The Drama of Being a Self

Act I: The Lonely Question

For Hans Urs von Balthasar, there is no question as important or as lonely as, “Who am I?” It is important because—and this will seem strange at first—it is impossible to answer. Impossible, at least, using all the things and meanings and people around us. So, for Balthasar, asking “Who am I?” will lead the human person into the insufficiency of every available answer, every single one, and this insufficiency is an important clue about what and who human persons are. It is also lonely. Lonely because no one else can answer it for us, though they will certainly try. Lonely, also, because I am faced with a “me” that cannot rest in anything as its true home.

There is yet God, the possibility of resting in God, but who are we to rush there already? Literally, who are we that we could rest in God? So even with God, we cannot end the drama before it can begin. And the point very much is to begin. To begin at all. To ask the question, and to mean it. “This is I myself,” Augustine says in his Confessions. “What then am I, my God?”

Balthasar says that it is important, psychologically and developmentally, to identify ourselves with the roles we play. It is important, when I am a student, to identify myself with the attitudes and activities of being one. It is important to see myself as really in fact a student. I am not secretly also the master of a subject. And yet this identification of “me” or of my “I” with my role only reiterates the difficulty. “Identification,” Balthasar explains, “presupposes non-identity and a bridging of the gap between the two . . . . But who can show me the role in which I can really be myself?”

My students are often in agony about which major to choose. They feel, and not exactly correctly, and yet not incorrectly, that this decision is a decision about the long future that will greet them when they leave school. Most of life is too much to place in one decision. But that is hard to say to someone who is eighteen and frightened about the enormity of the rest of their lives. I think often of something Maurice Blondel says: “I must commit myself, under pain of losing everything; I must compromise myself. I have no right to wait or else I no longer have the power to choose.”

Commitment is frightening precisely because one compromises oneself; I am now one who has decided, decided on this and not that, and, though my freedom is in a real sense the guarantee of my decision, still I cannot guarantee with my own freedom that I am correct. But I am inexorably committed by the iron arrows of time, wheeling around the hours, and I cannot press them backward. The vertigo here is real and painful because we cannot really be all things, not like that. Decision, which constrains, is that necessary commitment that is being a person, especially a grown one, and yet every such commitment reveals the mystery of the person not entirely summed up by it. As Balthasar says, “Who can show me the role in which I can really be myself?”

Act II: The World-Theatre

When Balthasar examines human theatre, he considers, with a certain wonder, what it is that actors on a stage do. And here he does not mean very good acting. He means something more elemental. Behold, a human being playing a role. As in life, so in play. In a performance on a stage, life slows down a little for us to “look” at it. Theatre is an intelligent representation, a representation always on the move, alive with the ambivalence of being human. A play can mean whatever—whatever the play is about. And it also means this: that “man” is alarmingly flexible, that we are alarmingly flexible, able to contain and to pour into the world through our action all kinds of things, things like absurdity and sorrow and wonder and hatred.

The actor contributes the weight of their own being human to their role, including “unserious” roles, lending even to those a certain seriousness. It is a weight that the audience shares with the actor. We, the audience, behold ourselves on the stage. “The fascinated beholding of oneself is not a beholding of something long familiar and wearisome,” Balthasar says, “but a beholding in the hope of learning something about beginnings and endings. And this comes about in and through the action presented on the stage.”

Balthasar stresses how ambivalent human meaning is. It is ambivalent not only because of its sheer degree of cultural and communal variance—even to the point of contrariety—but also because it is not clear whether any of it matters in any ultimate way. Is the universe dumb, and do we then create and die before stars that do not watch? Is there, beyond the horizon of all things, except perhaps human desiring, a knowing that knows our yearning? It is not clear. As Bernard Lonergan says, “there are no data on God.”

The most basic wager of Balthasar’s interest in theatre, the thing that he is betting on, is that the stage itself is a kind of daring, a daring of the human being, who dares to ask about being human. There is a radical uncertainty here in the asking: the tension of a question mark. Who am I?

