God’s anxiety. Therapeutic concerns in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology of anxiety
Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “The Christian and Anxiety” was partly written in response to Kierkegaard. Rather than focusing on the ex-ante anxiety which resides in the freedom to choose sin, Balthasar advances an ex-post theory of anxiety as rooted in original sin. Along the way, Balthasar’s theology of anxiety occasions a highly original therapeutic method, far remote from popular faith-based therapies.
Balthasar theology of anxiety is centered around the notion of God’s own anxiety, as a full, absolute expression of anxiety. Within human anxiety he further distinguishes between anxiety associated with a bad conscience and transfigured anxiety. Rather than commanding that Christians drop anxiety altogether, what God desires from sinners is that they recognize the transfiguration of their anxiety by Christ. The transfiguration of anxiety, it’s new form long with its new meaning, involves merely the surpassing of anxiety’s unholy aspects.
Anxiety is, writes Balthasar, the suffering of the infinitely Pure One, the infinitely Righteous One (who is also God) when confronted with all that God abhors and that can reveal its full hideousness only to the Pure One (who is also God). It is, furthermore, the vicarious suffering of this Pure One for all the impure, that is, experiencing that anxiety which every sinner by right would have to go through before the judgment seat of God and in being rejected by him. It is, finally and most profoundly, the anguish that God (in human form) suffers on account of his world, which is in danger of being lost to him—which, indeed, at that moment is an utterly lost world. So as to be able to suffer this anxiety and therein to demonstrate humanly how much the world matters to him in his divinity and how concerned he is for the world’s sake: for this purpose he became man. It is an anguish he wanted to have without any consolation or relief, since from it was to come every consolation and relief for the world. Therefore it is, in the proper and strict sense of the word, the absolute anxiety, which undergirds and surpasses every other anxiety and thus becomes the standard and tribunal for all. This anxiety is drained to the dregs upon the Cross in the actual abandonment of the Son by the Father. Since the subject who endures this abandonment in bis human nature is divine, it is an absolute forsakenness and therefore the absolute measure of the abyss and of every other abysmal experience. Only the Son knows exhaustively what it means to be forsaken by the Father, for he alone knows who the Father is and what the Father’s intimacy and love are (The Christian and Anxiety, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000, 52).
Balthasar’s conception plays out several therapeutic functions:
First, to recognize anxiety’s transfiguration, along with the transfiguration of everything human, is an easier command than that of a direct and wholesale, and targetted surpassing of anxiety. While pressure is a psychological source of anxiety, the Christian faces less pressure.
Second, we are comforted that someone fully understands the unique quality of our feelings of anxiety (understands what it is like ‘for me’ to be anxious). If Christ felt all of the anxiety, he must have felt mine also. We feel less alone.
Third, we understand that Christ-God had more of this than each of us can feel. We are “protected” by our own limited nature. Our anxiety feels smaller and less important by comparison to God’s anxiety.
Fourth, one’s anxiety is not necessarily the result of one’s personal historical sin since God suffered from it as well, while he was sinless. The apparent unfairness associated to the spillover effects of sin, the fact that a person’s own anxiety is not necessarily linked to her own personal historical guilt, is compensated by each person’s anchoring to God’s grand subjective meaning, and weaves metaphysical ties around an initial Frommian separateness.
Fifth, anxiety is given a positive social meaning, that of uniting humans in Christ’s anxiety. While not all humans suffer from anxiety, the suggestion is that each human should have feelings of anxiety in their transfigured form. Additionally, Christ-God’s anxiety purges man’s anxiety of the associated shame and anomalous character and further weakens the feeling of separateness.
Balthasar’s theology of anxiety is philosophically remarkable. It claims therapeutic success yet it does not pivot on the religious promise of personal salvation.