Book Plug: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought by Jennifer Newsome Martin

By Robert Saler

Robert Saler is Research Professor of Lutheran Studies and Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN.

In this study, Jennifer Newsome Martin offers far more than a relatively esoteric consideration of the influence of the 19th-century “Russian School” (particularly Vladimir Soloviev, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Sergei Bulgakov) on Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology, as interesting as such genealogy might be to theologians. Instead, by considering how Balthasar incorporates and rejects the fruits of a uniquely daring and speculative period within Russian theology (and Eastern Orthodox systematic theology in general), Martin is able to provide one of the more lucid introductions to the speculative yet ultimately disciplined character of Balthasar’s own theology. Indeed, given that von Balthasar has come under attack in recent years particularly by Roman Catholic theologians who regard some of his more daring theological formulations (e.g. his subjunctive universalism, his account of Christ’s descent into hell as one of suffering rather than triumph), Martin’s careful exegesis of where Balthasar follows the lead of his Russian interlocutors (as well as that of their mutual textual foil, Schelling) and where he demurs from their more radical conclusions in the name of Catholic doctrine and/or Christocentric theology serves a more subterranean yet compelling purpose: to demonstrate that Balthasar, whose capacious appreciation for intellectual sources outside of Roman Catholicism and indeed outside the orbit of Christian theology altogether, nonetheless was creatively orthodox in his interweaving of these disparate strands into a sustained theological vision of the fulfillment of all human endeavors – artistic, philosophical, and religious – in the resurrected life of Christ.

The result of this is a marvelously scholarly and non-polemical survey of some key themes in Balthasar’s theology, particularly in relation to eschatology, biblical hermeneutics, and the role of myth in theology. For instance, regarding the role of myth, Balthasar shared with both his Russian interlocutors and Schelling a suspicion of the seemingly deadening impact of unchecked Enlightenment rationality in describing the human condition (as well as the subsequent impact of such anemic understandings of revelation and the apocalyptic upon Christian theology). However, Balthasar saw in his Russian counterparts’ reception of both Schelling and Schelling’s ideological predecessor Jakob Böhme an object lesson in how to critically appropriate mythic hermeneutics both within and cognate to Christian scriptures in both unhelpful (as in his firm dismissal of Berdyaev on this score) and in evocative ways (as in his greater sympathy for Bulgakov).

In reading Martin’s account, the principal of “resonant, not relevant” comes to mind – because these Russian thinkers in diaspora, as heterogeneous as they were, all were confronted with the challenge of reconciling aesthetic and philosophical currents of modernity with biblical and patristic sources (a task that was arguably mostly eschewed by the subsequent neo-pastristic Renaissance brought to fruition by figures such as Florovsky, despite that movement’s ostensible program of synthesis) but from a wildly different cultural and ecclesial location than that of von Balthasar, their consideration of sources common to both East and West from the standpoint of ecclesial fidelity could inform Balthasar’s speculative imagination while also modeling epistemological and/or doctrinal restraint at key junctures. As Balthasar himself said about that tensions in inherent in that task (as quoted by Martin),

Being faithful to tradition most definitely does not consist…of a literal repetition and transmission of the philosophical and theological theses that one imagines lie hidden in time and in the contingencies of history. Rather, being faithful to tradition consists much more of imitating our Fathers in the faith with respect to their attitude of intimate reflection and their effort of audacious creation, which are necessary preludes to true spiritual fidelity. (14-15).

One of Martin’s most significant contributions in showcasing Balthasar’s “true fidelity” on this score is to demonstrate how, when all was said and done, for him the key theological loci of bodily resurrection and eschatological redemption as construed by the Catholic tradition are absolutely necessary for doing justice to the strivings of the human condition as reflected in art, philosophy, and other modes of cultural aesthetics. Indeed, Martin demonstrates convincingly that the moments in Balthasar’s corpus where he is most severe and epistemologically restrictive in his willingness to speculate apart from received Catholic doctrine is when he feels that the centrality of the resurrection (with its theological approbation of the material body as a site of God’s redemption) is in danger of being subsumed by quasi-gnostic mythos.

As a scholarly monograph (indeed, a dissertation revision) and as a sympathetic rendition of Balthasar’s major themes, Martin’s book succeeds well. Indeed, the only significant frustration that I had with the book was that, in this case, those two genres exist in some tension: because Martin stays on task of assessing Balthasar’s corpus in light of his Russian and German idealist interlocutors, the book – though clearly written – will largely be inaccessible for those seeking a more general introduction to Balthasar as well as a more sustained response to his more vociferous critics (whom Martin introduces and summarizes fairly but mostly rebuts, if at all, via indirect demonstration rather than direct response). If this book is any indication, Martin has quite a bit more to add to consideration of Balthasar’s legacy, and we can hope that her future contributions will help those of us who are sympathetic both to Balthasar’s theology and the larger theo-aesthetic tasks to which he addresses himself to draw some more pointed lines in the sand against those who would discount his impact or his legacy. But in the meantime, this book is a solid foundation on which to begin to build that case as well as a study that will be of interest not only to Balthasar scholars but also Eastern Orthodox scholars looking to see how a theologically astute Westerner “looks in” on a fraught and heavily contested moment in their theological heritage. Martin makes a convincing case that such resonant readings across traditions is all to the benefit of theology.

