SASKATOON — Speaker Blake Sittler introduced the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar during a series on Great Catholic Thinkers held recently in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.
The Foundations: Exploring Our Faith series has included five sessions on various saints and theologians who have influenced Catholic thought. In the final session at the Cathedral of the Holy Family Nov. 24 entitled, “It’s true because it’s beautiful,” Sittler described Hans Urs von Balthasar’s “theological aesthetic,” with its focus on love, beauty and the drama of God’s relationship with humanity and all of creation.
Von Balthasar is among the most important theologians of the 20th century, with a massive output of writings that have influenced many, including Pope John Paul II, described Sittler, the diocesan director of pastoral services at the Catholic Pastoral Centre in Saskatoon.
“Love alone is credible, nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed,” wrote von Balthasar — a phrase that began and ended Sittler’s session.
Von Balthasar advocated a “kneeling theology” of amazement and gratitude at the depths of God’s love revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who fully enters into the drama of human experience, described Sittler.
Born in 1905, von Balthasar’s wealthy family were members of the Catholic “ghetto” of largely Protestant Lucerne, Switzerland. As a child, his interest was primarily in music, with Mozart a favourite, noted Sittler, describing how as a teenager, von Balthasar gave away his collection of Mozart music because he had it all memorized.
Educated first by Benedictine monks in Switzerland and then by the Jesuits at a school in Austria, von Balthasar studied philosophy and literature at the University of Zurich. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1936.
“So much of Balthasar’s work was inspired by the literary greats — Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, Blake,” Sittler noted, citing quotations from those writers that echo throughout von Balthasar’s writings. “His idea of theology was that it was something that had to be entered into, almost like a drama.”
As a theologian, he wanted to go beyond the theological tradition of scholasticism and its rigorous, almost formulaic way of thinking philosophically about the good, the true and the beautiful as mere concepts.
Influenced by Henri de Lubac, von Balthasar went back to the sources of Scripture and to the early Church Fathers.
Along with his friend Karl Barth, a Protestant theologian, von Balthasar wanted to challenge the modern idea that human experience was merely subjective. “Barth and Balthasar wanted to recapture this idea that there ARE objective truths,” said Sittler.
Another major influence was his platonic friendship with a woman named Adrienne von Speyer, a mystic who dictated a number of books to von Balthasar about her visions. Together they founded a religious society for men and women, the Community of St. John.
Von Balthasar left the Jesuits in 1950, eventually becoming a diocesan priest. In 1969, he was appointed by Pope Paul VI to the International Theological Commission, and in 1988 Pope John Paul II named him a cardinal — an honour von Balthasar turned down twice before accepting. He died two days before the official ceremony.
Among his many writings is a 16-volume work, published from 1961 to 1985, which is divided into three parts: the Glory of the Lord, which focuses on how God is revealed in the beauty of the world; Theo-drama, which focuses on how God relates to us (especially in the events of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday); and Theo-logic, which focuses on the truth.
The rise of the modern idea that everyone has their own particular truth has challenged that longtime model of evangelization focused on truth, goodness and beauty — with truth often being used the “battering ram,” noted Sittler. Instead of starting with truth, von Balthasar begins with beauty.
“Von Balthasar says that the way we need to approach the world, to evangelize, is to speak of beauty first.”
At the same time, human beings need a real relationship with God, and that is the drama, with the world as the “theatre of God’s grace,” described Sittler. In von Balthasar’s understanding, this drama involves “a real tension, a real back and forth. This is not just a monologue, it is a real dialogue” between God and human beings and all of creation.
“The Word of God is so personal that it’s a person,” Sittler said, pointing to the opening of John’s Gospel. “The Word of God has whispered to creation like a mother to a child: whispered to their loved one, and whispers to each of us: ‘I love you’ and ‘I’ll always be with you’ and ‘I’ll never let you go.’ ”
Sittler explored the human experience of an “aesthetic arrest — where the beauty just stops us” and so often leads to God. The beauty of nature, the birth of a child, or the experience of a moment or image that reveals harmony and relationship — these are moments of encounter and evangelization, he described. “This is how God speaks to us.”
“The beauty that von Balthasar talks about is not just ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder,’ ” stressed Sittler. “He holds that beauty is objective, that there is a way of measuring it, a way of meeting this test of integrity, of wholeness, of harmony, of radiance — it is a matter of how much it reflects the radiance of God and whether it makes you realize how precious you are in the eyes of God: that is the glory, the luminosity of being.”
For von Balthasar, Christ is the incarnation of that beauty and its perfection. “Von Balthasar uses this image of Pilate pulling Jesus aside and he says, ‘Ecce Homo,’ or, ‘Here is the Man’ . . . here is the model man,” said Sittler.
“Balthasar’s teaching in aesthetics is to accept that we are created for something more, we are created for something beautiful, we are created to be in relationship.”