Balthasar, Baseball, and the Anima Technica Vacua

BratzookaIn the opening pages of the Epilogue to his monumental theological trilogy, Hans Urs von Balthasar considers modern man as an anima technica vacua.  He notes the contemporary desire for the Church to try to meet modern man “where he is,” cites several reports about the excessive television watching of American and European children, and then wonders:

So severe is this situation that most teachers of religion ask, with equal justice, just who these ruins are whom we should try to “meet” (against their will!) “where they are”.  A missionary toiling in the savannas of Africa or on the atolls of the Pacific has it relatively easy: he encounters a perhaps primitive anima naturaliter christiana.  What might come across to the native as pure theological Chinese he can easily translate into the simplest of languages.  But where is the famous “point of contact” with the anima technica vacua?  I for one certainly do not know.  Some table-rapping.  A séance or two, some dabbling in Zen meditation, a smattering of liberation theology: enough (10-11).

That question – where is the famous “point of contact” with the anima technica vacua? – floated through my head recently while watching a minor league baseball game in Brooklyn.  There are few slices of Americana thicker than watching minor league baseball on a gorgeous summer evening with beer and hot dog (ok, maybe peanuts and crackerjack) in hand.  It would seem that watching baseball in Brooklyn should be particularly uplifting, for the very fact that there is professional baseball (even if it is single-A) being played in that borough provides some evidence for the theological truths of forgiveness and redemption.  For while the Bible may claim blasphemy against the Holy Spirit as the only unforgiveable sin, Brooklyn baseball fans know that there is one more: Walter O’Malley’s decision to move the Dodgers to Los Angeles after the 1957 season.  (Incidentally, should the Dodgers ever return to Brooklyn, the Church might have to reconsider Origen’s theory of apokatastasis.)

But I did not leave the ballpark that night thinking about the restoration of all things, redemption, or even nostalgically about boyhood or America, but instead about the anima techinca vacua.  For while that night did feature baseball in Brooklyn, perfect weather, and yes, even beer and hot dogs, those things were trumped by a different spirit which dominated the ballpark: one of unyielding noise.  I have come to expect T-shirt tosses and Frisbee throws and all kinds of other promotional gimmicks at minor league parks – after all, I grew up in a state whose minor league team features “The Bratzooka,” an air-powered cannon which fires foil-wrapped bratwursts into the stands (see picture above).  I was ready for these.  I was not ready for the hip-hop, rap, and pop music that pulsated out of the stadium’s speakers at excruciating decibels.  Forget about enjoying those nostalgic sounds of the ball hitting the bat or mitt.  Even carrying on a conversation with the person next to you was impossible.  At one point, the friend with whom I was watching the game turned to me and yelled in my ear, “I used to like baseball because it was a contemplative game!”

But a contemplative game it no longer is.  As the nation’s pastime, baseball serves as a mirror reflecting larger movements in American culture: think of the struggles to integrate the game which preceded the civil rights movement, the zany uniforms and hairstyles which surfaced after the unrest of the late ’60s, or the amped-up patriotism baseball manifested after 9/11.  The changed atmosphere in ballparks from places of relative quiet punctuated by occasional cheering and organ music to coliseums containing frenzied maelstroms of electronically produced sound evidences the diffusion of the spirit of the anima technica vacua throughout our culture.

Balthasar was concerned about the amount of television watching in the ’80s.  We can only imagine what he would say about the lives of many young people today who bounce frenetically from their iPods to texting to Facebook.  The Swiss theologian quotes Hans Meier asking, “Whether, in this age of the media, we are handing on a cultural legacy (and a religious faith)” and if not, “whether we will not finally lose, with the lost language, our very ability to hear and see anything at all.”  Recent studies showing how the brain’s neural circuits are rewired in response to the choppy-type of information received from technological input illustrate that Meier’s claim about a lost ability to hear and see might not only be sociological, but physiological as well.  It is that lost ability to hear and see – that lost ability to contemplate – which makes the contemporary situation of the anima techinca vacua dangerous for the Christian.

