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Fr Aidan Nichols

Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar

Book Review

A guide through Balthasar's Dramatics

by Aidan Nichols, OP

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To ravage and redeem the world


Although still too little known in English-speaking lands, the Swiss Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) ranks by common consent as one of the towering figures in twentieth-century theology. He never held an academic post of any kind; indeed, his doctorate wasn't even in theology. But after being awarded the doctor's degree in
Germanistik (a kind of early cross-disciplinary field covering both German literature and philosophy) from the University of Zurich in 1929, he joined the Jesuits and saturated himself in the writings of the Church Fathers while studying theology near Lyons before being ordained priest in 1936.

In 1950, under the influence of a Protestant physician and mystic, Adrienne von Speyr, who converted to Roman Catholicism under his aegis, he left the Jesuits to found with her a "
secular institute" (a kind of religious order without the traditional props of habit, common table, etc.). Its main apostolate, in effect, was to run a publishing house, the famous Johannes Verlag, founded first and foremost to keep in print almost all of Balthasar's vast output of monographs, translations, collected essays and - this above all - his theological trilogy in fifteen volumes.

There can he no doubt that the task facing the reader curious about this massively productive writer is a daunting one. The sheer immensity of Balthasar's output can bring on stupefaction: not counting translations, he published about 50,000 pages of sonorous German, sometimes in rather intricate periods; and English translations, long under way, are even now still appearing (about three-quarters of his work has been translated). For this reason alone, readers can be grateful to the English Dominican Aidan Nichols now at Blackfriars, Cambridge, for his efforts to guide the novice through the centrepiece of Balthasar's theology, the trilogy.

But first of all, why a trilogy? In effect, Balthasar's intent is to transpose all of Christian theology into the categories of the Platonic "transcendentals": the Beautiful, the Good and the True (called "
transcendental" because they belong to all existing things by the sheer fact of their existing at all, and thus "transcend" any other particular property that the individual existent might have). Trilogies composed under this rubric have an honoured tradition in Western letters, perhaps the most famous being Kant's three Critiques, the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason, and the Critique of Judgment. But where Kant first took up the issue of epistemology, then proceeded to questions of ethics, and only at the end treated questions of aesthetics, Balthasar tellingly reverses direction.

For the Swiss theologian, the crucial point is to begin with the perception of the Beautiful, for beauty by its very nature elicits its own quasi-erotic response (otherwise we would never invoke the word "
beautiful", to describe the object of perception). But precisely because of that erotic element in the response to beauty, the perceiver is not left merely spellbound but is called out of his or her own private concerns and into a life of committed action. Thus, Nichols explains, true aesthetics always flows into drama:

The one who has been encountered by beauty is not only challenged in his freedom, he is also branded for life, and thus becomes conscious of election. The elect person feels obliged to proclaim the Logos. Having a glimpse of the divine beauty sends the one thus privileged not only in the idiomatic sense of rendering him ecstatic (a coining for which we are indebted to the culture of Pop) but also in the theological sense of mandating him to go forth on a mission. The wonder of Being, communicating itself in the beautiful, tends of its nature to produce dramatic heroes - however ordinary (or extraordinary) their missions may be.

A passage such as this, however, might give the wrong impression that Balthasar's theodramatics is mostly concerned with the drama of the soul's Yes or No to God. Far more crucial for him is God's drama with the world, and his Yes to humanity in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:17-22). As Nichols rightly says, "Balthasar's purpose is, rather, to succeed where Hegel failed, by bringing into centre stage the drama intrinsic to divine salvation."

Not that Hegel was entirely wrong when he posited dialectical movement within the Absolute, as if all that Christian theologians have to do is to juxtapose the patristic doctrine of God's impassibility with Hegel's ever-absorbing Absolute Spirit. No, the drama of the Cross affects God too. Not perhaps in the way Hegelians or process theologians might imagine it. But precisely because the death of Jesus is a Trinitarian event, God must be fully engaged in that action, as Balthasar himself explains in the fourth volume of his

No element may be excluded here: God's entire world-drama is concentrated on and hinges on this scene. This is the theo-drama into which the world and God have their ultimate input; here absolute freedom enters into created freedom, interacts with created freedom, and acts as created freedom. God cannot function here as a mere Spectator, allegedly immutable and not susceptible to influence; he is not an eternal, Platonic "sun of goodness", looking down on a world that is seen as a gigantomachia, a "vast perpetual scene of slaughter". Nor, on the other hand, can man, guilty as he is in God's sight, lie passive and anaesthetized~d on the operating table while the cancer of his sin is cut out. How can all this be fitted together?

