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Fr. Raymond Gawronski, SJ


Hans Urs von Balthasar

and the
Spiritual Encounter
East and West
First published 1995 by T&T Clark, Ltd.
Second edition published in 2011 by Vianney Press
Third edition published by Second Spring,
an imprint of Angelico Press, 2015
Copyright © T&T Clark, Ltd., 1995
Copyright © Angelico Press, 2015

All rights reserved

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in any form or by any means, without permission.

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Cover image credit: Crucifixion with Mary and

Saint John the Evangelist, and Saint Mary Magdalene
(detail), between 1482 and 1485. Attributed to
Pietro Perugino (1448–1523)
(formerly attributed to Raphael [ 1483 – 1520 ])
Cover design: Michael Schrauzer
To the loving memory
of my father
Stanley Gawronski,
who by his counsel and his life
taught me to love learning

Preface to the First Edition
Preface to the Second Edition
Preface to the Third Edition

CHAPTER I: Non-Christian Traditions
I. The Situation of Humanity, Without Revelation
A. Longing (Sehnsucht)
B. Guilt
C. Death
II. Approaches to the Situation: Possible Solutions
A. Philosophy
1. Plato: The One and the Many
2. Hegel: The Absolute
B. Non-Revealed Religions
1. Asia: India
2. Asia: Buddhism
3. The West: Gnosis
4. The West: Neo-Platonism
5. The West: The Classical (Greek) Tradition
C. Religions of the Word
1. Judaism
2. Islam

CHAPTER II: The Via Negativa

I. Zen: Selflessness as Emptiness: The “Unword”
II. Christian Apophaticism: Greek
A. Evagrius Ponticus: Crypto-Buddhist of the Desert
B. Dionysius the Areopagite: Symbol and Mysticism in Harmony
C. Gregory Palamas: God Incompletely Revealed
III. Christian Apophaticism: Latin
A. Augustine: Overcoming Neo-Platonism through the Humble Cross
B. Eckhart: The Godhead behind God
C. St. John of the Cross: Christian Poetry of Nothingness

CHAPTER III: Einmaligkeit: The Unique Word Spoken

from the Fullness of the Father
I. The God of Persons
A. Fullness. Trinity of Persons
B. Dialogue: I-Thou
C. Abstand: Space for the Other
D. The God who seeks
II. The Words of God
A. Creation
B. Scripture—language, poetry
C. The Incarnation
1. Kenosis: Christian Emptiness
2. Tatwort: Word as Deed
3. Der Schrei: The Cry as Last Word of Christ
4. The Silence of God
5. Obedience
III. The Uniqueness of the Word
A. The Catholica
B. Wirklichkeit: (Historical) Reality
C. Sin

CHAPTER IV: Hochzeitlichkeit: The Word Weds Silence

I. Receiving the Seed-Word
A. Silence
B. Empfänglichkeit: Receptivity as Active Passivity
C. Indifference
D. Word-Seed
II. Mary: The Perfect Receiver
A. The Anawim
B. Purity of the Receiver: The Virgin Conceived Without Sin
C. Mary: Hearer of the Word
D. Mary’s Answer: Jawort
III. Sexuality: Eros and Agape
A. Male-Female
B. Sexuality and Love, Eros and Agape
IV. The Bridal Mystery
A. Matthias Scheeben
B. Bridegroom and the Beloved
C. The Church: Pure Bride

CHAPTER V: Prayer: Listening Rightly

I. Listening to the Word
A. Parrhesia: Uttered Ineffability
B. Listening: Hearing–Seeing
C. Word and Contemplation
II. The Spirit of Christian Prayer
A. Receptivity
B. Childlikeness
C. The Beatitudes
D. Disponibility
III. Meditation and Technique
A. Asian Contributions
B. Mysticism
C. Polemic vs. Technique
D. Resignation

CHAPTER VI: Mysticism and Holiness

I. Non-Christian Founders and Holy Men
A. The Persons
B. Conversion
C. The Bodhisattva
II. Christian Holiness
A. Overview
B. Fruitfulness
C. Discipleship (Nachfolge)
D. Foolishness for Christ
E. Suffering
III. The Saints
A. Overview: the communion of saints
B. Therese of Lisieux
C. Elizabeth of the Trinity
D. Adrienne von Speyr

List of Abbreviations

Hans Urs von Balthasar

(All translations into English of the work of
Hans Urs von Balthasar used in this work are original)

BG Das Betrachtende Gebet

CM Christlich Meditieren
CS Christlicher Stand
CSEF Christen Sind Einfältig
CUDW Das Christentum und die Weltreligionen
DBDG Des Bordes du Gange aux Rives du Jourdain
DGAT Die Grossen Arcana des Tarot
EBAA Erster Blick auf Adrienne von Speyr
EPIL Epilog
GIMF Das Ganze im Fragment
GINL Glaubhaft ist nur Liebe
HFSK Herrlichkeit. Band II. Fächer der Stile. Teil 1: Klerikale Stile
HFSL Herrlichkeit. Band II. Fächer der Stile. Teil 2: Laikale Stile
HRMA Herrlichkeit. Band III, 1. Im Raum der Metaphysik. Teil 1:
HRMN Herrlichkeit. Band III, 1. Im Raum der Metaphysik. Teil 2:
HSG Herrlichkeit. Eine theologische Æsthetik. Band I. Schau der
HTAB Herrlichkeit. Band III, 2. Theologie. Teil 1: Alter Bund
HTNB Herrlichkeit. Band III, 2. Theologie. Teil 2: Neuer Bund
KLAR Klarstellungen
LRLG La Realtà e la Gloria
MAHE Marie Heute Ehren
MFHE Maria für Heute
MWDB Mein Werk. Durchblicke
NK Neue Klarstellungen
S1 Verbum Caro. Skizzen zur Theologie I
S2 Sponsa Verbi. Skizzen zur Theologie II
S3 Spiritus Creator. Skizzen zur Theologie III
S4 Pneuma und Institution. Skizzen zur Theologie IV
S5 Homo Creatus Est. Skizzen zur Theologie V
SIMG Schwestern im Geist
TDES Theodramatik. Vierter Band: Das Endspiel
TDHA Theodramatik. Dritter Band: Die Handlung
TDPC Theodramatik. Zweiter Band: Die Personen des Spiels. Teil 2:
Die Personen in Christus
TDPM Theodramatik. Zweiter Band: Die Personen des Spiels. Teil 1:
Der Mensch in Gott
TDPR Theodramatik. Erster Band: Prolegomena
THGE Theologie der Geschichte
TLGW Theologik. Dritter Band: Der Geist der Wahrheit
TLWG Theologik. Zweiter Band: Wahrheit Gottes
TLWW Theologik. Erster Band: Wahrheit der Welt
UA Unser Auftrag
WIEC Warum ich ein Christ bin
WISY Die Wahrheit ist symphonisch
Preface to the First Edition

T he written work of Hans Urs von Balthasar is encyclopedic both in scope

and in volume. Perhaps more than of any other writer in this century can it
truly be said of him that he wrote more in his lifetime than most people ever
read. Thus any study of his work cannot readily claim to be exhaustive. This
study certainly does not make that claim.
Rather, it is the ambition of this work to present an overview of the thought
of von Balthasar as it regards the theme of “Word and Silence.” In setting his
point of view against the background of some aspects of world religions and
some of the philosophies of Europe, it is necessary of course to present some of
his understanding of these systems of thought. But as the point of the work is to
present Balthasar’s own understanding, this book does not attempt to go back to
the original texts of the religions themselves, nor does it ambition a study of the
many thinkers who—from St. Anselm to Przywara and Guardini, from St.
Gregory of Nyssa to Nietzsche and Heidegger to name but a few—were
significant for Balthasar. Some few thinkers are mentioned in our work; far more
are left untouched. Further research into the roots of Balthasar’s thought must be
made, one which will be able to take into greater account other secondary
literature as well, and it will greatly enrich the theme we are investigating. Given
the limits of one already ambitious book, such was unfortunately impossible
This book took shape during years of search for an articulation of the
Catholic Faith which would let the Beloved Face (“bruised and covered with
thorns” as Balthasar might say) show in a world looking elsewhere for meaning,
one which would attune the ear for that Voice which once heard leaves one
forever listening (lauschend).
There are many to whom I owe profound gratitude, more than I can here
mention. But I must call to mind some who stand out as guides on this journey.
First of all, then, I am profoundly indebted to Huston and Kendra Smith,
teachers, models, friends who opened my mind and heart to the wide world I had
heard and read of in my home. Without their encouragement and example, I
would not have ventured into many worlds, academics among them, and my
respect for ways other than the Catholic would likely not have blossomed. They
are joined by Phil Novak in love of Asia and her wisdom.
This book could not have been written without the wisdom, intellectual
awareness and kindness of Fr. John O’Donnell, S.J. of the Gregorian University.
Fr. Rino Fisichella of that University was most generous in supplying helpful
The Society of Jesus is the mother who has encouraged me and supported
me in many years of study, and I am mindful that without the support of my
superiors and brothers in the Society, this study would not have been possible. I
owe especial gratitude to the Maryland Province which has kept a venerable
tradition of Jesuit scholarship alive. Of note is Fr. Thomas King of Georgetown
University whose commitment to the Logos refused to let me long abandon
discursive reason for quieter realms. It was Fr. Leo O’Donovan’s generous
suggestion that led me to write on von Balthasar.
Other teachers come to mind. Frs. Clifford Kossel, Leo Kaufmann and
Frederic Schlatter of Gonzaga University supplied me with philosophical and
classical treasures as I began my intellectual return West. My mind turns to the
Jesuit community in the Sillgasse in Innsbruck where I have spent many happy
months, especially to Frs. Raymund Schwager, Hermann Zeller and Michael
Laimer. It was Fr. John Rock—a truly intellectual apostle—who first suggested I
read Balthasar, and Fr. John Boyle in Berkeley who introduced me to his
thought. Fr. Owen Carroll was a bright light in a dark place and time.
Fr. Michael Pastizzo’s expertise in the computer has been invaluable, so
often matched by his friendly and discerning wisdom. And Fr. Bernard Hall
reminded me of the primacy of the Muse in days when the computer was
threatening to take the upper hand. A warm word of affection to all the friends in
Rome with whom I found refreshment when “much study was a weariness of the
flesh.”(Ec. 12:12), and a word of thanks to those patres graviores who shared
their spiritual wisdom with me.
I thank my mother, Blanche Gawronski, who opened my eyes to the things
of God. It was she who first exposed me to Catholic and European culture and
who launched me on the study of German at a young age, an act of great
magnanimity for one who had paid dearly as a patriotic Pole during the Second
World War. My sister Carol Ann Sander has always tried to keep me mindful of
that which is really important in life.
I treasure the memory of Hans Urs von Balthasar who four days before his
death took the trouble to answer the letter of a student in Rome unknown to him.
I hope that seed will bear good fruit.
Lastly, I thank Our Lady of La Strada and St. Joseph the Worker for their
intercession. And all the communio sanctorum with them.

Preface to the Second Edition

Twenty years, and the towers of Rome and London have yielded to the Rocky
Mountains outside my window. The First Edition of Word and Silence came out
at a time when the Catholic Faith was beginning to re-appear in coherent, public
form after the turmoil of the post-Conciliar years and the influx of non-Christian
mysticisms. The world has moved on. Shambhala Bookstore in Berkeley did, in
fact, begin featuring books of Catholic mysticism, and then simply went out of
business. The evangelizing mission of Pope John Paul has borne great fruit, and
Pope Benedict has been strongly urging return to the intellectual and spiritual
foundations of the Catholica. Many new institutes have been diligently studying
and spreading “the Word.”
Much less is heard of that glowing, fruitful silence from which the Word
takes flesh. Of course, silence is silent (but fruitful). Still, the hunger for silence
and for the depths of true mysticism remains largely unaddressed in a culture,
and Church, ever more bent upon what von Balthasar called the Tatendrang
—“compulsive activity.” The “business model” has invaded the Temple,
affecting every aspect of its life, and all but driving out that contemplative
intellectuality which has been one of the glories of the Catholica from the
writing of the New Testament itself.
It is the author’s hope that this re-publication of Word and Silence will help
keep the light of that tradition alive in this still hesitant dawn. I am especially
indebted to Professor Anthony Lilles who in his long deanship at St. John
Vianney Seminary struggled mightily for that light, and who initiated this
edition. Father Sam Morehead is the apostle through whose skills Word and
Silence is re-emerging. Perhaps above all others, Fathers Matthew Henry and
John Nepil have read and embraced von Balthasar’s “message in a bottle.” And,
of course, I fondly recall all those mentioned in the first Preface, many of whom
have now moved into the fullness of God’s Light.
Denver, 22 October 2011
Feast of Blessed John Paul II
Preface to the Third Edition
It is forty-five years since my first encounter in California, during the summer of
1969, with the Cultural Revolution that was largely emanating from that
alternately sunstruck and fog-bound place. A tidal wave, characterized by
Vatican II in the Church, and a cultural revolution that rocked everything from
China to the most basic human relations in the West, swept all tradition before it.
The discrediting of much in Western culture sent the children of that culture’s
elite in search of wisdom in the world’s traditions.
I found myself then with a group of students on a year-long, round-the-
world odyssey in which the great student of world religions Huston Smith
introduced us to the mystical traditions that were penetrating our post-Christian,
technologically-dominated world. But rather than being taken with the luxuriant
religious phenomena all around me, following an abortive trip to see the Dalai
Lama in a third-class sleeper rattling across the plains of North India, I
experienced an epiphany.
Moonlit palm trees bending over dry wintry fields stood in the background
as a half dozen poor women, babes on their laps, began singing “train songs.”
Their tender love for their infants, their hearts opened in their shared songs, gave
me an insight into the heart of India that was light years away from what I was
seeing at the ashrams. It was the goodness of creation, the goodness of life, that I
saw there: a natural opening to the light of God revealed in the story of Jesus,
and His Mother Mary. It was “naturally Christian.”
Beauty: beauty in nature, beauty in music, beauty in human love. And all
this beauty pointing beyond itself, to the source of all beauty in the love that
alone is true and abiding. This thread began to lead me back to that Christian
truth which is beyond any religion, including Christianity itself. For the beauty
of God’s love, and God’s love made flesh, eclipses any human system—or
technique—even as a candle’s flame pales and vanishes in the light of the sun.
Technique has continued relentlessly eroding human relations themselves,
not least—alas—in the Church. Being merely human, a reliance on technique
ignores the reality of God Himself, without whom all relations become mere
power games played in a dark void. The goodness of creation, the goodness of
human life itself—experienced above all in human love, window to the divine—
and trust in the goodness of spontaneous human life, is very much under attack
in a fearful world. But the “light shines in the darkness,” and God’s Spirit is
quick to move into any hearts that are willing to open to the great adventure of
selfless, trusting love, the one story to which all stories tend.
Hans Urs von Balthasar lived in Central Europe for most of the 20th Century. He
witnessed the collapse of the civilization of his time, experienced both the
beauty and the failures of the Church in the world, and loved both Christ
Crucified and Risen. He insisted that we must build “islands of humanity” in this
world dominated by the machine, by technique. It is God’s building, and He has
chosen to build on human stuff: the foundation being the simple, adamantine
faith of that woman whose “Yes, I will serve” undid the “non serviam” (I will
not serve) of the devil, and whose very being is the beginning of God’s New
Creation: Mary, whose simple “yes” undid the great “no” of humanity’s
rebellion. Mary, whose receptive love is at the heart of all true life in this world.
For, as von Balthasar taught, selflessness is not a matter of mere emptiness, but
of love: that is, a receptivity to the other, beginning in God the Trinity Himself.
It is this love alone that can begin to fill, to heal, to re-create what he called the
“anima technica vacua.”
Von Balthasar saw his life’s work as a “message in a bottle” sent from the
sinking ship of European Christian civilization. Fifteen years after that journey
into Asian mysticism, I picked up that bottle on the San Francisco Bay as a
student of theology, and began the journey of re-discovering that “Faith given
once for all” in the story of the Gospel, and lived in the countless stories of
God’s children throughout the world.
Others have shared this message and share in this mission. In Denver,
Father Sam Morehead is the apostle through whose skills Word and Silence was
kept alive in a second edition. Fathers John Nepil, Matthew Henry, and Nathan
Goebel have read and embraced von Balthasar’s “message in a bottle,” as has Fr.
Keith Kenny, in his own inimitable Thomistic way. Jesuit Vincent Strand has
been an attentive student of Balthasar’s as well. Dr. Anthony Lilles, now Dean at
St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, has never faltered in his dedication to this
vision, and to this book. And, of course, I fondly recall all those mentioned in
the first and second Prefaces, many of whom have now moved into the fullness
of God’s Light. And as I write this, Professor Huston Smith himself is in his last
days, ending the earthly course of a lifelong mission as lover and teacher of the
I am also grateful to John Riess and Angelico Press for his encouragement
and patience with this peripatetic Jesuit.
Finally, I am gratefully mindful of the late Stratford Caldecott, whose
friendship and encouragement caused this book to see the light of day, and
whose legacy is seen in this “Second Spring” edition. May he be moving ever
more deeply into God’s endless Light.
Menlo Park, 22 October 2014
Feast of Saint John Paul II