Liberation Theology Blog Series. Post #4: Gustavo Gutiérrez. On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent

The fourth post in Percaritatem’s Liberation Theology Blog Series is by Dr. Andrew Irvine and focuses on the work of Gustavo Gutiérrez. Dr. Irvine is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Maryville College. He is an editor of the volume Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion (New York: Springer 2009) and has written numerous articles and chapters on topics in liberation theology, philosophy of religion, ethics, and religion and science. You may read more about Dr. Irvine’s work here.


Job's SufferingThe 1970s and early 1980s were devastating years for Latin American poor and the liberation theologians who sought to accompany them. Dictatorships and paramilitary forces exercised massive repressive violence. Gustavo Gutiérrez shared intensely that suffering. At the same time, the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (SCDF) issued condemnations of “certain aspects” of liberation theology, adding to the liberationists’ vulnerability.

By the mid-eighties, Gutiérrez’s writings bespeak a deepening discipleship in the spirituality of the poor. His vanguardism is tempered with closer solidarity.[1] In A Theology of Liberation (first published in 1971), Gutiérrez had defined theology as “critical reflection on practice.” Without abandoning critique or the reference point of practice, in On Job (published in 1986)Gutiérrez describes theology as “thought about a mystery” (xi)[2] He means no wholly indeterminate mystery, however:

[W]hen we talk of “mystery” with the Bible in mind, we do not mean something that is hidden and must remain hidden. The “mystery” in this case must rather be expressed, not concealed; communicated, not kept to itself. . . . The revelation of the mystery of God leads to its proclamation to every human being: this is the special characteristic of the biblical message regarding mystery. To think the mystery of God will mean, then, starting from God’s willing self-communication to “all the nations.”(ibid.)

Gutiérrez stresses two points. First, “with the Bible in mind” as the proclamation of divine self-revelation, what is mysterious about God is the gratuitousness of God’s self-giving. This has two aspects, paradigmatically revealed in Jesus Christ. Christ “reveals that the Father who sent him on a universal mission is a God of love”; moreover, Christ reveals that in that universal love, God “assigns a privileged place to the simple and the despised” (ibid.) It follows that defense of the oppressed and condemnation of oppressors is grounded in and inspired by the universality of divine love, and that faithfulness to God’s universal love demands emulation of God’s preferential option for the poor. (This is the book’s clear reply to the SCDF’s suppositions, that liberation theologians believe the poor merit God’s love more than other people, and that God loves the poor to the exclusion of others.)

Second, Gutiérrez stresses that the quality of one’s talk about God is connected directly to the quality of one’s quiet before God:

God is first contemplated when we do God’s will and allow God to reign; only after that do we think about God. . . . We must first establish ourselves on the terrain of spirituality [mística] and practice; only subsequently is it possible to formulate discourse on God in an authentic and respectful way. . . . The mystery of God comes to life in contemplation and in the practice of God’s plan for human history; only in a second phase can this life inspire appropriate reasoning and relevant speech. . . . In view of all this we can say that the first stage is silence, the second is speech (xiii).

So, no divine self-revelation without love given gratuitously and preferentially to the poor; no speech about God worth hearing without the prior silence of contemplative practice of God’s will.

But can these convictions endure the experience from which Gutiérrez maintains they flow, namely, the suffering of the innocent? Confronting the horrific violence he has witnessed, Gutiérrez poses perhaps a purer theological question than appears in any of his earlier writings: Is there any religious alternative to that reigning “orthodoxy,” which counts among the faithful the authors of some of the most foul deeds ever witnessed on the Latin American continent? Or is God who they say God is? If God is as generations of innocent victims of Latin America have been told – unmoved by earthly evil, unless to bless the status quo – if that is the secret of the divine mystery, then they were better never to have been born; their masters, torturers and murderers do them a favor:

In Peru, therefore – but the question is perhaps symbolic of all Latin America – we must ask: how are we to do theology while Ayacucho lasts? How are we to speak of the God of life when cruel murder on a massive scale goes on in the “corner of the dead”? How are we to preach the love of God amid such profound contempt for human life? How are we to proclaim the resurrection of the Lord where death reigns, and especially the death of children, women, the poor, indigenes, and the “unimportant” members of our society? (102)[3]

All these “how to” questions are formed under the fearsome weight of the possibility that the last word must be, We cannot speak of the God of life; we cannot preach the love of God; we cannot proclaim the resurrection of the Lord: God is who they say God is. If God is who the torturers, the murderers, and the willfully oblivious say, then obviously God has no special concern for the victims. Thus, for all the emphasis he puts on the “how to” questions, Gutiérrez realizes that the struggle for a liberating theology cannot succeed at the level of method alone. The questions the poor raise from their experience lead to the fundamental theological question of the times, “Is God who they say God is?” The analogy between the situation of the afflicted of Latin America and that of the biblical character of Job gives Gutiérrez the occasion to consider how divine self-communication might answer that question in his present day.

