December 1996

Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Theological Style.  By Angelo Scola. Eerdmans. 111 pages. $13.

Many philosophers now consider the critical mode termed “modern thought” to be exhausted. The attempt to achieve logical purity has stranded its devotees in a cemetery of tautologies. In this graveyard their abstract subject, Man, lies buried with his erstwhile Creator.

Catholic theologians, in their attempts to absorb the achievements of secular thought, have also inherited its quandaries. Rational objectivism and subjective relativism circumscribe thinkers both in and outside the Church. As paths are sought out of these dead ends, traditional perspectives seem increasingly attractive. One theologian offering such a path is Hans Urs von Balthasar. The intellectual heir of de Lubac and the French Catholic renewal, Balthasar also absorbed the Church’s mystical tradition through his collaborator, Adrienne von Speyr.

Balthasar’s thought is complex, and Angelo Scola, Rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, gives us a helpful guide. At the center of Balthasar’s project is the concept of Christocentric Beauty. For Balthasar all our thoughts about God express “the impression of the Glory of God.” Indeed, theology, with its unity of content and form, is in some ways close to art.

This vision of Beauty, or Glory, comes from a contemplation of two fundamental Christian mysteries: the Trinity and the Incarnation. Self-surrender prepares the way for vision. In the surrendering of self to God’s impressions, the philosopher achieves wisdom, the mystic finds fight, and the saint allows this light to vivify life. Christ cannot be reduced to abstract principles. In Him we have a revelation of form, unveiled as beautiful, as a merciful “original love.”

Balthasar’s theology sets out to transform metaphysics into what he calls “dramatic anthropology.” The drama is the active struggle toward the goal of freedom and self-realization which defines human existence. The dramatic conflict comes from the very nature of our freedom. Our self-consciousness matures to reveal and affirm our finite freedom, but it also confronts a vast, open universe beyond us. We find ourselves suspended between two irreducible poles: the contingent and the transcendent. We are finite, but capable of experiencing the infinite. In our dizzying freedom, we inevitably face the question of the reason for our existence. This encounter is at the core of religious experience, and Scola shrewdly observes that the modern tragedy is not so much disbelief but living as if God were not interesting!

A persistent inquiry about the nature of freedom leads to a deeper question: Why did God create anything? Again Balthasar’s response is to offer a form as well as rational exposition. It is the Triune God and Jesus, the perfect archetype, who provide these revelatory forms. To the perennial question “Why does anything exist?,” Beauty (Glory) offers answers beyond words. It is not abstract reasoning but Christ who fully reveals us to ourselves. Our freedom is ultimately grasped by participating in the freedom of God.

Balthasar also guides us in our search for a morality compatible with freedom, and he bases that morality in his anthropology. In so doing, he responds to the Enlightenment objection that a contingent, historically situated fact — i.e., Jesus — cannot serve as the foundation of universal and necessary truths. He argues that a universal ethic is not diminished by Christ’s uniqueness. The idea that Christ is incongruous with natural law he calls the “most pernicious assertion” in moral theology.

In his last years, Balthasar was involved in a theological dispute after some understood him to question the existence of Hell. Scola clarifies the issue by showing that Balthasar never stated that Hell does not exist. He merely wanted to “safeguard the datum of…revelation which authorizes us to hope for all people.”

- Ron Austin



Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.  By Edward T. Oakes. Continuum. 334 pages. $29.50.

“Pious scholars are rare.” With this quote from Pascal, Oakes begins his exposition of the theology of the late Hans Urs von Balthasar — one of this century’s great theologians. Oakes’s book written with a deep love and appreciation for Balthasar, both as a man and a theologian, is a guided tour through the mansion of Balthasar’s theology.

Oakes rightly characterizes Balthasar as a “kneeling theologian.” Balthasar takes as his starting place the objective revelation of God, and dismisses theology based on methodology or a subjective point of view, which characterizes much recent thinking, both Catholic and Protestant. Balthasar believes that the purpose of theology is to bring the reader closer to God.

Balthasar was influenced by his German culture, but because he was a kneeling theologian he was able to critique and dismiss the despair, fatalism, and subjectivism of the great German philosophers such as Nietzsche, Hegel, and Kant. Of all the German thinkers it is Goethe, Oakes argues, who had the most impact on Balthasar’s outlook. It is from Goethe that Balthasar drew his theological aesthetics: God and His revelation are attractive because they are inherently beautiful.

