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Part IV: A Summary of “Surprised by Truth: The Drama of Fundamental Theology” by D. C. Schindler

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

June 28, 2006

In the last section of his essay, Schindler returns to the original problem posed by fundamental theology, viz., by affirming the “genuine gratuity of revelation,” we are admitting a discontinuity with human reason; whereas, going the other way and upholding reason’s integrity and its natural desire for the ultimate, we must admit continuity between human reason “in its ‘natural’ functions and reason in its grasp of revealed truth” (p. 607). Balthasar’s dramatic notion of truth seems to solve our dilemma by allowing for both aspect of continuity and discontinuity. Moreover, this dramatic notion of truth serves as the basis for all thought (not merely for fundamental theology). Though the following is an exceedingly long quote, it is worth repeating in full, as it sums up the essay quite well:

“the event of revelation—and we might say the advent of grace, the moment of the act of faith—can take reason wholly by surprise, even shatter its expectations, demand a rethinking of everything it previously thought from top to bottom, and yet remain perfectly rational, or indeed show itself to be even more intensely rational, on one condition only; that it is the very nature of reason in its normal, everyday constitution, to be taken by surprise. If this is the case, then on the one hand no matter how discontinuous revelation is with respect to the ‘horizon of human reason,’ no matter how radically surprising, it will represent a fulfillment of what reason is by nature. Insofar as reason in its natural functions aspires to know what is other than itself, it expects to be ‘overturned’ to some degree—as slight as the reversal may happen to be in ordinary circumstances—by the object it seeks to know. And in aspiring to ultimacy, it naturally aspires to be overturned by what is ultimate. On the other hand, this reversal, though it corresponds in some respect to the nature of reason, is in no way reducible to the immanent structure of reason, because what reason itself demands is in fact the priority of the object to be known, and in the supernatural order, it is the priority of faith. There is thus something analogous to faith operating in every act of reason, which is precisely why its being surprised by faith is a perfection of its nature. Faith corresponds, we might say, by not corresponding.

Moreover, the same paradox explains how Christianity can lay claim to the assent of reason, can lay claim, in fact, to the very roots of reason, while at the same time arriving as a sheer gift of grace. Understood dramatically, the inner spontaneity of consciousness is constituted in the advent of a gift, namely, the mother’s smile. If this is the case, the advent of revelation, as a gift from above, recapitulates the constitutive aspiration of reason and in this sense directly ‘speaks to’ reason in its most inward core precisely as an unanticipated event” (pp. 607-608).

Part IIIb: A Summary of “Surprised by Truth: The Drama of Fundamental Theology” by D. C. Schindler

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

June 26, 2006

Continuing with the second section of Schindler’s essay, we turn to further explore the dramatic aspect of truth, i.e., what does drama have to do with this conception of truth? A good drama always exhibits a “dramatic reversal,” containing moments of both surprise and resolution. Likewise, a good plot is said to “unfold” and is not merely a linear sequence of events. Rather, as an organic unity, the plot must birth a reversal or turn of events that unifies the seemingly incongruent parts. When this reversal moment occurs, it takes us by surprise because it shows us how all the parts and other events come together in a meaningful whole. “There is a discontinuity that nevertheless preserves a continuity, though that continuity gets recast by the dramatic reversal” (p. 603).

Relating the aspects of a successful drama to our current topic, Schindler says that in order for a true surprise to occur, a state of anticipation arising out of the prior events must exist. However, “the moment of reversal cannot simply be deducible from the prior events: it has to interrupt the claim, thwart or even shatter expectations. But—and this is the key—the moment cannot shatter the dramatic form of the whole without undermining the very surprise it initially effected. Instead, this reversal must recast the meaning of the parts and the anticipation they produced in a manner that brings them all to a definitive fulfillment. Here is the great paradox of great drama: anticipation is fulfilled by what it cannot have expected; the turn of events that ‘shatters’ the progressively developing intelligible form ends up crystallizing that very form in a startlingly radiant whole. The form does not become less intelligible by the disruption, but in fact it becomes far more intelligible than one could have anticipated at the outset or along the way” (p. 604).