Who is God in the Book of Job? Gutiérrez argues that Job’s is a story of God’s wholly gratuitous love for all creation revealed through a preferential option for the innocent sufferer. The only real reason – if such it can be called – for God’s preference for the poor is a universal love poured out without reason. God loves all people. Thus God is concerned for justice amongst them. Therefore, God opts preferentially for victims of injustice. “The ultimate basis for the privileged position of the poor is not in the poor themselves but in God, in the gratuituousness and universality of God’s agapeic love” (94).

Suffering the oppressive consolations of his friends, Job experiences the depth of dehumanization that poverty entails. Job, too, is forced to ask, “Is God who they say God is?” However, Job rejects his friends’ “orthodox” legitimation of his affliction. They suppose that God’s justice consists in rewarding the righteous and punishing the wicked. The implication, of course, is that Job must have earned his suffering. Accordingly, Job’s only hope for relief is to confess his guilt, even if he cannot find in himself any cause. However, Job refuses to be a pawn in this show trial. He stubbornly insists that there is no cause that would justify the afflictions visited upon him. Instead, he rails against God who causes the innocent to suffer, and demands that God give account for this dereliction of justice.

Eventually, God does answer Job. Significantly, God does not impugn Job’s claim to innocence. Indeed, God blames the friends for supposing God to be “simply the guardian of a rigid moral order” (88). If their doctrine of divine recompense and retribution were right, then religion could only truly be a practice of self-interest. But neither does God concede Job’s claim. God insists only on the freedom to love “for nothing,” overwhelming Job with a paean to divine creativity. Neither Job’s alleged guilt nor his maintenance of his innocence weigh in determining the case. The “free and gratuitous initiative” of divine love is the “only motivation for creation that can lead to a communion of two freedoms” (70-71).

As Gutiérrez points out, Job refuses to collude with God (or, at least, with the God of his friends’ theology) in his own victimization. But in the course of events, Job learns that castigating God for not being an immovable arbiter of moral desert does not save his dignity, either. Cleaving to that theologized morality delivers Job only a Pyrrhic victory over God: he wins his demand that God respond to his charges, but God responds by throwing out the case. Job, says Gutiérrez, needs to see God beyond his own demands for moral rectitude; and Job needs to see this because the real object of his quest for justice is not victory over against God, but a consummatory “communion of two freedoms” – both Job’s and God’s together.

For such a communion to be fulfilled, God cannot be compelled to be merely a law enforcer. Yet, the suffering of the innocent is destructive of human freedom. So, the “free and gratuitous initiative” of divine love in creation must somehow be a will for justice, even if it does not enforce its dispensation. Correspondingly, human freedom must somehow express the divine will for justice in the world.

Gutiérrez finds a key to a satisfactory understanding of the problem in Job 40: 9-14, a passage in which God offers a “defense” by taunting Job for his impotency to depose the proud and the wicked:

God wants justice indeed, and desires that divine judgment (mishpat) reign in the world; but God cannot impose it, for the nature of created beings must be respected. God’s power is limited by human freedom; for without freedom God’s justice would not be present within history. . . . [P]recisely because human beings are free, they have the power to change their course and be converted. The destruction of the wicked would put an end to that possibility. (77)

In sum, God’s own power is limited by and for the sake of human power. This condition of limitation and empowerment creates the possibility of a communion of human and divine freedom. Yet, Gutiérrez seems to say, it is the effects of human power which determine whether this communion is actual. For, “the all-powerful God is also a ‘weak’ God. The mystery of divine freedom leads to the mystery of human freedom and to respect for it” (77-78). Justice, then, is a goal in view of which God gives power over to human beings. What kind of power? Power to make history. Justice thus may be defined as the to-be-actualized harmony of divine and human freedom, embodied in the dynamics and structures through which (human) history is made. Justice between God and humankind is the environing condition for, and supernatural effect of, justice among human beings.

The pastoral appeal of this view of God’s presence in history is made patent in liberation theology. Where human beings more freely take up the historical task of liberation intended by God, theology will be more truthful in its talk about God. Conversely, where human beings are deprived of this freedom, theology will be less true. The exercise of human freedom accounts for whatever gap exists between the justice divinely intended and the justice actually experienced in history. A richer exercise of freedom for justice amounts to a richer, more faithful experience of divine presence.


[1] For a roughly contemporary, cautious appraisal of the contrast and possible complementarity of vanguardism and solidarity, see the 1983 address of Juan Luis Segundo, “Two Theologies of Liberation,” in Liberation Theology: A Documentary History, ed. with introductions, commentary, and translations by Alfred T. Hennelly (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1990), 353-366.

