“Symphony means ‘sounding together,'” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar. And for him “the world is like a vast orchestra tuning up.”

This vast world-orchestra, he says, is waiting for the conductor who will bring its enormous plurality into a wholeness that unveils the triumph of unity-in-plurality. The world waits not to be overcome, but to be brought into a symphony. A symphony conducted by God himself. Then the whole world will “sound together” in the Son, and that singular sound in its pluriformity will resound with the presence of the one God. So von Balthasar argues in the book Truth is Symphonic, offering one of many potential summaries of his own work, work that emulates the variety and unity he detects in the world itself.

Von Balthasar’s symphonic theology resonates with certain consistent notes: Christocentrism, beauty, kenosis, distance, drama. It is possible to sound these themes and so to sound like him without any actual recourse to him at all. Yet we won’t really have reached into the patterns of the symphony if we do not grasp the whole that binds each motif to the other without burying or distorting either the fragment or the unity. This whole is von Balthasar’s obsession. When reading him, it should be our own.

The famous Trilogy – Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, Theo-Logic – offers itself to each of the transcendentals: the Beautiful, the Good, the True. Buried in his oeuvre is a classic Catholic emphasis on metaphysics, and this emphasis helps to knit together the Trilogy. Yet there is a key transcendental to which von Balthasar offers no series of books, not even a single book: the transcendental of the One. When forced to ask ourselves why, I think the answer rests in his consistent insistence that the unity of the world and of faith do not rest within either, but rather in God. The One is the most buried of the transcendentals in the Trilogy because it can only be “heard” when the whole song is played.

The form (Gestalt) of this unity is Christ. He is the one who affirms all the variegated qualities of creation by employing them to reveal the singular love of God, who is himself a symphony, a Trinity, of love. Unity and difference are not, ultimately, to be opposed because they are not opposed in God. This is what the world, as it tuned up, could never anticipate about the symphony.

In the unanticipated playing out of the symphony, God unveils his inner depths in order to enter the depths of sin and overcome the deep with his greater profundity. Cacophony, von Balthasar writes in Truth is Symphonic, is the one form of difference that a symphony cannot endure. God enters into the chaos of sin to bring the symphony of his creation to its intended fullness: to an over-fullness that, by grace, extends its patterned notes into the very mystery of God.

So we might say that, for von Balthasar, Christian revelation is ultimately a song. It is a song that God sings to us, and that we enter into as he sings. The secret of the song is not so much that it is sweet to us, but rather that it brings us into the heart of the world and into the heart of God. The secret is that this heart is one and the same. And so, even should we flee to the deepest chasm of fear and sin, we will still hear the song. We will still find ourselves kept in the heart of God himself.

Sing, please, sing – sing me to sleep.
Soothe me softly as I burn
unsteadily in the night.
Everything I would know –
and everything I do not –
keeps me weary and wakeful,
frightfully alight.

Sing, please, sing – ease each
stammering beat of my
agitated heart. The hammering
heat holds me harshly, folds
me firmly in unseen bands –
fixes me where I am:
my own heart holds me huddled here.

So sing, please, sing – bring
me gently to sleep. Lull me
beyond my brittle boundaries.
Gather me up softly and sing,
sing against my ear.
Sing to me of someplace where
I no longer need to fear.

And there – there, where I might
finally dream, sing again to me
a song of something more.
Sing of everything I know,
and everything I do not,
kept safely in your heart.
Kept there – there, where
you hold me huddled in the night.

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