibility of God and the break along the ontological continuum.
But von Balthasar also argues that the Fathers stressed apatheia mostly because of the way that the Greeks understood it: mythologically. Hence he seems to be saying that attributing apatheia to the classical conception of God is in danger of approaching a misinterpretation. Of course, von Balthasar is careful to ensure that “there can be no pathos in God if by this we mean some involuntary influence from outside.” So it is never that God’s essence changes, “but that the unchangeable God enters into a relationship with creaturely reality, and this relationship imparts a new look to [God’s] internal relations.” So while God does not change in any univocal or essential sense, this interaction does demonstrate the great extent to which the destiny of the world is a concern for God’s very being.
“In giving himself, the Father does not give something (or even everything) that he has but all that he is — for in God there is only being, not having. So the Father’s being passes over, without remainder, to the begotten Son; and it would be a mistake to suggest that he, the Father, becomes or develops as a result of this self-giving . . . This total self-giving, to which the Son and the Spirit respond by an equal self-giving, is a kind of ‘death’, a first, radical ‘kenosis’ as one might say.”
There is, therefore, an internal distance of kenosis between the first and second persons of the Trinity, but never separation — only enough distance for infinite love to express itself. Moreover, with respect to the God-world relationship, Balthasar understands that creation neither extends nor completes God’s being, but instead is a reflection of it. Balthasar adds:
Again, we must not see the ‘distance’ in opposition to, or in conflict with, the ‘closeness’ (of circumincessio in the one divine nature); at the same time such distance is necessary, for two reasons: first, in order to hold fast to the personal distinctness of each Person both in being and acting; and second, in order to establish the basis within the Trinity for what, in the economic Trinity, will be the possibility of a distance that goes as far as the Son’s abandonment on the Cross.
Closely related to the question of freedom, however, is of course the problem evil and how we understand God’s power with respect to that freedom. This understanding and definition must avoid either seeing God as the author of evil or denying that God has any significant power.
Balthasar believes the analogy of a “drama,” then, is what allows him to find “the path that leads between two abysses of a systematics in which God, absolute Being, is [either] the Unmoved before whom the moving world plays out its drama, [or] a mythology which absorbs God into the world and makes him to be one of the warring parties of the world process.”
The greatest measure of power, however, is often assumed to be simply the capacity for unilateral influence, control or determination of events, objects, or subjects in creation. By contrast, and following Alfred North Whitehead, John Cobb, for instance, argues that this standard notion of power actually serves to “not only slanders the moral character of God but attributes to him very little power.” For Cobb, and for Whitehead, “the power that counts is the power to influence the exercise of power by others.” And by this understanding, then, “the only power capable of any worthwhile result is the power of persuasion.”
While it’s true that the threat of coercion may be an element of persuasion — which sometimes shows up in Jesus’s own teachings and throughout the New Testament, and certainly the Hebrew Scriptures — Cobb says that if “threat” or the threat of coercion “plays more than a subdominant role, [that kind of power] tends to destroy rather than build up.”
But it would seem that von Balthasar actually demonstrate a deep appreciation and even working understanding of this conception of power, as seen in the following:
And so long as God appears primarily in the form of power — omnipotence — the self can use this as an excuse, as a positive encouragement, to set itself up, likewise, as a “power” over against God. After all, is it not the “image” of God?…[But] God may disclose and give himself, thus transcending the notion that freedom means power; true freedom is thus seen in self-giving.
So von Balthasar clearly recognizes as well that omnipotence is not the chief expression of God’s power, and his explication of the theo-drama indicates:
“It is, after all, God himself who acts, and involves himself to the very limit. Neither words nor concepts can be found to express God’s allowing himself to be involved in the winds of destiny and storms of aggression that sweep through the world; but neither of these forces succeeds in entangling him or his power in the relentless destiny of the world. God instills his love with his power when he acts and suffers in the context of the freedom of the man, Christ Jesus. And this love goes its way into dereliction without being forced by anybody, not even by [humanity’s] state of being lost. And because God can achieve this by himself, he has therefore been able to risk the creation of the world of free created beings and a world that knows aggression. [And t]hat God’s love is more resourceful than the cunning wickedness of [human beings] does not mean that the Creator has an unfair advantage in his ascendancy over the creature; for love does not conquer in the way that power conquers, but wins its victories precisely because it does not resort to power.”
So in this regard, Balthasar is very much in agreement with Alfred North Whitehead’s oft-cited concerns about attributing to God those qualities which more properly belong to Caesar.