[2] I quote from Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987). I have sometimes modified quotations after comparing it with the fifth edition of Hablar de Dios desde el sufrimiento del inocente: Una reflexión sobre el libro de Job (Salamanca: Ediciones Sígueme, 2002).

[3] “Corner of the Dead” is the meaning of the Quechua name, “Ayacucho.” This name was given in the time of Inca rule to a city and region of Peru where an uprising was bloodily put down. During the 1980s, thousands of civilians were disappeared and murdered there at the hands of Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) guerillas and government forces.

“Hearing the Other’s Voice” in Otherness, Essays and Studies 4.1

For those interested, a revised version of my formerly (unpublished) essay on Gadamer has now been published in the open access journal, Otherness, Essays and Studies. You can access my essay for free here. Below is the abstract:

Hearing the Other’s Voice: How Gadamer’s Fusion of Horizons and Open- ended Understanding Respects the Other and Puts Oneself in Question

Cynthia R. Nielsen, Villanova University Ethics ProgramGadamer in Study

Although Gadamer has been criticized, on the one hand, for being a ‘traditionalist’ and on the other, for embracing relativism, I argue that his approach to knowing, being, and being-in-the world offers contemporary theorists a third way, which is both historically attuned and able to address significant social and ethical questions. If my argument holds, then we ought to give Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics a fair hearing, as its import and application can be expanded and employed for contemporary ethical and sociopolitical purposes.1 In section one I discuss key features of Gadamer’s hermeneutics broadly construed, commenting on partial incommensurability, horizon-fusing, and—via dialogue with Charles Taylor’s essay—Gadamer’s notion of dialogical, open-ended understanding. Next, I explain Gadamer’s complex account of experience, comparing and contrasting it with Hegel’s account. In section two I continue my analysis of Gadamer’s understanding of a fusion of horizons and provide several musical analogies to further explicate key aspects of this concept. Throughout my essay I highlight how his philosophical hermeneutics and dialogical model of understanding not only emphasizes but also embraces our finitude and thus our partial claims on knowledge. Given his stress on our ontological and epistemological limitations, his model requires that in our quest to understand the other—whether a live dialogue partner or a text—we must continually put ourselves in question. In other words, Gadamerian dialogue necessitates a willingness and openness to hearing the other’s ‘voice’ in a reharmonized key and to creating a new language together. Lastly, in the final section I present a brief analysis of Gadamer’s interpretation of Plato’s doctrine of the forms.

Mini-Review: The Acting Person and Christian Moral Life by Darlene Fozard Weaver

In her recently published book, The Acting Person and Christian Moral Life, Darlene Fozard Weaver provides a thoughtful, challenging, and theologically astute analysis of the Christian moral life. Having examined recent trends and debates concerning Christian ethics from both Catholic and Protestant theologians, Weaver highlights the inattention as well as the lack of serious theological analysis given to moral actions. Where personal moral actions have been discussed—for example, the critical dialogue in contemporary Catholic circles between “traditionalists and revisionists”—moral culpability takes center stage in ways that continue to downplay or obscure the crucial and too often bifurcated relation between (1) sin as a power, force, and orientation, and (2) individual sinful acts. Weaver applauds contemporary Catholic theologians who have drawn our attention back to sin as a power and personal orientation, as well as those who have cautioned against past and present theologies of sin that encourage or promote legalism. However, Weaver argues that a robust theology of sin must not de-emphasize personal sins and the role they play in our moral development and our relationship with God and others. Speaking to these concerns in the latter part of chapter two, Weaver writes: “attention to sins makes a theology of sin more concrete without losing sight of the power of sin or of sin’s roots in the person’s orientation. It recognizes that the person negotiates her relationship with God in the acts she performs” (59).

In addition to Weaver’s clarity and non-polemical tone, another attractive feature of her book is her aptly chosen “real life” stories, illustrating her theoretical insights and adding existential depth and affective energy to her analyses. For example, in chapter six, where she discusses the important differences between forgiveness and reconciliation, Weaver provides a fascinating and theologically sensitive commentary on the tragic school shooting in Nickel Mines in 2006. The horrific event occurred on October 2, 2006, when gunman Charles Roberts entered an Amish school, shot ten female students—killing five of them and seriously wounding the others—and then proceeded to take his own life. “Within hours of the shooting, an Amish minister and several Amish men went to visit Robert’s wife and children to express their forgiveness, and another Amish man went to see Roberts’s father” […] At Roberts’s funeral, half the attendees were Amish” (162). As Weaver explains, the Amish believe that forgiveness is commanded by God, and thus the community’s immediate forgiving response to Roberts’s acts of violence is understood as a willful act of obedience. This is no way suggests that such a response was effortless or that those who chose to forgive did not struggle with intense feelings of anger, sadness, and the like. Forgiveness is not a one time act; rather, it is process, even a struggle that continues throughout one’s life. Weaver brings the point home by recounting Herman Bontrager’s commentary on the features distinctive to the Amish community’s way of practicing forgiveness.

