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.