52 Authors, Week 8
The Searchers

52 Authors, Week 8: Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)

I read Theology at Manchester University in 1979-1982. I was a book lover, and I spent most of the summers reading the book lists for my courses. I planned to take Christology in my third year, so in the summer of 1981 I read The Myth of God Incarnate. That’s a collection of essays published around that time by Anglican professors, which argues that, as one of them puts it, the traditional idea of the Incarnation as God literally assuming humanity is a ‘square circle’. It’s a ‘square circle’, the author and editor of the book, John Hick, argues, because the idea of God becoming incarnate in humanity is a contradiction in terms.

I was a bit of a contradiction myself at the time. Even if being contradictory is part and parcel of the human condition, that was no excuse. Because I thought the arguments in this book were weak and silly, but I did not myself believe that Christ is God. This contradiction pressed in on me, as the summer wore on. I realized I could not dodge the question, that I had to say ‘yes Christ is God or no he is not.’ I decided to say, yes, Christ is God. I began to attend an Anglican church, and then a few months later, after returning to University, I decided to become R.C.

Later in the same year, this person who had seldom voluntarily taken her nose out of a book had to decide what to do when University ended, so naturally, I opted to apply for grad school, and write a PhD. In Great Britain, the Ph.D program in the humanities consists in writing a long dissertation – about 300,000 words. My plan for my PhD, which I submitted, was to write a refutation of The Myth of God Incarnate.

The refutation was going to be based on art. It’s hard to reach back into the intuition my twenty-two year old self had without improving on it and falsifying it. I think the intuition for the PhD was that beautiful things, especially paintings or poems, have something of ‘the infinite’ or ‘the divine’ in them. But they are also just finite blocks of wood or texts with a beginning, middle and end. This seemed to me to disprove the ‘square circle’ contention: if finite works of art can be beautiful, that is, have something godlike about them, then is it a contradiction in terms to say that God assumed a human nature? I’m not putting my intuition up there for approval now! I can see it has more holes in it than a Swiss cheese.

My idea was less intended as a refutation than as a description: I wanted to say that people who came up with the idea that the incarnation of the infinite God in one particular human being has to be ‘just a myth’ are, so to speak, poorly educated or philistinical. I know that sounds snobbish but I was snobbish, especially about art! If only they had spent time in meditating on the incarnation of meaning in paintings and poems, I wanted to say, these Anglican clergy folk would have been seen right off that the Incarnation of God in human flesh makes perfectly good sense. Now I’m not improving on my intuition but mocking it by way of deprecation.

PhDs cannot just be about intuitions. They have to have chapter plans. So I was to have a chapter on Maritain on Art, and one on Gilson on beauty, and chapters on the Southern Fugitive Agrarians on Art, and a Chapter on William Lynch, author of the great Christ and Apollo, and … a chapter on Hans Urs von Balthasar. I included Hans Urs von Balthasar at the suggestion of Michael von Waldstein, who wrote his PhD on him.

It was 1984. Von Balthasar’s great ‘Trilogy’ was then just being translated and published in great violet-grey hard-back tomes by Ignatius Press and by T and T Clark in Scotland. The ‘Trilogy’ is three sets of books. The first is called the Theological Aesthetics and it's about Christ as the revelation of the beauty of God. The second ‘set’ is the Theo-Drama and it's about Christ and his action, saving us by his life, death and resurrection, as the revelation of God’s goodness. The third set only came out in English much later: it’s the Theo-Logic, and of course it’s about Christ as the Truth of God. You can see that I was getting into way, way more than I bargained and planned for.

As I began to feel my way into the first of those violet-grey volumes (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. I Seeing the Form), I experienced another flash of light. My second insight was that Christ is ‘finite form and infinite light.’ The insight is that Christ is beauty, and beauty must be defined as ‘light and form,’ That’s not an intuition, you may say, it’s a metaphor. The ‘form’ is the particular human flesh of Jesus, born in one place and time. It’s the figure of Jesus as he appears in history, in that one province of the Roman empire. Jesus as ‘crucified under Pontius Pilate’, as the creed puts it. The light is Christ making himself intelligible as who he is, as God made man.

