The Dramatic Nature of the Christian Life

Authored by Archbishop William Lori in Issue #28.3 of The Sower

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Bishop Lori asks for a restoration of the sense of the dramatic to the work of catechetics.

This brief paper is entitled, ‘The Dramatic Nature of the Christian Life.’ For devotees of the eminent theologian, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, this topic calls to mind his multi-volume volume work, Theo-drama[i], in which he engages the world of theatre as a way of understanding the truly original drama. By that I mean the drama of the inner life and love of the Trinity, the hidden counsels wherein the Triune God freely elected to create and redeem – thus setting the stage for the drama we call ‘salvation history’. 

Theatre and theology

The subtle and sometimes daring content of Von Balthasar’s massive work cannot be surveyed in a short piece like this, and so I will settle for a more modest use of the analogy between theatre and theology and accordingly draw more modest conclusions.

A quote from G K Chesterton’s Orthodoxy will get us started.  He writes:

‘According to most philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it.  According to Christianity, in making the world he set it free. God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which necessarily had been left to human actors and stage-managers, who have since made a great mess of it[ii].’

In Chesterton’s portrayal, God is the original playwright. But clearly, God is also the protagonist in his own drama. Its eternal opening scene and its never-ending setting is the breathtaking unity, truth, beauty, goodness and love of God’s own inner life – the Father who gives everything to the Son; the Son who is the prefect reflection of the Father; and the Spirit who is the bond of love between Father and Son. We are rightly taught that God is immutable but that does not mean he is inert.  Rather, in the beauty of divine love, God is infinitely dynamic and infinitely free.

And in his freedom, God creates the world thus brings onto the stage other actors. These human actors are free but not infinitely free. In their finite freedom, they are called to share and reflect God’s life and love in the drama of their own lives. As Chesterton wryly observed, however, the plot thickened in the first act when ‘sin entered the world’ (Romans 5:12).

It is hard to imagine that the Divine Author of this grand play didn’t see this problem coming and include in his script a plan to redeem the world. In this script, we might think of the Father as the playwright, the Son as the leading actor, and the Holy Spirit as the director who prompts the Son to play his part. As in an ordinary play, the director and actor must be true to the script. But it is also true that script will not come to life unless the playwright accords the director and the actor creative freedom. By analogy, God the Father grants creative freedom, not just to the Incarnate Son, the leading actor, but to the other actors, to all human beings, who either can creatively fulfil their roles or un-creatively botch them.

Action-packed

But not every play is riveting. T S Elliot humorously observed of his own craft, ‘I tried to keep in mind that in a play, from time to time, something should happen’.[iii]

God’s production is action-packed. The unfolding drama of our redemption is filled with God’s mighty deeds that so exalted the soul of Mary: God’s election of the Chosen People; their deliverance from Egypt; the promises God made to his people in their weakness and tribulation; the fulfilment of those promises in sending his only Son into the world for our redemption; the birth, preaching, miracles, and above all, the paschal mystery of Christ.

As Pope Benedict wrote: ‘This divine activity now takes on dramatic form when, in Jesus Christ, it is God himself who goes in search of the ‘stray sheep’, a suffering and lost humanity’.[iv]

Christianity cannot do without its doctrines but it is more than a doctrine. It is something that has taken place and is taking place now,[v]something that actually happens in human life – the interaction of God’s infinite freedom and our limited freedom in the unfolding events of my life and yours.

In spite of all the ways in which we’ve bungled our roles, reduced them to playacting, or engaged in cheap theatrics, somehow, however weakly, we can echo Mary’s song – ‘the Lord is doing great things for me’ – first in the sanctuary of our own soul but then on the transcendent stage that is the Church. The Church is where the Gospel is proclaimed, the sacraments are celebrated, and charity is offered to those in need.[vi]  Here is where we, as acting persons, are confronted – lovingly, insistently, and powerfully – with what God is doing or wishes to do in our lives, collectively and individually.

