The Role of Faith in Culture

TRAGEDY UNDER GRACE: REINHOLD SCHNEIDER ON THE EXPERIENCE OF THE WEST. By Hans Urs von Balthasar (A Communio Book; Ignatius Press, P.O. Box 1339, Ft. Collins, Colo. 80522,1997) 295 pp. PB $11.95.

What should a person of deep culture but no faith do when realization of the West’s spiritual collapse suddenly dawns in his mind and becomes an unshakable conviction? Should he retreat to the protected groves of academe and protest against the dying of the light? Follow Voltaire’s Candide and cultivate his own garden? Give up in despair and end it all? Reinhold Schneider— historian, novelist, and poet—came to feel the inner emptiness of the modern West very sharply. His scholarly analysis of the tragic conflicts of European history gave him a keen sense of the role faith plays in culture even before he was a man of the faith himself. But it was the surprising action of grace within that led him to Christ and the Church and enabled him to develop a profound interpretation of history in the light of the Cross.

The title Hans Urs von Balthasar has chosen for his portrait of this fascinating figure of the European Catholic renaissance earlier this century captures the kernel of Schneider’s theological interpretation of history: Tragedy Under Grace. What von Balthasar presents here are the stages of the personal journey (spiritual and intellectual) by which Schneider discovered the presence of divine grace and providence in the tragic conflicts which were the objects of his scholarly work and which he could not help but see repeated in the events of his own time.

When taking up von Balthasar on nearly any subject, a reader often feels like he needs to have done graduate work in comparative literature to catch the drift, let alone to follow the allusions. A bit of that feeling is likely here when the author starts to traipse through Schneider’s wide-ranging literary and historical works (164 are listed in the bibliography), often discussed in comparison with figures whose names may be more familiar than the details of their thought: not just Dante and Dostoevsky but Blois and Peguy, Grillparzer and Kleist. But the reader should not be put off. From the massive learning of author and his kindred subject there emerges a timely portrayal of intellectual courage. Although Schneider is little known in English-speaking circles, for only a handful of his works have been translated, his life offers a model of how a thoughtful Catholic might want to ponder the cultural crisis of our own day. One can learn here a way to see even in tragedy a bit more clearly how providence works. As von Balthasar quotes Schneider on the great Greek tragedians: “We venerate the song of the tragedians. It contains truth about suffering, not about God: yet God has revealed himself by means of this truth.”

The book is organized under nine geographical headings in order to recount the main historical subjects Schneider was dealing with at various stages in his life. In the first three (“Portugal-the Dream”, “Spain-the Form”, and “Prussia-the Power”) we learn how Schneider became aware of the depths of the crisis. Using the Lusiads, Camoes’s epic about the clash between the Christian idea of missionary evangelization and the colonial realities, von Balthasar introduces us to the sort of mind we meet in Schneider. He is deeply alert to the interrelations of literature and history, but he can accept neither romantic falsification of history in the name of politics nor naive literary criticism blind to the tragic sense of history which the great poets felt. Schneider’s work on Spain’s Philip II emphasizes the tragic persona of a King who must give up his own individuality in service of the idea of his people and by his ascetical mortifications suffer in their stead. In Philip’s monastery-palace, the Escorial, one sees immediately the fusion between the architecture suitable to monk and to king; for Schneider it is an anticipation of his later discovery that all true art is ultimately religious. But his fascination with this severe beauty does not prevent him from bemoaning the compromises and contradictions of some of Philip’s contemporaries. Their self-serving decisions mar the evangelical mission that is supposed to remain so pure in the Church. At just that time Schneider’s studies turned him to consideration of the vast power of Frederick Wilhelm’s Prussia and its ideological justification in Fichte’s Macchiavellian politics. Here the telling insight for him was a realization that the origins of the West’s soullessness lie in the state’s cultivation of raw power. The antitheses of power and grace, world and cross seemed all the more stirring when by comparison he pondered the Spanish King’s resignation on learning of the tragic loss of the Spanish Armada and his turn to further self-mortification out of his vocation for obedience to God through self-forgetfulness.

The names of the chapters about Schneider’s work on England (“The Guilt”), Russia (“Confession”), and Germany (“Penance”) also reflect the course of his own conversion. While working out a sophisticated analysis of the difference between power and authority, Schneider dramatizes Henry VIII’s betrayal of the faith and its institutionalization by Elizabeth. In meditating upon the case of Czar Alexander, who had himself declared killed by assassins and then deported to Siberia to suffer with those he had exiled there, Schneider elucidates the need of the guilty for the healing that takes place in confession. Truth, he insists, is a great grace that makes its demands on the guilty heart and inexorably wears it down, but there is no greater misfortune than a guilt that is always veiled and denied. In the chapter on Germany von Balthasar reports on Schneider’s confrontation with the issue of his fatherland’s war-guilt. The mystery of evil here led him to reflect on Faust and the wars of this century, and brought him to a deep sense of the need for personal and national reparation— not the humiliating kind that keeps an open sore running and liable to infection, but the kind that repairs victim and victimizer both.

The final trio of chapters take an unexpected turn: besides the perhaps obvious choice of papal Rome (“The Ministry”), there is Joan of Arc’s Rouen (“The Glory”) and Teutonic Marienburg (“Knighthood”). Each place in its own way helps to explain the double office of holiness and of mission that needs to mark the figures whom providence has chosen for progress in history. Whether it be the martial purity of the maid of Orleans or the watchful poverty of the early generations of the knightly Orders, grace will be misunderstood and tragedy will come. Schneider’s story of Celestine V’s abdication of the papacy (1294) and the downfall of Boniface VIII soon after his greedy acquisition of the office from Celestine (1303) gives him opportunity to reflect on “the necessity of insoluble conflicts in the soul as well as in history.” It is equally clear in his account of such extraordinary pairs of figures as the poor man Francis before the wealthy Pope Innocent or the Dominican Las Casas pleading with Charles V for justice on behalf of Indians enslaved by the conquistadores. Yet facing the inescapable tragedies of life for Schneider does not mean capitulation to romantic sympathy so much as affirming the need for spiritual authority to use its power wisely. It does no more good to renounce power utterly than to abuse it selfishly. By God’s grace some are called to carry the burden of the cross for their people, and it would be to surrender to human standards of judgment to refuse even when one can foresee the suffering ahead.

Throughout his essays on culture and history, religion and art, as well as in his own novels and poems Schneider contemplates the truth about belief and disbelief, power and grace, the world and the cross. His inspection of history and literature has made him convinced of the primacy of the spirit despite the evil and malice that had once made him a nihilist. Von Balthasar’s work remains one of the few routes by which to have access to his still largely untranslated contributions to Christian culture.

Joseph W. Koterski, S.J.
Fordham University
Bronx, N.Y.

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