Voice of Christian Humanism: The Achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar

Two days before being inducted as one of the Vatican’s 25 newly appointed cardinals, on June 26, the eminent theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar died. Pope John Paul II aptly commented that Balthasar had been called by God to a more exalted state.

Von Balthasar was part of an incredible display of Catholic intellectual and cultural energy that came to fruition in the early and middle part of the twentieth century. This Catholic resurgence is associated with such names as Romano Guardini, Joseph Pieper, Peguy, Claudel, Bernanos, Danielou, Maritain, Bremond and de Lubac, Chesterton and Unamuno, Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh, Rahner and Lonergan—not counting C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot, the Anglo-Catholic writers, or a whole range of Russian Orthodox theologians. One has to go back all the way to the seventeenth century to find a similarly abundant and diverse culture of Christian humanism, a similar engagement of the world with all the organs of cultural imagination and intellectual vivacity. Von Balthasar may prove to be the chronicler and philosopher of this age.

Von Balthasar was born in 1905 in Luzern, Switzerland, the son of an architect and the descendent of Swiss patricians. He was educated at Benedictine and Jesuit gymnasia, and his university studies took him to Zurich, Vienna, and Berlin. His doctorate in German literature was obtained in 1928 at the University of Zurich, but he continued with studies in philosophy and theology, notably in Lyon (1933-1937). He was ordained a priest in 1936; his experience in a little copse by Basel of a sudden call to obedience and the following of Christ is evoked in his writings.

Von Balthasar will a member of the Society of Jesus from 1929 to 1950, when he stepped out and dedicated his life to the establishment of “secular institutes,” by which he meant centers of research, meditation, and activity that could function as the Church’s adjuncts in promoting God’s work in a secular world. The best example of such a secular institute was the one he himself created and led in Basel. It sponsored the excellent Johannes Verlag of Einsiedeln (after 1947), which brought out the works of von Balthasar, along with many others; it contributed to setting up the quarterly Communio in 1971, published in 10 languages (English since 1973, also French, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, and others), now one of the best intellectual Christian publications in the world; and it may have provided some impulses for the movement Comunione e Liberazione.


His life was marked and influenced by meetings with persons. From Erich Przywara, a theologian and essayist to whom he was close in Munich, in the editorial chambers of Stimmen der Zeit, he learned the theory of analogia entis as the most appropriate way of understanding the relationship between God and creation. With (now Cardinal) Henri de Lubac (particularly at Lyon between 1935 and 1937) he began opening up the theological and mystical wealth of the Patristic tradition, the genius of the Fourth Gospel, and the insights of Neo-Platonism. With Karl Barth he was engaged in memorable and charitable jousting in Switzerland in the 1940s and 1950s. Several books of agreement and controversy were the outcome of this intellectual intercourse. From 1940 to 1967, the year of her death, von Balthasar was tied in deep friendship and constant collaboration with the mystic and visionary Adrienne von Speyr, herself one of the great figures of Catholicism in our century. Von Speyr’s influence can be clearly recognized in some of von Balthasar’s major late works, as well as in several splendid little monographs on great female religious figures of the past (e.g, Elisabeth of Dijon in 1952 and Therese de Lisieux in 1950). Von Balthasar effected the conversion of the great French literary critic and historian Albert Beguin, was a faithful supporter and friend of the Austrian playwright Reinhold Schneider, and collaborated with Paul Claudel in translating and staging his work in Switzerland.

His work, like that of other great theologians (from St. John Chrysostom to St. Thomas Aquinas to Karl Rahner), is of enormous proportions, so that a quick summary is difficult. One biographer calculated that, until 1975, just the major works amounted to almost 11,000 printed pages. If we add the major works of the other 13 years and the numerous opuscula and articles, we will come closer, I think, to 20,000. (Another bibliographer counts, until 1977, 62 volumes, almost 500 articles, reviews, and introductions, 71 translations, and 12 anthologies). The multiple directions in which von Balthasar pursued his work helps explain these staggering figures. Of these I will choose here three, which I consider the most important: Patristics, the philosophy of culture, and theology.

Under the influence of de Lubac (the two wrote short monographs of each other, and von Balthasar translated into German de Lubac’s seminal and fundamental study, Catholicism), but soon surpassing him, von Balthasar oriented his life’s work towards crucial insights and formulations of the Greek and Latin Fathers of the Church. He did not confine himself to the breathtaking century of A.D. 350-450, when Jerome and Augustine, the Cappadocians and St. Ambrose, St. John Chrysostom and Athanasius were virtually contemporaries and worked out the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, but went backwards to the writings of Iraeneus and Origen, and forward all the way to St. Maximus Confessor in the seventh century.

