Two of my favorite books, as I’ve mentioned many times are David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite and Alan Lewis’ Between Cross and Resurrection. And, in terms of theological conclusions, you would be hard-pressed to find two books that come to more radically different conclusions. Lewis’ study is a bold attempt to seriously think the reality of Holy Saturday, the day of Christ’s death and descent into hell. Lewis attempts to take the historical reality of Christ’s triduum with absolute seriousness for how we begin to think the being of the Triune God. Refusing to go behind the revelation of God in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, Lewis insists that the radical interval of suffering and death seen in Good Friday and Holy Saturday cannot be dismissed by the light of Easter Sunday. The light of the resurrection only lengthens the shadow of the cross for it establishes that the one who died, who experienced the ultimate terminus of descent into the fullness of death and godforsakeness was indeed God in the flesh. If this is so then notions of divine passibility, temporality, and grace must be radically re-thought without attempting to circumvent the radicality of the narrative on the basis of what we “know” is metaphysically fitting for God to be God.
Hart, by contrast paints his vision of God on the basis of God’s resplendent, infinite glory, as seen in the resurrection. It is the always-already complete reality of God’s fullness, his replete plentitude that enfolds and immediately consumes and destroys any finite interval that seeks to determine God’s life. The suffering and death of Christ, for Hart are not events which truly occur within the being of God, despite all appearances to the contrary in the economy of salvation. Rather these events are simply the event of creation being seized up into God’s Trinitarian beauty without introducing anything new into the being of God. Christ’s suffering and death are, for Hart, as for many of the patristic fathers, simply realities proper to his human nature. God as such, despite what we see in Christ, does not suffer, is not implicated in created history. Rather God enters into history out of needless, gratuitous grace, always enfolding any perceived interval of finitude, suffering, and death with his own unchanging always-already actualized life of joy, feasting, and peace.
Personally, I find both theologian’s cases beautifully compelling, both as pieces of theological writing and argument. I suppose I should come clean and admit that I find Lewis more persuasive, though I think that these two thinkers could be brought to a wonderfully illuminating meeting of the minds (were Lewis alive, that is).
However, the point I really want to introduce in describing these two thinkers has to do with their respective dependence on Hans Urs von Balthasar. One could, I contend, parse the difference between Hart and Lewis on the basis of how they differently appropriate and extend certain of Balthasar’s key theological trajectories. Lewis follows in Balthasar’s train, exploring to the furthest limits the trajectory of Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday as laid out in Mysterium Paschale and The Glory of the Lord (see especially volume 6). Hart however pursues the logic of Balthasar’s theology of the immanent Trinity, which for Balthasar is extrapolated from the economic Trinity and which is its metaphysical ground. The immanent Trinity is an infinite fullness of primal kenosis which grounds and enfolds the suffering and death of Christ.
The funny thing is that the most radically opposed claims made by both Hart and Lewis can be found in almost identical form being affirmed by Balthasar. For Balthasar, as for Lewis, the interval of Holy Saturday is a real interval in the life of the Trinity. The suffering and death of Christ are events in the very life of God. Conversely, for Balthasar as for Hart, God is always-already replete in God’s Trinitarian plenitude and kenosis which enfolds and grounds God’s economic activity in the world. The infinite distance and difference between the Triune persons is the holy distance into which the unholy distance of sin is transposed and apocalyptically consumed in the ardor of God’s holy fire, God’s inexhaustible life of Love. For Balthasar, God’s being does indeed include economic events, even events as radical as suffering, death, and godforsakenness. When Christ suffers and dies, we behold the true and real suffering and death of God. However God’s being is not overcome or determined by these events precisely because of the intensity of the eternal life of Trinitarian self-giving, God’s primal kenosis. The Triune life of infinite distance and freedom is not delimited or determined by its free taking of sin and death into itself. The Triune God freely and openly allows the reality of sin, death, and nothingness a true and real interruption into the divine life, as witnessed on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and just so enfolds it, timefully into the replete, inexhaustible plenitude of God’s life. Here Balthasar is able, beautifully, to affirm the positive claims of Hart and Lewis without being sucked into affirming the oppositional logic that seems to separate their positions. As such, it seems that Balthasar represents a site where the radical and beautiful theologies represented by Hart and Lewis could come to an even more radical rapprochement.