Hans Urs von Balthasar loves the word kenosis. “Emptying.” It’s a Greek word that I’ll explain, and it’s a problem. It should be your problem, too. A problem that I’ll resolve by making it worse, telling a story, complaining in German, and all in all pretending that I’m not addressing a huge issue in scholarship in a damn blog post. So then.
Balthasar, the influential 20th century Swiss Catholic theologian and my hero, does not draw his ideas from nowhere. When he himself emphasizes kenosis, he is touching a very ancient Christian nerve.
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
– Philippians 2:5-11
This poem of sorts comes to us from Saint Paul, and it is sometimes called the “Kenotic Hymn” after some speculation from biblical scholars that this may well be a Christian hymn that pre-dates Paul and he’s simply quoting it, or perhaps adjusting it. Or perhaps it’s not that at all. Either way, this “hymn” tells the essential story of Christ: the one equal with God who became human, died, and was exalted to the Glory of the Father. That is the whole movement of Christianity, all of it right there, an arc away into humility that returns again as glory because, really, humility and glory are the same.
So we’ve already touched the edges of the problem.
Kenosis (ἐκένωσεν as it appears in the original text) means simply “to empty.” Jesus emptied himself. The word is the lynchpin of the hymn, and it has long been a profound animating force in Christianity. This, after all, is the attitude (φρονεῖτε, understanding, feeling, mind) we are supposed to have: that of Christ, who was kenotic (emptying). So we should be Christ to one another, to the world. We should be as he is. Emptying.
For the Christian, Jesus – who is God – is humble. This isn’t a change in God; this is God. The remarkable feature of Christianity is its God: the infinite God who becomes finite, the Word who becomes flesh, not because anyone forced him to and definitely not because we deserve it, but because this is what he does. He loves us. Or, I should say, he is love. And this love – that God is – takes a specific shape, is recognizable and alive. The love that overcomes through humiliating defeat, the divine strength revealed through weakness. Balthasar will sometimes call this “the power of God’s powerlessness.”
If humility is glory – if the last shall be first – then we have an extraordinary inversion of what we thought was real. This impulse is what has Christians through the centuries embracing the poor; this is what drives them near to the suffering and ill; this is what has them visiting jails. In the faces of these people, Christians see their God. And so they treat these least with the dignity that they would God, and in doing so – in loving with humility – they show God to others. That is to say, we surrender to one another in love.
What, exactly, does this power-in-powerlessness look like? This could be devastatingly beautiful, as above, or simply devastating. Friedrich Nietzsche, famous opponent of Christianity, saw an element of Christianity’s inner power of destruction: by valuing the weak, he said, you make everyone weak. He meant this because he thought everyone had a “will to power” and should be able to dominate others if they could, and if they couldn’t – well, that’s your fault. It’s a more interesting critique if all we do is understand that powerful people do want to dominate others, and that this domination keeps others weak. Christianity, then, could become a coda for oppression. We love the weak, so we keep them weak.
This is all rather abstract, so let me offer a couple of examples. The first comes to us from literature: Dante’s Beatrice. She herself, and his love for her, animates the entirety of the Divine Comedy. But is this Beatrice, really? Dante met the real Beatrice twice in real life, after all, and she was a constant figure in his poems even after her death. Especially after her death. Well, there was a pause with Lady Philosophy, but we’ll get to that. In any case, Dante rather deliberately renders Beatrice in ecstatic symbolic forms: she is a beatified woman, she is Beatitude itself, she is divine love and judgment incarnate, she is Christ. So, commentators wonder, is Beatrice even Beatrice anymore? Or has Dante done violence to her memory and made her someone else? All in the name of Christ, no less. This gets at a certain problem of how to imagine other human beings when we look at them as Christ. It could result in some kind of erasure.
