Who in the world is Hans Urs von Balthasar?

If you are a semi-regular reader of my blog, you may have already asked yourself this important question! I offer this very brief summary as one “window” to his work. However, it does not go into the details of his biography (including his time with the Jesuits, interaction with Karl Barth or training in German literature), nor does it mention his many other books (including works on prayer, anxiety, Mary, truth, the atonement, Maximus, Christian universalism and many other topics). For an introduction in his own words, you can read his “A Resume of My Thought” which sketches out his project in outline (available at the Ignatius Insight website). Or, for a helpful introduction written from a fairly generous evangelical perspective, take a look at this article by Stephen Garrett (but note that this will probably be the only time I recommend a resource associated with the Gospel Coalition!).

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) is undoubtably one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the past century. He is probably best known for his seven-volume Herrlichkeit (“The Glory of the Lord”) where he sketches out a “theological aesthetics,” drawing not only on the Catholic, Protestant and Eastern theological traditions but an immense body of Western literature and art to interpret Beauty theologically.  So treated alongside Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, Aquinas and Bonaventure are writers like Dante, Charles Peguy, Dostoevsky, Bernanos, Rilke and Gerard Manley Hopkins. (Later on he deals with dramatists such as Shakespeare and Calderon). This interdisciplinary project is thus something of a great synthesis – or, with reference to Balthasar’s love of Mozart, a complex, interwoven “symphony” – which attempts something hitherto untried in Christian theology.

The seven volumes of Herrlichkeit are in fact part of a larger trilogy or “triptych” of works, which explore revelation via the other transcendentals, Truth and Goodness. Hence we have:

The Glory of the Lord (7 vols.) > Theo-phany (aesthetics) > Beauty

Theo-Drama (5 vols.) > Theo-praxy (action) > Goodness

Theo-Logic (3 vols.) > Theo-logy (logic) > Truth

So, importantly, we begin with aesthetics; however, equally importantly, we then must move on to:

Theo-Drama

“If by ‘aesthetics’ we are thinking more of the act of perception or its ‘beautiful’ object, we are succumbing to a static view which cannot do justice to the phenomenon…” (TD 1, 16); instead, aesthetics must “surrender itself” as we move past it to dramatic categories, which help us to perceive the unfolding action of God in history and how that relates to human freedom.

Theo-Logic

This is where Balthasar develops in more detail his concept of truth as a kind of unveiling (aletheia or “unforgetting”) of the mystery of Being, a process which finds its fullness (pleroma) in Christ. Here we can see how Balthasar is, as far as ontology is concerned, something of a “Heideggerian Thomist,” with a unique answer to Heidegger’s famous question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” They share a focus – often neglected in contemporary philosophy – of the importance of the question of Being (Sein).

The trilogy is supplemented by a wide range of other works… Balthasar was a prolific writer.

Theological Aesthetics

Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man… 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. (GL1, 18)

A theology without beauty as the first word will not only be thoroughly inadequate for describing its subject matter (ie. the glory/beauty of God), it will be unable to make a persuasive case for the importance of the Good:

In a world without beauty – even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it – in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it; in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. (19)

This, we might add, is perhaps best read against the backdrop of the twentieth century, where the rich German literary heritage that Balthasar was so steeped in (his doctoral thesis was an overview of German literature entitled “The Apocalypse of the German Soul”) produced the very same nation that would unleash the horrors of the Second World War. In this light, Balthasar’s work on rehabilitating Beauty in theological and philosophical discourse takes on a new urgency.

Seeing the Form

The first volume of “The Glory of the Lord” deals with “Seeing the Form.” Following Aquinas, Balthasar sees beauty as possessing two interrelated aspects:

Form > species/forma/Gestalt

Splendour > lumen/radiance/Glanz

The form that something takes is significant and beautiful insofar as it reveals a radiant splendour, a light that shines through it and out of it which is ultimately divine in origin. In short, the beautiful comes from the epiphanic unveiling of the mystery of being.

So again, form is only beautiful “as a sign and appearing of a depth and a fullness that, in themselves and in an abstract sense, remain beyond both our reach and our vision.” (GL1, 118) We are led to “see the form,” to truly see something as it is, when we perceive both the “real presence of the depths” within an object and the “real pointing beyond itself” (to those depths of being) that it displays.

The sacramental language is hard to miss here – the “real presence,” as in the Eucharist, the way beautiful forms are both signs and instruments of something beyond themselves. Like the sacraments, the beautiful form effects what it signifies (see GL1, 123), in this case the “truth and goodness of the depths of reality,” the mystery of being. Beholding the form in its unity with the depths thus becomes not only an existential but an ‘upward’ theological act of perception.

From the opposite side, God’s ‘downward’ self-revelation is thus (and we can see this developed in Theo-Drama and Theo-Logic) a “genuine unfolding of himself in the worldly stuff of nature, man, and history – an event which in a supereminent sense may be called an ‘appearance’ or ‘epiphany’.” (GL1, 119)

The Analogy of Being

“If everything in the world that is fine and beautiful is epiphaneia, the radiance and splendour which breaks forth in expressive form from a veiled and yet mighty depth of being, then the event of the self-revelation of the hidden, the utterly free and sovereign God in the forms of this world, in word and history, and finally in the human form itself, will itself form an analogy to that worldly beauty however far it outstrips it.” (GLII, 11)

The analogia entis or “analogy of being” is a concept in Balthasar’s theology, which he inherited largely from Erich Przywara. It is intended to prevent us from equating God with Being (onto-theology, the danger of “univocal” language) as well as from the opposite extreme of positing God as totally unknowable (ie. completely unapproachable and incomprehensible to finite categories, an extreme “negative theology” that makes all theo-logy or words about God impossible).

Instead of either of these extremes, Balthasar and Przywara propose (contra Karl Barth) an analogy between God’s “being” and our being, between the heavenly and the earthly. So, there are analogical similarities – we can speak of God’s love, or justice, or unity with recourse to human categories, and these things are true of God. But following the Fourth Lateran Council there is always a maior dissimilitudino or ever-greater dissimilarity between our language about God and God himself. Both God’s transcendence and the possibility of analogical knowledge of the divine are thus safeguarded.

Further, Balthasar sees Christ as the analogy of being in concrete, human form: the concrete universal against which all images of God are measured. “Seeing the form” is thus especially seeing the form of Christ, the Word in human flesh, especially the “cruciform” image which reveals God in human history… as well as causing us to re-think our understanding of beauty. Because of the Incarnation we can know God as “mediated” by the “’sacramental form of the mystery’ (mysterium) of the ‘enfleshed Word.’” (GL1, 120) We thus “ought never to speak of God’s beauty without reference to the form and manner of appearing which he exhibits in salvation-history.” (GL1, 124) Here we can see again how the theological aesthetics “opens up” onto the theo-dramatics.

The “inclusiveness” of Christian beauty is such that it can embrace even sin and hell through the divine “condescension” of the Incarnation. In fact, by assuming human form, God transforms the meaning of human culture, of which beauty (the “aesthetic” in Kant’s terminology) is an integral part. All earthly forms are relativized against the supreme form of Christ, and all theology must proceed from this starting-point.

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