Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction by Karen Kilby

(William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Grand Rapids, Michigan/ Cambridge, U.K.; 2012)

This is easily the best introduction to von Balthasar that I’ve read.  Even better, there are two, 20 minute youtube clips with Karen talking through much of the key elements of the book!

part one

part two

The first thing to note is the very reassuring assertion that von Balthasar is a difficult theologian to get one’s head around: phew!  I wasn’t going crazy after all!  It’s not that his work is difficult to read, but rather there is so much of it, laid out primarily as persuasive writing rather than systematics, so it takes a lot of work to get a sense of the whole accurate enough to commence critical reflection.  Hence, many readers of von Balthasar tend to be uncritically embracing or uncompromisingly rejecting of him as a theologian.

Kilby starts her introductory navigation of von Balthasar by offering a context for reading his work which, I concur, is critical because there is much that is unique about his life underwritten in his theology.  First, he embraces the challenges of post-war Europe, with its wave of new thinking and being.  It is an era negotiating the collapse of Enlightenment optimism and the emergence of existentialism together with the global economy.  It is also an era of massive institutional change – both secular and sacred.

Second, he was undoubtedly a brilliant man – a concert standard pianist with a brilliant memory; he devoured music, literature and theology in German, French and Latin, translating and publishing many of his favourite works.  Not only this, was a creative, entrepreneurial man and a free thinker: he created ‘new’ pathways of theology and philosophy by synthesising the extensive resources he had at his disposal.  Like any genius, I suggest that von Balthasar begins an epoch changing work rather than handing over a completed thesis, because such significant work can never to achieved in isolation.

Third, Kilby draws our attention to three relationships von Balthasar had which exerted a significant impact on his writing: with Henri de Lubac, Karl Barth and Adrienne von Speyer.  De Lubac situates von Balthasar as part of the ‘new theology’ (nouveau theologie) movement of the second half of the twentieth century which focussed on returning to early church fathers (ressourcement). His relationship with Barth draws our attention to von Balthasar’s engagement with theology and philosophy beyond his own Catholic house.  Von Speyer, whom von Balthasar spoke of as his equal partner in the theological task, reminds us of his deep commitment to theology as spiritual experience.  This relationship with von Speyer however, was exceedingly complex and justifiably controversial.

In the next two chapters, Kilby offers us central images which permeate von Balthasar’s writings.  They are not a ‘key’ as such, like ‘the Word’ might be spoken of as the key to Barth’s writings, but they are ways of conceiving and articulating reality which von Balthasar returns to again and again.  The first of these chapters explores the complementary images of ‘The Picture and The Play’; seen most clearly in his conception of a theological aesthetics and theo-drama.

Secondly, ‘Fulfilment and the Circle’ are images not quite so straightforward to identify but no less significant.  Kilby is referring to von Balthasar’s habit of arguing: on the one hand this, on the other hand that, but now this.  I think this is more of a Hegelian indebtedness than Kilby emphasises in this volume, but that does not discount the truth of her claim, that this is a way in which von Balthasar’s supreme intellectual arrogance – something most brilliant thinkers seem to share – gets the better of him.  It ends up reading like: ‘at first theologians thought this, then they thought this, but now I’ll tell you the whole picture: this is how it really works!’

Similarly, von Balthasar’s confidence is expressed in the declaration of a ‘kernel’ of truth, a centre, the core from which many other insights and truths radiate out of or in towards.  Kilby describes this as like a child’s drawing of a sun; a circle with lines of sun-rays drawn outwards at various angles and extensions.  Aspects of ‘truth’ point towards a whole (because they emanate out from the whole) and very often we know only the individual lines.  But if we follow them we eventually arrive at the kernel, that which is wholly true.  This is an image which reflects something of my own emerging theological method, if the centre piece is left free and untameable.  However, Kilby convincingly argues that von Balthasar fails to refrain from naming the unnamable.  That is, he claims to know too much, even though his very own theological model directs him to do otherwise.

