Discovering Von Balthasar for Passiontide
At Rome the Station was held at the great basilica of St Paul's on the Via Ostia outside the walls of the City, built over the tomb of the Apostle to the Gentiles by the emperor Constantine in 324. It was almost wholly destroyed by fire in 1823 but it was rebuilt and consecrated in 1854. To my mind, it is the most beautiful and serene of the four papal basilicas in Rome and a fitting monument to my baptismal name-saint. On this day in the Roman Church, the second Great Scrutiny for catechumens was held, when candidates for admission to baptism were examined, hence a large church was needed for this Station. The choice of so great an apostle and fisher of men, is entirely apt and felicitous.
Considering the fact that many people call St Paul the first Christian theologian, I would like today to draw our attention to a theologian who, like St Paul, consistently preaches the love of God in Christ Crucified and who is a key figure in the renewal of Catholic theology in our day when so much of contemporary theology has become an academic exercise - often devoid of prayerful contemplation and thus soul-less.
To my delight, a friend of mine in Canada and my brother novice both expressed very recently a growing interest and love for the writing and ideas of Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905 - 1988). This great theologian is one I have been discovering for a good number of years now, one whose ideas challenge and attract me by their sheer beauty and profundity as well as the stark radiance of the Cross. I began with 'A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen' and little did I imagine that this little book would be the first steps on my theological journey with such an accomplished and fascinating guide.
I have known seminarians who dismiss Balthasar because of a perceived flirtation with 'universalism', lecturers who are experts in Rahner but fail to read any of Balthasar's corpus of writings and others who denounce him as an ivory-towered aristocratic dogmatician and thus lackinng in 'relevance'. And yet, Balthasar is and remains one of the last century's most fascinating and prolific theologians, even the greatest 20th-century Catholic theologian. Reputedly Pope John Paul the Great's "favourite theologian" and also beloved of Pope Benedict XVI, I think there is a growing surge of interest in Balthasar, especially as more and more of his many writings are being translated from German into English, thanks to the wonderful Ignatius Press. Reading the late Holy Father's encyclicals and as I read Deus Caritas Est, I could not help but notice the glimmer of Balthasarian influence on the writings of these pontiffs.
Only last October, on the occasion of Balthasar's birth centenary, Pope Benedict said of him: "I think that his theological reflection maintains intact, to this day, a profound timeliness and leads many to penetrate ever more in the profundity of the mystery of faith, held by the hand of such an authoritative guide... The example that von Balthasar has left us is rather that of an authentic theologian who had discovered in contemplation the coherent action in favor of Christian witness in the world. In this significant circumstance, we remember him as a man of faith, a priest who in obedience and hiddenness, never sought personal affirmation, but full of the Ignatian spirit always desired the greater glory of God."
But many people may feel intimidated by such a giant of theology. And yet, his writings are not inaccessible, despite their poetic and mystical style. The Balthasarian Trilogy on the theological aesthetics is a huge amount of theology to digest and presupposes a sound grasp of philosophy and Western culture; but one need not start here, or even necessarily look into it. Balthasar himself said that "the aesthetics is a fragment among other fragments... Perhaps the shorter books provide a better view of the whole than this meandering work".
So as we approach Passiontide, my mind often turns to Balthasar's shorter but magnificent work, 'Mysterium Paschale', which is, in my opinion, one of the most profound reflections on the kenosis of Christ, the depths of the love of God revealed on the Cross and the meaning of Holy Saturday. Dr Andrew Louth has called this book "a concise introduction to the very heart of Balthasar's theological vision." Cynthia Neilsen has blogged on this book if you want a taste of it and hopefully, you will want to obtain a copy to read yourself.
In addition, I would recommend articles in Communio, the international theological review founded by Balthasar with Ratzinger and De Lubac. In its current issue, there is an article by Adrian J. Walker which I would highly recommend, especially if one is interested in beginning a relationship with Balthasar's theology. It is available online and it is called 'Love Alone: Hans Urs von Balthasar as a Master of Theological Renewal'. Below is an excerpt from this article which contextualizes Balthasar and his way of approaching theology and situates him within the school of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, leading to the much-needed renewal of Catholic theology and theologians:
Read the rest here and click here for more Balthasar articles online.
"Contrarily to what it may seem at first, then, the crisis of Catholic theology today boils down to a conflict between two and only two possible first principles: experience or divine revelation. Or, to be more precise: between the logos of what John Milbank calls “secular reason” or the logos contained in divine revelation itself. This contest, it is important to see, is an unequal one. Of the two alternative principles, in fact, divine revelation has the greater integrative power: it can comprehend all that is true in “secular reason,” whereas the converse is far from being the case. Recognizing this poverty of mainstream liberal theology, with its captivity to the secular social sciences as the oracles of all-judging experience, a growing number of voices on the English-speaking Catholic theological scene have begun to call for what William L. Portier has felicitously termed the “re-theologization of theology.” These theologians have found confirmation and support in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who, contrarily to the stale clichés propagated endlessly by the media, have not been conservative “restorationists,” but faithful expositors of Vatican II’s attempt to reawaken in the Church a living awareness of its all-embracing catholicity—not on the basis of liberal cosmopolitanism, but on the basis of Christ who, in revealing the Father, also reveals man to himself (see Gaudium et spes, 22)...
A re-theologized theology, if it is to measure up to the Christian tradition it claims to recover, must go beyond the opposition between Christian uniqueness and universal relevance that both liberal and post-liberal theology assume, in order to re-learn that the distinctive principle of theology is itself what is most universally relevant, “so that holy teaching,” as Aquinas puts it, “is a sort of impression of the divine knowledge, which embraces all things in its simple oneness.”
With that we come to Hans Urs von Balthasar, whom I would like to propose in the following pages as a master of theological renewal able to teach us how to re-theologize theology without sacrificing its hallmark claim to speak to universal human reason. To be sure, Balthasar clearly distinguishes himself from most other contemporary Catholic theologians by the radical consistency of his commitment to starting theology from, and letting it be normed by, the uniquely Christian revelation of God’s trinitarian love in Christ."
May St Paul pray for us on our journey into the heart of Christ, the mystery of the Cross.