Wednesday 26 June 2013

On the Anniversary of von Balthasar

By John D. O’Brien, S.J.

Hans Urs von Balthasar
Really raised the bar,
From descensus, to drama, to logic – higher and higher –
With a leg-up from Adrienne von Speyr.
— Clerihew by Kim Fabricius and Ben Myers

Today (June 26, 2013), is the 25th anniversary of the death of one of the 20th century’s great theologians, the Swiss priest Hans Urs von Balthasar. He died on this day in 1988, in his eighty-third year, just two days before the ceremony that would have made him a cardinal. For his friends and fans, and they are many, this dies natalis, or “day of birth” into heaven, was a great mercy for the former Jesuit, who once turned down a professorship at the Gregorian University to be a student chaplain in Basel. He always preferred the hidden spots to the social panoplies of the world, to contemplate with John at the foot of the cross, to give retreats and direct souls, and to write about the things that mattered most, a massive output of more than 1000 books and articles. Despite his personal modesty, the French Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac once opined that Balthasar was “perhaps the most cultured man of our time.”

What did Balthasar have to say during his decades of intellectual and contemplative ministry? His biography is better read elsewhere; further, it is sometimes daunting to summarize his many and varied theological contributions. But in this Year of Faith and during this 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, it’s worth looking at some of his major themes that continue to reverberate in the Church today.

First, he was a pioneer in the returning of the “eye of theology” beyond the textbook neo-scholasticism taught in his day, to the wellsprings of sacred scripture and the early Church Fathers. Today we might take this for granted, but it is thanks to him and his friendships with thinkers such as de Lubac, Jean Danielou, Erich Przywara, and the Reformed Protestant theologian Karth Barth – a mid-20th century movement that became called la nouvelle theologie (though not by them) – that many of the Council’s reforms were precipitated.

He was a passionate advocate for the universal call to holiness and the role of the laity in the Church, although he also believed lay people were also called to new forms of consecrated life, and he founded such a community with the Swiss doctor and mystic Adrienne von Speyr, called the Community of St. John.

At the same time, Balthasar provided a response to what may be called Modern Experientialism, a trend in both theology and spirituality that emphasized the religious experience as a starting point, a subjectivist movement with roots in the writing of 19th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, who had disciples in the Protestant thinker Paul Tillich and Catholic theologians Karl Rahner and others (Rahner, it should be noted, found Balthasar’s achievements “truly breathtaking” and Balthasar would praise Rahner’s contributions to religious psychology). The experientialist theologians were popular because they seemed to provide a solid basis upon which Christianity could be proposed to the world, establishing a "common ground" of religious experience on which all our symbols and doctrines were based and could be explained.

Having grown up in a time when the church culture seemed dominantly influenced by this sweep of subjectivist thinking, I can agree with Robert Barron, who wrote that his first encounter with Balthasar had a certain tonic effect:
I found [it] wrenching, disconcerting, but ultimately bracing. As I perused his texts, I kept waiting for the apologetic or explaining move, the justification for the project on the basis of some self-validating experience, but what I found instead was a stubborn command to “look at the form” of Christ. As I tried to get ahold of Christian doctrine, Balthasar kept telling me to relax and let Christian doctrine get ahold of me … I wanted to draw revelation into experience, and Balthasar, like Barth, was trying to extricate me from “the musty confines of religious self-consciousness” and draw me into a new world.

While many theologians were measuring the data of revelation by the structures of religious self-consciousness, Balthasar had chosen a more direct, objective and contemplative way of knowing, one that looked at the whole of its object without dismantling it analytically. He called for a “kneeling theology” over a “sitting theology”. Like the stained-glass windows of the great cathedrals, it sometimes meant that the radiant beauty of Christ could only be perceived from within the structure of faith.

It was natural, perhaps, that my own vocation as a Jesuit came out of a context in which I was reading Balthasar. With my freedom always engaged, the invitation to follow Christ was nonetheless very objective; it was on offer. The process was similar, in a sense, to Balthasar's own religious calling, which took place while doing a 30-day Ignatian retreat in 1927. In his own words:
Even now, thirty years later, I could still go to that remote path in the Black Forest … and find again the tree beneath which I was struck as by lightning … And yet it was neither theology nor the priesthood which then came into my mind in a flash. It was simply this: you have nothing to choose, you have been called … All I needed to do was to stand there and wait and see what I would be needed for.
De Lubac has written, perhaps, the most masterful assessment of Balthasar, so I will do no more than list several more themes that permeate his work: the love and life of the Trinity as the origin and destination of all things, childlike simplicity, receptivity and obedience as primary acts of the human soul, the restoration of Beauty as an equal manifestation of the divine alongside Truth and Goodness, and a profoundly Ignatian sense of the suscipe prayer: “Take, Lord, and receive, all my liberty, knowledge, understanding and will … your love and grace is enough for me.”

Underneath Balthasar one will always find St. Ignatius: the God-lover, the contemplative in action, the one for whom God is living and true, to whom is due all praise, reverence and service. For a world hungry for God, it’s no surprise Balthasar is being discovered and studied in campuses, parishes and formation houses around the world today.


  1. Your opening sentence contains a factual error: he died in June, not March.

  2. John, I've always wanted to know more about von Balthasar, so I'm happy to have read this. (Maybe you'll be the next von Balthasar!) I was particularly taken with something that I read once...I'm sure I'll summarize it all wrong. But it was along the lines of - Christ, on the Cross, has done it all. Because of this, all power and grace is there and the possibility of a hell that is empty, exists. Is this at all correct, or is this a big misrepresentation of something he wrote? It appealed to the irrationally compassionate side of me - as a kid I used to pray and ask God to just surprise us, and give each person whatever they needed in order to not be in hell. No pressure to respond, btw. And I love the picture of him - he looks kind.

  3. Regina: I was just rereading your comment, and saw "the next von B" speculation. Not likely! But your capsulation on his position on hell is correct. The book was called "Dare We Hope That All Men be Saved?". It's been controversial. But in the end, HUvB seems to only be saying that there are legitimate grounds for us HOPING that within the plan of God hell is empty. He is not positing that it IS so, just making the case that it's okay to hope. - John