Posted by: cctracker | June 6, 2012

Love Alone Is Credible

I’ve been reading a book with this title by theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar for the last year or so.

It’s a dense, philosophical work and I’ve read it a few paragraphs at a time, marking it  heavily as I go. I’m nearly finished. But even after a close read I can’t easily call to mind many of the book’s central ideas without going back to the text.  Another reminder about the limitations we seem to have for retaining a hold on the abstract. I’m sure I could spool out most of the plot if it had been a novel. More on that point in a moment.

Nevertheless, I’ve found that the mere title of the book has fruitfully focussed my mind on underlying, abstract questions I’ve been asking for many years:

To what  do we owe a profession of faith in this life?

What is worthy of being believed?

What invites us, even obliges us, to be at its service to a higher degree than to our own immediate needs or desires?

I’ve been raised and trained to regard “God” as the answer to these questions. But that word, so often, seems to beg the question. Reading Von Balthasar and thinking about this title has been an occasion to ask what it really means not only to say that “God is Love” but what it means to proclaim one’s faith in love.

I’ve not made an entry in this blog for a well over a month. It would be easy to say  it was the frenetic pace of end-of-the year activities at school, college boys moving back home,  delayed home and garden projects or weathering a bout of the stomach flu in our household.

The truth is I had plenty of time to write and ample inspiration on worthy topics. I just couldn’t find the energy. I didn’t feel generous. Honestly, I was in a selfish rut. I  found myself wasting time online, fiddling more than usual with my phone, nursing private grievances, feeding petty addictions. From the Sudan to U.S financial markets to crises confronting friends and family, all the news seemed grim. And since some part of my consciousness is always asking the “big” questions of meaning and purpose, there was a faith crisis, too. Didn’t faith in “God” impose the reassuring order and intelligibility I craved on the reality of chaos, ambiguity and overwhelming complexity I actually experienced ?  And more intimately, wasn’t the wishful and spiritual story of “Love” contradicted not only by brutality and depravity in the headlines, but by the fundamentally selfish motivations I could see and feel in those I loved and in myself?

This makes the last month seem dramatic, but it was actually pretty normal.  It was one of those patches of low-level moodiness that are easy to ignore or excuse. It seems I have to learn over and over again that a little honest reflection about what is really going on almost always leads to greater awareness and insight. I usually need some kind of a shock from the outside to get back on track. One of those shocks came from a recent article in the NY Times.

An 18-year old Pashtun girl named Lal Bibi was raped in Afghanistan because a distant cousin had pulled out  of a marriage proposal, disgracing the disappointed bride’s father. The Times told her story this past weekend in the context of the larger story of so-called honor rapes in that country. She was abducted, chained to a wall, beaten and raped repeatedly by members of the offended clan. They believed the wrongs they had suffered had to be redressed. This was a traditional way to gain satisfaction. Her innocence–indeed her total ignorance of the offense–was beside the point.

Photo NY Times

It was hard enough to read how the law, the government and the police failed a young women like Lal Bibi. But it’s difficult even to categorize the emotions I felt when I read how her family now regards her. They, too, believe that these “wrongs” must be redressed. But they feel the burden not only of the sins forced upon their daughter by others but also of the shame that taints her from within and brings disgrace to the family. Her mother spoke for them about the prospect of getting no redress from civil authorities:

“If nobody wants to solve our problem, then they should behead her; we don’t want her.”

Years ago, a remark like this would not only have stirred up feelings of acute sadness, anger and disgust in me, but would have been profoundly disorienting. How could the “sacredness” of familial love fail so horrifically in this situation? Indirectly at least, it threatened my faith in the inherent goodness of human beings, in the universality of Love, in God.

Her family’s love for her before the rape–and even after to some extent–was obvious in the story. Intuitively, we all understand how a mother feels about a daughter. We assign it a place of universal value across cultures. Yes, many mothers fail their daughters and even abuse them terribly, but we put that up to social or psychological dysfunction/disease on the one hand or moral evil on the other.

