Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Balthasar and Barth: Some suggestions

Just a brief note of frustration.  Why is it that whenever you mention Balthasar to a Barthian, they inevitably (almost nervously) remark that Balthasar was much indebted to Barth, but not vice versa?  It is true that Balthasar was more influenced by Barth than the other way around.  But it is not clear to me that Barth was a very strong influence (meaning:  source) for Balthasar's theology.  If Balthasar was more open to Barth's theology than vice versa, it may say as much about Barth's modus operandi as it does about Balthasar's indebtedness to Barth.

Although it is true that Balthasar once said of his major triptych, "I wrote it all for Barth," thus perhaps suggesting an indebtedness to Barth, one should not ignore the second half of the statement, "to convert him."  Balthasar, I suggest, was not interested in Barth because he was the genius of his age (as most Barthians would contend), but because Balthasar saw in Barth the finest, most Catholic Protestant theologian Christianity had known.  I suspect Balthasar's interest was ecumenical and conciliatory, and that he drew on Barth as a kindred theologian from the Protestant side in that capacity.  Now doubt, Balthasar admired Barth for heroically uprooting the tracks to Protestant theology just as he admired the nouvelle theologie for waking from the Thomistic slumber of Catholic theology (on which, see Fergus Kerr's excellent book).

I recently discovered a fine review of Stephen Wigley's book, Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar, by my friend John Drury.  Wigley concludes that Barth is the key influence on the eventual structure of Balthasar's triptych.  John rightly takes him to task here, mentioning the theories of McIntosh and Mongrain who find more of Maximus the Confessor, Ignatius and Irenaeus in Balthasar's thought.  Each of these has more claim to a central role in Balthasar's theology than Barth.  One influence John also failed to mention, however, is the key influence that Balthasar himself cites:  Adrienne von Speyr.  Now, Mongrain has taken Balthasar's claim to task in his attempt to demonstrate Ignatian and Irenaean themes throughout Balthasar's works.  Even so, if anyone had a claim as a key influence, surely Adrienne would be it.  Even more so, we might want to point to those who introduced Balthasar to Irenaeus and Maximus--his teachers Henri de Lubac and Jean Danielou (just to name two).  These figures of the so-called nouvelle theologie are, no doubt, every bit as strong of influences on Balthasar's thought as Barth.  So, we should keep in mind that simply because someone writes something for someone does not necessarily mean that have written it under the influence of that someone.  It has often been noted that Balthasar wrote his triptych in reverse order as Kant presented his own.  I do not think we must therefore conclude that Kant is the key influence in Balthasar's theology.

I know it is hard to believe that Karl Barth might not have influenced profoundly every theologian of note, but it is just true.  Barth was a genius in many ways, and certainly (at least to my mind) the prince of twentieth-century Protestant theologians.  But let us resist finding his genius everywhere and make room for others of similar genius.  Balthasar was one of these.  He was an incredibly talented, creative, and original thinker.  In reality, his influences lie with the whole of the German intellectual tradition (especially Idealism), with the Church Fathers, with French literary figures, and the list goes on.  Balthasar devoured philosophers, theologians, literary authors, and composers with awe-inspiring capacity and range.  While Barth, as the greatest Protestant theologian of his age, was inevitably one of those influences, he was not the only, nor even the main influence, impetus, or source for Balthasar's theological writings.  The reductio ad Barth is a severly diminished understanding of Balthasar's mind. 

And so, I offer a gentle plea to Barthians to read Balthasar on his own terms, and not through Barth-shaped glasses.  I think the exercise is well worth the exertion.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Pure Mathematics of the Spirit

"The spirits of the living world were never meant to be so neighbourly with the spirits of that other. "Grant to them eternal rest, O Lord. And let light eternal shine upon them." Let them rest in their own places of light; far, far from us be their discipline and their endeavour. The phrases of the prayers of intercession throb with something other than charity for the departed; there is a fear for the living. Grant them, grant them rest; compel them to their rest. Enlighten them, perpetually enlighten them. And let us still enjoy our refuge from their intolerable knowledge.

