Theology and the Drama of History

Cambridge University Press was kind enough to send me a copy of Theology and Drama of HIstoryBen Quash’s book Theology and the Drama of History, a volume in their Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine series (ISBN: 0-521-84434-7). For anyone doing work in the areas concerning a theology of history, theodramatics, von Balthasar or Barth’s relationship to any of these, this book is certainly a must read. Quash has a notoriously broad reach of the field, a lucid and enjoyable writing style and a creative mind.

Quash pulls broadly from his academic quiver to produce a work that flows seamlessly through von Balthasar, Hegel and Barth on to Shakspeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins (no small feat). It is a great addition to an impressive series of books (several of which have been reviewed here, with more on the way).

In Quash’s words, concerning the nature and task of this volume,

This is a book that is concerned to identify resources to help theology think and talk about history. In particular, it sets out to examine the value and the potential of a ‘theodramatic’ conception of history. That is to say a way of thinking theologically about historical process and the historical character of human agents and environments that emphasizes their dramatic features” (1).

In order to achieve this, Quash pushes away from an abstract notion of drama to one informed by literary traditions. By opening the task up to literary forms, Quash believes theology will be able to function for a world “intrinsically and thoroughly historical.” For instance, “Theodramatics in particular promises a set of resources for thinking history and eschatology together, in their interrelationship – hence differently from other kinds of historical analysis – for in the area of eschatology a theology of history is always to some extent present, and vice versa” (3). Because of the nature of the theological task, as well as the reality of God’s world and his redemptive acts within that history, Christian theology must take into account the historical as it seeks to speak meaningfully about God.

In order to explicate these issues, Quash spends the first three chapters reading Balthasar’s work in light of / against Hegel’s. Importantly though, according to Quash, von Balthasar owes much to Hegel’s taxonomy, and opens the door for him to parallel his ecclesial development with Hegel’s political. Following this, he turns his attention to Balthasar’s great teacher Karl Barth, running the theodramatic proposal through the teacher and student’s theological machinery focusing on Balthasar’s critique of Barth and his supposed inability to preserve the importance of ‘subjects’ and their relations to ‘structures.’ Quash turns his analysis here to a critique of von Balthasar, focusing specifically on his ability to read texts and raising questions concerning his ability to address texts in their own right. Following this is a chapter addressing analogy, stepping in the Przywara and Barth debate concerning analogia entis and analogia fidei after which he offers more critique of von Balthasar.

The final chapter takes up a more constructive agenda, where Quash affirms theodramatics, but does so by supplementing his own proposal (building upon Williams and Manley Hopkins). In doing so, he notes the problems of a Balthasarian model of theodramatics: (1) “the evacuation of time of much of its significance as the carrier of divine revelation and as the medium for human encounter with life-giving and death-dealing questions;” (2) “the habitual neglect of awkward or resistant material, and especially of particulars that do not seem assimilable to a unified vision of history and theology in their interrelation;” (3) “the subjugation of one class of ‘particulars’, namely persons, to institutions or what are identified as historical movements (the subjugation of subjects to structures) and ultimately to what is thought to be the will of God in such institutions and movements;” (4) “the presumption to have a God’s eye view of what is and is not significant in the world” (196-197).

Quash puts forwards a pneumatology that treats the Spirit as “the guarantor of historical integrity and the animator of authentic historical life,” which he believes meets the requirements suggested and fills the gaps in Balthasar’s theodramatic proposal. It meets these requirements, Quash argues,

by endorsing (more convincingly than either the Hegelian or Balthasarian attempts at historical dramatization managed to) what this study has also established as essential to a theodramatics: the connection between the ‘unframeability’ of human existence in time, and the ‘surplus’ of the divine life. The Spirit brings the ‘more’ of the creation’s response to God into its own movement of glorification within the divine life, and this bursts the bounds of the human capacity exhaustively to map the explain the full significance of its own actions, and their ends” (214).

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5 thoughts on “Theology and the Drama of History

  1. Kyle and Kent, just a quick general comment: I love what you guys are doing on here. Clear, kind, smart, eminently helpful. Thank you!

    Matt Jenson

  2. But you should read Schindler’s book on The Dramatic Structure of Truth which answers some of Quash’s own (mis)reading of Balthasar…

  3. Thanks for the post Kyle and I echo Matt’s sentiments regarding all of the authors devotion not just to the proliferation of subjects and books that you describe, but more importantly the proliferation of thought. You guys bless more people than you know!

    I have given much thought to the the movement of man through history and at times struggle with the concepts of understanding history theologically. As, if I am understanding your description rightly Kyle, Quash seeks to distill the totality of human history into four distinct philosophical categories in which certain theologies inform us. I suppose that to engage in theologizing upon history one has to have basic criteria in which to understand and divine truth through history. As a teacher of history, I do have a few concerns though with the overall task (by which I am currently struggling with myself):

    1. Theologizing history runs the risk of reading back into the event from today’s cultural, religious, and theological biases and does not allow for the event and/or person to speak for themselves/itself.

    2. Theologizing history has a tendency to devalue the event by overvaluing the (supposed) deeper truths of the event.

    3. Theologizing history runs the risk of being driven too much by theological paradigms of the interpretation of the events.

    This being said, the understanding of history theologically is radically important as we seek to attach events from history to the greater events of God in this world.

    Thoughts or responses?

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