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.

Balthasar on the Christian God’s Freedom to Die for Love and to Love unto Death

“The renunciation of the ‘form of God’ and the taking on of the ‘form of a slave’ with all their consequences do not Resurrection Icon_Russianentail any alienation within the Trinitarian life of God.  God is so divine that by way of the Incarnation, death and Resurrection, he can truly and not just in seeming become that which as God he already and always is.  Without under-estimating the depth to which God stooped down in Christ, but perceiving that this ‘supreme’ abasement (John 13, 1) formed, with the exaltation, one single reality, for the two movements express the self-same divine love, John was able to apply to both the categories of ‘exaltation’ and ‘glorification’:  yet in a way which is, (to use the language of the Chalcedonian Definition) asynchtōs, achōristōs; ‘without confusion’, ‘without separation’ (DS 302).  In this integrated vision, it is no longer contradictory for John to ascribe to the Son who died and was raised by the Father the power not just to give his life but also to take it up again (10, 18; 2, 19), as well as, thought this power, to raise up (11, 25) the dead both in time (12, 1, 9 and 17) and at the end of time (5, 21; 6, 39 etc., auto-anastasis ‘the Resurrection itself’ one might call him, imitating Origen’s celebrated neologisim).  In fact, the Son’s absolute obedience ‘even unto death, the death of the Cross’ is intrinsically oriented to the Father (otherwise, it would be meaningless, and not in any case an absolute, divine obedience).  Resting on the Father’s power, which is itself identical with the Father’s sending of his Son, the Son allows himself to be reduced to the uttermost weakness.  But this obedience is so thoroughly love for the Father and by that very fact is so altogether one (John 10, 30) with the Father’s own love that he who sends and he who obeys act by virtue of the same divine liberty in love—the Son inasmuch as he allows the Father the freedom to command to the point of his own death, the Father inasmuch as he allows the Son the freedom to obey right down to the same point.  When, accordingly, the Father grants to the Son, now raised into eternal life, the absolute freedom to show himself to his disciples in his identity with the dead Jesus of Nazareth, bearing the marks of his wounds, he gives him no new different or alien freedom but that freedom which is most deeply the Son’s very own.  It is precisely in this freedom of his that the Son reveals, ultimately, the freedom of the Father” (Mysterium Paschale, 209).

Balthasar on the Presence and Absence of God

“God’s presence in and absence from the world are a mystery that is impenetrable to thought and even more so to man’s senses and experience. It would seem that we can only think and speak of it in propositions that are dialectical, that is, which cancel each other out. For if we construct the idea of God as its content demands, God is both everything (to pan estin autos: Sir 43:27)—for nothing can be outside God, nor can anything be added to him—and ‘exalted above all his works’ (para panta to erga autou: Sir 43:28). For none of these works is God: indeed, each of them is separated from him by the infinite distance and opposition of absolute and relative. The more God has to be in all things if they are to ‘be’ at all, the more his presence in them reveals him to be utterly different from them: the more he is immanent, the more he is transcendent. This dialectic is correct in its own particular way, but it sounds empty; religious experience finds it hard to follow, with the result that the images of God in the religions manifest a pluralist diversity.

No one has ever seen the Father, but the Son has ‘interpreted’ him (Jn 1:18) in human form. As the Word-made-flesh, he has clothed the ineffable in human categories, but in such a way that the essentially incomprehensible God can be discerned shining through and beyond all these categories of comprehensibility. […] God, ever incomprehensible, approaches us as a ‘God at hand’, yet he would not be God if he were not also a ‘God afar off’ (Jer 23:23)” [Truth is Symphonic; pp. 122-123].

Balthasar on How the Infinite Presence and Distance of the Intratrinitarian Relations Opens a “Space” for the World

In Balthasar’s retelling of the history of Western metaphysics, he discerns a dialectical relation between the dialogico-dualistic world of myth and the monological world of philosophical reason. It is only when a distinctively Christian metaphysic comes on the scene—a metaphysic in which a (Triune) God existing a se freely creates and allows his creatures to participate analogously in the (created) being which He gives—that the dialectic between a mythico-dualistic and a philosophico-monistic concept of being can be overcome (p. 17).

For Balthasar, the relationality of the Persons of the Trinity is given accent, and is reflected in his description of God’s nature “as a series of absolutely free reciprocal relations (perichoresis) where an infinite self-donation is perfectly coincident with an infinite self-possession.” Given that each member of the Trinity manifests a reciprocity of both infinite distance and infinite presence, the one divine nature subsists “in an utterly non-static, non-univocal manner: God is ‘One’ as a dynamic relationality where infinite ‘distance’ is coincident with an infinite communion” (p. 18). Here the intratrinitarian relations, displaying both infinite presence and distance, become the archetype for the infinite distance between God and creation. In other words, the intratrinitarian relations as it were open up a “space” for the world. This open space is not an area of non-being within the trintaritarian relations, but instead is the “strictly positive reality of the distance required for truly interpersonal communion. It is the mystery of the abyss of infinite love where there is never a ‘boundary’ or a ‘limit’, but an excessus and an ecstasy that can ground the reality of the world as ‘not God’ in direct proportion to the depth of the world’s incorporation into God” (p. 19).

