Balthasar and Rahner on the Spiritual Senses

By Fields, Stephen | Theological Studies, June 1996 | Go to article overview

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.


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.

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