The removal of the dramatic

But not everyone thinks it to be so. Some have done their best to take the drama out of God’s play by disengaging it with history.  Doubt is cast on whether God designed and brought the universe into being. Doubt is cast on whether God has acted or can act inhuman history. A wedge has been driven between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. The faith of Israel and the Christian faith, both rooted in God’s free intervention in history, are distilled into mere concepts, sentiments, and norms for behaviour with only dry and merely moralistic applicability to the large and small dramas of everyday existence.

In Christianity thus de-natured, God’s drama and our dramas fail to intersect.  Much is said but nothing really happens. It is like a ‘concept play’ – of interest mainly to theologians and church professionals but not to the faithful audience. As we survey the audience, half are asleep and the other half left at intermission. 

In a word, ‘un-dramatic’ Christianity fails to provide a valid basis for our lives. We were created for God’s love, as St Augustine famously said, and our hearts are restless[vii] – restless for the drama of God’s self-revelation, restless for his mighty deeds, restless until our hearts make a response to all God has said and done.  Until that happens, the twenty-four hour news cycle and the mini-series may be enlisted to fill the void but they will never do. ‘God alone satisfies.’[viii]

This theatre-theology analogy may still sound a bit abstract and even contrived, so let me try to apply it more specifically.

All of us are sadly familiar with preaching and teaching that down plays sin and redemption. Oh, we may sing on Holy Saturday of ‘the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave’ and on Easter Sunday of ‘death and life locked in a battle stupendous.’ We may sing of ‘the Prince of life, who died, [but now] reigns immortal.’[ix]  But the curtain falls on those dramatic events when pastors, catechists, and parents tell themselves and those entrusted to them – that God loves us so unconditionally that we don’t really have to be concerned about our sins, about our need for repentance, forgiveness, and moral transformation. In other words, God’s unconditional love is no longer seen as transforming love. The drama of sin and death yielding to redeeming love, the tension of interior conversion and progress in the spiritual life described in the writings of the great mystics and spiritual masters – all this is relaxed and replaced by tedious and unconvincing reassurances that all is well, that God loves us the way indulgent parents love their wayward children, and that all Scriptural and doctrinal warnings to the contrary are ‘culturally conditioned’ and thus outmoded.

But this is unconvincing. People know better. And because they do, they often walk away and search elsewhere not only to interpret the drama of their lives abut also to try, as best they might, to prevent them from becoming tragedies.

Engaging culture

Similarly, un-dramatic Christianity is incapable of engaging culture and transforming it.  It is all too easy for us to avoid transmitting the inconvenient teachings of the Church on faith and morals for fear of upsetting those we serve.  Good and dedicated servants of the Church might hesitate to deal publicly with issues of enormous social consequence such as abortion, embryonic stem cell research, or same-sex marriage for fear of doing pastoral harm. For example, marriage preparation programs may shy away from the prophetic teaching of Humanae Vitae, Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and Natural Family Planning understood in the light of Catholic moral teaching – on the score that these teachings would not be well accepted by couples preparing for marriage, and, ‘we wouldn’t want to lose them.’ In most cases, engaged couples seeking sacramental marriage are not against the Church’s teaching – they are mostly unaware of it and often surprisingly open to it. 

Papal and Episcopal letters and statements are not enough. They need to be studied, preached and grappled with in parishes, in homes, and in our consciences.

There are other issues, of course, such as the question of immigration in the United States and Europe. After I published a brief pastoral letter on that subject, an irate parishioner wrote to say that she goes to church only for comfort and not to have her views changed.  I am sure others agree. But the Church’s voice cannot be silent. Papal and Episcopal letters and statements are not enough. They need to be studied, preached and grappled with in parishes, in homes, and in our consciences.

Dramatic liturgy

Perhaps it is in the realm of liturgy and the sacraments that the analogy between theatre and theology is most common.[x]  I won’t belabour the comparison because we have experienced the inherent drama in a reverently celebrated Mass wherein priest and participants truly enter as one into the might works of the Triune God, culminating in the paschal mystery.

The drama of the liturgy is not the result of mere human effort.  Important as it is to attend carefully to all the details of worship, such details do not of themselves, in a Pelagian sort of way, created divine and human salvific drama. Rather such drama is intrinsic to the liturgy itself which ‘….which is rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ [involving] the presentation of man’s sanctification under the guise of signs perceptible by the senses and its accomplishment in ways appropriate to each of these signs.’[xi]  Effective sacramental signs link us to God’s drama.

