Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasars Apologetics
| Monsignor John R. Cihak
Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasars Apologetics
| Monsignor John R. Cihak | Ignatius Insight
The greatest challenge I find in bringing someone to Christ and his Church
is finding ways to engage him in meaningful conversation.
Talk of truth is often met with a yawn, and an assertion about what is
good is met with a stare of incomprehension. In the malaise of contemporary
American life, people do not seem to be moved much by claims of truth
or goodness. Relativism has made truth to be whatever one desires, thereby
turning the good into whatever makes one "feel" good. With access
to these roads of Truth and Goodness into the human heart darkened by
relativism, how can one engage the average non-believer? How can one place
him on the road that would ultimately lead him back to the Truth and the
Though people may glaze over when one makes claims of truth and goodness,
their ears seem to perk up at the mention of beauty: the flash of lightening
across the sky, the dramatic auburn colors of a late summer sunset, a
sublime snatch of music whether it be Mozarts Requiem or
a David Gilmour guitar solo.
An even more intense encounter is with the beauty
that expresses human love: the exhilaration when love is extended and
the others eyes sparkle, trembling lips break into a smile and say
"Yes." The heart soars, and one may even weep for joy. Often
the encounter is described as being swept off ones feet. Though
perhaps darkened to what is true and good, the post-modern heart is still
captivated by beauty revealing love, and this may be the road to Christ
for many citizens of the post-modern world.
Enter the Swiss Priest and Theologian
Hans Urs von Balthasars life
was hardly the plain, uneventful life of a scholar. Born in 1905, he lived
through the horror and devastation of both World Wars, writing his doctoral
thesis, The Apocalypse of the German Soul, during Hitlers
rise to power. He was immersed in literature, music, and philosophy. In
1929, after a retreat where he felt a powerful call to the priesthood,
he entered the Society of Jesus and was educated by some of the best of
his time including the Polish philosopher, Erich Przywara, and French
Jesuit and patristic scholar, Henri
Balthasar is becoming recognized as perhaps the greatest theologian of
the 20th centuryyet he never held an academic position
in theology. Far from being an ivory tower academic, he was involved with
the pastoral duties as a student chaplain at the University of Basel,
Switzerland. It was there that he came to know Adrienne von Spyer, who
converted to the Catholic Church and became the recipient of what seems
to have been intense mystical graces.
Together they discerned a call to found a secular institute (a community
whose members take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but live in
the world engaged in secular professions), the Community of St. John.
To continue his work as leader of the community, Balthasar eventually
had to make one of the most painful decisions of his life: to leave the
Jesuit Order and become a diocesan priest. In the 1950s, this simply was
This irregular ecclesial situation led to his being not invited to Vatican
II as an "expert theologian," yet in the wake of the Council
he served on the Vaticans International Theological Commission.
Toward the end of his life he was named to the College of Cardinals by
Pope John Paul II, but died on June 28, 1988, two days before receiving
his red hat. During his life he authored thousands of works in theology
and literature. His aim was always two fold: to help the believer understand
his faith more deeply, and to draw others into the saving relationship
with Jesus Christ and his Church.
Through his studies and life in German culture, he realized the direction
Western civilization was heading. He knew the dizzying heights to which
Western culture could soar in music, art, literature, and philosophy,
but that it also chose ugly depths: war, oppression, abortion, and exploitation.
As a Catholic priest, he knew he had to help Western civilization open
itself again to Gods revelation of absolute love in the passion,
death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and be saved. Balthasar
seized upon love revealed in beauty as the path to bring the non-believer
to faith. Western culture, having grown tired of seeking truth and goodness,
and largely despairing of finding them, could be brought back to the One
who is both Truth and Goodness through Beauty.
The purpose here is briefly to outline his central
apologetical insight: divine love revealed as beauty.
The Revelation of Love as Beauty
One of Balthasars key insights into how God incites man with his
divine love is to encourage the non-believer to ponder his encounters
with beauty in the world, especially as found in human love. Since most
non-believers like to consider themselves open-minded, Balthasar capitalized
on that desire by helping them see the mystery of Being as revealed in
beauty. His thought in this regard has been developed wonderfully by Fr.
