Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Hans Urs von Balthasar

It is time to introduce yet another member of my community of the heart. Yesterday I mentioned that the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar was the cornerstone of my own theology. There are a couple of reasons for this: First, Balthasar was not a professional theologian, his academic background, was in Litertaure and Philosophy; mine in Philosophy and History. I am an unusual student of Philosophy in the United States in that my study, reading, focus, and writing is in Continental Philosophy, a serious engagement with Hegel, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Nietzsche, even Derrida, to name just the most recognizable. Yet, I do not remain unschooled in the ways of the English analytical tradition, or American pragmatism. I see the Philosophy of my dear Wittgenstein as very much a synthesis of these varying strands. Secondly, he was the first theologian whose writings I seriously engaged. There were several years, both before my marriage and early in my marriage, when I spent every spare hour engrossed in Balthasar's books. I remember working in an antique store while in college and, during a particularly slow Saturday, reading all of Balthasar's little book My Work in Retrospect. One memorable Holy Week I read his early work Origen: Spirit and Fire.

Much can be gleaned from Balthasar's smaller works, of which there are many. In the words of Edward Oakes and David Moss, editors of the The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, "One reason for Balthasar's relative isolation- perhaps even alienation- from the guild of professional theologians is that he does not come out of, or represent, a prior school of thought". Balthasar, during his long career, "more or less single-handedly heaved up a huge mountain range of theology."

Recently, a doctoral candidate from the Domnican school in Rome, the Angelicum, the alma mater of young Karol Wojtyla, in her doctoral dissertation accused Balthasar of being a material heretic as regards his exposition of the article of the Apostles Creed, "he descended into hell". On this issue there is an exchange between this newly minted doctor of theology, Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, and Fr. Edward Oakes, S.J. in the current issue of First Things, entitled Balthasar, Hell, and Heresy. It bears mentioning, especially for those unfamiliar with Balthasar, that, going all the way back to his early anthology of Origen's writings, struggled with the form of universalism expounded by Origen, known as apokatastasis, which is idea that God will eventually abolish hell and redeem the whole world, including the devils. Of course, Balthasar rejected this formal heresy. However, he also rejected the idea that Christian faith antecendently rules out universal redemption. Fr. Oakes uses a brilliant example from Wittgenstein in his response to Pitstick, an example that shows why one should not be surprised that many of W's best students, the most notable of whom was G.E.M. Anscombe, were committed Catholics. The example is used in a passage that is critical of Balthasar's take on hell: "When one of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s graduate students allowed how much he regretted the Church’s condemnation of Origen’s doctrine that God would eventually abolish hell and redeem the whole world (including the devils), the philosopher shot back: 'Of course it was rejected. It would make nonsense of everything else. If what we do now is to make no difference in the end, then all the seriousness of life is done away with.'" The exchange is well worth reading and pretty accessible. Despite her failure to convict Balthasar of material heresy, Dr. Pitstick has a bright future in Catholic theology. If nothing else, she has provided a lot of grist for the mills of graduate papers in theology.

Balthasar is certainly a provocative thinker, a master of the tradition, which means that he is duly and respectfully critical of the tradition. Two quotes are important to keep in mind when considering Balthasar, who remains the consummate ecclesial theologian. The first quote is his description of his Jesuit formation, "My entire period of study in the Society of Jesus was a grim struggle with the dreariness of theology, with what men had made out of the glory of revelation. I could not endure this presentation of the Word of God and wanted to lash out with the fury of a Samson: I felt like tearing down, with Samson's own strength, the whole temple and burying myself beneath the rubble. But it was like this because, despite my sense of vocation, I wanted to carry out my own plans, and was living in a state of unbounded indignation". Over the course of his long career, he certainly carried out his own plans. The other quote is from Origen, which Balthasar uses as the epigraph for his anthology "I want to be a man of the Church. I do not want to be called by the name of some founder of a heresy, but by the name of Christ, and to bear that name which is blessed on the earth. It is my desire, in deed as in spirit, both to be and to be called a Christian. If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and throw me away."

I am surprised Pitstick, in her rush to convict Balthasar, who died just before the consistory during which Pope John Paul II was to create him a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church, overlooked this epigraph, which Balthasar applied to himself at a young age, just as he was embarking on a career that would be marked by the composition of such provocative books as Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"?: With a Short Discourse on Hell, in which he deals with apokatastasis and Razing the Bastions: On the Church in This Age.


  1. I spent a dark period reading many of Balthasar's works, it is place to which I wish never to return. (And you should be aware there are a number of secret works he published privately only for those who accepted his mediatory status as propounded by the false visionary Adrienne von Speyr). You should read his forward to "Meditations on the Tarot" where his devotion to the fallen angels emerges more explicitly. I once heard an expert on Balthasar, who had belatedly realised what was realy going on, say "there is a great darkness in him". I am afraid he was only too right.

  2. True it is that Balthasar wrote the introduction to Valentin Tomberg's Meditation on the Tarot. However, given the somewhat alrming nature of the title, it bears mentioning that Tomberg wrote and published this study after his conversion to the Roman Catholic faith, which came after his experiences with Theosophy. It also needs to be stated that Tomberg's study is not a New Age book about how to read tarot cards. Rather, it is a major scholarly study of the relationship between tarot, Christianity, and other mystical traditions. As befits von Balthasar Mediation on the Tarot is extraordinarily erudite, weighing in at 650 pages. Tomberg explore convergences between the Bible, kabbalistic tradition, esoteric religions, Nietzsche, Freud, Christian mystics (Bonaventura, Francis of Assisi, to name but two), and the Tao Te Ching. Hence, it is a bit Jungian because it deals in archetypes, etc. Of course, there is nothing in Balthasar's introduction that should cause any concern. The book is available and can be read by anyone interested.

