Hans Urs von Balthasar’s life was hardly the plain, uneventful life of a scholar. Born in 1905, he lived through the horror and devastation of both World Wars, writing his doctoral thesis, The Apocalypse of the German Soul, during Hitler’s rise to power. He was immersed in literature, music, and philosophy. In 1929, after a retreat where he felt a powerful call to the priesthood, he entered the Society of Jesus and was educated by some of the best of his time including the Polish philosopher, Erich Przywara, and French Jesuit and patristic scholar, Henri de Lubac. Balthasar is becoming recognized as perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century–yet he never held an academic position in theology. Far from being an ivory tower academic, he was involved with the pastoral duties as a student chaplain at the University of Basel, Switzerland. It was there that he came to know Adrienne von Spyer, who converted to the Catholic Church and became the recipient of what seems to have been intense mystical graces. Together they discerned a call to found a secular institute (a community whose members take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but live in the world engaged in secular professions), the Community of St. John. To continue his work as leader of the community, Balthasar eventually had to make one of the most painful decisions of his life: to leave the Jesuit Order and become a diocesan priest.
We continue exploring the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar with Fr. Aidan Nichols. See previous post for intro.
The Centrality Of Christ In Aesthetics
Where the perceptual object in question is Jesus Christ, the real object thus presented to us is not just one of the possibilities of created being. Owing to the Incarnation, the object here presented through beautiful form is not merely human being but in a direct and plenary (vocab: unqualified; absolute) way divine Being itself. In this unique instance, then, the sensuous appearance is loaded with the endless significance and inherent authority of the divine. In this particular case, accordingly, `beauty’ will also be called `glory’ as well, for appearance charged with the inexhaustible significance and inherent authority of the divine is a plausible first stab at defining what the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures mean by `the glory of the Lord’.
Balthasar’s aesthetics begin humbly, at the level of sense perception, but ultimately they investigate the meaning and content of encounter with the glory of God. The form of revelation is the main theme of Balthasar’s theological aesthetics because it is `the glorious evidence of divine agency in the world’. God, of course, is not part of the world. He cannot be ranged among the many things that happen to exist (a good Thomistic point: God is not in any genus of being, any type of thing). This does not mean, however, that God fails to attain to form. Surely we should say, rather, that God is that to which all form fails to attain. We can call him, with Balthasar, not ‘non-Form’ but `Super-form’.
In speaking of God as `Super-form’, Balthasar offers his own theologically aesthetic version of the Thomistic claim that the human creature has a natural desire for the vision of God. Translated into theologically aesthetic terms, this reads: we humans desire to find a perceivable form that transcends our powers, and in that way to transcend ourselves by knowing ourselves to be thus transcended. For this reason, the contemplation of God is, as the mystics show, not only dark and baffling but also a cause of joy for us.
To search out the beautiful is to explore, then, not only the formal possibilities of being but also the possibilities of human feeling-response in the face of the forms that being takes. It has, therefore, both an objective and a subjective side to it (we shall look at this more closely in a moment). Notice meanwhile how Balthasar is not saying that perception of anything beautiful should be regarded as equivalent to an act of recognition of God.
What he is saying is twofold. First, for those who have some awareness of God as the Source of all being, beauty acquires ontological depth. Such people can develop a habit of seeing the world as transparent to God. That is highly relevant to belief in creation. Secondly, and even more importantly, the events of salvation history — where God is active, presenting himself for contemplation — show the divine to have its own style of manifestation, and we must learn to register its impress. That is highly relevant to belief in the Incarnation. In the biblical revelation, the self-disclosure of God comes to a climax in Jesus Christ.
As the centre of Scripture, Christ unifies Old Testament and New Testament in a single form. Once seen as such, he can also be recognized as the centre of creation: “the One who brings genesis and apocalypse, the original creation and its eschatological fulfillment, into a single form likewise.” In `Revelation and the Beautiful’, Balthasar draws attention to the need for holism these affirmations entail:
The historical revelation is molded throughout into a single structure, so that the person contemplating it perceives, through the relationships and proportion of its various parts, the divine rightness of the whole. For however clear and convincing these relationships are, they are inexhaustible — not only in the practical sense, because we lack the power to grasp them in their entirety, but also in principle, because what comes to light in the structure is something which opens our minds to the infinite.
