The current issue of First Things
has an interesting colloquy between Alyssa Lyra Pitstick and Fr. Edward Oaks, SJ on the subject of Hans Urs von Balthasar's eschatology. Balthasar, Hell and Hersey: An Exchange
. For those interested in perhaps the most original and controversial feature of von Balthasar's theological work, I recommend the piece. It is no surprise that, in my opinion at least, Fr. Oaks carries the day. He has long been one of von Balthasar's most insightful and gifted interpreters. Given the fact that Western Christianity has in recent decades (centuries?) allowed the eschatological dimension of the faith to atrophy, a lively conversation of such things is for the better, however one might decide between the Pitstick and Oaks arguments.
As for von Balthasar himself, in his treatment of this topic, which is deeply indebted to Adrienne von Speyr, he quotes a passage in an eschatological treatise by one W. Kreck that is helpful in approaching this subject:
Both the uncritical notion of a bipolar outcome of human history and the strident protest against it contain the same danger. They both want to draw up an eschatology from the point of view of the spectator, not of the man most intimately involved in it ... In spite of all the compelling negative evidence I may have, it is beyond my abilities and competence to assess to what extent, ultimately, a man is really persisting in, or can persist in, resistance to Christ.Volume V: Theo-Drama, p. 299.
I read the colloquy between Dr. Pitstick and Fr. Oaks and I think they are trying to hard. The most obvious thing about Jesus' suffering, is the most obvious thing about anyone's suffering--saying how much it was is purely speculative. Not that theological speculation is always pointless; in this case it can help many in their devotional life, and maybe that's its intent. It may also serve as a avenue of self-expression for the theologically well-trained, in which case the speculation will usually miss the point. When we compare people's suffering we tend to feel better, sometimes we feel worse, and in our better moments we are brought to compassion. Telling someone in Darfur that Jesus suffered more than anyone ever had or could would not bring them comfort. What could bring them comfort is the point behind the belief that he descended to the dead. That point is--and it's a simple one--that he died. With his descent he completed the death common to us all, and where all comparisons stop. Someone may suffer more than I do, maybe Jesus did, maybe he didn't, but we will one day both have died, and descended. The fact of his death doesn't seem to need much emphasis among us today--unless your talking to a Muslim who believes he didn't die on the cross--but we believe that he completed his death and so completely share in death with us all does make the additional point that the crucifixion was not a show for the benefit of the crowd.
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