Skip to main content

2 anxieties

During the course of my reading this last term, I came across a really great article.  You know, the kind of article that makes you say, Dang, I wish I had written that.   The title of the article is "Facing the Abyss: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Reading of Anxiety."  I didn't even know Hans (my main theologian for doctoral studies) was into anxiety!  Well, I thought I would share a few of the thoughts that the author of the article, Anthony Cirelli, brings to the topic.  I wish I had said these things, but I didn't.  All credit to Hans and Tony.

To summarize, Balthasar suggests that anxiety happens because of the void between infinite divine freedom and finite human freedom.  Anxiety in the Old Testament occurs in two distinct ways. On the one hand, it occurs when one turns away from God, only to be greeted by the torturous and searing loneliness and meaninglessness of life apart from God.  On the other hand, anxiety is experienced when one is approached by God, as he is overwhelmed, blinded one might say, by a presence too powerful for words. 

In other words, we are afraid of the infinite, of mystery and the unfamiliar, so we avoid it, turn away from it, and this produces anxiety.  Or we have an encounter with the infinite, the mysterious, the unexplainable and it freaks us out.  This produces anxiety because we cannot abide in a place of such unequal intimacy.  In both cases, it is a turning toward the self, trying to avoid the void by an egocentric response that results in anxiety.

Using the example of Christ on the cross, Balthasar concludes that God did not come to abolish existential anxiety, but to enter into it himself and therefore to be in solidarity with humanity. By doing this, he revalues anxiety and overcomes it. 

Cirelli says: "The moment when a person is aware of Being, he or she enters the dimension of encounter with the infinite God.  But the sheer strangement and unfamiliarity of this 'presence' calls to mind an even greater awareness of absence.  Metaphorically speaking, one undergoes a vertiginous experience as one stands atop a cliff in which the drop is incalculable and yet into which one is called to leap."  We all know that feeling, right?  Anxiety central!  But wait, there's more...

"Anxiety characterizes that moment of encounter and decision: one either surrenders to God, who has sent his Christ to bridge heaven and earth by conveying him to the void, or one retreats into oneself by looking past God and gazing at the void itself."  So there we are, teetering on top of the cliff above the void, faced with encounter and decision.  And really anxious about it all.  What now?

In imitation of Christ, one must make the leap by "surrendering all of one's hope and trust to God."  The courage of a Christian, for Balthasar, though certainly not without anxiety, is nothing other than "an act of faith in which one dares to place oneself and the whole world in the hand of the One who can dispose of a person for death and for life."  In other words, leaping into the void.  But how?

"It is in prayer, that is, the basic opening of self to God in an act of surrendering love and devotion, indeed, in a consent to be silent, to wait for God in the void, that one has an example of what the decision or at least the occasion for trust looks like.  Prayer is the way to enter into and emerge out of the void; not that prayer does away with the void, but rather is the experience of not being alone in the void."  Yes. Even though the void is unavoidable, we don't have to be alone.

Thanks, guys.

All quotes and paraphrases taken from Anthony Cirelli, "Facing the Abyss: Hans Urs von Balthasar's Reading of Anxiety." New Blackfriars, 2011.

the photo:  overlooking the St. Lawrence River from the train bridge.  Frozen void below.

Comments

Shelley said…
Interesting ideas. I haven't heard/read much on anxiety from the christian viewpoint except to quote the verse "do not be anxious about anything..."

Jean Vanier writes in Becoming Human, that all humans have a constant inner longing for connection to God - and this loneliness connects us to each other and continually drives us toward God, if we let it do so. He talks about it as though it is God's plan for us, to keep us needing him; otherwise we would resolve the loneliness, fill the void, and abandon God forever.

Your post reminds me of the quote from George MacDonald "The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like his.”
Anonymous said…
In other words, to be more easily understood, he might have simply said that ANXIETY is a fear of the unknown, a worry or nervousness about the future.
Anonymous said…
Christianity produces anxiety.

My life with Christ had more anxiety than my life without Christ. From my experience Christians are more anxious than secular humanists.

For three-and-half decades I tried to supplicate to Christ. I have decided not believe in Christ, a mystical force that one has a personal relationship with. I do not believe in being born again by the spirit. But I do believe in the material "holy spirit" of community (as discussed by Slavoj Žižek and Liberation Theologians).

Anxiety is not simply fear of the unknown. If anxiety were simply fear of the unknown, Christians would not be anxious because they know everything; they have access to the infinite and have no reason to fear.

But anxiety might be the beginning of awareness of the truth that all we can really try to know is the here & now, the material world. If we live in faith, anxiety might be transformed into awareness and action, things that have nothing to do with Christianity & twiddling our thumbs waiting for "the bridegroom".

From my understanding Jean Vanier is part of the Liberation Theology movement. If this is true, I wouldn't consider his Jesus the Christ of Christianity. Christianity is not interested in connecting people; it has been concentrated on their disempowerment and disconnection from the material world (since the fourth century & perhaps since Paul).
Matte Downey said…
Thanks for the comments. I wouldn't say that Balthasar is merely talking about fear of the unknown, but a much deeper anxiety that stems from reliance upon a limited self.