“[F]or the Amish forgiveness is immediate rather than forestalled until the victim is emotionally ready to forgive. Forgiveness in this remains something to live into. The emotional dimension of forgiveness is directed and facilitated by practice. Moreover, as Bontrager notes, the practice of forgiveness is corporate and communal. ‘The community assumes the responsibility to forgive. […] In an offense of this magnitude Amish would never expect the individual alone to extend instant forgiveness. The community took responsibility to practice forgiveness knowing that the individual victims were too crushed to do it’” (163, Bontrager, “Limits of Forgiveness,” 7).

Bontrager also recounts a powerful scene he witnessed two years after the shooting in Nickel Pines. He was visiting an Amish family in Nickel Pines—a family whose eight-year old daughter, Rosanna, permanently disabled as a result of two of Charles Roberts’s bullets fired at her head, was being held by Charles Roberts’s mother. As Bontrager explains, Roberts’s mother comes weekly to read to Rosanna, “[s]he [Mrs. Roberts] gives care, and hopes for healing for her own wounded heart. Mary Liz and Christ, though weeping for themselves and for Rosanna, offer Mrs. Roberts hospitality, a space to mourn her son” (164; Bontrager, “Limits of Forgiveness,” 13).

Through this story of a concrete Christian community’s experience of tragedy and loss, we come to understand profound communal dimensions of forgiveness and how both forgiveness and reconciliation are volitional actions into which we grow and heal in community and communion with others.

Although I have provided a very incomplete “mini-review” of Weaver’s book, she has gifted us with a balanced, scholarly, and challenging study of what it means to be an acting person in relation to God and others and “to better understand how, by our acting, we involve ourselves with God—our first and final good—and the material and social goods that make up the proximate end of human life” (195).

Part I: Augustine and Un-modern (Autobiographical) Confessio: mihi quaestio factus sum

Black grief closed over my heart and wherever I looked I saw only death. […] Everything I had shared with my friend turned into hideous anguish without him. My eyes sought him everywhere, but he was missing; I hated all things because they held him not, and could no more say to me, “Look, here he comes!” as they had been wont to do in his lifetime when he had been away. I had become a great enigma to myself, and I questioned my soul, demanding why it was sorrowful and why it so disquieted me, but it had no answer.[1]

In this passage, Augustine the narrator reflects upon the all-consuming grief coloring his world following the death of his beloved friend. Here Augustine pours out his heart to God as he does throughout the book, confessing his sorrows and his struggles, posing philosophical and theological questions to God, himself, and his readers. Augustine’s soul, however, when it comes to providing the answers for which he longs, has no idea how to respond [nihil noverat respondere mihi]. That is, contrary to commonly accepted modern and postmodern interpretations of Augustine, painting him as the precursor to psychoanalysis, I argue that Augustine’s multiple confessions were not primarily about himself; rather, his narrative, which no doubt includes soul-searching, personal stories, and so forth, was first and foremost about God, the unfolding narrative of redemption, and how the self, left to itself, turned in upon itself does not give rise to greater self-revelation and liberation; rather, Augustine’s confessions announce repeatedly that the self-absorbed, incessantly introspecting self—the self whose inward turn does not have as its goal a deeper union with the Christian God—is ultimately left famished, speechless, and restless—“inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te” (“Our heart is unhinged, forever moving to and fro, until it finds in You a peaceful, resting abode”).[2]

Against the rather entrenched view that a more or less straight line can be drawn from Augustine to Cartesian inwardness and thus to the modern introspecting subject, in this post I offer a counterargument, based upon a reading of select texts from the Confessions, that Augustine’s narrative and his understanding of the self has little in common with modern autobiography, autonomous notions of the self, or staticized views of selfhood and subjectivity.[3]

Returning to the passage from book four, we have Augustine’s phenomenological description of grief, his own grief over the death of his beloved friend. “Black grief closed over my heart [quo dolore contenebratum est cor meum], and wherever I looked I saw only death.”[4] As O’Donnell points out, Augustine draws upon language from the Old Testament, specifically Lamentations 5:17,[5] where we read: “Because of this our hearts [cor nostrum] are sick, because of these things our eyes have grown dim [contenebrati]” (NRSV).  In a way similar to the New Testament authors’ appropriation of the Old Testament, Augustine weaves together Scriptural fragments and metaphors, expanding their meanings and applying them for his present purposes. In context, the Lamentations passage speaks of the suffering of God’s people as a result of their turning away from God. Their sins, as Lamentations 5:16 explains, are the cause of their heart sickness and lack of vision. In both the Old and New Testaments, descriptions of darkened eyes and obscured vision are often used metaphorically to connote negative spiritual and moral conditions. Thus, in Scripture we find images depicting a lack of sight and consequent dwelling in darkness set in contrast to living in the light—itself a metaphoric description of God. Whether penned by the Psalmist or St. John the Apostle, to dwell in the light is to live in God and to see oneself, others, and the entire created order in his light.[6]

