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Reading von Balthasar Together: An Interview with Adam Janke | Carl E. Olson | February 22, 2007
The Swiss theologian Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88)
is widely considered to be one of the most important Catholic intellectuals and
writers of the twentieth century. Incredibly prolific and diverse, praised by both Pope John
Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, he wrote over one hundred books and hundreds of articles. But where does one begin
reading his work? And how does the non-specialist make his way though the
daunting and often dense writings of this significant theologian?
A new online reading group provides readers from hither
and beyond an opportunity to read, study, and discuss together online von
Balthasar's sixteen-volume "Trilogy." The online reading group was founded by
Adam Janke, who is a senior theology and catechetics student at the Franciscan
University of Steubenville where he has been studying since his conversion to
the Catholic Church in 2004. Adam is the president of the
St. John Bosco Society for Catechetics,
webmaster at CatecheticsOnline.com, and
lives in Ohio with his wife and son. He recently spoke with IgnatiusInsight.com
about the group and von Balthasar.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How and why did the Hans Urs von
Balthasar online reading group get started? Is it officially connected to
Franciscan University of Steubenville?
Adam Janke: The
reading group started for two reasons. On a personal level I was searching for
a way in which I could keep in touch with my classmates after our academic
careers here at Franciscan University draws to a close. While the occasional
email and phone call are enjoyable, a reading group can help to keep our minds
On the other hand, having recently read my way back into
full communion with the Church from a fundamentalist background I am always on
the look out for great theological works. I had read some of von Balthasar's
works, but nothing nearly as daunting as his 16-volume "Trilogy". This
is not the type of reading someone begins casually, but at the same time will
be very fruitful for anyone who can make the journey. By approaching an author
like von Balthasar through a reading group you have much needed support through
more difficult reading and can gain a fuller understanding by hearing the
insight by others into the text. After discussing the feasibility of launching
such a group with a couple of my classmates we decided the email group we are
using now would be best. It allows anyone no matter where they are to join and
read with us.
The group is not officially connected with Franciscan
University. Similar to the Catechetics Online website, we saw a need and an
opportunity, and after prayerful consideration began work on our own to start
the group. At the time of writing this we have 18 members, ranging from those
with no special training in theology, to those who have achieved doctoral
degrees in theology. We have undergraduate students, masters students, college
professors, and directors of religious education.
IgnatiusInsight.com: How does the online reading group
work? Is it related to or based on the Communio reading group model?
Adam Janke: I am
afraid I am not familiar with the Communio model. This has been the most
difficult part of starting our reading group as no one in the group so far has
any real experience with this type of online format. The reading has been
broken down into four years ending in 2011 and covers an average of one book
every three months. We have decided to start by allowing one person to lead the
discussion each month by giving commentary on the text, and then opening the
floor for anyone else to discuss and ask questions. While we are leaving room
to make adjustments as we need to in the future, so far it is going well. We
already have some good discussions taking place on the introduction to the
first book "Seeing the Form".
IgnatiusInsight.com: How and where do people sign up?
Adam Janke: The
group's URL is: http://groups.google.com/group/balthasar
The group makes use of the new "Google Groups"
platform which allows the user to sign up and opt either to receive and respond
to emails directly in their in box which will then be received by the entire
group, or they can opt not to receive any emails and login to the Group online
where they can read and reply to new messages.
Anyone is welcome to join. You will need to have a free
account with Google, and then you will need to register with the group. The registration
process asks you if you are planning on reading the text with the group, or if
you would like to simply observe the discussions. We wouldn't want anyone to be
surprised with being asked to lead the next month, when they are really just
interested in reading the books occasion and listening into the discussion.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Von Balthasar's
"Trilogy" is a rather daunting work. What would you say to people who
might be concerned that they don't have the background and specialized learning
to undertake reading and discussing such a work?
Adam Janke: This
is certainly a valid concern. The consensus among those with less theological
training (myself included!) is that the reading so far has been very
beneficial, and when we run into problems and parts that we don't understand,
the more advanced members of the group have been helping us through the text by
answering our questions. What's so wonderful about a group like this is it
allows people who wouldn't normally be able to approach an author like von
Balthasar to read the texts along with those with more expertise. Even though
some of us will ultimately not understand nearly everything von Balthasar has
written, the experience will nonetheless be very rewarding. It's best to keep
in mind that if you read everyday you are only looking at about five pages.
This makes even difficult material more manageable.
IgnatiusInsight.com: What you think that readers who
have little or no knowledge of von Balthasar's work will learn from him? What
influence will his writings and thought have in the Church in the years to
Adam Janke: This
is a difficult question as we begin our journey because it is like casting off
into the ocean and wondering what awaits us before we reach the other
side. When I took Dr. Regis Martin
for a theology class on the Trinity,
it was also centered around beauty. Dr. Martin left the class not so much with
a head full of facts about God, as much as he left us contemplating God himself
and His beauty. When we can be left in a place where we are able to move from
knowing about God to drawing into deeper intimacy with Him, we have been left
in a good place.
In my limited experience with von Balthasar I have
learned that his thought centers around truth, beauty, and goodness, but mainly
in how God reveals himself more as beauty than as truth or goodness. This
thought then helps us to understand our faith as more than a set of dogmas, but
that we should live our life in response to God's beauty, or as he puts it, to
the "Glory of the Lord". Von Balthasar, in returning beauty and
contemplation to their rightful place in theology accomplishes a similar task.
Von Balthasar seeks not so much to talk about God but "to let God speak
about himself." The reader will learn about truth, beauty, and goodness.
They will move through history both theological and philosophically, will see
the action of salvation played out as drama, and will spend time searching out
a deeper understanding of Trinitarian thought.
IgnatiusInsight.com: Any final thoughts on von
Balthasar or the reading group?
Adam Janke: I
would want to encourage any readers that may be interested in reading with us,
but at the same time are worried about their ability to keep up and understand
what we are reading to keep this in mind from one of our readers, who is also a
recent convert from a Baptist background:
"I must say that I am very impressed by it [Seeing
the Form] so far. Admittedly, I was
intimidated when I first started out. Von Balthasar's writing can be overwhelming
to someone who is not familiar with it, which I am not familiar with it. I
thought, what have I got myself into by agreeing to be a part of the von
Balthasar reading group started by Adam and others? However, once I settled in,
I thoroughly enjoyed my time reading and chewing on his work. Von Balthasar is
like a steak and potato dinner compared to many other works that I have read,
which are more like fast food."
I have to agree with this reader. The possibilities for
both spiritual and intellectual growth seem monumental, so I hope others will
be able to take advantage of this unique opportunity to read this great work by
one of Pope John Paul II's favorite authors.
Author Page for
Hans Urs von Balthasar, with biography and listing of books published
by Ignatius Press
of My Thought | Hans Urs von Balthasar
Jesus Is Catholic | Hans Urs von Balthasar | An
excerpt from In The Fullness of Faith
The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion
| From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest
Seeing Jesus in the Gospel of John |
Excerpts from On The Way to Jesus Christ | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Encountering Christ in the Gospel |
Excerpt from My Jesus | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Love Must Be Perceived | Hans Urs von Balthasar | An
excerpt from Love Alone Is Credible
Authority and the Petrine Element | Hans Urs von Balthasar
Us | Hans Urs von Balthasar
of Anxiety? | Hans Urs von Balthasar | The Introduction to The
Christian and Anxiety
by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary" | Hans Urs von
Balthasar | An excerpt from Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed
is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasars Apologetics | by
Fr. John R. Cihak
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