A half-century after the opening of the Second Vatican Council, it is worth remembering that many important twentieth-century Catholic theologians suffered years of neglect, rejection, or official condemnation before finding vindication at the council. Among those disciplined or silenced by the Vatican were Karl Rahner, Yves Congar, Teilhard de Chardin, Henri de Lubac, and John Courtney Murray. After decades of steadfast struggle to engage theology with the philosophical and cultural challenges posed by modernity, these theologians succeeded in helping shape a new framework for the church in the modern world. Yet although their work fundamentally shaped the documents of the council, the full impact of their ideas continues to be resisted by the Vatican—and none of them sits at the center of theological excitement in the increasingly conservative church of the early twenty-first century. Today the buzz belongs instead to Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Karen Kilby’s excellent introduction to the Swiss theologian notes that Balthasar’s career had the same basic pattern as his contemporaries’, but with an even longer period of neglect. Unlike many of his peers, Balthasar owed this neglect not to his theological opinions so much as to his personal life decisions. Receiving his doctorate in German literature and philosophy at twenty-three, he joined the Jesuits; upon finishing his training, he was offered a position at the Gregorianum in Rome but chose instead to be a university chaplain at Basel. There, together with Adrienne von Speyr, a Protestant doctor and mystic, he founded a lay institute, the Community of St. John. Balthasar’s involvement with the institute led him to leave the Jesuits in 1950. Cut adrift from institutional security, he supported himself as a lecturer until he was finally incardinated as a diocesan priest in 1956. The same year, he took up residence with von Speyr and her husband. Until her death in 1967, and after, Balthasar devoted great energy to making von Speyr’s mystical teachings known. Late in life he also became a fervent supporter of the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje.

Although outside the official loop, Balthasar was well-connected—he counted Karl Barth and Henri de Lubac among his admirers—and extraordinarily productive. In addition to the fifty-plus books he wrote himself, some of them fresh and valuable studies of patristic authors, he midwifed, via dictation, dozens of books by von Speyr concerning her mystical experiences and insights. Balthasar’s own works are marked by an astonishing level of erudition across all the humanities; he was described by de Lubac as perhaps the “most cultivated [man] of his time.” The work that established him as a theologian stretches across sixteen volumes: The Glory of the Lord (seven volumes), Theo-Logic (three volumes), and Theo-Drama (five volumes, plus an epilogue).

Though he was not invited to participate as a peritus at the council, Balthasar in time enjoyed a vindication exceeding that of almost anyone else. His reputation grew, and kept growing. He received honors from universities and was one of the founders of the international journal Communio. John Paul II made him a cardinal in 1988, declaring him “a great son of the church.” Balthasar died three days before he could be installed; at his funeral, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger declared that “the church itself...tells us he is right in what he teaches of the faith.” Unlike many of his theological contemporaries who sought to engage modernity, Balthasar set himself resolutely against its premises. Needless to say, since the council this stance has increasingly been very much the Vatican’s own. Balthasar now enjoys widespread academic attention and such favor that he can be called (as he is on the cover of his Heart of the World) “one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, perhaps of all time.”

Kilby views Balthasar as a fascinating thinker, but she is skeptical about his reputation as a theological innovator and giant, and seeks to provide a more balanced view. With welcome clarity she lays out the reasons an honest critical assessment of the theologian has proven so difficult. The sheer volume of his production is daunting; his approach to systematic theology is highly original, even eccentric; and although some of his shorter works are accessible—such as his little book on prayer—he typically wrote in a discursive style that Kilby terms a “fog of impenetrability.” Argument as such is almost absent from his work, replaced by a never-ending stream of confident assertions. One of the most disconcerting things about Balthasar, Kilby notes, is how he seems to float above particulars, assembling them according to his own vision of the whole—serenely confident that readers will either get it or not, but finding no need to persuade them.

Aptly Kilby characterizes Balthasar as an “unfettered” theologian. Something of an autodidact, with the mystic von Speyr his most important teacher, he remained largely unattached to ecclesial or academic structures and thus had no one to curb his worst tendencies through criticism. Such an unfettered life, Kilby acknowledges, gave Balthasar a remarkable freshness of approach. He never would have built his systematic theology on the basis of aesthetics had he been shaped by the theology of his day, nor would he have moved so widely among ancient and contemporary writers. But this autonomous status encouraged what Kilby views as the greatest weakness in Balthasar’s thought: “a theology which often goes too far, which knows and asserts too much, which argues too little, which has a persistent tendency to exceed all bounds—a theology, indeed, that does not seem to hold itself accountable to Scripture, tradition, or its readers, but somehow soars above them all.”

