When I was an undergraduate in minor seminary (1978-81) I was being fed a steady diet of neo-scholastic writers on my way to a philosophy degree. The seminary I attended was an anachronism for such liberal times in seminary formation—a sauna of reactionary heat generated by the coal furnace of anti-Vatican II resentment—and, true to form, rather than introduce us to Thomists such as Étienne Gilson and Josef Pieper, they instead presented material drawn from the old pre-Vatican II manuals. Gradually, I grew frustrated and bored, finding little in the material that truly lit my intellectual fires. Indeed, I found the material utterly drab and shabby (the intellectual equivalent of eating rice cakes) and lacking in both intellectual vigor and rigor as the philosophical questions in my mind were never addressed, let alone answered.
What I was reading seemed to me to be more suited to the world of a 19th-century Victorian parlor and not to my world of nihilistic and aggressive, post-Christian secularism. And I wondered why St. Thomas Aquinas was never really quoted within the context of his theology but was instead used as a dogmatic starting point for the deductive syllogisms that followed. Jesus Christ was largely absent except as a kind of dogmatic cipher for a certain vision of metaphysics that was a briar patch thicket of impenetrable verbiage, and as suffocatingly boring as a Ted talk.
Discovering Hans Urs von Balthasar
One day I took these frustrations to my spiritual director, Fr. Anton Morgenroth. Fr. Morgenroth was the only true intellectual on campus, and so I was drawn to him as the only beacon of sanity. He was a grizzled old German from Berlin, a convert from Judaism, and an accomplished concert pianist. He did not directly address my concerns about the curriculum, but instead went over to his piano and began to play some Mozart. After fifteen minutes he finished and told me that our time was up.
“But Father,” I exclaimed, “what about spiritual direction?” He frowned at me and said, “You imbecile, zat vas spiritual direction!” I was not at all sure what he meant (I do now) but I laughed, got up, and started to leave. As I reached the door he went to his bookshelf, took out a copy of Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s little book Love Alone is Credible (Glaubhaft ist nur Liebe) and threw it at me from across the room. As I caught it he simply said “Here, read zat. It vill make you less stupid.”
I don’t know if it made me less stupid—it is an open and burning debate in my house—but read it I did, as well as everything else by Balthasar (1905-1988) I could get my hands on. Given my intellectual immaturity at the time, reading Balthasar was like trying to get a drink from a firehose. I scarcely understood even a fraction of it, but something in it made my heart glow. And it did eventually create within me a revolution of the soul—a “conversion” of sorts—wherein I began to see beyond the confining “bastions” of neo-scholasticism’s walls out onto a truly vast horizon that is the Church’s broader Tradition.
Unfortunately, my new-found love of Balthasar, and the broader world ressourcement theology which he opened me up to, did not sit well with my other professors who viewed the entire lot of them as modernist quislings whose writings deserved to be tossed into the dung pile of discredited heretics.
Fast forward to 1989 and the beginning of my doctoral studies at Fordham University. I did not become a priest, choosing instead the path of marriage and academia. But my theological orientations remained steadfastly Balthasarian and I was looking forward to examining his works on a deep scholarly level.
Unfortunately, at Fordham I ran into a Rahnerian brick wall—a rather liberal Rahnerian wall—and a form of Catholic theology that was in the mode of Concilium, which was lukewarm (at best) to my more Communio school approach. I was the only graduate student in the program at that time who wanted to pursue a dissertation on Balthasar, and the only student who dared challenge the liberal Rahnerian succubus that drained the life out of everything. To their credit, they did not boot me out of the program, but beyond that “favor” (as I was told by one Jesuit there) what I encountered was a resolute opposition to Balthasar, who was dismissed as a cranky romantic and a dangerous reactionary.
However, I persevered, played nice, read a lot of Rahner, and eventually did complete a dissertation on Balthasar. But I had to import the late Fr. Edward Oakes, S.J. from NYU to act as the de facto director since nobody at Fordham was competent to guide such an undertaking and Fr. Oakes was both a Jesuit and a Balthasar scholar. There were bumps along the way as the other two readers kept insisting that I needed to “refute” Balthasar’s “specious” arguments, but Fr. Oakes came to my defense time and time again and the dissertation was finally completed and defended.