Moreover, Balthasar also makes the qualification that, while we must avoid saying that power itself is evil — for it is necessary for freedom, and in that sense, good — there is nonetheless an inherent dependency between evil and power as typically expressed in finite freedom.
The reason for this, no doubt, is because of the intimate connection between unjust power and suffering in the historical and political experience of human beings. And this too, is something upon which von Balthasar has deeply reflected:
Suffering in the world, more than anything else, makes it difficult for people to approach God. He may be just (or even loving!) in himself, but he is unable to act in such a way as to appear credibly so on earth. What is man supposed to do in this darkness? Suffering cries much too loudly: he cannot fail to hear it, nor can he integrate it into an all-embracing system of world harmony — for example, as the “necessary shadow” that must be there for the sake of the beauty of the whole picture. It cries too loudly: it will not let a man dream up some personal escape-route (whether Buddhist or Stoic) out of existence and leave the others behind him, still suffering. (Feeling sorry for them does them no good.) It cries too loudly, yesterday, today and tomorrow, to warrant any consolation in terms of a remote future. Anyway, how can man himself, damaged and torn as he is, overcome suffering by his own efforts? Is there any other path but “the absurd”, and hence despair? No answer can be constructed out of words and concepts to give an overall view.
But whereas, for example — partly in order to offer a different characterization of God’s power — the metaphysics of someone like Whitehead and process philosophers and theologians after him remove any absolutely qualitative, ontological distinction between God and the world, and rather consider God to be the prime exemplar, not the prime exception to the world, von Balthasar’s theodicy, in classical Christian fashion, by contrast, is christological and soteriological:
“…And God gives no answer but the folly of the Cross; for the Cross is the only thing to rise above the “folly” of the world’s suffering…Only “the Logos of the Cross” will embrace and undergird the world’s suffering, a lived, bleeding Word that calls out for meaning and for God and that ends in the cry of death…”
In Christ, God gives not so much an explanation or new metaphysic, Balthasar says, but his very presence and suffering. Balthasar makes it clear, therefore, that the most dramatic action is the one taken by God through Christ. There is a dramatic dimension to our discipleship in response, to be sure, but the real drama is God’s engagement with the world. The question is whether human beings will consent to and participate in it. For “the core of the drama consists,” Balthasar says, “of that interplay, that wealth of dialogic possibilities, that is found in the permanent, reciprocal relationship between finite freedom — once it has been finally liberated — and infinite Freedom” (emphasis added).
My contention, however, is that, despite the adequacy of the analogy of drama for imagining the relationship between God and the universe — which I do find compelling, and I see it as an enrichment of certain aspects of classical theism — Balthasar’s theology remains at least partially deficient for a thoroughly open and relational vision of God’s power, love, and solidarity with the suffering of creation. (And I’m leaving to one side, for the purposes of this paper, any remarks about the absence of attention to social issues in Balthasar’s theodramatics — for, charges that von Balthasar’s theology is ahistorical (that his soteriology is strictly “vertical,” and not “horizontal”) are common and well-taken here.)
For one thing, Balthasar continues, as so many theologians still do, appears to work with the assumption that matter and spirit are two utterly distinct dimensions of reality that do not “naturally” interact. The problem with this, of course, is that while “[w]e certainly know a great deal about the physical laws that govern the universe . . . the more we know about general relativity, particle physics, quantum mechanics, the origins of matter in the early universe, and the neucleosynthesis of elements in stars, the more counterintuitive and mysterious matter becomes” — not to mention the still unclear understanding we have of “the relationship between the ever-changing matter that makes up our bodies, and our personal and impersonal “I” (or self-consciousness).” 
Now, both Whitehead and Balthasar as philosophical thinkers begin their projects from an aesthetic perspective and with a sustained criticism of much of modern, scientific/”instrumental” reasoning. They are “post-modern” thinkers, then, but not in the usual sense. (I prefer the term transmodern.) Furthermore, von Balthasar and Whitehead are equally concerned, it would also seem, with the reunification of subjective and objective knowing — another feature of their epistemological criticism of and response to modernity’s way of knowing, without succumbing, though, to mere postmodern unknowing.
Consequently, it seems fair to consider, that, perhaps the extent to which matter and spirit are distinct in the first place has been challenged. For this reason, this may be where the analogy of drama breaks down, for if God is the writer of the drama, is it not implied that God is externally and atemporally related to the stage, as it were? Even the roles of actor and director are potentially construed as extrinsic to the world-stage. However, despite maintaining that spirit and matter are no longer as easily distinguishable, it is also true that, in order to love creation freely, the Triune God must not ontologically depend on creation. Von Balthasar is not a panentheist, in other words, and I’m not suggesting he should be one.