Every art work has a structure, a particular form, but it also has a dense and bottomless intelligibility. In a painting the ‘form’ is the colours and the figures; in a poem or novel the form is the structure the words take on. But the light is its self-communication, the way it grips a viewer or reader, with its layers of meaning which go on and on like a bottomless stair. I’m not sure if I can explain ‘light’ except with more metaphors, like ‘staircase to the work’ or ‘bridge to the work’. There’s only so far metaphors can be unpacked, because there’s a reason one uses them to articulate an idea - it can’t be explained any other way. Something mysterious happens when a work of art shows us its beauty, and this mystery is netted if not pinned down with metaphors such as ‘form’ and ‘light’. Form is the solidity of the work of art and light is its hypnotic, transporting quality which fixes our gaze upon it and draws us into it.

C.S. Lewis has an essay called ‘The Parthenon and the Optative.’ Or maybe he doesn’t and he just has an essay where he talks about those grave matters. It opens with a school master grimacing over some exam scripts and saying to a colleague, ‘These boys know too much about the Parthenon and too little about the optative.’ That means: the school boys’ masters have spent too much time dwelling on the glories of Greek culture, and endued their pupils with the ability to chatter about the splendour that was ancient Greece; and they have spent precious little time inculcating them with knowledge of the optative, the Greek verb form meaning ‘he would do so and so’. And of course, one cannot really ‘get inside’ the Parthenon, or understand Greek culture from within, without a sound grasp of Greek optative verbs.

For several centuries, our culture has been a mixture of the ‘classical-empirical’ and ‘the Romantic’, with the Romantic winning out in pedagogy and the hard-headed classical-empirical winning out in business and economics. So a lot of Christian rhetoric wants to chose one side or the other, with liberal Christianity going with the ‘Parthenon’, Romantic side of things, with a very drippy God, and the more conservative Christians buying into the empirical-classical, and speaking of Christianity as if it were a mixture of facts and conclusions that can be reached by logical analysis. So now, von Balthasar, with his idea of Christ as ‘form and splendour,’ is, as it were, saying that Christ is where the Parthenon and the optative meet. Christ is where the splendour of God speaks through the grammar enfleshed in one Jewish man. And this communication of splendour in human words shows us how to believe in him.

No one can see the form of Christ without faith. He simply does not add up without the light of faith: he is a ‘square circle.’ Faith is a kind of seeing the meaning of things. The act of faith has traditionally been described using the metaphor of light. So what von Balthasar is doing here is to explain what we mean by the act of faith – what we mean by ‘seeing Christ with the eyes of faith’ – by reference to how we understand a beautiful object. As I drove home this evening there was a sign outside the Church of Christ which said, ‘Jesus is the light which only your heart can see.’ That is lovely but it is not what von Balthasar means here, or precisely what any Catholic would want to say. For a Catholic ‘the light which only your heart can see’ is not only subjective sounding. It’s Pelagian sounding – as if some special power within us did the seeing. In the Catholic tradition, von Balthasar would say, rather, ‘Jesus is the light who illuminates your heart.’ So to have faith is to have illuminated vision. And in von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics, it is Christ doing the illuminating, showing us the meaning of his ‘form’ and using it to transport us into ever deeper love and appreciation of him.

I did find those big gray-violet tomes of The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics reassuringly solid and dense. In my first job, at Manchester University, toward the end of my PhD writing, I had a single student taking a ‘Special Paper’ on Hans Urs von Balthasar. I made him read all seven volumes of The Glory of the Lord. It never occurred to me to do anything else. I thought anyone would want to read them straight through. I taught students about von Balthasar by setting little chunks of The Glory and the Theo-Drama and the Theo-Logic for the next twenty years or so.

It was only when I came to teach in the United States that I read on one of our grad student's blogs that most people who begin on von Balthasar through ‘The Trilogy’ abandon the enterprise and never read any more of him. I took note, and now I would recommend that you begin with one of the many ‘little’ books von Balthasar wrote. For instance, Elucidations (both I and II are fine), and Does Jesus Know Us, Do We know Him? There are also some middle size ones – the book called Prayer is not too difficult for anyone who reads this blog. Nor is Love Alone is Credible – but you should skip the first three chapters unless you like great dense chunks about the history of metaphysics.