In contrast to the traditional epistemologies described earlier in his essay—those which by definition exclude surprise because the mind can only receive that which it is already (in some sense) prepared to take in—Balthasar’s view allows for surprise to be “built into the very heart of consciousness” (recall that the child’s smile arises as a gift in reception of the mother’s smile not prior to it). Moreover, contra more modern epistemologies, “the potential for the reception of the mother’s smile does not precede that address as an a priori condition of possibility but arrives with that address; it is part of the original gift itself” (p. 605). The child of course does not respond to the mother’s gesture before she initiates the act, but rather responds to her in the moment that he receives her address. Thus, with Balthasar’s account, we can agree with the Aristotelian/Thomistic view that act precedes potency “without already anticipating all possible actualities within the soul’s immanent capacities, for now the act that precedes potency occurs as an event, a simultaneously immanent and transcendent encounter, in which the soul is already outside of itself in its reception of its other” (p. 605).

With this, we have an answer to the Meno paradox: we affirm that the soul anticipates its object, yet deny that the object is derivable from the soul itself. Moreover, the soul’s anticipation in the dramatic reversal is recast, which allows for both surprise and fulfillment to take place. Lastly, as the soul grasps that which is “other,” we see that every act of knowledge involves this element of surprise. Given that Balthasar’s notion of the Gestalt is concrete rather than abstract, we are not forced into a reductionistic view that equates acts of knowledge with mere intellectual acts. As we have seen, the soul must in some sense transcend itself in order to receive its object. In addition, instead of passively receiving the object according to a prior capacity, the soul actively conforms itself to the object and in some sense receives the capacity for the object from the event itself (p. 606). Its active role of responding to the initiating movement of the object/other involves an act of the will. “This spontaneity on the part of the soul, then, is not merely spontaneous but is a constitutive aspect of a more comprehensive receptivity. This is why the soul’s spontaneity is not an imposition on the object—as it necessarily is, for example in Kant. But precisely because the spontaneity is an aspect of a more basic receptivity, the active anticipation it entails does not unilaterally determine the object’s final meaning. Instead, the expectation is surprised by that meaning, and precisely in the surprise finds its expectation fulfilled, insofar as it sought to know the object—its other—and not merely itself or its own experience. The moment in which the soul moves beyond itself is the moment in which the object finally discloses itself. The intellectual grasp of meaning thus turns out to be an irreducibly distinct part of a more comprehensive whole, which includes a perceptive, affective, and volitional dimension as well” (p. 606).

Though the “dramatic moment” in Balthasar’s work is usually connected to the theological, viz., “the encounter of divine and human freedom,” what Schindler wants to highlight is that “if this moment itself is to be intelligible at all, we must understand that every cognitional act—insofar as it involves the advent of meaning that includes the soul’s capacity without being reducible to it—is something like an encounter between two freedoms. There is, in other words, from the outset an analogy between the theological and the properly philosophical act, and indeed between the act of faith and every use of the intellect, even the most rudimentary” (pp. 606-607, italics added).

Part IIIa: A Summary of “Surprised by Truth: The Drama of Fundamental Theology” by D. C. Schindler

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

June 25, 2006

In the second section of his essay, “Surprised by Truth: The Drama of Fundamental Theology”[1] Schindler begins to map out Balthasar’s dramatic notion of truth by considering two governing principles: (1) the mother’s smile and (2) the identity of freedom and form in the Gestalt. [Gestalt in German literally means “shape” or “form.” However, I take it that Schindler and Balthasar are using the word to describe a kind of holism or something like a organic paradigm—something the opposite of anything reductionistic. In fact, later in the essay, Gestalt is said to include, “the concrete shape of a life or the intelligible wholeness of an action or an event” (p. 602)].

