An Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar
by STRATFORD CALDECOTT
source: The Catholic Resource Centre
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Though not invited to be present at the Second Vatican Council, Balthasar was later awarded the prestigious Paul VI Prize for theology, and at the time of his death in 1988 was about to be made a Cardinal by John Paul II.
Through the influence of his ideas not only on the Pope but also on Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, with whom he founded the journal Communio, and on the Catechism of the Catholic Church which later consolidated the teaching of the Council and the postconciliar popes, Balthasar – building on the almost equally monumental work of his teacher, Cardinal Henri de Lubac SJ (d. 1991) – has without doubt helped to shape the form of Catholicism and the direction of its development well into the new century.
It is the purpose of this brief article to introduce some of the themes of Balthasar's work, and perhaps to help some of those who find his writings voluminous and obscure to understand better why Balthasar is nevertheless so important for modern theology and for the Church.
The healing of theology
In the mid 1930s, as a Jesuit novice, the young Hans Urs was studying Scholastic theology at Fourvière, just north of Lyons. He found St Thomas Aquinas interesting enough, but what his professors seemed to have done to St Thomas was so boring that he eventually resorted to stuffing his ears during lectures in order to read something much more thrilling: the writings of St Augustine and the early Church Fathers.
What had gone wrong with theology to make it so boring? Unlike many another who has found it a tedious waste of time, before and since, this particular Jesuit novice set out to discover why. In the course of answering that one simple question, he had practically to reinvent the whole subject.
Theology, Balthasar believed, is supposed to be the study of the fire and light that burn at the centre of the world. Theologians had reduced it to the turning of pages in a dessicated catalogue of ideas – a kind of butterfly collection for the mind. The philosopher Maurice Blondel had warned as far back as 1870 (in his groundbreaking thesis L'Action) of the danger in treating God in this way: "As soon as we regard him from without as a mere object of knowledge, or a mere occasion for speculative study, without freshness of heart and the unrest of love, then all is over, and we have in our hands nothing but a phantom and an idol."
For Blondel and Balthasar the living God, if he is anything, must be supremely concrete; not something abstract, and certainly not a ghostly, forbidding presence with a long white beard. The true God is to be found wherever the "parallel lines" of this world meet, at the converging-point of the common or "transcendental" properties of being that we call Truth, Goodness and Beauty. It is only in Beauty that Truth is good, and that Goodness is true. By losing the sense of Beauty, by closing the spiritual senses that grasp the colours and the contours, the taste and the fragrance of Truth in its radiant body, the theologians had betrayed even the very Master they claimed to serve.
Of course, the word "beauty" in some circles today evokes nothing but a sneer. But there is nothing self-indulgent, luxurious or sentimental about what Balthasar had in mind. The problem is our distorted concept of beauty. Balthasar was not advocating an "aesthetic theology" but a theological aesthetics opening on to a theological dramatics. In the first volume of his series The Glory of the Lord [T&T Clark and Ignatius Press] he made it clear that beauty is not a matter of appearances alone.
"We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love" (p. 18).
Outside the shrinking islands of religious belief maintained by tradition, a culture of self-indulgence and violence has gained an unprecedented hold. Modern man has lost his grip on morality partly because the deepest reasons for being good have been systematically denied him. What Balthasar saw more clearly than anyone else was that the unity of Truth and Goodness in Beauty is evident above all in the very thing that ought to be the subject of theology, but which has been almost completely forgotten by the theologians: the Glory of God, which is incarnate in Jesus Christ.
His major achievement was fifteen massive volumes (in the English translation), in which he gathered together the scattered achievements of the European theological, philosophical and literary tradition around this fundamental insight. By the end of this series theological truth had become once again living, dynamic and glorious.
In his little "introductory" book Love Alone [Sheed & Ward], Balthasar showed how his major works were a way of placing at the centre of theology the simple fact that "God is love" (1 John 4:8). Love, correctly understood in its full cosmic and personal meaning, is itself the Glory of God; it is the essence of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. The whole history of civilization can therefore be read as a history of what we have done and failed to do in relation to the call of divine love within our being and the being of the world.
Throughout his writings, Balthasar very clearly describes exactly what is wrong with the world, the culture, that we have grown up with. But at the same time he states the possibility of an alternative. This alternative culture is based on the awakening of what he calls in the very first volume of the great series (with St Paul and, later, Clement of Alexandria) a "gnosis" or knowledge belonging to faith; the opening of an interior vision that "reads" the world in the light of love. (It was part of the intention of the international review Communio, of which Balthasar was the leading founder, to encourage this re-reading of the culture and the cosmos within the Church.)