But my point is not just to lament our current situation or declare that all technology is evil.  Rather, I am interested in considering seriously Balthasar’s question, “Where is the ‘point of contact’ with the anima technica vacua?”  How do we evangelize and catechize in such a world?  It seems to me that the question is one of inculturation.  As the Church has had to wrestle with how to inculturate the Gospel in every new culture that she has encountered, so too does our new technological world possess some qualities of a new “culture” which the Church is encountering.

Some advocate a radical degree of inculturation, saying that the Church must fully adopt all of the new forms of media and technology in order to meet people “where they’re at.”  They say we should even be setting up Catholic “parishes” in virtual online-worlds like Second Life.  Others argue that as in all situations of inculturation, some elements of the former culture must be relinquished in order to follow Christ; in this case, it might be a conscious decision to “unplug” for several hours a day.

Presenting the Gospel in a world of animae technicae vacuae takes on a further level of complexity because of the question of the relationship of form to content.  One must consider not only if certain content of the new technological culture is at odds with the Gospel, but also whether or not the forms themselves are.  Philosophers debate the level to which form and content are bound.  Where one comes down on that question will likely decide his position about whether or not certain forms of the new technological culture can bear the weight of the content of the mystery of the Gospel which they are trying to transmit.

Balthasar asked the question, “Where is the famous ‘point of contact’ with the anima technica vacua?” a bit sarcastically.  We must consider it seriously if we wish to pass on the faith effectively in the new technological culture.

© Vincent L. Strand and Whosoever Desires, 2009.

26 Responses to Balthasar, Baseball, and the Anima Technica Vacua

  1. brettsalkeld says:

    Do keep an eye out for the work of Nadia Delicata. Within a year or two she will be a graduate of Regis College (a Jesuit grad school in Toronto). Her work in this area is fascinating and I expect she will have no problem getting her thesis published. She recently blew away the room at the Theological Anthropology session at the CTSA’s annual meeting.
    Thanks for your thoughts on this extremely important (and generally ignored) topic.

    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

      Thank you. I will keep an eye out for Nadia Delicata’s work. Do you recall the focus of her thesis?

      • brettsalkeld says:

        From what I know, it is basically about how different forms of media determine the way in which people think. An epic poem culture and a newspaper culture and a twitter culture produce vastly different thought patterns, basic presuppositions about reality etc. At least that was what her CTSA presentation focused on. How she links this to other issues, I am not yet aware, but I am confident that she will do a great job. She’s a bright one.

  2. David Nickol says:

    Some slightly random thoughts . . . .

    It seems to me the Catholic Church hasn’t figured out how to use radio, motion pictures, and television effectively, so how in the world can it use the iPod, Facebook, or Twitter? Some people lament that the media give far too much coverage to stories like Michael Jackson’s death, “Octomom,” the Gates-Crowley conflict and “beer summit,” missing children, and so on, but I think the media does this because people want to know, and people want to know because it engages them in questions about ethics and values (among other things).

    It seems to me there is plenty in the Catholic tradition that would be of interest to people interested in “New Age” spirituality. Why let Kabbalah get all the attention?

    Why hasn’t the Catholic Church had a popular television personality since Bishop Sheen?

    A lot is said about the short attention span of young people nowadays, but don’t tell that to J. K. Rowling. What was her point of contact with the anima technica vacua?

    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

      Thank you, Mr. Nickol. You raise some good points, even if I am not quite convinced of your vampire suggestion offered below.

      I, too, think that the Church has much within her tradition that would be of interest to people who turn to New Age. Here I am thinking especially of the Church’s deep mystical tradition and sacramental world view.

      We can only wonder if and when another, although different, Bishop Sheen will emerge . . .

      Rowling found a point of contact. So too have many others, including some within the Church. I think of Pope John Paul II, especially. In other words, it can be done, and many creative initiatives within the Church are witnessing to that at the very moment.

      • brettsalkeld says:

        I think Robert Barron may be the closest thing to Bishop Sheen right now. It will be interesting to see how his profile and influence are affected when his Catholicism project comes out this fall.

        • Jeff Johnson SJ says:

          Agreed. Barron is making a great effort at using the internet and all of its power. I had him as a professor when I was at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago. He was an excellent teacher and an outstanding homilist. I look forward to seeing how the Catholicism project turns out.