First, Schindler says that a common response to the “Cartesian problem,” i.e., the difficulty of explaining how the mind is able to connect with the world (its “other”) is to simply to say that “the self is always already in contact with the world, and develops its own immanent structures from […] within this contact” (p. 597). In Balthasar’s conception of the dramatic structure of truth, part of his aim is to give an account that upholds (instead of doing away with) the “otherness” of that which is outside the soul. For Balthasar, the soul’s connection with the world is rooted in more basic “contact,” viz., the “mother’s smile.” In his essay, “Movement Toward God,” Balthasar writes, “[t]he little child awakens to self-consciousness through being addressed by the love of his mother.”[2] The mother’s smile is of course a very personal gesture addressed to and inviting the child (the “other) to respond, and is that which gives rise to the child’s response. In differentiation from Kant’s account of consciousness, “the soul’s conditions of possibility are not fixed prior to and thus independent of the (receptive) encounter with what is other than consciousness, but instead occurs in the encounter. The conditions of possibility arise, as it were, not wholly from below, but as a gift from above, which, precisely because of its generosity, creates the space for the ‘from below’ capacity to receive it” (p. 598). In footnote 24, Schindler adds an important clarification, viz., there is, however, a prior capacity involved. This prior capacity is “by its nature a capacity to be surprised, which is to say that the prior capacity cannot suffice on its own to account for the possibility of encounter (as it necessarily does in Kant). It is […] a capacity that is originally and ontologically receptive: it is received from God, and also from the parents, and the former reception is mediated through the latter” (p. 598). The following passage from Balthasar helps to elucidate the differences between his conception and Kant’s, “it is not thanks to the gracious favor of the ‘I’ that space and the world exist, but thanks to the gracious favor of the ‘Thou.’ And if the ‘I’ is permitted to walk upon the ground of reality and to cross the distances to reach the other, this is due to an original favor bestowed on him, something for which, a priori, the ‘I’ will never find the sufficient reason in himself” (p. 599).[3]

Returning to the “mother’s smile” in connection with providing an alternate response to the Cartesian problem, Schindler notes that in the mother’s gesture of love, the child’s first experience of both himself and the world is at the same time personal and ontological (p. 599). This simultaneity of the event being both personal and ontological is crucial. As Schindler explains, “the true identity that occurs between the soul and being does so at the very same time within the irreducible and generous opposition of freedoms.[4] Indeed, the difference of the opposition makes the unity possible and vice versa; the unity and difference are inseparable and irreducible aspects of the very same event. Moreover, from the beginning […] being has a personal face, and the personal always has an ontological depth” (p. 600).

Secondly, and in a sense, following from what we have just described is Balthasar’s identification of form and freedom in the Gestalt. For Balthasar, form is not an abstract, universal essence, but is rather a concrete Gestalt, “a visible manifestation of non-appearing depths, in which the particular and the universal, the sensible and the supersensible, the outward and the inward, the historical and the transcendent, are all bound together at once” (p. 601). The intelligibility of this Gestalt is found in its irreducible unity—a unity that though composed of parts is not reducible to its parts, and is a unity that “gathers” up the parts into a meaningful (concrete) whole (p. 601). In this account, the soul does not abstract the meaning of concepts according to our mode of knowing. Rather, being a “manifestation of meaning” and external to the soul, it “calls upon the soul to conform itself to it, the concrete Gestalt. That the manifestation of meaning transcends the soul in no way bars its access. Rather, what is required in the act of understanding is the soul’s self-transcendence, “and in this act the difference between spontaneity and receptivity effectively falls away: the soul receives the meaning of the Gestalt by indwelling it, which means by moving ‘spontaneously’ beyond its prior state—or, if you will, its preconceived expectations” (p. 601). Balthasar’s concrete Gestalt is neither Plato’s static Form/Idea, nor the forma of scholasticism, but includes “the concrete shape of a life or the intelligible wholeness of an action or an event” (p. 602).

Having described in more detail Balthasar’s concrete Gestalt, Schindler then returns to the mother’s smile and the child’s awakening of consciousness example. In smiling at her child, the mother presents him “with a Gestalt in which she makes her person accessible to him as a loving gift.” In this gesture, “the whole has a meaning because of ‘something’ that is both not any particular part of what she shows him and at the same time transparently present everywhere within it, namely, herself, i.e., her freedom. […] The intelligibility of this event is thus grounded in this center that is both above and within the sensible phenomena” (p. 602). Here we should note that the smile is an action—a personal invitation that is received only when reciprocated. In fact, the child only receives the “intelligible form” of the smile when he or she smiles—i.e., in the act of smiling him/herself. Here we see the identification of form and freedom—the child’s smile being the reception of the mother’s smile, and the child’s giving back of freedom in receiving the mother’s gift. This then implies that the moment of action comes neither before nor after understanding, but is “an intrinsic part of the understanding itself” (p. 602). Thus, we see in Balthasar’s concrete Gestalt a union in beauty of the two moments of the true and the good as explicated in the Aristotelo-Aquinas tradition—the former being “the soul’s taking the object into itself while the good is the soul’s movement beyond itself toward its object” (pp. 602-3).

