A Theology of History by Hans Urs von Balthasar contains the following passage about Christ’s relationship to time and his foreknowledge of future events:
It is not the case that Christ before his Passion was only appearing to live in time…What tells us more than anything else that Jesus’ mode of time is indeed real is the fact that he does not anticipate the will of the Father. He does not do the precise thing which we try to do when we sin, which is to break out of time, within which are contained God’s dispositions for us, in order to arrogate to ourselves a sort of eternity, to “take the long view” and “make sure of things”. Both Irenaeus and Clement consider that original sin consisted in anticipation of this kind; and indeed, at the close of Revelation the reward which the Son bestows upon the victor is that fruit of Paradise which the sinner had to his own hurt stolen in anticipation. (Rev 2:7) God intended man to have all good, but in his, God’s, time; and therefore all disobedience, all sin, consists essentially in breaking out of time…Hence the importance of patience in the New Testament, which becomes the basic constituent of Christianity, more central even than humility…This may be seen from Jesus’s relation to “his hour”, which is the Father’s hour. Essentially, it is the hour that is coming, which, in its coming, is always there and therefore determines everything that happens before it and leads up to it, but still has this determinative character as something that is to come, something that can not be summoned…The concept he has of it—and this kind of knowledge he does have—has for its measure that which the Father reveals of it to him. One can therefore say in general (since “his hour” is the epitome of his mission) that his knowledge as God-man is measured by his mission. The knowledge is not itself the measure, but that which is measured; whereas his mission is the measure that measures all else. His perfection is his obedience, which does not anticipate. The use of his capacities has to be adapted to this standard. To regard Christ’s knowledge as though he carried out his actions in time from some vantage point of eternity—rather like a chess-player of genius who quickly foresees the whole course of the game, and simply moves his men through a game which for him is already over—would be to do away entirely with his temporality and so with his obedience, his patience, the merit of his redemptive existence; he would no longer be the model of a Christain existence and of Christian faith.
Of course, von Balthasar is not denying that Jesus was God, and as God knew all things. There are many passages in the Gospels that show Jesus predicting the future. He is God! And yet he is also fully human. He did not let his status as God obliterate his humanity. As St. Paul says, Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7) During the temptation in the desert, Jesus rejected the suggestion to grasp at glory on his own terms. He would indeed rule over all nations and peoples, but only by following the will of the Father that led him to the cross. As von Balthasar points out, Christ showed this humility and obedience by living in the moment. As a man, he could learn and grow. (Luke 2:52) As a man, he could be surprised. (Matthew 8:10, Mark 6:6)
The humility of Christ stems from his love. He loves us so much that he was willing to stoop down to reach us. Even more amazingly, he wishes to raise us to his own level. By incorporation in the Mystical Body, we are being integrated into the very life of the Trinity. This communal reality of the Mystical Body should be the basis of any community building attempt. In particular, I think that reflecting on Christ’s relationship to time and to knowledge can help us avoid certain spiritual errors that are common among those building community.
The Bad World and the Good Community?
Devout Christians often misunderstand the true nature of temptation. We are tempted to obtain good things in the wrong way. That means that we need to be on our guard against spiritual pride and the other vices that can slip in under cover of apparent devotion. Instead, too many Christians are focused on the evils of the world “out there”. They correctly understand that such things as abortion and sexual perversions are contrary to the Gospel; but focusing on these issues can lead to a certain blindness regarding the more subtle forms of evil. This is particularly the case when Christian community is seen as a fortress or ark to hold at bay the evil of the outside world. Such a focus on other people’s sins is spiritually dangerous. It can promote the formation of a comfortable little “shire”, where all kinds of horrible spiritual sins can flourish under the cover of beautiful liturgies and seemingly devout families. Such spiritual pride goes before a fall. Eventually, God will allow the facade to crumble. Like the showy mushrooms that signal the presence of hidden decay, all the more blatant forms of evil will eventually crop up within the community itself.
The Desire for Control
As von Balthasar explains, the desire for control is the most fundamental temptation. The attitude of human beings toward God should be one of humble trust, surrender, and thanksgiving. Instead, we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness. We come to fear that he does not truly care for us, and so we set out to take care of ourselves. This was the temptation in the Garden of Eden: the suggestion that God was untrustworthy.
This desire for control can be seen in the individualism of the modern world. We are told that we need to “go it alone”, to control our own destinies. To do this, we break family and community ties. I recently came across an interesting example of this on social media. A commenter was arguing that young people should not live with their parents. Instead, he urged them to seek independence no matter what the cost. He said that he had moved away from home to live with five roommates and work several different jobs just to make ends meet, but independence was “worth it”. This is obviously absurd. Can anyone be truly independent? Why is sharing the cost of living with five unknown roommates more virtuous than sharing the cost of living with one’s parents?
The deeper, darker reality behind such views is that sharing an apartment with roommates is seen as superior precisely because of the lack of pre-existing ties. Family bonds are not chosen; they are simply given, received as a gift. Roommates, on the other hand, are chosen. They can be left behind when one no longer needs them. Our culture glorifies personal choice and individual freedom, but this leads to a deep unhappiness just as it did in the Garden of Eden.