T his book traces its origins to an undergraduate year of study travelling

around the world, focussing on various religious traditions. The spiritual
encounter between East and West which is so palpable in a place like California
is no less reflected in the great influence of East on West within the Church,
where today scarcely a Latin chapel is without its icon, where the “Jesus Prayer”
is accepted and taught as a “mantra” to those who once prayed Mary’s rosary.
The particular circle in which this student began his academic life were far more
prone to find spiritual sustenance in the Mahayana than in Catholicism. In fact, it
was with an interest almost antiquarian that one respectful of and somewhat
formed in non-Christian spiritual traditions came to ask “but what is it that
Roman Catholicism is/was about?”
Balthasar observes that there is a tendency to word-weariness in all
religions: spiritual man tends to want silence. This is certainly the image one
receives in Zen. Christianity as religion of the Word stands out in almost
embarrassing contrast, and so the theme “Word and Silence” suggested itself as a
natural entry into some of the areas involved in Christian dialogue with the rest
of the world, religious and philosophical. As a theme it takes us to the heart of
the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Various streams which flow through his
thought here find their point of confluence. In this investigation, I attempt to
discover what it is Balthasar sees as unique to Christianity.
This question is naturally addressed to Balthasar for several reasons. His
familiarity with European culture was vast, perhaps greater than that of any
living contemporary. This knowledge extended in detail to the Hellenic and
Judaic roots of our civilization as well as to the Germanic culture to which he
belonged. His knowledge of non-Western cultures was certainly less detailed,
but his intuitive grasp of much in other traditions was perhaps not less keen.
Through reading, he was aware of the outlines of the other main civilizations,
most notably India and East Asia, although he was no specialist in them.
Through the impact of those traditional cultures on the religious world in which
he lived, his interest in non-Western religion actually increased in his life.
As a theologian who prided himself on being a student of literature—it is
said he always referred to himself as a “Germanist” rather than as a theologian—
he combined an interest in philosophy and theology with the more incarnate
(enfleshed?) approach which literature provides. As an erstwhile Jesuit and
lifelong priest, a living interest in spirituality, in mysticism, provided a deep
undercurrent to these other interests.
Balthasar’s theology is apologetic—not in any separate tracts, but the
theology itself is addressed to those who do not profess Christianity as well as to
those who do, in the way of the Fathers he so loved. Thus, our search for what is
unique in Christianity led us to this man profoundly cultivated in his own
tradition and conversant with others, both those which fed into Christianity
historically and those which are only recently in contact with it.
Our theme—“Word and Silence”—attempts to bring to light then some of
what is unique to the Christian revelation and tradition, as understood by
Balthasar. To do this, our study begins by looking at the situation of those of
humanity who have not received that Revelation. The negative way to God
which is “natural” to man leads him to silence; but amazingly enough, God not
only speaks to man, but God is Himself Word, a Word uttered in an eternal,
interpersonal dialogue which is part of the very Being of God Himself. This
leads in to the positive understanding of Christian dogma, which flowers in the
“bridal mystery,” itself the very centerpiece of Christian self-understanding and
sine qua non for its dialogue with other religious traditions. The Word weds
silence, as it were. This communication is prayer, and we consider prayer in light
of Balthasar’s sustained polemic against any form of technique in meditation,
any attempt to program grace. Finally, we look at the saints, those who Balthasar
called “the best apology for Christianity” in an effort to discover what it is about
them he sees as distinct from the great men of other religions.
Let us look at the road ahead in greater detail, taking it chapter by chapter.
The first chapter treats of the main non-Christian traditions that interested
Balthasar. First we look at the situation of humanity without revelation. It is a
situation characterized by longing (Sehnsucht). The Platonic name for this is
“eros” and it runs like a thread throughout Balthasar’s work, indicating the state
of man. It appears in Augustine, of course, as desiderium. The second
characteristic of this humanity, longing for that which is beyond this world, is
guilt. Guilt is a universal human phenomenon, according to Balthasar, found
wherever there exists a human community. Finally, there is death whose bell
tolls through the entire range of human experience, death which even more than
longing and guilt serves as spur for man’s ascetical and imaginative efforts to
escape what the Platonic poet William Butler Yeats describes as a heart that
“sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal/. . . knows not what it is. . .”
(“Sailing to Byzantium”).
Attempting to deal with his situation, Western man has developed two
philosophical expressions that particularly interest Balthasar: Platonism and
Hegelianism. For Plato, the problem is the One and the many. Invariably,
Balthasar insists, the many must yield to the One, and so lose their unique
individuality; the body is lost that the soul might be free. For Hegel as well, the
Absolute consumes individual beings. Moreover, the “system” which Hegel
develops represents for Balthasar a flight from personal responsibility.
Turning to religion, in Asia we see the tradition of India for which the
world is ultimately illusory, the individual lost in a cycle of karma which does
not allow for responsibility or freedom. The promise of liberation is bought at
the price of existence. Buddhism continues this to its greatest development. In
the non-Christian West, similar answers were attempted. Gnosis puffs man up in
a false hubris, losing him in a labyrinthine false myth, and man is stripped of his
dialogical nature in favor of Sigè, Silence, which is in fact merely a
mystification. Again, Neo-Platonism, so close to Buddhism, is incapable of
maintaining the dignity of plurality in the face of the hunger for unity. The
classical Greeks fared better: Homer in particular represents an honest and
reverent stance of man before the gods. Greek myth and tragedy come close to
the truth. Virgil represented this tradition in Rome.
There remain the religions of the Word, Judaism and Islam. Humanity is
addressed by God in these religions. But the God who addresses man tends to
become an Absolute, on the other side of an unbridgeable gulf. With no Trinity,
interpersonal relation is undeveloped to say the least; with no Incarnation, there
is no bridge. Moreover, the “people” tend to take the place of individual human
beings in the encounter with God. The only alternative to their frozen
orthodoxies are mystical attempts which often, especially in Judaism, take on a
gnostic flavour; the non-mystical attempt in Judaism is the search for a secular
Man’s spiritual hunger and inability to deal with his guilt and with death in
a satisfactory way lead him to desire what is radically other than this world of
multiplicity and of words. This leads to our second chapter, focussing on
negative theology. We pick up on Buddhism, looking at its radically mystical
school of Zen. Here, selflessness is seen as emptiness. Zen is characterized as the
religion of the “unword,” of silence par excellence. In Christianity, the negative
tradition was very highly developed in the Greek tradition (and so Balthasar
suggests Byzantium as the natural bridge with the religious traditions of Asia).
Evagrius Ponticus was so thoroughly opposed to any images in contemplation,
so prone to see particular beings as obstacles to the vision, that Balthasar holds
he is virtually more Buddhist than Christian. Dionysius the Areopagite is more
favorably viewed, as he did not so much proclaim emptiness and silence
(although silence is at the heart of the mystery) as the importance of symbol in a
mysticism of harmony. Gregory Palamas is sharply criticized as positing a God
behind God in his theory of essence and energies, one which holds de facto that
God did not fully reveal Himself in Christ. Again, that which is revealed, that
which is spoken, is devalued in face of a mystificatory “beyond.”
Turning to the Latin West, Augustine is of course heavily influenced by
Neo-Platonism, and so tends to turn away from forms. Yet his Christian belief in
Creation and in personhood serves to purify his Neo-Platonism: he is redeemed,
for Balthasar, because of his “Platonic-Biblical enthusiasm of the heart,” a word
of jubilation in a humble, and paradoxically silent, reverence before the
descending Christ. Eckhart is negatively contrasted to Tauler for positing a
godhead behind the God revealed in Christ. John of the Cross’ insistence on
nothingness, on transcending all particulars, would be dangerous and perhaps
damning were it not for the love which draws his entire vision into a poem of the
night. In the end the via negativa is inadequate, for though it is the way of
natural man, it must destroy all that is other than the Absolute. It is revelation
that saves man, showing him a way that is most closely approximated by the via
eminentiæ as the way to correctly approach God through creatures.
Thus we come to our third chapter, on the Word of God. For Balthasar, the
interplay of word and silence in God is part of the mystery of God Himself. The
tension between these points to the fullness of God. Were we to speak of God as
“silence” or a “silence beyond the Word,” we would reduce God to an absence,
an emptiness. For Balthasar, God is emphatically a fullness who is a Trinity of
Persons. The Father eternally speaks the Word Who eternally responds to the
Father. Dialogue is at the heart of the divine life. Moreover, the I-Thou that is at
the heart of God means that there is an “Other” in God, and so there is also room
for the other. We look at the importance of this theme, for the Triune God allows
for the existence of another, and so of a world, and it is into that space that the
world will be placed (on the Cross). All natural humanity seeks God: Biblical
man is found by the God who seeks, and is sent out on a renewed search. We
follow Ignatius of Antioch’s scheme of the three speeches of God: Creation,
Scripture and Incarnation. Incarnation as speech is the true form of Christian
emptiness (kenosis), a word which is deed. This word becomes ever more silent,
ending in a formless cry from the Cross—and then the silence of the tomb. The
Risen Christ obediently allows the Holy Spirit to bring the event to words for the
Church. Uniqueness is examined in this chapter in terms of the claims of
universality of the Catholica, and the claim of historical reality that grounds
what would otherwise be (merely) mythical religion. Finally, in this dialogical,
personal religion, free-floating guilt “grows” into the possibility of sin, of
rupture in a personal relation.
In our fourth chapter we look at the receiver of the Word and the bridal
mystery at work in this reception. The silence and holy indifference which
rendered the Virgin Mary capable to receive the Word-Seed are investigated.
Mary was the flower of Israel, but an Israel stripped of its theology of glory: she
was from the anawim. As humble woman, she was the perfect hearer of the
Word, and her hearing overflowed in her affirmation, her “Yes” (Jawort) in
obedience to God’s will. She is unique in being the only one who is both virgin
and mother, pure receiver and fruitful spouse. We then explore briefly the
question of eros and agape, for eros plays so large a role in Balthasar’s
understanding of natural man, and this helps clarify his understanding of man’s
longing and God’s relation to it, of silence and word. Balthasar’s study of Dante
figures largely here, as does his critique of the work of Anders Nygren. Finally,
the bridal mystery celebrates with unabashed realism the making love of the
bridegroom and His beloved, and the nature of the union of the male-female, the
sower and the womb, is here seen at its most perfect. The Church is the listening
bride on earth. It is this bridal aspect of the Church, recalled to modern theology
by Scheeben, that Balthasar sees as key in the encounter with other religions.
The question of how to listen rightly occupies us in the fifth chapter.
Because of the Incarnation, human beings have direct access to God: human
words are heard and understood, and the Word is addressed to man in human
words. God’s revelation is an “uttered ineffability.” For the Biblical man, then,
hearing is of crucial importance, and the Word is at the heart of his
contemplation. As this elevated realm is ripe with paradox, it should come as no
surprise that “hearing” is also a “seeing.” Some key characteristics of Christian
prayer as understood by Balthasar are then explored. Receptivity and
childlikeness are celebrated often by him in his references to the Beatitudes.
They overflow into the basic stance of availability (Verfügbarkeit). Non-
Christian meditation is contrasted to the Christian stance of listening. Positive
contributions from Asia, Zen most particularly, are mentioned by Balthasar. But
Zen is also part of the mystical systems he criticizes in his sustained polemic
against technique in prayer. The attitude of non-Christian man, as against the
holy indifference we have studied, is that of resignation.
In our final chapter, we look at the question of mysticism and holiness. We
pick up from what we have seen of non-Christian meditation and look at what
Balthasar wrote of some of the key persons involved, at their understanding of
conversion, and at the notion of representative suffering, most especially in the
Bodhisattva. Because of his focus on the scandal of the Cross, Balthasar
contrasts the wisdom of the Cross with the sages of non-Biblical traditions.
Christian holiness must be fruitful. At its heart, there is an assent to a mission, a
task given the person from God (indeed, it is the mission that, theologically
speaking, creates the person). We mention the curious tradition of “foolishness
for Christ’s sake” which captured Balthasar’s imagination, and find that at the
center of Christian holiness in his understanding is the suffering of God-
forsakenness, the uniquely Christian valuation of obedience in the face of
abandonment versus ecstatic experience. To better understand his view, we look
briefly at a number of holy women who embody what Balthasar especially
values, focusing on Therese of Lisieux and Elizabeth of Dijon and their missions
to the Church. In them, we see especially the interplay of objective and
subjective elements in the articulation of the mission as well as the role of
silence. Finally, we look at the mission of Adrienne von Speyr which lies at the
very source of Balthasar’s own work. In her we see the living contact with
Heaven (and Hell) theologically conveyed to the Church on earth.
Thus, following our theme of word and silence, our investigation leads us
from the stance of non-Christian man, East and West, Buddhist and Neo-
Platonist, through various degrees of development of Biblical religion, through
man’s attempts to know God apart from Revelation, to a view of the dialogical
Trinity. From the fullness of this Trinity, God speaks an incarnate Word to man,
a word received by the perfect hearer, Mary, who becomes the Bride, and so
symbol of Creation that is to pass through the silence of the tomb into the
transformed words of life given by the Holy Spirit. A receptive, humble silence
is the way of prayer which allows the seed-Word to be sown and to bear fruit in
the lives of the saints. A unique vision is here presented which critically
appreciates other views while affording a plausible and living link with the
tradition of the Catholic Faith.
Non-Christian Traditions

