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.


millinerd said...

Thanks for this Andy. "simply because someone writes something for someone does not necessarily mean that have written it under the influence of that someone." Well articulated and helpful.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Andy and may God bless you. I´m a "balthasarian" from Sweden.

Wayne Baldwin from Arkansas said...

I agree I find him fascinating.

Matthew Potts said...

Though I agree in principle with your comments, Andy, and your inclination to doubt the ubiquity of Barth in all things theologically bright and beautiful, there's one sense in which I think Barth is properly due some credit. Wherever else his dogmatics may have led, Barth turned the focus and foundation of theological knowledge and method away from human experience and towards Christ. This is what von Balthasar does too, and if he claimed to have written his magnum opus to convert Barth, I think it was to show his fellow Swiss that the fundamental insight of Barth's project - the radical givenness of the Christ as the ground for all theology - could support a Roman foundation as well as a Reformed one.

Andy said...

Thanks for the comment, Matthew. Yes, I think Balthasar was struck by Barth's Christocentrism (to use the barbarism for the moment). He may even have been heavily influenced by it. Strike that: he probably was influenced by this aspect of Barth. But a Christ-centered theology was not invented by Barth. I think Balthasar would say not simply that Barth's insight could support a Roman foundation as well as a Reformed one, but that this insight is a retrieval of the true foundation of the Catholic Church (from the obfuscation of both Catholic and Reformed scholastics)--a conclusion no doubt based on his heavy reading of the fathers. Barth had uncovered what the fathers had been saying all along, and he helped Balthasar to see that.

Something to that effect, it seems to me, is what Balthasar might say. Even so, as you say, Barth is properly due some credit. I'm just not sure how much.

Matthew Potts said...

You're absolutely right, Andy. Barth, too, read the fathers heavily, and his Christocentrism was no innovation. What Barth wanted to leave behind, and this is where I think Balthasar follows him in retrieving a properly catholic tradition, was the form of liberal Protestantism so dominant since Kant.

George Armstrong said...

Andy, I have just (December 2011) come across your very enlightening comments on Rebirth of Images. I am from New Zealand and am in my eightieth year. As an Anglican parish priest become young theological teacher in the 1970's I was at my wits end searching for the church I thought I had been ordained into. I completed a PhD with Professor Richard Shaull at Princeton in 1973 and carried back from there a remarkable "image". It was an image from my Princeton TV screen of a tiny canoe under the towering bow of a freighter loaded with weapons destined (though actually stopped by the canoes) illegally for terrible slaughering in East Pakistan now Bangla Desh. This image travelled with me back to Auckland New Zealand where it was "reborn" in the formation of the astonishly successful "Peace Squadron" from 1976 on. This squadron of small sailing and fizz boats blocked the path of a succession of nuclear warships which had to force their way into harbour. I was a kind of founder and spokesperson for this squadron and discovered in the experience a more substantial "congregation" and "priesthood" than I had or have every known within our ecclesial institution - in which I remain solidly and hopefully embedded.
I narrate all this rather exhaustively for a blog comment because of my connections with you folk in the US, especially if tangentially with Charlottesville. My eldest son was a young President of a Steel Factory at Staunton a decade ago and we visited him and his family there.

I could say much more. But I must return to the chapter of my first book which follows through the above theme of "Journey of an Image". I'd be glad to be in further communication with you or any of your readers who might have their interest aroused by what I offer here.

George Armstrong