A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Theology and Holiness

I recently received, rather out of the blue, an email from a student I had taught a few years ago. She told me she had been re-reading some of the papers she had written in two theology course taken with me. She was surprised to discover how much she found in the papers – insights she had forgotten and was now pleased to be rediscovering.

I think we've all had such experiences, coming upon things we had written years ago and had forgotten we once knew and perhaps expressed better at that time than we could now.

Thirty years ago I reviewed for Commonweal the first volume of von Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord, newly translated into English (though the German had appeared more than twenty years prior to that). Since then, of course, the entire monumental Trilogy has become available in English, along with numerous other writings of this Twentieth Century Father of the Church.

I wrote in that review that for von Balthasar "theology is contemplation brought to conceptualization, issuing from prayer and leading to prayer." And that, for him, "the only truly convincing verification of Christianity and its theological vision is the saint."

For those who have not yet ventured far into the Balthasarian forest and would like to begin an exploration, perhaps a place to start would be the essay, "Theology and Sanctity" in volume one of his collected essays: Explorations in Theology.

Hans Urs von Balthasar died twenty five years ago today, two days short of being inducted into the College of Cardinals to which he had been appointed by John Paul II. May he now enjoy the Glory of the Lord in whose service he spent himself so generously.

About the Author

Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is Associate Professor of Theology Emeritus at Boston College.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Fr. Imbelli = =

I wanted to search for your review of Balthasar's book, but I couldn't find the search box on the new front page of Commonweal online.  How does one do a search these days?

Believing as I do that considertions of beauty are almost bound to lead us to a better understanding of the Lord, I've tried to work up an interest in Balthasar, but the little I've read by and about him haven't grabbed me.

What do you find particularly valuable  or just interesting about his aesthetic theory?


Balthasar is an interesting theologian, but his current stature and influence is regrettable. His and John Paul II’s fascination with “nuptial mysticism” and “theology of the body” have generated theological speculations that border on the crackpot. Fairer assessments of Balthasar are available in Karen Kilby’s “Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction” and Fergus Kerr’s “20th Century Theologians.” 


somehow your comment was not automatically forwarded to me so I did not see it until I checked the post. Regarding your question, I think the very fact that he has retrieved "beauty" as a central theological category is the crucial point. It has shifted the theological conversation towards the more objective given, rather than putting primacy upon the subject. Further, this focus upon the beauty of the form validates the appeal to the work of poets and artists in the doing of theology, not as mere "decoration" but as potentially "revelatory." But always ultimately measured by the Glory of God on the face of Christ Jesus.

(Perhaps one of the editors can clarify your question about "searches:" such matters are beyond both my pay grade and my competence -- as Dominic well knows.)


I appreciate your comment. I certainly don't think Balthasar is beyond critique, especially in the matter you mention. However, I would go beyond your affirmation that he is "an interesting theologian." As I suggest, he is one of the great theologians of the twentieth century who has had and continues to have an enormous influence.

Both Kilby and Kerr recognize this and read him appreciatively as well as critically. They both have essays in the important "Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar" -- on the whole a very good presentation and appraisal of Balthasar's thought.

I quote from the article in that volume by Rowan Williams who has been influenced by Balthasar and has written a fair amoount on his thought. Williams writes regarding Balthasar's Trinitarian Theology:

"What Balthasar does is both to open up some extraordinarily new insights which thoroughly and usefully confuse some of our assumptions about love and action, and to link them with a set of far more problematic 'fixings' of gender roles. It could even be said that Balthasar unwittingly provides some of the tools for rethinking gender differentiation in a theological context precisely by complicating in the divine 'subjects' the roles of agent and patient in a way that should warn us against fixing and isolating action and passivity as belonging on different sides of any embodied human polarity, gender included."


Fr. Imbelli,


I appreciate your kind rejoinder, but I’m not convinced that Balthasar is a “great” theologian and I don’t regard him to be a “Father of the Church.” When I read Kilby, I noticed that she had similar reservations. She does grant that Balthasar is a brilliant and stimulating theologian, and like you, she acknowledges that he has “enormous influence.” (She just wonders if all that influence is to the good.) While Kerr is more circumspect, even he wonders why and how so many are held in Balthasar’s thrall.


between your initial "interesting theologian" and my "great theologian," Kilby opts for "brilliant and stimulating." I'd say she's leaning in my direction -- but then "nemo judex!"

Can the "thrall" Kerr discerns, be genuine appreciation for a monumental achievement?

May I also recommend (as I may have on this blog before), Michael Paul Gallagher's "Faith Maps:" studies of ten theologians from Newman to Ratzinger. His chapter on von Balthasar is a gem.

Fr. Imbelli --

Having now read the Kerr article, it seems to me that Balthasar didn't have an adequate understanding of  the kind of thinking (i.e., reasoning) that the late scholastics were experts at, though he does have some kind words for Aquinas.  His phrase "concept of God in general" tells me that he didn't understand what the scholastics meant by "abstractions" and "concepts", and, from what Kerr says, he also didn't seem to understand that reasoning is a species of intuition and not to be sneezed at. 

I wish Kerr had given B's notion of aesthetic intuition more attention.  I strongly agree with you and him  that beauty should be a central theme in theology and philosophy.  But whether his apotheosis of aesthetic intuition holds up is another question. I'm always suspicious of thinkers who offer some grand sort of intuition as the foundation of their system but who also disparage reason.  To minimize reason is to minimize the value of self-criticism, and that way lies intellectual hubris.   (Had B. been more self-critical he might not have dared to tell women what it's like to be a woman and been so anti-feminist!)

As I see it, Balthasar's understanding of the intuitive grasp of beauty falls short.  It's true that one does not *reason* to grasp beauty -- one intuits it.  However, most intuitions (including aesthetic ones) are not simple mental acts, and so they  can be deformed by internal psychological pressures of various sorts, just as reasoning processes can be.  Most intuitions  -- including the aesthetic ones -- include complex parts and complex links between the parts, and we can be just as wrong grasping those parts and the links among in aesthetic intuitions as we can be wrong in the intuitive grasping of the relationships between premises and conclusions. (Yes, there are some intuitions in reasoning.)   As I see it, the big difference between aesthetic intuition and reasoning is not their simplicity, the big difference is that reasoning is concerned with necessary relationships while aesthetic intuitions are concerned with contingent ones (except perhaps for certain mystical experiences which might be quite simple). 

Interesting that B. makes some of the same psychological observations as Wittgenstein.  Like Wittgenstein he seems to have regularly made strong assertions but without offering his grounds for the assertions.   That can be intriguing, but also off-putting.  I wish he had concentrated on the phenomenology of aesthetic experience -- his description of it  can be very interesting.  However, much of his theology seems just weird. and Kerr's article, at any rate, doesn't make me want to get into it. 

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment