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A suggested reading list of works related to the study of Urs von Balthasar's theology

A theologian whose greatest contributions to his field extend over a period of approximately fifty years, beginning in the late 1930s, but who only came to prominence in the English-speaking world in the 1980s, is Hans Urs von Balthasar. His comparatively late recognition outside continental Europe is, perhaps, not altogether surprising, since, although a Catholic theologian, he had his origin and was nurtured in the milieu that produced such Protestant thinkers as Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, whose Germanic style and presentation of their thought tended to limit their appeal to a relatively few aficionados beyond the German-speaking world. Indeed, as is widely acknowledged, von Balthasar and Barth held each other in great esteem as theologians.

Since the early 1980s, however, there has been growing recognition of von Balthasar's importance as a Christian thinker, and an ever increasing number of English-speaking theologians have sought to understand him and to present his theological insights to a wider audience for their consideration. A number of his major works have been translated into English, but it has to be said that any newcomer to his writing would be advised to approach him through some of his more manageable essays. Fortunately, this has been facilitated through such publications as The von Balthasar Reader edited by Medard Kehl and Werner Loser, (New York, The Crossroad Publishing Company, and Edinburgh, T&T Clark, copyright 1982). The range of topics covered in this Reader is formidable, extending, as it does, from reflections on the riddle of human existence, through human nature and the human search for God, to the Incarnation and the life of the Church.

The reader whose interest has been stimulated by the foregoing, but who may have found the lingering Germanic style of presentation a little difficult to penetrate, will, no doubt, wish to look for clarification in the reactions of other theologians to von Balthasar’s work. A helpful collection of these is to be found in Hans Urs von Balthasar edited by David L Schindler, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1991). Another less ambitious, though helpful, study, is Balthasar at the End of Modernity, (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1999). The contributors to this volume represent the reflections of a new generation of Anglican theologians who have found Balthasar’s work both stimulating and demanding.

For a more substantial investigation of one of von Balthasar’s most important themes, one must turn to Aidan Nichols’ The Word Has Been Abroad, sub-titled A Guide Through Balthasar’s Aesthetics, (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1998). In an illuminating ‘Introduction to Balthasar’ Nichols traces his life and background, and thus prepares the reader for some of the emphases to be found in Balthasar’s copious writings. As Nichols points out, von Balthasar was concerned to break free from much of what he felt to be ugly and distasteful in the presentation of the Christian faith to the world. ‘[H]e spoke harshly’ says Nichols, ‘of the arid, desert-like quality of the theological landscape in which he was made to wander’ in his early years (p.xii). As he saw it, ‘The revelation which Christian theology set itself to study was the disclosure of a beauty beyond all worldly beauty in the supreme artwork of Jesus Christ; in it the transcendent beauty - in biblical language, the glory - of the ever-greater God came to expression.’ For von Balthasar, the beauty and drama of the Christian revelation had to be expressed in what he described as a Theological Aesthetics and Dramatics. For him, the true and the good had to be joined to the long neglected third member of the trio - beauty, for without it, the first two could be ‘gravely damaged’ (p.1.).

