The Gospel According to Billy Idol

This is an “old stuff”post, presenting a research paper from a 2015 grad school course in Trinitarian theology, originally titled “The Dance of Mercy.”

The Dance of Mercy:

Trajectories for Engaging the Kenotic Inner Life of God

Jeff Childers

11 December 2015

I’m dancing with myself

And if I had the chance

I’d ask the world to dance.

Billy Idol


As this study is being completed, the Roman Catholic Church is launching a special Jubilee Year of Mercy. In calling for this event, Pope Francis shared that he had “often thought of how the Church may render more clear her mission to be a witness to mercy; and we have to make this journey. It is a journey which begins with spiritual conversion.”1 Months earlier, the pope offered a rhetorical question for reflection and inspiration: “Am I a Christian giving witness to Jesus or am I a simple numerary of this sect?..A Christian who doesn’t give witness is unfathomable.”2 By juxtaposing these two simple papal remarks, it is evident that the current papal magisterium views the divine mercy as not only integral to the message of the gospel but as a near-equivalent of the Divine Self. For the pontiff, witnessing to mercy is witnessing to Christ, who himself is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).3

From the very dawn of the Christian tradition, the kerygmatic event of Christ’s incarnation, passion, and resurrection has been framed primarily in terms of the expression of divine mercy. Christ, High Priest of the new Church, is a living embodiment of divine empathy for the author of Hebrews, and, precisely as such, is able to open the doors to mercy:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:15-16).

For St. Paul, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

The foundational Christian insight has given birth to a new awakening to appreciation of the mercy of God within the Church of recent decades. It is specifically as merciful–as mercy, even–that St. John Paul II framed his reflections on the Person of God the Father:

The truth, revealed in Christ, about God the “Father of mercies,”4 enables us to “see” Him as particularly close to man especially when man is suffering, when he is under threat at the very heart of his existence and dignity. And this is why, in the situation of the Church and the world today, many individuals and groups guided by a lively sense of faith are turning, I would say almost spontaneously, to the mercy of God. They are certainly being moved to do this by Christ Himself, who through His Spirit works within human hearts. For the mystery of God the “Father of mercies” revealed by Christ becomes, in the context of today’s threats to man, as it were a unique appeal addressed to the Church.5

Prominent among the “many individuals and groups” reawakening to divine mercy in recent times, both as a product and a catalyst of the reawakening, is the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. An unlikely figure to bear such great influence, given the close interconnectedness of his serious theological work with the visions channeled by the medium Adrienne von Speyer,6 playing, as it were, Sidney Rigdon to von Speyer’s Joseph Smith, Balthasar is nevertheless “said to be the favorite theologian of Pope John Paul II, and is held in high esteem also by Benedict XVI.”7 For Balthasar, the mercy of God displayed in the total kenosis of the cross “represents at once the paradigmatic expression of the divine, and the apex of God’s glory shining in the world.”8 Love manifested through kenosis manifested as mercy is, from the Balthasarian perspective in which both the contemporary magisterium and contemporary orthodox theology are so deeply steeped, “the supreme expression of (the) eternal life”9 of God; that is, kenotic mercy simply is what God is in Godself.

If the present author may be permitted a confessional aside, the current paper is, in a sense, quite unkenotic, for it is something of a self-indulgence. In both my, admittedly cursory, past encounters with Balthasar and Balthasarian-inspired theology and its central place in the program of the present course, while recognizing its brilliance and beauty, I have found it the source of a great deal of internal tension. My reaction to this theology’s seeming remythologizing of my comfortably metaphysically deconstructed God-concept, its apparent rootedness in the creativity of individuals like von Speyer and St. Faustina,10 and its projection of such perspectivally meaningful attributes of God as kenosis and mercy into the inner life of the divine self has been one of great hesitancy. It has not ever been my contention, like that of more vocal critics, that Balthasarian thought is heretical.11 Rather, my question has simply been whether his language and imagery, from my to-date shallow engagement with them, is more or less helpful to a clear understanding of the inner life of God. Is it meaningful to speak of mercy as a transcendental attribute of the divine self? What need for mercy could there be, after all, among the Triune Persons? Does not kenotic self-gift imply both a lack within the divine life and risk projecting an infinite emptiness into the Trinity?

As will become apparent, I have not yet resolved these concerns. What I have done is made a commitment to engage this line of theological thought as openly and honestly as I am able. I have subtitled the current exercise “trajectories,” because this paper is not the conclusion of my study but a launching point for my further exploration. Any conclusions are merely tentative, and serve as indicators of concepts I intend to pursue throughout my project of life-long learning. In many ways, despite my initial tension, I share in the Balthasarian reawakening in that this material has rekindled in me an appreciation for doing theology; my comfort areas are philosophical metaphysics, a history of religions perspective on the development of the tradition, and biblical studies, while I have found it difficult to engage with systematic theology’s occasional seeming arbitrariness and “dogmatic eisegesis” of scripture.12 If this “final paper” has all the marks of a novice’s preliminary inquiry, I can only hope that the audience of one for whom it is composed will himself manifest mercy. Toward the end of establishing these trajectories, I will attempt to place a theology of kenotic mercy in dialogue with both metaphysics and biblical studies before attempting my own preliminary synthesis and application.