The relevance of Balthasar today
I have rehearsed my own autobiography at length to begin this essay because I think it is instructive as to why Balthasar continues to be of great relevance today. For my theological journey was a microcosm of the entire history of 20th-century Catholic theology, wherein I was exposed to the old manualist tradition that Vatican II sought to get beyond, the ressourcement theologie of Balthasar and others (Ratzinger, de Lubac, Guardini, and so forth), and finally the Concilium school of thought (Rahner, feminist theology, Liberation theology, and so on).
And what that experience taught me is that if the project of Vatican II—a project I take to be an attempt by the Church to take up the issue of how the Church is to relate to the world—is to have any continuing purchase on the pastoral and intellectual life of the Church then it cannot be merely rejected, as a growing cadre of putative traditionalists would like us to do. Nor can it be distorted and mangled in the liberal attempt to position the Council as a grand rupture with all that came before it in the misbegotten belief that the Church needs to accommodate itself to secular modernity.
Therefore, the only fruitful path forward seems clear to me. And that is the path of appropriating ever more deeply the ressourcement theology that led up to the Council, guided its deliberations, and formed the cornerstone of the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Restorationism and liberalism both threaten to destroy the conciliar project and to dismantle the explication and appropriation of that endeavor in the two aforementioned papacies. Henri de Lubac, of course, could be viewed as the chief instigator of the nouvelle theologie, and Joseph Ratzinger as perhaps its clearest and most concise expositor. But the massive achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar provides a detailed theological matrix that takes up the major strands of the Tradition and places them in direct conversation with modernity in a manner that is both creative and completely orthodox.
The standard criticism, of course, made by folks such as R.R. Reno, is that Balthasar’s theology, though profound, is far too idiosyncratic to be of any use as a bell cow for Catholic theology. The accusation is that his theology is far too poetic, lyrical, and speculative to be the standard bearer for a renewed theology. But this criticism, though worthy of consideration, is still in my view laboring under a neo-scholastic hangover.
The assumption seems to be that what is needed is a very simple theology of questions followed by “clear answers” drawn from the dogmatic tradition, and one which eschews speculative theology in favor of a theology reduced to a glorified catechetical instruction. It remains rooted in a vision of ecclesial theology suitable for seminary instruction and not a theology that attempts to address modernity, which was, after all, what Vatican II was seeking to do. And a theology that remains rooted in such a paradigm will not, in the long run, be of real service to the Church, but will instead tie its evangel to intra-ecclesial disputes which will in turn hamstring the Church intellectually as it seeks to address the questions posed to us by the world.
Christocentrism and particularity
Furthermore, it is simply incorrect to reduce his theology to the categories of poetry and speculation as if his theology contains nothing of real dogmatic substance. Not without reason did folks including Joseph Fessio S.J., Edward Oakes S.J., and Joseph Ratzinger consider Balthasar to be the preeminent theologian of our time. What they saw in his theology that was of immense importance was his Christocentrism and his insistence on the importance of the “particularity” of God’s unique and unsurpassable Revelation in the man Jesus. For Balthasar, the Incarnation, contra Rahner and others, is not reducible to some inner experience of grace such that Jesus is viewed as merely the most perfectly “God conscious” human being who ever lived. Rahner’s Christology in particular is open to the charge that Jesus is not the unique God-man of the Chalcedonian definitions, but a “maxed out” human being who is not qualitatively different from other human beings, but only quantifiably so.
Balthasar rejects this Christology as woefully inadequate and affirms instead the absolute uniqueness of this “new creation” wherein Christ is not analyzed through the lens of a transcendental anthropology, but rather anthropology is now analyzed through the lens of Christ. What emerges is a Christocentric theological anthropology where theosis and kenosis coincide, thus mirroring the intra-Trinitarian relations.
This Christocentric anthropological emphasis perfectly coincides with Vatican II’s desire to renew Catholic theology through a radical refocusing. It goes beyond the confines of scholastic thought, honing in on the broader Tradition’s deep Incarnational understanding of humanity, sin, time and history, and of all that is good in the world. The desire was to respond to the various secular “-isms” of the past two centuries by presenting to the world, in a powerful new effort at evangelization, the Christian humanism implied by the Incarnation.