[1] By “Fundamental Theology,” Schindler has in mind that which has as its two central themes revelation and the credibility of revelation (see footnote 2, p. 588).
[2] As cited in Schindler, p. 598, Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Movement Toward God,” in Explorations in Theology, vol. 3, Creator Spirit (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 15-55.
[3] As cited in Schindler, p. 599, Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Movement Toward God,” p. 16.
[4] Here “opposition” simply indicates that the two freedoms “face” each other.

Part II: A Summary of “Surprised by Truth: The Drama of Fundamental Theology” by D. C. Schindler

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

June 23, 2006

Having summarized Schindler’s introduction, we now proceed to the first section of his essay. Here Schindler briefly runs through certain crucial epistemologies in order to show how they tend toward immanence. The heart of the matter begins with Plato and the Meno paradox—i.e., that according to Socrates, learning is impossible, as nothing essentially new can be introduced into the soul. In other words, the bottom line is that in Plato’s account, reason cannot be taken by surprise because the soul already possess what it knows and must simply recollect that knowledge. As Schindler provocatively puts it, “reason can have access to what transcends it only if it is already built into reason, which means only if it does not in fact transcend reason” (p. 592).

Schindler then turns to Aristotle, whose “epistemology” when its all said and done results in the same problem (in spite of its empirical flavor). For Aristotle, the particulars can only be learned on the basis of a universal, which is already known (p. 592). As Schindler explains, for Aristotle, knowledge is “an actualization of the soul. Every actualization presupposes not only a general potentiality for knowledge, but a specific potential for this particular actuality. But to be disposed, of course, presupposes the actuality itself. Thus, act is prior to potency. The soul cannot take into itself in other words, anything that it does not already have “space” for, a prior disposition for. […] If reason were able to know something, it would after all already have the capacity for it, and the capacity is derivative of the completed act. […] Any apparent surprise turns out to be nothing more than an unfolding of the soul’s already latent potential. Whatever the human soul knows is necessarily humanly knowable” (pp. 592-93).

According to Schindler, Aquinas as well does not escape these difficulties. Aquinas’ definition of truth offered in De Veritate is adequatio intellectus rei (p. 593). Though of course presenting only a summary version for the present purposes of his essay, Schindler explains that in Thomas’ view, “insofar as the adequatio is a joining of two terms, the object’s measure must be accommodated by the soul, and is therefore to that extent determined by the soul’s intrinsic capacities” (p. 593). As Aquinas himself says, “the fulfillment of every motion or operation lies in its end. The motion of the cognitive power, however, is terminated in the soul. For the known must be in the knower according to the mode of the knower” (De Veritate, 1.2). For Aquinas, truth must agree with or “fit” the intellect—i.e., it must harmonize with the intellect’s own structure in order to be true (p. 593). More could be said, but I shall for brevity’s sake move on to Schindler’s summary of modern epistemologies, which in contrast with the former, attempt to do way with what Schindler positively refers to as a “certain open ‘undecidedness’ at the deepest level of the question of reason’s relation to its objects” (p. 594).

With Descartes, we have the principle that ideas are true to the degree that they can be derived from reason itself (p. 594). Stated from another angle, the clarity and distinctness of the ideas that Descartes takes to be the criteria of truth comes from the immediacy of their relation to the thinking subject (n. 16, p. 594). Moving quickly to Kant and his critical philosophy, we have the “subject’s conditions of possibility” determined “prior to any encounter with what lies outside of the subject” (p. 595). In other words, that which counts as intelligible is determined by the that which can be received within the understanding’s a priori conditions, and that which transcends these a priori conditions simply cannot be received. What this means is that rather than being that which one understands, the “world” becomes the “mere occasion for understanding” (p. 595). Moreover, the soul is limited to “encountering” only the physical [matter being the activity that the soul receives]; “beyond the physical is nothing but the pure spontaneity of reason” (p. 595). Interestingly, Kant’s experience of the sublime turns out strictly speaking not to be an experience at all. That is, “because the sublime is infinite, it cannot be encountered anywhere in the world, and turns out to be reason’s ‘encounter’ with itself” (pp. 595-96) [!]. Given this construal, it is not surprising that Kant denies the possibility of genuine supernatural revelation—for Kant, one could not recognize the God of revelation as God “unless he corresponded to our a priori notion of what it means to be God. Revelation can be true only if it reveals to us what we already know” (p. 596). So we are back “full-circle” to Meno’s paradox, and we are still faced with the extremely difficult question, “how, indeed, can reason have a capacity for what lies beyond its capacity?” (p. 597). This question, of course, presses us to contemplate the very nature of reason, which no doubt includes all its functions and acts.