Ample support for this assessment buttresses the four chapters that constitute the bulk of this study. Bathasar was a profoundly non-linear thinker, and Kilby appropriately devotes two chapters to central images or patterns that recur in his work and define how he approached theological questions. “The Picture and the Play” addresses the aesthetic dimensions of Balthasar’s thought: the importance of the experience of beauty, of “seeing the form” as a means of participating in being, and the use of drama as a means of speaking both about human experience and history and (above all) about the inner life of the triune God. “Fulfillment and the Circle” identifies habits and patterns in Balthasar’s thinking. His emphasis on “fulfillment”—on replacing the inadequate with the adequate—applied not only to Christ as the fulfillment of other religions, but also to his own theological positions over against others—to his belief that his solutions were not only better than others, but that they subsumed and elevated what was good in the others. The “circle” identifies Balthasar’s characteristic way of moving around a central mystery, avoiding a premature definition and seeking “from countless perspectives” to locate lines of convergence that point to a truth. Given the difficulties of getting a grasp on Balthasar’s vast and intricate corpus of writings, Kilby’s indirect approach to it, through image and pattern, is both helpful to the reader and consonant with her subject’s own habits.

With great nuance Balthasar examines two of the theological topics that have helped shape its subject’s reputation both positively and negatively. Kilby’s analysis of Balthasar’s Trinitarian theology applauds the way in which he integrates soteriology with the life of the Trinity: Christ simply is his mission in the world, and that mission brings the life of God into history. At the same time, in Kilby’s view, Balthasar’s distinctive position concerning Jesus’ death on the cross (that it involved the descent of Christ into hell as a form of ultimate alienation from God) threatens to bring “elements of darkness into the divine light,” and leaves her puzzling at both the astonishing vividness of Balthasar’s account—how can he possibly know all that he asserts?—and at his tendency to project human experience into the divine life.

Balthasar’s notions on “Gender and the Nuptial” receive Kilby’s most withering criticism, and it is not hard to understand why. The theologian’s thinking about male and female was essentialist and conservative, if not reactionary. Configuring the male as active and the female as passive, he projected these gender characteristics onto God (always male), humans (female in relation to God), and even onto the inner life of the Trinity (the divine “holy family”). This could justifiably be called theology as projection. Kilby shows convincingly that Balthasar’s conception of the “nuptial mystery” is not derived from Scripture, but rather constitutes a pervasive premise that shapes his anthropology, Christology, Mariology, ecclesiology, and Trinitarian thought. To make bluntly explicit what Kilby is too careful and fair to say directly, Balthasar’s elaboration of this theme is not only “original,” it is quite loony. There can be little doubt, moreover, that it is precisely this aspect of Balthasar that makes him especially appealing to a Vatican stiffly resistant to broadening the role of women in the church (see my July 14, 2006 Commonweal review of Cardinal Angelo Scola’s The Nuptial Mystery).

With typical evenhandedness, Kilby closes her book by asking whether she has been fair in arguing “that Balthasar’s theology is fundamentally over-reaching, that it silently presumes a position which by its own account ought to be impossible”—namely, that the theologian, despite claims to theological humility, assumes a “God’s Eye” command of reality. She approaches this question from three directions. First, she takes up de Lubac’s statement that truth is symphonic, and concludes that “the way Balthasar writes about the symphony of revelation is a way which would not be possible if it really is God’s symphony, [but rather] a way which would only be possible if it is in fact Balthasar’s symphony.” Second, taking up the claim that Balthasar’s theology is distinctively a “kneeling theology” that dissolves the distinction between theology and sanctity, she concludes that his work is less a theology driven by prayer than one redolent of spiritual direction, in which Balthasar “conflates the authority of the spiritual guide and the authority of the scholar”—and makes even more dangerous his claim “to know more than can be known.” Finally, in response to the notion that all theologians do what Balthasar does, Kilby compares his tacit assumption of omniscience to the open and transparent method of Thomas Aquinas, whose dialectical approach makes objections explicit and demands argument as well as assertion.

This tough-minded yet irenic essay will not please those already convinced of Balthasar’s superiority to all other theologians, but it is extraordinarily helpful to those who want to know what the excitement is about—and what the limits to that excitement ought to be. Kilby measures out the good—“Balthasar in fragments is important and worth pursuing, for there is much to learn from, to borrow, to develop”—then offers a measured warning. “When one tries to follow Balthasar as a whole, to treat him as one’s theological guide, as a contemporary Church Father, then he in fact becomes dangerous,” she writes. “The one thing in my view that one ought not to learn from him is how to be a theologian.”

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor.


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Published in the 2013-04-12 issue: View Contents
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