Except this mother wasn’t pathological. And while I might call her culture “diseased” it is explicitly monotheistic and appears to be functioning naturally. Her cruel indifference isn’t a result of the damage done to the fabric of the family by the dysfunctional violence of Afghani society; it is a personal-cultural-spiritual way of managing violence and has evolved to maintain cultural order and psychological coherence in the world as it is.

Today I can explain this mother’s words about her daughter quite simply: biology. To put it with a little more nuance: reproduction and clan identity are of such critical importance in the way human beings have evolved in a chaotic and threatening world that symbolic cultural practices like these–and the ideas and emotions that go with them–have evolved to protect them. Biology in this case trumps the “natural” loving bond between mother and child–a bond that serves as one of our most powerful metaphors for God’s love. It has an even easier time overcoming the principle of the infinite value and inviolable dignity of human beings outside of one’s own clan, the practical center of God’s message to humanity in the Christian religious tradition.

That brings me back to explaining my bad mood. And to one of the reasons I started this blog: “Spirit in the World.”

Most of the time I’m able to keep the dialogue between material and spiritual approaches to reality going in a way that energizes my enthusiasm for both perspectives. But on occasion I find myself on the ropes in terms of faith. This past month was one of those times. But the story of Lal Bibi and her mother provided the shock of grace rather than doubt. My response to her story was so strong, so immediate, that it put me viscerally back in touch with my faith. I loved her as I read her story. I believed she was entitled to love and compassion even though I could, in a material sense, excuse her mother’s callousness. I can profess a faith in Christ which says that her life is transcendentally beautiful and valuable, that it has an infinite meaning beyond the biological expression of properties working themselves out in her brief moment of history, in her all-too-vulnerable vulnerable flesh. Love, God’s ongoing creation in this world as it is, is unfinished, still evolving. And the story we need to tell one another about God and Love revealed in the world must always be told in the context of unfinished chaos and suffering.

I was thinking about all of this when I recently read a remarkable review by James Santel in the LA Times of  Jonathan Franzen‘s book Farther Away, a collection of his most recent essays. I mentioned at the start of this entry that I might have better remembered Von Balthasar’s theology if it had been written as a novel. I read Franzen’s novel Freedom last year, and while it isn’t theology, it certainly is a story about Love revealing itself amid chaos and suffering. Santel’s wide-ranging essay examines the theme of Love in the novel as well as in this new collection of essays.  Most poignantly, the essay also deals with the relationship between Franzen and his close friend David Foster Wallace. Wallace, a widely acknowledged leader in American Letters and the author of Infinite Jest, committed suicide in September 2008.

Photo at

Santel observes that some of Franzen’s critics may regard his new collection of essays as having gone so far down the road toward a spiritualized approach to Love that  he drifts into a “hollow piety.” I was grateful to read such a phrase. I’m keenly interested  in any widely read work in the humanities that still elicits as much as an offhand reference to traditionally religious language, even in critique. In this case , Santel is honoring the religious dimension of Franzen’s work. Toward the end of the essay, he quotes Franzen in a sentence that has helped me recommit to the value of dialogue between spiritual and material points of reference:

“What love is really about is bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit is real as you are.”

This, for me, is a powerful, original and contemporary way of expressing faith in Christ.

Near the end of Von Balthasar’s book, he returns to the central idea undergirding his vast, theological project: the importance of beholding the Transcendent Other. The origin of our life out of nothingness, he says, and the source of our hope as mortal beings facing the looming void of death–however much we are responsible for nurturing the gift in the here and now and laboring to build a hope-filled future–lies beyond ourselves, beyond our efforts. Accepting this, he says, is what it means to believe in God.

But how do we make the existence of “God” believable for a weary, suffering, cynical world? How should we help others–and ourselves–to surrender in the midst of so much suffering to this “Transcendent Other” in faith?

We can only do this work “in Christ,”  which is to say,  as Franzen put it quoting Alice Sebold,  by “getting down in the pit and loving somebody.”

 Hans Urs Von Balthasar captured the same truth in the title of a book that has guided my prayer and reflection for many months.
If we seek to draw anyone, including ourselves,  to faith in a Transcendent God, “Love alone is credible.”

Sacred Heart of Jesus Image carved on a concrete wall at Auschwitz

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