Schindler closes this section by pointing out that if reason can understand revelation without doing away with its revelational character, then we must conclude that reason is somehow able to transcend itself. If this is the case, the implications would extend beyond the problems of fundamental theology [1], to more broadly speaking, the problem of knowledge itself, and hence, to philosophy in general.

[1] By “Fundamental Theology,” Schindler has in mind that which has as its two central themes revelation and the credibility of revelation (see footnote 2, p. 588).

Part I: A Summary of "Surprised by Truth: The Drama of Fundamental Theology" by D.C. Schindler

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

June 22, 2006

As Schindler explains, both theology and philosophy are logoi, i.e., rational discourses about God, and are thus human activities. However, what distinguishes the two is that theology has (or should have) its ultimate foundation “not in reason’s own exigencies” but in revelation—that which transcends human reason. Schindler then presses us to consider whether admitting that revelation transcends the bounds of reason would force us to relegate revelation to the realm of the irrational. We could of course take the alternate route of “reducing revelation to its universally accessible ‘sense,’’ (p. 588); however, revelation is then more or less rendered superfluous. In order avoid the problems inherent in both options, Schindler seeks an analogous understanding of the relationship between revelation and reason, i.e., he wants to find a way to affirm “both the discontinuity of revelation with respect to reason as well as a certain continuity” (p. 589). The path that he carves out is what he calls the “dramatic notion of truth.”

According to Schindler, the present problem of fundamental theology [1] also applies to philosophy. This statement will become clearer as the essay unfolds. Turning first to theology, Schindler says, “we ought to see that the character of theology will be determined to some extent by the view of reason operative within it. If the ‘revelational’ dimension of Christianity remains simply extrinsic to reason, theology will not possess the capacity to see Christianity as an organic whole, but will tend instead to reduce it positivistically to some aspect, for example, to a collection of propositions of faith. It will be unable to penetrate into dogma or reflectively appropriate it but will inevitably collapse into mere history, fideism, biblical positivism, moralism, or a program of social justice and political action. […] To be genuinely contemplative, theology must be what Balthasar has called a ‘seeking theology,’ and this requires taking reason’s needs as in some sense its own” (pp. 589-90).

This of course compels us to consider the nature of reason itself, and whether in regard to the relation between reason and revelation, philosophy has not overstepped its bounds. Philosophy itself, as Schindler points out, is still grappling with the more modest issue of the possibility of obtaining knowledge of the world—not that which transcends the natural order. However, Schindler’s claim is that both quests—knowledge of the natural and knowledge of the supra-natural are not wholly un-related. “[T]here is a certain analogy between reason’s capacity to know the world, which as its ‘other’ lies in some sense beyond reason itself, and its capacity to have access to what transcends it altogether. Moreover, if reason were capable of grasping the altogether transcendent, this would represent its highest act. If the possibility of this act were excluded a priori and as a matter of principle from philosophy’s scope, it would undermine the impulse that all the great thinkers have recognized as reason’s defining feature: an eros ordered to the ultimate, the original, and the comprehensive” (p. 590). In other words, to a priori place a limit marking off that to which reason can strive, will result (as Nietzsche predicts in the context of speaking about love) in reason’s self-destruction or internal demise.

So as to more fully explicate the dramatic notion of truth, Schindler begins by briefly summarizing certain crucial epistemologies in order to show how they tend toward immanence. In the second part of the essay, Schindler presents the principles (mined from Balthasar’s thought) of a dramatic notion of truth. In the third and final section, Schindler explains how this dramatic conception of truth provides a coherent and satisfying way to avoid being pierced by the horns of the dilemma at the basis of fundamental theology, viz., either relegating revelation to the irrational or making it unnecessary by reducing it to that, which is universally accessible.

More to come…

[1] By “Fundamental Theology,” Schindler has in mind that which has as its two central themes revelation and the credibility of revelation (see footnote 2, p. 588).

(This article first appeared in Communio 31 [Winter 2004]: pp. 587-611)