Balthasar and Rahner on the Spiritual Senses
Fields, Stephen, Theological Studies
AN IRONY OF 20th-century Catholic theology is that Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner began their careers as collaborators and ended their lives as antagonists. In the late 1930s, they jointly produced a new outline for dogmatic theology which Rahner published in the first volume of Theological Investigations, a collection of essays that Balthasar highly praised.(1) But when Balthasar published Cordula oder der Ernstfall in 1966, he began a polemic against Rahner that especially criticized his notion of the "anonymous Christian."(2) According to Balthasar, this notion, which tries to mediate Christianity to non-Christian religions, attenuates Christianity's distinctive claim as uniquely salvific.(3) For his part, Rahner criticized Balthasar's notion that suffering is immanent to the Trinity, which Balthasar borrowed from the mystic-convert Adrienne von Speyr. This notion, according to Rahner, undermines the Christian's hope, grounded in the Incarnation, that the trials of this world have been overcome. Rahner believes that in the Passion, death, and Resurrection of the Son the Godhead who cannot suffer has brought suffering into its own divine impassibility.(4)
Dialogue between these thinkers in English scholarly literature is still developing. Although begun before their deaths, it received impetus when Herclichkeit was translated. This dialogue shows that both thinkers apply different methods to common questions.(5) One such question, as yet unstudied, concerns the "spiritual senses," the doctrine that treats the interplay among the human person's sensate, intellectual, and volitional faculties as they strive toward knowledge of God. This doctrine seeks to resolve a paradox at the core of Christianity: How can the person attain union with God if God utterly transcends the finite world and the person, formed by sensation and imagination, is radically immersed in it? Although the origins of this paradox lie in Origen and Augustine, Balthasar and Rahner agree that Bonaventure's mystical theology brings its development to a zenith, principally in Breviloquium and Itinerarium mentis.(6) Thirty years separate their studies of these texts: Rahner's work dates to a 1933 article in Revue d'ascetique et de mystique, Balthasar's to the early 1960s in Herrlichkeit.(7) These studies develop remarkably different interpretations of Bonaventure because they are shaped by different ways of understanding how faith resolves Christianity's core paradox. This article first explores both thinkers, resolutions of the paradox; then it shows how these resolutions shape their interpretations of Bonaventure.
BALTHASAR ON FAITH AND SENSATION
Herrlichkeit, probably Balthasar's greatest work, seeks to reassert the religious significance of sensation and the imagination. It contends that Catholicism traditionally has undervalued these two faculties as media of divine revelation because it has overvalued apophatic spirituality. This asserts that pure religion can be experienced only in "naked faith," a knowledge that entails negating both the intuitions of sensation and the formal judgments of the intellect. Apophaticism can thus lead to a spurious "illuminationism" alien to authentic Christian spirituality. Balthasar claims that apophaticism has enjoyed an ascendancy since the Fathers condemned Montanism, the heresy of the early Church that relied heavily on the private visions of an elite coterie.(8) Nonetheless, he ultimately blames Platonism for the dualism between sensation and spirit that apophaticism presupposes.(9) Dualism marks John of the Cross, apophaticism's high-point; and it appears even in the English tradition, praised for its synthesis of sensation and spirit. The 14th-century Cloud of Unknowing, for instance, counsels the initiate to be wary of the imagination, which presents to the reason "counterfeits of [material creatures,] spiritual essences" instead of faithfully reflecting them as they really are.(10)
For Balthasar, apophatic dualism runs counter to the message of both biblical testaments, which manifest a range of divine revelations through sensation. The Resurrection is chief among these; it is known through the sensible visions of eyewitnesses whose imaginations are directed by faith to an objective form, the glorified Christ.(11) Allowing apophaticism a spiritual hegemony also runs counter to God's freedom to reveal himself as he wishes. Deferring to this freedom, the Church has recognized as Spirit-inspired such media as Bernard's "tasting" (sapor) of divine wisdom and Thomas Aquinas's connatural knowledge.(12) In seeking to combat apophatic dualism, Balthasar readily admits that the dialectic between sensation and spirit needs to be resolved by a synthesis grounded in faith. If all knowledge is necessarily mediated through sensation, then it follows for the Christian that having faith in God presupposes a sensory perception of Christ. Accordingly, sensation must become "spiritualized" since it must mediate a reality that transcends its intrinsic corporeality. Religious experience must be conceived as independent of the contingent world of historical concreteness because it embodies a formal knowledge freed from the merely subjective.(13) Thus it is crucial for Balthasar that an analogous definition of sensory experience be framed since religious experience must be understood as perceiving the nonsensuous sensuously.(14)
In framing such a definition, Balthasar grounds theological anthropology in a key premise. Faith reconstitutes the human person according to its object, Christ, the humanly visible, structured form of God's definitive self-revelation. Through faith, human nature becomes transformed so that the intellect is rendered capable of receiving the forms of grace. Moreover, insofar as the intellect is transformed, so are the will, the imagination, and sensation, those subordinate faculties that serve it. When conceived as an intrinsically noetic act that gives all the person's powers an appropriate participation in its formal object, faith spares religious experience from being explained by either of two extremes: by pure sensation, which would reduce it to mere myth or sentiment; by pure spirit, which would negate sensation and remove religious experience from the range of the properly human.(15)
Accordingly, Balthasar grounds anthropology in a notion of faith that stresses the end or object of its activity (fides quce) rather than its activity as such (fides qua).(16) Faith elevates human nature because it reveals the divine object to sensation as formal evidence.(17) This evidence, although sensibly mediated, is not intrinsically sensate.(18) Since faith-inspired sensation opens the way to an experience of God, it follows that faith constitutes an analogous notion of experience. By reforming sensation according to its own form, faith allows the divine to be perceived according to the sensory forms of experience. "Religious" experience thus becomes a dimension of sensory experience; it shares in its forms while not being limited to them.
Balthasar supports this analogy with two theological precedents. First, Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises advocate "applying the senses" when engaged in mental prayer. By using the imagination to enter sensuously into the proposed material, the meditator endeavors to evoke a "felt knowledge" (sentir) of the mysteries of salvation. This sensibly savored cognition can then instinctively guide both thinking and willing.(19) Sensation and imagination thus become the media for a range of religious experience, which can run from a simple appreciation of gospel narrative to the advanced graces of infused mysticism.(20)
Second and more important, Balthasar turns to Origen's doctrine of the "exchange of states" (katastasis). This avers that, just as the Word intimately subsumes Jesus without prejudicing either the divine or the human, so faith spiritually quickens sensation precisely from …
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Publication information: Article title: Balthasar and Rahner on the Spiritual Senses. Contributors: Fields, Stephen - Author. Journal title: Theological Studies. Volume: 57. Issue: 2 Publication date: June 1996. Page number: 224+. © 2009 Theological Studies, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
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