Monday, 12 December 2011

The eyes of faith

The first volume of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord lays the foundation for a recovery of the lost art of reading "objective symbolism" and thus the deeper meanings of Scripture. In it the history of the tradition of the spiritual senses – faith as a "theological act of perception" – is thoroughly explored, and the importance of its recovery for our time is explained. The weakness of Christianity after the Enlightenment is due very largely to the distortions induced by rationalism, sentimentalism, moralism, and voluntarism. Balthasar writes (p. 140) that the integration of the act of perception back into our understanding of faith
"is not only of theological and theoretical interest; it is a vital question for Christianity today, which can only commend itself to the surrounding world if it first regards itself as being worthy of belief. And it will only do this if faith, for Christians, does not first and last mean 'holding certain propositions to be true' which are incomprehensible to human reason and must be accepted only out of obedience to authority." 
For a generation unwilling to accept the truths of faith on the authority of tradition or of the Church, there has to be an act of seeing into the words of Scripture and the events of history, which reveals not merely the logical consistency of a Creed,
not merely the merits of a moral code, but the beauty which unites logic with life, truth with goodness. The eyes of faith open to reveal "radiance from within" that they are formed to see. Not that faith and knowledge are the same, but they circle around each other, each leading into the other at a deeper level.

As Aquinas saw, the concept of truth applies to things as it does to words, for things are words: the reality of a thing is its inner light, its meaning as an act of communication originating in God. It is therefore possible to penetrate through the many veils of the symbolic, through the natural signs and the metaphors of nature, through the various levels of poetic and metaphorical language – a language which has been refined and abstracted until its metaphorical quality is virtually invisible and easily forgotten – until at last, at its highest and at its deepest, even abstraction gives way, and the human mind enters into the dazzling darkness, which is a mystical union of the knower and the known.

As Origen wrote in the 3rd century, "No one can perceive how great is the splendour of the Word, until he acquires dove's eyes – that is, a spiritual understanding." The people of today are longing for the reintegration of the life of the mind with the life of the spirit, the inner life. It is time for Christianity to offer that to them once again.

Photo by Rosie Caldecott.

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