Why theologians should be on their knees
John Webster on rapture and receptivity in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar
On Volume 149 of the Journal, Matthew Levering talks about his book The Achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Introduction to His Theology. In his book’s opening chapter, Levering notes that given the depth and breadth of von Balthasar’s learning and wisdom, attempting to write an introductory book to his work comes perilously close the height of foolishness. (Then again, people write introductory books to the Bible or to the history of the Church.)
As Levering introduces his own introduction, he reflects the three-fold structure of von Balthasar’s trilogy and his own book with this summary: “[T]o a modern world forgetful of God and Christ, von Balthasar wishes to proclaim the beauty of beings, the goodness of history, and the truth of love. He wishes to help us remember that ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8), that God has ‘destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ’ in history (Eph 1:5), and that we must now live ‘according to the measure of Christ’s gift’ (Eph 4:7).”
In an 1983 article titled “Hans Urs von Balthasar: The Paschal Mystery,” John Webster (then Lecturer in Theology at St. John’s College, Durham) offered a helpful glimpse at some of the key themes in von Balthasar’s work. The three-page article includes four subheadings: Beauty; Jesus, the Form of God; Incarnation and Trinity; and The Mystery of Holy Saturday. Since the entire text is both brief and available on-line, I’ll offer here only two very short extracts.
“Von Balthasar’s whole theological enterprise could be not improperly described as an attempt to restate the centrality of the category of beauty for Christian faith and Christian theology. His work is pervaded by a conviction that the self-revelation of God is not only truth to be apprehended by the mind nor only commands to exercise the will, but also a manifestation of the sheer beauty and splendour of the being of God. And so his theology seeks ‘to complement the vision of the true and the good with that of the beautiful’ (The Glory of the Lord, 9). For at the heart of the Christian faith lies the experience of being overwhelmed and mastered by the radiance of God’s glory as he shows himself to the world.
“It would be easy, but ultimately mistaken, to dismiss this unfamiliar theological starting-point as a kind of religious aestheticism. In fact, von Balthasar’s theology of beauty occupies the place which in more familiar accounts of Christian truth is occupied by the doctrine of revelation. That is to say, it is an attempt to identify the self-manifestation of God through which he communicates himself to the world. This self-manifestation is not, however, propositional: God reveals, not a message about himself but rather the splendour of his own being. This splendour is both authoritative and compelling: its claim is absolute, its sheer occurence as the irruption of God’s glory into human history commands by attracting us and taking us beyond ourselves in rapture. And out of such a confrontation with the majesty of God’s being, theology is born. . . .”
“[W]hat can perhaps be most fruitfully taken from his work is not so much a set of doctrinal positions as an example of the integration of theological reflection with the life of faith. The Dominican theologian Cornelius Ernst once remarked that theology is, properly understood, ‘engaged contemplation’ (Multiple Echo (London, 1979) 151). Part of the persuasiveness of von Balthasar’s theological writing lies in the fact that it is not primarily critical but contemplative. To describe his work in these terms is not to suggest that it is the fruit of private mystical experience rather than the public self-manifestation of God; nor is it to envisage the theologian's task as necessitating withdrawal. What is meant is rather that as contemplative theology it is born of a fundamentally receptive attitude of spirit and mind towards God’s self-disclosure. Its origin is not critical inquiry but rapture; its most characteristic attitude is that of being utterly overwhelmed by the splendour of God. It is for these reasons that there is for von Balthasar the closest possible correlation between theological reflection and the life of prayer, and that he has called for more ‘kneeling theologians’ (Verbum Caro (Einsiedeln, 1960) 224). If orthodox theology is not infrequently both unintelligent and unimaginative, it may well be that the fault lies not so much in a defective grasp of the truth as in a defective spirituality.”