Or there is the more sophisticated critique of feminist theologies, which I will simplify here but bring to life with my own life. Outside of the arts, there have been many ways that power has reinforced itself by concealing its intentions in something “good.” Balthasar calls this “the lie.” It would take too long to list the horrifying examples of even the recent news cycle, so I will simply reference my own experience. As a young victim of violence, much of which revolved around doctors, I was often convinced to behave by being told it wasn’t that bad or asked don’t you want to feel better? My suffering, you have to see, was placed on my shoulders as my responsibility. I was crying at nothing, or I pushed away the hands because I didn’t want to get better. It was my fault if I hated it. Or – and this is more vivid, so feel free to skip down to the next paragraph – I was frequently made to surrender by sheer physical force. I can remember being pinned down and my head shoved away and then I remember much worse, and God damn if wasn’t some kind of surrender when I gave up and went limp. And it was my fault if I hated it.
Notice the perplexity here, which gets at a certain problem with how we use words to mask truth, and how surrender and self-emptying can apply to things that are truly awful. So for Balthasar – right, back to him – to use this word kenosis, to pair it with surrender, to praise self-offering… Well, it becomes possible to see why people might have a problem with that. Because these words have been used to conceal incredible suffering. They have. Balthasar still uses these terms, these ideas. I don’t see any point in denying these things.
The thing about Lady Philosophy in Dante (of the Commedia) is that she’s a lie. Beatrice in fact calls him out on it, framing Dante’s life as infidelity. You went and loved another woman, Dante, and she doesn’t even exist. The accusation of infidelity is described as a betrayal of Dante’s love for Beatrice, a love “that should have led you to the Good.” Beatrice, as someone who is real – Lady Philosophy is a figurement of a field of knowledge – is able to be loved in a way that leads Dante to better things, and only inasmuch as her specificity as a real person plays a role in his love for her. Dante doesn’t have to confess “I am a totally lost and confused guy”; he has to confess to her about where his heart has been. Yes, Beatrice’s eyes flicker with Christ-the-gryphon, and she shines with a glory we can easily guess is God’s. But these only veil her as long as Dante lies. When he tells the truth about her – to her – she pulls her veil away. (And the angels sing. I think there are flowers thrown around too. It’s pretty epic. Dante, you insufferable poet.) In other words, praising humility in itself or surrender in itself or virtue in itself don’t get us far. They have to be expressed in specific people and specific situations. Or else we end up admiring all surrender instead of only loving surrender. This is one reason why the saints are so important to Balthasar: they show us what the difference between wonderful and horrible humility might be.
To the far messier point about physical force, the concealing of oppression, and so forth, I can only gesture toward something important. Balthasar discusses self-surrender and kenosis all the time, it’s true. But we’re forgetting a word: “letting-be.” It’s inconsistently translated, to be honest, but still this further phrase (typically Sein-Lassen) is key. Letting-be is, in Balthasar’s parlance, a summary term for the free act of allowing someone else their agency. Letting-be is what Mary does in the Annunciation (called her Fiat, “let it be done”), which is both an act of agency on her part and an allowing of God’s action. In fact, letting-be is always a twinned action – the act of the person letting and of the person being, the one allowing and the one doing (or even simply existing). The twinned act of letting-be has to be mutual, then, or else they’re not letting the other person freely allow. They’re committing an act of force. If it doesn’t have both freedoms at work, it’s not Sein-Lassen. It’s something Balthasar variously names “demonic” or “titan” or “violent.” The archetype of letting-be is to be found in the Trinity, in the three Persons who entirely share one divinity. Here the archetype spins away from what is even remotely possible for us, since the Persons all offer to one another a specific relation of “letting be,” and perfectly share the one divine will. The Trinity explodes what in us is “twinned” or double – you there and me here – but nevertheless provides the ground of the possibility for our letting-be.
Especially where he goes on and on about kenosis and surrender, Balthasar either frames the discussion with letting-be or carries letting-be throughout. In other words, for him, surrender – the authentic kind – cannot be understood without Sein-Lassen. What is more, the surrender of letting-be is always to a real person (even in the Trinity). It cannot get lost as a mere concept, or again it ceases to be itself. It must always be shared. And, as with Christ, it must lead to the greater glory of both.
Obviously, my experience as a youth meets absolutely none of those criteria.
Real kenosis is also “letting-be.” Kenosis without “letting be” is mere violence. Balthasar actually helps us work to see the difference.