Balthasar and Anxiety: Methodological and Phenomenological
Considerations | Fr. John Cihak | IgnatiusInsight.com
Balthasar and Anxiety: Methodological and Phenomenological Considerations | Fr. John
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).  After a flurry of
contributions in the early 1950s during the heyday of existentialism Catholic
theologians, it seems, have left this theme largely untouched,  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.  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 Balthasars understanding
of the phenomenon of anxiety.
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
author explicitly dedicated to the theme, Der Christ und die Angst (CA),
and in the writings surrounding that work.  Balthasars 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.  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".  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.
Balthasars 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 authors thought with Kierkegaards
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. Balthasars
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.  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 mans anxiety and beyond since he
is the wholly innocent One. Finally, mans 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. 
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 Christs 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.
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 Balthasars
treatment, can help to distill points of contact with these sciences on
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.
 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 ones
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". 
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. 
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.
Balthasars 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.  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,  a constellation of historical and literary
figures can be assembled to form a picture of the phenomenon. 
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. Celestines temptation, Innocents tormented sleep, Donissans
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 deaths agony in advance"
). 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 Balthasars 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 mans insertion into Christ all anxiety can be transformed
into a joyful participation in Christs agony in Gethsemane by which
man, grown old and anxious from his exile from Eden, can become a true child
of the Father.
 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
 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 langoixa: 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. Tourennes forward to the second French
edition of Balthasars Der Christ und die Angst: Le Chrétien
et langoisse, Paris 1994.
 Kazdin, A., ed. Encyclopedia of Psychology, Oxford 2000, 215.
 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_.
 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.
 Servais, 4.
 I believe most if not all of Balthasars 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.
 Balthasar mentions this transformation through the theological virtues
in CA and the Sacraments in Gelebte Kirche.
 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.
 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.
 Cf. Henrici, 10-26.
 For example, he briefly refers to the phenomenon in Job and the people
of Psalm 107.
 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,
 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 dArc, 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. Brechts Die Massnahme.
 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,
Fr. 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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