In John Saward’s treatment of the Thomistic account of mercy, he delineates the great sufferings of Jesus Christ embraced in his human nature as indicative of the plenary nature of the divine mercy made manifest, a mercy which Christ, through his human will, freely chose to cooperate with to the maximum of his human potential.

In his treatise on the Passion, Saint Thomas tries to convey the breadth and depth of the Son’s human miseries by which he brought us the mercy of the Father. He says that Jesus underwent every kind of human suffering: not every species of suffering (for many of these are mutually exclusive, eg, death by fire and death by drowning), but certainly every genus of suffering. He suffered at the hands of every kind of person; he suffered through the desertion of his friends, the blasphemies against his good name, in his body and soul, and in every part of his body and in all his bodily senses. Thomas says that the bodily and spiritual pain suffered by Our Lord in his Passion was the greatest pain possible in this present life. No human being has been more sensitive to pain than the Word made flesh.13

St. John Paul II, following the Second Vatican Council, emphasized that “Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.”14 As the mercy manifested in the cross was the apex of Christ’s kenosis, mercy in the human order, then, is integrally linked with self-emptying and self-gift.

For Aquinas, “Mercy signifies grief for another’s distress,” with the caveat, in order to avoid an incautious pursuit of the affective passions, that “it is essential to human virtue that the movements of the soul should be regulated by reason.”15 While charity is owed to all in a broad sense, distinguishing mercy from justice would seem to necessitate that a merciful human act is one made to particular individuals who, all things being equal, have no claim in strict justice to the act.16 It would further seem that it is precisely the unmerited nature of the act of mercy that is kenotic. If one shows mercy to another, either through aiding a suffering person to whom he owes nothing or forgoing one’s own just claim to redress, one empties oneself, freely embracing a circumstance that is to one’s own at least immediate detriment. In the act of mercy, a communion of persons is established, as the merciful one shares herself with the recipient of mercy.

Projecting the good of mercy into the divine reality as it is revealed in the economy of salvation is a key element of the biblical narrative. If, in the progressive revelation of God, the initial intuitions of that mercy were not without a great bit of caprice, as in the mercy shown to Isaac after God ordered Abraham to sacrifice him in the first place or the Hebrew exceptionalism of “O give thanks the LORD…to him that smote Egypt in their firstborn: for his mercy endureth forever” (Psalm 136:1, 10 KJV), the mercy displayed “in these last times” by Christ, “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being,” is full and unsurpassable (Hebrews 1:3).

Aquinas defends the attribution of mercy to God: “Mercy is especially to be attributed to God, as seen in its effect, but not as an affection of passion…(H)e endeavors to dispel the misery of this other, as if it were his; and this is the effect of mercy. To sorrow, therefore, over the misery of others belongs not to God; but it does most properly belong to Him to dispel that misery.”17 Here Thomas’ discussion of mercy remains economic; though divine mercy lacks the passion of human mercy, it is shown to be real precisely through the effect of the dispelling. From the human perspective, the divine action leading to the alleviation of suffering indicates that there is something about that action that bears a likeness to the human action of mercy, and so it is meaningful to relate to God as though he were merciful, much as a navigator might relate to the sun as if it rises, moves westward, and sets.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux, an early key figure in the ecclesiastical reawakening to divine mercy, celebrated her experience of divine love so expressed: “It seems to me that if all creatures had received the same graces I received, God would be feared by none but would be loved to the point of folly…To me He has granted His infinite Mercy, and through it I contemplate and adore the other divine perfections!”18 While perhaps hinting at a pathway to viewing mercy as immanent to the Divine Self, Thérèse’s laud remains economic and perspectival; mercy is called to mind by the manifestation of grace in her life, and from her perspective, mercy is the lens through which divine attributes may be viewed.

