[07] Dramatic Horizon’s Power to Unite and Reveal

God’s drama is revealed fully and fundamentally in the drama of the God-man Jesus Christ. In Christ’s drama, God’s dramatic inner life radiates in the world stage. Christ’s drama becomes itself a kind of a framework or horizon of meaning that propels all human dramas towards something transcendental, the Absolute itself, as well as providing them with a background against which they may be understood, judged, and offered redemptive meaning and ultimate direction.[1] After all, Christ is the form, the pattern of salvation. God’s drama is, however, revealed only in a fragmentary way in the human drama, for it can never be utterly absorbed in any human drama.[2] Von Balthasar suggests three thematic fragments – namely death, the struggle for the good, and judgment – as horizons in human drama which have their unity and bear traces of God’s drama when seen against the horizon of Christ’s drama.[3] Fr. Harry Cronin, a playwright, speaks of these “fragments” as “recollections and reminders” of the primal drama in the human drama, that primal drama which eternally happens in the inner sanctuary of the Trinity.[4] Garcia-Rivera sees in von Balthasar’s suggestion (of these fragments as horizons) a basis of his Theo-dramatics, i.e., a basis for the possibility of human drama, including human suffering, to participate in God’s own drama.[5]

To clarify the notion of “horizon” in Theo-dramatic context, Garcia-Rivera first of all contrasts it with the nuanced use of “horizon” by theologians like Karl Rahner. Rahner employed “horizon” as a fitting image to describe transcendence against the claim that the physical world is all that there is. Starting with his analysis of the human experience of knowing and willing, Rahner showed that we actually transcend ourselves, and that there is always something “more” to what we know. In our search for meaning, we experience ourselves as finite beings with unlimited questions. Transcendence then is that “reaching beyond towards the unlimited horizon” which is the “condition of possibility” and the “ground by means of which we compare individual objects of experience with one another and classify them.”[6] Rahner described transcendence in terms of the image of horizon which continually recedes as one approaches it.[7] Garcia-Rivera qualifies such a horizon as “physical horizon,” that line between heaven and earth that is constantly receding. Such a notion of horizon, he holds, “speaks more to the coldly intellectual beauty… than to the sensible, moving beauty that marks a true aesthetic appreciation of mystery.”[8]

The “dramatic horizon,” i.e., “horizon” understood in the context of the drama, is quite different from the physical horizon. It refers to that framework or background “within which the dramatic action takes place and to which the dramatist, the actors, and the audience are all related.”[9] Rather than constantly moving the point of meeting between heaven and earth away from our vision, the dramatic horizon unites the actors and audience to the same vision. Here lies the magic of drama, the audience becomes one with the action on the stage when the former’s horizon becomes one with the latter’s. The “I” of the stage merges with the “I” of the audience and its living finitude. It points the audience toward the intention of the dramatist, to a horizon that is beyond the playwright, the horizon of all meaning.[10] Drawn to the same horizon, the distance between stage and audience gradually disappears allowing the latter to enter into the stage, to play its role and participate in the drama that unfolds. As von Bathasar puts it:

The spectator, who has a general willingness to be impressed by the fate of the stage characters, is suddenly seized at a deeper level than he expected: he is no longer in charge of his own participation; he himself is called into question by his experience of the play; he is struck by “it.”[11]

Seized and drawn to be part of the dramatic stage, the spectator turned co-player is given an insight. It is that insight into the meaning of existence that suddenly radiates as if flowing from the background of the dramatic action playing on the stage. On account of such insight, the play suddenly becomes relevant to the audience, relating it to something far beyond the play itself.[12] It is not, however, a logical, disinterested, intellectual insight that invites the beholder to contemplation; rather, it is that heartfelt, sensible insight that moves the audience deeply to identify and empathize with the dramatic characters, to be one with them. In short, it invites the active observer to participation. For Garcia-Rivera, the drama derives its pleasure from “observing wisdom and folly, kindness and cruelty, joy and sorrow in such a way that it reveals something of the nature of the human condition.”[13] It is a kind of “observing” that entails enjoyment, not in the sense of the mere sensation of pleasure however, but in the sense of personally experiencing and therefore sharing with the pathos of the drama, a pathos that is revelatory as it is unitive.[14]

Such is the power of the drama and the dramatic form. Yet its power to offer a felt insight into the meaning of existence (revelatory) and to draw the audience to participation (unitive) depends on the dramatic horizon’s ability to create tremendous dramatic tension. Such tension elicits active participation from the audience who begin to see themselves as part of the dramatic action happening on the stage which suddenly has become particularly meaningful to them.

