von Balthasar on Buddhism; or, Zen and Jesus

A well-known 20th-century Catholic theologian on non-Christian religions: Because through his faith and love Socrates […]

Will McDavid / 7.10.12

A well-known 20th-century Catholic theologian on non-Christian religions:

Because through his faith and love Socrates – perfectly and to the point of folly – subordinated his existence to the daimon within him, he can be an intimation of Christ: he points to the divine by himself being a highway for the divine. The same could be said of Buddha or Lao Tzu. It is from their lived doctrine that Zen developed, the essence of which is to give practical training in how to transcend one’s own consciousness, how to make the finite spirit a vessel of the infinite Spirit – a flute through which inspiration wafts – , how to educate the spirit to renounce its own designs in order that the infinite be realized through it.

This theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, rightly sees the failure of the Law so present in human life and nature, so self-evident, that many other religions rightly emphasize humility in the face of the divine. By reducing ourselves, as Zen has it, we allow the divine spirit to express itself in us as through vessels – an Eastern analogue to Christoph Blumhardt’s slogan “Die, so that Jesus may live.”  Alas, however, it is only an analogy. For Christians, we do not reduce ourselves so much as be reduced, and any attempt to artificially do this cuts entirely against the grain of Christianity – grace is prioritized over technique.:

For when a doctrine (first in the master, then in the disciple) becomes a technique, there is present a self-destroying paradox: intentional effort is exercised to achieve the repression of all intention, which, with or without a teacher, amounts to a self-motivated storming of the realm of grace.

-Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form

Christ’s sacrifice brings this very self-contradiction of allegedly self-effacing intentionality to the fore: in justifying our own religious sentiments, we kill him on Calvary; despite this, he saves us anyway in the very act against all human intention to be saved in such a way.  Thus the theology of the Cross is not a “technique” but a “doctrine” – an indicative statement of God’s intention always trumps our imperatives towards ourselves.  Not only does this indicative statement work in us before we die to ourselves, but also it’s the very enabling of grace which, through freedom, can effect this humility. Our Christian-existentialist attempts to live without reference to the Law are well-founded and commendable; nonetheless, it’s still Good News that Christianity breaks through the closed circle of religious “technique” with a wholly decisive account of Christ’s once-for all action.  We cannot make ourselves “die so that Jesus may live”  – rather, we are crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20) and, for this reason alone, we are granted the eventual possibility for Christ to live in us.

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2 responses to “von Balthasar on Buddhism; or, Zen and Jesus”

  1. Were Socrates, Jesus and Buddha all in touch with what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls “doctrine” as opposed to “technique”(in contrast to most of their followers) and therefore all “vessels of the infinite Spirit”?

  2. TimothyD says:

    Very cool. I especially like that slogan, “Die, so that Jesus may live.”

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