On reading Balthasar
April 24, 2014
I have begun to re-read the first volume of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Herrlichkeit, translated into English as The Glory of the Lord. Herrlichkeit means “glory” or “splendor.” It is the quality of “form” that radiates from being or existence. Balthasar chooses to begin his theological trilogy with this aesthetic quality (7 volumes), proceeded by goodness (5 volumes) and truth (3 volumes) — thereby reversing Kant’s ordering of his Critique series. I am excited to revisit Balthasar, who was a significant influence in my life during the mid-00’s when I first began to read theology, not counting my coursework in Religion/Philosophy as an undergraduate — a program with scarcely any theology at all. At that time, I was just beginning to read Barth on my own, beginning with Romans (which I rather disliked, exciting thought it was) and then Church Dogmatics I.1 (which “saved” Barth in my estimation, from his obvious beholdenness to existential obsessions with finitude). In the years since, I have read the majority of Barth’s CD, hopefully acquiring a pretty good facility with the material. I am certainly the most comfortable with expounding Barth than any other theologian.
Balthasar’s prose is magnificent but often a struggle, much more so than Barth. Newcomers will likely be astonished by me saying this, but I find that Barth is one of the clearest writers in the field. His mastery over prose is unparalleled, even if excessively prolix at times. I always get the sense that Barth says exactly what he wants to say, exactly how he wants to say it — with the greatest of ease. By contrast, I often get the sense that Balthasar is having a monologue with himself! He has so immersed himself within the whole breadth of Western metaphysics, alongside his mystical temperament, that he sometimes forgets he’s writing for an audience. But if you work your way through, the payoff is immeasurable. The awe with which Balthasar envisions reality will slowly but powerfully find its way into your own imagination.
It just so happens that I recently read Bultmann’s small volume, Jesus Christ and Mythology, marking the second work from Bultmann that I’ve read (the other being his NT theology). God willing, I will never read Bultmann again. I thoroughly dislike the man. I am afraid that if I were to express my thoughts, I would far exceed the boundaries of Christian charity. The contrast with Balthasar is like night and day — a rather apt image. At Bultmann’s best, he can attain a certain sublimity, but even that is rare. Beauty is wholly foreign to his theology. If that is the price of faithful authenticity, then I’ll pass.
In order to get a taste of Balthasar, here is one of my favorite passages toward the beginning of the volume:
Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray soon will no longer be able to love. The nineteenth century still held on with passionate frenzy to the fleeing garments of beauty, which are the contours of the ancient world as it dissolves: ‘Helena embraces Faust, her body vanishes, and only her robe and veil remain in his arms….Helena’s garments dissolve into clouds, enveloping Faust. He is raised on high and floats away with the cloud’ (Faust, II, Act 3). The world, formerly penetrated by God’s light, now becomes but an appearance and a dream — the Roman vision — and soon thereafter nothing but music. But where the cloud disperses, naked matter remains as an indigestible symbol of fear and anguish. Since nothing else remains, and yet something must be embraced, twentieth-century man is urged to enter this impossible marriage with matter, a union which finally spoils all man’s taste for love. But man cannot bear to live with the object of his impotence, that which remains permanently unmastered. He must either deny it or conceal it in the silence of death.
In a world without beauty — even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it — in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out.
[The Glory of the Lord: Seeing the Form, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, T&T Clark / Ignatius Press: 1982, pp. 18-19]
Wow! You could spend an hour discussing the richness, the penetration, the magnificence of these sentences.