Here is a quotation from Elucidations to show you the kind of thing it is and how important metaphors and symbols are in von Balthasar’s theology:

The communion of saints can only be an open circle of those who ‘give without counting the cost,’ who let their light shine into the world without looking for its reflection. ...if one equates the communion of saints with the ‘Holy Catholic Church,’ then there will indeed be many profiteers whom one has to count among its number. ... Who, even among the true saints, does not profit from Mary’s word of assent? ...We all take shelter under her cloak. But there are others within this cloak who themselves have smaller cloaks, and they do not know who it is that finds shelter under them, for, at least on earth, only God knows what the extent..of the fruitfulness of the saints may be. Then by stages we come to those in whom sin grows and takes the upper hand but who nevertheless contribute a few drops of blood to the general circulation. Perhaps they take more than they give, but all the same they do give something. The serious sinner is the one who absorbs all grace for himself without giving anything at all away. ...the goal of the communion of saints is not properly the communal struggle against evil ...but ..the dissemination of the good; indeed, not even that, for the good disseminates itself; the aim is quite simply to hold oneself ready; the aim is the abandonment of all aims of one’s own, in order that God’s aim may be fulfilled through his own people.

--von Balthasar, Elucidations, pp. 96-97

--Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.


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And did you finally complete your PhD making that refutation? I love this post! "Form and Splendor" will carry my musings a long way. Thank you!

"PhDs cannot just be about intuitions. They have to have chapter plans." That made me laugh.

I've only had time to read about half the post, but I thought y'all might like to know that you can actually see that Lewis essay here., although if you don't hurry the Lewis folk may find it and remove it.


Yes, that made me laugh too, Maclin.

"So now, von Balthasar, with his idea of Christ as ‘form and splendour,’ is, as it were, saying that Christ is where the Parthenon and the optative meet."


This was wonderful, Grumpy. And the quotation is lovely.

"But there are others within this cloak who themselves have smaller cloaks, and they do not know who it is that finds shelter under them, for, at least on earth, only God knows what the extent..of the fruitfulness of the saints may be."

I loved this.

Great stuff. Two questions: How did you run across the Fugitive/Agrarians, esp. w/r/t these questions? The connection makes sense, but it does not seem to be one that the average reader, even an academic one, would stumble upon, especially one who was doing her work in the U.K.

Secondly, I've just finished reading 'The Bros. Karamazov' and I must say that von Balthasar as you quote him sounds not unlike Elder Zossima at some points. I know that v.B. has written on Dostoevsky--how would you describe that connection?

Oh, and by the way, have you ever read Fugitives' Reunion, the transcript of the sessions when they got back together at Vanderbilt in 1956, which was the 30th anniversary of The Fugitive? Very good book -- the conversations are fascinating. Too bad the audio recordings are no longer available, as that would be incredibly fun -- Warren, Tate, Ransom, Davidson, etc., all talking to each other, over each other, etc.

who let their light shine into the world without looking for its reflection

What a standard that is.


Thank you so much, Grumpy. This question of the place of beauty in theology -- or, really, of the place of beauty in life -- is one that is important to me, but one that I feel I experience directly more than understand reflectively.

I know that you have studied the question for a long time. If you could recommend just a couple of uncommonly good books on the subject, what would they be? Von Balthasar is maybe an obvious choice, but I've always been afraid to plunge in, for fear of never getting out again.

I had pretty much written off the possibility that I would ever read vonB's big works, but this is making me wonder if I should have a go. I've only read a couple of small things, including one called Heart of the World that I liked a lot thirty or so years ago and want to re-read.

Heart of the World is unlike anything else Balthasar wrote. It's really a poem or maybe a long prayer. Balthasar often referred to Bernanos as a poet It's in that sense that I mean (a long cry from the heart)

This is a great post, Francesca. I really like the paragraph that begins, "For several centuries...."

If I began to read the Trilogy, I would have to read it straight through because that's the way I am, so I commiserate with Craig. This is why I've never read the Summa. I do have some smaller books, but I think they were unfortunate choices for me--well, they weren't choices, they were all the bookstore had. I did like A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen, but it's been so long that I can barely remember it.


I confess that I'm somewhat in doubt of my ability to understand it (the Trilogy). I've had a couple of experiences trying to read vast theological-philosophical-literary works that didn't go very well. Even when I persevered I felt like I was kind of plowing through without understanding a lot of it.

Sometimes it's like watching a Shakespeare play. For the first few scenes, I don't have any idea what they are saying, but then I realize I do. Then again, sometimes when reading theology, I feel like I have an extremely tenuous hold on every sentence that might disappear completely when I go on to the next one.


