H. U. von Balthasar
Is Credible. Truth: an Event
The great Swiss theologian and his reading of Western culture, from the consciousness that every creature is a gift of God, a God to whom man must be grateful. On the hundredth anniversary of his birth, a remembrance by one of his disciples
by David L. Schindler*
“Love Alone is Credible”: these words, which appear as the title of one his books, sum up the lifework of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, the centenary of whose birth we celebrate this year. To some, the words may seem too simple to help in our present cultural situation, with its global power blocks, consumerist economies, and “compassionate” biotechnologies. Balthasar, however, was fully aware of the complexity of today’s problems. He nevertheless understood these words to contain that truth alone which was capable of addressing the problems at their roots and not merely in their symptoms.
Christians, he said, are “guardians of a metaphysics of the whole person in an age that has forgotten both Being and God.” They bear responsibility for keeping alive the wonder-filled love that is the point of origin for authentic human existence and includes the entire cosmos in its breadth. This wonder lies unacknowledged but alive in the child’s first opening of its eyes to its mother’s smile. Through that smile, the child learns that “it is contained, affirmed, and loved in a relationship that is incomprehensibly encompassing, sheltering, and nourishing.” The relationship, in other words, calls forth a wonder at being permitted to be. “This condition of being permitted cannot be surpassed by any additional insight into the laws and necessities of the world.”
Balthasar’s theology of gift-evoking-wonder and wonder-evoking-gift finds its theological form in the grateful obedience of the Christic-Marian-ecclesial fiat. The phrase he coined for the basic “method” of theology is “kniende theologie”–kneeling or praying theology. Such a theology does not exclude other (e.g., historical-critical) methods, but it nonetheless includes these only as it integrates them. It is the saints, insisted Balthasar–those in whom the word of God has truly taken flesh–who alone have warrant, finally, to speak about God.
Gather the treasures of Egypt
The arc of Balthasar’s work, contained in some 119 books, embraces the entire Western heritage of philosophy, literature, art, and theology. Nevertheless, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger stated in his homily at Balthasar’s funeral, this great theologian was not moved by a curiosity simply to know a great deal or by a sense of the power that comes from mastery of many skills. His interest rather was to “gather the treasures of Egypt into the storehouse of our Faith (to speak in the language of the Church Fathers)”–and he knew that “such treasures can bear fruit only in a converted heart.” In the end, theology lives not so much “from what one thinks [as] from what one receives.” Balthasar, therefore, said Ratzinger, was “in the deepest sense of the word... a man of the Church.”
It was Balthasar’s profound sense of gift, taking its beginnings from the divine communio revealed in Jesus Christ, that inspired his reading of Western culture. Indeed, Henri de Lubac, who once declared Balthasar “perhaps the most cultivated man of our time,” wrote that Balthasar’s “spiritual diagnosis of our civilization is the most penetrating to be found.” We understand the depth of this assertion only insofar as we see that the wonder lying at the origin of human existence also indicates the “logic” of that existence. That is what a creature is: a gift from God whose being unfolds most properly in grateful movement toward God, a movement meant to gather up in gratitude all that is thought, done, and produced.
The characteristic problems of our culture are thus seen just here, in the absence of gratitude or grateful obedience to God. Our politics, economies, and (bio-)technologies, in their characteristic liberal expression, lack the form of creatureliness. The truth, goodness, and beauty recognized in pre-modernity as first given (by God) are now seen as first made by man (Vico: verum quia factum).
Contemplation and action
Fr. Luigi Giussani was fond of these words of Romano Guardini: “Inside a great love, everything becomes an event of that love.” Balthasar understood the entire cosmos, including all of its human culture, as an event inside God’s love–an event of love not as a “pious” happening but as meaning, as the appearance of being itself. Thus, “the world as a whole, because of the presence of the incarnate Son who is the definitive Image of the Father, is transformed into a sort of sacrament of divine truth and love.” As Balthasar’s close collaborator, Adrienne von Speyr, put it, the trinitarian exchange of love within God “opens up to the world,” such that the world itself becomes an “exchange between heaven and earth.”
Balthasar was a contemplative, but not after the manner of one who was disengaged from the world. He understood that activity is empty and lacking in fruitfulness if it does not originate in contemplation, and he was thus a man of action in the Marian–and, indeed, Johannine and Ignatian–sense. Balthasar’s engagement with the world expressed itself primarily in three foundations. In 1945, together with von Speyr, he founded the Community of St. John, a “secular institute” (or “world community”: Weltgemeinschaft), a community made up of priests and lay men and women living a consecrated love that remains in the world. In 1947, he established the Johannes Verlag, a publishing house devoted to making available theological, philosophical, spiritual, and literary works that draw out the Catholic and catholic meaning of Gospel love.
Lastly, in 1972, with theologians Henri de Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger and others (Karol Wojtyla was instrumental later in bringing the journal to Poland), Balthasar founded the international theological-cultural review Communio, which now has fourteen different language editions.
Balthasar and the Council
Balthasar saw Communio as a way of clarifying conciliar teaching in the face of the controversies and widespread uncertainty that followed the Council regarding the historic Catholic faith and the meaning of human existence itself. Balthasar was criticized by some in the years following the Council for abandoning his earlier, preconciliar, defense of the Church’s openness to the world (cf., e.g., Schleifung der Bastionen, 1952) and retreating to an “integralist” vision (cf., e.g., Cordula, 1966). But the truth of his position, that is, the abiding core of his lifelong Church–and world–centeredness, can be seen in his classic article, “The Council of the Holy Spirit” (“Das Konzil des Heiligen Geistes,” 1966).
