Menu
A+ A A-

An Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar

  • STRATFORD CALDECOTT

It is increasingly clear that the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (d. 1988) is among the most lastingly significant theologians of the twentieth century. It is the purpose of this article to introduce some of the themes of Balthasars work.

balthasaar.jpg
Hans Urs von Balthasar
(1905-1988)

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).
dividertop

Acknowledgement

Stratford Caldecott "An Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar." Second Spring.

Reprinted with permission of Stratford Caldecott. Second Spring is the new international journal of the Centre for Faith & Culture, published in association with the G.K. Chesterton Institute. A feast for the Christian imagination, it is our response to the call of Pope John Paul II for a "new springtime of the human spirit" in the twenty-first century. With two issues per year, in Spring and Autumn, Second Spring will contain articles, features, reviews, poems, interviews and news on subjects ranging from art to science, from theology to economics, from history to spirituality, from liturgy to social justice. Written in a lively and accessible style, in the tradition of John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and Christopher Dawson, Second Spring is attractively illustrated throughout. A special introductory subscription is £6 ($12 in the US) for two issues, including surface postage and packing.

This article is based on 'The Social Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar', which is to appear in Volume V of The Catholic Social Science Review, extracts from which are reproduced with permission. The Society of Catholic Social Scientists publishes The Catholic Social Science Review annually. Contact Dr Ryan J. Barilleaux, Dept of Political Science, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio 45056.

The Author

Stratford Caldecott is the editor of Second Spring and of the forthcoming online review Humanum (for the John Paul II Institute in Washington, DC). He is Director of the Centre for Faith & Culture in Oxford, England (for the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in New Hampshire). A Fellow of St. Benet's Hall, Oxford, he is the author most recently of Beauty for Truth's Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education (2009), a book about the Liberal Arts and Christian cosmology. Stratford Caldecott is also the author of The Seven Sacraments: Entering the Mysteries of God, Secret Fire: The Spiritual Vision of J.R.R.Tolkien, Catholic Social Teaching, The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind the Lord of the Rings, and Beyond the Prosaic: Renewing the Liturgical Movement. See his Beauty for Truth's Sake blog here.

Copyright © 2001 Stratford Caldecott
back to top