As to Christianity producing anxiety, we would have to clarify exactly what you mean. Expectations found in a closed religious system? Tensions between what is said and what actually is? Misunderstandings and misrepresentations (imperfections) within a belief system that threaten its integrity?

Perhaps a better question would be to ask if Jesus produced anxiety. For some, definitely yes; for the poor and marginalised, he brought much relief and comfort. In the same way, while I respect your experience, there are others who would say their experience of Christ has been somewhat different.

I don't believe Christians know everything or believe it is possible to fully know the truth; that would be in direct opposition to our core value of worshipping a God who is "greater than."
Anonymous said…
"As to Christianity producing anxiety, we would have to clarify exactly what you mean. Expectations found in a closed religious system? Tensions between what is said and what actually is? Misunderstandings and misrepresentations (imperfections) within a belief system that threaten its integrity?"

You say Christian anxiety is a product of encountering a "now and not yet" God: I, mostly, agree. You say that this anxiety is fear of the infinite: I, mostly, disagree. I say this anxiety is a product of a religious system that demands that the believer supplicate to a God that doesn't/can't reveal himself in any pragmatic sense.

Let's characterize life as a series of decisions. Let's say that as decision makers we have a certain degree of free will, an ability to actually influence outcomes. I have watched many Christians, including myself, flop around like fish out of water when faced with difficult decisions. It's hard enough to make difficult decisions, let alone try to divine the will of a "not yet" God, and abide by it. In the heat of decision making, this is a real problem.

Another source of Christian anxiety comes from that which has been marked as un-Christian or un-Godly (or "Other"). There is a real fear of encountering the Other, and an assumption that the un-Christian is less than the Christian. Balthasar, for example, marks life without God as meaningless, dark, & lonely... What a bunch of garbage! Go live with some people who "do not have God," observe their "loneliness" for yourself.

One phrase that I have seen pop-up quite a bit in Christian circles, is that of "engaging and transforming" the world (the Other) for Christ, some call this Kingdom building. To engage, one must allow for the possibility of being transformed. In other words, "engaging the world" for many Christians comes with both an exceptionalism and a deep anxiety or fear that the exceptionalism is false.

As I see it, a primary message of Jesus was that exceptionalism is false, and so is the anxiety that comes with it. But the divination, witchcraft, and blasphemy that has come to form the core of the Christian heresy does nothing but feed this exceptionalism and anxiety.

In order for the words of Jesus to live, Christ must be dead and not live in the heart of man.

Popular posts from this blog

what does the cross mean?

Words which we use a lot can sometimes become divested of their depth of meaning. In the Christian tradition, we talk about the cross a lot. We see visual representations of the cross in prominent places in our gathering spaces, we wear crosses around our necks, some get crosses tattooed on their bodies. The cross is a ubiquitous symbol in Christianity, so lately I have been asking myself, what exactly does the cross mean? For the most part, the cross as portrayed in contemporary Christianity is a beautiful thing, festooned with flowers and sunsets and radiant beams of light (just google cross or cross coloring page). But in the first century, the cross was a symbol of disgrace. To the Roman empire, this ignoble instrument of death was for those who were traitors and enemies of the state. We are many centuries removed from this view of the cross as the locus of torture and death and shame. The fact that Christianity has made the cross a symbol of hope and beauty is a good thing, but p…

stained and broken

Recently, I was asked to speak at another church, and the passage of Scripture which was assigned to me was John 1:6-8. "There came a man commissioned and sent from God, whose name was John. This man came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe [in Christ, the Light] through him. John was not the Light, but came to testify about the Light." (John 1:6-8, Amplified Bible)

The first question I usually ask when reading something in the Bible is this: What does this tell me about God? Two things are immediately obvious - God is a sending God and God wants to communicate - but there is a third which merits a bit more attention. Though God could communicate directly with humanity, sending truth and love to every individual via some divine mind-and-heart-meld, God chooses to send messengers. Not only that, instead of introducing Jesus directly to the world as the main event, an opening, warm-up act appears as a precursor. What is the point of incorporati…

the songs we sing

NOTE: I am going to make some pretty strong statements below, but understand that it is my way of taking an honest, hard look at my own worship experience and practice. My desire is not to be overly critical, but to open up dialogue by questioning things I have assumed were totally fine and appropriate. In other words, I am preaching to myself. Feel free to listen in.

---------------------

When I am in a church meeting during the singing time, I sometimes find myself silent, unable to get the words past my lips. At times I just need a moment of stillness, time to listen, but other times, the words make me pause because I don't know that I can sing them honestly or with integrity. This is a good thing. We should never mindlessly or heartlessly sing songs just because everyone else is. We should care deeply about what we say in our sung, communal worship.

At their best, songs sung by the gathered body of Christ call to life what is already in us: the hope, the truth, the longing, t…