  3. joe says:

    The first thing to do in order to answer the question of where to meet such people “where they are” is to answer this question:

    “Where are they?”


  4. Steve says:

    Wow, Vincent. Hope you don’t fall off your so high horse. You might hurt yourself.
    “Empty technocratic souls” I had to look it up, since you didn’t provide a little (translation).
    My goodness, I sense a disconnect between you and the ‘regular’ folks.
    Sure, there’s a lot of dopes around, but if you can’t find that ‘point of contact’ you’re not trying too hard.
    People are dying for the ‘connection’, and the word of God. A glance, a touch, a kind word….
    People in the western world are no different from 1000, 2000 years ago. There’s just more distraction.
    And a fragmented society. Just makes their deep hunger for that ‘connection’ all the more poignant.

    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

      Dear Steve,

      Thank you for your comment. I did not provide a translation of anima technica vacua for two reasons: First, I figured that the first word in that phrase, while Latin, would be known to most of our readers and that the second two words both have common English cognates so that a general meaning could be grasped without a translation. Second, the Latin phrase retains a flexibility in meaning – ambiguity, even – that might be lost in English.

      I agree that people are ‘dying for a “connection”, and the word of God.’ I think that the the term ‘vacua’ begins to convey some of that. Thank you for suggesting things like a glance, a touch, a kind word as a point of contact. These are all excellent, if they are expressions of charity.

      My point in raising the question about where the point of contact lies was not to imply that there is none, but to encourage – in some small way – the Church via our readers to reflect more intently about how we might maximize this point of contact, broaden it if you will. Yes, I too do not think that people are essentially different now than in ages past, but the challenges of presenting the Gospel are different. One of these challenges, I think, comes from technology, despite all of the great benefits it has given to us. As a discerning Church, I believe we have to consider how to meet this challenge, always with love and always with prayer, trusting in supernatural grace more than our natural means.

  5. David Nickol says:

    Here’s a great point of contact: vampires!

    They’re very popular today among young people as well as adults. Vampire stories are all about good versus evil. Imagine a series of novels about an attractive, intelligent, holy (thought flawed) priest — a Jesuit, say — who discovers that vampires are real and that he must fight them. (I see this more as a series for adults, but if there was a young-adult version, the priest would have to enlist the help of his high school class.)

    I’m only half joking.

    I would write this myself, except having gone to a Christian Brothers high school, I would have to make the Jesuit the villain and the vampires the heroes.

  6. David Nickol says:

    I forgot to include the slogan: “An empty soul is better than no soul at all!”

  7. Jim says:

    B 16 says that the point of contact involves the ’empty soul’ meeting a christian living a life of genuine agape. I read a piece this morning about Southern Baptists sending teams of volunteers to Vermont, one of the most secular States, to open churches and to engage people in a caring manner often leading to a discussion of our collective deeper longings. The article expressed surprise at the success they are having. B 16 is calling Catholics to a reconversion, a personal relationship with the Lord. When parishes do this a infectious enthusiasm for a relationship with God can be ingited in the ’empty souls’these parishioners meet. We have a long way to go. Unfortunately the operating system in most so called Catholics is sadly ‘Secular Vacua 101’. We need to hear the call of B 16 to meet the Lord and then let Love move us to thoughtful evangelization.

    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

      Dear Jim,

      Thank you for you comment. I think you (and the Holy Father) are right on. As I note in my reply to Kadiane below, saints inspire sanctity. Before consideration of methods and means, our principle concern must be cultivating a life in friendship with Jesus. When that occurs, God then can use us, frail human instruments as we are, as creatures by which to reflect his grace and divine, Trinitarian love.

  8. brettsalkeld says:

    Jim, was that the one in Harper’s magazine?

