There is an astounding moment in Alyssa Pitstick’s book, Light in Darkness. After an exhaustive battle with Hans Urs von Balthasar over the nature of Holy Saturday, a struggle about which I am simultaneously sympathetic and dismayed, she admits:
It may be that an interpretation more consonant with the Catholic Tradition can be given to the texts we have discussed. For example, one might take “the execution [is] human” to mean “The task given was executed by God in the flesh.” If this reinterpretation is what Balthasar meant, it is unfortunate he did not say it, for words mean what they say. Moreover, the justice of such interpretations is open to question: Texts are reinterpreted to preserve certain prior principles, and it is clear that Balthasar does not agree with all the principles of the patristic and Thomistic traditions, for example. It can happen then that his text is reinterpreted in accord with principles he himself rejected, which would be a misrepresentation. Thus, although I have attempted to interpret opaque or dubious passages of Balthasar in accord with the fixed points of Catholic doctrine and the greater theological tradition essentially linked to it, and to supply on his behalf responses to the concerns raised, I may have sometimes read him through an inappropriate lens. In the end, we ought to grant Balthasar to speak for himself sometimes, and not always to require strenuous interpretation.
The task of interpretation is a sticky one in theology. I personally dread the word. That and its cousin, hermeneutic. These are the codewords for long travails in the deserts of important details. This is the work that needs to be done and that I emphatically do not want to do. In bringing it forward at the end of her book, Pitstick has done us the favor of revealing what is a growing and constant concern in Balthasar scholarship.
There has been increasing consternation over the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar, particularly its limits. Like a great love affair, theological opinion about him has risen to sudden heights and cooled. Alyssa Pitstick’s work is the most famous, with not only a book but also a heated exchange in The Scottish Journal of Theology and in First Things (a summary of the latter debate with links can be found here). Pitstick’s argument is interesting for the sake of its bluntness, as she out and calls him unorthodox, and it finally touched the raw wound and forced the conversation into a sort of plain-spoken frankness. This was helpful.
Subtler efforts include Matthew Levering’s work Scripture and Metaphysics, as well as Guy Mansini’s efforts in The Thomist. Rodney Howsare summarizes the central aspects of this growing debate in this 2009 entry for T&T Clark. (A rather forgotten and perceptive work takes the form of Hilary Mooney’s dissertation on Bernard Lonergan and Balthasar, but that is for another time.) Thomas Weinandy’s defenses of a more traditional doctrine of divine impassibility are eloquent and incisive. And all of these efforts are also helpful.
Helpful to Balthasar scholarship and, more importantly, to Balthasar’s ultimate reception into ecclesial thought. (His close relationship with the past two popes has also assisted this reception.)
Howsare indicates that traditional theological “camps” from the 70s into the 90s tended to split Balthasar from Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner: one might call them the Communio and Concilium threads of theology, named after major academic journals for which these respective divisions often wrote. This division extends back to the Second Vatican Council and, as David Schindler argues here, “In the opening phase of the council, theologians shared a common view that a certain kind of traditional Catholic theology had to be renewed. …as the council went on, theologians seeking renewal bifurcated into one group that wanted to adapt as much as possible to modern culture, post-Enlightenment culture; and another group who insisted that, in order to achieve renewal, we had to go back to the sources and immerse ourselves in the tradition.” The first grouping describes characteristics of “Concilium” theologians; the second is common to “Communio” theologians. (Indeed, Balthasar, along with Joseph Ratzinger, helped to found the journal Communio: International Catholic Review.) Howsare is more concerned with contemporary currents regarding Balthasar, and these have taken a different shape: “Indeed, some of the more interesting criticism of Balthasar is no longer coming out of the Concilium wing of American Catholicism, but from the Thomistic or traditionalist wing.”
I have named some of these major figures above, and Howsare reviews them as well. While he continues forward to address some of their major theological concerns, I would like to spend some time dawdling on remarkably less interesting matters. (1) Why such a shift happened, and (2) how this relates to Pitstick’s closing salvo against Balthasar and his interpreters.
Saint Thomas Aquinas is back. I can only rejoice at this, and other rantings of mine make it clear that I am whole-heartedly on the side of the triumphant Thomists – even to the possible detriment of my hero, Father-Cardinal Balthasar. The resurgence of Thomism in the past decade or so is a fundamental recovery of what went ignored in the decades directly after Vatican II, where theologians became post-Thomist if they bothered with Thomas at all (I might say Karl Rahner is an interesting sort of post-Thomist). There was a rush in theology to do away with metaphysics, and indeed to free ourselves of the shackles of Neo-Scholasticism. There is a sense in which this was good, as Neo-Scholasticism had ossified by the time of the council; there is a sense in which this was very bad, since excising metaphysics makes about as much sense as cutting one’s own head off, and since it makes even less sense than that to excise whole epochs from the Tradition. Even ossification does not prevent Neo-Scholasticism from real and lasting insight, insights we should heed. But we are anxious for renewal, and this can be a perplexing and contradictory desire. Indeed, post-Tridentine theology is still on the wayside nowadays, even as Aquinas makes his happy return.
