Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being

By Welter, Brian | New Oxford Review, May 2018 | Go to article overview

Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being


Welter, Brian, New Oxford Review


Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being. By Anne M. Carpenter. University of Notre Dame Press. 250 pages. $32.

Swiss Jesuit Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) was a wellknown theologian both before and after Vatican II; his eclectic thought engaged important writers and themes of 20th-century Catholicism and its interaction with post-Christian culture. Before entering the Society of Jesus and completing licentiates in philosophy and theology, Balthasar earned a Ph.D. in German literature. This uniquely qualified him to evaluate German culture. His work, examined in Anne M. Carpenter's Theo-Poetics, often addressed the metaphysical problems in German thought that stem from its lack of transcendence. The field of theopoetics recalibrates theology as more akin to poetry than analysis. Carpenter says Balthasar used "poets and poetic language to make theological arguments" because the "poetic way of speaking expresses metaphysical truth without reducing one to the other."

Post-18th-century German thought fails because it looks for a vertical dimension from within the individual human who has been cut off from both traditional metaphysics and revelation. The resulting preoccupation with nihilism and death impacts everything, including art. Carpenter sums up well the central aim of Balthasar's work: "a restoration of beauty in theology, which means he must restore metaphysics as much as beauty, and means as well that he must show how art is supported by (and supports) such a metaphysic." What this entails is left open-ended, for though TheoPoetics analyzes a few of the Swiss theologian's writings in depth, we are only beginning to unpack the great wealth of ideas on aesthetics and modern thought found in his voluminous writings.

German writer Rainer Maria Rilke asserted that without the transcendent, life and death are "ontologically identical." For Balthasar, this is reflected in modern art's nihilism. Carpenter writes, "Beauty and metaphysics, art and philosophy, have come to a mutually resembled ruin: atomized, history-less, nihilist." Rilke highlighted the limitations of modern thought. Though a gifted poet, he never escaped the German mindset that had become closed to the transcendent. This contrasts with the English Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom Balthasar admired for showing the beauty of the "analogy of being" and the possibility of transcendence in the post-Enlightenment age.

Carpenter characterizes the analogy of being (analogia entis) as "a lively Christocentrism that is not a threat to created beauty, but rather its fulfillment." She argues that the analogia entis, particularly as outlined by St. …

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