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  Balthasar and Anxiety: Methodological and Phenomenological Considerations | Fr. John Cihak

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The following paper was presented at the International Convention on the Occasion of the Centenary of the Birth of Hans Urs von Balthasar, October 7, 2005, at Lateran University in Rome.

A Timely Theme

I would first like to express my appreciation to His Excellency, The Most Reverend Rino Fisichella, for the gracious invitation to speak at this conference, and also to say that I am humbled by this opportunity to speak before such distinguished scholars and lovers of the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

The area of his theology that I am currently exploring from the perspective of fundamental theology is anxiety (Angst). [1] After a flurry of contributions in the early 1950s during the heyday of existentialism Catholic theologians, it seems, have left this theme largely untouched, [2] leaving the topic primarily in the hands of psychologists and philosophers. Anxiety as a cultural phenomenon, however, is perhaps the highest as it has ever been in the West. In the United States, for example, anxiety is second only to drug abuse as the most common mental health problem affecting approximately 25% of the population. [3] In more general terms we can think of the unexpected and tragic events of 9/11, the terrorist bombings in Spain and London, the continued nuclear threat now in the form of a "dirty bomb", natural disasters like the tsunami in Indonesia and hurricane Katrina, the continued destruction of the family and the loss of faith in institutions which in former times had given a sense of security.

The contemporary situation of the West seems profoundly marked by anxiety; therefore, it is a timely theme for the fundamental theologian who has the responsibility to speak to the "other" a reason to believe the saving message of Jesus Christ (1 Pt 3:15). Anxiety, moreover, as a theme has the potential to advance a "tria-logue" between psychology, philosophy and theology in order to further the collaboration of these three sciences since all three share interest in the theme. In the short time provided, I would like to expose briefly two points: the first, on the method for approaching this theme and the second, on Balthasar’s understanding of the phenomenon of anxiety.

Methodological Consideration

Although fragments of the theme of anxiety can be found in many places of the Balthasarian corpus, the theme is found foremost in the one small work the author explicitly dedicated to the theme, Der Christ und die Angst (CA), and in the writings surrounding that work. [4] Balthasar’s primary intention in CA is to give a theological interpretation of anxiety. However, in order for his interpretation to be heard in the contemporary situation, it seems appropriate to give his interpretation a strong phenomenological grounding that it might connect more deeply with psychology and philosophy. A second methodological choice within this first choice is to focus the description of the phenomenon on people rather than texts. After all, people are anxious, not ideas. Thus, a constellation of persons may be formed through which he presents the phenomenon of anxiety. This methodological choice, I believe, respects the way Balthasar himself thought and wrote.

The basic hermeneutical key for looking at this theme in Balthasar is the whole lies in the fragment. [5] Jacques Servais writes that with this key, "Balthasar can penetrate to the heart of the whole reality and take in the singular event in which God appears and communicates himself in Jesus Christ". [6] The whole presents itself entirely only in Christ, yet in Christ, his fullness shines forth in every fragment. The task then becomes not an ordering of the fragments into a system, but orchestrating them into a symphony by which each fragment is oriented to the ever greater Gestalt of the figure of Jesus Christ.

Balthasar’s theological interpretation follows this key, and may be told as a tale of two Gardens: Eden and Gethsemane. In contrast to Kierkegaard, he argues that the deepest origin of anxiety lies not inherently in human reason but in the Fall. Comparing the author’s thought with Kierkegaard’s interpretation begins to indicate the theological dimension of the theme, especially anthropological questions concerning the original state and the Fall. From this initial approach, which connects with psychology and philosophy, Balthasar is in a position to offer his theological interpretation. Balthasar’s theology of anxiety is proposed in CA but not fully delineated. Such delineation can be made from taking the theme through other parts of his writing to formulate more fully and explicitly the anthropological, christological, trinitarian and ecclesial dimensions of the theme.

