Balthasar and Anxiety

The following excerpt is taken from John Cihak’s essay, “Balthasar and Anxiety: Methodological and Phenomenological Considerations.” To read the essay in its entirety, visit Theophenomenon—an excellent weblog. The only qualm that I have with the essay so far is the author’s take on Kierkegaard—a view that on the surface strikes me as unconvincing. For example, would Kierkegaard himself deny that “the deepest origin of anxiety lies not inherently in human reason but in the Fall?” Nonetheless, the essay is well-worth reading.

“Although fragments of the theme of anxiety can be found in many places of the Balthasarian corpus, the theme is found foremost in the one small work the author explicitly dedicated to the theme, Der Christ und die Angst (CA), and in the writings surrounding that work. [4] Balthasar’s primary intention in CA is to give a theological interpretation of anxiety. However, in order for his interpretation to be heard in the contemporary situation, it seems appropriate to give his interpretation a strong phenomenological grounding that it might connect more deeply with psychology and philosophy. A second methodological choice within this first choice is to focus the description of the phenomenon on people rather than texts. After all, people are anxious, not ideas. Thus, a constellation of persons may be formed through which he presents the phenomenon of anxiety. This methodological choice, I believe, respects the way Balthasar himself thought and wrote.

The basic hermeneutical key for looking at this theme in Balthasar is the whole lies in the fragment. [5] Jacques Servais writes that with this key, ‘Balthasar can penetrate to the heart of the whole reality and take in the singular event in which God appears and communicates himself in Jesus Christ’. [6] The whole presents itself entirely only in Christ, yet in Christ, his fullness shines forth in every fragment. The task then becomes not an ordering of the fragments into a system, but orchestrating them into a symphony by which each fragment is oriented to the ever greater Gestaltof the figure of Jesus Christ.

Balthasar’s theological interpretation follows this key, and may be told as a tale of two Gardens: Eden and Gethsemane. In contrast to Kierkegaard, he argues that the deepest origin of anxiety lies not inherently in human reason but in the Fall. Comparing the author’s thought with Kierkegaard’s interpretation begins to indicate the theological dimension of the theme, especially anthropological questions concerning the original state and the Fall. From this initial approach, which connects with psychology and philosophy, Balthasar is in a position to offer his theological interpretation. Balthasar’s theology of anxiety is proposed in CA but not fully delineated. Such delineation can be made from taking the theme through other parts of his writing to formulate more fully and explicitly the anthropological, christological, trinitarian and ecclesial dimensions of the theme.

The full measure of man and his anxiety is found only in Christ. [7] Jesus Christ, substitutes himself for sinful man, and takes all anxiety upon himself culminating in his agony in Gethsemane and on the Cross. In this redeeming act he shares fully all of fallen man’s anxiety and beyond since he is the wholly innocent One. Finally, man’s anxiety is progressively transformed by his insertion into Christ, as implied in the difference between the first and third weeks of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. This insertion happens, Balthasar argues, concretely in the Church through the Sacraments and in the practice of the theological virtues. [8]

The transforming insertion, I would argue, continues in ways not explicitly connected to the theme by the author through growth in spiritual childhood and vulnerability, in spiritual knighthood and mission, in spiritual friendship and communio, and in contemplative prayer and mystical darkness. Through this transforming insertion, man is freed from the anxiety that comes from the world, sin and death, and is initiated into Christian anxiety, which is his joyful participation in Christ’s sufferings in Gethsemane in his loving solidarity with, and substitution for, anxious sinners. The constriction (anxietas), which is the suffering in anxiety, becomes for the believer a sharing in the labor pains of the new Creation.”


[4] Balthasar, H. U. von. Der Christ und die Angst, Einsiedeln/Trier 1951. The other two primary works are Balthasar, H. U. von. Reinhold Schneider. Sein Weg un sein Werk, Köln/Olten 1953, which was reworked and republished as Nochmals: Reinhold Schneider, Einsiedeln/Freiburg 1990, and Balthasar, H. U. von. Bernanos, Köln/Olten 1954, which was reworked and republished in 1971: Balthasar, H. U. von. Gelebte Kirche: Bernanos, Einsiedeln/Trier 1988_.

[5] The following ideas are taken from the presentation made by Jacques Servais, SJ at the recent conference in Washington, D.C.: Servais, J. <> [accesso: 26.09.05], http//

[6] Servais, 4.

