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