The recollection of Thomas restores theology to his brilliant synthesis, the almost apocalyptic interweaving of philosophy and theology that has never occurred since. (Unless one is an ardent adherent of Bernard Lonergan. I can say only that I am not smart enough to know if he is another Aquinas.) It was not really that Thomas had a system that worked and still works, so much that Thomas spoke the truth: as Aidan Nichols says in his article on the nouvelle théologie and Thomism, Thomas was right (see The Thomist 64, 2000). Balthasar himself noted Thomas’ unique and permanent contribution to Christian thought, even if Balthasar’s interpretation of Thomas is many times perplexing and questionable to Thomists. So if Thomas was right, as far as the Catholic understanding of truth operates, he will always be right. He will always have lasting influence and relevance. Same as Augustine, the Cappadocians, and the other giants of Christian history and theology.
What makes current studies in Thomas refreshing is that their insight into the rightness of his thought is fundamentally a renewal: it is a making new again. This is not a static read or application, and this reinforces the other Catholic impulse toward the truth, which is that it is vivifying. (Thus understanding develops, though truth never technically changes.) Thomas is not only right but, in virtue of that rightness, continually relevant and capable of being applied to current theological problems.
This new Thomism, as much a recovery of Thomas as it is in its own way very modern, marks a growing shift in the theological landscape. The older Concilium and Communio divisions can still be applied, since in many ways there is still a marked debate over the nature of renewal; however, they apply with increasing weakness, since the conversation is shifting to arguments over the nature of truth (recovering the metaphysical conception, or resisting it).
Truth is truth, or it isn’t truth at all. And we need to follow what is true.
Which brings us back to Alyssa Pitstick: words mean what they say.
In the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar, words do not mean what they say – not in the sense Pitstick means it. She possesses a righteous need for Balthasar to be, for once, straightforward. He almost never was. Matthew Levering experiences a similar moment of clarity – or rather, need for clarity – when he asks if Balthasar’s insistence that the Son both experienced the visio Dei on the cross and did not is really just a contradiction in terms – and not a mysterious paradox. Balthasar’s vexing preference for layers of analogies, for a complex interlace of theoretic argument and poetic reasoning, never lends itself to clarity and always threatens to become sheer nonsense. His deliberate efforts to be a cypher of the aesthetic is often interpreted as a deliberate effort to be borderline irrational.
The Thomist cry is, in one sense, a heartfelt recollection of Jesus’ own words: “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Mt 5:37).
Balthasar is almost never as precise as this – but this does not mean he lacks precision, only that he lacks a particular way of being precise. (Great poets are incredibly precise, but never obvious. This is perhaps useless for theology, but that is another debate.)
When this set of young and talented scholars attempt to make sense of Balthasar, relying even on students of his thought for comprehension, the emerging clarity produces alarm. Balthasar is not simply obfuscating. He does shift understanding, and is attempting to develop theological insight, possibly to the detriment of real understanding and development. He might indeed be right, or indeed be wrong.
But the urgent question now is how to understand him, in order that he may be judged. It is that blasted question of interpretation. Pitstick is right to bring it forward, but far too uncharitable in her read. She does not permit the possibility for simultaneous horizons of images and analogies, without which Balthasar’s theology cannot really function. Subsequent responses to her scholarship has established this well enough, and exposed a certain lack of subtlety on her part. Still her question is a live one, and it is more interesting when she poses that Balthasar might be more positively interwoven with the Tradition. She argues that this would be a misrepresentation of him, as he never out and says the things she would have preferred. Perhaps, but perhaps not: Balthasar is the prime example of a theologian who taught and tried to live the most profound ecclesial obedience. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that an interpretation, or even reinterpretation, of Balthasar with a view to aligning him with the greater Tradition would in fact be consonant with his wishes. It is not impossible, in fact it is easy, to presume the Tradition when reading Balthasar – even when he never mentions traditional answers, such as a metaphysical sacramental theology – and to interface the two accordingly. Most of it fits surprisingly well. And where it does not, there is no doubt that changes can and must be made, either in our developing understanding of theology or (more likely) in Balthasar. No adoption of a theologian has ever been pure.
A more Thomist Balthasar might very well be a more authentic Balthasar, and certainly a more lasting Balthasar.