I am not suggesting that von Balthasar was not interested in medieval developments; in fact, his examinations of Aquinas and Bonaventure, as well as of the group he called “Victorinians” (the abbey of Saint Victor, close to Paris, developed particularly in the twelfth century a theory that harmoniously combined mysticism and Scholasticism), are exemplary and exciting. Nevertheless, von Balthasar’s originality will remain his grounding of Christian intellectual pursuits in Patristic thought. In a private letter he once described the difference between Rahner and himself as one analogous to the distance between Kantian rationalism (Rahner) and Goethean organicism. It might be even more appropriate to say that Rahner continued in modern terms the tradition of Scholastic analytical speculation, while Balthasar sought to revive the creative energies of the early Church Fathers.

The Swiss master never achieved his early plan of a general presentation of Patristics in the light of modern philosophy. However, his detailed treatment of three figures—Origen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Maximus Confessor—outlined quite clearly the theological themes drawn by him from the recuperation of this Christian inheritance. They are the themes of cosmic integrity, Trinitarian depth, and divine involvement in the creation. Maximus Confessor is, for von Balthasar, not only a great unifying figure who tried to prevent the looming schism between East and West, but also the Christian prototype for idealist unifying frameworks (Schelling or Hegel), and the orchestrator of a “cosmic liturgy” (as the monograph in its two versions of 1942 and 1961 was entitled). Gregory of Nyssa is depicted as the rhapsode of Trinitarian complexities and Origen as an apostle of universal salvation. Behind all of them rises the Neo-Platonic doctrine, itself born as the last response of classical antiquity to the challenge of a young Christianity, but fated for centuries to serve Eriugena and Aquinas and the Renaissance humanists and poets, no less that the Romantic idealists.

Von Balthasar explained that the genius of the Patristic generations was to turn the tables elegantly on Plotinus’s followers and to co-opt and transfigure the values of their culture. Neo-Platonism spoke about the return of creation to its center; the Fathers absorbed that doctrine on Christian terms and illustrated it by returning Mediterranean paganism (especially its culture, its philosophy, its natural sacrality, and its sense of beauty and individual worth) into a growing Christian culture. In one possible symbolism of the Cross (in fact, I am here turning around von Balthasar’s own image) this is the horizontal arm of the here and now, of redemption of concreteness, meeting the abrupt and intransigent vertical of direct and exclusive encounter with the jealous God of the Old Testament.

In his first great (three-volume) work, Apocalypse of the German Soul (1937-1939), Hans Urs von Balthasar used the same paradoxical redemptive strategy on German Romantic and nineteenth century culture. The book is both a celebration and a critique of the great age of German philosophy and poetry, such as the Marxist Georg Lukacs (and Thomas Mann in Doctor Faustus) had tried and failed to provide, for lack of a superior critical vantage point. If the core of Romantic idealism was, as historians have suggested, a secularization of the Biblical plot, creation-fall-redemption, von Balthasar’s grand design is precisely to salvage and re-Christianize the enterprise of the Goethezeit. The works of cultural philosophy, and in particular Das Ganze im Fragment (1963; translated in 1968 as Man in History), provide a theoretical version of these previous and more practical analyses.

The crowning achievement of von Balthasar’s career is the trilogy represented by the multi-volume Herrlichkeit (1961-1969; partly translated as The Glory of the Lord by Ignatius Press, in an ongoing project), the five-volume Theodramatik (1975-1981), and the three volumes of Theologik (1985-1987), which incorporate the book length essay Wahrheit (“Truth”) of 1947.

The German word Herrlichkeit means at once glory, splendor, lordliness, radiance, or the sublime, the Aramaic khabod, the essence of divinity. In the work itself the numinous is approached not from the point of view of the good and the true, but rather from the point of view of the beautiful. The book’s subtitle, A Theological Aesthetics, openly avows that the dialectic of culture and religion, on which von Balthasar’s reflection has always been predicated, is now bearing full fruit. In matters of faith, as in matters of science, subjectivity organizes and crystallizes the objective content that is its target and center, while a dedication to objective truth in its turn channels and steers subjectivity.

