Hans Urs von Balthasar, that 20th-century Catholic theologian in which most of my scholarship thus far has been spent, has come under increasing fire. Not from the Vatican, but from theologians of all sorts. Most critiques fail to understand von Balthasar. But this does not make him right.
Critiques from various corners usually run along the following contradictory lines:
- Hans Urs von Balthasar is far too conservative, bent on maintaining the status quo, especially that of the hierarchy and the male-only priesthood.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar is far too liberal, speculating needlessly on Holy Saturday and the nature of the Trinity, threatening to eviscerate the Trinity itself.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar is a crypto-Protestant, affirming the transcendence of God and the priority of grace to such severe degrees that we may as well not speak of nature.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar is too weird. (This is not an argument, but it is used as one.)
- Hans Urs von Balthasar is too difficult to understand to be helpful to theology.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar is so popular right now that I dislike him on principle. (This is also not an argument, but I find myself thinking it some days.)
- Hans Urs von Balthasar rejects metaphysics, which is a grave problem.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar is too metaphysical, which is a grave problem.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar denigrates women.
- Hans Urs von Balthasar is a heretic.
I think that about sums it up. And, thus summarized, it makes even less sense gathered in one place than it did scattered in hundreds of books and articles about him. Given the absurdly uneven understanding of what von Balthasar was about, perhaps the most accurate critique of him is simply that he is too difficult to understand.
Too difficult, with his massive account of Western philosophy, theology, and art. Too difficult, with the subtle variants of his terminology. Too difficult, with the sheer number of his interlocutors (from theologians to poets to philosophers to mystics). He makes the Subtle Doctor (Duns Scotus) look like a rusted knife.
Hans Urs von Balthasar is difficult. His idea of a beginning sketch of the resuscitation of beauty in theology is seven volumes long. Yes, a sketch is seven volumes. And it is true that the majority of his most vocal detractors don’t really understand what he was trying to say. (There are others, quieter, who know him well and who begin to slide apart the broken seams in his work.) But being difficult is not the same as being wrong, and certainly not the same as being unworthy of consideration.
No, there is something worthy in von Balthasar. I do not mean merely that he wanted beauty to return to theology. In a post-Balthasar world, the worthiness of such a task is taken too much for granted to have much weight. I mean that his attempt to give beauty its due credit manages on the whole to avoid the two major dangers that most theologies succumb to in one way or another. The first danger is straying into a love of logic that ends in a love of mere coherence, with no room at all for God; the second is using beauty to avoid complex and demanding metaphysical inquiry, as if beauty could compel us beyond the traps that already sit before us. Beauty cannot save us from logic; it places logic, and gives it fullness. This means theology must be more rigorous, not less; it must have more room for mystery, not less. There must be both. That is what beauty tells us, and what von Balthasar for the both part manages to defend.
During the time of its writing, Glory of the Lord was a lightning-bolt that could return to theology old categories such as what is most fitting, which means that we could once again think in terms of what was best and not what seemed most useful. It was a lightning-bolt that let us begin to mend the tragic divorce between theology and spirituality. Reason no longer needed to be reasonable in so narrow a sense.
With these books, feeling returned to numb fingers.
But now, decades after its completion, Glory of the Lord stands at the long end of another spectrum. When theologies of art and beauty now begin to threaten to descend into a loose sentimentalism, Glory reminds us that beauty has its logic. Von Balthasar reminds us that what is most fitting is not what is most current.
It is not enough merely to have feeling; we must also know obedience.
In this way, von Balthasar has proved himself to be surprisingly relevant despite being quite dead. We have not quite gotten past him, because he seems to have gotten ahead of us first.
And still many worry that he was wrong. I have no doubt he was quite wrong about a number of things, and I will someday spill ink explaining why. But first I want to make sure he has been understood. No sense in condemning what is not grasped.
I do not want to redeem von Balthasar. I have no such interest, and never will. It is not about proving he was right. Instead, his legacy can hope to be incorporated into the Church in some lasting way, and I know with certainty that he must be transformed for this to happen. But he had something we still need.
Hans Urs von Balthasar possessed a measured attitude toward beauty. He knew its draw and its danger. We should know it, too.