When the rudiments of sacramental causality are explained, lights come on and people actually watch to see what happens at the altar.

But that’s not everyone’s understanding. While rightly rejecting mechanistic views of sacramental causality, some theological approaches to the sacraments reduce them to ideas and sentiments.  Sacramental signs are thought to convey only information rather than transformation. One looks in vain for action. It’s well and good to invest bread and wine with new meaning and purpose but bread and wine thus invested have no power to transform us. It’s the drama of bread and wine transformed into Christ’s Body and Blood that engages us in the drama of transforming our lives and our world after the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection.  Our young people do not trouble themselves with the old canards of ‘trans-signification’ and ‘trans-finalisation’ – but many of them do not have the sense that anything happens objectively or subjectively as the result of participating in the sacraments.  When the rudiments of sacramental causality are explained, lights come on and they actually watch to see what happens at the altar.

Full-bloodied Catholicism

Finally, let me offer a word about judgment, particular and general.  Each Sunday we profess the Church’s faith ‘that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.’  But the drama of earth’s ‘closing thunders’ is usurped when the most casual Catholic is canonized at his own funeral. All of us like a happy ending and hope that things turn out well for us and our loved ones.

But judgment means nothing if nothing is at stake. It’s a drama without tension or suspense. Un-dramatic Christianity, in which all go to heaven willy-nilly, is an argument for its uselessness. Why not play golf on Sunday morning and do worse on Monday? Better not.  As The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, ‘Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of death, in a particular judgement that refers to his life in Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven – through a purification or immediately - or immediate and everlasting damnation.’[xii]  This is the denouement of our lives to be ratified in the dramatic consummation of the world at the end of time.

In this kind of catechesis, much is said but nothing really happens. As we survey the audience, half are asleep and the other half left at intermission.

As catechists, we profess a full-bodied Catholicism, a faith not merely to be thought about and talked about, but a faith that flows from the mysterious counsels of the Trinity and is given form in the great and mighty deeds which the Triune God has performed for us in salvation history. Ours is the privilege not only of being actors in this drama but also faithful, wise, and thus creative stage-managers, who with God’s grace so internalize the script that we become what we proclaim and help others to do the same.

Bishop William Lori was ordained a bishop in 1995. Bishop Lori currently serves as a member of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine and as Chair of the Academic Affairs Committee for Catholic University’s Board of Trustees. In 2001, Bishop Lori was named the Fourth Bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport. This article is adapted from a speech made by Bishop Lori on the occasion of the graduation of students from the Maryvale Institute, England, in November 7 2006 at St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham.

Notes

[i] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, Vols 1-5 San Franscisco: Iganatius Press (1988-1998)

[ii] Edward T Oakes, Pattern of Redemption, New York: Continuum, pp.208, citing G.K.Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. My remarks on Von Balthsar’s theatre-theology analogy are dependent on Oakes’ summary, pp.208-273

[iii] I am also indebted to Oakes, op.cit for this quote, p.229

[iv] Pope Benedict XVI Deus Caritas Est, Vatican City State: Libereria Editrice Vaticana (2005) no 12

[v] Oakes, op cit, p.208 quoting Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value

[vi] Ibid no 25

[vii] See St Augustine, Confessions, Book X

[viii] St Thomas Aquinas, Expos in symb. apost. I, cited in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no 1718

[ix] References are to the Exsultet and the sequence Victimae Paschali

[x] See, for example, Von Balthasar, op. cit. ‘Dramatic Dimensions of the Eucharist’, Vol IV pp.389-406

[xi] Vatican Council II, Sacrosanctum concilium, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no 7 ed. Austin Flannery, Wilmington, DE: Costello Publishing (1975) p.5

[xii] Catechism of the Catholic Church no 1022

This article is originally found on pages 5-7 of the printed edition.


This article is from The Sower and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of Maryvale Institute. Contact sower@maryvale.ac.uk

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