Note, however, that Jesus Christ is the centre of this structure, not the exclusive content of it. Though Balthasar’s vision always centers on the figure of Christ, he does not follow the great Protestant Neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth, for example, in making Christ’s form as God made human the sole analogue between God and the world. Balthasar states plainly that it is impossible to understand beauty as supernatural revelation without first experiencing beauty naturally, in creation.
Still, perhaps the best argument for the existence of the transcendentals is their capacity to infuse the human community with shared meanings where goodness, truth and beauty are concerned. And in this regard, Jesus Christ, whose Gospel has enabled millions in many ages and cultures to find such meaning, is as it were an open window on the transcendentals, joining together webs of human sensibility so that people can apprehend the transcendentals in their full reality.
Of course, Christ is a very unexpected climax to the experience of the beautiful. As Balthasar suggests in his meditation on the Easter Triduum, Mysterium Paschale, the Incarnation is ordered to the Passion: from the very word `Go!’ its direction is the Cross.” In Jesus Christ it will, then, be a strange and terrible Beauty that is born. Hence Balthasar’s remark in `Revelation and the Beautiful’:
For this reason, the glory inherent in God’s revelation, its fulfillment beyond measure of all possible aesthetic ideas, must perforce remain hidden from the eyes of all, believers and unbelievers, though in very various degrees.
Hans urs von Balthasar, Revelation and the Beautiful, p.113
Naturally, Balthasar can hardly say that the glory of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is something entirely hidden to everybody: in that case, there would be no point in writing a Christ-centred theological aesthetics at all. But there is a point! The Incarnation is the supreme presentation of aesthetic form despite or rather, when seen more deeply, because of the Cross. As Balthasar explains:
Insofar as the veil over the face of Christ’s mystery is drawn aside, and insofar as the economy of grace allows, Christian contemplation can marvel, in the self-emptying of divine love, at the exceeding wisdom, truth and beauty inherent there. But it is only in this self-emptying that they can be contemplated, for it is the source whence the glory contemplated by the angels and the saints radiated into eternal life … The humiliation of the servant only makes the concealed glory shine more resplendently, and the descent into the ordinary and commonplace brings out the uniqueness of him who so abased himself
Hans urs von Balthasar, Revelation and the Beautiful, pp.113-114
Here is a form than which none more wonderful can be imagined. For the `ground’ that appears in this `gestalt’, above all in the moment of the Cross, is the love that the Trinity is. That statement is the climactic assertion of Balthasarian ‘theo-aesthetics’. In the next Chapter, we shall see how, for Balthasar’s ‘theo-dramatics’, two more words need adding to this formulation: the ground that appears in the Christ-form is the love and freedom of the triune God.
The Unification Of Human Experience By Aesthetic Form
In his theological aesthetics Balthasar expects human experience to be completed and unified when guided by aesthetic form. To cite once again from `Revelation and the Beautiful’:
Everywhere there should be a correspondence between object and subject; the external harmony must correspond to a subjective need and both give rise to a new harmony of a higher order; subjectivity, with its feeling and imagination, must free itself in an objective work, in which it rediscovers itself in the course of which … there may be as much self-discovery as experience of another.
Hans urs von Balthasar, Revelation and the Beautiful, p.105
As that highly original student of Balthasar’s work Francesca Aran Murphy has pointed out, Balthasar presupposes, rightly enough, that human beings need rounded patterns through which to shape their experiences and make of them a coherent unity. Our capacity for awareness of such rounded patterns is called imagination.
Owing to Balthasar’s epistemological optimism and ontological realism, the thrust of the imagination for him is towards the real foundation which upholds all such forms. As we have seen, Balthasar employs a realistic metaphysics for which form is a basic principle. In such a metaphysic, beauty will be treated as an objective reality, present both in natural reality and in artistic works and accessible to us through their mediation.
For Balthasar (as for anyone else, for that matter), the word `imagination’ denotes a human faculty that eschews the quantitative measuring techniques of the empirical sciences. But for Balthasar (unlike for many other writers), the functioning of imagination can and should be grounded in objective reality.
Whereas historic Romanticism was plagued by Idealism, according to which imagination tells us chiefly about our own minds, the matter looks very different when a realist metaphysic is brought into the picture. Symbolic forms, though of our devising, allow us to gesture toward the inherent reality of things. The imagination expresses meaning in terms which draw the mind into the world.