John Paul II, no stranger to Vatican II, therefore constantly emphasized that the proper hermeneutical key to understanding the Council was its deep Christocentric anthropology. He never tired of referencing Gaudium et Spes 22, which states bluntly that only in Christ can we understand humanity: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” It is indeed instructive that his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, doubled-down on all of these themes, thus signaling to the Church and to the world that his papacy was going to foreground this theological anthropology as its guiding theme.
This consonance between Balthasar’s Christocentrism and that of the Council is made even deeper by Balthasar’s affirmation that the theological aesthetic of Christ’s “form” radiates a “splendor” (glory) that carries within itself its own warrant and justification, thus eliminating the many “tail that wags the dog” theological propaedeutics that threaten to reduce this towering form into a preconceived philosophical “system”. Furthermore, the unique persuasive power of this Christ-form is constitutively oriented to a free creaturely response and is therefore internally contradicted and distorted by any ecclesiastical regimen of coercion.
Thus does Balthasar’s theology also give a powerful Christological grounding for the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae on religious freedom, which is not a denial of the orientation of freedom to the truth of God, but is instead an affirmation of the orientation of that truth to freedom. Indeed, that truth cannot be truth in the full sense unless it presents itself non-coercively to the appropriation of free agents.
Hell and salvation
Along these same lines, and perhaps most controversially, Balthasar develops the concept of Hell as a Christological reality. Hell cannot be viewed as a place “outside of God” where the damned are “sent” into a torture pit of punishment for their unrepented sins. Punishments must fit the crime and thus if Hell is nothing more than a place where sinners are punished for particular sins then it would not be “everlasting.” Retributive justice always has a terminal point. Hell is therefore, in its essence, a state of being where the damned are locked into an ongoing rejection of God’s love and of the attendant alienation and despair this creates. Thus, the damned are in a state of Godforesakeness of their own making. But Christ too has descended into the Hell of Godforsakeness thus creating a “space” within the soteriological act as such wherein the damned reside.
This is the Christological foundation for Balthasar’s much debated claim that we can at least hope that eventually “all are saved.” Traditionalists view this as a bridge too far and use this position of Balthasar’s as a reason for rejecting his entire theological project as “suspicious”. However, one can accept the fundamental Christological truths Balthasar is developing here without necessarily accepting all of the particular conclusions he draws from them. Ratzinger himself seems to approach the topic in just this manner, accepting the fundamental Balthasarian insights while remaining at a short distance from Balthasar’s more particular conclusions.
Just as we can accept, for example, as Balthasar does, the insights of Aquinas on the doctrine of “election” without accepting the theology of double predestination that Aquinas, following Augustine, draws from it. Thus, in my view, the whole controversy surrounding Dare We Hope? is a bit of a tempest in a teapot and is blown out of proportion by those who, I suspect, are crypto-restorationists who don’t want theology to move beyond the condemnations of Pascendi.
There is something telling in the fact that traditionalists criticize Balthasar for being a modernist, while liberals view him as a romantic reactionary. Balthasar once wrote that to be “concentric” to Christ is to be “eccentric” to the world. I think we could add that the same dynamic applies intra-ecclesially as well. Balthasar’s radical Christocentrism flies in the face of the eclipse of Christ in the theologies of both the traditionalists and the liberals. Traditionalists make an idol of the Church herself, reducing the faith to a set of dogmatic propositions, occluding the bracing image of the crucified Lord presented in the gospels. Liberals efface that same image by relativizing it as just one example among many in the category of “religious founder.”
Thus it is no wonder that the traditionalists want to reject Vatican II and the liberals want to “go beyond” it. Precisely because neither appreciates its profound Christological focus.
To return, then, to where I began. Fr. Morgenroth played Mozart for me, rather than didactically “instructing” me, because he wanted me to enter into a different kind of answer. Indeed, to show me that I needed to ask a different set of questions. Grace builds on nature and by introducing me to “beauty” on a natural level, he was gently guiding me to seek it as well in a higher register.
Balthasar became my guide in that project and taught me that the Gospel is persuasive because the form of Christ presented there is good and true and beautiful. And since the ongoing appropriation of Vatican II is still in its infancy, I can think of no better guide for that endeavor than Hans Urs von Balthasar.
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