Similarly in aesthetic necessity: the being of a literary work grows out of its details, but their overall comprehension presupposes already a grasp of the work in its entirety, in its Gestalt. Beauty itself (Herrlichkeit, glorious radiance) both requires and inspires devotion, enthusiasm, and ultimately love. The intimate dialectic of the subjective and objective is thus expanded in the light of a creative love that is never—as it is for all too many theologians—a leveling force leading to differences melting away, but on the contrary a fertile and generous engendering of ever new shapes and structures. Von Balthasar once said that “mental forms that grew in the kind of surroundings in which beauty is also rooted, that is to say, halfway between a mythos that deifies and sacralizes everything and a ratio that demystifies and secularizes everything, often come closest to the truth.”

The principles presented with awesome erudition and in extravagant demonstrative breadth in The Glory of the Lord receive an even more pointed treatment in Theodramatik, which presents theological tenets in their dynamic character rather than as a static picture. The Trinity is a relational reality, which is constituted through an infinity of interactions and mutually directed freedoms, out of whose overflowing abundance human relationships are founded. The whole first volume is devoted to an analysis of dramatic literature and performance, and this analysis is then consistently used as a referential level for the examination of key aspects of salvation history, of the dramatic and gift-laden relations between the human and divine, of trinitarian dialectics. A full-fledged Christology and Mariology and thumb sketches of angelic energies and the demonic shapes of evil are offered as part of an eschatological outlook.

The general themes connecting the dramatic, the aesthetic, and the theological in the work of von Balthasar may be said to be the following. Human freedom is engaged in a continuous dialogue with infinite divine liberty and grounded in it. The finite (and singular and individual) has a worth and dignity that is indispensable to the perfection of Being. And finally, the negative way of reaching God is only the other side of the divine crystallization of the presence of Christ. According to von Balthasar a major ailment of Christendom was the gap opened in the Middle Ages between mysticism and spirituality, on the one hand, and theological and Scholastic philosophy on the other. He did not simply clamor against it; his colossal work is, I think, an attempt to enhance Christian conceptualization by bringing back to it the creative potential of divine love and intuition.

The three volumes of Theologik and the four volumes of “theological sketches” ( Verbum Caro, 1960; Sponsa Verbi, 1961; Spiritus Creator, 1966; and Pneuma and Institution, 1974; the first two were translated in English but are now out of print, the latter two were never translated), as well as the multitude of smaller books on topical issues, allow us to complete our understanding of von Balthasar. He clearly belonged to those who in the 1940s and 1950s were aware of imperfections in the state of Catholicism and urged reform and progress. We know that after Vatican II many of these intellectuals were disappointed and became “conservatives”: Danielou, Maritain, and de Lubac no less than Wojtyla and Ratzinger, to name only a few. When Jacques Maritain cautioned against excessive interpretations of Vatican II, he did not really “change” his position; he simply acknowledged that as a critic he had meant what he had said. Maritain never accepted that his earlier critiques should be used as code words for liturgical deconstructions, doctrinal cavorting, or wholesale secularization. Like Maritain, von Balthasar was not really a “neo-conservative” convert. His critical work of 1952 (Razing the Bastions) does not contain positions that he had to change after Vatican II. But, in a new age, simply reaffirming them made him a “conservative.”

Unlike the more temperamental Maritain and the more stern Ratzinger, von Balthasar was by nature a moderate and easygoing man. He often showed himself ready to ponder radical theological proposals. (He considered and turned down Hans Kung’s thinking with judicious calm and some compassion.) Though certainly not of the “lowest common denominator” brand, his ecumenicism was genuine and profound: witness his dialogue with Karl Barth, the Mt. Athos Golden Cross awarded to him in 1965 by the great Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople, and his essays on Martin Buber, which were a foundation of Vatican II’s new position on Jewish-Christian dialogue. His occasional discussions of feminism, liberation theology, and utopianism were always thoughtful and devoid of stridency.

But all such statements and discussions—and this is the cornerstone of Balthasar’s theology—were shown to be meaningful only when framed by the eternal truths and concerns of Christianity: religion as the language of communication with transcendence, the overriding concern of individual salvation, the overflowing grace of Trinitarian freedom, the pilgrimage and the durability of the Petrine mission and structure. Inside the great visions and concepts of a sacred tradition, media-provided agendas dwindle to their true dimension—topical and ephemeral—and can be discussed with mild wisdom.