The short and long answer to that question is simply this: all these elements can be fitted together only by Christ's descent into hell - short because the answer takes only four words to say; long because of all that the descent into hell means. For Balthasar, the Cross of Christ can be salvific only if Christ's claim to be "the Way, the Truth, and the Life", (John 14: 6) is valid. But it is the very nature of that claim to be so provocative as to lead to his execution. (A note on historical criticism here: Balthasar freely admits that this claim struck Jesus' contemporaries more in his behaviour and demeanour than in his words as such. His recorded words, especially those in the Fourth Gospel, were, so to speak, "precipitated" in the text only after a process of reflection and refinement in the early Church's preaching, a preaching which itself always took as its starting point the totality of the Christ event in the light of the resurrection.)

But to any world-view whatever, such a claim, no matter how mediated, must lead to outrage. For a claim to be the Way, the Truth and the Life means at core that one white cap atop a wave claims to be not only the sea and the seabed but the generating matrix of the world as well ("
Before Abraham was, I am"). Moreover, that claim is so preposterous that it can only be validated by God himself in the Resurrection. Thus the three together - Claim. Death and Resurrection - form a triadic pattern ("Gestalt", one of Balthasar's favourite words) that is the indissoluble core of the Christian proclamation.

But how can that claim continue to resound for all the rest of history, down to the last syllable of recorded time, without provoking yet another objection, one that sees the positivity of the existence of the historical Jesus fade and fade into the recesses of ancient history? In the words of a Swabian proverb that Hegel liked to quote from time to time: "
That's been true for so long it has finally stopped being true." Altering his image of wave and sea slightly, Balthasar answers this objection by comparing the impact of any one human being in history to the ripple effect of a stone dropped into the sea. But with all other human beings, who emerge out of the components of the universe and merge back into them at death, their ripple effect eventually fades away. ("Do not abandon your heart to grief, bear your own end in mind", as Ben Sirach says in Ecclesiasticus 38: 20.) Thus the stone which is Jesus must differ in its radiating power, if Hegel's objection is to be met.

For Balthasar, that can only occur if this one stone, and no other, plunged all the way to the bottom of the sea on Holy Saturday (Easter Eve), when Christ descended into hell, landing, so to speak, with a thud that continues to reverberate from the ocean floor. But
that can only happen if the weight of that single, historically unique stone can serve as the counterweight ("Schwergewicht", another key term in Balthasar's theology) outweighing all other truths and sufferings in the world, which is conceivable only in Trinitarian terms. Only then does the centre where the stone was dropped continue to reverberate and radiate outwards. Nor can the effects of Christ's reverberation extend only along time's future-bound arrow (as with all other human beings in history, whose effects live on only after their finite, temporal existence). On the contrary, Christ's outward radiation moves concentrically in such a way as to influence previous history as well. This, for Balthasar, is the essential soteriological significance of the scriptural references to Christ's descent into hell, where, according to the Petrine tradition, he rescues the "spirits in prison who disobeyed God long ago" (1 Peter 3: 19-20; see also 1 Peter 4: 5-6 and 2 Peter 2: 4-10).

When these startling images of stone, wave and sea are seen in their full implication, one arrives at what is perhaps the most startling innovation in Balthasar's theology: his quasiOrigenistic vision of the possible redemption of all these "
disobedient spirits in prison". Origen's own theory was rejected as heretical after his death, in the mid-third century, no doubt because he posited an inevitable redemption of all souls, when God would be "all in all". (Perhaps he went astray here because of his habit of forcing revelation into the NeoPlatonic schema of exitus-redirus. Just as creation seemed an inevitable "emanation" for the Neo-Platonist, so too was the "return" of that creation to God's redemptive love inevitable in Origen's thought). But Balthasar grounds his hope of apokatastasis (to use the technical term for universal restoration of all lost souls) not in Neo-Platonism but in the event of Holy Saturday. In his descent into hell, Jesus experiences all that is hellish about the world in its difference, otherness and divergence from God, which means that hell is, in Balthasar's famous description, "a Christological place" where sinners experience, by the very nature of their isolated partiality, only a portion of what Christ himself experienced in a pre-eminent way. And since any experience of Christ is by definition salvific, we may at least hope for - if not confidently expect - the salvation of all.

