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Hans Urs von Balthasar on Renewal that Matters

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 25, 2014

The brilliant Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905 – 1988) was for a long time a controversial figure. Perhaps in some circles he still is. During his formation and education as a Jesuit, von Balthasar encountered Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, and so found himself drawn into a long battle between their “nouvelle theologie” and the old Neo-Scholastic empire which tended to dominate in Rome. That conflict ultimately led to an extraordinarily fruitful rethinking of the relationship between grace and nature, but for a time several of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century were viewed with deep suspicion by the Vatican.

Later, deeply struck by the mystical visions of the Protestant Adrienne von Speyr, von Balthasar received her into the Church and the two collaborated in the establishment of a secular institute, the Community of St. John. In time, von Balthasar developed an appropriate theology of secular institutes which, again, has proven extraordinarily fruitful. But his superiors regarded his management of the Community of St. John as incompatible with his membership in the Society of Jesus, and so he left the Society in 1950. This left him without a formal position in the Church (and without a regular income) until he was finally incardinated as a secular priest in the sympathetic Diocese of Chur in 1956.

Then there is the fact that, despite his brilliance, von Balthasar was entirely passed over for participation in the Second Vatican Council. Again a little later, the Vatican began to catch up. Paul VI added him to the International Theological Commission in 1969, and John Paul II named him a cardinal in 1988. Von Balthasar died just two days before the ceremony. But at his funeral, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) stated: “What the pope intended to express by this mark of distinction, and of honor, remains valid, no longer only private individuals but the Church itself, in its official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the faith.”

This did not prevent a spirited debate from taking place in 2006 in First Things between two theologians, Alyssa Lyra Pipstick and Edward Oakes, SJ, on the question of whether von Balthasar’s rich and provocative theology of Christ’s descent into Hell involved him in some heretical statements. Von Balthasar’s reading of the descent into Hell and the possibility that all will be saved (which he cautions may not be asserted) cut across the grain of many earlier theological formulations. However, I think the issue of heresy was finally correctly resolved for First Things readers, in the negative, by editor R. R. Reno in a 2008 column, Was Balthasar a Heretic?

Who Is a Christian?

Like all of the very best theologians of his era, von Balthasar devoted himself to developing an adequate response to Western Modernism, which had done so much to render a Christian vision irrelevant to the modern world. Because those who took the issues raised by Modernism seriously were naturally engaged with the same set of problems, it took some years before the “nouvelle theologie” emerged from suspicion to break the sterile hold of the neo-scholastic “system” on Catholic thought. Ultimately, it succeeded in bringing about a return to the sources—a truly renewed emphasis on the insights and approaches of the Fathers of the Church, and a revitalized direct engagement with Scripture itself.

Theologically, this was a true renewal. But we all know that the broad renewal called for at the Second Vatican Council has been much abused. In the first generation after the Council, theological developments were more often subverted by Modernism than not, when they should have provided a serious Catholic approach to the same issues (principally the role of culture and human consciousness in shaping our understanding of the Divine). It is to von Balthasar’s credit that he always saw clearly the polluted currents in this flood of renewal. By the early 1980s, when Modernism was at its height within the Church and had already resulted in a deplorable secularization of the very idea of Christianity, von Balthasar wrote a little book which brilliantly separates the wheat from the chaff.

For the great Swiss theologian, everything comes down to what we think it means to be a Christian. His little book on this subject appeared in German in 1983 under the title, Wer ist ein Christ? A new English translation by Frank Davidson was published this year by Ignatius Press: Who Is a Christian? In the space of a hundred and thirty pages, von Balthasar raises the very real problem the Church faces in the modern world, offers a compelling critique of what he regards as the main channels of attempted renewal (again, necessary but so often abused), answers the question of what it really means to be a Christian, and articulates a truly Christian vision of engagement with the world.

This initial appreciation of von Balthasar’s small but potent book—which is dwarfed by the immense (and immensely eclectic) theological output of his long career—is a bit of an unintentional tease. I began by expecting to dig right into the key concepts he presents. These are extraordinarily relevant to our own situation thirty years later, as a deeper and more authentic renewal is haltingly beginning to take hold. But I found myself unable to sketch the background necessary for a fruitful understanding in just a paragraph or two.

Nonetheless, I really do not intend to make you read the book—though I highly recommend it to those who are untroubled by a dissection of renewal that is sympathetic and critical at the same time, and who are unafraid of the kind of subtle intellectual distinctions which lie at the core of its wonderful spiritual insights. No, I will resort instead to further installments to make these insights available in this space. Here let me just highlight von Balthasar’s central point: Proper renewal demands that we keep before our eyes what it means to be a Christian, a disciple of Jesus Christ, as opposed to (for example) a sectarian, an ideologue, or a humanist.

His recurring theme is that when we assume that the big question of how we are supposed to respond to God is thought to be in the rear-view mirror (he calls this “renewal with God behind us”), our own faulty preconceptions cause us to spiral into a fresh set of evasions in the name of reform. Therefore, the question “Who Is a Christian?” (i.e., what does it mean to be a Christian?) must always come first. Von Balthasar calls this “renewal with God before us”. In a sense it all comes down to whether we assume that Christ is following us, or that we must learn to follow Christ. He maintains that our answer determines what forms of renewal are truly authentic. These will be the initiatives which carry us ever-deeper into the salvific will of God. It is a point well worth exploring.


Next in series: Renewal with God Behind Us: Man Determines All

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