[7] I believe most if not all of Balthasar’s critical comments about psychology, which are not few, center around one point: psychology cannot claim to possess the full measure of man, and in his view it often does make this claim.

[8] Balthasar mentions this transformation through the theological virtues in CA and the Sacraments in Gelebte Kirche.

Jean-Luc Marion: A Postmodern Dionysian of Sorts

As I noted in a previous post, a number of postmodern thinkers have become interested in negative theology, giving special attention to Dionysius. For example, Jean-Luc Marion has found Dionysius a valuable resource in the development of his own theology. In this post, I want to briefly mention some of the ways that Marion incorporates Dionysian thought into his own project. Both Dionysius and Marion are concerned with upholding God’s transcendence and avoiding conceptual idolatry of any sort. For Marion, there are two basic orientations to world: (1) an iconic consciousness or (2) an idolatrous consciousness. As Marion explains, “[t]he idol measures the divine to the scope of the gaze of he who then sculpts it.” Hence, an idol is produced when we attempt to conceptually circumscribe God, which is in essence to limit God to the human gaze. In our attempts to measure God by human understanding, we become trapped in a kind of self-reflexivity in which the idol becomes a mirror that reflects the human gaze back to itself. In contrast, the icon allows one’s gaze to move through the icon (visible) to that which is invisible. That is,

“[w]hat characterizes the icon painted on wood does not come from the hand of man but from the infinite depth that crosses it—or better, orients it following the intention of a gaze. The essential in the icon […] comes to it from elsewhere. […] Contemplating the icon amounts to seeing the visible in the very manner by which the invisible that imparts itself therein envisages the visible—strictly, to exchange our gaze for the gaze that iconistically envisages us.”

Following a Dionysian emphasis on the positive value of symbols, Marion likewise underscores that signs and images are not to be despised, as they can and should be used as contemplative aids in our worship of God. In fact, not only does creation itself function iconically to reveal the invisible things of God through that which is visible (Rom 1:20), but Christ Himself is said to be the Icon of God (Col 1:15). Moreover, given the kind of creatures that we are, it is fitting that we embrace signs and images which simultaneously hide and reveal that which exceeds this, so to speak, “clothing” of the formless.

Marion’s aim is of course to bring us into a more iconic consciousness, which in turn allows God to manifest himself according to his terms (not ours). If we embrace an iconic orientation, then, as Marion puts it, we must abandon any attempt to measure the divine by our own human gaze. Here Marion again seems very much in harmony with Dionysius. That is, for both Marion and Dionysius, there is no concept that adequately captures God. God, who is beyond being, is ipso facto beyond definition, and Marion is at pains to free God from our limiting (idolatrous) gaze. As Robyn Horner observes, Marion both continues within the Dionysian trajectory and also furthers the conversation with his own distinctive contributions. That is, in addition to drawing our attention to conceptual idols, Marion likewise speaks of conceptual icons as a way of thinking God in a non-idolatrous way. This path does not move “through the traditional metaphysical route that focuses on being, but through the mystical route of love.” Marion also adds to the discussion of icons, the idea of our being gazed upon and hence transformed by the other. Instead of a self-reflexive gaze necessitated by the idol, the icon breaks the circle of reflexivity and “gives the invisible to thought, not on the basis of the capacities of the metaphysical ego, but on its own terms.” Contrasting the two gazes, Marion writes that with the icon

“our gaze becomes the optical mirror of that at which it looks only by finding itself more radically looked at: we become a visible mirror of an invisible gaze that subverts us in the measure of its glory. The invisible summons us, ‘face to face, person to person’ (1 Cor. 13:12), through the painted visibility of its incarnation and the factual visibility of our flesh: no longer the visible idol as the invisible mirror of our gaze, but our face as the visible mirror of the invisible. […] It [the icon] transforms us in its glory by allowing this glory to shine on our face as its mirror—but a mirror consumed by that very glory, transfigured with invisibility, and by dint of being saturated beyond itself from that glory, becoming, strictly though imperfectly, the icon of it: visibility of the invisible as such.”

Though the icon indeed “opens distance,” it never claims nor pretends to exhaust God or to produce any kind of comprehensive knowledge of the incomprehensible.

Derrida on Dionysius: A Mystical Iconoclast or a Misread?

