Anne M. Carpenter, a doctoral student at Marquette University who authors the "Catholic Kung Fu" blog, has a new post titled, "Redeeming Hans Urs von Balthasar" (ht: Christopher Blosser). Carpenter summarizes a number of the common criticisms made of von Balthasar (it's a very good list!) and then writes that "it is true that the majority of his most vocal detractors don’t really understand what he was trying to say. (There are others, quieter, who know him well and who begin to slide apart the broken seams in his work.) But being difficult is not the same as being wrong, and certainly not the same as being unworthy of consideration." She then writes:
No, there is something worthy in von Balthasar. I do not mean merely that he wanted beauty to return to theology. In a post-Balthasar world, the worthiness of such a task is taken too much for granted to have much weight. I mean that his attempt to give beauty its due credit manages on the whole to avoid the two major dangers that most theologies succumb to in one way or another. The first danger is straying into a love of logic that ends in a love of mere coherence, with no room at all for God; the second is using beauty to avoid complex and demanding metaphysical inquiry, as if beauty could compel us beyond the traps that already sit before us. Beauty cannot save us from logic; it places logic, and gives it fullness. This means theology must be more rigorous, not less; it must have more room for mystery, not less. There must be both. That is what beauty tells us, and what von Balthasar for the both part manages to defend.
During the time of its writing, Glory of the Lord was a lightning-bolt that could return to theology old categories such as what is most fitting, which means that we could once again think in terms of what was best and not what seemed most useful. It was a lightning-bolt that let us begin to mend the tragic divorce between theology and spirituality. Reason no longer needed to be reasonable in so narrow a sense.
With these books, feeling returned to numb fingers.
But now, decades after its completion, Glory of the Lord stands at the long end of another spectrum. When theologies of art and beauty now begin to threaten to descend into a loose sentimentalism, Glory reminds us that beauty has its logic. Von Balthasar reminds us that what is most fitting is not what is most current.
It is not enough merely to have feeling; we must also know obedience
It's a post certainly worth reading for anyone with any interest in von Balthasar. Personally, I have benefited tremendously from reading several (fifteen or so) of his books, but I also readily confess that there is so much of his work that I've not read and so many of his ideas that I don't fully comprehend. I, of course, don't think he is infallible or perfect; but I also think that saying, as some do, that "he was too liberal" (false) or "he believed that no one will go to hell" (again, false), is not helpful in the least. In fact, in some cases, it is almost slanderous. He is a great thinker and brilliant theologian whose huge corpus demands a lot of time and effort, and few people have the time, the energy, and the ability to do it justice.
In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, who knew him well: "The example that von Balthasar has given us is, rather, that of a true theologian who in contemplation had discovered a consistent course of action for giving Christian witness in the world. We remember him on this important occasion as a man of faith, a priest who, in obedience and in a hidden life, never sought personal approval, but rather in the true Ignatian spirit always desired the greater glory of God."
For further reading, on Ignatius Insight:
• Biography of Hans Urs von Balthasar
• All Ignatius Press books by Hans Urs von Balthasar
• Excerpts from the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar
• Ignatius Insight Articles about Hans Urs von Balthasar
• Pope Benedict XVI Praises Hans Urs von Balthasar (Oct. 2005)