With the Lamentations connection in mind, that Augustine chose the Scriptural image of a darkened, grieving heart [quo dolore contenebratum est cor meum] suggests a desire to communicate something more than his own pain.  In fact, as the chapter unfolds, Augustine the narrator states explicitly that his sorrow had become excessive and self-focused. In addition, he loved his friend without taking account of the latter’s finitude, and he failed to acknowledge the friendship as a gift which must some day return to its Giver. Discussing why his grief had so overwhelmed him, Augustine asks rhetorically: was it not “because I had poured out my soul into the sand by loving a man doomed to death as though he were never to die?”[7] Then in the following paragraph, Augustine highlights the proper way to love another deeply, namely, the other must be loved in God. “Blessed is he who loves you, and loves his friend in you […] He alone loses no one dear to him, to whom all are dear in the One who is never lost. And who is this but our God.”[8]

Here we should note that Augustine affirms the value and goodness of friendship. Loving others deeply is not in itself problematic or to be avoided.[9] Rather, Augustine is at pains to stress that only God, given his nature and character, can provide the solidity we seek, the abode for our unhinged hearts. On the one hand, that all creation, including human beings, is good, Augustine in no way denies. It must be good because its very existence comes from a God who is good.[10] On the other hand, our loves must be properly ordered, and when we love the creature in place of the Creator—that is, as the final goal or ultimate meaning of our lives—we set ourselves up for sorrow upon sorrow. Whether or not we agree with Augustine’s assessment of his grief is beside the point. Perhaps he is at times too hard on himself when it comes to his emotional life. What is to the point given our present purpose is to foreground Augustine’s primary aim in recounting and analyzing his grief over the loss of his friend.


[1] Augustine, Confessions (trans. by Maria Boulding), 4.4.9; 97 [CSEL 33, 70]. Unless noted, all subsequent references are to this edition. As Boulding explains in her Introduction, the earliest manuscripts of the Confessions were simply divided into thirteen chapters. Then in the fifteenth century chapter numbers were added, and finally with the Maurist edition of 1679 paragraph numbers likewise were added. Boulding’s translation includes all three sets of numbers; thus, I have adopted the following system to reflect all three numbers and to conform to Boulding’s text:  4.4.9; 97 means book 4, chapter 4, paragraph 9, page 97. My Latin citations are from the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, vol. 33, which shall be abbreviated, CSEL 33, followed by the corresponding page number.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.1 [CSEL 33, 1]. My translation. We find variations on Augustine’s “enigmatic self” theme, at 4.4.9 [CSEL 33, 70] (factus eram ipse mihi magna quaestio), 2.10.18 [CSEL 33, 43] (factus sum mihi regio egestatis), and 10.33.50 [CSEL 33, 264] (mihi quaestio factus sum).

[3] For an argument in favor of the Augustine-Cartesian continuity thesis, see Stephen Menn, Descartes and Augustine. For an argument against Menn’s continuity thesis, see Michael Hanby, Augustine and Modernity. See also, Chloë Taylor, The Culture of Confession from Augustine to Foucault, esp. 26–46. In addition to her helpful discussion on Augustine and interiority, Taylor offers her thesis for the absence of Augustine in Foucault’s writings.

[4] Augustine, Confessions, 4.4.9; 97.

[5] O’Donnell, Augustine: Confessions, commentary on 4.4.9, (accessed 3/11/11).

[6] Thus, the Psalmist writes, “in your light we see light” (Ps. 36:9, NRSV).

[7] Augustine, Confessions 4.8.13; 100.

[8] Ibid., 4.9.14; 101.

[9] Schuld elaborates Augustine’s position as follows: “[e]ven the most intimate and heartfelt affection between friends or lovers can remain viable only if it continually streams through and is by the love of God […] To love something other than God for its own sake as a solitary entity does not allow a circular form of love but only a stagnated one that cannot move far from itself, caught up, as it always becomes, in the standing pools that collect around self-absorbing persons and ends” (Foucault and Augustine, 40).

[10] Cf., Augustine, Confessions 4.12.18 for a similar description of Augustine’s view of the created order as good.


Part III: Toward an Archaeologico-Hermeneutical Fusion

In light of the kind of openness I have detailed in the previous two posts [part I, part II] with respect to Gadamer’s approach to texts, works of art, and coming to an understand with the other, I want to encourage contemporary thinkers to reconsider the fruitfulness of Gadamer’s historically-friendly hermeneutics. In particular, his notion of a fusion of horizons, his acknowledgment of our finitude and knowledge constraints, and his emphasis on our need to be always open to new ways of seeing the other have much to offer philosophers, theologians, cultural critics, as well as theorists of “race,” ethnicity, gender, and sexuality (and this list is by no means exhaustive).Archeaological Dig

