Hans urs von Balthasar on Aiming Too Low
Studies of so-called generation Y regularly make the point that young people’s ‘worlds’ today are paradoxically small. While they have virtual access to every corner of the planet through the web they don’t belong to many actual groups, clubs, associations or other organisations. (I know there are always exceptions, but the studies show that this is generally true). They are deeply committed to their families and friends… but that’s about it.
When I first read this the question that came to my mind was, ‘what happens if the support of family or friends fails?’ Today however, I found myself asking more about why young people might be making those choices. Interestingly the springboard for these reflections came not from the most recent sociological study into Gen Y, but from a theologian writing in 1963. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s insight may well have been accurate back then, but it now seems quite prophetic, preceding the sociological data by nearly fifty years. In Love Alone, the Way of Revelation von Balthasar says this (please excuse the non-inclusive language which I have left as it appears in the original):
…deep within his heart man knows that he is crippled, corrupt and numbed, that he cannot satisfy any code of love, however vaguely defined. He does not dare to believe that there could be such a fulfilment of his being…. the path is soon shrouded in darkness; and so his guilt collapses into a more natural resignation. There it can rest and be protected from itself… The finite limits of human existence seem to be a permanent justification for the finite limits of love – and since life as a whole cannot be explained in terms of love, love withdraws into little islands of mutual sympathy: of eros, of friendship, of patriotism, even a certain universal love based on the nature common to all men…(p56)
Von Balthasar’s take? He is basically saying that deep down we know we are failures when it comes to truly loving. And he suggests that the product of that knowledge is guilt, but because we don’t want to admit our failure to love (and because our culture is allergic to any admission of guilt, I might add) we settle into a state of resigned acceptance that this is all there is. Von Balthasar then suggests that ‘this is all there is’ is a safe place from which we engage in picking and choosing – whether in romantic relationships, friends or the security of family – it is love on our terms. As a further example, when he speaks of a ‘certain universal love’ von Balthasar is referring to a widespread attitude which says something like, ‘I love all people’, but struggles to actually love this or that particular, concrete person, especially if they are offending or annoying me. In other words, we’re picky: we love who and when it suits us, and we pretend to ourselves that we do not feel guilty when we give into selfishness and our failures to love become manifest. Von Balthasar is not saying here that these loves are wrong in themselves, but that our loving is insufficient in its pedestrian complacency and its selectiveness.
The crucial sentence in the quote is this: ‘He does not dare to believe that there could be such a fulfilment of his being’. In other words, because we do not dare to believe that absolute love is possible, we settle for so much less. Here’s the ‘creed’ of young people today according to Australian researcher Michael Mason and his colleagues:
my goal is to be happy by being myself and connecting with others, having fun, enjoying leisure activities, making use of all the information available, opportunities for creativity;… when bad things happen I will find support from friends and family… with these and other resources available today, I will be able to move back towards happiness.