Later in the series, in the five-volume Theo-Drama, he employs the eyes of faith to reveal the underlying dynamic of cosmic salvation history, culminating in the inevitable "Battle of the Logos" which drives evil into the open and onto the world stage. It is this vision of the spiritual issues underlying the modern crisis of Christianity and culture that enables him to go beyond the shallow optimism of some of the Vatican II documents to a more profound critique of post-Enlightenment modernity.
The implications of love
It has been alleged that Balthasar had no interest in the question of social or political justice. I would argue that Balthasar is in fact more socially radical than Karl Rahner, and no less so than a "liberation theologian" such as Gustavo Gutierrez. This is brought out most powerfully in an important book called Heart of the World, Center of the Church [T&T Clark and Eerdmans] by Balthasar's foremost American interpreter, the editor of the review Communio, David L. Schindler. But Balthasar's "social theology" can easily be missed if you are looking for something conventionally left-wing. Just as he in a sense reinvented theology, so he reinvented social theology by refusing to separate social issues and ethics from spirituality. His social theology is of a piece with his mystical theology, and it has at least one very practical expression, namely the Community of St John that he co-founded with Adrienne von Speyr.
Balthasar and Speyr believed that the time of the great religious orders and their style of withdrawal from the world was giving way to a time of new communities within the Church that engage more directly with the world in order to transform it. These new types of world community, half way between the religious state and the lay state, became known in Canon Law as "secular institutes".
It was a good thing, Balthasar believed, that the Church no longer wielded the temporal power that had once been claimed by the Popes, and that she had renounced forever the use of force and fear to achieve her ends. Christendom was at times a noble experiment, but it had failed to give clear expression to many of the priorities of the Gospel. The disaster of the Crusades had shown how easily even the greatest of Christians (such as St Bernard of Clairvaux) could be deceived into confusing earthly with spiritual warfare. What was needed now was a new non-violent chivalry, a new kind of consecration in the midst of secular life. That is what his Community of St John was intended to be, and the same thing is of course happening in many other places and forms, as the Holy Spirit moves the Church towards new ways of being Christian and raises up fresh saints and communities as exemplars and agents of change.
Such communities grow out of the Church's communio or "communion" in the one Holy Spirit. Trinitarian love, Balthasar believed, is the only foundation not just for an authentic Christian community, but for the very existence of the cosmos. The world we see around us is the loving gift of the Creator to ourselves, and of the Father to the Son and the Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit. This love is both the source of a true liberation for the human person, and of the respect we need to have for the world of nature in us and around us – a respect which is a necessary condition of being able to study the creation in such a way that it will genuinely become intelligible to us.
St Thomas, adapting Aristotle, had defined God's nature as pure act. This seemingly technical abstraction is totally transformed once we realize that the "act" in question is an act of love. It is therefore an act of seeing, of beholding, of giving (revealing) and receiving (adoring). It is a Trinitarian act; an act involving three Persons in the relationship of Giver, Recipient and Gift. Love is at the heart of being, and its dynamism is at the heart of knowing: it is the "code" that enables us to read the meaning of things.
One more particular application of this insight might be mentioned: an application of relevance to contemporary feminism. There is always a close integration in Balthasar's thinking between seemingly abstract theological conclusions, cultural critique (thus social science) and spirituality. The tradition that God, being "pure act", could contain no trace of passivity had become associated with the tendency in Christian thought to assign a lower place to woman and to the so-called "feminine" virtues.
In modern society, which increasingly values the hard, driving mechanisms of technological progress and economic competition, theology inevitably becomes entangled with the same attitude. According to Balthasar, on the other hand, to receive something from another is not at all a weakness or imperfection, but intrinsic to the nature of what it is to love. If gentleness and openness to others, or "Receptivity", is a feminine virtue, it is also an essential dimension of God. This means that theology is free to revalue the feminine – and the spirit of childhood. Love Alone contains the following famous passage:
"But whenever the relationship between nature and grace is severed (as happens... where 'faith' and 'knowledge' are constructed as opposites), then the whole of worldly being falls under the dominion of 'knowledge', and the springs and forces of love immanent in the world are overpowered and finally suffocated by science, technology and cybernetics. The result is a world without women, without children, without reverence for love in poverty and humiliation – a world in which power and the profit-margin are the sole criteria, where the disinterested, the useless, the purposeless is despised, persecuted and in the end exterminated – a world in which art itself is forced to wear the mask and features of technique" (pp. 114-15).
Rome, October 2005.
MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS BENEDICT XVI
TO THE PARTICIPANTS IN THE INTERNATIONAL CONVENTION
ON THE OCCASION OF THE CENTENARY OF THE BIRTH
OF THE SWISS THEOLOGIAN HANS URS VON BALTHASAR
Lords Cardinals, venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and in the Priesthood, distinguished ladies and gentlemen:
It is with great pleasure that I join you spiritually in celebrating the centenary of the birth of Hans Urs von Balthasar. I had the joy of knowing and associating with this renowned Swiss theologian. I am convinced that his theological reflections preserve their freshness and profound relevance undiminished to this day and that they incite many others to penetrate ever further into the depths of the mystery of the faith, with such an authoritative guide leading them by the hand. On an occasion like this I could easily be tempted to dwell on personal memories, based on the sincere friendship between us and on the numerous projects that we undertook together, in response to the many challenges of those years. The founding of the review Communio, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, remains the most evident sign of our common commitment to theological research. Yet it is not memories that I intend to speak about, but rather the richness of von Balthasar’s theology.
He had made the mystery of the Incarnation the preferential object of his studies, and he saw in the Mysterium Paschale–as one of his works in significantly entitled–the most expressive form of this descent of God into human history. Indeed, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the mystery of God’s Trinitarian love is revealed in its fullness. The reality of the faith finds here its unsurpassable beauty. In the drama of the Paschal Mystery, God fully lives out his act of becoming man, but at the same time he makes man’s action meaningful and gives concrete form to the engagement of the Christian in the world. Von Balthasar saw in this the logic of revelation. God becomes man so that man might experience communion of life with God. In Christ is offered the ultimate truth, the definitive answer to the question that everyone asks himself about the meaning of life. Theological aesthetics, dramatics and logic make up the trilogy in which these concepts find ample room [for development] and principled application. I can testify that his life was a genuine search for truth, which he understood as a search for the true Life. He looked everywhere for signs of the presence of God and of his truth: in philosophy, in literature, in religions, always managing to break through the circuitous reasoning that often holds the mind a prisoner of itself, and opening it up to the horizons of the infinite.
Hans Urs von Balthasar was a theologian who placed his research at the service of the Church, because he was convinced that theology could be defined only in terms of ecclesiality. Theology, as he conceived of it, must be joined with spirituality; indeed, only in this way could it be profound and effective. Reflecting on precisely this aspect, he wrote: "Or did scientific theology only begin with Peter Lombard? Yet none dealt more adequately with matters of theology than Cyril of Jerusalem, Origen in his homilies, Gregory of Nazianzen and the Areopagite, the master whose works are so full of the spirit of awe and wonder. Who would be so bold as to say of any of the Fathers that his works are ‘full of unction’ in the modern sense? In those days, men were clear as to how theology should be written: it should reflect both the unity of faith and knowledge and an attitude of objectivity allied with one of reverence and awe. Theology was, when pursued by men of sanctity, a theology at prayer: which is why its fruitfulness for prayer, its power to foster prayer, is so undeniable" (The Word Made Flesh: Explorations in Theology vol. I, Ignatius Press 1989, pp. 207-208). These are words that prompt us to reconsider the true position of research in theology. The demand for scientific method is not sacrificed when theological research is carried on in a religious spirit of listening to the Word of God, when it is alive with the life of the Church and shares in the strength of her Magisterium. Spirituality does not attenuate the work of scholarship, but rather supplies theological study with the correct method so that it can arrive at a coherent interpretation.
This concept of theology led von Balthasar to a profound existential reading. Accordingly, one of the central themes that he liked to dwell on was demonstrating the necessity of conversion. The change of heart was a central point for him; indeed, only in this way does the mind free itself from the limits that prevent it from drawing near to the mystery, enabling the eyes to fix their gaze upon the face of Christ. In a word, he had grasped profoundly the fact that theology can develop only with prayer that recollects the presence of God and relies upon him in obedience. This is a road that is worth traveling to the very end. It allows us to avoid one-sided approaches that can only lead away from the goal, and it safeguards against following fashionable trends that fragment our interest in what is essential. The example that von Balthasar has given us is, rather, that of a true theologian who in contemplation had discovered a consistent course of action for giving Christian witness in the world. We remember him on this important occasion as a man of faith, a priest who, in obedience and in a hidden life, never sought personal approval, but rather in the true Ignatian spirit always desired the greater glory of God.
With these sentiments, I encourage all of you to continue, with interest and enthusiasm, your study of the writings of von Balthasar and to find ways of applying them practically and effectively. I implore the Lord to send abundant gifts of understanding upon you and upon the work of the Convention, and as a token of the same I impart to all of you a special Blessing.
Vatican City, October 6, 2005
POPE BENEDICT XVI
TAIZE IN THE YEAR OF FAITH