"As if in a last communion with the natural terrors of man, Margaret Anstruther endured a recurrent shock of fear. She recalled herself. To tolerate such knowledge with a joyous welcome was meant, as the holy Doctors had taught her, to be the best privilege of man, and so remained. The best maxim towards that knowledge was yet not the Know thyself of the Greek so much as the Know love of the Christian, though both in the end were one. It was not possible for man to know himself and the world, except first after some mode of knowledge, some art of discovery. The most perfect, since the most intimate and intelligent, art was pure love. The approach by love was the approach to fact; to love anything but fact was not love. Love was even more mathematical than poetry; it was the pure mathematics of the spirit. It was applied also and active; it was the means as it was the end. The end lived everlastingly in the means; the means eternally in the end."

From Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell, pp. 68-69

Monday, April 05, 2010

Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images

Austin Farrer, A Rebirth of Images (London: Dacre, 1949).
No one has applied himself to the question of the literary art of the Apocalypse with more relentlessness than Austin Farrer. The book is a masterpiece and a puzzle, at once impressive and bemusing. The entire book is dominated by the conclusion (or shall we say, conviction) that the Apocalypse “is the one great poem which the first Christian age produced” (6). Accordingly, in this study of the book of Revelation, Farrer claims “to introduce into the field of scriptural divinity a known method of poetical analysis” (20). The origins of Christianity were, in fact, a “rebirth” of the imagery of the Jewish Scriptures. The most complete rebirth was accomplished in Revelation; in John’s poetical labor, the images of the Old Testament were reborn completely with Christ as the new center. Farrer saw, more than many, the sophistication of the book. He approaches the book as a work of genius, not that of a madman, though the difference between the two has often thought to be slight. He traces the themes of the Apocalypse much like one might trace the genius of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno. In fact, the result of the Farrer’s analysis is so complex and dense, one might wonder whether Farrer has seen more than is actually there.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Peter of Damascus a propos the day

Today is Holy Saturday. It is a day for remembering yesterday and hoping for tomorrow. Funerals are interesting times, usually filled as much with laughter and smiles as with tears and weeping--and all of that is mourning. But I suspect the laughing and the weeping, the chattering and the condolences are basically a way to fill the silence. Not silence in general, but a specific silence. We remember the life of our beloved, we tell each other stories of his or her life and we wish aloud he or she was still with us. All of it because we no longer hear or see that beloved until kingdom come.

I intended to use this piece from Peter of Damascus yesterday in the Good Friday service, but perhaps it is just as appropriate today.

"Who is not amazed when he thinks of Thy inexpressible self-abasement? For being God, inscrutable, all-powerful, and ruling all things, enthroned above the cherubim--who are figures of wisdom in its multiplicity--on account of us, who have provoked Thy anger from the beginning, Thou has humbled Thyself, accepting to be born and brought up among us. Thou hast endured persecutions, stoning, mocking, insults, cuffs and blows, ridicule and spitting, then the Cross and the nails, the sponge and the reed, vinegar and gall, and all the rest that I am unworthy to hear about. Then a spear pierced Thy most pure side, and from this wound Thou hast poured forth for us eternal life: Thy precious blood and water.

"...Lord Jesus Christ, Son and Logos of God, the most tender name of our salvation, great is Thy glory, great are Thy works, marvellous are Thy words, 'sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb' (Ps 19.10). Glory to Thee, O Lord, glory to Thee. Who can glorify and hymn Thy coming in the flesh, Thy goodness, power, wisdom, Thy life in this world and Thy teaching? And how is it that Thy holy commandments teach us the life of virtue so naturally and so easily? As Thou didst say, Lord: 'Forgive, and you will be forgiven' (cf. Matt 6.14); and again: 'Seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you' (Matt 7.7); and: 'Whatever you would that men should do to you, do also to them' (Matt 7.12). Who, having understood Thy commandments and other sayings, will not be astonished when he perceives Thy boundless wisdom? For Thou are the wisdom of God, the life of all, the joy of angels, the ineffable light, the resurrection of the dead, the good shepherd 'who gives His life for the sheep' (John 10.11). I hymn Thy transfiguration, crucifixion, burial, resurrection, ascension, Thy enthronement at the right hand of God the Father, the descent of the Holy Spirit and Thy future advent, when Thou wilt come with power and great, incomprehensible glory.