Von Balthasar’s inflated ego ends up infiltrating the content of his theology.  Hence, as Kilby presents von Balthasar’s ideas on the Trinity and on Nuptual Theology in the fifth and sixth chapters of this introduction, we begin to see there there is an element of over-reaching in his theological conceptualisions.  For example, the cross is a Trinitarian event – von Balthasar articulates the relational nature of the godhead beautifully, but when he starts to explain how that makes The Father (in this instance) feminine in relation to Christ, we really do need to suggest he has overcooked the dish! Unfortunately, if we are to follow in the footsteps of von Balthasar, it needs to be a case of taking from what he says, when it comes to theological method, rather than what he does.

For those of you who want to engage deeply with von Balthasar, I highly recommend Karen Kilby as a starting point.  She is both succinct and balanced, making her very easy to read, which this excerpt – the final three paragraphs of Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction demonstrate.  I agree with her up till the last point: I do think that von Balthasar has something to teach us about how to be a theologian, but not as a guru.  Rather, we can learn from him as a supreme example of doing theology in a particular way, (integrating spiritual experience, rational thought and faithfully reading and referring to the Tradition, both scripture and church from the centuries) but like all of us, he is flawed and his insights are partial.

     Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology has over the past few decades attracted a great deal of scholarly attention, and he has come more and more to be presented as a major theological guide for our time.  If the argument of this book is correct, then one must conclude, first, that the attention he has been given has indeed been justified, but second, that the notion that he might be a great guide, something like a Church Father for our age, has not.

The scholarly interest that Balthasar’s writings have provoked is amply justified by the rich creativity of his thought.  His writings break in many ways with our familiar theological categories; often he points towards fascinating new possibilities.  We have not come to the end of exploring what his work makes possible, of receiving what he has to give, of thinking through where the lines of thought he begins should lead.  Attention to Balthasar needs to continue.  But, if I am right, it should be combined with a certain wariness, a readiness to question him, to wonder how he knows what he seems to know, to ask where he stands so that he can tell us what he wants to tell us.

A recurring theme in Balthasar’s work, as we have seen, is the relation of the whole to the part, the whole to the fragment.  In essence what I am proposing in this book is that Balthasar in fragments is important and worth pursuing, for there is much to learn from, to borrow, to think about, to develop.  But when one tries to follow Balthasar as a whole, to treat him as one’s theological guide, as a contemporary Church Father, then he in fact becomes dangerous.  If there is much to learn from Balthasar, the one thing in my view one ought not to learn from him is how to be a theologian.

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.

‘Love in Prayer’ by Adrianne von Speyer

(extract from chapter 9, ‘Love and Fruit’ in Adrianne von Speyer, The World of Prayer (Ignatius Press; San Francisco, 1985))

Right now I am in the midst of reading nothing but Hans Urs von Balthasar for my doctoral work.  It’s funny how reddresstheology has got out of step with my other reading, but there is so much I’ve read that I still need to share, and so much to digest before I can write sensibly about von Balthasar!  For now, I’m still on the love theme for the blog, but it is by no means unrelated to Hans.

The following is an extract from a book written in 1951, by a woman mystic named Adrianne von Speyr, in which she describes the relationship between love and prayer.  Adrianne was close friends with von Balthasar and he insisted on more than one occasion that his systematic theology should be read alongside Adrianne’s mystical writings.  Her particular mystical gifts included numerous stigmata, healings and other miracles.  Together she and Hans started a ‘lay’ order to encourage the total integration of faith, knowledge and a life lived for God.  Their spiritual partnership is a crucial entry into understanding von Balthasar as a theologian – systematic theology cannot be divorced from spiritual experience, mission and ministry.