“I n order to show the world the credibility of the Christian message, the
Church Fathers set this message against the background of the world
religions. . . .” 1 With these words Hans Urs von Balthasar describes what is his
own favored methodology as well. This is only natural, as he was so thoroughly
formed at the feet of the Fathers. As one reads his works, one cannot help but
remark the consistently apologetic flavour of much of his writing. His style is
first to present what others in the world have thought on a topic, and then
gradually to circle ever closer in on his own vision.
If only from a cultural point of view Balthasar was eminently suited for the
task of understanding the human condition. His interests reached beyond the
Biblical and philosophical foundations of Christian theology into the world of
literature, myth, poetry, drama. As far as Western Civilization goes, he was, as is
commonly acknowledged, one of the most literate men of our age. Although he
carefully disclaimed any specialized competence as regards Asia, his references
to Asian traditions became increasingly frequent as the years passed, reflecting
his respect for and not inconsiderable knowledge of the human achievements of
Asia. Not untypically, he places the Bhagavad Gita alongside Homer and Dante
as pure gold in value, comparing them favorably to contemporary base metals. 2
In this first chapter we will be trying to sketch in the background for our
thesis. That is, we will investigate some of the salient features of what Balthasar
took to be the situation of natural humanity, of humanity bereft of explicit
revelation (Balthasar was at pains to deny any natura pura). 1 We will then
explore two main philosophical attempts to deal with the situation, expressions
of what he termed “idealistic systems.” Finally, we shall explore several of the
leading religious answers to the problems of natural humanity, East and West,
non-Biblical and Biblical.
I. The Situation of Humanity, Without Revelation
Balthasar does not conceive of humanity as ever bereft of knowledge of God.
Man was created to know God—in the words of Acts which he is fond of
quoting (the Areopagrede), man was created to seek God “if maybe he might
find Him”:
Religion is the longing for a fulfilment in a way that the world cannot give. In this sense,
there really is a general concept of religion, no matter how varied the types of religion may
be. On one point, all religions are interchangeable. This presupposes that there is a level in
the human which penetrates its entire essence. The locus classicus of this is found in St
Paul’s speech on the Areopagus. Beginning with the altar to the Unknown God, he speaks to
the pagans of the God of Heaven and Earth who “has caused the entire human race to
proceed from one person. . . : They should seek God, to see if they could touch and perhaps
find Him, the One who is indeed not far from each one of us (Acts 17:23ff).” 2

What the religions have in common is not at first blush any answer, but rather a
question, a searching implanted in the human heart. Thus, humanity does, in
fact, come trailing clouds of glory, as it were. In his typically nuanced manner,
Balthasar writes that the religious creations of the human imagination are
certainly understandable, for man has a hunger for God which must be satisfied,
and should God not speak to man, man must yet strive on his own to ascend—
yet he hastens to add that in fact God has been revealing Himself to man from
the beginning. 3 Student of the Alexandrines that he was, Balthasar certainly
does not deny the notion of a “logos spermatikos,” seeing traces of knowledge of
God throughout humanity. It is in the Christian dispensation that these logoi
come “openly to light”: man is “graced” not only since the time of Christ, but “in
a hidden, but effective, way ‘before the foundation of the world’ (Eph. 1:4).”
That which came to light in Christ was hidden “in myths and conjectures
concerning the beginning, end, and meaning of life.” 1 Thus Balthasar respects
these traces of divine knowledge found in human myths and conjectures. Of
more than that however he is skeptical especially if speculative reason is
involved. Balthasar is not hesitant to criticism such an attempted ascent, as
witness his polemic against the “anonymous Christian.” 2 In writing of more
contemporary matters, he writes of a pneuma spermatikon,3 the effects of the
Incarnation scattered throughout the world. Moreover, humanity, never entirely
bereft of God, has now had some exposure to at least bits and pieces of the
Gospel, throughout the world. Thus, a religion like Buddhism is now concerned
with appearing to be socially conscious, something which has nothing to do with
the world-denying tradition of Buddhism, but is, as Balthasar sees it, one of the
fruits of the Gospel’s penetration of the world. 4 Indeed, it is no longer possible
in today’s world to speak of a naive “pre-Christian.” 5
Yet insofar as one can speak of humanity without revelation—and certainly
Balthasar does speak of humanity without the knowledge of Jesus Christ,
without “historical revelation”—there are three characteristics of that humanity
that are prominent and that call for exploration. They are: Longing (Sehnsucht),
Guilt, and Death.
As noted, although he is skeptical of an overuse of the concept of the logos
spermatikos, Balthasar is certainly aware that if mankind does not possess an
innate knowledge of God, it certainly possesses an innate hunger for God. This
is the first characteristic of humanity we will be examining.

A. Longing (Sehnsucht)
Suchen means to seek; while the word Sehnsucht is conveyed in English as
longing, yearning. To seek is at the root of this concept, so very appealing to
Romantic poets and composers. For Balthasar, “everything depends on whether
God has spoken to man or if the Absolute remains silence beyond all words.” 1
Insofar as we are looking at a humanity which has not received explicit
revelation, it is a humanity confronted with silence. Curiously enough, all human
religions, says Balthasar, are weary of the word. Asia especially has opted for
silence, and “has, more than others, turned its face towards this single
fascinosum.” Yet Asia is not some alien world, for “the great European religions
and world views are also rooted in the religious longing (Sehnsucht) of Asia.” 2
Sehnsucht is a “thirst for the absolute,” a divinely implanted thirst that “has been
set in us by Thee.” 3
The problem with a weariness of the word while having an inborn hunger
for the word is that without the Word, one has “no object of love left other than
oneself.” 4 At its worst, this leads to the “‘spirit’ of anti-godliness,” the
“replacement of the ‘anointing in the Spirit of God,’ of the ‘seed’ of God in man,
and thus of the ‘being generated from out of God,’ by the self-sufficient, self-
divinizing void of the ego that ‘seeks its own honour.’”5 Sehnsucht is the longing
of the human soul for God. Without its object, the longing can turn back on
itself, exalting the self into an idol. The emptiness of the self thus becomes self-
divinizing. This is a very serious matter indeed. Coming at the problem from
another direction, Balthasar notes that for Dante’s Virgil, “unquenchable longing
is Hell.”6
Sehnsucht is identified, for Balthasar, with Augustine’s desiderium7 and
with eros in general,8 of which we will be writing more later. It is the “ultimate
gesture of creaturely being,” that which Plotinus describes as the “essence of the
nous,” what Augustine sees in a Christian sense as “the essence of the creature,”
while Thomas “formulates it as the desiderium visionis Dei” (though here
Balthasar hastens to add that Thomas knows nothing of a “supernatural
existential” in this regard). In the world of art, this longing was fully expressed
in Michelangelo’s Adam. God Himself has a “longing question and search”
(sehnsüchtige Frage und Suche) for man, and the response of man is something
that God has already prepared in His freedom, lest man think that somehow he
himself has the answer already within himself. That is, the answer of God is
“finally” Jesus Christ, the “fulfilment of Adam’s longing,” and so, Balthasar
adds, in this sense “every ‘theological’ statement is an ‘anthropological’ one.”
Yet all human attempts to anticipate this invariably go awry, only digging man
deeper into his existential situation. The answer of God is, for Balthasar, the
“form of the Word of God” which is the Logos tou stauru, the Word of God
“crucified by men.” No man could have created such a response on his own, as
an “extension of himself God-wards”: indeed, this response is one that the
majority of humans “reject not only as something unexpected, but rather as that
which is not desired, as scandal and folly.”1
God’s Word spoken to man; God’s “yearning question and search” for
man’s answer (Antwort); the Cross—all these are themes we will be addressing
later. For now, it is important to see that the natural tendency of man is in fact
away from God in the very act of seeking God, into an “ever deeper error.” Man
searches, but what he finds remains dubious: “The seeking is what is
commanded and vouchsafed here, the making contact and finding remain
questionable.”2 He is more than likely to find and deify his empty, wordless self.
In contrast to the excellence for which he was created, post-lapsarian man is in
the situation where man’s “longing for wholeness” certainly survived but in such
a way that it sought to “reestablish the original relation from its own strength”
thus falling “from the condition of analogy” in its relation to God to “Titanic
forms of mysticism of identity or of a pure humanism which placed man in the
place of God.”1
Thus, the problem is man’s inborn longing, created and placed within him
by God which, because of the Fall, has lost its focus and tends to be turned back
on itself. Man is full of a longing, a yearning which impels him to seek. Without
the help of revelation, however, he loses his original position of awareness of an
analogous relation to God in favor of mysticisms of identity, which would
effectively replace God with man—or destroy man. Important here is the belief
that natural man is therefore the man in search of that which will still his