As one would expect, Balthasar’s doctrine of God as articulated above informs his understanding of revelation. Rather than a static moment in an otherwise changing world of flux, “revelation is to be viewed as the dynamic transformation of the temporal structure of our existence through an incorporation of that existence into the very heart of the trinitarian relations” (p. 20). Against all models of revelation that ultimately manifest an ahistorical set of hermeneutical assumptions in their attempts to understand the relation between the temporal or historical and the eternal, Balthasar begins with the “assumption that the historical realm should not be viewed as an oppositional metaphysical principle to the realm of the atemporal. Rather, the realm of the historical opens up to the event-like, incarnated nature of all truth” (p. 21). Jesus, as the concrete universal, overcomes the temporal/eternal dialectic. It is in the drama of his concrete, historical life that the “temporal structures find their inner completion” (p. 20).

Larry Chapp’s essay, “Revelation,” is published in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Eds by Edward T. Oakes, SJ and David Moss. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 11-23.

Balthasar and Revelation as God’s Symphony

In the prologue of his book, Truth is Symphonic, Balthasar depicts creation as God’s symphony. Symphony of course literally means, “to sound together.” As Balthasar so elegantly describes it, “[f]irst there is sound, then different sounds and then we hear the different sounds singing together in a dance of sound” (p. 7). In order to compose a symphony well, it is necessary for the composer to have an intimate knowledge of each instrument. For example, s/he must be familiar with the instrument’s construction, range, and timbre so that the part written for each particular instrument not only properly corresponds to its capabilities, but also allows each particular instrument to realize its full potential. Yet, there is more. The composer must also hear how each part will sound as the different parts dance together simultaneously and form one sound. From a different angle, we might highlight the fact that the “orchestra must be pluralist in order to unfold the wealth of the totality that resounds in the composer’s mind” (p. 7).

Next, Balthasar compares the world to an orchestra tuning up just prior to the performance: “each player plays to himself, while the audience takes their seats and the conductor has not yet arrived. All the same, someone has struck an A on the piano, and a certain unity of atmosphere is established around it: they are tuning up for some common endeavor. Nor is the particular selection of instrumentation fortuitous: with their graded differences of qualities, they already form a kind of system of coordinates. The oboe, perhaps supported by the bassoon, will provide a foil to the corpus of strings, but could not do so effectively if the horns did not create a background linking the two sides of this counterpoint. The choice of instruments comes from the unity that, for the moment, lies silent in the open score on the conductor’s podium—but soon, when the conductor taps with his baton, this unity will draw everything to itself and transport it, and then we shall see why each instrument is there” (pp. 7-8).

In God’s symphonic performance, that is, his revelation, “it is impossible to say which is richer: the seamless genius of his composition or the polyphonous orchestra of Creation that he has prepared to play it” (p. 8). Prior to the Incarnation, the world orchestra, tuned to their own version of A, produces at best a cacophony of sounds. Yet, when the true A comes, the entire orchestra must tune to Him who brings unity to this display of diversity and plurality in a non-tyrannical way. From this analogy, we see that the diversity of the created order, or as Balthasar calls it, the “pluralism of the world” is not something to despise, but rather allows for the greatest manifestation of the fullness of divinity. However, the world should not expect to find its unity within itself, as its unity is found in Him whose origin is other-worldly. Balthasar then adds a specifically vertical or relational dimension to the analogy, as he explains that the purpose of the world’s plurality is “not to refuse to enter into the unity that lies in God and is imparted by him, but symphonically to get in tune with one another and give allegiance to the transcendent unity. As for the audience, none is envisaged other than the players themselves: by performing the divine symphony—the composition of which can in no way be deduced from the instruments, even in their totality—they discover why they have been assembled together. Initially, they stand or sit next to each other as strangers, in mutual contradiction, as it were. Suddenly, as the music begins, they realize how they are integrated. Not in unison, but what is far more beautiful—in sym-phony” (p. 9).

Balthasar on Being Awakened to Love by Love

In chapter five of Love Alone is Credible, Balthasar observes that in order for God to reveal his love for the world, this love—even in its wholly-otherness—must be recognizable by the world. Paradoxically, from the (humanly speaking) grandest to the most selfish lover, each must in some inchoate way already have at least a taste of love in order to recognize true love. As the Christian tradition confesses, God is our Creator, and if he is our Creator, he can no doubt create us with a capacity to love him and can implant within us the seeds of such love which he himself can then (non-violently) bring to fruition. To illustrate how such love might be awakened, Balthasar offers the following analogy.

“After a mother has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child’s smile in response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child, and as the child awakens to love, it also awakens to knowledge: the initially empty-sense impressions gather meaningfully around the core of the Thou. Knowledge (with its whole complex of intuition and concept) comes into play, because the play of love has already begun beforehand, initiated by the mother, the transcendent. God interprets himself to man as love in the same way: he radiates love, which kindles the light of love in the heart of man, and it is precisely this light that allows man to perceive this, the absolute Love: ‘For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness”, who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’ (2 Cor 4:6). In this face, the primal foundation of being smiles at us as a mother and as a father. Insofar as we are his creatures, the seed of love lives dormant within us as the image of God (imago). But just as no child can be awakened to love without being loved, so too no human heart can come to an understanding of God without the free gift of his grace—in the image of his Son” (p. 76; emphasis added).