The other day I commented on Nicholas Carr’s article “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains.” I mentioned a positive opportunity and a negative challenge inherent in emerging forms like the wired world of the web. One breathtaking aspect of this emergence is the possibility for connection people from all races, languages and countries.
Over the years, I’ve been blessed to form and sustain many lasting friendships across the web. My life has been enriched and challenged and expanded through conversations with people around the world. Some of whom I’ve never seen face to face.
While I see negatives in this webbed world, like the dark side of tribalism (with little patience to learn the language of other tribes) and the tendency to reduce real rhetoric and argumentation to the sloganeering of bumper stickers (which really helps no one), I also see great potential for learning how to talk, how to listen and how to connect across our “boundaries” in space and time.
In a time when we can shoot off pithy answers before thinking about the human recipient, I thought it might help to consider some folks who thought, spoke and modeled much about how humans should and could relate.
Some of the writers who deeply challenged me to think about conversation and dialogue and thinking and action are Martin Buber, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, TF Torrance and Eugen Rosenstock Huessy. While there are distinctions and disagreements in their thought, I see correspondences that might be helpful for us as we think about relationships or about moving through space and time in love.
I am going to summarize a few ideas from each man thought I recognize anything I write in such limited space is woefully incomplete. Today, I want to highlight a few thoughts from Hans Von Balthasar who focused on three essential properties of being: truth, goodness and beauty.
For now I am going to bypass his overall argument and simply focus on these three transcendentals in relationships. I confess that I am adapting his use of these in relation to God, and for now, I want to use them in relation to humans. Von Balthasar focuses on the types of knowledge I gain from truth, goodness and beauty in relation.
Truth – In one sense, truth is focused upon the credible and accurate witness. Truth focuses on both the observable and the logical. On a basic level, I meet another person and based on their appearance, I make instant decisions as to their gender, age range, possibly their status, and their race. I observe them speaking, acting, living before me.
So the knowledge I gain from truth is observable and thus objective. Other people should be able to make similar observations with similar conclusions. While this may not seem especially significant in relationship, it is deeply significant. For sadly, we break and lose relationships often on the basis of knowledge that is not credible from witnesses that cannot be trusted.
When I encounter another person, I listen, watch, observe. I must be cautious about information given me about another person. I might ask myself, “Do I trust this person as a credible witness?” “Is this person in fact the direct witness or are they relaying third hand information?” “Does this person have vested interest in my opinion the person in question?”
While I may not be able to answer these questions completely, it might help me to pause over indirect observations. Also, I might questions my own observations. When I have made a judgment about a word or action, I might ask myself self, “What did I actually observe?” “Is is possible there are multiple causes for the action I’ve observed?” These type of questions might help me to realize that even my own deductions can be suspect at times.
The danger of “truth” is that knowledge can be reduced to mere facts, categories, ideas, laws. Without the balance of “goodness” and “beauty,” truth flattens relations into mere formalism.
Goodness – In relationships, Von Balthasar understands “bonum” as the interior light I experience. In relation to God, he speaks of hearing the proclaimed/historical witness (truth) and then the inward response of faith (goodness). Whereas truth focuses upon outward sign (the observable person), goodness focuses upon the signified (the value of the person).
I hear about Jesus Christ (outward, physical life), and I believe he is my redeemer (inward response). I meet John and instantly I feel there is a connection. I believe this inward, subjective response is how Von Balthasar is using goodness. When I meet other people, I not only observe them outwardly, I make inward judgments: good, bad, nice, friend, foe, and many other much more subtle inferences.
This is why I am attracted to Kelly over Jane. This is why I make friends with Bill instead of Harry. This is why I instantly trust the words of Tim, but pause over the words of Robert. This intuitive knowledge is real knowledge that shapes my actions, but it is inward, subjective knowledge. This type of “Goodness” is present in all relationships. My value assessments may be wrong and later have to be corrected, but act of making those assessments is part of the processing in forming relationships.
The danger of goodness is that it can become utilitarian and hedonistic. Outside the balance of “truth” and “beauty,” “goodness” can become pure narcissism as all relationships exist only to further my own goals and desires.
Beauty – The knowledge I gain from beauty is distinctly different from truth and goodness. I cannot grasp or take hold of this knowledge. Beauty is the mystery of unity between form and content. Content is not behind form but within it.
Let me put it this way. I mentioned this idea of “interior light” in goodness. Beauty is the interior light within the person in front of me. It is the realization of their depths as a person. Let me give a few examples.
At one-year-old, my niece already exhibited a will. I’ve watched her choose to allow my mom to pick her up while rejecting the advances of someone else. Of course, they could still pick her up, but they couldn’t change her will by physical force. Something unique and deeply mysterious about her cannot be controlled no matter how little she is.
Each person has an external, definable form. We can ask them a series of questions and might attach certain personality characteristics to them. And yet, there is untold mystery in every human being that cannot be forced out, seized, examined under a microscope or fully controlled.
As a person turns toward me and chooses to reveal themselves, suddenly a turn of the head, a look in the eyes, a handshake, a hug, a word, or simply a silence can reveal something about that person that simply cannot be seized or captured in a test tube. This something. This mystery. This uniqueness. This is beauty. In this revelation, there is a beauty that is independent of my desires, independent of my facts and figures, there is a beauty, wonder, a glory that simply is.
I cannot even seize the moment with a picture. It simply breaks forth in the very form of the person. And in this encounter, I step outside myself. I encounter someone who changes me in the encounter.
Von Balthasar writes that the beautiful makes the demand upon me to “be allowed to be what it is.” I let go of attempts to control and use. I simply rest in the presence of the beautiful other. Von Balthasar quotes Schiller, “Beauty is freedom in its appearing.”
This freedom is a freedom to enter into relation. It is the freedom of God to become man and reveal Himself in the particularity of Jesus Christ. I cannot force His revelation, but he can freely choose to reveal Himself to and in me.
In all my human relations, there is the possibly for a beautiful encounter. I’ll return to this idea of the beautiful encounter, as I reflect upon Martin Buber, TF Torrance and Eugen Rosenstock Huessy in future posts.