Thomas Dubay in The
Evidential Power of Beauty (Ignatius, 1999). Non-believers must
also consider the limitations of worldly beauty, especially in the brokenness
and failures of all human love. Why is love in this world so finite and
fractured? Why are all attempts at love stamped as "failed"
by the inevitable reality of death? This predicament leads to the vital
question: Is there a love beyond this world?
At this point the non-believer can be led to wonder at the Cross and be
provoked by this sign of divine revelation. They can be challenged to
open their heart to the encounter with the beautiful form of Christ crucified
revealing in its depths the Triune God of love. The non-believer with
an open heart can be drawn by the grace coming through this form into
the dynamic of love, leading to an act of faith. Though this theme is
present throughout Balthasar vast writings, I will concentrate on two
of his foundational works: Love
Alone Is Credible (Ignatius, 2004), and The
Glory of the Lord, (tr. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis), vol. 1 (Ignatius,
Balthasar argues that the encounter with beauty in the world is analogous
to the encounter with the Triune God. What happens in the "aesthetic
encounter"? He sees that beauty is an indissolvable union of two
things: species and lumen. Beauty consists of a specific,
tangible form (species) accessible to human senses with a splendor
emanating from the form (lumen). Beauty has a particular form,
is concretely situated in the coordinates of time and space, and thus
has proportion so that it can be perceived. The splendor is the attractive
charm of the Beautiful, the gravitational pull, the tractor beam pulling
the beholder into it. When confronted with the Beautiful, one encounters
"the real presence of the depths, of the whole reality, and . . .
a real pointing beyond itself to those depths" (GL).
In the perception of beauty, two moments occur: first vision and then
rapture, the result of which is the impression of the form on the beholder.
The splendor moves out from within the form, enraptures the person and
transports him into its depths. Thus the visible form "not only points
to an invisible, unfathomable mystery; form is the apparition of this
mystery, and reveals it while, naturally, at the same time protecting
and veiling it" (GL). In beauty, the beholder is drawn out of himself
and pulled into the form by the attractive force of the beautiful thing,
thereby encountering the beautiful thing in itself.
The Aesthetical Encounter
A simple example to illustrate the aesthetical encounter can be found
in looking up into a clear night sky at the stars. One is struck by the
immensity and order of the universe, by the arrangement of the constellations.
On an especially clear night, one seems engulfed by the sheer number of
stars. Presented with this beautiful form, a sensitive viewer is drawn
in by light breaking forth from the form. This light is not simply the
light emanating from each star, the result of burning gases. It is the
light of Being. Transported into the depths of the form, the viewer ponders
foundational questions such as: How did this happen? Where did these things
come from? Why is this form so beautiful? Why am I so moved by it?
The result of the aesthetical encounter is an encounter with the mystery
of Being-in-itself. One has been shown the form and through the form been
brought into an encounter with the depth of Being. Wondering at the mystery
of a particular being, one is drawn into that beautiful form, and touches
the mystery of absolute Being. The form and the depths of its being are
indissoluble. In beauty one doesnt "get behind" the form.
Rather one touches the depths of Being in the form itself.
For Balthasar, things that exist dont just lay there in existence;
they glow from their participation in absolute Being. In Beauty, one is
taken in and grasped by Being. In order to perceive a particular being
as it is, one must surrender, be receptive, and be willing to be taken
in by the form. Control or manipulation on the part of the beholder derails
the aesthetical encounter. To share in the beauty, the viewer must renounce
himself. The result of the encounter with beauty is the impressing of
the form on the person leaving him breathless, exhilarated, full of awe
and infused with joy. He is "seduced" by the beautiful form
whether it is a stunning landscape or ones beloved.
While acknowledging the joy of beauty in this world, and especially the
beauty in human love, a terrible frustration accompanies, and threatens
that joy. Human love is marked by three failures: limitation, selfishness
and death. "Human love being finite seems to contradict itself,"
(LA) writes Balthasar, because "what love means . . . is that the
present should be eternal" (LA). Not only is human love limited,
its also infected with selfishness. He reasons, "The ordinary
level of human existence, where man meets man, is a sort of middle zone
where love and self-interest, love and the absence of love, temper one
another" (LA). Loves limitation and brokenness are marked by
the ultimate seal of death, which seems to rob human love of everything
it strives for. He concludes, "Human love, regarded as created love
only, is a strange hieroglyph" (LA). Man cannot find the resolution
to his predicament in the world or in himself. Is there liberation from
Balthasar answers, "Gods love [is] a love which goes in search
of man in order to lift him out of the pit, free him from his bonds and
place him in the freedom of the divine love that is now human as well"
(LA). How can man perceive God revealing himself, and give himself to
God in the act of faith? God, who is love, has startled the world with
his self-revelation as the Beautiful One.
