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Christopher W. SteckAugust 01, 2005
Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

I will ponder with great affection how much God our Lord has done for me, and how much he has given me of what he possesses, and finally, how much, as far as he can, the same Lord desires to give himself to me according to his divine decrees.

Ignatian contemplation invites us to see a drama unfolding in our daily lives. “The Contemplation to Attain Divine Love,” from which the introductory quotation above is taken, focuses our attention on the hopeful orientation of that drama: everything good in the world is God’s gift, a part of God’s active love for us. The Spirit labors in and through these gifts and invites us to join in that labor.

This sense of life as a divine drama into which we are invited lies at the heart of the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Like his contemporary, Karl Rahner, S.J., Balthasar believed that all Christians could engage in a kind of mysticism of ordinary life and thus become “contemplatives in action.” Rahner’s reflections on the mysticism of ordinary life focused on the very dynamics of human subjectivity; at the very boundaries of every act of knowing and loving occurs an implicit experience of something more comprehensive and absolute—that is, God himself. Balthasar instead looked to the world before us; in its events and beauties were to be found the fragments and expressions of God’s incarnate Word. A century after Balthasar’s birth, his theology offers much to Catholics seeking to live out their Christian vocations in the contemporary world.

Hans Urs von Balthasar was born in Lucerne, Switzerland, on Aug. 12, 1905. He entered the Jesuits in 1929, shortly after a Jesuit-led retreat that he saw as one of the turning points of his life. During that retreat he came to understand that God’s will for him was not just a general divine desire (for example, that he be good and loving) but a specific course that he was invited to embrace. God had a role planned for each person; their holiness depended on their surrender to that particular will.

Though Balthasar left the Jesuits in 1950 in order to devote himself to the formation of a new lay institute (the Community of St. John), the spirituality of St. Ignatius deeply formed his theological vision. Indeed, Balthasar understood his decision to leave the Society not as a relinquishing of Ignatian spirituality, but as a new instance of fidelity to it.

In his studies, Balthasar turned to innovative and controversial thinkers like Henri de Lubac to escape what he referred to as “the desert of neo-Scholasticism.” Seeking to reinvigorate theology and recover essential aspects of Christianity that he believed had been lost in the polemics of the Protestant Reformation, he turned his attention, with de Lubac and others, to the early church fathers.

The conventional view labels Balthasar a “conservative” thinker. This is misleading, as such labels often are. A number of his positions do line up with those associated with conservative Catholics: strong support for Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), criticism of the social optimism of the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” frustration with liturgical reform (it made the Mass too Protestant), argument for a “Marian” ecclesiology and his use of gender complementarity to explain not only the encounter between God and the human person (male as God, female as humanity) but also vocational roles within the church.

Like any other profound thinker of his caliber, Balthasar's thought cannot be forced neatly into any ideological mold.

But like any other profound thinker of his caliber, Balthasar’s thought cannot be forced neatly into any ideological mold. He took a fairly “liberal” view in defending the legitimacy of the Christian hope (though not certitude) that all persons will be redeemed; he also suggested that a fixed and rigid morality threatens the creative freedom of the Spirit. Furthermore, Balthasar maintained that all work for justice shares in the labor of the Spirit, regardless of the religious commitments of the laborers. Underscoring that Christians are ultimately bound in obedience to Christ, he argued that this might require faithful dissent to the visible church. And although he may not have gone far enough for many thinkers, Balthasar did suggest that God the Father has a feminine aspect.

In method, Balthasar preferred an evocative and untidy richness over the kind of objective systematization characteristic of many great Christian thinkers. He suggested that Christian truth is “symphonic,” less a collection of positions and doctrines than an organic, dynamic and narratival display of divine love. Theology fails in its task if it presents us simply with something that is true. An adequate Christian theology must allow God’s glory—the majesty of divine love—to appear before us and strike us with its wonder, such that we find our hearts set on fire as did the disciples before us.

Yet he worried that theology no longer concerned itself with this project. In Balthasar’s opinion, contemporary culture and the Christians within it had lost the ability to see the deeper goodness of the world and, correspondingly, its transcendent and divine origin. In classical, Greco-Roman culture, the cosmos had been understood as saturated with the divine; the world was the stage on which human and divine actors together participated in a common cosmic drama. Modern society no longer saw existence in this way. Where the ancient person interpreted his life in terms of a divine drama, the contemporary person looked out upon an empty and meaningless horizon of cosmic chaos. Forgotten was the Christian commitment to a universe made sacred by Christ; the divine and the earthly had become separate realms. Reflection on the world was the exclusive domain of science; theology concerned itself only with the iteration of otherworldly truths. A “light has gone out,” he lamented.

Theology fails in its task if it presents us simply with something that is true. An adequate Christian theology must allow God’s glory to appear before us and strike us with its wonder.

To counter this false dichotomy of secular and sacred, a recovery of the sacramental vision found in such sources as the early fathers of the church and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola was necessary. Christ has revealed to us a divine drama unfolding in our world; he welcomes us to participate in it.

How are we to see ourselves as part of this dramatic story? First, argues Balthasar, we must come to know Christ. This entails letting go of our neat human categories of what is loving and reasonable. To perceive what God has done in Christ requires an act of surrender, the surrender of faith, whereby we let God be God, let the love manifested in the suffering and death of Christ on the cross show us the real depth and greatness of divine love. In its best moments, theology does this; through word and image, theology reveals the glory of God in what at first glance seems only the ignoble death on the cross of one condemned as a criminal.

Second, those who follow Christ must become aware of God’s glory in the world around them. Balthasar describes creation as a monstrance, reflecting the majesty of God. But this is not to advocate a spirituality that simply divinizes all that is beautiful in creation. Indeed, Balthasar specifically rejects a naïve deification of the world. Our endeavors to contemplate God in the world around us must take their cue from Christ, who entered into solidarity with human suffering. Through his act of radical solidarity on the cross, Christ has transformed human suffering from a sign of alienation from God into a place where God has shown the boundless depths of his love. And thus Christian contemplation of the world must be shaped by the recognition that Christ is to be found in all places where there is suffering.

Lastly, perceiving Christ’s presence in the suffering of the world, Christians are called to respond. We are not simply passive viewers of the divine drama, Balthasar contends, but participants who must make the example of Christ our own so that his cross might continue to shine in the world. Finding God’s glory in human existence thus means both seeing Christ’s cross in the midst of human suffering and laboring with Christ in the task of healing our sinful, suffering world.

Exhorting all Christians to become contemplatives in action, Balthasar effectively challenged all Christians to be saints. Not all are called to embrace the same cross; saintliness is not a matter of self-sacrificial heroism. Rather, holiness lies in the condition of living daily in a complete and spontaneous surrender to God’s will.

That may seem too much for many Christians. But Balthasar was very much aware that we will stumble and fall short. Such is the Christian condition. Sanctity must be the goal of the church, but it can never be the standard for membership. In his essay “Why I Am a Catholic,” Balthasar remarked that a church that is “sinless” and “all-knowing” would have “nothing in common with the church of Jesus Christ.”

The drama of the cross—that is, the drama to make Christ’s love appear in new ways and in new places—is unfolding in our world. Balthasar encourages Christians to take notice of that drama and assume their divinely given tasks within it.

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