As people become more and more aware of this fundamental lack in our society, community building starts to look more attractive. The danger is that community will become just another strategy for control. If we enter into a community with our culture’s individualistic mindset, we will fail. Community will be seen as a way to escape the dangers and problems of life, as a way of walling out conflicting ideas. Parents will see community as a way to gain control over children, leaders will see community as a path to power.
In reality, however, community building is about relinquishing individual choice and receiving others as a gift. Any healthy community will contain differing perspectives and temperaments. Such differences will inevitably lead to tension. The Christian way is to accept such difficulties, instead of striking out on an individual search for fulfillment or attempting to coerce community into artificial uniformity.
The Problem with Blueprints
In one sense, “building community” is deeply paradoxical. How can we build something which must be organic? How can we plan for something that depends on the unpredictable nature of human relationships? Von Balthasar’s description of Christ’s knowledge and his relationship to time can help us to navigate this seeming contradiction.
In one sense, Christ foresaw the future. He understood his mission, and that mission required a certain vision of things yet to come. Similarly, as Christians we have a mission. In fact, our mission is a participation in the mission of Christ: showing the love of the Father to the world. Community is a key part of this mission; the pagans in the ancient world saw the love of the Christian community and were attracted by it. To fulfill this mission, we need to think about the future. As Pope Francis says, we need to “dream” of a better world. We need to have a vision of Christian community, or we will remain stuck in the status quo.
Christ’s knowledge, however, did not keep him from truly living in time. He did not attempt to control events by drawing on an eternal perspective. Rather, he was docile to the will of the Father and the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the moment. Similarly, we need to live in the moment and be open to the voice of God. Discernment is essential, and discernment is ultimately a communal process. This means that our initial vision will probably be modified by the people and events we encounter along our path.
To maintain this flexibility, we need to fight the temptation to “grab” for power and control over events. We can’t let the initial vision degenerate into a mere “blueprint” of a future project. Living in the moment can keep this degeneration at bay. Having a meal with friends is a good and beautiful thing. It should be valued for what it is, not as a stepping stone to something in the future. It should not be seen as an opportunity to “build social capital” that can later be “invested” in some project.
Of course, such actions and activities may end up laying the foundation upon which a more intentional community is built. They can only become such a foundation, however, if we value them for what they are. We are to “seek first the kingdom of God”, and “all these things” will be given to us. The “kingdom of God” that we are to seek is “among us” in the here and now, not in some distant future.
And when the future becomes the present, we may be surprised to find that what God has built upon our foundation was not what we had envisioned, but something much better. We will be able to say, like the steward in St. John’s Gospel, “You have kept the good wine until now”.
Cult dynamics may be more common than you think.
It might seem that most normal people don’t have to worry about cults. The reality, however, is that cults are merely dysfunctional communities, and their obvious flaws are merely an exaggerated version of common social problems.
There is a strongly felt lack of community in the modern world. This lack produces both a desire for community and a level of inexperience which can make negative dynamics more likely.
In this episode, Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Peter DeGoede discuss a few of these negative dynamics. They try to show the ways that these dynamics can crop up in everyday life, and examine some of the underlying problems.
Some Problematic attitudes
They discuss how cults are marked by dishonesty, both to members and to the wider world, and by a lack of openness to the truth. This type of mentality can afflict any group with divides the world into insiders and outsiders. Group members can become OK with not knowing the truth.
Cults are usually based on fear, but many seemingly harmless communities are also based on fear of the outside world. In particular, parents are afraid that the world will corrupt their children. That’s not a groundless fear but if it is the basis for community formation, everyone will suffer.
An obsessive focus on the nuclear family can actually become selfish and unchristian. Families may do well to avoid the more problematic aspects of our culture. On the other hand, if a focus remains on the negative, it can lead to greater evil. Christ illustrates this point with the Gospel parable of the man who swept his house of a demon, only for seven demons to return.
Focus on the Negative
A focus on the negative can also blind individuals and groups to the evil that is found inside, in individual souls or in a group. We’re all sinners, and we should ground our spirituality in humility. Christ comes to be with us in our weakness and failures. We shouldn’t try to find perfection, which can lead us to gloss over problems.
Any attempt to follow Christ will create a certain amount of division. We have to make choices that will possibly alienate us from those around us. At the same time, such division can lead to cult mentalities by dividing the world between insiders and outsiders. Catholics should not make choices which turn fellow Catholics into outsiders. We have to remain united to the body of Christ, even if this can be a source of pain or frustration at times. In doing so we will be imitating the Saints, who preached a radical message which could be divisive at times, but who nevertheless remained faithful to the unity of the Church.
Along the way, a number of other topics are discussed, including the opposition between choice and culture, “family envy”, the difference between natural virtue and Christianity, liturgy as chosen, and the felt lack of control in the modern world despite our technological abilities.
Header image: a plan drawing of Port Royal convent, the center of the Jansenist movement in France.