The full measure of man and his anxiety is found only in Christ. [7] Jesus Christ, substitutes himself for sinful man, and takes all anxiety upon himself culminating in his agony in Gethsemane and on the Cross. In this redeeming act he shares fully all of fallen man’s anxiety and beyond since he is the wholly innocent One. Finally, man’s anxiety is progressively transformed by his insertion into Christ, as implied in the difference between the first and third weeks of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. This insertion happens, Balthasar argues, concretely in the Church through the Sacraments and in the practice of the theological virtues. [8]

The transforming insertion, I would argue, continues in ways not explicitly connected to the theme by the author through growth in spiritual childhood and vulnerability, in spiritual knighthood and mission, in spiritual friendship and communio, and in contemplative prayer and mystical darkness. Through this transforming insertion, man is freed from the anxiety that comes from the world, sin and death, and is initiated into Christian anxiety, which is his joyful participation in Christ’s sufferings in Gethsemane in his loving solidarity with, and substitution for, anxious sinners. The constriction (anxietas), which is the suffering in anxiety, becomes for the believer a sharing in the labor pains of the new Creation.

Phenomenological Consideration

If it can be established that Balthasar adequately grasped the phenomenon of anxiety, then a stronger case is made for considering his interpretation on the part of psychology and philosophy. A basic sketch of the phenomenon according to these two sciences, while not attempting to measure Balthasar’s treatment, can help to distill points of contact with these sciences on the phenomenon.

Although anxiety is often referred to as an emotion in psychology, it perhaps could be better described as an emotional-biological event manifested in symptoms that are physiological (e.g. rapid pulse, nausea, sweating, trembling), cognitive (e.g. anxious thoughts and dreams) and behavioral (e.g. avoidance and ritualizing). Anxiety occurs in response to situations of perceived threat and a consequent sense of helplessness, vulnerability and isolation. [9] Many in psychology and philosophy make a distinction between "anxiety" and "fear". In such a distinction, fear is classified as a response to a known object while anxiety is defined as a response to an unknown object. Philosophy tends to focus on the cognitive dimension and the anxious thoughts that one has in facing his contingency before the infinity of choices before him (Kierkegaard, Heidegger), or in seeing other people as a threat to one’s freedom (Sartre).

Those who knew our author say he seemed to be a man remarkably free from anxiety. He came from a strong family, was a man of deep human integration, and was a priest of strong faith. Peter Henrici writes that his cousin possessed "a simple and straightforward faith, unassailed by any doubts, a faith which, to the very end, remained childlike in the best sense". [10] Though Balthasar perhaps did not suffer much from anxiety, he will employ his attentive, sympathetic listening to show that he understood the phenomenon. Nevertheless, it is still important to mention that many of the events in his life certainly gave him a reason to grapple with anxiety: physical illnesses including leukemia, the choice to leave the Jesuits and resultant irregular ecclesial situation, the silencing of de Lubac, his task as spiritual director to Adrienne von Speyr in her spiritual and physical sufferings, the co-founding of the secular institute, etc. [11]

In my research thus far, I believe I have been able to show that Balthasar possessed at least an adequate grasp of the phenomenon of anxiety that would resonate with both psychology and philosophy, focused on the cognitive dimension. Balthasar’s presentation of the phenomenon in his writing, however, is not immediately evident. Nearly the entire text of CA is spent offering a theological interpretation of the theme although some passages do refer to the phenomenon. [12] Much more material on the phenomenon, however, can be gleaned from the two major works after CA, namely, his work on Reinhold Schneider and especially Georges Bernanos. From these two texts, along with a few others, [13] a constellation of historical and literary figures can be assembled to form a picture of the phenomenon. [14]