Balthasar argues that the beautiful is the first point of insight by which
one perceives Gods revelation. Gods appearance in the world
is analogous to the aesthetical encounter. Analogy is the only possible
means whereby man may speak about God without depriving him of his absolute
mystery, or the believer the possibility of articulating an explanation
of divine revelation. Analogy neither distances nor compromises Gods
absolute transcendence and love. What corresponds to "beauty"
on the natural plane is the Lords "glory" on the divine
The Father, Son and Holy Spirit have revealed themselves as one God in
order to liberate man and bring him to live within the divine life of
the Trinity. Man could never anticipate Gods astounding initiative
in reaching out to save him.
The Form of the Cross
The pinnacle of this revelation, which Balthasar calls the "Christform",
is Jesus nailed to the Cross. One may object, "How can the crucifixion
of Jesus be the preeminent revelation of Beauty?" In the ugliest
place of human existence (crucifixion and death) God reveals himself as
absolute, total self-giving love. The Trinity is self-giving love. Being
disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, the
Christform is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is. This
love can only be fully revealed in a world corrupted by sin through death,
the ultimate expression of self-giving in this world.
And so this is the supreme moment of transcending beauty, a revelation
of love visible in the world, yet pointing to a love beyond this world.
As St. John so profoundly grasps in his Gospel, the concealment of the
Son under the form of the Cross is his glory because it reveals a love
to the absolute end. The glory of the Son does not come after the Cross.
The Cross is his glory. Even in this ultimate form of beauty in self-giving
love, God does not overwhelm human freedom. No one is forced to believe
that this crucified man is the divine Son of God saving the world.
As in the aesthetical encounter, the form is Jesus nailed to the Cross.
One must decipher the Christform which stands in history as a concrete
sign (species). Anyone can stand before it and wonder, "Who
is this?" God has disturbed history forever with his provocative
sign of love. The perception of faith, however, is beyond the ability
of man alone. What is required is a new light. Without this light man
cannot see the depths of the form. In other words, the non-believer looks
at the Cross and says, "I see just a man." God must awaken in
man the capacity to recognize him.
The splendor (lumen) emanating from the form is the glory of the
Lord containing divine grace. This glory strikes the non-believer (vision)
pulling him into the form and enabling him to believe (rapture). He is
pulled into its depths, not simply for an encounter with absolute Being,
but into a personal relationship with the tri-personal God (who is also
absolute Being). The act of faith is to be swept up into the form of the
Triune Gods self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth through the splendor
of divine grace. The non-believer is seduced by the form.
Divine grace, working in the interior of the person, allows him to see
the form for what it is. Only grace enables him to organize the evidence
for belief into a coherent whole and see what the sign reveals. As in
beauty, to share in the revelation of divine love, one must renounce himself
and surrender to the grace offered. Furthermore, one does not "get
behind" the form of the Cross in order to then see God. Rather the
Trinity is revealed in the Cross. Jesus said to Philip, "He
who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). When the non-believer
encounters Christ crucified, an historical event situated in time and
space, he can be pulled into that form, by assenting to the grace offered,
for an encounter with the Triune God.
In the Cross man encounters a love not of this world. Man sees "that
the love offered him is quite unlike anything he knows as love; and that
the scandal [of Gods love] exists in order to make him see the uniqueness
of this new love -- and by its light to reveal and lay bare to him his
own love for what it is, lack of love" (LA). The non-believer asks,
"With my broken love, and my life hurtling toward death, is there
anything worthy of my belief?" Jesus of Nazareth is the unique sign,
expressive of a persuasive love which draws the beholder into the same
dynamic of love. In the act of faith, as in the encounter with beauty,
one is marked by the beautiful form. The Father impresses his form on
the Son, and the Son, through the Holy Spirit, presses his form on the
believer. The persons own life is to take on the dimensions of the
Christform. He is not to be a bystander but a participant in this dynamic
of divine love.
