Love Alone: The Way of Revelation by Hans Urs von Balthasar

(London; Compass, 1968) (originally published in German, 1963)

I take a big breath as I start this post: this is the core text for the first section of my thesis project and I’ve now read it three times and made pages and pages of notes! Eventually I’ll need to write 25,000 words responding to it in one way then another (before I write another 55,000 words taking the concept in my own direction) but for you, dear readers, this is a special ‘sneak peak.’

In Love Alone, von Balthasar proposes that love is not just the content of Christian revelation – John 3:16 (God so loved the world); 1 John 4:8 (God is love); Deut 6:5/ Matt 22:37/ etc (love the Lord your God…and your neighbour…); and so on – love is the way of revelation.

Love is the how, the how we know, the how we know it and the how we make sense of being human.
Love is the methodology, the step by step process, the hermeneutic and epistemology of that knowledge which we hold at the core of our being.
Or, to quote a now classic Australian phrase, “it’s just the vibe of the thing”!

Here’s a quote from a book:
‘just as in love I encounter the other as the other in all his freedom, and am confronted by something which I cannot dominate in any sense, so in the aesthetic sphere, it is impossible to attribute the form which presents itself to a fiction of my imagination. In both cases the ‘understanding’ of that which reveals itself cannot be subsumed under categories of knowledge which imply control. Neither love in the freedom of its gratuitousness, nor beauty, since it is disinterested, are ‘products’ – least of all of some person’s need. To reduce love to the level of a ‘need’ would be cynicism and egoism; only when the pure gratuity of love has been recognized can one speak of it in terms of fulfillment. To dissolve the magic of beauty into some ‘truth’ that lies behind or beyond the appearance, is to banish beauty altogether and simply shows that its specific quality has never been felt.’ (p.45)

In the earliest centuries of Christian theology a cosmological method was the pathway to God-logic – we hypothesize about God through what we know of the natural world. In recent centuries, culminating in the high liberal Protestantism of von Balthasar’s era, an anthropological method has predominated – we hypothesize about God through what we know of human nature. Now, however, the time is ripe for a ‘Third Way’ – the way of love. What we know about God we know because of and through the experience of love.

“Love can only be perceived by love”, argues von Balthasar. So if Christians want to claim that the content of the Christian message is love, the container of the message must also be love, otherwise it cannot hope to communicate effectively. This is all the more important for Christian theology because we seek to make known God who is Love – not just in action but in essence. But it’s also the postmodern medium is the message thing.

There are several connections that I will make with von Balthasar’s work and the broader disciplines of philosophy and theology. I apologise if I’m lost in PhD language, but I’ve tried to be as plain as possible – a great discipline for my academic writing!

First, in focusing on love as a form of knowledge, I hope to address the postmodern skepticism about universal truth without dissolving the unique contribution of any single perspective. When we love another person, we love them for the ways that they are different to us, as well as the ways that they are the same. When we love another well, we help them to become all that they are uniquely capable of being, without diminishment of our own uniqueness. I think ‘truth’ works in this way. It is not absolutely relative, but neither is it one-dimensional. In conversation, the goal should be open to the ‘truth’ of the person before us, without diminishing the ‘truth’ of our own selves.

Second, specifically in relation to Christian theology, if the Christian gospel is to retain its distinctiveness in a pluralist environment, Christ must remain at the centre. Love enables us to do that, for in the particular form of Christian revelation, Divine Love enters the realm of human logic via the incarnation of the Word of God who is Love. So, Balthasar suggests a modified approach to pluralist integration: loving (learning from) other others should not diminish ourselves. Ideally, love builds up both parties in the conversation.

Third, love deconstructs power. The notion of love challenges subconscious assumptions about hierarchy in human relationships. Is it possible to couple racism, sexism, ageism or any other kind of -ism with the word love? ‘Love can, a priori (and thus as faith), only be in agreement with love – not with non-love.’ (p.68) There is no love without vulnerability, and there is no vulnerability without recognition that we are finite, fallible and fragile!  So the only question left is how do we respond to vulnerability? Focusing on love uncovers the strategies we use for coping with the anxiety of difference. Love as knowledge sits deep within the human psyche, often as subconscious knowledge but is fundamentally responsible for our motivations in theological discourse.

Finally, love is a kind of pre-cognition. We all ‘know’ what love is, but poets and philosophers have yet to come up with a satisfactory definition. Like ‘beauty’ it is a wondrous mystery that we grasp at and for but recognise clearly when we encounter it.  My 6 year old knows nothing of romantic love as I do, but does that mean we cannot have a conversation about it?  My friend Shan had an arranged married, my friend Alice had a terrible marriage, but does that mean we do all intuitively recognise what the love of a good husband is like?  Love then, can act as a kind of ‘avatar’ – a symbol which might allude to meaning rather than empirically define it and refer to a vast array of related but non-identical experiences for which the commonality is that we refer to by the same linguistic concept.  I am absolutely fascinated by this idea and it’ll form the middle section of my thesis.

The final section of my thesis will outline how love might be used to describe a certain methodology for public conversations about God, religion and ethics. That is, when the starting point is that we all start from different points, how on earth do we find our way to a shared vision for our community? I think that ‘public theologians’ (I do have a Public Theology scholarship for this thing!) have an important prophetic role to play in public discourse, not by the content of our message, but by the way we enter into conversation with others with respect for difference, but confidence in our own experience.

There is a lot to like about von Balthasar, but there is also stuff not to like:  he has a skewed idea of gender and in the end, love for von Balthasar is very heavily conceived in terms of self-sacrificial obligation which diminishes the one who is loving.   Lots of feminists won’t have a bar of him,  but I think Luce Irigaray can redeem him!

So there it is, what I will be spending the next 2 1/2 years trying to sound convincing! Wish me luck.

One thought on “Love Alone: The Way of Revelation by Hans Urs von Balthasar

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