Balthasar suggests that the phenomenon is universal in the human condition. It overtakes all people: the rich and the poor (e.g. Otto IV and the Curé of Ambricourt), the saint and the sinner (e.g. the Little Flower and Monsignor Ouine), the believer and the non-believer (e.g. Abbé Donissan and the comrade), the noble and the ignoble (the Prioress of Carmel and Abbé Cènabre), the sophisticated and the childlike (e.g. Boniface VIII and St. Joan of Arc). Between these more striking contrasts are those who fall somewhere in between: the people of Psalm 107, Innocent III, Celestine V, and most especially Blanche de la Force. Balthasar also proposes that anxiety is not extrinsic to the Divine Son of God incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. I believe he would hold that phenomenologically speaking no difference can be detected among those suffering from anxiety save one: the joy that is found in the anxiety of the saints as portrayed for example in St. Thèrése, St. Joan of Arc, Chantal and the Curé of Ambricourt.

Furthermore, Balthasar portrays anxiety in its universality within the human person. His descriptions include anxious thoughts and dreams in the mind (e.g. Celestine’s temptation, Innocent’s tormented sleep, Donissan’s recurring thoughts that he is a failure), anxious behaviors (e.g. Blanche flees from the world and then from the convent, Dr. Lipotte in An Evil Dream takes morphine to avoid thinking of death) and anxiety in the body (e.g. Bernanos’ panic attacks which "shook him awake at night and gave him the sensation he was experiencing death’s agony in advance" [15]). In his emphasis on the cognitive dimension, the author keeps closer company with the approach of philosophy, yet also provides physiological and behavioral material, which resonates with psychology. I find most compelling is his description of Georges Bernanos’ anxiety for which he sought medical treatment and which seemed to exhibit all three dimensions.

In conclusion, the theme of anxiety seems a ripe one for fundamental theology, and Balthasar’s theology, I believe, can make a significant contribution. His description of the phenomenon of anxiety indicates his ability to connect with the "other", and his theological interpretation can help orient the therapist, the philosopher and the anxious to the fullness of the One who has redeemed all anxiety. His theology perhaps shows most powerfully that by man’s insertion into Christ all anxiety can be transformed into a joyful participation in Christ’s agony in Gethsemane by which man, grown old and anxious from his exile from Eden, can become a true child of the Father.


[1] I am pursuing a doctoral thesis under the direction of Jacques Servais, SJ at the Pontifical Gregorian University with the working title: Salvific Anxiety: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Origin, Meaning and Transformation of Anxiety.

[2] K. Rahner wrote only one short essay on the topic in Schriften zur Theologie 15: Wissenschaft und christlicher Glaube, Zurich 1983; English trans. "Anxiety and Christian Trust in Theological Perspective" in Theological Investigations, vol. 23: Final Writings, tr. H. Riley, London 1992, 3-15. No entry for the theme appears in Latourelle, R. and R. Fisichella, eds. Dizionario di teologia fondamentale, Assisi 1990, or in the hefty theological encyclopedia, Barbaglio, G., ed. Teologia, Milano 2002. The current manuals for fundamental theology by H. Fries and S. Pie-Ninot give only passing mention: Fries, H. Fundamentaltheologie, Graz 1985; Pie-Ninot, S. La teologia fondamentale, tr. P. Crespi, Brescia 2002. Only two articles have appeared on the theme in Balthasar: Roselló, F.T. <<Teologia de l’angoixa: Kierkegaard i Urs von Balthasar>>, in Fe i theologia en la història: estudios en honor del Prof. Dr. Evangelista Vilanova, Barcelona 1997, 449-456; and Splett, J. <<Der Christ und seine Angst erwogen mit Hans Urs von Balthasar>>, in Gott für die Welt, Mainz 2001, 315-331. To these one could also add Y. Tourenne’s forward to the second French edition of Balthasar’s Der Christ und die Angst: Le Chrétien et l’angoisse, Paris 1994.

[3] Kazdin, A., ed. Encyclopedia of Psychology, Oxford 2000, 215.