B. Guilt
Whereas other modern writers have tended to depict humanity as in a condition
of Angst, Balthasar sees existence for humanity as naturally guilty. A vague guilt
lies at the root of human consciousness, for man is aware of having “fallen out”
of a primal unity or harmony. In the face of the fullness for which man
experiences desire, the fact of alienation from that wholeness rouses in him a
feeling of guilt: somehow his very being, the fact that he is separate from “the
One,” is a guilt-ridden existence.
Balthasar expresses this well in the context of the Greek tradition, one to
which he is especially partial. Religion is the “primordial knowledge (Urwissen)
of man,” and it means that he knows that neither he nor the entire phenomenal
world are self-sufficient. Thus, in an oft-repeated reference to the Delphic
Oracle, the ancient Greeks insisted that one recognize that one is not God.
Balthasar repeatedly asserts that this originally meant: “Go in yourself, step back
in the recognition that you are not God.”
But this “primordial knowledge” is “ambivalent,” it could lead one in
either of two ways. Either it leads to a religion of dependence, of reverence—of
which Balthasar approves, as being “entirely unmystical” and able to remain so.
That is, a human understanding that accepts the distance (Abstand) from God
and approaches Him with reverence. The alternative lies in the many techniques
of approach to God, which aim at union or identity. These are often “innocently”
magical in cult and “non-demonic.” They spring from the feeling of alienation
joined to the fact of distance, and this alienation rests on a secret guilt based on
the knowledge that man belongs “with God,” that the “best of him” belongs
“over there.” Man has a “longing for overcoming the distance”—and thus he
will try to devise ways to find a refuge for “his ‘restless heart.’”1 And so: “The
peoples feel the gloomy, diffuse pressure of a general culpability of existence, a
having fallen out of grace from fortune, from which they seek to free themselves
by means of rites and techniques.”2 As the situation of alienation has in this way
of perception a moral dimension, mankind will want to know “who had passed
on this guilt and why, and, depending on the answer, the way of purification
from this guilt will then be designed.”3
For the ancient Greeks, man is guilty for he must act responsibly but is
condemned to act in coordination with gods whose thoughts and plans are
impenetrable to him. So he becomes ever more guilty: he can be free only by a
total uprooting of his existence.4
Sinful man, craving purification, then has two options before him. He can
despair, turn to hedonism, wallow in his sinfulness. This attitude is eventually
one of resignation. Or man can turn to what Balthasar calls Titanism—that is, the
human attempt, in the face of “the Absolute,” to escape or to overcome the
distance by means of technique which “should allegedly let man be freed of his
limits and ascend to be the super-man, let the one tied to a body become pure
spirit, the limited spirit to become the Absolute.” But either attempt leads man to
“destroy himself” for it leads him to be beast or (fallen) angel, when what he
needs is the “reconciliation with God” which can only take place by grace. Thus
this self-sufficient world is what Jesus means by “the world,” and it “swings
between the two extremes of self-seeking and self-flight and in this movement
remains chaos and darkness.” And this chaos is that disorder which is sin, a
refusal to “recognise the original analogy of the creature to God” which leads
man either to want to identify with God or to deny Him, both movements finally
“equated in a chaotic manner.” The solution lies in analogy which “is the order
of distance-nearness (Abstand-Nähe) in which a clear tie is created through a
clear distinction.” Man who rejects this finds only chaos, lack of order, and this
chaos is “darkness because man, whether he denies God or seeks to make
himself equal with Him, cannot enlighten himself without God.”1
We have gotten a bit ahead of ourselves here, for of course we are here
viewing a humanity which has not yet explicitly encountered Christ Jesus. But it
is necessary to see where the solution will lie in order to see the problem more
clearly. That is, the question of relation between the limited and the unlimited,
between the relative and the Absolute is what is at issue in the attempt of
humanity to reconcile its desire for the Absolute (longing) with the awareness of
separation (guilt). The human attempts will fail because they cause the
destruction of the human—“the human destroys himself” (this will be more
adequately treated in the section Prayer: Technique). Man cannot illumine
himself, whether he denies God or makes himself equal to God. Man needs to be
purified, but he cannot purify himself; he must be rid of guilt, but to be rid of
guilt means to get rid of himself.
Balthasar sees a clear distinction between guilt and sin. In the world of pre-
revelation humanity, guilt is actual; sin, strictly speaking, is not yet really
possible, according to Balthasar. Guilt is the generic feeling of things being
awry, and of there somehow being a responsibility for a fall from a primordial
unity. It is a queasy feeling attached to existence. Sin involves a personal
relationship, and apart from revelation, this is not really possible. Thus: “In the
pre-Christian situation, one can speak of human guilt in manifold forms, guilt
before the gods and before human society; that which is called Biblical sin, is as
yet undiscovered. . . .”2 Guilt allows for compensatory activity; the overcoming
of sin demands conversion. Hence in the East, where “the Absolute is ultimately
not personal” there can be guilt, which “on the way of salvation” is the “falling
back into new individuation.” But though there is guilt for this fall from the way
back to unity, there is not yet sin as the West understands it which is “a wound to
the personal love and holiness of God, and also to His command of love of
neighbor.” Technique can help man compensate for the losses in his spiritual
journey which guilt indicates, it cannot help with sin, which requires a
forgiveness which depends upon an initiative taken by God to which man
“responds by conversion.”1
The experience of trying to overcome individual guilt leads to the creation
of systems which both explain the situation to man and attempt to overcome it.2
For the Theodramatik, this phenomenon leads non-Christian religions in two
directions: first, to a reaching out to a solution of the problem of the meaning of
human existence; but secondly, to a rejection of the answer given by God in
Christ.3 Of course, this second possibility is only implied in the situation we are
viewing. “Guilt and attempts to resolve it” are found “wherever there is personal
conscience and social order” whether in the religions of Asia with their law of
karma as well as in Africa with their “consciousness of shame and guilt above all
in the face of community.”4
As we have seen, the attempts to be free from this situation of guilt,
emanating from the human imagination are invariably futile. Describing a
human condition characterized by “finitude, temporality, and mortality” and
man’s “freedom for evil and his entanglement in the sorrows of the world,”
Balthasar concludes that “the attempt of all extra-Biblical religions to break
through the structures that determine earthly existence could only, if seriously
pursued, lead to a self-dissolution of the human.” Again, they only serve to “get
stuck ever deeper in guilt” either “consciously or unconsciously.”5
That salvation cannot come from human efforts alone, and that the
situation of guilt remains permanently part of the human condition, is seen in the
Prolegomena to the Theodramatik. There, Balthasar, criticizes the “modern ‘anti-
tragedy’” in which “only empty spaces, absences, un-values, absurdities crash
against each other” (emptiness in particular being a favored expression of
Balthasar’s for futile human efforts at accosting God) and states that it must be
overcome: “Overcome . . . in the sense that in it [his humiliation] man might
again encounter the mystery of that powerful God . . . : the mystery of an
ungraspable, but omnipresent guilt between heaven and earth.”1

C. Death
At the heart of the human experience lies what Balthasar calls the “mystery” of
death. Balthasar, viewing the human condition in light of the Resurrection,
writes that it “must be radically stressed that the human as a corporeal natural
being is, like all that belongs to subhuman life, a ‘being unto death.’”2 This
being a “being unto death” gives man’s life both its sweetness and its sadness.3
Death is the ultimate evidence of his “having fallen out of favor with fortune,”
that last step in his “finitude” and “transitoriness.” The Platonic poet William
Butler Yeats well expresses Balthasar’s view of the natural man: “O sages
standing in God’s holy fire/. . . Consume my heart away; sick with desire/And
fastened to a dying animal. . . .”4 Death is the undeniable evidence that man has
fallen out of that primordial unity for which he longs. The story of man’s
religions will be the story of attempts to overcome what we might call, in
anticipation of the answer of Christianity, the “fact of the corpse”: “Outside of
the Old Testament, all religions were and are attempts to escape from this tragic
situation. . . .”5
There are three main aspects of human unity which death separates: “the
unity of body and soul, which as such makes up the individual, the unity of
personal and generic sexuality, and then the unity of individuality both open to
God and bound to human society.”1 Death thus attacks man in his very person,
the unity of body and soul; in his sexuality, his intimate, affective relations with
others; and in his relation to God and community. Death is the great dissolver.
The central one of these three areas which Balthasar discusses draws our
attention because it links death with Sehnsucht. He finds this especially in the
works of Vladimir Soloviev. For Soloviev, evil enters into the world as the
contradiction between the “endlessness of the blind drive or ‘thirst’ and the
limitedness of the forms, in which it operates. . . .” He continues that the “central
phenomenon” which demonstrates this is the “life of the species that is built on
the sexual thirst and necessarily flows into death, that feeds on another’s life
(kills, in order to live itself) and can only live in order to die.”2
The “thirst,” correlative to what we have described as the “hunger” of
Sehnsucht (and which is identified for Balthasar both with Buddhist trsna and
Augustinian concupiscentia)3 is here located at the mouth of death, into which it
flows. It is the “thirst” of sexuality. It is not surprising that Balthasar sees this
union of desire and death in the thought of the Russian Soloviev (whom
Balthasar calls a watchman at the exit gate of German Idealism)4 as
“outspokenly eastern thought.”5 To anticipate the direction of the answer to the
problem, we see Balthasar writing that “the positive concept of form is the
annihilating sublimation (Aufhebung) of this endlessly empty search in a limited
being: ‘the limit of matter is in God’ [Soloviev].”6 Of note is the identification of
the understanding of death as part of the world of generation—desire, birth,
death—with the thought of Asia: an “endlessly empty search.” It is the thinking
of the natural man par excellence.
We will shortly be turning to the attempts of philosophy and religion to
overcome the problems we have presented, especially the problem of death.
Before doing so, a quick glance at Balthasar’s understanding of modernity’s
approach to death will round out our discussion.
As always, man tries to avoid facing death squarely. Contrary to what
Ferdinand Ulrich calls “life in the unity of life and death,” this avoidance has
two main directions. One can try to live “for the moment,” where death is seen
to be “the final border of life” and, along with Faust, one “seeks the ‘eternal’ in
the ‘moment.’” This need not be limited to the erotic: it finds expression in that
“compulsive activity (Tatendrang)” that Balthasar sees as characterizing our
century and with which one would live in an intensity of activity as if to rob
death of its final say. The second alternative, the “flip side” is “not less
insidious.” That is, “the old proverb that philosophy is nothing else but a lifelong
practice for death,” in which a “genuine commitment to life is avoided because
of a false ‘indifference’ (Gelassenheit).”1
We see in Balthasar’s critique of the modern answer to death elements of
his more general appraisal of modernity: the Faustian nature of the search for the
moment (Verweile doch, du bist so schön. . .)2 and the hectic race. On the other
side, there is the return to a “philosophical” stance in the ancient and very
important alternative of a false apathy.
He finds another caricature of the classical answers to death in the modern
interest in the transmigration of souls. But we also find here an important echo
of the polarity of possibilities we earlier encountered in our look at guilt:
exaggerated resignation (a sort of indifference—Gelassenheit—which leads to
hedonism) or Titanism. Elsewhere he comments on the more spiritual attempts
of modernity at an answer to death, attempts to reach back through technique,
through parapsychology, “into the space covered by death.” Here he mentions
the “recollection of former existences,” and the whole notion of the
“transmigration of souls” which exists today in a “demythologized” form. This is
a step backwards from “the Christian idea of the absolute uniqueness of the
person and its fate” into “the pre-Christian understanding of the individual as
merely a (person-less) subjectivity.” He adds that “even the most influential
philosophies of modernity have reverted on this point. . . .”1 Modern, technical
man attempts to reach—Zugriff—where he cannot reach, something Balthasar
judges to be a “wicked undertaking.”2 It continues the Faustian attitude
Balthasar sees as characterizing modern man and which is a key element in his
critique of modernity. So the attempt to recall former lives, the teaching of
reincarnation, attacks a fundamental Christian understanding of the uniqueness
of the person—but in so doing, it only mirrors a move earlier made by the
leading philosophers of modernity, reverting to a pre-Christian view, one which
is now however demythologized.
Scanning the many possible solutions to the problem of death which
mankind has attempted in its history, Balthasar holds no hope for resolution, for
death is and remains a mystery: “one can try to explain the mystery of death with
a thousand supposedly clarifying names.” Among these are “sinking into
nothing, reincarnation, dissolution of the body along with the immortality of the
soul, return of the soul-spark to the original glow from which it sprang . . . but
the final solution is not given away, because as a final stance that which is
demanded is the giving oneself over to the mystery.”3 We see here that what
seem to be ways of transcending or overcoming death are called, with brutal
frankness, attempts to explain death away with allegedly clarifying names. That
is, Balthasar is consigning the human means of treating death to the realm of
human fancy. It should also be observed here that the post-Christian is seen as
re-presenting some version of the pre-Christian for Balthasar. The post-Christian
is demythologized, to be sure, but nonetheless it is unmistakable that he sees a
regression in thought from what had been achieved by Christianity. As noted
earlier, guilt could be overcome at the price of human existence; here, death
could be “overcome” only at the price of the dissolution of the person.
What then were these pre-Christian, and non-Christian, answers to the
problems of human longing for the Absolute, the experience of the guilt of
human existence, the limit that is death? It is to these various approaches that we
now turn.

