Symphonic Truth: Von Balthasar and Christian Humanism

By Colon-Emeric, Edgardo Antonio | The Christian Century, May 31, 2005 | Go to article overview

Symphonic Truth: Von Balthasar and Christian Humanism


Colon-Emeric, Edgardo Antonio, The Christian Century


MANY PEOPLE BELIEVE that Christian piety entails narrow-mindedness and that the more one affirms Christ in his particularity the more one rejects the world in its plurality. If the true Christian is, as John Wesley said, a person of one book, then it might seem that the worlds of art, literature and music--indeed, the whole realm of human culture--are at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous.

Take, for instance, the case of one of my fellow Hispanic pastors who refuses to lend his guitar to anyone who would play popular songs on it. "It's a consecrated guitar!" It doesn't matter that the person who wants to borrow his guitar is also a brother or sister in Christ. It doesn't matter that the popular music has wholesome lyrics. Once the guitar, like its owner, has been set apart for the service of God, it cannot again be played with or for the world.

There is, however, a way of following Christ that doesn't free the world but engages it as the domain of the triune God. There is such a thing as a humanism that is humane precisely because it is Christian. A model and mentor for such a view is the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Any person who is referred to by such sobriquets as "the Catholic Barth," "the most cultured man in Europe," "a modern church father" and "Pope John Paul II's favorite theologian" is certainly someone to be reckoned with on many theological fronts. He can also teach us about how to be a Christian in the world.

Born in 1905 to an aristocratic family in Lucerne, Switzerland (hence the honorific "von"), yon Balthasar was raised in a household where high culture and simple faith walked hand in hand. In his youth yon Balthasar developed an unwavering affection for music, particularly Mozart, and for Romantic literature, particularly Goethe. But his passion for the humanities never diminished his love of God--quite the contrary. His doctoral dissertation ("Apocalypse of the German Soul") is a theological reading of German literature and its understanding of the soul's final destiny.

Von Balthasar's desire to understand the world as God's world was no passing fancy. Even throughout his period of theological and philosophical formation, when he produced important translations and studies of works by Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor, among others, he also wrote about drama and dramatists. Von Balthasar often commented that he found more vitality and originality in the writings of literary figures like Georges Bernanos (author of Diary of a Country Priest) than in much of the neoscholastic theology he was taught at school. His Christianity was open to the best that the realm of culture has to offer, and he maintained that this realm is itself open to fulfillment in Christianity.

It has been said that von Balthasar wrote more books than most people read in a lifetime. Certainly it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume and erudition of his works. The best avenue of approach is not to jump straight into his great trilogy, Theological Aesthetics (seven volumes), Theo-Drama (five volumes) and Theo-Logic (three volumes), but to wade into some of his shorter writings like Love Alone Is Credible or A Theology of History or the essays in Explorations in Theology. Another fruitful approach to von Balthasar is to read him with a particular question or topic in mind. If you are interested in Barth, you might take up Von Balthasar's Theology of Karl Barth, the book that Barth himself regarded as the best exposition of his thought. If you are interested in issues of salvation and judgment (can Judas Iscariot enter heaven?), you will not find a better book than Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"? To deepen your understanding of the death and resurrection of Christ, read Mysterium Paschale. And if you want to inquire into the foundations of von Balthasar's humanism, read Truth Is Symphonic. In that volume he writes:

   Before the Word of God became man, the world orchestra
   was "fiddling" about without any plan: worldviews,
   religions, different concepts of the state, each
   one playing to itself. … 

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