Surrendering Oneself to Beauty

February 2007

In First Things (April 2006, pp. 67-68), Fr. Richard John Neuhaus wrote about "Challenging a Giant," the title of his piece. The giant is Hans Urs von Balthasar. Alyssa Pitstick challenged this alleged giant. At the Angelicum in Rome, Pitstick wrote a doctoral dissertation on Balthasar, which focused on Christ's descent into Hell on Holy Saturday.

Fr. Neuhaus said that by reading Balthasar one is "surrendering oneself to…beauty." Balthasar is probably the pre-eminent theologian of beauty. Of course, Hell is not beautiful, and so Balthasar does his best to expunge Hell.

According to Neuhaus, "Pitstick contends this 'theological opinion' of Balthasar's entails grave departures from orthodox teaching," namely, that Christ suffered in Hell the fate of all unredeemed mankind, so they won't have to go to Hell. According to Neuhaus, Pitstick notes that Balthasar "misrepresents scriptural, patristic, and magisterial texts and simply ignores aspects of the tradition inconvenient to his argument…. She finally convinced me that, on the descent into hell and some other signature themes of the great man, there are, at least implicitly, possible incompatibilities with the received structure of faith…. Like the third-century Origen, to whom Balthasar was deeply devoted, Balthasar may end up with a somewhat ambiguous reputation in the history of Christian thought."

In First Things (June/July 2000, p. 99), Fr. Neuhaus expressed dismay that the NOR would contest Balthasar on the issue of Hell. Neuhaus said, "I don't know what NOR is up to by attacking Balthasar." Well, now he knows.

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New Oxford Notes: February 2007

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It is very important to realize that the errors to be found in the writings of von Balthasar (and his soul-mate and mentor, de Lubac) do not confine themselves to two or three particular doctrines (such as von Balthasar's denial of the reality of a populated Hell, or his strange notions concerning Christ's "descent into Hell" and total abandonment by the Father). Rather, these violations of Catholic doctrine extend to a direct denial of the non-contradictory nature of truth itself, and to a profound rejection of that fundamental Catholic doctrine essential to all stability in faith – namely, that we have already, upon the death of the last Apostle, received the fullness of Public Revelation. In his book Raizing the Bastions, von Balthasar writes:

"But when the saint (or indeed, anyone who believes and who receives grace in a living manner) compares the tradition with the immensities of revelation itself, does not all that has been attained collapse into a miserable little heap of thoughts and concepts, scarcely the ABC of revelation….the theologian who has intensively studied the endeavors of the learned divines will be overwhelmingly aware, when he contemplates revelation, that as yet almost nothing has been done...." ( p. 28).

According to both von Balthasar and de Lubac, therefore, discovery of the "rest of Revelation" is dependent upon us coming to a whole new understanding of what truth is all about. Truth is not something fixed, and consistent, but rather must be seen as dynamic and evolving Further, truth must be seen as essentially paradoxical, and in order to explore the rest of Revelation we must be willing to descend into its opposite. Thus, from the pen of de Lubac, we read the following:

"Paradoxical in its substance, spiritual truth is also paradoxical in its rhythm. When we discover it and hold it in our hands, we do not have time to bring our first look of satisfaction to rest upon it before it has already fled. The eternal story of the Pharisee starts afresh in each of us. To get hold of this elusive truth again, we should perhaps seek it in its opposite, for it has changed its sign. But often we prefer to hug its rotten corpse. And we go rotten with it." (Paradoxes of Faith, p.14)

Clearly, from the perspective of de Lubac and von Balthasar, the traditional – orthodox Catholic is a "rotten corpse."

According to the principle of "seeking truth in its opposite," von Balthasar teaches that Christ also descended into His opposite – into "total and universal closedness, that is, "'God forsakenness'", and that in this God-forsakenness, "he no longer feels or knows anything of the Father's presence." This "descent into the opposite" (and into total forsakenness) is also the destiny of everything else that we might call Catholic or Christian, as clearly foretold in the following passage from von Balthasar:

"If this is the case, then all the organs or gestures of the divine Word in the world must necessarily share in this communion on the part of God with the sinful world, must share in this process of dying and descending into the concealing opposite and rising again on the far side.... So it would be wrong to think that the Church had some kind of immortal framework exempt from destiny (often referred to nowadays pejoratively as 'institution') that, while it is inhabited and represented by vulnerable human beings with their changing roles, is somehow timeless.... What applies to office in the Church also applies to the sacraments, to preaching, and to theology. It applies to the Bible just as much as to the Church's tradition." (Truth is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, p.41-42).

It is therefore also clear in the writings of von Balthasar and de Lubac that the Church's "rising on the other side," which will follow its death and total abandonment by God, will present us with a Church profoundly transformed by its descent into a world of its own self-denial and its own opposite.