Am I the only person who can read mere snippets of just about any type of book, starting anywhere? Actually this is my preferred method for all non-fiction.

I am sure you aren't the only one, but the very thought of that makes me think the universe is falling apart.


Well civilisation is falling/has fallen apart. Maybe my errant reading methods are the thing to blame. :(

Louise, my wife has a habit of picking up books and starting them somewhere in the middle. Even fiction! It drives me crazy.

There's a woman in my book club who reads the last page of a novel first. If I didn't love her so much, I would have to kick her out. That, and also because we meet at her house.


My immediate reaction to the idea of reading non-fiction in snippets is similar to Janet's. I do sometimes browse, but that's mostly with things I don't intend to read, or am trying to decide whether to read.

As for doing it with fiction: inconceivable!

I can understand Aquinas. It's sometimes hard work, and I don't really want to do too much of that. But I can usually make sense of it if I try, at least in the parts that don't depend too heavily on metaphysics. What frequently happens to me with more modern works of theology and philosophy is that they often make heavy use of a jargon with which I'm unfamiliar and can make no sense of. I had a traumatic experience with D.B. Hart's Beauty of the Infinite.

Grumpy's suggestion that one of Balthasar's middle-sized books, Prayer, "is not too difficult for anyone who reads this blog" made me smile, ‘cause I'm the one at the back of the room, hiding behind my book, and hoping like crazy the teacher won't call on me to explain what we just read. :-)

Heh. Are you speaking from experience with that particular book?

No, I've read only bits and pieces of his writing from what I've found on the Web. I think I've got a bad case of lazy-brain when it comes to theology and philosophy -- is that better or worse than just not being up to it? Anyway, I'm going to have to apply myself and make an effort to really get into his writing because Grumpy has certainly shown the richness of his thought.

I enjoyed "The Threefold Garland" a lot. (It's about the rosary, I guess that's obvious, but in case anyone didn't know.) But I couldn't really tell you any of the main points. I know I underlined a lot, and I kept my copy so I can go back and look at my favorite passages. I remember it being eye-opening...I should probably re-read.

I have several others that friends have urged me to read over the last few years, including "Engagement with God," "Heart of the World," and especially "Dare We Hope?" but haven't gotten to them yet. I have a favorable impression of von Balthasar but not my own intellect I guess.

I have a friend who fast-forwards through what he considers the "slow" bits of movies, unconcerned apparently that a major plot element may very well be revealed in one of those slow bits.

"What frequently happens to me with more modern works of theology and philosophy is that they often make heavy use of a jargon with which I'm unfamiliar and can make no sense of."

Ditto. And there are often references to other thinkers/writers whose names I don't recognize.

I guess there's an analogy here with what's happened in the arts over the past century or so: the tendency to withdraw (or be pushed) into specialization and resultant obscurity. Or maybe it's just an inevitable result of the accumulated amount of prior writing. Seems to me that it got way worse over the past 30 years with postmodernism, though. Whatever that is. I suspect an active desire to obfuscate.

Dare We Hope is pretty straightforward, as I recall. It's a discussion of whether it's possible that everyone will be saved. Heart of the World, as I remember, and as is confirmed by glancing at it again last night, is maybe like Threefold Garland: not necessarily straightforward, but poetic and beautiful, not jargon-y as theology sometimes is.

"I suspect an active desire to obfuscate."

I think there is some of that, but also there is a very strong tendency to write "scientifically." It all must be referenced, noted, and "provable," so to speak, as if one were writing a scientific thesis, rather than a work of literary criticism or theology. Everything thus has the feel of a doctoral dissertation.

I would say pseudo-scientifically. I don't mind references etc., the classic stuff of dull scholarship, but this often seems to be something more. The jargon sometimes seems an attempt to invest relatively straightforward insights (and maybe sometimes nonsense) with the mystique of science. Postmodernism, whatever it is (I got off the intellectual train about the time it became the big thing), seems very prone to that. You're probably familiar with Alan Sokal's Social Text hoax. I read Fashionable Nonsense, the book he wrote with Jean Bricmont, and I think the case against some of that stuff is pretty strong.

"Louise, my wife has a habit of picking up books and starting them somewhere in the middle. Even fiction! It drives me crazy."