Balthasar is nearly alone in his use of beauty as a theological category. Some real insights are gained here. An example is Balthasar’s analogy of God’s revelation to music. Like music, God’s revelation is hard to systematize — difficult to arrange or control. An appreciation of music requires that the listener be receptive. Hearing, as opposed to seeing, is a mode of surrender, and this spiritual posture is necessary for accepting the Word of God. Sight, on the other hand, involves distance and control of the object of one’s vision. Through the eye the “world is possessed and dominated…subordinate to us.” Hearing requires that one “submit to the reality being communicated.” This is how man is related to God, yet is able to give his own authentic response. While gazing implies control, “sounds always remain ever evanescent and therefore ungraspable, even as they communicate….” It’s not that God is ungraspable in that He cannot be known, but God is ungraspable in that theology cannot control Him.

Oakes claims that if this insight were taken seriously by theologians it would have a revolutionary impact on their discipline. Hearing and not sight would become “the central theological act of perception.” Thus we would not take possession of what we see, but submit to what we hear, which is what is appropriate to the life of faith.

- Monica Migliorino Miller



The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity.  By Thomas C. Reeves. Free Press. 276 pages. $25.

Reeves, a historian and theologically conservative Episcopalian, forcefully states the familiar case that liberal Christianity, in (supposedly) seeking to make Christianity relevant to modern man, has only wound up making Christianity irrelevant, thereby emptying its own churches.

The curious thing about this book is that Reeves thinks the liberal Protestant denominations can be saved from themselves. It’s especially curious in view of what Reeves himself reports. For example, he quotes a United Church of Christ minister as saying the liberals “control everything” in that denomination. Of the theological anarchy in his own denomination, Reeves cites this observation: “The Episcopal Church…is in free fall. We [Episcopalians] have nothing to hold on to…no agreed definition of what an Episcopalian is or believes.”

But are seminaries equipping a new crop of young pastors to fix the problems? Apparently not: Reeves quotes a student at the trendsetting Harvard Divinity School: “The basic presumption [at Harvard Divinity] is that Western religion is not good, and Christianity is the worst. The new slur, like being ‘homophobic,’ is being ‘Christocentric.’”

In light of the steep decline in membership in the liberal churches, Reeves allows that these churches “seem doomed.” Moreover, the decline seems to be proceeding very fast. When the preliminary page proofs for this book were issued last spring, the subtitle was given as The Crisis of Liberal Christianity. But when the book appeared in October, Crisis was changed to Suicide. Apparently liberal Protestantism has gone from being in “crisis” to committing “suicide” in a matter of months!

While Reeves offers reasons why the liberal churches should be rescued from their folly, he offers no persuasive evidence that they can be.

Reeves hopes his book will help move liberal Protestants “to reconsider some of their assumptions.” But Reeves doesn’t want to face the possibility that, as James Hitchcock said in the October NOR, “most liberal clergy would probably prefer to see their congregations shrink to the vanishing point” than reverse direction and return to some form of Protestant orthodoxy. In light of the Suicide in Reeves’s own subtitle, which is curiously congruent with Hitchcock’s point, I’d be surprised if many liberal Protestants bother to read this book let alone heed its message.

Reeves rightly stresses that the critical issue is, “Is there truth, supernaturally revealed…?” But revelation is not self-interpreting. As Newman said, “Some authority there must be if there is a revelation given.” So, what authority does Reeves propose? He rejects biblical fundamentalism. In briefly addressing the authority claimed by the “Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches,” he suggests that their understandings of authority are “a huge stumbling block.”

So, what authority? Reeves sees fit to pontificate that “sufficient” norms are found in the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. But are those creeds really sufficient? Case in point: The sexual-liberation issues that vex Reeves and which are swallowing up the liberal churches are not covered in those creeds. Or, if those creeds are somehow sufficient, by what authority does one regard them as authoritative? Only by appeal to the “Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches” who gave us those creeds and validated them. But Reeves can’t accept the authority of either of those churches.

Reeves is in a huge bind. Unless he’s willing to rethink his own assumptions, he’s doomed to go down with the sinking ship.

- Dale Vree



The Politics of Meaning.  By Michael Lerner. Addison-Wesley. 355 pages. $24.

Lerner is nothing if not zealous. His book is part of his ambitious attempt to reinvigorate the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. Admitting there were some excesses in the past, Lerner nonetheless champions feminism and aberrant sexuality — and a “spirituality” that will affirm them.