Although, as Gadamer acknowledges, I can only go through my horizon to reach the other, I am neither imprisoned by my horizon nor must I imprison the other by forcing her to conform to my horizon. Because horizons are historically contingent, culturally constructed, they are always revisable so long as I am willing and receptive to such revisionary activity. As Taylor observes, “[t]he road to understanding others passes through the patient identification and undoing of those facets of our implicit understanding that distort the reality of the other.”[1] But in order for this to happen, I have take risks and allow the other to genuinely challenge me; I must be willing to be “interpellated by what is different in their lives.”[2] When this risk-taking is fruitful and I come to see the other by way of an expanded horizon, two related changes take place:  (1) I recognize that a facet of my former way of thinking is particular to me, my culture or group and is not a universalizable feature of the human condition as such; (2) I perceive the equivalent aspect of the other culture without forcing it to fit my preconceived grid of that in which the topic at hand should consist.[3]

Does this mean that I have arrived a flawless, bias-free interpretation in need of no further future revisions? Absolutely not. However, my understanding has been improved, and my horizon has been enriched or better “fused” as a result of listening to and being interpellated by the other’s horizon.  Undoubtedly, we will continually bump up against interpretative problems and places of, at least seeming if not actual, (partial) incommensurability; thus, there is always room for more horizon-fusing. “But we will have made a step toward a true understanding, and further progress along this road will consist of such painfully achieved particular steps.  There is no leap to a disengaged standpoint which can spare us this long march.”[4]

Thus far I have described the fusing of horizons as an expansion or enrichment of one’s former horizon. This is an accurate description; however, I want to offer a new descriptive metaphor, the improvisational attitude, to try and capture the permeability, as well as the semi-solid-(temporal)-stability characteristic of horizons. When a jazz small group—for example, a trio or a quartet—performs, each musician has an assigned part which contributes to the overall coherence of the group as a whole.  The drummer keeps the rhythm steady and solid. The bass player also has a key role in the rhythm section, working closely with the drummer and, in addition, providing the low-range contours of song’s harmony. The piano player fills in the harmonic details, providing a wide range of chordal textures and colorings, as well as harmonic extensions and superimpositions. The saxophonist interprets the melody, which, compared to the other parts, is what “connects” most easily with the audience.  When all of these parts come together well, a unified, not to mention aesthetically-pleasing whole results.  Each player does more than simply play his or her part as an atomized individual. Instead, the individual musicians must perform in a constant mode of attentive listening in order to play as a unified group.  If one player decides to stick rigidly to a rhythm pattern or a harmonic progression—both of which perhaps worked quite well the first and second times through the piece—while the other members have collectively developed new patterns, then the cohesion of the group is diminished.

Alternatively, the unity of the group is augmented when, for example, the saxophonist in a mode of attentive listening hears and responds to pianist’s altered, superimposed harmonies by adjusting her solo accordingly. That is, she does not simply continue to play melodic lines that fit the original, unaltered harmonic progression; instead, she changes her lines to harmonize with the pianist’s new chordal colorings. By listening carefully to the pianist (the other), the saxophonist does not continue with her previous, as it were, “way of understanding” the pianist’s horizon. Rather, she modifies her own horizon so that the pianist’s horizon is made intelligible and put in the best light. A genuine understanding has been achieved through a re-harmonization of horizons. The example speaks to the fluidity of horizons, but we should also recognize the ability of horizons to solidify through shared practices and customs. For example, the pianist’s harmonic superimposition may catch on and become a regular practice associated with a certain style of jazz. This temporary solidifying-ability in no way translates into a permanent immutability, and the same is true for horizons. Gadamer sums this up nicely,

“Just as the individual is never simply an individual because he is always in understanding with others, so too the closed horizon that is supposed to enclose a culture is an abstraction. The historical movement of human life consists in the fact that it is never absolutely bound to any one standpoint, and hence can never have a truly closed horizon. The horizon is, rather, something into which we move and that moves with us. Horizons change for a person who is moving. Thus the horizon of the past, out of which all human life lives and which exists in the form of tradition, is always in motion.”[5]

As contingently formed ways of seeing and engaging the world and others, horizons are neither closed nor are their boundaries opaque. Rather, they are mutable, porous, and capable of re-harmonization—that is, if one adopts an improvisational attitude and is willing to listen to and be changed by the other.

Another aspect of Gadamer’s hermeneutics that speaks against commonly held beliefs required for interpretative “objectivity” is his observation that our own pre-judgments and biases are made explicit in and through our hermeneutical struggles.  Our unreflective prejudices, in other words, often show up as such when they, recalling our musical example above, cannot be harmonized with the choral progressions (i.e., horizon) of the other. Stated slightly differently, we are not able hear our own assumptions and biases as dissonant until we risk “playing” them over the other’s harmony. So rather than abstract ourselves from the hermeneutical performance, we must remain engaged with prejudices, as it were, in full force. Rather than “disregard ourselves” as “historical objectivism” demands, we bring our pre-judgments to the hermeneutic table.[6] In so doing, we put our own prejudices and thus ourselves at risk. By allowing our prejudices “full play,” we are “able to experience the other’s claim to truth and make it possible for him to have full play himself.”[7]

