Skip to content

Against Being Holistic

Some of my favorite theologians to read are grand synthesizers who are capable of building conceptual systems of theology that are very beautiful things indeed to explore, linger, and wander about in. Two that come immediately to mind are Hans Urs von Balthasar and Thomas Torrance. Balthasar in particular is one of the greatest examples of holisitic thinkers. His thought is one of the grandest intellectual projects in all of theological history encompassing the breadth of Western philosophy, theology, and literature.

What I find most alluring about Balthasar is the degree to which his theology offers and answer to virtually everything. Balthasar’s system is able to incorporate almost any objection, perspective, insight, or particularity. It accounts for almost everything in advance. This is what makes is beautiful, impressive, and alluring. And I think it may be his greatest weakness.

I am becoming more and more convinced that there is a sort of inadvertent quest for totality at work in the thought of many theologians who put forth such aesthetic, holistic projects. David Bentley Hart strikes me as another recent example. There is a sort of Promethean longing in many theological projects for a holistic metadiscourse that is able to seamlessly situate both contesting perspectives and complimentary insights, accounting for them in advance from within. The attempt to be holistic and comprehensive in theology often mask a covert desire for conceptual neatness and security.

This is not to say that I am not impressed with or have no sympathies for these projects. They are, in fact some of the greatest pieces of theology I have read. The problem I have, or at least the lingering question I have about them concerns the degree to which they strive for a sort of premature closure that shuts out the possibility of being unsettled and disturbed by what may be discovered in the course of the theological task. The questions are all too often settled in advance. This is the haunting problem of such metatheologies. Beneath the gothic arches of these beautiful systems lurk the ghosts of forgotten voices, neglected witnesses, elusive protests subtly silenced. The quest for a holistic theology, then, is something that is suspect. To what degree does our longing for a holistic theology mask a sort of methodological Constantinianism that grasps after conceptual closure and wants to foreclose the possibility of dissonance and dislocation?

Too often I fear that theologians’ agendae are centered more on the desire to rule out disruptive difference that to cultivate the sort of Christic dispositions that would enable us to welcome such disruptions as divine gifts. The theologians’ task is not, then, to construct holistic systems that are able to situate and account for all contesting voices and challenges. Rather, the theological task is to call the church to the kenotic posture of self-dispossessive openness to the Word of God in Christ which always lies beyond us, welcoming us in the insecurity of promise, trust, and hope–the en via life of the pilgrims.


  1. David wrote:

    This reminds me somewhat of a comment Rahner once made on precisely this aspect of Balthasar’s theology:

    “If we were to behave as if our being Christian gave us a ‘world-view’ in which everything fits together harmonically, we would, in the end, be set­ting ourselves up to be God. This is because the whole of reality is a sym­phony only for him. To make pluralism into a symphony-as good old Balthasar does-a symphony that we can hear as such: this is funda­mentally impossible.”

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 1:40 am | Permalink
  2. bobby grow wrote:

    What your points conjure in my mind is scholastic theology, and its constant search for ‘coherence’ . . . can’t leave anything dangling.

    I agree, there are ‘intentional’ tensions in scripture, which I think your post on John illustrates. Maybe the LORD speaks the loudest in ‘the gaps’.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 2:29 am | Permalink
  3. Peter wrote:

    But if we are establishing a christian world wiev on a picture of God that flees our concepts, then there should also be room for disruptions and disturbances. Or? Maybe this was not the case with Balthasar, but my point is that we still could have a “holistic” theology without “reducing the other to the same” . It all depends on how we describe God.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 4:17 am | Permalink
  4. freder1ck wrote:

    I’ll just say that there’s a difference between seeking meaning in every circumstance and forming a system out of preconceptions. The first is to be catholic and adventurous; the second is to practice the idolatry of the system which Balthasar never tired of rejecting. From where I stand, I see many risks that Balthasar took as well as certain failures which he left for others to resolve.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 4:51 am | Permalink
  5. Beneath the gothic arches of these beautiful systems lurk the ghosts of forgotten voices, neglected witnesses, elusive protests subtly silenced.


    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 7:51 am | Permalink
  6. Nate Kerr wrote:


    I wonder about the relationship of such projects to the metaphysical primacy of ontology.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 8:08 am | Permalink
  7. J. R. Miller wrote:

    I believe what you are discovering is that an infinite God can not be fully encompasssed by the mind of Man.