I do sometimes approach fiction in this way too. I'm intrigued as to why it would drive you crazy. :)

"There's a woman in my book club who reads the last page of a novel first."

I must say that I don't think I've ever done that.

"what frequently happens to me with more modern works of theology and philosophy is that they often make heavy use of a jargon with which I'm unfamiliar and can make no sense of."

Right. I once tried to read a book of theology and could not get past the first sentence because of the number of jargon/technical terms I had no hope of trying to memorise and understand!

I can see why that would drive Craig crazy. I'm not sure I can give a coherent explanation of why. I mean, I can explain why I wouldn't do it--it spoils the story--but not why it would drive me crazy to see someone else do it.

Marianne, I didn't even dare confess to not aspiring to read von Balthasar until I read your post!
Being married to a philosopher-theologian, I gather lots of superficial impressions and miscellaneous ideas about great thinkers, but I never actually read them. If cocktail party conversation were about theology and philosophy, I could probably hold my own, if I ever got invited to a cocktail party.

What's a cocktail party?

(It's ok, I know, but I don't think I've ever been to one!)

It's a party for extroverts.

You are so blessed, Louise.


The late Denis Dutton, who ran the Arts & Letters Daily website, used to sponsor the Bad Writing Contest. The first-prize in 1998 went to this sentence, which appeared in “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” an article in the scholarly journal Diacritics:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
Sort of like tossing a bunch of words in a box, and then shaking them out to see what results where they land. More mind-boggling/mind-numbing examples of such writing here.

The University of Chicago has an academic sentence generator.

My first reaction when I read stuff like that is to laugh, but I soon begin to feel sick.

Like the Objective Room.

I wouldn't have thought of that, but you're right, there's a definite similarity.

Where isn't the Objective Room?


Yeah. Very like the Objective Room. I got to the last couple of lines on that and couldn't take any more and also felt sick.

Anywhere in the natural world is not the Objective Room. But we certainly live in the Objective Culture.

I think the reason why starting a work of fiction in the middle drives me crazy is that a reader owes a certain respect to the author of the book, and that author undoubtedly put some considerable thought into the structure of the story and, maybe especially, to the opening pages of the story. If you start in the middle, it's like spitting in the author's eye. Or so it seems to me.

True, Maclin, I was thinking more of the City of Man.


Where do the tentacles of the City of Man not reach? Vega?

When different families, without giving up the rights and duties of domestic society, unite under the inspiration of nature, in order to constitute themselves members of another larger family circle called civil society, their object is not only to find therein the means of providing for their material welfare, but, above all, to draw thence the boon of moral improvement. Otherwise society would rise but little above the level of an aggregation of beings devoid of reason, and whose whole life would consist in the satisfaction of sensual instincts. Moreover, without this moral improvement it would be difficult to demonstrate that civil society was an advantage rather than a detriment to man, as man.

That's Leo XIII in the encyclical Au Milieu des Sollicitudess. I found it in Anthony Esolen's Reclaiming Catholic Social Doctrine. Rather prophetic.



That link!


My point in posting that, btw, which I guess is not obvious, is how far the modern secular/liberal concept of the state, where the state absorbs everything, is from the pope's. Though now that I think about it a little more it's more like a parody, or a cancerous perversion. Can't say our government does not intend our "moral improvement", according to its lights.

My reason for finding the thought of picking up a novel and reading a bit in the middle--or, God forbid, the end--a little crazy-making is different from yours, Craig. It's mostly an aversion to having the story spoiled. Why would anyone choose to do that?!? Also there's a bit of a sense that it would be a kind of violation of The Rules.

The book section of the last-but-one issue of The New Criterion contained a review of Marilynne Robinson's recently published Lila, and I managed to read the reviews before and after it without anything more than the first few words of the first sentence penetrating my mind. It took some effort.

there's a bit of a sense that it would be a kind of violation of The Rules.

For me, that's the entire reason. I don't know why this is a Rule, but I should think that it's written in the fabric of the universe.

I'm really interested in hearing what you think about Lila. It surprised me in some ways.


I suppose I have an aversion to breaking The Rules as well.

Of course you do.


Having reflected on this serious matter, I realize that "bit of...kind of" is really not nearly strong enough. It's definitely more than a bit.

I'm afraid I don't expect to read Lila very soon, Janet. Too many other things in progress.

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