Lerner is the Editor of a Jewish magazine, Tikkun, and was, very briefly, a “guru” for Hillary Clinton. Though he claims adherence to Judaism, much of what Lerner espouses sounds suspiciously similar to what Paul Vitz, in his Psychology as Religion, calls “self-theory” — a religion of self. Vitz, a psychologist at New York University, outlines a number of characteristics of “selfism” found in psychologists such as Erich Fromm, Rollo May, and Carl Rogers. Chief among these is an animus toward Christianity or any religion that teaches a doctrine of original sin. Lerner appears to be in lockstep with these progenitors. He writes, “We should…reject the cynic who ontologizes Evil….”

According to Vitz, in denying human sinfulness, self-theory assigns all blame for “inappropriate” behaviors on society, its institutional bulwarks (another strike against Christianity), and the family. Lerner follows this line throughout, leveling charge after charge against traditional religion and the traditional family, all the while denying an unchangeable human nature. How society became so perverse is explained by a pseudo-Marxist interpretation of history, which merely begs the question of the origins of evil. There is no mention of innate human aggression, narcissism, or iniquity.

Lerner adopts the latest in “spirituality.” He writes that we care for our souls by nourishing “the God within us.” He assumes that we are already conditioned by Joseph Campbell and fellow Jungians to accept the concept, “the God within us,” or “the God in each other,” for he never pauses to define or argue for these or similar assertions. This “God within us” business culminates, for Lerner, in the prophecy that, “Together, in the coming generations, we shall be experiencing the next stage in the evolution of Spirit….” Lerner incessantly calls for a new sense of caring and empathy, but never mentions any need for traditional virtue or self-sacrifice.

Lerner’s mantra quickly becomes tiresome, especially in light of his support of abortion. Moreover, the feminism he touts has been, as Christopher Lasch and others have shown, one of the most intellectually and spiritually impoverishing blights of this century. Along with abortion and much of the homosexual agenda, it is blood and bone of the competitive selfishness and materialism that Lerner is otherwise at great pains to condemn.

Long before the book concludes, Lerner has made clear that the “politics of meaning” is another name for a politics of self. For him “meaning” is grounded in an ethos of radical individualism, and value is ultimately determined by the self and its desires. His politics is informed by a psychology of self and is sanctified by a religion of self-deification.

- David Denton



AIDS, Gays, and the American Catholic Church.  By Richard L. Smith. Pilgrim. 168 pages. $14.95.

This book is meant to convince the American Catholic hierarchy to rebel against the Church’s traditional sexual teaching. Why should they rebel? Because the Church’s teaching on homosexuality stigmatizes AIDS sufferers as sinners, and the Church’s position is “for the sake of [a] narrow sexual metaphor.”

Can Smith really be saying that the Church’s stand is for the sake of a “metaphor”? Yes, he can. Does he really expect rational people to agree with him? Yes, he does. From this it’s easy to see the wretched intellectual state into which so many dissident Catholics have fallen. Sidney Hook, an atheist, said of such thinkers, “They don’t think as rigorously as Thomists do, even when the Thomists are wrong.” He added, ironically, “I long for the days of Maritain and Gilson,” who, although they were among his arch-opponents, were nonetheless worthy opponents. The intellectual quality of heterodox thinking like Smith’s would have appalled Hook.

The framework from which Smith criticizes Church teaching is “social constructionism” — that we can’t know things in a purely objective fashion, but that much of what we believe is constructed according to the values of our culture. Smith allows for the existence of some objective truths and data, but the social construction comes in at the level of the “meaning” of facts, which is also where religion comes in. According to Smith, metaphors aren’t objective truths, but social constructs that must be critically analyzed for their adequacy. Smith proposes criteria for judging the adequacy of sexual metaphors which he thinks the Catholic “sexual metaphor” fails to meet.

Smith seems blissfully unaware that, without an objective moral order, there can be no intersubjective or reliable basis for considering one set of value judgments superior to another. He offers criteria for judging metaphors, but, other than his own cultural conditioning, what possible basis for his criteria can there be?

Thinkers such as Smith, and society in general, encourage sexual behavior that spreads not only lethal diseases but death itself. How have we come to this? I suggest that the way we value sex determines the value we place on human life. Before the sexual revolution, everyone acknowledged that human life begins at conception. But the sex revolution required approval of abortion, the ultimate form of birth control. The sex revolution also requires us to re-evaluate the elderly. Since there won’t be enough children both to support the elderly and maintain a leisure-oriented lifestyle, society is promoting euthanasia and will be pressuring people into suicide. Both at the beginning and end of life, we foster death for the sake of sexual freedom. But when that “freedom” leads us to kill and die, aren’t we really slaves to sex?