"I grow weak, my Lord, before Thy wonders and, at a loss, I long to take refuge in silence. Yet I do not know what to do. For if I keep silence, amazement overwhelms me; but if I dare to say something, I am struck dumb and rapt away. I regard myself as unworthy of heaven and earth, and as deserving every punishment, not simply because of the sins I have committed, but much more because of the blessings I have received without my showing any gratitude, contemptible as I am. For Thou, Lord, who dost transcend all goodness, hast filled my soul with every blessing. I dimly perceive Thy works and my mind is amazed. Merely to look on what is Thine reduces me to nothing. Yet the knowledge is not mine, nor the endeavour, for it is Thy grace. Therefore I will lay my hand on my mouth, as Job once did (cf. Job 40.4), and will take refuge in Thy saints, for I am bewildered. ..."

From "Eight Stages of Contemplation," Fourth Stage, transl. from The Philokalia, pp. 128-9.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Rowland, "Things into Which Angels Long to Look"

Christopher Rowland, “Things into Which Angels Long to Look: Approaching Mysticism from the Perspective of the New Testament and the Jewish Apocalypses,” in Christopher Rowland and Christopher R. A. Morray-Jones, The Mystery of God: Early Jewish Mysticism and the New Testament (CRINT, vol. 12; Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009), pp. 1-216.

In this study Christopher Rowland provides an outstanding survey of apocalypticism in the New Testament (NT). Rowland is to be commended for presenting a thorough argument in favor of the permeation of apocalypticism in New Testament theology. Instead of a limited focus on apocalyptic eschatology, Rowland capitalizes on the theme of the volume by analyzing apocalypticism in its “mystical” aspects. Following Hengel’s definition of apocalypticism as the search for “higher wisdom through revelation,” Rowland is keen to highlight visionary experience(s) and developed angelological and merkavah themes. Thus Rowland seeks to establish the apocalyptic origins of Christianity (á là Schweitzer) by conceptualizing apocalypticism along its (Jewish) mystical axis.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Atheist Delusions

I try to read as much of David Bentley Hart's work as I can. He is about the finest public Christian theologian I have read. Since I have taken back up with historical studies, I have little time for works of theology. But this is one I could not resist. In Atheist Delusions, Hart takes on the so-called New Atheists and their popular proclamations and pontifications.

The book is arranged in four parts. In part one (Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View from the Present) Hart provides his interpretation of the current cultural situation that underlies the popularity of the "New Atheists." The first chapter outlines what Hart calls the "Gospel of Unbelief," and stages a first assault upon the incredible works of Dawkins, Dennett and Sam Harris in particular. In his initial examination Hart postulates that the problem underlying not only these dilettantes, but other popular authors as well (e.g. Philip Pullman and Dan Brown), is a faulty and simplistic view of history that overemphasizes the virtues of the modern world and the vices of Christianity, and concomitantly underemphasizing the virtues of Christian civilization and the vices of modernity.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Historical Jesus: Five Views

Ordinarily I find these 'four views' or 'five views' kind of books a little contrived. Usually published by evangelical publishers and edited by evangelical editors, I think they are intended to show the superiority of the evangelical position. But this volume comprises a nice cross-section of current historical Jesus research.

The introduction to the volume is judicious and offers the basic background to historical Jesus research. The chapters that follow are essays by five scholars (Robert M. Price, John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, James D. G. Dunn and Darrell Bock) who represent points along the spectrum of scholarly positions on the historical Jesus and the enterprise of studying the historical figure of Jesus. The volume does not disappoint expectations since the arrangement of the essays suggests a graded progression from the most radically revisionist to the most traditional portrait of Jesus. In spite of the clearly chosen arrangement, the essays each provide a snapshot of major voices in historical Jesus scholarship.