It is true that many have spoken of the power and beauty of von Balthasar's writing. If such be true, then it is the beauty and power of demons – those classic forces of legend, mythology, and demonic spirituality which draw man into the vortex and dark abyss of self-contradiction, and into that non-being which is the classic scholastic definition of evil. The writings of both von Balthasar and de Lubac therefore represent the most profound attacks upon the nature of God, and the integrity and dignity of man's ability to know and love truth.

These manifold attacks (and more) are examined in two articles which I wrote for the March and April, 2006 issues of Christian Order Magazine. The article on von Balthasar can be found at:
The article on de Lubac can be accessed by clicking on the reference at the end of the von Balthasar article. These articles are also part of my book The War Against Being and The Return to God which is now available at

James Larson
Posted by: Larson
February 18, 2007 04:31 PM EST
Please allow me to continue reflecting, following the excellent comment by James Larson.

As a matter of fact, I did not realize Urs von Batlhasar’s theological derailment went that far, but the citations clearly prove it.

I believe at the source of all this confusion I the rejecting of metaphysics, the science of ‘what is’, the ‘first’ or most important part of philosophy as Aristotle calls it. Any theology neglecting metaphysics sooner or later turns out to be a house of cards.

It might be that a whole generation of theologians like Urs von Balthasar has been seduced by the optimism of modern times (which didn’t last long, but they did not notice that). Maybe a too formalized scholastic teaching of metaphysics had failed to wake up their pure thirst of contemplating the Absolute. Anyway, if we want to keep a sound Catholic faith and a sharp intelligence that gives man a (last) chance to escape from the contemporary orgy of confusion, we better rediscover metaphysics!

Some confusions shown by the citations and comments are very clear. Firstly, the confusion between science and wisdom. Science is the knowledge of what is certain and necessarily so. This means that what we call ‘modern science’ today in fact is not science. In fact it is a theoretical basis for technology, and a set of hypotheses about moving matter in the past or in the future. (I am an engineer, so I know what I am talking about.) ‘Modern science’ is always based on instrumental measurements, formulates likely reconstructions of the past and likely outcomes in the future, but it never gives absolute certainty, essential or moral. True science is way beyond ‘modern science’.

Theology has a scientific aspect. While strictly respecting two natural ‘metaphysical’ principles, the principle that the truth can not be self contradictory (saying “I am a liar” is nonsense), and the principle that a sequence of causes can not be infinite (the cause of something can not be that there is no cause), faith adds a third principle: that the ‘Revelation’ is the absolute truth revealing itself. Scientific theology reasons from this third principle, formulating what must be said about the Revelation and what can be said, always without violating the two natural principles.

Wisdom is the knowledge of the noblest finality, of what is best; it gives the final meaning to all things created. It does not look at what is ‘necessarily so’, but at what ‘could be differently, but it’s better so.’ As such, it deals with what God wants. Wisdom never contradicts science, and vice versa. But science helps wisdom by pointing out the distinctions that we need in order to see wisdom more clearly, and to discern the means to live according to this wisdom. Saint Thomas of Aquino’s Summa Theologiae contains an astonishing scientific approach of theology. To neglect it is causing a theological disaster: wisdom will end up turning into madness.

Another consequence of neglecting metaphysics, very much linked to the previous one, is the confusion between what is possibly so and what is necessarily so. As a matter of fact, Christ can not have descended into hell, because a soul can only go there if it wants to be there for ever. Hell essentially is a self imposed absolute punishment. It equals the first and ultimate sin.

The question of a possibility of salvation for the demons is self contradictory, matter only for marshmallow preaching. Their unique fully lucid choice at the beginning of time is to reject God for ever. Hell is not empty and never will be – they are there.

Universal salvation and the absence human souls in hell is a purely theoretical possibility – as is the repentance of a soul just before leaving the body for ever. On the other hand, if there are any souls in hell, it is not given to the Church to affirm who is there. The only absolute certainty is the freedom that God created and will always respect. It is therefore untrue to deny there are any souls in hell.

However, when we see what man is capable of, it is very well possible that there are souls in hell. We have seen hell on earth – how can we deny a spiritual hell? Some souls have been guilty of murdering millions.

When trying to understand the death of Christ, yes we can affirm that He really died; His soul and body were really separated. His soul was absent from His body, which did grow cold like a corpse. The soul of Jesus did assume the human experience of being separated from God (Eli, Eli…). Yet – and this is the fathomless mystery – the separated soul and body of Jesus were one in the eternal Word. The body did not corrupt, and the soul never left the vision of the eternal Father. Jesus is God, and He can not be separated from God the Father.

The Holy Spirit is ‘gift’, and none of the gifts to the Church can ever become like a corpse. They bear fruit in our life and we (not God) are like seeds that have to die, while the gifts of God in us, the Holy Spirit and the resurrected Christ, abide in us.

