Who is Hans Urs von Balthasar, and why should theologians be
discussing him this week? Fr DAVID MCLOUGHLIN of Oscott College explains the life and significance of the 'Pope's favourite theologian' TthE THEME of this year's Conference of e Catholic Theological Associationof Great Britain is: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Future of Catholic Theology. Who is he, and why spend three days this week discussing his thought?
He was born in 1905 in Lucerne and surrounded from childhood by music and literary conversation in French, German and English. His doctorate, involving a survey of modem German literature and its approaches to the Last Things, shows a staggering breadth of reading. On completing it he went on a retreat and shocked everyone by deciding to enter the Society of Jesus.
He found the tight system of late scholastic philosophy and theology dull and constricting. Brilliant teachers and companions put him in touch with other currents of thought . The list is like a roll call of the greatest Catholic minds of the early half of the century, Rondet, Danielou, Bouillard, Lyonnet, Przywara, de Lubac.
He could have gone to Rome as a Professor but chose to stay in pastoral work as a University chaplain at Basle. With the rise of National Socialism and the increasing isolation of German Catholicism von Balthasar and his companions drew on the new writing coming from France. He translated the poetry of Claudel and the works of Mauriac and Bernanos.
AT4THE UNIVERSITY he invited Karl and
Hugo Rahner, artin Buber the great Jewish philosopher, Congar and de Lubac to speak to his students. He became a friend and interpreter of the greatest Protestant theologian of the century, Karl Barth, their friendship sealed by their interest in Mozart.
His writing shows a passionate desire for unity. He brings together ideas from classical thought with key themes from the Scriptures, the Fathers especially Gregory of Nyssa, Origen and Maximus the Confessor and modern personalist thought. However the originality of von Balthasar lies in his starting point. He starts not with what is true (Dogma), nor what is good (Moral) — the emphasis in most Catholic thought for over a thousand years — but rather with the Beautiful. He contemplates the fascination the Divine provokes through the persons and events of salvation history. Only those so fascinated can be lead into that totally transforming relationship which is the truly moral life. Only out of such experience can come true words directed towards God in the power of the indwelling Spirit, true theology.
Similarly, G. K. Chesterton spoke of there being two gateways into the Church — truth and beauty — with the majority entering by the Gate Beautiful.
This was the accessible beauty of liturgy and feast, the beauty of holiness which he could open for us in a simple story. Von Balthasar draws for the most part on high literature, Goethe, Heine, Peguy. This has sometimes lead to criticisms of elitism.
In all of this it is not difficult to locate von Balthasar within the intellectual movements of the early 1930s and 1940s. Things changed when he received into the Church a Protestant medical doctor from Basle, Adrienne von Speyr. Von Balthasar remained her confessor and spiritual director. Soon miracles were being attributed to her: visions, spiritual insight about the state of individuals souls and "inspired" commentary on the Scriptures.
Von Balthasar co-founded a secular institute with her — the Johannine Community. This work led to his leaving the Society of Jesus in 1950. As a result of what he regarded as faithfulness to God's prompting he was now in the wilderness, with no home, no diocese, no job. Eventually the Bishop of Chur incardinated him into his diocese so enabling him to carry on an active apostolate, mainly as a director of retreats.
HE INCREASINGLY dedicated himself to making Adrienne's visions and interpretations known. He cared for her through a series of illnesses from 1954 till her death in 1967 writing in a room adjoining her sick room.
He was not invited as a consultor to the Second Vatican Council. Though effectively isolated from the wider theological world the books continued to appear with an increasingly sharper focus, provoked by Adrienne's thoughts and experience of redemptive suffering, especially her reflection on the descent of Christ into hell.
He emphasised the need for a "kneeling theology" starting from and returning to prayer. A theology engaged in the world but not easily adapted to its passing fashions. He was famously involved in polemic with Karl Rahner, and with much post-conciliar thinking which he felt was too often a reduction of the Christian mystery evacuating it of its potency. While most Catholic theologians were struggling to cope with pluralism and fragmentation he contemplated the core unity of the mystery of God's glory revealed in Christ around which everything must find its deepest reality.
After Adrienne's death von Balthasar devoted his life to publishing her works (60 volumes) and promoting her mission. However he still managed to complete major works of his own (some 85 volumes) and to establish a new international journal of Catholic theology — Communio (1973) His own foundation, the Johannine community, has not exactly flourished. However in the later years recognition came in the form of Honarary Doctorates from Universities and national Academies around the world. The present Pope recognised him with the Paul VI award and has used themes from his writings in many of his own encyclicals. The new Catechism is marked by his influence from start to finish. He died just days before he was to join the College of Cardinals.
He remains for many a paradoxical figure, a man of extraordinary culture and yet simple almost childlike faith, a polemicist who could be devastating, yet a creative thinker whose ideas on heaven and hell are as much a problem for conservatives as his views on the Church in the world are for liberals. For so long a maverick on the margins, at the end he became the favoured theolo gians of the centre. His major works are highly complex. The danger is that now he is dead it is easy to pick and choose from his work. He has become a figure of ultra-orthodoxy for many who place his work in opposition to a more obviously socially engaged "worldly" theology.
I'm reminded of the way later writers took the subtle distinctions of Aquinas and turned them into neat separations he never intended. But then it is ever the fate of the great that smaller minds coopt their thoughts for mean. er ends.