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 sharp.
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 come?
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.
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