In recent years a number of postmodern thinkers have become interested in negative theology and Neoplatonism. For example, Jean-Luc Marion has found within negative theology an inexhaustible resource that harmonizes well with his own theological and phenomenological project. Jacques Derrida has also engaged negative theology; however, he seems to have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward it and particularly dislikes what he interprets in Dionysius’ thought as the retention of a “transcendental signified.” As Eric Perl explains,

“Deconstruction is fundamentally a theory of signification, which attacks the (supposedly) traditional notion that a signifier (word, text, or image) refers to a signified, the meaning which itself is prior to and independent of the signifier. Derrida calls this the “transcendental signified”: the meaning underlying the expression, the archetype underlying the image, that which is not sign but “pure signified.” On the traditional assumption, any system of meaning, be it a written text or the cosmos itself, has such a transcendental signified. In the case of a text, it is the author’s intent, what he means to express; in the case of the world, understood as a system of signs, it is God” (“Signifying Nothing,” p. 125).

Derrida takes the description above to be characteristic of Western metaphysics, and thus his own project attempts to show that no such transcendental signified can be found outside, beyond or prior to the text or world. In the end, all we have are signs. “We can never transcend signs to arrive at a pure signified which is not itself a sign” (Ibid., p. 126). Here is where Derrida’s attraction to negative theology and Neoplatonism comes in focus. As we have seen, in Dionysian thought, God is beyond being and thought. That which can be thought exists and that which is is not God but “only an image, sign, or expression.” Hence, for Derrida, the common bond between negative theology and deconstruction is their mutual agreement that everything in the realm of existence and hence thought is sign all the way down. No transcendental signified or ultimate meaning is accessible, but remains forever deferred. “But whereas for Neoplatonism this implies that the world is infinitely meaningful, the manifestation of God, for deconstructionism it implies that the world is meaningless” (Ibid., p. 126).

Though Derrida has no doubt contributed significantly to contemporary thought and his insights have and should continue to be appropriated, one wonders whether he has correctly interpreted Neoplatonism and negative theology particularly as manifest in Dionysius. For Dionysius, as is the case with Plotinus, God is both beyond being (transcendent) and excessively present (immanent). As Dionysius explains,

“God is […] known in all things and as distinct from all things. He is known through knowledge and unknowing. Of him there is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name, and many other things. On the other hand he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him. He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them. He is all things in all things and he is no thing among things. He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything (DN VII.3).

Here Dionysius highlights both creation (i.e., everything that exists) as theophany, where everything that is manifests God, and God’s radical transcendence in light of the fact that He is beyond the order of being, the created realm. Derrida seems to focus only on the “and” side of the Dionysian world, i.e., on God as wholly other—other in the sense of a transcendental signified, a being beyond Being who is still entangled in a signifier/signified dualism. Hence, the Derridean read of Dionysius is that of “a kind of ‘mystical iconoclast,’ who calls us to strip away all created symbols and images and attain a non-symbolic vision of and union with God as ‘pure signified’” (Ibid., p.) Dionysius, however, in no way suggests that we must finally do away with all symbols in order to encounter God. “This divine ray can enlighten us only by being upliftingly concealed in a variety of sacred veils which the Providence of the Father adapts to our nature as human beings” (CH I.2). Hence, we experience God not by peeling away or overcoming signs, but by embracing the signs as icons. In other words, God is present and manifest in the signs and “sacred veils” that both conceal and reveal Him. Derrida has done a superb job of describing the concealing aspects of Dionysius; however, it seems that he has not properly understood the iconic function of signs.

