ēthikē dramatikos

Be beautiful, therefore…

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I want to expand a bit on something I only mentioned in passing in my last post: the idea of a dramatic ethics.

Hans Urs von Balthasar argues, in The Glory of the Lord, that aesthetics, when properly understood, should have ethical implications and aftershocks. In other words, morality is an effect of beauty. This is an instance of, as I mentioned before, “the beautiful” having a reciprocal and interdependent relationship with the true and the good.

This, certainly, is not typically the way we think about ethics or morality. The Old Testament, for instance, we boil down to a long litany of “do this” or “don’t do that.” Morality, in our public consciousness, is a set of black-and-white prohibitions which are either tyrannically repressive, or just enough to keep us from killing each other. In order to ensure social order, we codify our morality and yield it up to the jurisdiction of the State so as to ensure that everyone keeps the bare minimum code of behavior to get along, but not enough to infringe on our individual rights to do whatever the hell we want. In fact, this is even how we diet.

This, certainly, is the only outcome when morality is understood in purely juridical terms; when aesthetics has been evicted from our set of concerns.

Perhaps the most well-known and gag-inducing example of this attitude is the pithy phrase “What would Jesus do?”, made popular by evangelicals in the 1990s. Self-contained in this phrase is the assumption that the key to a moral life lies in taking every single action and decision, running it through the heuristic of Christ’s own behavior in the Gospels, doing a quick cross-reference and then acting accordingly.

The problem is, in my Bible at least, I’ve got about a hundred-ish pages of Jesus actually doing anything, most of it is repeat material and, as if this were the least of my concerns, Rabboni didn’t exactly make the clarity of his words or behavior a top priority (Matthew 13:10ff).

So what does this mean for the Imitatio Christi?

I truly think the answer lies in drama.

For Balthasar, drama is ultimately the very form of Being itself, and the dramatic action of the Gospel narrative is the definitive disclosure of the way in which the world works. The self-emptying, saving God-in-Christ reveals himself to be the form of all creation, and so morality becomes a matter of participating in that form in a way that gestures to it, does justice to it, calls attention to it.

But how does this interface with ethics? If morality is fundamentally dramatic, then dramatic logic should apply to our ethics, including one of the oldest forms of drama: tragedy. Tragedy, it seems, throws a wrench into even the most confident ethical systems. I’ve been preoccupied with this question ever since an old highschool teacher of mine told the story of his wife going into labor, with severe complications. Ultimately, the doctors approached him with the decision to save either his wife, or his unborn son. He chose the former.

In fact, this scenario is very similar to that encountered by the Jesuit priest Rodriguez in Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence (1966). Forced by the Japanese shogunate to either publicly apostatize or thus be responsible for the murder of hundreds of villagers. Meanwhile, the aged and enfeebled Alice Bell in Pat Barker’s Union Street (1987) wanders out of her room and into the freezing cold, not because of any overwhelming desire to die but because the people on whose care she depends have institutionalized her, abdicating their responsibility so thoroughly that she is left with the choice of either dying on her own terms or dying slowly of neglect.

Modern Christian morality is going to immediately pose the question, did they do something wrong? There will be the ardent stance that unproblematically says, yes, your teacher should have saved the unborn child. That, or he should have made no decision and left it in God’s hands. Or, yes, Rodriguez should have given the people over to death and left the rest up to God, if he truly believed in him. Similarly, Alice had no right to seek death on her own terms. Perhaps something in these claims is true. But I think that tragedy ruins us for decisions like this, forces the reminder that our easy groupings of “do this, not that” fail to do any kind of justice to the reality of what Martin Heidegger calls the fallenness of being-in-the-world, or Paul Ricoeur’s fundamental view of the human being as the acting and suffering person.

Tragedy produces situations in which the only appropriate ethical response is to find a way to participate in the dramatic life which weeps despite knowing itself to be the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:21-35). Whatever the outcome, whatever the “right” answer, I feel the really important thing here is that we are forced to account for something lying far afield of our moral systems. We are forced to imagine, as Philip Yancey does, “the Jesus who speaks from the fumie, whose love extends to apostasy and beyond,” held in impossible tension with the Jesus who makes it very clear that he will disown those who disown him (Matthew 10).

“Be perfect, therefore, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). This is perhaps the most difficult of Jesus’ teachings. I feel it becomes even harder, not easier, when we divest ourselves of our expectations of moral perfection and instead read, “Be beautiful, therefore, just as your Father in Heaven is beautiful.”