II. Approaches to the Situation: Possible Solutions

A. Philosophy
As Fr. Peter Henrici observes in his essay “Zur Philosophie Hans Urs von
Balthasars”: “From his first to his last, Balthasar’s books are permeated with
philosophy.”1 As Henrici further notes, Balthasar maintained a life-long interest
in philosophy, but as he notes, it was for the sake of theology.
Although his work is permeated with philosophical references and
although he insists that a solid religious philosophy be cultivated for theology, it
must also be stated at the outset that throughout his work Balthasar conducts a
sustained polemic against the pretenses of what he calls “idealistic philosophy”
and against “systems.” Once again, it might be helpful to anticipate what it is
Balthasar values most highly in order to understand the critical steps that lead to
that understanding. In the first volume of Herrlichkeit he writes:
Were there no resurrection of the body, Gnosis would be right, as would be every idealism
up to Schopenhauer and Hegel, for whom the finite must literally perish in order to become
spiritual and infinite. But the resurrection of the body proves the poets to be right in a
conclusive sense: the æsthetic scheme of things, that allows us to possess the infinite in the
finitude of form—however spiritually it may be seen, understood, embraced—is the correct
one. The decision thus comes down to the debate between myth and revelation.2

Looking back from the resurrection of the flesh, in which the infinite and the
finite are reconciled, Balthasar is able to raise myth (and so poetry, art) to the
level of the only serious alternative to revelation. The other competitors—
Gnosticism (corrupt, human religion) and Idealism (corrupt philosophy) are
tenable only if there is no resurrection of the flesh. If they are right, then the
finite must make way for the infinite, the relative must be sacrificed to the
Absolute, the many must yield to the One. To understand somewhat better the
difficulties Balthasar has with the philosophical tradition, let us look at two main
currents in that tradition with which Balthasar engages in conversation—the
Platonic and the Hegelian.

1. Plato: The One and the Many

We might begin by looking at what Balthasar sees as the perennial problem of
false indifference (Gelassenheit). As we have seen, this tends to lead to an
avoidance of the “genuine commitment to life on the basis of a false
indifference.” Behind this is a reserve as regards “earthly achievement” which is
seen in its most extreme form “in the Eastern doctrines that everything that is
finite/limited is appearance and deception, Maya and illusion, to which even
one’s own I belongs, an I that is understood as a desire to be and to have. . . .”
This view is “somewhat mitigated” in Stoicism with its program of
“exterminating” the passions from the soul in order “that man enjoy his inner
peace in apatheia. . . .” The final form Balthasar mentions is Platonism, with its
progeny in the Enlightenment and Idealism. Here, death is seen as “nothing more
than the fortunate riddance of the burdensome body, so that the immortal soul
can finally move freely like the chrysalis become butterfly. . . .”1 Thus criticizing
a false “apatheia” in which limited being is viewed as appearance and illusion,
Balthasar sees this as universally present, as Platonism and Stoicism in the West,
in a more extreme form in the East. The chief problem with it is that it
effectively prohibits a “genuine commitment” to the world.
We note that there is a price to be paid: as with methods for dealing with
guilt that get rid of the individual, so here, a real engagement with life is
impossible because of the false indifference (Gelassenheit). Balthasar is
basically sympathetic with the dilemma and with the attempted resolution, but he
is also painfully aware of the problems it entails. He writes that: “Nothing is
more understandable than the religious-philosophical attempt to overcome the
paradox of death” by taking that part of man which “essentially forms” him and
“see it as an accessory to the body, something that can also fall away: the
Platonic and even the Indian solution.” In these traditions, the soul possesses a
supra-terrestrial dignity that is further given “eternal individual consciousness”
by Plato. The great problem is that it “thus becomes so ‘monadic’ that one no
longer sees its essential tie with the earthly procession of generations and bodily
As noted in our consideration of death, the solution offered by postulating
an eternal element, the fleshless soul of the Platonic tradition, is inadmissible
because in fact it divides the body from the soul and divides the individual from
the community of humanity leaving a fleshless monad. The view of a soul
trapped in a body is central to the Platonic vision, according to Balthasar. The
fullness of personhood is lost when the soul is separated from the body, as St.
Thomas Aquinas will later express. Here, we see that the fullness of human
community is impossible as well because of this separation.
Yet this Hellenistic anthropology is deeply imprinted in the history of
Christian spirituality. The label “Platonic” tends to be used as a catch-all for
what he calls “natural theology.” As Scripture itself uses natural categories, and
as faith “does not replace but completes and elevates reason,” natural theology
will always be relevant to Christian theology and so it is not to be rejected.2 But
there are important aspects of the specifically Platonic tradition that are deeply to
be regretted.
First of all, as mentioned, the split between body and soul does not do
justice to the whole man: “The act of contemplation, in which the believing man
is open and listening to the Word of God, is an act of the entire person.”
Balthasar strenuously rejects any reduction to one part of the person by any sort
of exercise or technique, e.g., any turn from the outer to the purely inner in order
to be rid of “phantasy” so as to be reduced to “simple, ‘naked’ spirit.” He calls
such a “reduction” a “misunderstanding of the actual demand of the calling
Word of God.” This happened in the Christian tradition most clearly in the work
of Origen and his school, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. Referring to Gregory’s “Life
of Moses” as a “typical example,” he sees it as a mix of “Christian
contemplation with the Hellenic conception of the person,” something which is
“hardly to be called fortunate.” For that Hellenic conception, man is “a soul
more or less externally, fortuitously . . . joined to a body.” In the Christian view:
“The whole person should turn to God.”1 The Platonic split between body and
soul thus leads to a devaluation of the mortal body in favor of the immortal soul,
that is, to what Balthasar calls a “reduction of the human.” The Christian God
wants to encounter the whole man, not just a part of one.
The second problem with the Platonic tradition is the separation of the
individual from other human beings. This has had a profound influence on the
history of Western thought which Balthasar laments. He finds it astounding that
the whole history of Western thought until very recent times has been able to
ignore human relationship as a category of reflection. As the I/Thou relation,
especially as incarnated in the man/woman relation is of vital importance to
Balthasar, he finds the Platonic separation of soul from body as having had
disastrous consequences in the history of Western thought, culminating in
Idealism where the “soul is elevated to be the creator of its corporeal world.”
Having approached the question of anthropology by “bypassing” the question of
man’s being a social being, the “other” has disappeared, and man is left split.
Balthasar agrees with Barth’s criticism of the Fathers for having abandoned the
Biblical anthropology for an “abstract Greek concept of essence: ‘The humanity
of every person consists in the determination of his being as a being together
with other people.’”2 The Hellenic—Platonic—attempt to speak of essence prior
to speaking of fellow humanity, man in community, has been regrettable (and
this is understatement) for the history of Christianity which assimilated this
approach into its theology.
We shall see the concern with community more clearly in Balthasar’s
approbation of tragedy rather than philosophy as the great gift of Greece to the
world which was bypassed at an early date by the Church Fathers who opted for
philosophy as conversation partner. Here it is important to note that Platonic
philosophy does not solve the problem of the separation of man from his fellow
men—indeed, the emphasis on the individual monad/soul separates man in a
definitive way from his fellow men. The communal problems of that tradition
are built on the original body/soul distinction.
Turning to wider community, we find that after the twilight of the “narrow
Polis religion” in Greece, there emerged the notion of the “ideal cosmos” (heil
Kosmos). It is “‘the divine’ which yet deceives the individual person insofar as in
order to enter it, he must set aside his individuality (Stoa, Epicurus, Plotinus, no
less than the Indian teachers of salvation) in order to wholly return himself to the
Whole. . . .” At the same time, the “division of the person into two mutually
opposed values” ultimately leads to the division of humanity into two parts, one
of which was capable of salvation (the individuals) and an other which was not
(the mass). Totally missing is any “link between the individual and the
community through the (Christian) notion of a person distinguished by his
mission.”1 This is yet another level in which the Platonic tradition inadequately
dealt with the problem of the One and the Many. The many are sacrificed to the
One, “the world of appearance is gathered up in ideas, which in their turn are
surmounted and simplified by the Good beyond Being.”2 There is missing the
link—for Balthasar it will be the person on mission—between the community
and the individual. Wistfully, Balthasar concludes that:
Hen is the code word of a mysticism that ascends through renunciation of the finite. Pan is
the attempt to haul up finitude in spite of this renunciation. Hen kai Pan remains a slogan, a
program of the heart, that it can well postulate and affirm at its most extreme, but which it
lacks any possibility of realising.1

The one area of the Platonic tradition which is particularly appealing to

Balthasar is Plato’s respect for myth, his refusal to destroy it in favor of the
concept (Begriff). Thus, both Plato and Aristotle had “certainly overhauled myth,
but they had not innerly neutralized it; both, myth and concept, await the God-
man to come into their own.”2 Plato was unique in the West for attempting to
shed light on the relation of role and person, using the language of myth,3 high
praise from the author of Theodramatik; in that effort, Plato also introduced “the
idea of karma into the Western world. . . .”4 This is, it should be noted, only one
of many links with India that Balthasar sees in Plato.
For all the imperfections of the Platonic tradition, it basically reflected, for
the West, the universal human longing for the successful mediation of the One
and the Many. Plato refused to see the mythical neutralized (aufgehoben), nor
did he allow the myth to be destroyed by the idea, by the Begriff. That would be
accomplished by the work of other Western philosophers, chief among whom
was G.W.F. Hegel to whom we now turn.