To predicate kenotic mercy of the inner life of God as God is in Godself suggests to many “an immanentizing trajectory…in which such classical distinctions as the immanent and economic Trinity, and the important distinction between God and the world are conflated.”19 Such an “agapic emptying out of oneself for and in the other,” a “self-donation (which is the) original kenosis,” would seem to some to run the risk of “grafting Good Friday onto the immanent Trinity,” projecting pain, darkness, and emptiness onto the subsistent act of to be itself.20

In Balthasar’s own work, this danger is protected against by kenotic mercy being “filtered through the principle of analogy so as to avoid any connotations of divine becoming.”21 According to the principle of analogy of proper proportion, when one predicates an attribute familiar from finite experience to the infinite being of God, one does not say that God is x, but rather that God as God is in Godself is not without a certain likeness to x, though the unfathomable nature of God is such that God’s unlikeness to x is infinitely great than the divine likeness. Analogous God-language is “intended to express a proportionate intrinsic similarity found in all the analogates…Such intrinsic analogies are found in terms like ‘knowledge,’ ‘love,’ ‘activity,’ ‘unity,’ ‘goodness,’ (and) ‘being.'”22

Clarke rejects the necessity of univocity for an analogy to be valid:

The similarity we notice here is not some one thing or characteristic that remains exactly the same in all cases, except for some new additional note being added on each time from the outside. It is rather that the similar property itself is more or less profoundly and intrinsically modified in a qualitatively different way each time, so that through and through the whole property is recognized as at once similar yet different (not just found in some new instance that in other ways is different)…(I)t is an indissoluble unity where the similarity itself is through and through diversified in each case. As a result there is quite a bit of “give,” flexibility, indeterminacy, or vagueness right within the concept itself, with the result that the meaning remains essentially incomplete, so underdetermined that it cannot be clearly understood until further reference is made to some mode or modes of realization.23

Positing kenotic mercy in the inner life of the Trinity need not require that all elements of self-emptying and mercy in the human order have direct and univocal analogues in the divine life. All that is required for the analogy to be valid is that there be a real, if vague, “indissoluble unity” between the finite attribute and its divine analogue.

By this standard, it is certainly valid to propose an analogy of proper proportion between the human experience of kenotic mercy and the Divine Self. Yet validity is not sufficient to demonstrate that an analogy is well-suited for predication of the inner life of God. Being possessed infinitely of all finite perfections, by the principle of analogy, it is in a sense valid to deem God the can of Coca-Cola more refreshing than which none can be conceived, yet the magnitude of dissimilarity is so great that this valid statement is neither meaningful nor helpful. Less absurdly, certain attributes of God posited by the biblical narrative, such as wrath, jealousy, and the willing of evil, as revealed, must have valid analogues in the inner life of God; however, by the time the flexibility of the analogous language is exercised to purge these negatives of their dissimilarity to God, so little remains of the finite attributes as to make them meaningless to project into the immanent Trinitarian life. This was my initial suspicion with regard to the attribute of kenotic mercy. Is what is left of the finite attributes of kenosis and mercy after a proportionate purge similar enough to what is normally meant by the terms as to be meaningful to predicate of God, and how well does this cohere with the foundational revealed texts of the Christian tradition?

The work of Richard Bauckham and Richard Carrier, two leading contemporary biblical exegetes from vastly different perspectives, proved illuminative in my exploration of this question.24 Both Bauckham and Carrier take seriously the evidence, which “has frequently been underestimated,” of “(t)he prevalence and centrality of the worship of Jesus in early Christianity from an early date.”25 While recognizing “(t)hat YHWH, the God of Israel, is the only God and that he alone may be worshiped are at the heart of Jewish religious self-understanding in the late Second Temple period,”26Bauckham reads texts such as the kenosis hymn of Philippians 2 as “set(ting) out a christological version of eschatalogical and cultic monotheism.”27 For Bauckham, “(t)here is no question here of either (Christ’s) gaining or of (his) losing equality with God.”28 Bauckham argues convincingly that eternal presence of Christ within the divine identity is the operational perspective of the biblical author; the decision to undergo kenosis is made within the divine reality, indicating a capacity within the divine self to self-empty. It would seem, then, that to speak of intra-divine kenotic mercy in the imaginatively vivid language of Balthasarian thought, as novel as its expression may be, remains radically loyal to the biblical text itself, perhaps even more so than more traditional expressions of the divine life.

Despite his radical perspective and conclusions, Carrier prevents a wealth of relevant information regarding the background out of which Christianity emerged. Particularly relevant is Carrier’s exegesis of Hebrews 9, in which he delineates the wider Hellenistic-Jewish Platonism such as one finds in Philo, including the cosmological notion that within the divine realm, the heavens, “reside the true versions of everything (including the temple itself), and of which the things on earth are only imperfect copies. The celestial temple is ‘not made with hands’ because it was made by God, just like our celestial bodies will be (2 Cor. 5:1).”29 To the extent to which this cosmology did influence the development of the New Testament texts, which does not appear negligible, it would follow that those texts were crafted by authors with a worldview which would allow for perfect analogues to the finite human reality of kenotic mercy.