Von Balthasar was spurned by the Left as a “conservative,” a “gnostic,” and a dated Neo-Platonist; he was also occasionally attacked from the Right. But a life’s work of such magnitude easily exposes the irrelevance of such terms as “conservative” and “liberal” when applied to eternal issues of human being in relations to its Creator. More appropriate terms are tradition, (and building on it and referring back to it) cultural variation, and innovative fertility.

Exploring such polarities was the enterprise in which von Balthasar was truly engaged. His studies of French and German writers, his enthusiasm for music, and his numerous anthologies and translations provide the evidence. His work itself grew organically, in widening circles, always recapitulating, revising, and enriching what had gone before, as if nothing must be left out or lost. Even the paragraphs and sentences (splendid and—alas!—so difficult in style) express a gleaning impulse and the compassionate affect &r the dignity of nuance and detail. Small wonder that, in a quiet way, von Balthasar’s thinking could be resorted to as a strategic reserve by all those (ultimately the Vatican itself) who sought to revive the serene confidence and natural continuity proper to Roman Catholicism (and Christianity in general).

There are several good monographs on von Balthasar in German, Italian, and French, but the situation is less rosy for the English reader. Louis Roberts and J. A. Kay published books on von Balthasar’s “aesthetic theology” (the former in 1987, the latter in 1975), which can be regarded as preliminary assessments. A few good doctoral dissertations are available to the more specialized reader. The New Catholic Encyclopedia had not carried an entry on von Balthasar (the supplementary volume now being printed will). The short obits in the main American newspapers were due chiefly to the coincidence of a demise before induction to the cardinalate. Things may be slowly changing. In 1977, the Catholic University of America organized a symposium on the Swiss theologian’s work, and in 1981 it granted him an honorary degree. The English language version of Communio has been coming out of Notre Dame, Indiana, for 15 years now. Most important, Ignatius Press of San Francisco has been bringing out systematically not only some of the shorter and topical works but also The Glory of the Lord, in handsomely bound volumes to sometimes enthusiastic reviews in a broad spectrum of journals (including liberal Catholic and Protestant ones). Perhaps Theodramatik and Theologik will also be made available to English readers.

The loss of Hans Urs von Balthasar is immense. One hopes his good work will be carried on: the Communio journals and the Johannes Verlag have now institutional status and should be able to help. Among the German theologians with whom I am familiar, Walter Kasper, with less theoretical genius, but with more practical acumen and flexibility, seems a continuator. The young French Catholic philosopher Jean Luc Marion develops in personal ways some Balthasarian ideas on kenosis and absence. Among American academics, Fr. Robert Sokolowski’s The God of Faith and Reason (1982) and Louis Dupre’s acute and reverential analyses of spirituality and mysticism are close to Balthasar’s spirit of cultural and religious synthesis. Other names could be mentioned, but these will suffice now to indicate my confidence that even at the end of an extraordinary and fertile period, some development is still noticeable.

To have been Hans Urs von Balthasar’s contemporary was an honor and a privilege. Christianity had in him an exponent and a defender who—in value, size, or noetic substance—did not fall short of the greatest among the age’s intellects (Wittgenstein or Heidegger, for instance). Qualified observers have called von Balthasar the most educated and cultivated man of our time. Those who would like to read him could well start with the (double) volume II of Glory of the Lord, formed out of 12 chapters, which covers Christian thinking on divine radiance and overflowing spiritual abundance from Irenaeus and Dionysus to Hamann, Hopkins, Solovyov, and Peguy. You enter this world as you would enter huge labyrinths and grottoes in which treasures of inestimable worth and delight are buried—by the magnanimous forgetfulness of the Church, or by impatience and rudeness of our contemporaries. Von Balthasar’s own labyrinthine work is a similar site for joyful and precious discovery.

Virgil Nemoianu


Virgil Nemoianu (born 1940) is a Romanian-American essayist, literary critic, and philosopher of culture. He is generally described as a specialist in “comparative literature” but this is a somewhat limiting label, only partially covering the wider range of his activities and accomplishments. His thinking places him at the intersection of Neo-Platonism and Neo-Kantianism, which he turned into an instrument meant to qualify, channel, and tame the asperities, as well as what he regarded the impatient accelerations and even absurdities of modernity and post-modernity. He chose early on to write within the intellectual horizons outlined by Goethe and Leibniz and continued to do so throughout his life.

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