Any dramatic action which unfolds on the stage is always two-dimensional. First of all, such action flows from the interaction of different characters on the stage, with their dialogue and diapraxis. On the world stage, we refer to individual human persons who, in their uniqueness, difference and freedom, live together, influence each other, and even clash with one another.[15] From this human interaction comes a dramatic action marked by tension. Indeed, any dramatic action is a tensive interaction of different freedoms. I would like to call this the horizontal or immanent dimension of the dramatic action. Secondly, every dramatic action or tensive interaction of freedoms is situated within a framework bigger than the action itself. It takes place within a context of a particular act or whole play itself, and indeed within the framework of humanity as a whole, being an action that mimics and represents the drama of human existence. Seen particularly within the framework of the whole of humanity, such action raises the question of the meaning of the individual’s life in relation to the meaning of humanity as a whole, and indeed in relation to the mystery of the Absolute.[16] Such search for meaning can also be tensive, more a struggle to make sense of life and find direction. Let me call this the vertical or transcendent dimension.

The dramatic horizon (background) within which a thrilling dramatic action (foreground) takes place draws the “seized and struck” audience into the action. Brought immanently into the field of tension existing on stage, the audience, in their individual uniqueness and finite freedom, interact with the characters of the play. The decisions and actions of the characters impact or impress the audience, engaging them to make decisions and express them in their action. In this way, the audience brings onto the stage their own life with its own dramas, comedies, and even tragedies. Moreover, the same dramatic horizon, towards which the characters and audience are united, propels both to something beyond the stage to the depth of the horizon: namely, at a deep level to the meaning that the playwright intends to express and even transcendentally to the horizon of ultimate meaning and mystery. Within this framework of humanity as a whole and, moreso, the greater framework of ultimate meaning, the involved spectator’s meaning, decision, and action are questioned and judged.

In the Theo-dulâ, God’s saving vision encounters the human dramatic, even tragic, existential condition. Christ’s life and mission, the Theo-dulâ’s dramatic center, reveals and makes present on the world stage the mind, the heart, and the passion of the tri-personal God. In this way, God’s drama comes close to every human life which itself is dramatic. Furthermore, certain dramatic or even tragic human experiences – such as death, the struggle for the good, and judgment – seen in the light of Christ’s drama, function as dramatic horizons. They are like fragments of the Christian horizon in the drama of existence whence traces of God’s drama appear. As such, they are revelatory and unitive.

These revelatory-unitive horizons raise the question and, at the same time, reveal something about the meaning of human life and the need for salvation. The unavoidable question about meaning and redemption, though not obliging us to give a definite answer, relates us with one another. It gathers us and brings about a kind of communion even while we play our individual, sometimes separate and even conflicting drama on the world stage.[17] Moreover, these horizons seen in the light of the Theo-dulâ’s dramatic center allow us to relate personally and participate actively in Christ’s dramatic life and mission, and ultimately to be assumed in God’s drama. Thus these revelatory-unitive horizons bring us not only to live our individual dramas, struggles, comedies, and tragedies together, but also to unite them with Christ’s dramatic life and meaning. Above all, these revelatory-unitive horizons in the light of Christ’s drama move us forward and upwards, towards the mystery of God’s intention and vision of salvation for the world. It is God’s saving vision against which our human dramatic existence is evaluated and given new value.[18] Such a vision in fact continues to be acted out on the world stage as God’s drama of salvation, under the creative direction of the Holy Spirit. It is this vision of salvation that we are invited to own; it is this drama of salvation that we are called to be part of.

Centered on Christ’s dramatic life and mission, the Theo-dulâ makes present God’s saving drama on the world stage. Through the revelatory-unitive horizons seen in the light of Christ’s drama, the Theo-dulâ brings and makes present our individual dramas in God’s drama. Therefore, the Theo-dulâ as salvation drama consists in living our dramatic lives together, in and with Christ’s drama, according to the script written by the Father, under the direction of the creative Spirit. More profoundly, even mysteriously, however, it is about presence, an involved presence. It is about God’s presence in our human tragedy as well as our presence in God’s dramatic life. It is also about our presence in other peoples’ tragic lives and their presence in ours, as together we search for redemptive meaning and individually struggle to find our role in God’s saving drama.

