Christopher Steck, S.J.'s THE ETHICAL THOUGHT OF HANS URS VON BALTHASAR is work of impressive scope and scholarship. Steck constructs a vision of von Balthasar's ethics from what is implicit in THE GLORY OF THE LORD and THEO-DRAMA. This ethics has commonalities with "divine command ethics" which have "traditionally [been] viewed as antithetical to Catholic moral commitments." (p.1) Steck, however, argues that von Balthasar's use of theological aesthetics can answer the critiques while broadening the scope of natural law ethics. Thus, Steck claims that von Balthasar's work offers a truly Catholic contribution to the recently called for renewal in Catholic ethics.
Critiques of "divine command ethics" concern safeguarding the integrity of the human realm in response to divine will. Steck's task, then, is to show how theological aesthetics can inform behavior that is simultaneously obedient and free. He argues that the beautiful, because of its gift quality, evokes a free and active, though obedient response from the subject. The beautiful object claims the subject's attention. In turn, the subject is obedient - she "lets herself be formed and molded by this object's claim to intrinsic worth and value." (p.28 ) Chapter two places these insights into a theological context. Von Balthasar's "theo-dramatic aesthetics," wherein the Christian "beholds the drama of Christ's story aesthetically" (p. 34), is ultimately an offer of participation in the Trinitarian dynamics. Christians, when responding in faith to God's glory in the Christ event in dramatic form as tragedy, are actually "incorporated into the life of Christ and thus informed into his praxis." (p.46)
Chapter three explores more explicitly the vertical (divine) components of von Balthasar's ethical system. Steck effectively argues that von Balthasar's use of Ignatian spirituality and his concept of accepting Christ's mission preserve human autonomy, freedom, and promote human fulfillment. For Ignatius, giving oneself to God is receiving oneself. Moreover, the story of Christ is an identity-constituting offer. Christians find themselves in the story and receive their unique missions. Steck's fourth chapter addressees the horizontal or intra-human aspect through the tension between the Christian particularism associated with divine command ethics and the concern for moral universalism found in traditional Catholic ethics. Steck argues that von Balthasar's "commitment to the covenant, which requires the relative solidarity and autonomy of creation and the full agency of the human subject within it," (p.94) tempers the emphasis on Christian particularism. Steck uses nature and grace debates in Catholic theology and dialogue with Barth to show that creation, the neighbor and situations, though graced and transfigured by Christ, remain autonomous in some ways. Thus, they are able to "mediate God's covenental relationship with humanity" (p.121) in such a way as to have meaning for all human beings.
Finally, Steck explicitly argues that von Balthasar's theological aesthetics balances the vertical and horizontal dimensions described in the previous chapters. He uses the concept "attunement," an idea found in Iris Murdoch's and von Balthasar's thought, to show how the subject becomes "the type of person who 'sees a world in which the calls of the good can be heard.'"(p.127) Since this seeing also implies action, Steck argues that Murdoch's ethical theory can inform von Balthasar's thinking "it can be used to 'ethicize' the Christ encounter." (p. 128) The hidden being of God becomes perceptible in the Christ-form as mediated in other persons, Church, Scripture and the world. Christians, when responding in faith to the object, the "vertical" Christ-form as it appears in the concrete loci of the human realm (the "horizontal"), see as Christ sees and act as Christ acted. Attunement as this heightened "seeing" is not merely an intellectual exercise or one that draws the Christian into an otherworldly mysticism. Rather, it brings the person's whole being into relation with the divine and thus continually draws him or her to fulfillment or perfection as he or she constantly confronts the concrete Christ-from in daily life.
Steck's masterful construction of von Balthasar's ethical theory, without even addressing how it might contribute to a renewal in "truly Catholic" ethics, is itself an impressive achievement. Steck goes further, though, and successfully develops a Balthasarian ethics based in theological aesthetics where obedient human action in response to the "Christ-Form" weds the vertical and horizontal elements. In doing so, he convincingly answers two main critiques: 1) systems having commonalities with divine command ethics emphasize "the opposition between the divine and human," (p.2) and 2) the problem of moral universalism or relevance to those who are not Christian. To the first critique, Steck makes it exceedingly clear that human response to beauty, although drawing one "ek-statically out of his or her previous existence" (p.1), is such that freedom is preserved and the subject forms a self-fulfilling distinct identity in his or her unique mission. To the second critique, Steck also makes it clear that for von Balthasar, reality, though graced, maintains its autonomy as a rational order with attendant moral norms.