Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

My Photo
Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Discovering Von Balthasar for Passiontide

Station at Saint Paul-without-the-Walls

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:

"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."
Read the rest here and click here for more Balthasar articles online.

May St Paul pray for us on our journey into the heart of Christ, the mystery of the Cross.


Blogger Cynthia Nielsen said...

Excellent post! Thanks for noting the availability of the on-line article by Walker.

I love the following about Balthasar:

"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."

Warm regards,

p.s. I've added your fine blog to my "links of interest."

10:12 pm  
Blogger Boeciana said...

Yes... But have you come across Lux in Tenebris: The Traditional Catholic Doctrine of Christ's Descent into Hell and the Theological Opinion of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Rome, 2005), the doctoral dissertation of Alyssa (Lyra) Pitstick? Am told it blows big scary holes in von B.. Richard John Neuhaus gives it a wee write-up in the latest First Things. Sounds to me like there is much to worry about in von B...

1:36 pm  
Blogger Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

It is surely a gross overstatement to say "there is much to worry about in von B..."

That's a lot to worry about, given Balthasar's prolific output!!

Balthasar's position develops and when people accuse him of universalism, they do so unjustly. Moreover, to reduce his ideas to simply universalism is an even more gross injustice.

I have to say, if Von Balthasar is such a danger to theology, or as worrisome as you'd claim, why do you think Pope John Paul II would make him a (non-electing) cardinal? Theologian-cardinals are normally created because as a papal seal on their theology taken as a whole. Moreover, Benedict XVI also lauds this man as a theologian and has (somewhere - I forget where) cast doubt on those who would accuse Balthasar of universalism, heresy etc.

Finally, let's not forget that even St Thomas Aquinas was variously charged with heresy etc by his detractors in his lifetime and after his death.

Let me put it this way: what do you think is at risk in Catholic theology if one were to accept what you perceive to be Balthasar's opinions?

3:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Br Lawrence.
Balthasar's flirtation with Origenistic apokatastasis was clearly a somewhat playful speculation, which he entitled _What May We Hope_ (Was durfen wir hoffen?), more modest than the ET title. The center around which his theology revolves, moreover, is the infinite goodness of God, the stunning beauty of which motivates docility to God's will, thus divinizing assimilation to God, in which our happiness and telos lies.


5:51 pm  
Blogger Tom said...

That's a lot to worry about, given Balthasar's prolific output!!

Not necessarily.

Suppose there are six things to worry about in Balthasar. That may sound like a lot (or not quite enough, depending on your perspective), but how many things would there then be to not worry about in Balthasar? How many things to celebrate? How many things that people now take for granted that they wouldn't have ever thought of if not for him?

Personally, I think several of his speculations are unsound, but then they're speculations, so in a sense they're allowed to be unsound. Also, I'm more likely to come across his unsound speculations, since there are twice as many people writing about them than about his sound speculations.

And, extrapolating from my own experience, I suspect some of the resistance to Balthasar as a whole is caused by certain of his devotes who take his every speculation as Gospel truth, perhaps especially those others regard as big scary holes.

9:20 pm  
Blogger Br Lawrence, O.P. said...


My original statement, taken in its context, is meant to be sardonic and not to be taken as a quantifier! Is humour not possible in theological discourse?

It is also meant to highlight that to say there is "so much" to worry about is an overstatement and this ought to be acknowledged. As the Pope himself says, there is so much more to learn from Balthasar and the pessimism that surrounds Balthasar is misplaced and frankly, irritating.

What we have here is the work of a fine theologian who strives to serve the Truth, loves Christ and wants to work within the Church and the Magisterial tradition. God knows how few Catholic theologians of this calibre there are, so we ought to read him, learn from him and discern that which is good and contributes to the growth of the Church and our holiness.

While debate is good and to be encouraged with regard to Balthasar's work, I fear far too much has been said and too little read. As such, people repeat rumours of Balthasar's views and perpetuate myths and build straw men. Alleged Origensianist Universalism is one such myth.

To my knowledge, Balthasar's work has never been investigated or even suspect in the eyes of the Holy Father, so why do self-appointed vigilantes think they know better?

I take your point on "unsound speculations" but I really think one ought to read more of his oeuvre and get a sense of the whole picture... As for the unsoundness of the speculations, I have yet to receive one single reply from anyone: what do we risk losing in orthodox Catholic theology, faith, morals, belief if we were to accept any so-called unsound speculation?

Finally, I have said to someone who emailed me privately on this issue: no theologian should be set up as an idol. Only Christ has the Gospel truth and this is mediated by His Body, the Church. Our trust, our hope, our reliance is in Him; none other. Devotees of any theologian, be it Aquinas or Rahner or Balthasar or Augustine, who hold every word that comes from them as the fullness of the revelation of the Truth are wrong to do so.

Each theologian brings a perspective that helps us to understand our faith better. Working within the Church, their work, inspired by prayer (hopefully), is a gift to us to help us know God better, ponder his Mysteries and to grow in holiness. To limit oneself to any one or even select group of theologians is to spurn the rich diversity of Catholicism.

Thank you for your comment and I hope this rather frank reply of mine clarifies my views and strength of feeling on the matter.

11:19 pm  
Anonymous Iris said...

Regarding the question, "what do we risk losing in orthodox Catholic theology, faith, morals, belief if we were to accept any so-called unsound speculation?"....

Well, it depends, of course, on which unsound speculation we consider.

Balthasar's alledged universalism would not be the only possibility. That topic only comes up tangentially in the dissertation referenced by Boeciana (Lux in tenebris). The dissertation--there are a few copies around and Fr. Neuhaus writes that Eerdmans will have it out soon as a 'real' book--focuses rather on Balthasar's theology of Christ's descent into hell. Because the mysteries of the Faith are all interconnected, the author argues that to change the doctrine of Holy Saturday in any significant manner (as Balthasar does) has ripple effects on all other doctrines. And she gives evidence, too (maybe too much), most notably of the impact on Christology, soteriology, and Trinitarian theology.

So, because morals reflect beliefs, we could conclude likewise that accepting any "unsound speculation" would, in fact, have grave consequences for "theology, faith, morals, belief." And one of the ways to tell that something is really unsound, and not just "so-called" is to look for those consequences.

10:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Baltasar himself says that his theology of Holy Saturday is central to his work. So if the central point of his work is rotten, then while he may say other interesting or inspiring things, they are only true by chance (speaking sort of technically).

10:15 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home