  9. Kadiane*francophone says:

    I just don’t think that you were at the right place to evangelise the way you wanted to. But you were at the right place to do it in spirit and in truth. Say hi to your neighboors, smile to them not bcuz you want them to know jesus but bcuz you have to be a LOVING person no matter what. And if you befriend one of them you might know them for several years b4 you have a true christian conversation with them. In the mean time, they will guess how Jesus was just by being around you. In the African country i was born in and leaved in for a long time, believe me, you are not going to get peoples attention when they are watching soccer, no matter if you are in a village or in the city. The difference between there and the USA is that the competition is strong . People are exposed to a bunch of other ways to view the meaning of life that can each be considered a different religion. The problem is most of them are full of lies on purpose. In my country, we are not as much exposed to that so when you speak with someone, most of the time, not always, you can already guess how he thinks and find a ways to explain things. In the USA, people are confused bcuz they don’t even stick to a way of thinking. They mix them all up and they have been exposed to a strong and subtle anti-catholic propaganda. So it takes time. You have to know them better and tackle each of their ways of thinking given they are a little intellectual (ha! ha!). The best way to convince people is still genuine and visible LOVE. The only language everybody understands. Don’t blame it on the technology. Blame it on the numerous competitions of ideas, the lies ….and the lake of lOVE. I have read a lot of catholic blogs from the USA. I can’t believe the lack of love that is displayed when it comes pro life issues and many others. If you pretend you love those you don’t see (the unborn) while you show no love to those you see, you are a liar. It just removes the credibility. Nobody wants to read this blogs to learn about Jesus becuz the authors are not loving for a bit.

    **How can i subscribe to this blog? I can’t find any way to do so.**

    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

      Dear Kadiane,

      Thank you for your comment and for calling us back to love, which is the heart of the Gospel. I think that the Holy Father, too, has been cognizant of that. I agree that a life lived in genuine charity is the best way to witness to the Gospel. Saints are what inspire sanctity.

      As you aptly note, this often takes time. And in patience, we must witness with our lives – sometimes for years – before we speak our words.

      Regarding you first comment, know that I was in no way trying to actively proselytize while at the baseball game. I used the situation at the game as a departure point in my post to enter into conversation about the current situation of our technologically based lives. From there I could then raise the question about how we are to meet these people. My main motivation for writing the post was to leave people thinking about that question.

  10. Jeff Johnson SJ says:

    I’m a bit confused. I take Balthasar’s deep sarcasm as an indication that he doesn’t think a point of contact exists in an empty soul. The point of your post seems to be that we should be doubling our efforts to find the point?!? Can one have it both ways? Balthasar seems tired and confused in this quote. I suspect he would have poopooed the printing press had he been a contemporary of Gutenberg’s.

    Moreover, neuroscientists, had they been around, could probably have shown that the brain was being rewired by the changes brought on by the printing press. Rewiring of the brain’s functions does not necessarily entail loss of ability to “see and hear.” It just means that we will see and hear differently. This might explain Balthasar’s confusion. Perhaps, he’s the one who can neither see nor hear. Perhaps, the ground has moved underneath him.

    As for your baseball experience, I share your experience of going to a summer night’s game and nearly being blasted out of the park by the sound FX. However, I’m nearing 40 and will chalk it up to old age. Calling baseball contemplative is a stretch.

    I think your point is a good one, let’s double our efforts to find the point of contact. However, I suspect we will have to take the blinders off and remove our hands from over our ears in order to do so.


    • Vincent L. Strand, SJ says:

      Dear Jeff,

      I take responsibility for your confusion, as the post was intentionally ambiguous. My primary objective was to raise questions, not provide my own opinions of what the answers might be. These comments, perhaps justly, are causing me to express more of my own thoughts on the questions previously raised.

      My use of the quote from Balthasar should not be understood as my supporting the content of that quote. I think the last paragraph of the post makes the necessary differentiation.

      As I note there, I think we must consider the question about the point of contact seriously. It must be found. If I did not believe that, I would not be blogging.