Taylor’s essay also helps us to understand key aspects of Gadamer’s notion of a fusion of horizons. Though prior to the “fusion,” my horizon and that of the other are distinct ways of “understanding the human condition,” once the “fusion” occurs and “one (or both) undergo a shift; the horizon is extended so as to make room for the object that before did not fit within it.”[8] But as Taylor emphasizes, what has taken place is more than a mere extension of previous conceptual limits; it is better described as a “fusion” creating something new. For this reason, I have opted for the analogy of an improvisational attitude in which melodic lines and harmonies are constantly being re-harmonized in order to describe the act of ongoing horizon-fusing. It is not that the other’s melodic fragment or harmonic progression is completely foreign or unintelligible to me—otherwise, neither would show up as problems or puzzles.  Rather, they do not fit well within my present harmonic and melodic schema (i.e., my unchanged horizon). However, when a genuine fusion takes place, something has happened allowing me to, as Taylor puts it, “find a language” in which my understanding of the other has come about through an in-fusion of something of the other’s world in me. Mixing metaphors, my horizon has been reharmonized by the melodic lines of the other such that the other’s melody is heard undistortively in the new harmony. This is not to say that the other’s “melody” is heard exactly the same in my horizon as in her horizon. It is to say that the other’s voice has been preserved, neither muted nor silenced but continues to sound its melody within the new harmony.

On a related note, Taylor explains how Gadamer’s fusion of horizons avoids the “ethnocentric temptation.”[9] That is, because I attempt to interpret the other in the language we have created together (that is, my new horizon) rather than my prior un-fused language, I can avoid distorting the other by making him “intelligible” only if he passes through my Procrustean mold (my un-fused horizon). “[T]he problem is that the standing ethnocentric temptation is to make too quick sense of the stranger, i.e., sense in one’s own terms.”[10] An example of ethnocentric distortion would be to conclude that a people group with no written language and hence no written constitution must be, first of all, inferior intellectually to my group possessing both of the above, and, second, less able to transfer their traditions and to implement their laws. Here I have “made sense” of the other, but only by holding up my group’s practices as the standard. With this approach, whatever does not conform to my group’s way of doing things is a deviation. No fusion, expansion, or, using my metaphor, reharmonization of horizons has occurred. However, precisely what we need in order to avoid distorting the other, as Taylor puts it, is a “richer language,” a reharmonized horizon.[11]

As we move from our initial encounter wherein the other is strange and puzzling toward a fusion of horizons, we strive to locate “that facet of our lives that their strange customs interpellate, challenge, and offer a notional alternative to.”[12] To illustrate, Taylor gives an example of how a Gadamerian-reading of Aztec practices of human sacrifice might correspond to one’s own ritualistic practices such as the Catholic mass. Perhaps we will not be able to name what this common element between the two cultures is. We might be tempted to call it “religion,” as both practices involve a sacrifice of some sort and are ways of coming to terms with our common human condition.[13] However, here we must take care not to import unnecessary conceptual and other baggage from our horizon into the meaning of the term, lest we fall prey to the ethnocentric temptation. So we must “beware of labels”; yet, that the two sacrificial practices offer competing interpretations of some aspect “of the human condition for which we have no stable, culture-transcendent name, is a thought we cannot let go of, unless we want to relegate these people to the kind of unintelligibility that members of another species would have for us.”[14] Clearly, for Gadamer (and myself) the latter is not a viable option.

We have seen how our interpretation of the other’s practice and the other’s interpretation of her practice is not the same.  This is true even after a fusion of horizons has occurred because we both come to understand the practice under consideration through our original horizons, each of which involve different questions, struggles, cultural and institutional conditioning, and many other factors too numerous to list.  This non-identity of our common “object” of knowledge speaks to the party-dependence feature of Gadamer’s model of coming to an understanding with a dialogue partner. Our understandings of the other can and do improve, but their accuracy and correctness do not translate into an identical understanding that we now both possess. A corollary of coming to understand the other through a fusion of horizons is, of course, that we are changed. Genuine understanding of the other requires an “identity shift in us.”[15]

Then, by way of negation, Taylor spells out what Gadamer’s dialogical approach to understanding the other is not. First of all, it is not “[t]he kind of understanding that ruling groups have of the ruled, that conquerors have of the conquered,” which assumes that the terms for understanding the other are already present in the rulers’ vocabulary.[16] Moreover, the “perks” that come with ruling—the stolen goods, the exploitation and instrumentalization of the other, and the like “includes the reaffirmation of one’s identity that comes from being able to live this fiction without meeting brutal refutation. Real understanding always has an identity cost—something that the ruled have often painfully experienced.”[17]


[1] Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 132.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gadamer, Truth and Method, 304.

[6] Ibid., 299.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Taylor, “Gadamer on the Human Sciences,” 133.

[9] Ibid., 138.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 139.

[13] Ibid., 140.

[14] Ibid.

[15] The full sentence (and then some) reads, “[r]eally taking in the other will involve an identity shift in us.  That is why it is so often resisted and rejected. We have a deep identity investment in the distorted images we cherish of others” (ibid., 140–41).

[16] Ibid., 141.

[17] Ibid., 141.