It seems, then, that kenotic mercy may well prove to be an appropriate and fruitful category to encounter the divine reality. The flexibility of language allows for a divine kenosis within the immanent Trinity which neither requires an emptiness on the part of the receiving Person nor results in a diminishing of the giving Person. In the perpetual divine dance of mutual self-gift, a mercy of sorts can be said to be shown even between the Divine Persons. This is not the mercy of alleviating misery, but the mercy that wills for all to be harmoniously ordered and is in an eternal embrace of “polyphonic relatedness.”30

If setting forth trajectories to explore the meaningfulness of kenotic mercy in the inner life of God is a task worth pursuing, how much more so must be the task of proclaiming that same mercy in the economy of salvation. This, indeed, may well be as Balthasar maintained, our sole point of credibility in the contemporary marketplace of ideas. “(I)f this approach does not manage to move our age, it has scarcely any chance left of encountering the heart of Christianity in its unadulterated purity.”31

“Like Sleeping Beauty,” says Norris Clarke, “we must first be touched by another before we can wake up to ourselves.”32 In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, it is especially fitting for those who proclaim the gospel to reawaken to and re-encounter that transcendent Other who is infinite self-giving mercy.

1Francis, The Announcement of the Jubilee Year of Mercy (13 March 2015)., accessed 4 December 2015.

2ibid., Homily (6 May 2014) in Carol Glatz, “Pope: Christianity means giving witness to Christ everyday,” National Catholic Reporter (6 May 2014)., accessed 4 December 2015.

3Unless otherwise indicated, all biblical citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, © 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

42 Corinthians 1:3

5John Paul II, Dives et misericordia, 2 (30 November 1980). accessed 5 October 2015.

6Karen Kilby, Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 28. My loaded choice of language here is intended to recreate my initial and, to a degree, ongoing tension with this topic, which will be addressed below. It is not my intent to be dismissive of insights gained through imaginative and unconventional means, as I hope will become clear. I can appreciate the seance-like visionary sessions of von Speyer in the same spirit Caldecott can appreciate Boehme and the Tarot. Were visionaries, eccentrics, those with wild imaginations, lunatics, and even pious frauds like Smith to be excluded from human discourse, we’d be much the poorer, having done away with a great deal of religion and art.

7ibid., 1.

8David Luy, “The Aesthetic Collision: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Trinity and the Cross.” International Journal of Systematic Theology 13, no. 2 (2011), 154.

9Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, vol. 1: A Theological Aesthetics, trans. Joseph Fessio and John Kenneth Riches (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993, 1983), 440.

10By “creativity,” it is not my intent to deny either the providential impetus of visionary experiences nor to exclude the possibility of a genuinely supernatural occurrence, but I prefer to reserve the right to treat private revelation as natural, albeit spiritually significant, events.

11Kilby, 11.

12Keith Lemna, classroom lecture, 2015. Discomfort with this approach to scripture should not be read as rejection. Not only is this the approach to scripture evidenced by the Fathers, but it is also the way the inspired New Testament authors treated the Hebrew Bible.

13John Saward. “Loves Second Name.” The Canadian Catholic Review (1990; reprinted online at Christendom Awake), printed p. 8., accessed 4 December 2015.

14John Paul II. Redemptor hominis, 8 (4 March 1979)., accessed 6 December 2015.

15Summa II-II.30.2,, accessed 6 December 2015.

16See Luke 11:11-13.

17Summa I.21.3., accessed 26 November 2015.

18Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul in Robert Stackpole, “Divine Mercy in the Autobiography of St. Thérèse.” Divine Mercy Library,, accessed 28 November 2015.

19Luy, 155.

20Antonio Lopez, “Eternal Happening: God as an Event of Love,” Communio 32, (2005), 230.

21Luy, 160.

22W. Norris Clarke, “Analogy and the Meaningfulness of Language about God: A Reply to Kai Nielsen.” Thomist 40 (1976)., accessed 19 November, 2015.

23ibid. Parentheses in original.

24Bauckham is a leading conservative biblical critic, who posits that the gospel narratives preserve substantially genuine eyewitness testimony and that the historical Jesus exhibited a demonstrable unity of identity with the God of Israel. Carrier is at the most radical end of the exegetical spectrum, as a noted atheist and the author of the first peer-reviewed work published by a reputable house advocating the theory that there was no historical Jesus, but that the kerygma originated consciously as a myth about events occurring not in history but in the realm of the divine. An exhaustive exposition of their work is beyond the scope of this paper, but engaging them both more deeply in conversation with each other and with the theological tradition will be a major element of my continued study for some time to come.

25Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 127.

26ibid., 152.

27ibid., 206.

28ibid., 207.

29Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014), 194. Parentheses in original.

30Joseph Ratzinger in Jürgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger, The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2007), 79.

31Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, trans. D.C. Schindler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1963), 13.

32W. Norris Clarke, Person and Being (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1993), 45.


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