2. Hegel: The Absolute

To approach Hegel as Balthasar does, it is necessary to present something of
Balthasar’s critique of systematic and idealistic philosophy.
In broadest form, Balthasar sees a turn to a system as a flight from personal
responsibility. In another connection, he notes that: “The enormous
attractiveness of the doctrines of reincarnation originates, above all, in the fact
that one would like to flee . . . [the] toughness of fundamental personal decision
in a system where every decision can be repeatedly relativised.”5 Balthasar’s
dislike of any system as something that carries within it a flight from reality
might be somewhat explained by the well known fact that Balthasar had heartily
disliked the systematic philosophy and theology to which he was exposed in his
early years.
Idealistic philosophy in particular is a flight from the personal into the
impersonal. The “concrete person” is sacrificed in a “disincarnation” in favor of
an idea because man cannot bear “the paradox which he is.” It is only natural
that he wants to flee because there is only one way to still his “inner Faustian
restlessness” and that is “the place for which in fact it strives,” in the God Who
has revealed Himself. God is a God Who speaks, and “man, this image of the
Logos, is dialogically created from the ground up, and every monological self-
explanation must destroy him.”1
The monologue of reason leads to the destruction of the concrete man in
favor of an idea which man himself projects. The individual, rather than being a
person, is what we might describe as an enfoldment. This is an interesting idea
that occurs in Balthasar’s works: the ultimate in the non-personal is the
“enfoldment” in which the human being becomes a mere “constellation” of
consciousness rather than a person. Balthasar writes, for example, that: “If love
is a flowering of nature, then it is also only one mode of being among others and
in no way the inner concept of being itself.”2 Historian of philosophy Fr.
Frederick Copleston writes in a similar vein in his book Religion and the One:
What I mean is that we can see human beings as immanent products of the evolving world,
and that inasmuch as human beings are members of the world, we can conceive the human
beings’ knowledge of the world as being in a sense the world’s knowledge of itself, as the
world attaining self-consciousness in and through its own production. . . . I am concerned . . .
with making the point that the idea of human beings being in and part of the world can be
used in support of the conception of the world as the ultimate reality which comes to know
itself in and through the mind of man. . . . I think that this sort of view can be found not only
in the objective idealism of Schelling but also in the Philosophy of Hegel. . . . It is also a
conception of the world which can perhaps be regarded as being, in some respects at least,
an up-dated or modern version of Taoist philosophy.1

The individual human being is reduced to a nodal point (Knotenpunkt) of world

consciousness. We observe again the connection between modern Idealism and
ancient Asian philosophy.
The Absolute, and philosophy of the Absolute, thus has many problems for
Balthasar. He boldly asserts that “no philosophy can give an account of how
something can be that is not the Absolute.” This is so because either the
Absolute stands in need of the multiple and the relative in order to be itself as
with Hegel, in which case it is no longer Absolute, or, as in India, it does not
need them, in which case what is multiple and relative is reduced to mere
appearance. The only alternative to this is what Balthasar calls the “Christian
solution”: “Creation from free, unnecessary love, because God is Himself triune
Love; Creation as the imaging of this love in the spiritual person, because in God
there exists an eternal relation equal in essence. . . .” All this “depends” on the
“proof of the mystery within God in Jesus Christ.”2
An Absolute which requires a relative to be itself is no longer Absolute.
This also is part of Balthasar’s critique of Hegel’s understanding of the Trinity.
For the Absolute to be Absolute, the relative must be overcome. This is a “way
of self-denial and self-transcendence” that characterizes “every worldly
mysticism and philosophy” in which the Absolute is only reached by the
constant transcending (übersteigen) of the relative.3
Most damningly, God is lost. Absolute philosophy leads to atheism:
The Divine-Absolute that cannot cease to be the object and goal of all human religious
striving disappears into the ineffable, the “thou-less”: it is the beloved, of whom all good
must be ascribed, but one that remains a-personally unshackled from all that is “I-Thou,” so
that only he can attain to it who leaves his own personal being behind, as a barrier, and who
forges ahead to that which lacks all antitheses. “Mystics” of the most varied hues in East and
West find common ground here: yet Karl Barth is not wrong when he descries, on the subtle
heights of philosophical mysticism, the transformation into atheism which necessarily

Copleston quotes F.H. Bradley as observing that “when the concept of God
passes into that of the Absolute, God ‘is lost and religion with him,’”2 and goes
on to observe that he sees “Hegel as transforming the concept of God into that of
the Absolute.”3
Another way of putting this is to see absolute philosophy as a philosophy
of silence, for “everything limited is sacrificed in the face of the Absolute.”
Everything that is not yet and comes into existence must be “levelled” into a
“no-longer-being.” It does not matter what the Absolute is called: the same
happens whether in a “nihilistic or materialistic, or Buddhistic or even Islamic”
context. The Absolute “does not move itself, and all the noise of becoming and
passing away must become mute before its stillness.”4 The Unmoving Absolute
remains ever aloof in its deadening silence. On the human side, it is a philosophy
of Titanism par excellence—Balthasar refers to the Moloch of the Absolute into
which the person is fed.5
The Idealistic philosophers of the nineteenth century (the Titans), with
their apogee in Hegel, all illustrate the problems this thought poses for Balthasar.
Kant and Schiller “stay with the limitedness of the human spirit,” but “the three
Titans Fichte, Schelling and Hegel think of man as of a piece with the Absolute,
as its middle.” God and His “revelation, man” are bound together by
philosophical necessity: “man himself is God expressed” and it is for this reason
that what is distinctive in Christianity, what the Bible calls “Glory” must forever
elude the Idealists in their “titanic architectonics.” Identifying man with God
destroys the “analogy of Being” on which “Glory” stands or falls. The Analogia
Entis is lost for an Identitas Entis. And with its loss German Idealism is capable
only of an “æsthetic of ‘beauty’” but not of an æsthetic of “Glory.”1
Mysticisms of identity are the way of natural man through and through—
something we shall see echoed in his critique of Asian mystical traditions. Even
for Fichte, whom Balthasar treats kindly as a man of deep piety, God Himself
comes to have a “dark basis” out of which He arises—and Balthasar suggests
this is a nothing (Nichts), an unconscious Nirvana.2 For Schelling, there is the
dark abyss (Abgrund), the night—the “unconscious part of God” which is the
“logical outcome of the being-less conceptual thought of univocity.”3 As we see
again, the identification of nothing (Nichts) and Nirvana is constant for
Balthasar. It is nothing that one discovers when the creature looks at self (rather
than at God). We should add a note on Titans, as it is a favorite theme for
Balthasar. In our connection, he writes that “it is the person who is sacrificed as
a final consequence of all forms of Titanism.” The person is “burned up in the
belly of the Moloch of the Absolute, whether this be the Will of Life or death” as
well as “in Hegel. . . .”4
The problems with Hegel are particularly severe. It might be a reflection of
Balthasar’s youthful exposure to Kierkegaard that induces him to so lambast the
Professor. Observing that “history is only given as a fragment whether for a
theologian or for a philosopher,” Balthasar observes that unlike history a
symphony of which one only has a fragment can never be recreated: “Not even
Hegel, who knows everything else, has constructed the future.”5 At the heart of
Balthasar’s polemic against him is the fact that in Hegel’s theology, it is God that
needs man, the Absolute needs the relative. God needed to create the world in
order to have another with whom to relate. This results from Hegel’s faulty
understanding of the Trinity. Again, the small “I” is destroyed by Hegel: man is
“to be saved for spirit (from matter), under the condition that he renounce his
unique personality (so it is with Hegel and his predecessors and successors). . .
Hegel is opposed to God’s sovereignty (God needs to create man in order
to prove His freedom2), and this in turn is reflected in his anti-Semitism. Writing
of Hegel’s “insatiable, hate-filled polemic against the Old Testament,” Balthasar
points out that what Hegel is really fighting is that “one element” which could
never fit into his “otherwise all-comprehensive system”: the free God and His
free action with the world. And so Hegel attacks as well “the uniquely Old-
Testament form of divine Glory, the Kabod.”3
Finally, this all leads to a philosophy of identity, in which the relative is
sacrificed for the Absolute—and even here, the One disappears: “In Hegel’s
well-ordered cosmos of the spirit there is no place left for the one about which
he speaks the most: for the true unlimitedness and immensity of existence. . . .”4
This disappearance of the One leads to the ever stronger emergence of the
“ineffable—impersonal” behind the anthropomorphic-personal mask of the
Hegel destroys the analogous distinction between tragedy as play and the
Passion of Christ as seriousness, dissolving that distinction into identity (play).
This caps a host of problems in Hegel, where both Christology and the doctrine
of the Trinity are “philosophically overhauled,” where an impersonal Fate
overcomes “the personalism of the Passion and Resurrection.” Even the “spirits
of the nations” (Volksgeister) which Balthasar identifies with the Pauline
“principalities and powers” find themselves integrated in Hegel’s “total world
spirit.”6 Hegel, as master of the absolute system, is master at dissolving the
tensions between relative and absolute which are crucial for the Christian view
of man in relation to his freely creating Creator.
In fact, one is left with a situation in which, “in a Buddhist or Idealist
sense, no solution can be found on the level of the senses and only a vertical
opening upwards creates the way out.”1 We have been seeing Balthasar draw
parallels throughout between Idealistic philosophy and mysticism and Asia.
Even Wagner is seen as participating in a weariness with Being which is related
to Asia. Idealism is characterized by a “weariness of thought” which allows it to
“sink . . . back into its Indian origin. . . .” Should such “weariness” combine with
an “absolutised Eros,” what emerges is the “hybrid art of Wagner which neither
in the renewed myths of the gods nor in Tristan or Parsifal ever again stands up
to real existence.”2
What is this Indian origin to the weariness of thought of Idealism? What is
the “Asian connection” of which we have seen so much? Beginning with the
religious traditions of Asia, we now turn to the religious attempts of solution of
the human problem.