      At the same time, my personal opinion is that technology, as Nathan notes below, can have deleterious effects alongside of the great benefits it has given to humanity. One such effect is that I believe it can make contemplation more difficult. Here I can only point to anecdotal evidence: I find contemplation (and here I mean more than just prayerful meditation, but instead an overall contemplative posture toward the world) much more difficult if I am spending my days on the computer, listening to music, and talking on the phone rather than, say, working on a farm or studying in a library. My whole frame of mind seems to shift when I am overusing technology. I get ansy. I seem to look for more distractions: another email to check, another song to listen to. Maybe that is just me: as I said, this is hardly irrefutable evidence, but just personal anecdotes. I have, however, found similar trends among young people with whom I minister. For them, becoming more contemplative often means an intentional conversion away from what might be an overuse of technology.

      I am glad to hear (or am I sad to hear?) that my experience at the baseball game has been had by others. Is baseball a contemplative game? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Many ardent baseball fans who wax eloquently about the game’s philosophical and poetic dimensions seem to think that it is. I confess to be a baseball romantic who shares a few of their exaggerated statements, and so my opinion might be skewed. But I do, in truth, find something contemplative in the game of baseball, something that was missing that night in Brooklyn.

      • Jeff Johnson SJ says:

        Thanks for your response. Again, I agree with your main point: find the points of contact, better yet, reach out. However, I strongly disagree with the sentiment that ‘in this day and age’ its harder than ever to find that point of contact.

        As a student of English literature, I cannot tell you how many times, I’ve come across authors bemoaning the status quo and pining for the days of yore when things were simpler. I believe that sort of nostalgia is a sham and a trap.

        Now, I do agree that there are distractions that keep us from the contemplative stance, however, there have always been distractions. I’m not sure farming is the answer to a distraction free environment conducive to meditation. That’s the same sort of reverie the Agrarians alluded to in their poetry. Perhaps visiting a farm, where silence and big skies invite introspection and prayer. My apologies if you are a farmer and know otherwise.

        One more thing. Since, contemplation is only a means to an end (closer union with God) the question might be more helpfully phrased, “How is Jesus reaching out to all people and inviting them to this union with God?” Rather than focusing on the “contact point” within the youths, lets focus on Christ, keeping our eyes and ears open for his action in the world. Examining the youth for contact points could send us down a rabbit hole, how will we recognize a contact point unless we first know Jesus.

        Lastly, I really appreciate your post. It has obviously generated a lot of interest and thought and I’m glad to participate in the discussion.

  11. Kathy says:

    I found this blog quite by accident. O Happy Accident!

    I very much like this discussion and toss in my own simple suggestion that the Holy Spirit will give us the answers we need to find that “point of contact.” He is pretty amazing and often leads in unexpected directions. 🙂

  12. The question is always whether the rewiring is for the “better” or not. Which is a hard one to answer, since it depends on what one’s criteria are. Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster was in the news yesterday for criticizing Twitter. His main concern was that:

    “We’re losing social skills, the human interaction skills, how to read a person’s mood, to read their body language, how to be patient until the moment is right to make or press a point.”

    His criticism is not just of technology, but its deleterious effects. I think he’s right to an extent. Many articles have come out about how Blackberry’s give people a strong sense of importance, to the point that they waste time answering texts rather than doing any actual work. Texting has also has negative effects on attention spans and productivity of work.

    All that being said, I think the main point is that western civilization is founded upon the Socratic method: Go contemplate the forms, and then engage in dialogue. Those are the two foundations: contemplation and dialogue. I think we have gotten very good at the second. Anyone who thinks that Facebook is destroying our capacity for dialogue might want to re-examine. Their argument may work though with contemplation. A contemplative lifestyle is not about spending a lot of time in reflection necessarily. It is an attitude that doesn’t let everything be said that comes to the mind, and that actually has something to say because it has been thought about. That is missing. And that inhibits real dialogue.

  13. Kadiane*francophone says:

    You still have not told me how to subscribe lol.

    • Jeff Johnson SJ says:

      Sorry about that. I’m certainly no expert on this stuff, but I use google reader to subscribe to other blogs. I just enter the URL (address of the blog) into Google reader. I know there are other services like Google Reader out there. Hope that helps.

    • Jeff Johnson SJ says:

      Kadiane, I’ve just put some options in the side bar for signing up to receive this blog. You can click the RSS feed (the orange box icon) or Google or Yahoo. You can also sign up to receive updates via email. Hope that helps. Thanks again for your patience and your interest.

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