It surely goes without saying that these speculations are daring, daring enough to call to mind the even bolder speculations of the German Idealists. Indeed, these speculations on the
Trinitarian event of the descent into hell have led the twentieth-century Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (1904-84) to worry out loud that Balthasar was indulging in what he called "a Schelling-esque projection into God of division, conflict, godlessness and death". According to Rahner, God must, if the word "God" is to continue to have any meaning at all, enter history in a way that does not lock God into its horror; by contrast for Balthasar, God transforms that horror by incorporating suffering and rejection into the Trinitarian process itself.

No wonder, then, that the central panel in Balthasar's theological triptych is called
TheoDrama, for that prefix ultimately refers more to the drama inside the Godhead than to the dramatic events of Christian discipleship (in other words, to use the grammarian's terms, the first element of the titles is more a subjective than an objective prefix). And no wonder, as well, that the reader can feel grateful for Aidan Nichols's fine monograph, which sorts through all these issues in prose that is clear without oversimplifying, elevated without being haughty, elegant without being mannered.

The reader will probably emerge from a saturation with Balthasar's vision wondering what all this has to do with the real world, which looks so different from the triptych in his work, and from No Bloodless Myth. By the term "real world", I am referring not just to the radically de-Christianized world of our post-industrial culture, but also to the radically pluralistic world inside Christian theology. The dismay that greeted last year's Vatican declaration Dominus Jesus, on the universality of Christ's salvific reach, is only the most visible sign of this postmodern sensitivity to the potentially "hegemonic discourse" of a universalizing Christology.

Of course, in an author so culturally sensitive as Hans Urs von Balthasar, such dismay would not have come as a surprise. Nor would he have reacted to such dismay with a hand-wringing, revanchist polemic of his own. In fact, he concluded the last volume of the
Theo-Drama with a treatment of exactly these issues; and with his usual lapidary flair, Nichols has summarized the central difficulty in any universalizing Christology:

Reaching the closing scene of the drama, Balthasar is suddenly afflicted with doubts - or rather, becomes all at once aware of the variety of doubts that may afflict his readers. Is it not simplistic to make a single drama from the labyrinthine plots of the world? To tie all human action to a single key furnished by a nexus of past events - is not this historically suffocating? How plausible is it to describe as "Love" the source of such a world as ours? And to see the offended divine Love as cosmically reconciled by one man's death? And in any case has the death of Jesus, understood as the world's atonement, actually changed the way the world goes? What is the evidence for claiming such? Are not the Church's dogmas castles in the air? And are not those who would channel into humanitarian causes the remaining energies of this ancient body realistic in implicitly recognizing that fact? How spectral appears today a Church kitted out in the ragged robes of former triumphs!

This situation has become the most recent Holy Week for the Christian Churches. But even that way of putting it seems too church-centred. For the real issue here is not so much the plurality of religions and the heightened sensitivity to cultural and religious imperialism. Much weightier is what church proclamation says validates the claims of the historical Jesus: that he plumbed the depths of the world's sufferings. That is today's Provocation. St Paul says, "this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison" (2 Corinthians 4: 17). But as Balthasar readily concedes in the fifth volume of the Theo-Drama, "To someone who is really suffering, Paul's words on the relationship between earthly suffering and heavenly joy are hardly to be endured." And yet, with St. Paul, and based on his own theology of Holy Saturday, Balthasar will go on to claim that suffering is something good. In a modern utilitarian world, whose ethic is largely based on a pleasure-pain calculus, such words will provoke outrage. But Scripture does not flinch from boasting of suffering. "I consider that the sufferings of this present age", says St. Paul, "are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Romans 8: 18)

This book review first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement (TLS) in APRIL 13 2001, The TLS, the world's oldest and best weekly book review http://www.the-tls.co.uk/ The above review is reproduced with permission.

Copyright ©; TLS 2001

Version: 6th February 2008

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Introduction to Hans Urs von Balthasar