At the end of his foreword to vol. 1 of his seven volume study entitled The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1982), von Balthasar makes the following comment: ‘The overall scope of the present work naturally remains all too Mediterranean. The inclusion of other cultures, especially that of Asia, would have been important and fruitful. But the author’s education has not allowed for such an expansion, and a superficial presentation of such material would have been dilettantism. May those qualified come to complete the present fragment.’
Would that other academics in their several fields of study could emulate such humility! Certainly in the realm of theological reflection, which, by the nature of its mandate, must be concerned with the whole of humanity, if not the whole of creation, it is bound to suffer a degree of parochialism if its context is limited to one culture to the exclusion of all others. However, despite his disclaimer, von Balthasar does have quite a lot to say about Asian thought and religion, a fact borne out by Raymond Gawronski’s study entitled Word and Silence (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1995). In his examination of von Balthasar’s approach to Asian thought, it becomes clear that what concerns von Balthasar more than anything else is the tendency, as he sees it, for Asian thought, as exemplified especially by Buddhism, to lose all sight of the ‘personal’, both in men and women, and in the ‘finally real’. Even within Christian thought and practice, he holds, there resides this danger, since it forever lurks in the sophisticated shadows of the via negativa. ‘We have seen Balthasar,’ says Gawronski, ‘very concerned with the problem of the non-ground (Ungrund) of Nirvana, or the Void (Leere) - the Emptiness which is the end of natural religion in its turn from the world and its turn to God without the help of creatures which would mirror God. This is most highly developed in the mystical tradition of Zen within Buddhism and it has also figured prominently in the mystical tradition of the Christian West where it has appeared under the title of negative theology.’(p.40) ‘Zen’ he continues, ‘represents the most intense, the extreme, human attempt to escape the limits of the human condition. By its thoroughgoing negation - both of Being and non-Being - it reaches the Void, sunyata. That is a Void against which all beings appear as illusory, as pointers to the emptiness out of which they exist.’ (pp.47-8).
It is instructive, here, to be reminded of the fact that von Balthasar shared, so to speak, the same stable as Karl Barth (See Barth’s Church Dogmatics vols.1-4, Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1970, 1976). Barth was highly sceptical of all attempts to reach and find God via the route of ‘natural mysticism’. Indeed, they were doomed to be anti-God. For Barth, of course, the ‘doctrine of analogy was an unbridgeable chasm between Catholicism and Protestantism.’ (Gawronski, p.170) Gawronski admits that Balthasar was ‘tempted to agree’ with Barth, but that while acknowledging the effects of original sin in man, he also bore in mind Augustine’s dictum that the human ‘heart naturally hungers for God.’(p.163). Hendrik Kraemer, although for some years a missionary in Indonesia, takes, in his Religion and the Christian Faith (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1956) an even stronger stance than Barth, of whom he greatly approves, asserting that ‘all religion is a form, either of idolatry or of Werkgerechtigkeit (justification by works), which is another way of saying that it is “unbelief”’ (p.189).

By contrast, Jacques Dupuis, who taught theology in India from 1948 to 1984, and who has been professor of theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, has recently published a book entitled Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (New York, Orbis Books, 1997). In it he examines the history of Christian attempts to come to some kind of understanding of the significance of non-Christian religions, and, indeed, of the whole human religious experience, in the economy of God. Commenting on the work of von Balthasar, he states: ‘Balthasar has…repeatedly compared Christianity with the other religions of the world, to show the contrast, the reversal in perspective, which exists between the one and the other and the absoluteness of Christianity…. [H]is view rightly falls under the label of the “fulfillment theory,” being akin to that of Danielou and de Lubac, with some nuances…. [I]n Christ alone is the antinomy between the concrete-particular and the universal abstract overcome.’ (pp.140-1).

For Dupuis, however, ‘The universality of the Reign of God consists in that Christians and the “others” share the same mystery of salvation in Jesus Christ, even if the mystery reaches to them through different ways. To recognize that the Reign of God in history is not confined to the boundaries of the Church but extends to those of the world is not without interest and bearing on a Christian theology of religions. Vatican II…recognized the presence and action of the Spirit in the world and in the members of other religions; it likewise spoke of positive values contained in the traditions themselves. Its undeclared intention was to affirm a positive role of those traditions in the order of salvation….’ (p.344)

At the end of this overview, it is important to note that all the above theologians commenting on the non-Christian religions and, by implication, on the direction non-Western Christians should take in their own religious reflections, are Westerners, firmly rooted in the Western tradition. Balthasar, to his credit, recognized this. In the nature of things, Christians in this life are never likely to come to a final and definitive understanding of God’s will and purpose for his creation as a whole, but it is certainly now incumbent upon Christians the world over to listen to and learn from each other, and through that exercize, to come to a better knowledge of what God intends for us as the history of mankind unfolds. In this connection, non-Western theologians and Church leaders should be encouraged to speak freely in the knowledge that they will receive a sympathetic and respectful hearing from the whole community of Christians. One might begin with K.H. Ting’s No Longer Strangers, (New York, Orbis Books, 1989)

Douglas Lancashire

Version: 19th June 2006

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