Smith’s position is that people’s sexual expectations have vastly increased. But isn’t that just a cultural change that, according to his own framework could be reversed by another cultural change? Why should the Church view today’s culture as permanent? What it all comes down to is that dissident Catholics want the Church to reflect secular values rather than the values of the Christian tradition.

- John C. Cahalan



Marvels of Charity: History of American Sisters and Nuns.  By George Stewart Jr. Our Sunday Visitor Books. 608 pages. $29.95.

The best way to describe Stewart’s Marvels of Charity is to say that it is just that — a marvelous witness to the love and vitality of religious women in the U.S., whose vision and variety of apostolates has nurtured the Church’s growth.

Half expecting a dry and repetitive presentation, this reviewer was agreeably surprised to find an informative account, both well-researched and accessible.

Stewart’s book has eleven chapters. The first outlines the history of religious congregations from their monastic origins to the beginning of their American experience. The following nine chapters trace the movement of particular congregations in the U.S. over a span of two centuries. A final chapter rounds off his study.

A pair of aspects of Stewart’s account stands out. First, his tribute to the religious communities that have fostered the life of the Church is genuine. He gives us vivid and deeply appreciative images of the courageous women who responded so generously to the needs of the Church. And, second, there are detailed and touching stories of individual religious, and their congregations’ work, at difficult periods in the Church’s life — e.g., at the turn of the century, where we find Mother Cabrini’s extraordinary leadership in a hugely expanding Church of immigrants.

Although Stewart writes for the general reader, Marvels of Charity offers us a stepping-off point for sustained analysis. It is rich in factual background and includes a useful bibliography.

- Elizabeth O’Keefe



The Romance of Reason: An Adventure in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.  By Montague Brown. St. Bede’s Publications. 177 pages. No price given.

Brown’s book is based on the proposition that if reason is used in the manner of St. Thomas, it takes one on an adventure. In Chapter One, Brown shows how the reasoning of St. Thomas opens, rather than closes, the mind to wonder. In the other five chapters of the book he illustrates this theme.

Let’s consider the terms the author lays down in order that this adventure might take place. In his preface he states: “The book remains…a book about thinking. The ideas are hard, not because they are esoteric or overly complex, but because they are so simple and fundamental. To focus on their simplicity takes some effort.” Brown insists that, although he is promising the reader an adventure in ideas, the ideas will be hard because they are basic. The reader will have to work.

Brown states: “Since God is creator, the world and human beings, and all within them, are really real…. The act of creation cannot be imagined, nor can we imagine the material/immaterial unity which is the human being: these are the conclusions of reason.” To understand the act of creation, a person must use his reason, not his imagination. For only reason has the power to take the very simple and fundamental notion that the world exists now and explain that fact in terms of a cause that has chosen to create the world from nothing. There is no way the mere imagination can create an image that portrays the act of creating from nothing. For Thomas, reason can do what thinking based on imagination or feeling cannot.

But reason can perform its task because Thomas accepts its limits. Reason is limited by the fact that, once its goes beyond its starting point in the senses, it only knows, for example, that there must be a Creator. It does not see the immaterial object that is God, as an angel might. Thus thinking about the immaterial realm is difficult for man. Yet it is a realm that can be attained by human reason if reason learns how to deal in fundamentals, in simplicity. This is a profound thought which does indeed reflect the way of St. Thomas. In respecting the limitations of the human intellect which cannot see purely spiritual realities, St. Thomas provides the only sure philosophical defense for the reality of this world. Other thinkers, adopting more grandiose notions of reason, end up denying the very reality of this world. There is a romance or adventure, then, in following the way of St. Thomas. The humble beat the proud; the servant saves the princess.

But would all this get across to the general reader who might pick up this book? Here we have a problem that not only the author but any Thomist has to face. For St. Thomas wrote with an audience in mind that was far more familiar with religious and philosophical ideas than our general reading public. Most modern readers would probably need, among other things, an introduction to thinking as a project for attaining objective truth. In my own classes, I have devoted a whole period simply to defining a house or a car. Students are quite surprised to discover that there are, after all, right and wrong answers. In an age in which relativity has infected all like a plague, not many will be ready for an adventure in trying to understand what is real unless special effort is made to prepare them. At any rate, Brown should be congratulated for reminding us moderns that the purpose of thinking is to understand reality.

- Richard Geraghty





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