The credibility of the revelation comes through the Christform, from which
breaks forth the pulsating, burning furnace of Trinitarian love. This
sign needs no other proofs. It is the proof of love. In the encounter
of faith, the non-believer realizes that this revelation not only unites
the fragments of truth in the world, not only gives meaning to mankind
at its deepest level, but that it pulls him beyond into the very life
of God encountering a love beyond his capacity to imagine. Finally, one
finds a love worthy of his faith, of his very life. This is a love that
The Invitation to Eternal Life and Divine Love
Balthasar is not out to prove the revelation of Gods love through
reason. Divine love is reasonable, but it transcends human reason. Rather,
Balthasar provokes the non-believer with the historical sign of revelation
in order that he may open his heart and so be drawn in by beauty.
The non-believer, with his fractured and ultimately failed love, by the
inescapable reality of death, sees in the encounter with the Cross the
reality of the Triune God shining in its depths. In this revelation of
Glory, man is offered the possibility of sharing an eternal life of divine
love. He realizes that his small, finite human love can be elevated to
share in the inexhaustible, infinite love of God. But the encounter with
divine love requires an open heart, a heart sensitive to beauty, a heart
able to wonder, a heart that can surrender to the forms of beauty found
in this world, a heart that is in anguish as it attempts to love in the
face of death.
A consequence of Balthasars insight is that the divine love revealed
on the Cross is meant to transform not just the non-believer but the apologist
as well. He must also be marked by the Christform. As a believer, the
apologist has been pulled by divine grace into the encounter of the form
of Christ, and so his life must then take on the contours of the form.
In this world, divine love is revealed in the suffering and death of the
Son. For this reason the apologist can win a person to Christ and his
Church only if he first loves that person and is willing to suffer, and
even die, for him. The beauty of the apologists life will draw one
to perceive Gods revelation.
Not only should parish churches be places of beauty and the celebration
of Mass be beautiful and passionate, but most of all, the lives of believers
must be beautiful. A believers life must radiate the beauty of divine
love. The work of apologetics goes beyond winning arguments to being grasped
by the Christform: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives
in me" (Gal 2:20).
Balthasars approach is useful not only to provoke non-believers,
but also to attract those who have fallen away, to reawaken lukewarm believers,
and to help the apologist understand his faith more deeply. Those who
wish to delve more deeply in Balthasars thought may begin with Love
Alone and then turn to his treatment of the "Three Days"
(Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday) in Mysterium
Paschale (tr. Aidan Nichols [Ignatius, 2000]). He continues this
apologetic line in In
the Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic
(tr. Graham Harrison [Ignatius, 1988]). Those more ambitious may tackle
volume one of The Glory of the Lord. For an introduction to his
thought, I have found the study by Fr. Edward Oakes, S.J., The Pattern
of Redemption (Continuum, 1994), to be very helpful. Also see Hans
Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work (Ignatius, 1991), edited
by David L. Schindler.
In reflecting on his own work Balthasar wrote, in My
In Retrospect (Ignatius/Communio, 1993): "You
do good apologetics if you do good, central theology; if you expound theology
effectively, you have done the best kind of apologetics." Gods
self-revelation, the center of pulsating love revealed as beauty, is disguised
under the disfigured, ugly crucifixion and death of Jesus the obedient
Son. Through the encounter with divine love revealed as beauty, one is
led back to truth and goodness because he is led into the encounter with
the One who is True, Good and Communion.
Through the beauty of divine revelation, man can discover a love that
Related Ignatius Insight Links, Excerpts and Essays:
Author page for
Hans Urs von Balthasar, with biography and listing of books published
by Ignatius Press
of My Thought" by Hans Urs von Balthasar
Must Be Perceived," an excerpt from Love Alone Is Credible,
by Hans Urs von Balthasar
Authority and the Petrine Element" by Hans Urs von Balthasar
Us" by Hans Urs von Balthasar
Monsignor John Cihak, S.T.D., a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, works in the Vatican. He helped to start
Quo Vadis Days camps promoting discernment and
the priesthood at the high school level that now operate in several US dioceses. He has been a pastor and served in seminary formation.
He is the author of
Balthasar and Anxiety
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