When a realist metaphysics, recognizing the force of imagination, is combined with an orthodox Christology, the vista opened up is transformed again. Now our imaginative penetration of the world finds its response in a form a supremely rounded pattern — who rises up to meet it from beyond all human powers of exploration, since this form — the form of the Word incarnate — discloses God himself, author and archetype of being as a whole. While revealing itself to us from its source in the Uncreated, from what lies beyond the natural world, this form is also an attracting principle that draws out man’s effort to unite himself imaginatively with the created, with the natural order found in the cosmos and in human existence.
At one and the same time, then, the shape of this unique form, Jesus Christ, is both congruent with the activity of the human imagination at large, for imagination in general works on what is given in creation, and yet extends infinitely beyond all humanly discerned patterns — and, indeed, beyond the range of creation itself. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge divined, and he was, in this regard, an English forerunner of Balthasar, the highest unity the imagination can conceive is that which joins the finite and the infinite.’ But as Balthasar stresses with a vigor absent in Coleridge, this joining is supremely carried out by God himself in assuming human nature into unity with his divine Word.
The Deficiencies Of Modern Theological Culture
As Balthasar was aware, much modern theology does not honor this claim. Modern theological liberalism characteristically takes as its base the organization of human experience rather than the objective givens of divine agency impacting on nature and history. Probably Kant is the single greatest culprit here, because he it was who established the quite misleading presupposition that what critical thought considers is merely why we experience the world in the way we do. The situation deteriorates even further with Neo-Kantianism, influential in the German Universities (and notably Marburg — later to host the philosopher Heidegger and the exegete and quasi-theologian Bultmann) around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
For Neo-Kantians, the threads binding the Kantian subject to an objective world were attenuated even further. In their view, Kant was hasty in allowing that external sense impressions impinge upon the mind, and misguided in granting the existence of a noumenon behind such perceptual presentation, the elusive `thing in itself’. Such Neo-Kantianiism is, it would seem, the philosophical origin of the ‘demythologising’ movement in Christian theology, and that has been, under whatever name, an enormously influential movement, both academically and in ordinary Church life. It is a movement to which Balthasar was implacably opposed.
Bultmann had regarded all alleged ‘knowledge’ of reality as mere objectification; projecting onto the largely unknowable a screen of our own culturally generated ideas: such false ‘objectivity’ must be stripped from the New Testament record. To his mind, the cosmological canvas on which the New Testament writers painted concealed the true message of the Gospel, which is the `extra-worldly’ dependence of the human person on the divine. For Bultmann, the Gospel has to do with my subjective relation to God within my own existence — my relation to him as myself a subject called to shape the meaning of life as I go along, thanks to my own ‘existential’ decisions, what I choose to regard as ‘authentic’, as valid ‘for me’.
Francesca Murphy draws attention to the usefulness of Balthasar’s corpus for those seeking to repel the Bultmann-style subversion of revelation-guided thought. Balthasar was clearly right to identify the hazards of granting primacy to what the last Chapter of this study called an ‘I ‘ I’ principle in laying intellectual foundations — rather than the ‘I’-world principle where the transcendentals can enter the picture from the very start.
A starting-point in the ‘I’-’I’ relationship will always prejudice the chances of any presentation of the incarnate Christ as divinity given in and through form. If as philosophers we follow the Kantians (and here is why, unlike most modern thinkers in the German language, Balthasar preferred to Kant the more classically inspired mind-set of Goethe), we abandon the really metaphysical path to God leading as that path does through a substantial, material world — in other words, a world of substances that make themselves known through their forms to human intelligence, mediated by the senses. And when we come to the theology of revelation, where the acting subject is not ourselves but God himself reaching out to us, we shall inevitably, sooner or later, cease to think of God’s movement toward us as really mediated by the forms and images, understood as valid for everyone, in which the Bible deals.
This for Balthasar is where appeal to pulchrum, the transcendental we call ‘the beautiful’ can help restore the integrity of a Christologically-given revelation of the God of all being. The significance of the beautiful is that it indicates how an object might be outside us, facing us, and yet at the same time draw us into itself. Of all the transcendentals, the beautiful is the closest to our senses. It is, therefore, more directly present to us than are hue other transcendental properties of being.
The beautiful is a fully objective property of being, but it is the nature of this property to be communicative, to communicate itself to observers. The beautiful is reality under the aspect of form, known as such by imaginative intuition, just as truth is reality as best known through propositions, by the intelligence, and goodness is reality as best known through values, by the moral sense.