“Seeing the form.”

While the “true” and the “good” may not change, the “beautiful” is precisely the capacity for the “true” and the “good” to adapt to the changing needs of history.

I’m about three days into my dedicated time of reading for comprehensive exams, and my track record is abysmal.

Doing the math, I should be reading about 10 books a month to stay ahead of the curve. That’s a book every three days.

Three days in, I am on page 125 of Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord.

That is, page 125 out of 663.

Of Volume I.

Of 7.

Not that I need to read all seven volumes, but still. I could be doing better.

At the same time, the slow grind has been useful, especially since Balthasar is so dense. In his introductory chapter to The Glory of the Lord, Balthasar provides a history lesson on the fall of “beauty” from the world of theology. He begins with Romanticism (the philosophical movement of the long 19th Century) and demonstrates the ways in which art has been divorced from the other transcendentals, the “good” and the “true.”

The main effects have been this: first, there is the privatization of religion into what theologian David Tracy calls “a private consumer product that some people seem to need.” Following closely, art, or “the beautiful,” becomes similarly privatized as (Tracy here, again), “a now attractive, now repulsive expression of another’s private self.”

For Balthasar, this privatization began when “beauty” came to be understood as something intensely personal and subjective, no longer understood as the “form” of the world, as is the case in Catholic sacramentalism. From there, the historicity which has under-girded traditional Christian religious belief ceases to be necessary and give way to the existentialism of modern religion, in which God is not a person to be engaged by a concept to be orbited. For Balthasar, when aesthetic form disappears from our understanding of the Gospel, that form being rooted in God’s self-disclosure throughout history, then we are indeed left only with sterile concepts; “Resurrection,” for instance, no longer figures Christ’s victory over death, but rather a figurative “resurrection” into the memory of the church and the potentials of new life here on earth and among other people.

This, I think, is precisely what Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo encountered in trying to translate his Christianity into something intelligible to his native Japan:

‘When the [Jesus] was killed,’ Otsu muttered, staring at the ground, as though speaking only to himself, ‘the disciples who remained finally understood his love and what it meant. Every one of them had stayed alive by abandoning him and running away. He continued to love them even though they had betrayed him. As a result, he was etched into each of their guilty hearts, and they were never able to forget him. The disciples set out for distant lands to tell others the story of his life.’ Otsu spoke as though he had opened up a picture-book and was reading a story to the impoverished children of India. ‘After that, he continued to live in the hearts of his disciples. He died, but he was restored to life in their hearts.’

This passage, from Endo’s final novel Deep River (1994), has less to do, I think, with the modern refusal to accept anything as miraculous as the bodily resurrection of Christ. More so, I think that it is also an aesthetic problem, one which arises when beauty is no longer a priority for theology — when “seeing the form” becomes clouded and problematic, especially when making the jump into a deeply aesthetic yet modernized culture such as Japan for which “form” means something very different. It is one thing when the “form” requires, as Tracy and Balthasar both argue, an inexhaustible plurality of expressions. It’s a wholly other thing when “form” ceases to be the means by which faith might be expressed.

This, certainly, is the case for a post-structuralist culture for which “form” is a four-letter word, another attempt at dominating reality and rendering it up to our disposal. Living in the world, today, means finding a way to live without form altogether. This is made evident enough by the fact that those who manage to do so insist on praising their achievement.

But this vantage is itself historically grounded, is the product of over a hundred years of history. Modern philosophy is, in many ways, the child who grew up in the middle of the messy divorce between theology and aesthetics. But, I think, it is possible to imagine things being otherwise: that perhaps “beauty” is not merely an after-effect of numerous subjective cross-sections of the “true” and the “good,” themselves as subjective as anything else, but that “beauty” may well be part of what determines what is “good” and “true” in the first place. Maybe it is possible, for instance, to think of ethics not as dogma, but as drama. Such imagining is, I think, precisely the work of literature, the potential role of religious literature in the 21st Century, but it is only effective if history is given central importance to the journey, not only because it tells us where we come from but because, according to Balthasar, history dictates the very needs and means (i.e. “style”) by which the form of the beautiful must be expressed. History explains where we come from, and so clarifies what we need in the present, so while the “true” and the “good” may not change, the “beautiful” is precisely the capacity for the “true” and the “good” to adapt to the changing needs of history.

But, as one fellow in the faith told me recently, and very bluntly, “Oh, I don’t care about history.” Specifically, what use is history to the immediate needs of ministry?

Oh. I wonder.