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Worst Theological Problem Meme: Hans Urs von Balthasar

A Guest-Post by Fred from Deep Furrows

I’m a student of literature and not a theologian, but Hans Urs von Balthasar has had a extensive influence upon my adult life. Criticizing Balthasar is difficult for several reasons: 1. he was broadly and profoundly educated in Western culture as a whole, much more than I or any other; 2. he thinks symphonically, so revising one part in the score impacts everything else; 3. he wrote at a time of intense theological ferment, so the critic has to remember that his theology is part of a larger conversation. I cannot even begin to criticize Balthasar on these terms.

The biggest difficulty for me is how to be critical of Balthasar without substituting my own limited measure for his; that is, how can criticism become an opening to greater and deeper reality and not merely an exercise in affirming my own prejudice and opinion?

The first work of criticism is to look clearly at the object in question. This past weekend a brief conversation with a friend clarified the issue for me. A reader, writer, and teacher of fiction, she expressed a strong distaste for Balthasar’s theologizing of fiction. I suddenly realized that the value of Balthasar’s writings is not for fiction or the arts – instead, the value is for theologians, whose discourses have become too narrowly preoccupied with building theoretical systems. Balthasar opened the dusty ivory tower of theology to human experience in the forms of poetry, music, history, and more.

With this insight, I would offer some criticisms of Balthasar, but more of his theological reception and my own reading.

1. Balthasar does work that extracts key theological themes, often drawing on literary and cultural critics (he also did plenty of first-hand work, but his was a massive undertaking). As literary criticism, Balthasar’s books make great theology. Being a student of literature, I must remember the richness of literature beyond these themes. To impose these themes on literature a priori is to reverse Balthasar’s great adventure.

2. A related point is that to read great literature one needs great humanity, a humanity that is stunted if one replaces reading literature with the theological commentary it inspires.

3. Balthasar writes from Europe, and so he properly takes a European perspective. He notes that he was incapable of broadening his Theological Aesthetics to other cultures and noted that Asia would be especially “important and fruitful” (Vol I, p 11). As an American, I have an American perspective which of course includes England, Europe, Asia, etc., in addition to America.

4. Even Balthasar’s reading of selected European works must be complemented by further theological work which draws upon human culture. If this doesn’t happen, then Balthasar’s opening of theology to human experience as expressed in culture lapses back into abstract theoretical discourse. The Ressourcement series from Eerdmans has made several great works that inspired Balthasar available in English (most beautifully Charles Péguy’s splendid poem, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope).

5. Balthasar frequently lamented the lack of serious, significant creativity in the contemporary West. Of itself, Balthasar’s work doesn’t inspire a renaissance, but only indicates it.

6. What I say here comes from my experience that Jesus Christ renews and deepens my humanity, but also that tenderness for my humanity makes me receptive to Christ. Your mileage may vary.

An earlier, more lopsidedly positive, evaluation of Balthasar by me can be found here: Why I love Hans Urs von Balthasar

16 Comments

  1. Scott wrote:

    I also think that Pitstick’s criticism, which was inspired by Saward’s re-thinking of Balthasar, has to be taken seriously. This critique must force those of us who love Balthasar to grapple the reality that he never really got over the universalism he imbibed in his early, original work, on Origen. This does not preclude Balthasar as a master expositor of the Traditionbut it does diminish his stature. This is a systemic error in his thought.

    Beyond that, it would be nice to Balthasar be translated across cultures. An inability to do so will also result in his diminishment. After all, look at Rahner and, among Protestants, Barth.

    Wednesday, June 13, 2007 at 2:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Regardless of whether Balthasar is somewhat at variance with the Tradition, I think he’s theologically right on the money, even in his “universalism.” Pittstick, in my view operates with quite and ultra-conservative account of “orthodoxy”.

    I guess Pittstick’s citique, even if correct doesn’t mitigate any of my own appropriation of Balthasar in that I am a protestant! :)

    Wednesday, June 13, 2007 at 4:43 pm | Permalink
  3. Fred wrote:

    Scott,

    The example of Origen is especially instructive. Some of Origen’s enthusiasts, lacking his genius and nuance, took one phrase of his and used it to build a wall of presumption against human freedom. Origen himself has been rigorously re-examined by Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and others – so much so that Benedict XVI recently devoted not just one, but two Wednesday audiences to this early Christian maestro and doctor. God forbid that what was done by the devotees of Origen should happen again with partisans of Balthasar.

    For Balthasar, the task of the theologian happens within the Catholic Church and he always placed it under the sign of her authority. So, the challenges of Pitstick, Saward, and others play a necessary role in the examination of his work (although I suspect that overall they’re wrong). The morality of a theologian is not so much determined by what doctrines they hold, but by what relationships they honor: the relationship with Christ above all and then with the Church and everybody else for the sake of Christ.