“Love Alone is Credible”: these words, in sum, signaled for Balthasar a “new” realism that would transform the boredom generated by the empty technocratic soul (“anima technica vacua”) characteristic of the modern, even as it resisted the “moralism” characteristic of the anti-modern. The mission of Christians today is to give witness, in all aspects of their existence, to the act of love whose form is given in the suffering fiat of Jesus Christ. Christians are to read the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel. The inculturation of the Gospel that results will be a new inculturation, not the mechanical imposition of some earlier one. The inculturation will be creative, formed in the freedom of the Spirit. All of this will happen so long as Christians do not cease to wonder, and to love.
* Dean and Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and FamilY Washington, D.C.
Editor, Communio (North American edition)
August 12, 1905 Born in Lucerne, Switzerland.
1917-1924 Junior high school in Engelberg, Switzerland, and Feldkirch, Austria. High school diploma in Zurich.
1924-1928 Studies Germanistics and Philosophy in Zurich, Vienna, Berlin, and in Zurich.
1928 Doctoral degree in Germanistics with a thesis on The Eschatological Problem in German Literature.
1929 Enters the Society of Jesus in Feldkirch as a postulant in the eastern German province. Two years of novitiate.
1933 Theological studies in Fourvièvre (Lyon). Meets Henri de Lubac, G. Fessard, J.Danielou. Begins work in Patristics.
July 26, 1936 Ordained a priest in St. Michaelskirche in Munich by Cardinal Faulhaber, Archbishop of Munich and of Freising.
Beginning in 1940 Director of the European series in the Klosterberg collection of the editor Benno Schwabe. Spiritual director of Dr. Adrienne von Speyr, who converts to Catholicism. Begins an intense dialogue with K. Barth with the intention of deepening the relationship between l’analogia entis and l’analogia fidei. Pastoral work among students and in the academic world in Basel. Courses and exercises for students in the Schulungsgemeinschaft (SG), which he founded in (1941), later called Akademische Arbeitsgemeinschaft (AAG) (1945).
1944 Beginning of the dictations by Adrienne von Speyr, collected by von Balthasar in 50 works.
1945 Founds the Saint John Community together with Adrienne von Speyr.
1947 Founds the editorial house, Johannes Verlag, Einsiedeln, Switzerland.
1948 Discernment about the collaboration with Adrienne von Speyr.
1949-1950 Collaborates with Barth.
1950 Leaves the Society of Jesus. Intensified activity with secular institutes. Formation and spiritual guidance of the Saint John Community. Activity as author and editor, first in Zurich, then in Basel.
1956-1967 Directs the Saint John Community.
July 8, 1965 Laurea honoris causa in Theology from the University of Edinburgh.
November 19, 1965 Laurea honoris causa in Theology from the University of Münster in Westphalia.
September 17, 1967 Adrienne von Speyr dies.
December 17, 1967 Laurea honoris causa in Theology from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.
March 17, 1971 Romano-Guardini Award of the Kath. Akademie in Bayern, Munich.
1972 Co-founds, with Joseph Ratzinger and Henri de Lubac, the periodical, Communio: International Catholic Review.
June 11, 1973 Corresponding-Fellow of the British Academy, London.
September 5, 1980 Laurea honoris causa in Philosophy at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C.
1983 Founds the Saint John Community for priests.
June 23, 1984 Paul VI International Award, Rome.
May 28, 1988 Nominated Cardinal by John Paul II.
June 26, 1988 Dies in his home in Basel.
1925 First publication: Die Entwicklung der musikalischen Idee. Versuch einer Synthese der Muzik.
1937-1939 Publication of The Apocalypse in the German Soul.
1938 Anthology of texts on Origen: Origenes, Geist und Feuer.
1939 German translation of The Satin Slipper by Paul Claudel, followed by translations of Péguy, Mauriac, and Bernanos. Project for a new dogmatic theology with Karl Rahner.
1941 Kosmische Liturgie (Cosmic Liturgy) Maximilian the Confessor.
1942 Présence et Pensée. Essai sur la Philosophie religieuse de Grégoire de Nysse. Publication of an anthology of texts on Goethe from theTrauergesänge and of an anthology on Nietzsche: Vergeblichkeit, Vom Guten und Bösen, Vom vornehemen Menschen.
1945 Das Herz der Welt (Heart of the World). Numerous conferences and courses.
1947 Wahrheit (Truth of the World).
1950 Terese von Lisieux, Geschichte einer Sendung.
1951 Karl Barth. Deutung und Darstellung seiner Theologie (The Theology of Karl Barth).
1955 Das betrachtende Gebet (Prayer).
1961-1969 Publication of the first part of the Trilogy: Herrlichkeit. Eine theologische Ästhetik (The Glory of the Lord).
1963 Das Ganze im Fragment (The Whole in the Fragment). Glaubhaft ist nur Liebe (Love Alone).
1966 Cordula oder der Ernstfall (Cordula, or the Serious Case).
1969 Theologie der drei Tage (Theology of the Three Days).
1971 In Gottes Einsatz leben (The Christian’s Commitment in the World).
1972 Die Wahrheit ist Symphonisch (Truth is Symphonic).
1973 Dante. A journey through the language, history, and thought of the Divine Comedy.
1973-1983 Publication of the second part of the Trilogy: Theodramatik (Theodramatics).
1977 Christlicher Stand (The Christian State of Life).
1984 Unser Auftrag (Our Task).
1985-1987 Publication of the third part of the Trilogy: Theologik (Theology).
1987-1988 End of the Trilogy. Begins Epilog.