Today in 1988 we remember the death of one of the greatest theological minds of the 20th Century. Hans Urs Von Balthazar died just two days before a ceremony in Rome would have formally granted him the position of Cardinal. This was quite a turnaround in his reputation within the Church, which had been damaged after leaving the Jesuits in 1950 to work with the Community of Saint John.
As a Jesuit novice in the 1930’s, the young Hans Urs was studying theology at Fourvière, in France, just north of Lyons. Finding Thomas Aquinas interesting, he found the teaching so mediocre and boring that he eventually resorted to stuffing his ears during lectures in order to read something much more thrilling: the writings of St Augustine and the early Church Fathers. Because of this unsatisfactory experience it became his mission to make theology more attractive. He was very sensitive to beauty, and as regarding music he had absolute pitch, as a young man was immersed in classical music, particularly Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Mahler, and would spend endless hours at the piano. Later, as a Jesuit chaplain, he would perform a transcription of Mozart's Don Giovanni from memory.
With this sensibility to beauty, Von Balthasar saw that theology was almost elemental, and said at some point that it was the equivalent of the study of the fire and light that burn at the centre of the world. It made him sad that theology had become so dry, abstract and formulaic. He was influenced by the French philosopher Maurice Blondel who had warned of the danger in treating God in this way: "As soon as we regard God from without - as a mere object of knowledge, or a mere occasion for speculative study, without freshness of heart and the unrest of love, then all is over, and we have in our hands nothing but a phantom and an idol." Inspired by his Jesuit teacher Henri de Lubac, he would produce a monumental body of work to correct this.
Von Balthazar looked at three specific ways in which the journey to God was attractive, through Beauty, Goodness and Truth. He explored this in a monumental work of 15 volumes in which he gath, ered the scattered achievements of the European theological, philosophical and literary tradition around this fundamental insight. This monumental work, is often referred to as a trilogy which was named Herrlichkeit (The Glory of the Lord), Theodramatik (Theo-Drama), and Theologik (Theo-Logic). By the end of this series, he hoped that theology would become once again, living, dynamic and glorious. In The Glory of the Lord, his exploration of Beauty, Von Balthazar argues beyond superficial appearances which he felt modernity had fixed on, but which can’t be separated from truth and goodness. For him the crisis in morality was because a culture of self-indulgence and violence has gained an unprecedented hold. What Balthasar saw more clearly than anyone else was that the unity of Truth and Goodness in Beauty is evident above all in the Glory of God, which is incarnate in Jesus Christ. He developed a theological aesthetics which opens into a theological dramatics in the second part of the trilogy. In the five-volume Theo-Drama, he employs the eyes of faith to reveal the underlying dynamic of cosmic salvation history, culminating in the inevitable "Battle of the Logos" which drives evil into the open and onto the world stage. It is this vision of the spiritual issues underlying the modern crisis of that leads him to a critique of post-Enlightenment modernity and the final Theo-Logic.
As he started this project, he was appointed a student chaplain in Basle, Switzerland. It was there that he met the physician Adrienne von Speyr through a mutual friend, an encounter which would redirect his life. Von Speyer, a mother in her late thirties, and a prominent figure in Basle society, was married to the historian Werner Kaegi, and a Protestant, but interested in becoming Catholic. Von Balthasar began to offer her catechetical instruction and after her reception into the Catholic Church she began reporting intense experiences in prayer, including visions of Christ's Passion and encounters with various saints. In von Balthasar's words, "A veritable cataract of mystical graces poured over Adrienne in a seemingly chaotic storm that whirled her in all directions at once." Convinced of the authenticity of von Speyr's mysticism, they began to believe that they had a shared mission. He took on the role of spiritual director and guide, and in the end she would dictate some sixty books of spiritual and Scriptural commentary. Given her responsibilities as a mother and a practicing doctor, von Balthasar arranged, edited and published these texts, in the process, founding a publishing house.
Some of von Speyr's more mystical works, were not released until Pope John Paul II organized a Vatican symposium on her thought in 1985, almost twenty years after her death. Together, Speyer and Balthazar founded the Community of Saint John, a Catholic institute of consecrated laypeople established in 1945, with a mission to work for the sanctification of the world from within the world. They believed that the time of the great religious orders and their style of withdrawal from the world was giving way to a time of new communities within the Church that engage more directly with the world in order to transform it. These new types of world community, half way between the religious state and the lay state, became known in Canon Law as "secular institutes". However, this would be at a cost for Von Balthazar, as his superiors did not believe it would be compatible with Jesuit life and he made a grave decision to leave the order to help lead it. However he did not leave the priesthood and five years later would be incardinated into the Diocese of Chur as a diocesan priest.
Though not invited to be present at the Second Vatican Council, Balthasar was later awarded the prestigious Paul VI Prize for theology, and founded the journal Communio with Joseph Ratzinger and De Lubac. Over the course of his life, he authored eighty-five books, over five hundred articles and essays, and almost a hundred translations. He sought to offer a response to Western modernity, which posed a challenge to traditional Catholic thought, wanting Christianity to be more challenging toward modern sensibilities.
At the extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that was convened by Pope John Paul II on 25 January 1985 for the 20th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council the decision was taken to produce a Catechism. The Pope created a commission composed of 12 bishops and cardinals in charge of the project. Von Balthazar played a large role in the writing of the new Catechism which consolidated the teaching of the Council and the post conciliar popes.
Among the many books he wrote, one that is very notable is when he tackled the reality of Hell face on, knowing that this was of concern to many people. Writing a book called Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"?. Von Balthasar was careful to reject the idea of definite universal salvation, and affirms the concrete possibility of being damned while insisting on the Christian duty to hope charitably that each person will be saved. Coupled with his depictions of Holy Saturday and Christ's descent into Hell, particularly as outlined in the last volume of the book Theo-Drama, Joseph Ratzinger, who called these works a "profound analysis of the essence of Christian hope" and a "foundational contribution" to the theological field of Eschatology.
He didn’t restrict himself to Catholic theology, making a long study of Karl Barth and conversations with him lead to the book The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation . Barth himself agreed with its analysis of his own theological enterprise, calling it the best book on his own theology. His legacy is still not fully appreciated, and Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI described von Balthasar with Henri de Lubac as the two theologians he appreciates the most, remarking positively, "It is unbelievable what this person has written and done." De Lubac, himself, called Balthasar, "perhaps the most cultured man of our time." and in March 2018, together with Adrienne von Speyr, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Chur formally opened their cause towards canonisation