I met Hans Urs von Balthasar in a group project for a Christology class, in preparation for a presentation we had to do together. I hated group projects. I hated talking in class. I loved von Balthasar immediately, and immediately set myself against him.
Back then, back when I was earning my undergraduate degree in theology and history, I could not be convinced to speak unless forced. Even my roommate, who I saw all the time, had difficulty getting me to verbalize anything, including what I had eaten for breakfast. I was always a quiet kid, intent on books and eager to befriend the long-dead people to be found there. Living people are more difficult, and I avoided them.
Professors, once they figured out I was not exactly stupid, always bent themselves out of shape trying to get me to talk. They wanted me to contribute and feel affirmed. But I did not want to contribute or be affirmed; I wanted to listen and take notes. The only thing that could get me to talk was the prospect of a grade penalty. Which was, of course, exactly what my Christology professor installed in her curriculum. We had to speak at least once a class or we’d suffer a deduction.
It was hell. I squirmed under the pressure, trying my best to find something to say early so that it could be over quickly and I could get back to my notes. Our professor did not make it easy: she never smiled. She was tough, and pushed us to read difficult texts and summarize them in short, exact paragraphs. We read Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, Maximus the Confessor (who I adored), Anselm, Julian of Norwich. None of them easy to understand. And I loved her for it. I hated that I had to talk, but I loved everything else about the challenge. She scared me witless, that woman, but she pushed me hard and I respected her. This stuff was real theology: we asked difficult questions about who Jesus was, and how to understand redemption.
So the time came to bring the semester to a close. She assigned us each to a group and a topic of modern Christology. A brilliant but hellish class was ending with my least favorite thing in the universe: a group presentation. What was worse: we had to study something modern. As far as I was concerned, none of these people had been dead long enough to be interesting.
I think it was out of mercy that my professor placed me in the von Balthasar group. He, at least, quoted dead people. Still, she warned us: “This man is very difficult to read. He has set his ideas on a stage, and he moves between each like characters in a play. Be careful.” We, baby-faced and wide-eyed, nodded.
She set us to reading one of the most important sections of Theo-Drama V: The Final Act. A section where von Balthasar asks how it is that we might hope for the salvation of all in Christ. Where he discusses the cross and Holy Saturday. This is one of von Balthasar’s most difficult and controversial texts, and it draws heavily from the very heart of his theology. This volume closes the five-volume epic of the theological dramatics, which itself takes place in the middle of two other multi-volume themes (Glory and Logic). We had read none of this, and knew none of it. Our professor had tossed us in the middle of the deep end.
I opened Theo-Drama and read about Christ’s descent into Hell on Holy Saturday. I watched the ideas move across one another like figures on a stage: on the one side, the free human being who can forever thwart God’s plan for salvation and suffer the pain of eternal loss in Hell; and on the other side, the eternal God of love who created that freedom and is set on redeeming humanity. If the Son dies on the cross with the intent of saving everyone, von Balthasar asks, might He save even that one who, like Judas, dies against Him? How far must He descend to reach the lowest and the most lost? Von Balthasar replies: He descends beneath everything. His infinite love is the only vulnerability profound enough to suffer depths even we cannot imagine.
Yet he moves against himself, von Balthasar. He asks: once the finite will of the creature has been sealed in death, how can God turn that will toward love without doing violence to that will? We must – we must! – acknowledge our real freedom, which means acknowledging the possibility of our real loss. Life is no game of pretend. There are real risks. And so von Balthasar replies: God does not do violence to our freedom, and respects it – and so we really do risk our eternal loss.
Freedom warred with redemption. I watched the ideas move, rising with great strain to deeper risk. God’s eternal love crowns us with real freedom – the freedom we use to say No to Him, to lose everything before Him, though in grace we could say Yes – and at the same time God’s eternal love also sets out to redeem us, redeem us all. Both are true and real, von Balthasar insists. Both are true: the loss and the salvation, the distorted freedom and the eternal love that sustains us. Both.
I watched the battle on the stage, and felt myself begin to splinter. How could both be true? Yet aren’t they both true? God’s love and our risk? By asking these questions, von Balthasar takes Christ’s death, the finite death that “expresses infinite love, love for sinners and love for the Father” and stretches that infinite love to a paradoxical breaking-point.
God, von Balthasar insists, cannot be defeated. But how?
For von Balthasar, the infinite love that descends deeper than we could descend embraces us no matter how far we fall. This is not an embrace of violence, but an embrace of poverty. The One who descends is infinitely poor, because He has identified Himself with us completely and yet remains fully God. He suffers all things, but only out of love. This is what makes Him poor. We suffer out of selfishness; He suffers out of love. He makes room for us, whereas we only make room for ourselves.
Here, in this poverty, is where von Balthasar sees the opportunity for hope. For a daring, and I might even say insane, hope. The hope that all might be saved. Even the poorest sinner, the least sinner who turns away from God forever, von Balthasar explains, turns around only to see Christ. The sinner sees that Christ has already gone ahead and beneath, and has reached every possibility of our loneliness and made Himself present in it. When the poor and ragged heart encounters that singular and infinitely poor, loving Heart – who are we to say what happens, except to hope?
Can even the most lost sheep return then? We can hope. Von Balthasar says we can hope.
He quoted mystics, he quoted plays, he quoted Dostoyevsky of all people! Names and references, complex terms with ancient roots, rushed across the stage. They worked for and against one another, supporting one side of the argument and then the other. Dizzying Trinitarian theology lurked in the background. The dramatic play became a Greek epic, with a larger cast than could be seen in one sitting.
And all of it for the sake of hope.
The passage ended; the curtain closed. I wondered how in the world my group would survive a project this complex. We gathered together, white-faced. What usually happened at these things, these group things, was that I got stuck with most of the work along with the other nerd or two in the group, and everyone else coasted. But something different happened. Everyone just stared.
Then I did something I had never done before: I took the lead. I picked up everyone by the scruff of the neck and lifted them onto von Balthasar’s stage. Something strange overtook me. I bent myself to making them understand. We spoke at length, and I re-read the text with my group that night. I explained everything that I saw. We worked through the drama, and I patiently reinforced each contrary position until we reached the climactic breaking-point in the descent into Hell.
I realized, with a chill, that I understood this strange man, von Balthasar. I knew what he was after. I knew something of it, anyway. There was much I did not understand, but the delightful quality of ignorance is that it does not know what it does not know.
So I carried my group through our project. We broke Theo-Drama into pieces, and assigned them. We had to assign a critique, too. I set myself to that task. Already I knew that I loved these words too much, and needed to think critically about them. So in my first project on von Balthasar, I worked against him.
I can’t remember what on earth I said.
But there it is. The first time I met von Balthasar.
I did not know I would dissertate on him. A doctorate was far from my mind. I did not know I would spend a career reading through his vast works. I did not know that I would at turns adore him, at turns worry deeply over him. I did not know. Who can know?
I do know that, as the semester closed, I checked out a book from the library: Theo-Drama Volume I. It was time to see where he began with this drama of his.
I would learn later that he actually begins the drama with an aesthetic. Whatever that is. I had no idea. Von Balthasar is a hard man to keep up with.