    As to his "secret works", these were works he published for the Community of St. John, that he left the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) to found, along with von Speyr. The Community of St. John was founded in the belief that "the time of the great religious orders and their style of withdrawal from the world was giving way to a time of new communities within the Church that engage more directly with the world in order to transform it. These new types of world community, half way between the religious state and the lay state, became known in Canon Law as 'secular institutes'". The Community of St. John is comprised of high educated professionals who are vowed to celibacy and live a community-centered life. Apart from his prolific writings, he spent most of the last 3 decades of his life as head of this community.

    As to the mysticism of Dr. von Speyr, there is nothing false. As with all mystics and visionaries, one is free, as a Catholic, to take or leave their claims. For me, I find von Speyr's writings to be deeply profound and personally profitable. If anyone wants the story of their collaboration all one has to do is read Balthasar's Our Task.

    No less an expert than Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict XVI, delivered the homily at his funeral Mass and continues to see Balthasar as a great doctor of the Faith.

    "Keep in mind that Father Hans Urs von Balthasar died as he was preparing to offer Mass on the morning of June 26th, 1988, two days before he was due to be elevated to the cardinalate. He had already made the trip to Rome to be measured for his cardinal’s robes. Cardinal Ratzinger said during the funeral homily in Lucern that what the Pope intended to express by this mark of distinction, the honor of being created a cardinal of the hHoly Roman, remains valid: 'no longer only private individuals but the Church itself, in its official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the Faith, that he points the way to the sources of living water — a witness to the word which teaches us Christ and which teaches us how to live.

    Suffice it to say, Balthasar is not for the faint of heart.

    1. The issue is not Meditations on the Tarot, which, regardless of it's merits, has problems of its own (denial of everlasting damnation of the wicked, persistent references to reincarnation, a use of the word 'demon'that contradicts dogmatic definition etc.). Rather, it is Balthasars foreword, specifically as it relates to his discussion of "cosmic powers" which extends to his other works. Suffice it to say, although all his writings amount to whitewashing and near praise of these ("created throguh and for Christ" etc.) as if they were some type of angelic entity, he explicitly identifies them with demons in his footnote reference to Dr. Heinrich Schlier's "Maechte und Gewalten nach dem Neuen Testament". At BEST he is proposing that the fallen angels are redeemed by Christ - an heretical position in itself. AT BEST.

  3. Both Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr have been declared "Servant of God" by the Church. The next step would be "Venerable".

    - Christopher

  4. Yes, indeed. We'll see how things pan out, prayerfully, seeking their intercession.

  5. Dear Deacon,

    in spite of Balthasar's own, and your pleading, I seriously doubt that Mediation on the Tarot is a healthy Catholic book. You may want to look at the presentation of The Case of Valentin Tomberg Anthroposophy or Jesuitism?, by Sergei O. Prokofieff (Translated by Richard Michell). Perhaps an unwholesome combination of both ...
    ... meddling with Hermeticism is not healthy ...

  6. Dear Miguel:

    Does writing the foreword to a book with a provocative title call into
    question Von Balthasar's orthodoxy? In light of the prominence of
    his theology and his being named (though never "created"- due to his death) a cardinal of the Holy Roman Church by no less than Pope St. John Paul II, it clearly does not. Nonetheless, given the provocative nature of the title and the subject, I can easily see how Balthasar's authorship of the foreword to Tomberg's book is a cause for concern.

    So, instead of trying to summarize a bunch disparate material as my reply, I will simply point you to an Ignatius Insight article by Stratford Caldecott: "Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Tarot: A Review of Meditations on the Tarot by Anonymous (Valentin Tomberg)."

    As Caldecott notes, translated into English from the French in which it was originally written, not everything was translated. For example, here are two parts that were not:

    "Having been asked to write an introduction to this book, which for most readers enters into unknown terrain, and yet is so richly rewarding to read, I must first of all acknowledge my lack of competence concerning the subject matter. I am not in a position to follow up and approve of each line of thought developed by the author, and still less to submit everything to a critical examination. However, such an abundance of noteworthy material is offered here, that one may not pass it by with indifference."

    Tomberg "may from time to time make a step from the middle too far to the left (in presenting, for example, the teaching of reincarnation), or too far to the right (in occasionally approaching in a somewhat 'fundamentalist' manner Catholic religious opinions and practices, thereby coming too close to Church dogma, sometimes arriving quite unexpectedly as evangelical counsel or the rosary prayer, for example). However, the superabundance--almost too much--of genuine, fruitful insights which he conveys, certainly justifies bringing these Meditations to a wider circle of readers."

    So, it appears that Balthasar himself warned readers not to approach the book uncritically, but with a certain degree of caution, while clearly still thinking it worthwhile.

    Deacon Scott

    1. "Does writing the foreword to a book with a provocative title call into question Von Balthasar's orthodoxy?"

      No, but the CONTENT of that foreword does. And your defence of it is nothign but clericalism. Endorsed by the pope who allowed pagans to place an idol upon the tabernacle of a church? I wouldn't call that a point in his favour.

    2. "or too far to the right (in occasionally approaching in a somewhat 'fundamentalist' manner Catholic religious opinions and practices, thereby coming too close to Church dogma, sometimes arriving quite unexpectedly as evangelical counsel or the rosary prayer, for example"

      I'm sorry, what? Dogma is an essential part of the Catholic faith that all Catholics must in principle believe. What's your point?