Westminster Seminary California
Book Review: Theology and the Drama of History by Ben Quash
Book Review: Theology and the Drama of History by Ben Quash

Ben Quash, Theology and the Drama of History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005, xiv + 235pp. $34.99.

Ben Quash’s goal in this work is to help theology identify resources for thinking about history. His argument is that a “theodramatic” conception of history is the best model for a theological view of history. Primarily, Quash engages with three dialogue partners: Hans Urs von Balthasar, G. W. F. Hegel, and Karl Barth.

Theodramatics “concerns itself with human actions (people), temporal events (time) and their specific contexts (place) in relation to God’s purpose” (p. 3-4). These three central concerns are also referred to as the cast, the stage, and the action. Essential to a theodramatic view of history is the eschatological insight that the historical process has its origin and end in a God who relates personally to His creatures. One of Quash’s major concerns in supporting the theodramatic model is the preservation of creaturely freedom in the midst of the totality of the historical process. A theodramatic theology will have the resources to think about the interrelation between subjects and structures in history with wisdom and insight. Further, a theodramatics offers better resources for categories for viewing “the truth of creaturely life before God than other genres” (p. 25). In other words, theodramatics offers a better grammar for interpreting and evaluating history.

Quash posits that since we are already in the middle of the drama we can only attempt the read the drama “from the middle.” Since we are invested in our experience we cannot assume some perspective above or outside of the drama. In other words, there is no view from nowhere. In fact, the truth of drama is only accessible from the middle. Quash writes that if we hope to gain an insight into the truth “we must not try to step out of it, but must be drawn into it more deeply” (p. 34). This is where dramatic categories are helpful. Drama is “involving, particular, social, and anticipatory” (p. 37). The forward-moving nature of drama corresponds to God’s action in history because the “self-revelation of the living God also has to do with ‘what-is-going-forward’” (p. 37).

In order to better understand drama, Quash sets up a contrast between dramatic, epic, and lyric voice. Both Hegel, and von Balthasar following Hegel, argue for the superiority of drama over other forms of poetic voice. The epic voice “militates against the involving unframeability of drama” while lyricism “denies the discursive, embodied sociality of drama” (p. 39). In other words, the epic perspective tries to maintain a detached objectivity while lyricism, on the other hand, is stuck in introverted subjectivity. A dramatic view of history resists both dangers of the epic and lyric voice. We do not have a total picture of the drama of history nor are we isolated individuals walled off from a particular context. We are inside the drama and we must “read the world from the middle” (p. 28). Quash correlates the involved nature of drama to the biblical writers: neither Paul nor the evangelists attempt to report on events of which they were not involved. Yet modernity claims a single and total vantage point. Rather than trying to read from the middle, modernity attempted to read from a detached and decontextualized viewpoint. Quash argues that a dramatic approach to history resists the modern temptation to remain detached and uninvolved with the world. Therefore, Quash suggests that a “theological dramatic theory could offer a corrective to massive trends in modern thought” (p. 51).

Hegel understood that the free choices of individuals can only be realized in the context of the State. For Hegel the spirit of the nation mediated between individual consciousness and the universal Spirit. Therefore, Hegel praised the disposition of “indifference,” which allows the individual subject to be “shaped and called forth into service by the substance of the world Spirit, via the mediation of life in a nation State” (p. 59). Modifying Hegel, von Balthasar argued that the Church rather than the State ought to be viewed as the concrete manifestation of divine revelation. Only in the Church is unity achieved between individual particularity and the divine will. Therefore, following Hegel’s idea of “indifference,” von Balthasar posits that the attitude at the heart of the church’s existence is one of “pure consent; self-abandonment; loving obedience” (p. 72). However, there is a danger that the attitude of “indifference” may gravitate towards giving precedence to the context rather than the individual subject. Quash states that this actually occurs in Hegel’s thought as the shaping context overwhelms the individual subject. In Quash’s view, Hegel’s dialectic “stifles the contingent, ‘poetic’ creativity of thinking subjects and of God” (p. 105). In the end, Hegel’s account of drama is marked by epic undertones and leaves little room for the freedom of individuals. Noting Hegel’s tendency towards an easy synthesis, Quash proceeds to trace how von Balthasar distances himself from Hegel’s thought. Von Balthasar does this by emphasizing the divine glory which illumines the drama and breaks in upon human life. Von Balthasar takes a theological stand against Hegelian immanence by insisting on the living God “who is free to reveals himself unpredictably in the concrete events of the world’s life” (p. 110).

After contrasting Hegel and von Balthasar, Quash proceeds to examine the thought of his third dialogue partner, Karl Barth. According to Quash, Barth’s theology reveals some of von Balthasar’s weaknesses, especially his Hegelian tendencies. On the other hand, von Balthasar criticizes Barth’s theology for its lack of sensitivity to historical contingency and for lessening the importance of creaturely integrity. Von Balthasar is “the advocate of a far more radical existential irresolution” ( p. 125). Yet Quash finds significant problems in how von Balthasar views drama. Quash argues that von Balthasar is often an irresponsible reader who succumbs to theoretical reduction and has a tendency “universalize” and “Christianize” the interpretation of texts (p. 145). In his reading of Euripides, Shakespeare, the story of Job, and the New Testament, von Balthasar simply fails as a reader. In contrast to von Balthasar, Quash seems to favor both Barth’s reading of Job, and the way Barth viewed the relation between obedience and freedom. According to Quash, Barth’s theology is a lot less “epic” than von Balthasar made it out to be.

In the penultimate chapter, Quash notes that Von Balthasar’s theology is incomprehensible apart from an understanding of his use of analogy. Quash asserts that von Balthasar used analogy to counter the Hegelian emphasis on identify. Analogy preserves the “unbridgeable difference between Creator and creature which identity suppresses” (p. 167). The doctrine of analogy leads to the claim that all of human experience is unframeable due to God’s “Godness” and surplus. In his discussion on analogy, Quash examines the famous debate between Barth and Erich Przywara over the analogia entis. It is a mistake, Quash argues, to understand the analogia entis as a concept that presupposes a common term between Creatorhood and creaturehood. Instead, analogy ought to be understood as positing an ordering between Creator and creature. Therefore, building on the concept of analogy, von Balthasar recommends seeing the drama of our life as a correspondence to the divine life. Due to God’s surplus, the “attitude of looking outwards to the ‘always more’ is primary in human being” (p. 180).

In the final chapter, Quash deals extensively with a Gerald Manley Hopkins poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, and insights from Rowan Williams to supplement the theodramatic model bequeathed by von Balthasar. In this chapter, Quash states that the task of a theodramatics is to find the legibility of God in historical events (p.198). In this task, Hopkins is especially insightful. Hopkins’s poem is not a total explanation of a historical event but instead focuses on “the particularity of this event with absolute seriousness and thoroughness in relation to Christ” ( p. 194). Rather than imposing his idea of God onto the situation, Hopkins is attuned to the contingencies and particularities of the actual event. Hopkins is to be commended because he “does not allow a pre-formed Christian explanatory framework to be set up as a sort of platform above the event, from which he can peer down at it” (p. 207).

In this work Quash has produced a thorough, engaging, and critical account of a theodramatic approach to history. Quash shows himself to be a careful reader of not only theologians and philosophers but also poets and dramatists. Quash states clearly that a robust theodramatics will respect and pay serious attention to both the particularities of individuals and of contexts. A theodramatics will always attempt to read events from “the middle” and in relation to a living God who is active in history.

Reviewed by Micah Throop, MAHT 

11 / 22 / 2011