It is a question radically on the move, as human situations endure the law of constant change. That is why the stage is so helpful for reflection: it “shows” to us how our action transforms situations, how our actions are webbed by other actions, how the whole being of human being is always shifting, how every human being lives and dies quintessentially under the auspices of time. Balthasar calls this “the field of tension that is divided up among human beings with their free decisions. They live together and clash with one another, continually influencing each other, in the dialogue of words and the diapraxis of deeds, a constellation that is constantly changing as a result of every move in the common game of chess, yet always within the same match.”

I imagine Augustine staring at the many pages on which he has written his memories, trying to summon himself from them. They rise like glass in the dark. A lone candle makes them flicker. But Augustine is not his memories; he is someone else. He is the trembling light, the one who made the memories, the one now looking at them—the man in the memories and the man at a remove, the one now asking, “What then am I?”

It is strange to be human. One is always underway. One is always in the middle of something, at a perpetual midpoint. “The centaur like being, man,” says Balthasar, “manifests something uncompletable which points beyond himself.”

Underneath or within the human “I,” Balthasar perceives a principle—a source of effectiveness —that is not this “I,” that is not named when we say, “I.” It is true, yes, that we are free, and free to, in a sense, possess ourselves. And yet our freedom, which is ours, is sustained by a sufficiency that is not ours, lending to our actions a quality of infinity. “There is,” says Blondel, “at the bottom of my consciousness an I that is no longer I; I reflect my own image in it. I see myself only in it: its impenetrable mystery is like the foil that reflects light within me.”

Balthasar adapts Blondel’s integral universe to the stage. Thus his presentation of the human “I,” in all the gravity of its commitments, an “I” that is not sufficed by any of them. Thus also the ambiguity of human being, as every “I” is confronted with the seriousness of its own beginnings and endings; it must answer for these, though no human being, not even all of humanity, makes for an adequate judge. Perpetually escaping the horizon of our action while yet sustaining it is the supernatural. The supernatural is expressed implicitly but dramatically in the question without an answer: “Who am I?”

Act III: Theological Drama

The Virgin Mary, too, must have been something like a question to herself. “Being oneself,” Lonergan reminds us, “is prior to knowing oneself.” And Mary is a self. Here on the stage of history, Mary’s self is still the self that she is and that she becomes, that she is not yet, that she does not know ahead of time. She cannot stand at a distance from time rushing onward, nor from herself and her action.

The crux of the human predicament is that self is an achievement. It is an achievement whose critical point, as Lonergan puts it, is never transcended. Human beings are always facing decisions about what to do with themselves. These are not infinite sets of decisions, but decisions already constrained; they are decisions that have to deal with much that we did not ourselves decide; they are decisions that arise in concrete situations. Self is always underway: always being affirmed, expressed, critiqued, and modified by the shifting constellations of its action and the action of others.

Mary’s self is a critical point in a divine plan. Her very human achievement is strangely necessary for a divine achievement. And she consents to this divine plan and its achievement. She compromises herself. She commits herself in a way that cannot be undone. This is granted to her and it is her achievement. When, therefore, we call Mary “full of grace,” we are saying that she has God’s help, but we are also saying that grace is personal, that it is never generic. Grace is for making persons into themselves. It enables the achievement of self for God and with God. So, at the Annunciation, Mary makes a decision with God about who she will be for God, and, in God, who she will be for the world.

Now God steps onto the stage of human history—God commits himself to the stage in a way new to the stage—through Mary’s action. The divine Word enters the world according to the flesh of a human mother, crossing the field of action as one player among other players: Jesus Christ is not every man, nor Nietzsche’s superman, but this man.

Jesus moves through the world with words and deeds. The glass fragments of human being in its being lift again into the night. Again the flickering flame of a human consciousness illuminates them. But this human consciousness is also the consciousness of a person of the Holy Trinity, of the Word of the Father. In his humanity, in the flame illuminating the dark, in his compassion and pity and anger, we see the Word of the Father in the Spirit. In Balthasar’s way of putting things, Jesus is one with his role. He articulates the divine truth of himself in the drama of his human life.

