The Beauty of Holiness
The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. Volume I: Seeing the Form
By Hans Urs von Balthasar
Publisher: Ignatius Press
Review Author: Raymond T. Gawronski
In his Preface, the editor John Riches observes “For many years those interested in the dissemination of Father von Balthasar’s ideas had tried in vain to find a publisher willing to underwrite this massive venture.” Twenty-one years passed between the first German-language publication and this English translation of the first volume of a projected seven-volume series of von Balthasar’s seminal work. One hopes that those who deprived the English-reading world of this work for so long will not receive punishment to fit the crime for without mercy the punishment must be severe indeed.
Imagine: The Glory of the Lord. The phrase has brushed up against the reader of Scripture, surely during the Christmas season. Yet we focus on the shepherds, or the manger, and leave the whole question of Glory to an earlier age. Von Balthasar makes the glory of the Lord the cornerstone of his theology, in which he attempts to restore to Beauty the phrase usurped by Truth and Goodness who, in pushing out their sister, undercut their own foundation.
Those who feel vaguely uncomfortable with the world aesthetic should be reassured at the outset: von Balthasar points out the pitfalls of mere aestheticism, insisting that a tightrope be walked between a frivolous aestheticism and an eventually gloomy preoccupation with ethics and logic which ignores the beautiful. Of beauty, he writes: “We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past…can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
The Beautiful, when it is transcendent Beauty, is more properly spoken of as Glory, a distinction which renders earthly beauty a kind of metaphor of glory, yet which robs earthly beauty of none of its dignity: “Beautiful is creation in its wholesome integrity….” One who is aware of how steeped von Balthasar is in the Fathers — especially in Origen — is delighted to discover how profoundly biblical he is, and how careful he is to distinguish excessively neo-Platonic language from biblical meaning in those he cites. Von Balthasar wields his style masterfully.
Seeing the Form — the title of Volume I — is a slow and gentle process, perhaps in a way like trailing a deer. Von Balthasar is a craftsman of great skill, anticipating the other point of view while steadily presenting his own. That he does this without being ponderous is a marvel. The Form that will be revealed before our eyes is the form of God in Christ. It is a form anticipated by all creation, and in this he is marvelously broad, respecting both Jew and Greek, and, although he disclaims in-depth knowledge of Asia, even Lao Tse and Buddha are not strangers to his pages.
After a lengthy Introduction, he proceeds in two main sections to approach the Form. In the first, “The Subjective Evidence,” he focuses on faith. He is at pains to separate that faith which is a strained intellectual assent to certain articles (generally contrary to reason) which is the pittance modern man has left in his begging bowl, from that feast of faith which is knowledge, and also love, of God. It is almost embarrassing to have to state what von Balthasar does (and what so distinguishes his work): he writes of God as if God were central. He is unabashedly theocentric while holding a fully incarnate anthropology.
Those already somewhat familiar with von Balthasar’s work will not be surprised to see that the Marian dimension figures prominently in his thought. Indeed, Mary is inseparable from the revelation of Christ. At one point, von Balthasar rhapsodically praises her hiddenness which was even greater than Christ’s, and which witnesses to us in this way. He also suggests that in the apostolic experience certain archetypal patterns of discipleship were brought to light, singling out, in addition to the Marian, the Johannine, the Pauline, and the Petrine.
Arguing for an “aesthetic contemplation” which he sees as lacking from most Protestant and rationalistic Catholic theology, he writes:
The figure which confronts us in Holy Scripture is more and more dissected in “historical-critical” fashion until all that is left of what was once a living organism is a dead heap of flesh, blood and bones…. Nothing expresses more unequivocally the profound failure of these theologies than their deeply anguished, joyless and cheerless tone: torn between knowing and believing, they are no longer able to see anything, nor can they, therefore, be convincing in any visible way.
Although von Balthasar is quite aware of historical-critical insights and uses them, he is careful not to idolize the method, which he sees in its historical relativity.
Respectful of other religious traditions and pleasingly humble in owning our necessary ignorance of all the possibilities of grace, he nevertheless refreshingly holds for the uniqueness of Christ, a uniqueness which can only be seen by faith.
In the second main section of the book, he treats of “The Objective Evidence,” that is, of revelation. He re-emphasizes Christ as the Word of God, the “centre of the form of revelation” — Scripture and the Church being witnesses of that revelation. He is emphatic on the divine origin of the Church, even as he is intent on keeping his reader’s attention focused on the “one thing needful”: for as earthly crowns will pass away on the Last Day, so will mitres and tiaras.
One could glean a beautiful book on the nature of theology’s task from the insights scattered throughout this book: “Only the saint who does what he thinks and intuits is a Christian theologian in the full sense of the word.” The call to sanctity and to contemplation undergirds this entire work, which actually calls the reader to prayer.
Von Balthasar brings to his work a vast erudition. One senses a tremendous wholeness in this book: one wants to say, “It is all here.” A knowledge of Patristics and Scripture, of ancient religions, of medieval thought, an encyclopedic knowledge of mysticism, and a thorough familiarity with philosophy are combined with a love of literature and music such that God is often seen as Artist in a way that invites the beholder’s loving response. Even here he is quick to turn the beholder away from an indulgent theoria to a response that transforms the beholder: the encounter with beauty transforms.
One cannot praise this book highly enough. Slowly the reader feels his center of gravity shifting from doctrinal struggles, ecclesial disputes, upward from the wrestling of the shepherds to that Light which shone round about them, a Light whose Glory will lead to the Cross, as von Balthasar reminds us. One is invited to greatness, yet perhaps one can feel so moved only because he is already in the presence of greatness.
One wonders what the past 21 years would have been like had a generation of God-seekers in the English-speaking Church had this invitation to behold the Glory of the Lord.
©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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