    To speak from my experience again, I would add that the ideal Christian is not the person who understands the most or the best theology, but instead is the person who restlessly seeks the face of the only One who can satisfy man’s soul.

    Fred

    Wednesday, June 13, 2007 at 7:20 pm | Permalink
  4. Scott wrote:

    I agree that Pitstick’s approach in her book is far too prosecutorial. However, I am not sure what you mean by right on in his univeralism. Balathsar himself recognized a tension as regards this. Fr. Oakes, in his disputation with Dr. Pitstick in First Things and on the First Things’ blog makes a lot of good points about the rather unnuanced nature of Pitstick’s prosecution, but a number of points remain. Again, I think what Fred hints at in his post, namely the question of whether Balthasar can be translated across cultures, or is an exclusively European thinker is a good test of his thought, which is best characterized as systems and not system, like his aesthetics, for which is most widely known and heralded.

    Wednesday, June 13, 2007 at 8:13 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Ahh, I misunderstood what you meant by ‘universalism’. I thought you were referring to his “Dare We Hope that All May Be Saved” stuff. Yes, I think Balthasar could very well be critiqued for being a bit too inmeshed in European intelligensia.

    Wednesday, June 13, 2007 at 9:04 pm | Permalink
  6. Scott wrote:

    Fred,

    Great insights. I understand that Origen was misunderstood and that the misunderstanding, at least initially, goes back to lacking sources. I love Benedict’s audiences on the Church Fathers. Like everyone else I was surprised and gratified that he devoted two to Origen. Nonetheless the idea of apocatastasis does comprise part of Origen’s understanding and any attempt to dismiss this concern too quickly is bound to fail. As for me, I see this flirtation as a useful tension in Balthasar’s thinking and writing, a tension that culminated in “Dare We Hope . . .”. As with all theologians, especially one, like Balthasar who, Fr. Oakes has written, heaved up a mountain chain of theology, a critical examination is necessary. Insofar as she has begun a critical examination of Balthasar’s work, Pitstick has done a service. Again, I do not like prosecutorial tone of her work or her rush to the judgment that Balthasar was, at a minimum, a material heretic, nor do I agree with her conclusion, but maybe she’ll have the effect of being agent provocateur.

    I am not sure what you mean by the morality of a theologian. If it is something as simple as saying they write in good faith and whatever problems there might be are not intentional, I agree. This is certainlly true of Balthasar, who’s anthology of Origen’s writing, “Origen: Spirit & Fire,” has as its epigraph Origen’s quote about being above all a man of the Church. As one who truly understood the ecclesial nature of theology, Balthasar certainly was a man of the Church.

    I also agree that knowing the most theology is not, at the end of the day, what necessarily makes the best Christian. For me we live in an anti-intellectual age, especially among Christians. The One whose face we seek said we are love God with all our heart, might, mind and strength. If we restlessly seek the One who can satisfy our soul within the Church, which we must do, then doctrine and it exposition matters a great deal. I can’t neatly separate affectivity and intellect.

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 6:05 am | Permalink
  7. Fred wrote:

    A couple of comments:

    I don’t consider Balthasar’s love of Europe to be problematic in itself, for him. As a European, that’s what he knows best and he doesn’t stoop to multiculturalistic dilettantism. I would clarify also, that the exciting adventure is not to translate Balthasar to other cultures, but instead it’s to listen for the beautiful echoes of the Logos-made-flesh in the humanity of Asia, America, etc. That’s what Balthasar did in his collection of Theological Styles – he discovered a Christian pluralism that could not have been anticipated before it happened.

    This is my experience: it is unreasonable to apply theological concepts to life willy-nilly. Instead, I want to be open to reality in all of its breadth and intensity. The life of a river is not the banks which ensure its continued existence, but the water that rushes toward the ocean. It is not anti-intellectual to put logical reflection, theology, in its place – as secondary to the power of God and lived experience.

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 8:12 am | Permalink
  8. Scott wrote:

    “but instead it’s to listen for the beautiful echoes of the Logos-made-flesh in the humanity of Asia, America, etc.”

    Not to be too nitpicking, but isn’t that what it means to “translate Balthasar to other cultures”?

    “It is not anti-intellectual to put logical reflection, theology, in its place – as secondary to the power of God and lived experience.”

    I agree, but the above statement seems to either create or perpetuate an artificial distinction, an unncessary separation, that is alien to Balthasar. Theology, logical reflection, faith seeking understanding, is part-and-parcel of the lived experience of God. I would say that a theology is only a theology insofar as it seeks to communicate “the power of God as a lived experience.” This gets back to the necessity of theology being an ecclesial undertaking.