Balthasar calls this self-articulation, in its aspect as human action, “obedience.” It is intelligent action, for it expresses something true. It is creative action, for it treats new situations as they arise. It is free action, for the human will is free. And it is obedient action, for it ratifies in human history the saving will of the eternal Trinity. In other words, Jesus’s obedience is a personal achievement. “The Word of God (the Father),” Balthasar says, “is so personal that it itself is a person; but as God it is so essentially one with the Father, and as man so transparent to the Father in obedience, that it becomes the visible presence of God’s acting and speaking in the world.”

Jesus Christ is the Word Incarnate, the divine Word in whom all things were made. As Word, he is the intelligibility of all that is. For Balthasar, therefore, a sort of unmaking occurs in the life of Jesus. In his action on the stage of human history, the God-man unzips the DNA of the universe, and he does so in order to make it all over again. Central to this act of dramatic recreation is the way that Jesus sprints forward toward his “hour,” on a direct collision course with all that leaves human life permanently incomplete and manifestly ambiguous: silence, sin, death.

If we sometimes conceive of drama as a contest between powers, then Balthasar notices how unusual the contest between God and the powers of sin and death is in the life of Jesus. The people around him react to his creative confession of who he is with confusion, including those people closest to him. The Gospels narrate, in different ways, the constant perplexity of others toward Jesus. Balthasar describes him in terms of increasing exposure as the world around him reacts with increasing resistance. “In the Synoptics, we discern something like a dramatic plot in which the progressive revelation of Jesus’ love provokes the resistance of those addressed.” This intensifying collision on the stage is bewilderingly uneven, for the one rises in vulnerability and the other in violence. Indeed, the contest will end with Jesus naked on a cross.

Something that seems like a very early memory embedded in Christian texts is that the crucifixion is a revelation. It is a point of perplexity that is treated with giddy surprise. This cursed man hanging on a tree is the one that God is with. The resurrection is not its refutation, but its affirmation.

For Balthasar, the heart of the Trinity is nakedly unveiled on the cross in a gesture of absolute vulnerability that is also a gesture of absolute solidarity (of God, with us). “The place of his [pierced] heart is open, empty, for all to enter.” And naked power is exposed for what it is: the selfish election of one’s self or one’s group for blessedness, the egoistic need to ensure the “correct” future with force. In Christ, God acts as he eternally is, with a powerlessness that overcomes the grasp of self-electing power by outlasting it with the endurance of charity, laying bare its hollowness with the revelation of mercy.

It is a divine mercy that welcomes us into its action on the stage of history. “Presence as being-with, and indeed as bodily being-with, of such a kind that it invites the participation of others.” For Christ’s solidarity operates in a double direction, seeking us out and sending us forward. Forward toward God and forward toward neighbor, in the self-same act. Since Jesus’s action is not only human but also divine, it is infinite.

It can enfold us into its work, give us a mission, one that can at last non-violently meet the human “I” with a role in which it can really be itself; Jesus’s action offers the human “I” a task to which it can really contribute, contribute with the cooperation of its peculiar infinity, the peculiar infinity of “self.” This self is full of grace. Theological dramatics is the science of the self full of grace.

It is not that the Christian, incorporated into the action of Christ, knows the answers and the direction of the drama of human history. What is known, is known in faith. What is done, is done in hope. And what is accomplished is divine love. The Christian is not granted power over the fragmentariness and ambiguity of human being in its being. We are granted a willingness to be vulnerable, to be exposed. The Christian testifies to the love revealed on the cross in our own performance of this love, in our affirmation of this love and its grace through our own action. Thus do we expose history to its true meaning, to its beginning and its end, which is Christ crucified.

Balthasar emphasizes that the Christian performance of Christ is dramatic, that it includes in itself both representation and action, both something to be understood and something to be renewed in action. But what is to be renewed is always also vulnerable, always a kind of exposure and a kind of confession, a collision with the hour of our calling. Faith is that willingness to be a self that does not yet know itself fully, that braves the dark of always being in the middle of being more. For faith knows that fully being oneself requires God.