With God’s drama represented on the world stage and our dramas playing in God’s own drama, all human tragedies are transformed into God’s drama of salvation, a Theo-dulâ. With the tri-personal God present in our dramatic lives, and with us present in each other’s tragedies, we create a dramatic community in Christ, participating in the dramatic inner life of God.

[1] TD I, 319-20.

[2] Ibid., 321.

[3] Ibid., 320-3, 369-465; Aidan Nichols, O.P., No Bloodless Myth: A Guide through Balthasar’s Dramatics (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2000), 34.

[4] “In my terminology,” Cronin explains, “these ‘fragments’ are recollections and reminders, existing in the human drama, of the larger ur-drama which began with God in the sanctuary of the Trinity.” Speaking of the larger ur-drama, i.e., the primal or original drama, Cronin affirms: “It is, ultimately, the drama of Christ… a drama that has its origins in the inner recesses of Trinitarian love and continued in human history. The world drama, the human comedy, the tragedy of existence is only a continuation. It is the second or third or fourth act. It is a drama that is on-going. The drama began with the Holy Trinity – Father Son and Spirit, their inner dialogue and their mutual surrendering love. This is always Act One.” Harry Cronin, “A Comparison of Two Examples of Ur-Drama: The Immanent Trinity in Hans Urs von Balthasar and Primitive Shamanic Ritual” (paper presented in the class, ST4504 Theodramatics, Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, CA, April 16, 2004).

[5] Garcia-Rivera, “Do This in Memory of Me,” 163.

[6] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, trans. William Dych (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 72. For a perfect companion and useful introduction to Rahner’s theology as a whole, see Leo J. O’Donovan, ed., A World of Grace: An Introduction to the Themes and Foundations of Karl Rahner’s Theology (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1995). A World of Grace consists of thirteen essays which serve as a running introduction to the topics discussed in Rahner’s Foundations. See especially pages 31-49.

[7] Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, 32.

[8] Garcia-Rivera, “Do This in Memory of Me,” 163-64. [Italics is mine]

[9] TD I, 314.

[10] Ibid., von Balthasar cites Julius Rütsch, Das dramatische Ich im deutschen Baroktheater (Zurich, 1932), 19.

[11] Ibid., 314-15.

[12] “People have sought (of drama) insight – which suddenly becomes inwardly relevant to the spectator – and that relates it to something that transcends it.” Ibid.

[13] Garcia-Rivera, “On a New List of Aesthetic Categories,” in Theological Aesthetics after von Balthasar, ed. Oleg Bychkov (Oxford: Ashgate, 2008), 172.

[14] Garcia-Rivera distinguishes between the objective and subjective dimensions of the spectator’s feeling evoked by any beautiful work of art including a tensive, moving drama. Commenting on the awesome, moving beauty of the Paleolithic iconography in the cave of Lascaux, Garcia-Rivera shows how the early human creatures not only had a strong sense of beauty but also the sense of the divine. This sense of beauty divine, i.e., the human sensibility to encounter God as beauty, is at work every time we stand before a beautiful work of art like the Lascaux paintings. It is a feeling that moves us deeply, whose content and arrival comes to us as a surprise, unexpectedly. In short, it is an objective feeling that comes to us as a gift from the art itself. Garcia-Rivera calls it “feeling as donum”. But feeling received as donum must be felt as datum. Feeling felt as datum is feeling observed, i.e., enjoyed, not as one enjoys mere pleasure but as one shares the pathos, the feeling of the work of art. Thus, it is a kind of unitive knowing or connecting, and it corresponds to the subjective dimension of one’s feeling or sense of beauty. This distinction and relation between feeling as donum and as datum, which carries the sense of beauty, makes us understand how a unitive, revelatory experience takes place. Ibid., 172-73.

[15] TD I, 343-44.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 323.

[18] God’s vision becomes the measure of our human condition. It “judges and reveals human motivations, failures and even tragic innocences.” Garcia-Rivera, “Do this in memory of me,” 162.

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