I’m afraid one more consequence of the lack of metaphysics is contradicting justice and mercy – a very important aspect of today’s pastoral chaos. In the dictatorship of niceness, where so-called mercy obliterates justice, ‘beauty’ is a substitute of the absolute truth that was lost when metaphysics was thrown aside. And so here we are today, in fatherless churches, listening to beautiful lies…

Posted by: Elias
March 03, 2007 03:43 AM EST
Elias touches on two very important points to this discussion: namely, 1) that the mess that we are in somehow devolves upon rejection of Thomistic metaphysics, and 2) that this rejection is consequent upon the acceptance of the "irrational" reductionism of modern secular science.

Metaphysics is the science of being. As such, it is the determiner of our perception of the Nature of God, of the nature of man and all created things, and also of the relationship between God and man. A distorted or false metaphysics will therefore distort every article of our faith. We may, in other words, possess the docility and humility to accept God's revelation, but at the same time possess a profoundly distorted view of what that revelation actually means. This distorted philosophy and theology may lead us into ways of thinking, forms of prayer and spirituality, liturgical practices, ecumenical policies, and social teachings which profoundly contradict the substance of our faith. And sooner or later, we meet ourselves coming down the road in the opposite direction to that which is the way, the truth, and the life of God.

It is a modern cliché and falsehood that the Church has accepted no philosophy or particular metaphysics as her own. This is absolutely false. Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical on St. Thomas, flatly contradicts such a notion. He writes, "We so heartily approve the magnificent tribute of praise bestowed upon this most divine genius that We consider that Thomas should be called not only the Angelic, but also the Common or universal Doctor of the Church; for the Church has adopted his philosophy for her own…." (Studiorum Ducem). Similar statements have come from the pen of Leo XIII, St. Pius X and other great Popes.

The fact is that Leo XIII, Pius X, and Pius XI have all met John Paul II and Benedict XVI coming down the road in the opposite direction. These latter Popes' rejection of Thomistic cosmology and metaphysics is well known. In his 1971 chapter in Karl Rahner's collection of essays titled "The Problem of Infallibility," then Fr. Ratzinger writes, "I want to emphasize again that I decidedly agree with Kung when he makes a clear distinction between Roman theology (taught in the schools of Rome) and the Catholic Faith. To free itself from the constraining fetters of Roman Scholastic Theology represents a duty upon which, in my humble opinion, the survival of Catholicism seems to depend." There is no evidence that Joseph Ratzinger's view of scholastic or Thomistic metaphysics and theology has changed. I have devoted several chapters in my book "The War Against Being and The Return To God" which deal with the manifold consequences of this rejection of Thomistic metaphysics in the thought and writings of Cardinal Ratzinger right up to the time immediately prior to his election as Pope.

The modern attempt to bypass St.Thomas coalesces most powerfully in the Communio movement and the magazine which bears its name. Its frequent contributors constitute a roster constituting those forces which are in dominance over the intellectual life of the Church today: von Balthasar (primary founder), de Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger, Karol Wojtyla, Angelo Scola, Christoph Schönborn, Walter Kasper, Joseph Fessio, Michael Waldstein, David Schindler, Jacques Servais, etc. Disingenuously, some of these men might even try to pass as Neo-Thomists. But there is no Thomism if the metaphysics and cosmology of St. Thomas are put aside.

The problem is that if this cosmology and metaphysics is bypassed, then we are left without the foundations of many doctrines. If, for instance, there is no real distinction between substance and accidents in the constitution of physical things, then we have to find an entirely new way to explain the Real Presence (at the expense of the Tridentine definition). What is more, if created reality is viewed in terms of the principle of universal change and becoming which is the world-view integral to reductive physics and chemistry, then this dissolution of substantial being in the physical sphere necessarily reflects our understanding of all things spiritual and supernatural. The substantial nature of all things Catholic begins to dissolve: the nature of Original Sin, the Church, the Papacy, etc. The fundamental category of philosophy then becomes something to do with evolving "relationships" instead of ontological "being." And the Thomistic view of the Church as being the bearer of the fullness of revelation is sacrificed to ecumenical relationships and "dialogue" on the way to achieving this fullness. Thus we have von Balthasar's view that we have only yet discovered the ABC's of revelation. Thus we have the Vatican II view that Moslems worship the same God. Thus we have Pope Benedict's rejection of the "ecumenism of return."

We must pray, but we must also struggle. Integral to this struggle is acknowledging the truth that the crisis in modern philosophy, theology, and practice (including the liturgy) extends all the way to the Papacy. It is not an act of charity to cover our eyes to this crisis. If the head suffers, and the heart and hands ignore this suffering, then such negligence and false humility constitute a sin against the whole Mystical Body of Christ – a sin committed especially against our children, who will have to bear the full brunt of those winds now devastating the Church of God.
James Larson
Posted by: Larson
March 04, 2007 04:54 PM EST
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