Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Contemporary Feminist Theology

By Gonzalez, Michelle A. | Theological Studies, September 2004 | Go to article overview

Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Contemporary Feminist Theology


Gonzalez, Michelle A., Theological Studies


THE SIGNIFICANCE OF GENDER as an analytical lens and category in theology has been brought forth through the works of various theologians in the last four decades. Feminist theologians in particular have emphasized the function of sexism in the construction of Christian theology, identity, and tradition in both historical and contemporary ecclesial and academic circles. (1) Central to their theological task is entering into conversation with the Christian theological tradition through a feminist analysis. Feminist theologians find an unlikely partner in Hans Urs von Balthasar, a theologian who also takes the category of gender as essential to his understanding of theology, the human, and divine action.

My article initiates a dialogue between Balthasar and contemporary feminist theology, focusing on three areas: theological anthropology, theological method, and Christology. In each section I begin by exploring Balthasar's theological standpoint. This is followed by feminist responses to the themes and questions raised by his theology, both favorable and critical. I conclude by exploring the mutual critiques each theological standpoint poses to the other. While some Balthasar scholars have explored the function of gender in his theology, I would argue that it has not been given the prominence it deserves. (2) In addition, these studies have not placed Balthasar in conversation with contemporary feminist theologians. (3) The goal of my study is not merely to critique Balthasar through the lens of feminist theology but to engage critically his work as well as some central themes within feminist scholarship. This is, therefore, a mutual exchange.

AN INTRODUCTORY WORD ON BALTHASAR

Often, when one hears the name Hans Urs von Balthasar in theological circles, two things come to mind: the conservative nature of his work and his theological esthetics. One of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, he has, until recently, been caricatured as an extremely conservative, and therefore to many an unappealing theologian. This is a result, in part, of two interrelated factors. First, there is a tendency to judge Balthasar by his shorter, more polemical writings. These concern popular issues such as women's ordination and clerical celibacy. Second, and directly related to the former, is the fact that it is only in the past few decades that the majority of Balthasar's corpus has been translated into the English language. (4)

The second great trademark of Balthasar's work is his theological esthetics which culminates in the seven-volume The Glory of the Lord. (5) It is considered by many to be one of the 20th century's greatest achievements within theology. (6) Situated as the first part of Balthasar's enormous trilogy, his esthetics seeks to recover the esthetic form of theology. The trilogy itself is based on the three transcendentals of being: the Beautiful (Herrlichkeit), the Good (Theodramatik), and the True (Theologik). The order of the trilogy is not arbitrary. The manifestation, or theophany, of the esthetics leads to the encounter of the dramatics. As Balthasar wrote: "God does not want to be just 'contemplated' and 'perceived' by us, like a solitary actor by his public; no, from the beginning he has provided for a play in which we all must share." (7) The theo-drama is followed by the theo-logic, which treats the human articulation of the dramatic event.

To those familiar with Balthasar's theology and with the relevant secondary scholarship, the centrality of gender in my study may seem surprising. While there are various authors that examine the role of gender in his work, the majority of Balthasar scholars do not. When examined, gender is treated primarily in light of Balthasar's anthropology, which, while fundamental to understanding its function in his theology, is not an exhaustive approach. Perhaps one of the more creative aspects of Balthasar's theology is found in the fact that gender is not merely an anthropological category.

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