by Luke Murray | Homiletic & Pastoral Review
Key to Balthasar’s response to modern biblical studies is his concept of beauty … Balthasar links beauty to human perception, and the way human beings gain knowledge.
Over the past 100 years—amidst the confusion and darkness surrounding the Church’s attempt to evangelize a post-Kantian world—few figures have aided the Church more than Hans Urs von Balthasar. At his death, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn described him as a “thoroughly Catholic figure” with an “incomparable reverence for the Word of God” who found “a sure path between the reductionism of a one-sided use of the historical-critical method and the dangers of fundamentalism.” Schönborn praised his approach to Scripture because Balthasar recognized the “inner unity of ecclesiality and spiritual experience.” 1 Pope Emeritus Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) also confirmed Balthasar’s works, saying that in extending him the honor of becoming a Cardinal, “the Church, in its official responsibility, tells us that he (Balthasar) is right in what he teaches of the Faith, that he points the way to the sources of living water … (he was) a witness to the word which teaches us Christ, and which teaches us how to live.” 2 Finally, St. John Paul II also described Balthasar after his death as “an outstanding man of theology and the arts, who deserves a special place of honor in contemporary ecclesiastical and cultural life” and whose person and life’s work were held in “high esteem … by the Holy See.” 3 While there are certainly controversial areas of Balthasar’s theology (especially his position on Christ’s “abandonment” by the Father), this essay will examine one reason why he was praised by such eminent Catholic theologians. It will examine how the first volume of his series, The Glory of the Lord, entitled Seeing the Form, can help the Church respond to the crisis in modern biblical studies, by appealing to our encounter with beauty. By incorporating the insights of modern historical studies into a hermeneutic of faith, Balthasar provides the light necessary to overcome the problems of the historical-critical method. Furthermore, his project of “theological aesthetics” reveals that Mary should be the model of the Church’s biblical interpretation.
The Problem of Modernity: The Legacy of Immanuel Kant
Few people have influenced modern society more than Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Building on the work of Bacon, Descartes, and Hume, Kant sought to reconcile empiricists and rationalists in their search for knowledge. While he wrote many things, Kant is best known for establishing the foundation of modernity by absolutizing the split between the person and reality, between the thinking subject and the external object. While an adequate summary of Kant’s philosophy, and the influence of the Enlightenment on modern society, is not possible in this essay, a brief treatment is helpful in understanding how Balthasar’s project responds to Kant, and aids the Church’s biblical hermeneutic in the modern world.
Kant’s legacy is evident whenever one encounters the modern dogma that humanity is cut off from genuine knowledge; that our mind’s innate concepts and categories constitute reality as they impose themselves on an unintelligible reality, like sunglasses shading and constituting our view. According to Kant, man is stuck within the categories of his own mind, and unable to know reality in itself, or what he called the “noumenal” realm. One consequence of this was that the traditional notion of “truth,” as the mind’s conformity with reality, was dismissed as naive conservatism. According to Balthasar, two main traditions in biblical studies developed after Kant.