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 8:40 am | Permalink
  9. Fred wrote:

    Scott,

    What you take for granted as alien to Balthasar was by no means obvious to theologians in the time immediately before him. And it’s not that obvious now to theologians or to others. Too often people (me) apply ideas to reality (like an idealistic template) instead of letting reason be impacted by reality…

    It’s possible to turn Balthsar’s method into an abstraction by walking the road he walked toward human experience in the opposite direction, by reading literature narrowly through the lens of theology. I’ve done it; I’m still doing it; God save me from it!

    And I speak primarily for myself. As I noted above, your mileage may vary.

    Fred

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 12:50 pm | Permalink
  10. Scott wrote:

    Thanks, Fred. By no means do I want to be antagonistic. I like what are doing very much. I can’t tell you how much your expositions on ‘On the Road” meant to me. I (think) I finally understand what you are getting at in your second paragraph and could not agree more about resisting the urge to read literature through a narrow theologial lense.

    Please keep in mind that my background is as a student of Philosophy. As Steve Martin, a fellow Philosophy student, once said, “The problem with majoring in Philosophy is that you remember just enough to completely f*** up for the rest of your life.” In other words, at least in my case, love of wisdom should never be confused with possession of wisdom.

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 12:57 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Don’t worry, you don’t have to *** your cussing on my site. I’m an antinomian to the core!

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  12. Scott wrote:

    Thanks, Halden. I also apologize for probably seeming to exclude you. I love your site. I plan to visit often. In fact, I am trying to finish an assignment on Collaborative ministry, but the Moltmann post has me tempted.

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Umm, no apology necessary! I’m just happy to see conversation on my site. Glad to have you.

    Thursday, June 14, 2007 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  14. Tony wrote:

    You say: “Balthasar writes from Europe, and so he properly takes a European perspective. He notes that he was incapable of broadening his Theological Aesthetics to other cultures and noted that Asia would be especially “important and fruitful” (Vol I, p 11). As an American, I have an American perspective which of course includes England, Europe, Asia, etc., in addition to America.” Sorry, but I just can’t understand how your “American perspective” INCLUDES “England, Europe, Asia, etc.” I am from Asia, but i would never dream that my Filipino perspective INCLUDES Asia, much less the rest of the world… If I remember right, what Balthasar said was that his writing was “all too mediterranean (read: Jewish-Semitic and Greek-Roman)” and that he was inviting others to complete the fragments that his own writings, presumably, fragments too, but coming from Asia, Africa, the Americas (north and south), etc…

    Friday, December 21, 2007 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  15. freder1ck wrote:

    Tony,

    Thanks for your response!

    Speaking as an American, Walt Whitman said “I am large, I contain multitudes.” What I would say here is that the American experience is founded upon a broad confluence of traditions including Europe, Africa, Asia, etc. That is not to say that America exhaustively speaks for Asia, merely that the traditions and histories of Asia have informed America from almost her earliest days.

    In the total context of my post, such a statement merely suggests distinct advantages of reading Balthasar in American circumstances. In fact, I was thinking precisely of Word and Silence by Fr. Raymond Gawronski SJ (which I haven’t read). No doubt, in the Philippines, you would have other advantages, no less distinctive.

    The main point of my post has been to point out that Balthasar’s true brilliance was his method of re-opening theology to the breadth of human experience embodied in culture. And that the best way to learn from him is to cultivate such openness to humanity and culture ourselves and not work exclusively within the framework and concepts he explored. So, do you have a response to this central claim, or are you content to critique the arrogance of my sweeping Americanism?

    Sincerely,
    Fred

    Saturday, December 22, 2007 at 1:26 pm | Permalink
  16. Tony wrote:

    Dear Fred, peace!

    On the need for openness to humanity and culture, advocated by you and Balthasar, I have no quarrel and am in fact in perfect agreement. Now I get what you mean how “American” could include Asia as well (in so far as American culture is a bit of a melting pot. I have no problem with that either. I just want to enter a caveat though at this point. One of Balthasar’s criticism of his fellow Europeans is their penchant for Buddhism. His criticism has to do with the fact that Buddhism arose out of an Asian, in fact Indian, historical, social and cultural context that Europeans do not have, and therefore their appropriation of Buddhism is in fact stunted, shallow and artificial. This is compounded by the fact that Europeans are now largely ignorant of the richness of their own past, the breadth of their own traditions. I think this is a fair criticism. And it is a criticism that COULD BE APPLIED to your own “Americanism”. In my view, the Asian as assimilated into your American culture is no longer Asian, but a transformed reality. Which is just fine. There is a need to be careful therefore about whether that kind of assimilated Asianness could still be termed “Asian”. In my view, it is already “American”, whatever that means. I guess I am advocating a certain kind of reticence when it comes to speaking for the other, without a prior consideration of how that other understands herself. I make no claims for example to speak for all of Asia. Asia is such a huge reality that there is no one way of understanding or defining it. There is a common humanity, certainly, but how that humanity is understood and defined could take on a thousand and one colors and hues. Cheers!

    Sunday, February 10, 2008 at 2:50 am | Permalink

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