I’ve shared a large slab of Adrianne because it’s beautiful in and of itself and I found it such an inspiring piece of spiritual writing – a fabulous description of how we encounter love in prayer.  This encounter is the gift of love as absolute value and essence (think Plato) through the reintegration of our whole selves with the ground of our Being – God.  If you’re like me, you will bristle at the gendered language, but just take it as a reminder of the original context of the writing: post-war Switzerland in the Roman Catholic tradition.  May Adrianne be a blessing to you today.

When God speaks out of love, his word is a word of love, and the person praying will try to receive and return it as such.  It is remarkable that he often tries to speak a word of love to God, but rarely realizes in his heart that he is also hearing and receiving a word of love.  In prayer he fulfills a kind of duty forgetting that that deepest meaning of this duty is love.  Many people had the joy, as children, of praying with their mothers.  Later on, life knocked them about, and they have forgotten how to pray.  In some time of need they recall the warmth and security of their childhood prayers; perhaps they use their mother’s love as a bridge to get back to the love of God.  But somewhere they get stuck in human emotion; they scarcely touch God’s sphere because they have forgotten to listen for God’s word of love.

If the man who prays knows that the essence of prayer is love, his attitude in prayer will be one of openness to love.  He will try to be accessible to love: not by straining to catch special and extraordinary signs of love, but in a simple attention, not letting slip any proof of love which God gives, refusing nothing, misunderstanding nothing, whitewashing nothing, reinterpreting nothing.  If he is a beginning in prayer he should be so inspired by the thought of love that he is never is a hurry, but takes his time.  He may pause a while after each prayer, picking some thought, some idea, some word out of the world of love: However small and insignificant it is, he takes it into his daily life in order to fill that life with the love of God.  In many ways modern man lives his life automatically.  He at least ought to learnt not to pray automatically: He needs to rediscover a sense of wonder at the love of God, going on to impart a sense of eternity to his world once again…

God’s love is offered to men like an overflowing vessel from which they may draw.  But there are different ways of encountering the love of God in prayer: Some are more central and others are more peripheral.  Believers know that God is love and that the closer we get to him the closer we get to love.  They know that, since he is love, this love is found at his very core, in the innermost being of his godhead, because in him this love is the very heart of truth.  They also know that they too can be taken up into this central core.  But as well as this – and perhaps in a more experiential way, through feeling – they know that they ought not only to become acquainted with the innermost center of love (indeed, they are probably not strong enough to resist this rushing torrent, this intense heat) but should also get to know all the scattered drops and rays which this love emits.

Every genuine life of prayer manifests two experiences: that of the central fullness and that of deprivation or aridity which, regarded as experience, seems peripheral.  At some point the man who prays will be touched by some knowledge or experience of love which causes him to desire to come nearer the fountainhead and awakens in him the longing to be cast into the center.  But it terms of tangible experience the center is the exception, an exception that becomes the rule that one can return to and live from the memory of what one once received.  Such was Paul’s Damascus road, Ignatius’ conversion, Pascal’s “night” – and, on another plane, John’s Apocalypse, which is perhaps one of the deepest explorations of God’s center and which John himself found inexhaustible.  All that he saw, heard and experienced here, all that he merely indicated as a background, was the center of the love of God, a center into which he was cast by his prayer.  So the Apocalypse remains the experience of prayer kat exochen for all succeeding Christians, not because of it’s mystical quality, but in spite of it: Where the center is concerned, transposition into the mystical is only one possibility; by the Apocalypse belongs by right to everyone who prays, to such an extent that everyone can find nourishment for his prayer, and direct experience of the love of God, in the Apostle’s mystical experience.

Every praying person who loves and strives toward the love of God has his share in it.  The love of God becomes everything to him, to such an extent that from it he can form his life decisions.  Because God loves him he can take the risk of some particular surrender; because God loves him he can follow this or that path; because God loves him he can put up with a life which would be otherwise intolerable; because God loves him he can renounce the world and lead an apostolic life; because God loves him he can die as a Christian; because God loves him he can daily love his neighbour as himself.  Everyone who prays is given such a share in love that it becomes his center, and his whole existence manifests traces of this central experience.