[4] Balthasar, H. U. von. Der Christ und die Angst, Einsiedeln/Trier 1951. The other two primary works are Balthasar, H. U. von. Reinhold Schneider. Sein Weg un sein Werk, Köln/Olten 1953, which was reworked and republished as Nochmals: Reinhold Schneider, Einsiedeln/Freiburg 1990, and Balthasar, H. U. von. Bernanos, Köln/Olten 1954, which was reworked and republished in 1971: Balthasar, H. U. von. Gelebte Kirche: Bernanos, Einsiedeln/Trier 1988_.

[5] The following ideas are taken from the presentation made by Jacques Servais, SJ at the recent conference in Washington, D.C.: Servais, J. <<Balthasar as Interpreter of the Catholic Tradition>> [accesso: 26.09.05], http//:www.communio-icr.com/pdf/JServais2.pdf.

[6] Servais, 4.

[7] I believe most if not all of Balthasar’s critical comments about psychology, which are not few, center around one point: psychology cannot claim to possess the full measure of man, and in his view it often does make this claim.

[8] Balthasar mentions this transformation through the theological virtues in CA and the Sacraments in Gelebte Kirche.

[9] Complementary psychological descriptions can be found in Colman, A., ed., A Dictionary of Psychology, Oxford 2003, 46; Corsini, R., ed., The Dictionary of Psychology, Philadelphia 1999, 58; Gregory, R., ed., The Oxford Companion to the Mind, Oxford 1987, 31; Hunter, R., ed., Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, Nashville 1990, 47; Kazdin, A., ed., Encyclopedia of Psychology, Oxford 2000, 209. A philosophical description can be found in Ritter, J., ed., Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Bd. 1: A-C, Basel/Stuttgart 1971, 310-313; and Sandkühler, H. J., ed., Europäische Enyzklopädie zu Philosophie und Wissenschaften, Hamburg 1990, 134-141.

[10] Henrici, P. <<Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Sketch of His Life>> in Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work, ed. D. Schindler, tr. John Saward, San Francisco 1990, 10.

[11] Cf. Henrici, 10-26.

[12] For example, he briefly refers to the phenomenon in Job and the people of Psalm 107.

[13] Cf. Balthasar, H. U. von. Das Herz der Welt. Zürich 1953_; Schwestern im Geist. Einseideln 1970; Kreuzweg der St.-Hedwigs-Kathedrale in Berlin, Mainz 1964; Herrlichkeit. Eine theologische Ästhetik. Bd. III/2, 1 Teil: Alter Bund, Einsiedeln 1966; Skizzen zur Theologie III: Spiritus Creator, Einsiedeln 1967; and Theodramatik I. Prolegomena, Einsiedeln 1973.

[14] The most prominent of these figures as they emerge in the chronology of his writings would be: Jesus, St. Thèrése, the people of Psalm 107, Job, the disciples of Jesus, Georges Bernanos, Blanche de la Force, Reinhold Schneider, St. Joan d’Arc, Celestine V, Boniface VIII, Innocent III, Abbé Donissan, Chantal, Abbé Chevance, Abbé Cènabre, Monsignor Ouine, Curé de Ambricourt, Madame de Croissy and the comrade from B. Brecht’s Die Massnahme.

[15] Balthasar quotes Bernanos’ friend Vallery-Radot in Gelebte Kirche, 56. The quote is taken from the English translation: Balthasar, H. U. von. Bernanos: An Ecclesial Existence, tr. E. Leiva-Merikakis, San Francisco 1996, 67.

Fr. John Cihak is Founder and Director of Quo Vadis Days, a 3-day camp for young Catholic men to learn more about the priesthood, to deepen their faith, and to better discern God’s call in their lives.

He currently resides in the beautiful city of Rome where he is working on a doctorate in Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. His doctoral work is focused on the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. In 2001, Father Cihak was sent on a new assignment to Mount Angel Seminary where he taught Theology and served as the Dean of Students.

He enjoys writing theology, singing (rock, chant, sacred polyphony), playing clarinet, and playing all kinds of sports, especially basketball. His article, "Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Apologetics," was published at IgnatiusInsight.com in May 2005.

Read more about Fr. Cihak here.

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