    Good theology must embrace mystery and paradox without explanation.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 8:17 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Nate, I’m sure there’s a connection there. We should talk further about that. Feel free to comment more on this if you have time.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  9. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Great post, Halden. I think this is why everyone needs to read more Rowan Williams.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 10:01 am | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, he’s obviously behind most everything I wrote here.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 10:02 am | Permalink
  11. Mark wrote:

    RE: Rahner and Halden

    It is precisely because there is a harmony, a symphony, in created reality, corresponding to uncreated reality, which God knows, that we can work to achieve this holism — that is, approach it, not presume to “grasp” it without remainder (and I don’t think von B thought he did). Von B, in fact, did incorporate a fair amount of sub contrario dialectic (no doubt from his study of Luther, Kierkegaard, Barth, et a.), but, yes, he was consciously working against making it into its own totalizing norm — which, I’m afraid, is what Halden is doing.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  12. Kevin Davis wrote:

    Sorry, that last post (RE: Rahner and Halden) was from me, not Mark. I was logged into his account. Oops.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Kevin, clearly I think that Balthasar was not trying to create some sort of totalizing system. The question is whether he does this inadvertently at points.

    And I think it is an open question whether “creation” as we know it is something that can be unproblematically described as a symphony. The Shoah seems to suggest that any such easy description is deeply problematic.

    I think it is vital that we insist that all reality created by God forms a symphony but equally that we cannot hear, know, or be certain of its symphonic wonder until all is accomplished. Everything depends on the end that lies before us, which we hope and pray for.

    But that isn’t even the point. The point is how easily we get to the point of presuming that we are already in a position to hear, understand, and explicate the fullness of such a symphony. As if we occupy a position from which we could apprehend the totality of its harmonies and understand them. That is the danger as I see it.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 4:53 pm | Permalink
  14. Hill wrote:

    This seems to be related in some way to the Meno problem. If the world is a great symphony that we cannot here, or put otherwise, the fundamental structure of creation is beyond our grasp, how is it that we can know even this? There must be some sense in which we grasp the symphonic character of creation “through a glass darkly” so that we know that we do not fully grasp it. In other words, the status of our knowledge of such things isn’t as simple as either we do or do not hear the symphony.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 5:12 pm | Permalink
  15. Kevin Davis wrote:

    Yes, I agree in the dangers you point out. I just stand with von B in supposing a greater ability on our part (“as we know it”) to apprehend the coherence of reality. I think we’re dealing with a matter of degrees, and your understanding is, shall we say, a little on the suspicious side. And obviously I’m not getting this from just this one post but from many of your other posts. We need thinkers like you (and Myers, Congdon, etc.) who approach things in this manner. I have, however, cast my lot with some sort of holism, dangers be damned! You may be interested: if you go to my blog, I have a post on von B relating to this issue. God bless.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 5:16 pm | Permalink
  16. freder1ck wrote:

    holism is essentially code for Catholicism: cata holos…

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 6:37 pm | Permalink
  17. Following up on my response post to this, and just out of curiosity, how would you see Augustine with respect to this “lingering question”? He’s not exactly a holistic theologian like Aquinas or v.B. (my old professor liked to say Augustine was jazz to Aquinas’s baroque), but he does eventually get around to talking about almost everything just out of the sheer volume of his occasional writings.

    Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 10:34 am | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    Brian, I would certainly look favorably on Augustine’s mode of theologizing. I think he represents the sort of “ad hoc” methodology appropriate to resisting systematic closure in a great way. I would say the same about Barth.

    Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  19. Hill wrote:

    I think this is an important tendency to avoid, but I think there’s a temptation to deploy it as a rhetorical weapon sometimes. It’s all to easy when met with an extensive and compelling alternative to a position one holds to accuse the other person of promoting a totalizing theology. Just because something is expansive and compelling doesn’t mean it’s totalizing. I don’t think it’s helpful to accuse either von Balthasar or Hart of this charge, at least without very very specific evidence. A good example is Milbank, I think a lot of his detractors would accuse him of a totalizing system, but if you look more carefully, he is explicitly ad hoc and loose around the edges at times. Arguments have to be advanced as positive claims sometimes, but I think as a community of theologians, we owe each other the charity of assuming the best in those instances. It would add quite a bit of text to read if every sentence had to be prefaced by an extensive qualification against a totalized reading of what was to follow. Any theologian worth reading realizes that an anti-totalizing force is at the heart of Christian theology (perhaps uniquely so). I think heart employs this in his treatments of post-modernism.

    Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 1:38 pm | Permalink
  20. Hill wrote:

    The older I get, the more likely I am to spell things phonetically. It’s actually quite frightening. Should say Hart in the last line.

    Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  21. Halden wrote:

    Wouldn’t the phonetic spelling of Hart actually be…Hart?

    Hope I didn’t make you more frightened.

    Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 4:57 pm | Permalink
  22. Hill wrote:

    Touche… yeah the phenomenon is actually more complex. Words get cataloged phonetically in my brain and then deployed randomly on that basis.

    Saturday, September 27, 2008 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  23. Tony wrote:

    Halden, learned ignorance is the thing, not ignorance turned into virtue. It is perplexing sometimes, when you comment on von B, that you advert to the aesthetics while conveniently forgetting the dramatics and the theological logic. As for the image of a symphony, well, Rahner, if he truly said what David says he did (no reference given to the quote), obviously failed to understand von B. In that image, Balthasar wanted to highlight that beautiful music is actually produced by the struggling of different musical instruments against each other. Each musical instrument is different, and each sound is different, but there is a score (von B. often considers Scripture like a musical score that invites performance to be properly and correctly understood), and the struggle of the instruments against each other COULD issue in beautiful music. A thinker such as Walter Ong truly appreciated this image for example. Rahner’s pluralism on the other hand seems to promote cacophony: noise, and there is much that is cacophonous in/to modern theologies. Pluralism, instead of the plurality that von B wanted to promote, makes a virtue out of our present cacophonous situation and therefore seems less critical than what is admitted with plurality.

    Monday, September 29, 2008 at 6:40 am | Permalink
  24. andrew wrote:

    I am not much of a theologian and have been studying a lot of literary theory recently so I come at this question from a somewhat different angle and am resigned to the idea that I am totally out of my element as I post this (also many of the literary theorists and great writers I admire dabbled and even excelled in theology so I am okay with being right now and then too). In literary theory it seems that every new theory enters the world as a rejection of previous theories. Everything is defined (and I would cast the blame on the scientific theory for starting this trend) by what it is not. I would love for a sensible holistic literary theory to be posited but it hasn’t and may never exist. Theory has reached the point of specialization so that it may be more exact in defining meaning and understanding. I feel that this is a grave flaw because the act of specializing our focus is also the act of rejecting all other foci. The very few great minds who can absorb the vast amounts of data and are able to communicate their findings in an understandable way are truly a blessing from God. Yes we should question panaceas but is that what holistic theology proposes. Perhaps we should allow those who are able to think with the blinders off to attempt to tell us what they see so that we too may glimpse the whole picture.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 1:05 am | Permalink
  25. Byron wrote:

    “I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” – Nietzsche, Twilight of the gods, §26.

    Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 6:32 am | Permalink
  26. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    Nate said: Halden:

    I wonder about the relationship of such projects to the metaphysical primacy of ontology.

    I’d like to hear more about this too. As I struggle to understand Brevard Childs, the issue of ontology keeps popping up. The unity of Scripture is “ontological” and the task of theological exegesis is to push “through” the text to this reality, which is a unity. This doesn’t automatically mean that we end up with the kind of systems Halden attributes to Balthazar, however, as the move is always dialectically: from text to reality and back again. Nevertheless, some kind of dogmatic statement needs to be made along the way, one upon which we can stake our lives (I see this as a weakness of Brueggemann’s).

    Friday, October 10, 2008 at 8:10 am | Permalink
  27. Phil Sumpter wrote:

    If Christ is the substance of sripture, some kind of holism is necessary. We can’t refract the diversity of the text into the Godhead itself (again, as Childs claims Brueggemann does). We should always be striving for some kind of holism, while constantly looking back to where we came from, while liviing with the willingness to be judged by God himself in the process.

    Friday, October 10, 2008 at 8:14 am | Permalink

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. “Holistic” Theology and Receptivity « rain and the rhinoceros on Friday, September 26, 2008 at 11:56 am

    [...] Theology and Receptivity September 26, 2008, 2:56 pm Filed under: Uncategorized In a recent post Halden critiques what he calls the “holistic” tendency in some theological projects. If [...]

  2. Brian Hamilton » Against being fragmented on Friday, September 26, 2008 at 3:34 pm

    [...] is obviously something right about Halden’s stand against closed systems and his warning against theologies “centered more on the desire to rule out disruptive [...]

  3. Towards Holism « After Existentialism, Light on Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    [...] was led to these thoughts when reading a recent post by Halden of Inhabitatio Dei: “Against Being Holistic.” In this finely-written short reflection, Halden questions the projects of von Balthasar, [...]

Switch to our mobile site