Dionysius’ Wise Silence

Dionysius, as is the case with Parmenides and Plotinus, firmly held that to be is to be intelligible. In other words, being and knowledge go hand in hand. Being implies that which is determinate and derivative; hence, God is not a being but is the creator of being, who necessarily transcends being. God is not a “facet of being. Rather, being is a facet of him. He is not contained in being, but being is contained in him” (DN V.8). Given what we have said so far, we discern a strict logic at work: if to be is to be intelligible, and God is not a being, then God is not intelligible. That is, God transcends our rational abilities—“He [in his essence] is completely unknown.” Moreover, since God is beyond being and knowing, he is likewise beyond predication. As Dionysius explains in the Divine Names, his purpose is not to reveal God in his transcendence—that is an impossible task beyond mind and words altogether—rather, he wants to “sign a hymn of praise for the being-making procession of the absolute divine Source of being into the total domain of being” (DN V.1). In other words, Dionysius recognizes that the divine names in no way (quidditatively) define God, yet this is not to say that Dionysius is confined to complete silence. Rather, Dionysius emphasizes the significance of the divine names in their liturgical, and hence, doxological context. Given that God himself, who is completely enfolded (and beyond our comprehension), unfolds himself via the hierarchs and a mediated process of illumination, the divine names do in fact refer to God and reveal him in a non-exhaustive, yet meaningful manner. In fact, Dionysius’ opening words of the Divine Names provides a kind of broad outline as to what he hopes to accomplish in his work, as well as what he understands himself to be communicating and not communicating. Though somewhat lengthy, the following passage is worth quoting in full:

“I come now to an explication of the divine names, as far as possible. Here too let us hold on to the scriptural rule that when we say anything about God, we should set down the truth “not in the plausible words of human wisdom but in demonstration of the power granted by the Spirit” to the scripture writers, a power by which, in a manner surpassing speech and knowledge, we reach a union superior to anything available to us by way of our own abilities or activities in the realm of discourse or of intellect. This is why we must not dare to resort to words or conceptions concerning that hidden divinity which transcends being, apart from what the sacred scriptures have divinely revealed. Since the unknowing of what is beyond being is something above and beyond speech, mind, or being itself, one should ascribe to it an understanding beyond being. Let us therefore look as far upward as the light of sacred scripture will allow, and, in our reverent awe of what is divine, let us be drawn together toward the divine splendor. For, if we may trust the superlative wisdom and truth of scripture, the things of God are revealed to each mind in proportion to its capacities; and the divine goodness is such that, out of concern for our salvation, it deals out the immeasurable and infinite in limited measures” (DN I.1).

As Dionysius explains, he seeks to explicate (to “unfold”) the divine names in so far as this is possible. Likewise, he contrasts “plausible words of human wisdom” with those of scripture, which were given in a revelation which surpasses human cognitive abilities. In other words, the scripture writers were granted a special illumination from God—not through their own rational processes—but through a union that surpasses human knowledge. Yet, they in turn hand down what they received in a way those below them can understand. Thus, the divine names are not the product of (merely human) theological activity in which human beings attempt to form propositions about God that define him in quid. Rather, the divine names are given by God through a process of mediated illumination, and thus “we may trust the superlative wisdom and truth of scripture.” Consequently, the divine names are one way in which Dionysius’ “wise silence” speaks.

The Final Word on Death

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:20-28, ESV).

Below are selected moments from Tom Wright’s commentary on this passage.

“The resurrection of Jesus was the moment when the one true God appointed the man through whom the whole cosmos would be brought back into its proper order. A human being had got it into this mess; a human being would get it out again. The story of Genesis 1-3—the strange, haunting tale of a wonderful world spoiled by the rebellion of God’s image-bearing creatures—is in Paul’s mind throughout this long chapter” (Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians, p. 212). After rehearsing a kind of mini redemptive-historical narrative, St. Paul begins to discuss the coming of God’s kingdom. Many Jews of St. Paul’s longed for the coming of God’s kingdom—for the day when “God would become king over the whole world, restoring Israel to glory, defeating the nations that had oppressed God’s people for so long, and raising all the righteous dead to share in the new world” (p. 212). For St. Paul, with the resurrection of Christ, this day had in a very real sense been inaugurated, yet, in a way that took him totally by surprise. “Instead of all God’s people being raised at the end of history, one person had been raised in the middle of history. That was the shocking, totally unexpected thing. But this meant that the coming of God’s kingdom was happening in two phases” (p. 213). When St. Paul speaks of each occurring “in his own order,” he has in mind both the order of events and God’s final ordering (p. 213). The former, viz., the order of events, speaks of Jesus’ present reign as the risen Lord and King. Yet, the “purpose of this reign—to defeat all the enemies that have defaced, oppressed and spoiled God’s magnificent world, and his human creatures in particular—has not yet been accomplished. One day this task will be complete: the final enemy, death itself, will be defeated (verse 26), and God will be ‘all in all’ (verse 28)” (p. 213).

