In a recent two-part video series, Fr. Robert Barron introduces the life and theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), the most creative, ambitious, and wide-ranging Catholic theologian in the modern period. Balthasar was beloved by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, but he is a controversial figure among many Catholic theologians (see Karen Kilby). Fr. Barron does a splendid job introducing Balthasar and commending his works:

In the second part, Fr. Barron focuses more on the particulars of Balthasar’s theology:

For the uninitiated, let me reiterate Fr. Barron’s reference to Balthasar’s “trilogy.” This is the informal name given to Balthasar’s dogmatics, structured around the three “transcendentals” (usually associated with Platonism) of truth, goodness, and beauty. These “properties of being” are convertible, one into the other, such that wherever truth is found, so is goodness and beauty. Wherever goodness is found, so is truth and beauty. Wherever beauty is found, so is goodness and truth. The ordering given by Kant in his threefold Critique is truth (reason), goodness (ethics), and beauty (aesthetic judgment). Balthasar reverses the ordering to beauty, goodness, and truth:

The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics in 7 volumes

Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory in 5 volumes

Theo-Logic in 3 volumes, plus an Epilogue

As you can see, not only did Balthasar reverse Kant’s ordering, but he also gives greater volume to the first transcendental of beauty, then goodness, and then reason. There are some very good surveys of Balthasar’s theology, including Stephen Wigley’s Balthasar’s Trilogy (T&T Clark, 2010) and Rodney Howsar’s Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2009).

J. H. Newman

Adrienne von Speyr relates the following account of Newman’s prayer-life and personality in one of her numerous visions, dictated to her friend and co-worker, Hans Urs von Balthasar. These accounts are collected in The Book of All Saints (Ignatius, 2008), which includes a wide variety of persons, mostly canonized saints but also a few surprises (e.g., Joseph Haydn, Kierkegaard). Her description of Newman is, thankfully, far more kind and sympathetic than her less-than-flattering estimation of Thomas Aquinas. I thought this was a wonderful account of Newman.

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I see him in prayer. He prays so carefully, with a fastidious, good love, a love that has no patience for anything that is not entirely pure and entirely righteous [rechtschaffen]. He brings everything that is troubling and occupying him into prayer with him. At first, it is all unsorted; he sorts it out in prayer. And in prayer, he receives a certainty concerning whether what he brought is really worthwhile, whether God can use it, whether God can bless it. If God blesses it, he contemplates it once again in prayer and looks to see whether God’s light is now reflecting from it. His thoughts, his concerns, his recommendations are like diamonds that were not initially polished, stones he was not entirely sure were in fact really diamonds. Then the expert, that is, God, inspects them and gives them a true polish, and in the end Newman also sees that they were in fact precious stones. But one would have to say that almost everything he brings to God is really a diamond and that he already made the selection in a holy way.

(And his work?) He loves it. He loves it, because it is God’s work. …It is often the case that he writes, as it were, with his blood and attains to insights with the last of his strength. There is much that is demanded of him personally. In fact, he stands in relation to his work the way a founder of an Order stands in relation to that which he founds.

(And people?) He loves them. It is a bit odd. He sees them as God’s creatures, but in a way that somewhat resembles an entomologist who loves his insects. He often has difficulty making the first human contact. He receives it first through the translation of God.

Adrienne von Speyr, The Book of All Saints (Ignatius, 2008), pp. 261-262.

[My summary: The infinite contains the finite; the finite does not contain the infinite.]

From all eternity, the Father is together with the Son and with the Holy Spirit. He reveals himself to them in a way that is completely divine and receives from them a divine answer. Nonetheless, when the Father created the world, he opened wide the sphere of the eternal in order to include within existence the sphere of the transient as well. He set forth something from his eternity, though not in order to leave what he had created without a connection to eternity, as a unity left to its own devices. God also received what he had created and, therefore, preserved a permanent relationship with his work. His will as Creator remained unchanged with respect to the world, and, in the act of creation, the Creator’s being was disclosed to the world. He neither withdrew nor became indifferent, but rather he waited for an answer from the created.

His creation’s first answer was to let itself be created, to let itself become a reality, one whose ultimate meaning was meant to rest in God but that also possessed meaning in its creaturely essence. God separated the water from the dry land, and, in this separation, the earth became an important symbol. The earth is the sure ground on which men can stand. For everything was planned for man, whom God created last of all. He handed over everything to him so that it would belong to him. This handing over was meant with the utmost sincerity and was never revoked. It placed man in a permanent relationship with the surrounding world, which was God’s gift to him. In God’s eyes, occupying man in this way was meant already to be like a prayer, for man was meant to see in created things what God had given him. He was to be able to do this by virtue of his senses and reason, in what he saw, heard, felt, and experienced. He was furnished with a sensory nature and with knowledge, and, through these, he can echo and adjust to the things over which he has dominion. However, God stands behind each and every perception and adjustment. This means, not that God allows himself to be restricted or tied down to the measure of things and experiences, but rather that his voice remains always audible. The more simple things are, the more conceivable God appears. It is not that he allows things to contain him; rather, they are signs of his presence, which can be neither diminished by the finitude of the world nor consigned to a particular space; it nonetheless remains true presence. This presence is something neither vague nor questionable: it is the presence of the Creator toward whom points the meaning that resides in created things. It is not that God’s meaning is made finite in elements, in plants, and in animals, like something exhaustible; but things can be either quiet or loud reminders that the invisible Creator lives, has created them, and, far from abandoning them, has them permanently in his care. The human spirit, which experiences and contemplates these things, is reminded by their presence of God’s existence.

Adrienne von Speyr, The Boundless God, Ignatius Press, 2005. (emphasis mine)