These ways of knowing refer to the same world manifesting itself in distinct but analogously related ways: as beautiful, true and good respectively. Specifically, the antidote Balthasar would prescribe for the sick theological patient is stored at the centre of his aesthetics where he draws on the Augustinian and mediaeval tradition which ascribed transcendental beauty most especially to the divine Son. In, for example, the prima pars of the Summa Theologiae, St Thomas explains that Christ has radiance through being the Art of the Father, where the Word illuminates the mind that contemplates him. He has proportion because he is the fullest likeness of the Father. He has integrity because his form is the Father’s form. [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia q39, a8]
And for Aquinas precisely those three qualities — radiance, proportion, integrity — are the hallmarks of the beautiful. St Thomas was speaking of the pre-existent Son, who is with the Father from all eternity. Balthasar, by contrast, wants to apply pulchrum to the incarnate Son, precisely in his sensuous as well as intelligible form, a form that is well accommodated to our finitude so that we may grasp it.
But how, we may ask, is this particular doctrine the remedy an ailing theological culture needs? The human yearning for structured intelligibility, the single chief impetus to the making of art, suggested to Balthasar an analogy in art — and notably visual art — for the form and splendor attaching to the transcendent beauty of Christ Considered as symbols, artworks function within the analogical network of being whose indefinitely extended character we charted in Chapter One.
Though they belong to immanent being — the realm of being that is suitably proportioned to the human mind, they also participate in the transcendentals, and thus they have a relation to the transcendent, divine Being that is all creation’s source. Aesthetic beauty, we can say, strives towards transcendental beauty, and this is a token of its spirituality.
Yet aesthetic beauty cannot spiritualize itself. It is ordered to the delight of the embodied human mind of everyman or everywoman — toward the satisfaction of the imagination as earthed in this world. It can, then, only receive a direction toward the transcendent, and do so, accordingly, from beyond itself. The supreme, altogether unified, and yet interior experience the Romantics were looking for is not self-shaped.
Rather, it is shaped by a transcendent and supernatural form. The subject of religious experience, the human self, can be, ought to be, and has been, re-formed by its transcendent object. Human experience enters true synthesis through receiving an objective revealed form that brings it to fulfillment. The self becomes re-formed divinely when it lets Christ’s archetypal experience form its own.
All instances of the real participate in form in analogically ordered degrees, but that means in unequal degrees. Every beautiful form possesses an openness to the infinite, but some beautiful forms possess this more than others. Beautiful form is heterogeneous, differentiated, qualitatively variable, of more or less significance in terms of focusing the totality of being at large. A snow-crystal, a mango-tree, Michelangelo’s statue of King David, the Aurora Borealis, St Francis kissing the leper, do this to varying degrees.
Every form is a contraction of the totality of being, and some are more contracted than others. This should remind us that it is for God to provide the norm by which he will interpret himself (the word-play of `norm’ and `form’ only works in English — and Latin, but Balthasar wants his readers to understand `authoritative principle’ [norm] in aesthetic terms form]). Only God can fashion a form that could be a comprehensive revelation of himself, the world and our relation to both of these.
Balthasar stresses, however, that, though the phenomenon in which God supremely shows himself is indeed overwhelming, it is still a norm that is comprehensible to human modes of perception and knowing, and does not simply override these or lay them to one side. As he puts it in the metaphysics volume of the theological aesthetics:
… if a concept that is fundamental to the Bible has no kind of analogy in the general intellectual sphere, and awoke no familiar echo in the heart of man, it would remain absolutely incomprehensible and thereby a matter of indifference. It is only when there is an analogy (be it only distant) between the human sense of the divine and divine revelation that the height, the difference and the distance of that which the revelation discloses may be measured in God’s grace.”
The Glory of the Lord, A Theological Aesthetics IV The Realism of Metaphysics in Antiquity p. 14
No beauty in the world can be identified with God’s glory – though we might suspect that human personality, where the being of the world comes to its crown and its varied splendors (including their relation to God) can be perceived, might be a special locus for imaging glory (were it not, at any rate, for moral evil — a rather large obstacle in the way). There is, however:
one concrete historical event in which divine glory is fully present: in the beauty of the Christ form.so
S. Van Erp, The Art of Theology, p.138