Then we move to the final ordering where we have a picture of a world “put back to rights.” Here St. Paul appeals to two psalms, and weaves together a Messianic mosaic manifesting to us what we as imago Dei were created to be and do. “Psalm 110, quoted in verse 25, is about the king whom God will place at his right hand until all his enemies are brought into subjection. This, Paul declares, is now being fulfilled in Jesus. Psalm 8, quoted in verse 27, belongs closely with this, speaking of God ‘putting all things into order under his feet’ [Wright’s translation]. But instead of talking about the Messiah, as Psalm 110 does, Psalm 8 talks about the human being. This role, of being under God and over the world, is not just the task of the Messiah; it’s what God had in mind from the very start when he created human beings in his own image. This is how Paul ties the passage tightly together: the achievement of the Messiah, and his present reign in which he is bringing the world back to order, is the fulfillment of what God intended humans to do (see verse 21). The story told in Genesis is completed by the story told in the Psalms” (p. 214). Our enemy, death, of course plays a crucial role in this story; however, death does not have the final word. Rather, the Final Word has the final word and death is silenced. He is Risen!

Is Our Ultimate Perfection a Knowing or an Unknowing?

I am currently taking a very interesting course at UD on Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius. Below is a brief comparison of St. Thomas and Dionysius in regard to our ultimate perfection. In his treatise, The Divine Names, Dionysius writes,

“[w]e now grasp these things in the best way we can, and as they come to us, wrapped in the sacred veils of that love toward humanity with which scripture and hierarchical traditions cover the truths of the mind with things derived from the realm of the senses. And so it is that the Transcendent is clothed in the terms of being, with shape and form on things which have neither, and numerous symbols are employed to convey the varied attributes of what is an imageless and supra-natural simplicity. But in time to come, when we are incorruptible and immortal, when we have come at last to the blessed inheritance of being like Christ, then as scripture says, ‘we shall always be with the Lord.’ In most holy contemplation we shall be ever filled with the sight of God shining gloriously around us as once it shone for the disciples at the divine transfiguration. And there we shall be, our minds away from passion and from earth, and we shall have a conceptual gift of light from him and, somehow, in a way we cannot know, we shall be united with him and, our understanding carried away, blessedly happy, we shall be struck by his blazing light. […] But as for now, what happens is this. We use whatever appropriate symbols we can for the things of God. With these analogies we are raised upward toward the truth of the mind’s vision, a truth which is simple and one. We leave behind us all our own notions of the divine. We cal a halt to the activities of our minds and, to the extent that is proper, we approach the ray which transcends being. Here, in a manner no words can describe, preexisted all the goals of all knowledge and it is of a kind that neither intelligence nor speech can lay hold of it nor can it at all be contemplated since it surpasses everything and is wholly beyond our capacity to know it. Transcendently it contains within itself the boundaries of every natural knowledge and energy. […] And if all knowledge is of that which is and is limited to the realm of the existent, then whatever transcends being must also transcend knowledge” (The Divine Names, pp. 52-53).

I certain do not pretend to understand nor to be able to unpack everything in this passage; however, I do want to focus on some of the differences that come to the surface between Dionysius and St. Thomas. In the passage above, three different activities are discerned: seeing, knowing, and unknowing (union). Both Thomas and Dionysius would agree that the senses will be used in the life to come (hence, above we read of a “sight of God”). Likewise, both would agree that we will engage in intellectual activities—as Dionysius puts it, “we shall have a conceptual gift of light from him.” However, Dionysius adds that the highest “activity” will be an unknowing, a union—that which is beyond nous. Thomas of course does not agree with this last addition, as he believes that our perfection is a kind of knowing. In other words, for Dionysius our perfection comes in a non-cognitive union with God (an unknowing or that which is beyond knowing altogether). Whereas for Aquinas, our union with God is a form of understanding, different (and superior) from the way that we understand now. In addition, for Thomas, we will (in our future state) know God’s essence (not in the sense of comprehending God). In Dionysius as well, we do have knowledge of God’s essence; however, that is an inferior knowing which is surpassed by a non-cognitive experiencing of God who is beyond being. This has to be the case for Dionysius given what he states in the last sentence of the passage quoted above, viz., “if all knowledge is of that which is and is limited to the realm of the existent, then whatever transcends being must also transcend knowledge.”


Pseudo Dionysius. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Trans. Colm Luibheid. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.