What I would propose, therefore — in addition to adopting some features of Whitehead’s scientifically sensitized metaphysical vision — is that Whitehead’s notion of adventure can also bolster the Balthasarian theodrama. Because it is not altogether clear to me to what degree von Balthasar wishes for finite freedom to leave the events of history — which are different but not altogether separate from salvation history — truly open. And whereas the analogy of drama implies that the script has already been written, so to speak, the analogy of adventure introduces a certain sense of both greater investment on God’s part, and indeterminacy into the picture of the dynamism between “spirit” and “matter” — God and creation — not, however, necessarily to the extent that process theism typically requires.
What I imagine is a more adventurous drama than a dramatic adventure. That is to say, there is still, by faith, the Christian eschatological assurance of the Triune, Creator God (which, in process language would include both objective and subjective immortality), but with the historical contingency of a fully open and relational divine-human interaction — one in which genuine human participation and cooperation is called for, but can always be refused. And God’s influence on our response to God’s initial invitation remains a persuasive, non-coercive one. God will wait as long as necessary, and may adapt the script, in accordance with our improvisation.
(Process metaphysics would restrict what I have just stated to the realm of hope rather than to the confidence afforded by faith. Though, both process and classical Christian eschatology can be understood as the actualization of the whole of what we have been, for Whitehead envisions God as not simply able to remember or preserve past events but actually as able to retain the very immediacy of all that has occurred: “what restricts and prevents this in temporal occasions does not apply to God. And it is the understanding that all that we are continues to live on in God that undergirds its meaningfulness.”)
A final consideration here is the relationship between natural and revealed truth about God’s love for the world. Whitehead and process theisms after him cannot help, in my judgment, but take away any real difference between what can be known about God metaphysically, and what might be known by special revelation. The inevitable consequence of this is typically a lower christology and penultimate understanding of the doctrine of the Incarnation, as part of general revelation. There is no epistemological break, in other words, between philosophical and theological knowledge. Knowledge of the Triune God’s loving pursuit of creation, by contrast, and our role in that drama, can only be known by faith, and we come to this faith as a result of the Dramatist’s self-disclosure and self-giving, followed by co-suffering and overcoming.
 Luy, “The Aesthetic Collision,” 162.
 “Although we cannot deny that finite freedom has an absolute aspect, it has power over neither its own ground nor its own fulfillment. It does possess itself, yet it is not its own gift to itself: it owes itself to some other origin. Thus it can never catch up with its own ground, nor with its essence; it can only attain fulfillment beyond itself.” (Theodrama: The Action, 138)
 Balthasar, Theo-Drama, 2003, 100.
 Balthasar, Theo-Drama, 1990, 259. “There is no danger of finite freedom, which cannot fulfill itself on its own account . . . becoming alienated from itself in the realm of the Infinite. It can only be what it is, that is, an image of infinite freedom, imbued with a freedom of its own, by getting in tune with the (Trinitarian) ‘law’ of absolute freedom ([that is,] of self-surrender).”
 Ibid., 149.
 Ibid., 328.
 Roberts, The Theological Aesthetics of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, 206.
 Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Last Act, Ignatius Press, 1998, 216.
 Ibid., 219.
 Ibid., 218.
 Ibid., 222.
 Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vol. 3, 523.
 Balthasar, Theo-Drama, 2003, 84.
 Luy, “The Aesthetic Collision,” 161.
 Balthasar, Theo-Drama, 2003, 94.
 von Balthasar, Theodramatics Vol. 1, 130–31.
 John Cobb, God and the World, 88.
 von Balthasar, Theodramatics: The Action, 147.
 Engagement with God, 44–45.
 “The Galilean origin of Christianity does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operates by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious to morals. It does not look to the future; for it finds its own reward in the immediate present.” Whitehead, Process and Reality, 519–521.
 Ibid. 194–95. “According to the gospel words: I have not come to bring enlightenment, to banish doubt, but to fulfill . . . . The Son of God did not come to do away with suffering but rather to suffer with us; not to abolish the Cross, but to stretch himself upon it. Of all the special privileges of humanity, God wanted to adopt only this one.”
 Ibid., 200–201.
 It was Schelling who said that drama is the genre that best advances the self-revelation of the Absolute (Philosophy of Art, 1802): “the way in which drama synthesizes the subjective freedom of lyrical self-analysis and the implacable necessity of the epic into an overall effect of complete objectivity…” Aiden Nichols, A Key to Balthasar, 59.
 William Stoeger in Joseph Bracken, Does God Role Dice?, 51.
 Philip Clayton, World Without End, 147.
Originally published at William A. Walker III.