Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Apologetics | Monsignor John R. CihakLove Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Apologetics | Monsignor John R. Cihak | Ignatius Insight

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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 Good?

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 Mozart’s 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 other’s 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 one’s 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 Balthasar’s 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 Hitler’s 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 de Lubac.

Balthasar is becoming recognized as perhaps the greatest theologian of the 20th century–yet 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 not done.

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 Vatican’s 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 God’s 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 Balthasar’s 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, 1982).

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 doesn’t "get behind" the form. Rather one touches the depths of Being in the form itself.

For Balthasar, things that exist don’t 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 one’s 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, it’s 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). Love’s 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 it?

Balthasar answers, "God’s 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 God’s revelation. God’s 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 God’s absolute transcendence and love. What corresponds to "beauty" on the natural plane is the Lord’s "glory" on the divine plane.

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 God’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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 person’s 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 is believable.

The Invitation to Eternal Life and Divine Love

Balthasar is not out to prove the revelation of God’s 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 Balthasar’s 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 apologist’s life will draw one to perceive God’s 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 believer’s 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).

Balthasar’s 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 Balthasar’s 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 Work…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." God’s 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 is believable.

Related Ignatius Insight Links, Excerpts and Essays:


Author page for Hans Urs von Balthasar, with biography and listing of books published by Ignatius Press
"A Résumé of My Thought" by Hans Urs von Balthasar
"Love Must Be Perceived," an excerpt from Love Alone Is Credible, by Hans Urs von Balthasar
"Church Authority and the Petrine Element" by Hans Urs von Balthasar
"The Cross–For 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 (T&TClark, 2009).



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