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Influences on the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar: Martin Buber and Karl Jaspers

Among those who influenced the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar were the Jewish thinker, Martin Buber, and the German philosopher, Karl Jaspers.

As a young student, Martin Buber was deeply influenced by the Jewish mystical tradition. However, the events of the Great War led Buber to an increasing disenchantment with mysticism and to the development of his distinctive exploration of the realm of the inter-personal. Central to his thinking, as it is expressed in his classic work, I and Thou, is the idea that a man is a being that can only exist in dialogue or relationship with another being. This relationship can be of two kinds. They are expressed by two primary words: I-Thou and I-It. There can be no "I", claims Buber, apart from the "I" of the I-Thou and the I-It.

God, claims Buber, is the eternal Thou. "Every particular Thou is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou". This is because man's "sense of Thou, which cannot be satiated, till he find the endless Thou, had the Thou present to it from the beginning."

There is, however, another concept of God which can be traced through the writings of Martin Buber and which also emerges from his exploration of the inter-personal: the "realm of the between".

"The fundamental fact of human existence", writes Buber, "is man with man. What is peculiarly characteristic of the human world is above all that something takes place between one being and another the like of which can be found nowhere in nature.It is rooted in one being turning to another, as this particular other being, in order to communicate with it in a sphere which is common to them but which reaches out beyond the special sphere of each. I call this sphere, which is established with the existence of man as man but which is conceptually still uncomprehended , the sphere of 'between'." And, he continues, "Love ... exists in reality between the creatures, that is, it exists in God". Hence, "whoever desires to see God in things does not truly live in the sight of God. God is only germinally present in things. Our task is to realize Him between things" ... As Maurice Friedman, Buber's biographer comments: "God is seen not merely as seminal in all things but is realized between them, and in man this means in community... 'Realization' does not take place within 'the realizing man', but in the seemingly empty space ... between man and man."

Like Martin Buber, Karl Jaspers' philosophy focuses on the inter-personal. Jaspers recognizes the importance of the empirical sciences which he considers to be an expression of man's irrepressible urge to gain knowledge and understanding of the world. However, he points out that the scientific method has its limitations. Man's search for truth also aims at unity and totality of knowledge. There are areas of human experience - sensations, perceptions, feelings, intuitions, or intimations of private consciousness - which are intractable to scientific method. At the same time, Jaspers also rejects the way of the mystic. "To disengage oneself (for example as a spectator or mystic) is not to raise oneself above the world but to fail to become oneself", he writes.

These reflections lead Jaspers to conclude: "The individual cannot become human by himself. Self-being is only real in communication with another self-being. Alone I sink into gloomy isolation - only in community with others can I be revealed in the act of mutual discovery."

Jaspers takes this analysis a stage further. Following a survey of many, and sometimes warring, schools of philosophy from the time of the Greek philosophers, he notes that "all these views have one thing in common: they apprehend being as something that confronts me as an object, which stands apart from me as I think it ... The thing that we think, of which we speak, is always something other than ourselves ... whether the object be the reality of our sense perception, whether it be the concept of ideal objects, such as numbers or geometrical figures, or whether it be a fantasy or even an impossible imagining. We are always confronted outwardly or inwardly by objects which are the content of our consciousness."

Hence, Jaspers concludes, "There is no subject without an object, and no object without a subject. But if they cannot exist without the other, how are they related to each other? If they are not divisible from each other what is the unity holding them together, in which they are nevertheless so divided that subject intends the object? We call it the Encompassing, the totality of subject and object, which is itself neither subject nor object ... Everything that exists must appear in the Encompassing of the subject-object dichotomy."

There are, Jaspers asserts, different modes of encompassing. At one end of the scale "the mind is the encompassing in which we draft images and realize the Forms of a meaningful world in works." At the other end of the scale "the place of Transcendence, or Transcendence itself, is the All-Encompassing - hidden as such." And, he adds, "As for Transcendence, we do not explore this at all. We are touched by it, metaphorically speaking, and we touch it in turn - as the Other, the Encompassing of all Encompassing."

These two complementary concepts - Martin Buber's "The Between" and Karl Jasper's "The Encompassing" - provide important tools for theological reflection.

Allan Lancashire -Brief CV

Allan Lancashire was born in China of missionary parents. He read theology at the University of Birmingham. Following National Service he taught Religious Education for seven years. He was ordained into the Anglican ministry in 1963 and, following several years in parochial ministry, was Education Sector Minister in Milton Keynes and Schools Adviser in the Lichfield Diocese. In 1986 he was Priest-in-Charge of a number of rural parishes in north Oxfordshire.

He retired in 1996 and was received into the Catholic Church in the same year.He now lives in South Birmingham. He is the author of Born of the Virgin Mary (Faith Press) and Journeys of Faith (Churchman Publishing).

Section Contents Copyright ©; Mark Alder and Alan Lancashire 2000

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