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.