B. Non-Revealed Religions
1. Asia: India
Natural religion, the religion of man without revelation, is the bridge extended
from two shores “that never reaches.”3 It is the human building from two sides
of a river, from the side of myth and that of philosophy, but the project never
meets. This is an image frequently used by Balthasar. Leaving the religions of
the Bible aside for later consideration, as they are religions of revelation and of
the word, we note that Balthasar often refers to the religious traditions of Asia.
As we have been seeing, he links the tradition of India in particular with the
Idealistic philosophy of the West.
In India, we find an attempt to treat of human guilt and death by the
theories of karma and reincarnation: “longing” is behind all attempts to be free
of this mortal coil. Balthasar ridicules the system of karma as being patently
unjust—for after all what is reincarnated is a new being hardly conscious of any
responsibility for former acts. Hence, any punishment for what was done in a
former body, a former life, is unjust. To Rudolf Steiner who maintains that it is
only through the law of karma that “it becomes understandable why the good
must often suffer and the evil can be happy” Balthasar answers with biting irony:
“Really? The greatest of the puzzles in the world, on which Israel rubbed itself
raw, would no longer exist.” All questions of different types of people in the
world would be resolved, and this in a way very different from St. Thomas
Aquinas who maintained that differences as between people had nothing to do
with what they had earned but that rather existed because “the fullness of the
divine perfection could only be imitated at all through the highest diversity of
creatures.” And, as mentioned, the question remains who is responsible for
committing a deed: if not the same person, then perhaps the same “impersonal
principle of person” which is to say, again, no person at all. Moreover, with no
“Thou” with whom one stands in relation, there can be no love. Balthasar writes
that with no “unique Thou” but rather a “principle being demonstrated in him”
one could not possibly feel called to love.1
In Balthasar’s critique of Steiner’s understanding of the law of karma we
see many of his own values. Thus, he feels the absence of any personal
responsibility—certainly if no one remembers what he had formerly done; and
even if one can lead others to remember their former lives, personal love does
not exist in this situation.2 We note his passionate respect for the attempt of
Israel to deal with the problem of evil, seen especially clearly in Job. The
attempt to create a system of justice in an impersonal universe is mirrored in
modernity’s interest in theories of reincarnation, for Balthasar a natural
consequence of Idealistic philosophy. In general, the non-Biblical religions are
trying to form for man a redeemed existence, i.e. one free from guilt.
India also has the theory of the avatar which is of especial interest in light
of Balthasar’s focus on the Incarnation. Balthasar is at pains to deny that Christ
is an avatar, Christ who is “a human being of flesh and blood and no Indian
avatar that can dissolve itself back into vapor.”1 An avatar is a god come to earth
who takes on human form. But in Christ the God becomes human not to return to
the world of the gods after a series of earthly adventures but rather to suffer and
die as a human being. This is something an avatar never does, for avatars “are
nothing but new manifestations of the divine, but never a real incarnation.”2
The “East” for Balthasar represents the ultimate in human attempts to
climb to God. Its teachings bear a consistent logic, one which would
deny/destroy the individual in favor of a “higher” view. Thus, for the East, the
individual “ego” is only a manifestation of the divine Self, and thus detachment,
indifference (Gelassenheit) for the East means leaving one’s self behind, one’s
apparent individuality, in order to find the kernel of truth in which all individuals
are identical.3 Differences are only apparent, for this spirituality; what is real is
what is common at reality’s core. We transcend the differences created by being
an “I” by going deep (or above) to where all is one, in the true Self.4
Indian pantheism and post-Christian Geistphilosophie are based on a
philosophy of identity. This desire for unity is characteristic of much of Indian
thought, of course, which teaches the ultimate identity of the atman and
Brahman. Death is transcended as illusory—but the price of this is that life is
illusory as well. This will be especially seen in the tradition of Buddhism.
The whole notion of Maya is a favorite of Balthasar’s, who loves to
contrast the realistic quality of the West with the fantastic quality of the East.
Manifestation (Erscheinung) is for him a very important word, but:
“Manifestation must be understood in the Greek, not in the Indian sense, as the
becoming visible in reality (not as Maya, phantasmagoria), but always as the
(real) appearance of that which does not appear, of the God Who is . . . ever
greater and ever more hidden.”5
Here once again we see the shadow of the Idealistic philosophers mingling
with those of Asia. Praising St. Thomas’ metaphysics, he writes that “ipsum esse
est similitudo divinæ bonitatis. Thus and only thus is the creature freed before
God and for God and can strive for and love God with all his powers. . . .”
Recalling what we have recently seen of St. Thomas’ teaching about the fullness
of Being naturally mirrored in the great diversity of creatures, a tremendous love
of Being is here at issue. Contrasted with it is the “perverse demand” that one
“negate himself in his limited existence” a thought that “has darkened
philosophy from India over Greece and Arabia” and, “shortly after Thomas,
begins to cast its shadow again, with Eckhart and Bruno, Hölderlin, Fichte,
Hegel.”1 We see India joining the West in the inability to deal with the tension
between the relative and the absolute for, as we have already seen, “no
philosophy can render an account as to why something can be that is not the
absolute,” for either the one has need of the many and thus ceases to be absolute
(Hegel) or else the One has no need of the many, which thus in its turn becomes
illusion (India).2
Finally, as we have seen in connection with the Idealistic philosophers,
Balthasar maintains that for India immortality means the abolition of the person.
Seeing Indian thought expressed in the work of Simmel, Balthasar holds that
with the notion of transmigration of souls “which in the end leads logically to a
dissolution of the person” it is “only the constellation, not the substratum that
would be individual.”3 Thus, immortality is bought at the price of being an
individual human person, and we return to our “constellation,” to the “knot” of
consciousness on the surface of reality which is the individual. The individual
has no “substratum”: the subject is illusory. As with the loss of any “Thou”
relation with God in the notion of karma, so here, we find an ultimately self-
enclosed universe, bereft of the personal God. For India, as for all non-Biblical
religion, God is the impersonal who manifests in the unreal multiplicity of the
world but who “must be sought behind the phenomena which veil Him.”1 To
find these ideas brought to their full consequence, we turn to Buddhism.

2. Asia: Buddhism
As with India, we can say that Balthasar’s thoughts about Buddhism are quite
varied. If at root he is critical, ultimately using Buddhism as a background
against which to highlight the unique importance of the Judaeo-Christian
revelation, still, he is deeply respectful of the tradition as well. Thus, he can
write that Buddhist compassion is superior to Dante’s “apatheia”2 (Balthasar is
of course highly critical of Dante’s peopling of Hell); the Cloud of Unknowing
incorporates the best of the Buddhist ethic of compassion.3
Balthasar likes honesty. As we will see, he prefers the honesty of Homer
and the Old Testament to “phantasmagoric” efforts to explain the afterlife in later
traditions. Hence the thoroughgoing critique which Buddhism offers draws
Balthasar’s praise: “one must take seriously the Buddha’s option for the
nothingness of the world and salvation in Nirvana.”4 He is open to the view that
the notion of grace has been understood in other traditions, pointing to Amida in
Buddhism, or to Ramanuja,5 and seeing this as a possible point of contact
between East and West.6 Even the atheism of Buddhism is a “religious atheism”
which Balthasar respects; indeed, true atheism first appears only after Christ.7
He did see Buddhism as a danger for Asia in that, according to him, impersonal
religions, with their natural tie to Idealism, would easily yield to atheistic
Marxism, and thus he predicted future victories for Communism in Asia.8
In an introduction to his Theologik written some forty years after the
volume it introduces, Balthasar refers to “the thoroughgoing contemporary
significance of a person-less, atheistic religion (Buddhism)”1 which he felt he
did not adequately treat at first writing; he recommends one examine his more
recent works.
Much of what we have written of the Indian tradition applies to its spiritual
child, Buddhism. Thus, Karma, Maya, reincarnation are all notions which were
brought over into Buddhism. In connection with “maya,” we must mention that
although Balthasar does not use the term explicitly, the notion of “upaya” is
implicitly present in his critique of Buddhism. Upaya is a notion that teaches that
the Buddha uses all manner of “skillful means” for the salvation of all sentient
beings—that means, that teachings are not necessarily literally true, but have a
soteriological value. Balthasar’s insistence on the reality (Wirklichkeit) of the
Christian revelation contrasts directly with this tendency in the Indian, and
Buddhist, tradition to relatives—indeed, to ignore—that facticity and historicity
that the West so prizes. Balthasar has a particular sympathy for the Amidist
tradition of Buddhism which represents an opening to personalism in that
tradition, a sympathy likely received from the famous study by Henri de Lubac
of that tradition.2 But of greater relevance to the West is surely the Zen tradition,
a tradition to which Balthasar refers with increasing frequency with the passing
years. Our next chapter, on negative theologies, will deal in greater detail with
Zen. The experience of satori, Zen conversion if one will, as well as the whole
question of the practice of meditation will also be treated later. Here we would
merely like to sketch out some particular characteristics of this tradition as
Balthasar mentions them.
At the beginning we had noted that natural man was confronted with
Silence. Buddhism is so far the religion of silence par excellence, that it is the
religion of the man characterized by the non-word (Unwort).3
The notion of “thirst” (concupiscentia)—of “trsna”—is particularly
prominent in Buddhism. It is the second of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, the
fact that suffering is caused by human craving, desire. For Buddhism, according
to Balthasar, which is the “radicalisation” of such viewpoints, the individual
human being—the “I”— is defined through the craving to be that I: it is, as it
were, stuck on itself, its “desire to be I” and thus it refers all things to itself. This
is “above all ‘thirst’ (sanskr. trishna),” a “not-knowing” in which one is caught in
what is “transitory and illusory (Maya).” Balthasar identifies this with the
Western concupiscentia and desiderium and with the Johannine understanding of
the “world” as “the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, pride of life. . . (1 John
2:16ff.).” Buddha himself, as is well known, did not “enter upon the origin of
this fallenness of the world, because an answer ‘is neither edifying nor tied in
with the essence of the teaching, nor would it lead to a conversion of the will nor
to a stilling of the passions.’”1
The world of generation and mortality (which we had earlier seen as
associated with sexuality and desire, as for Soloviev) is what is called
“Samsara,” the “wheel of birth and death” and it is “without beginning and
end.”2 It is an image Balthasar enjoys using to speak of a “world without end.”
And Balthasar agrees with the Buddha’s conclusion about that world:
Buddha is right about this: one must extinguish that “thirst” which is unquenchable in
finiteness and which originates in the perpetual dying (Verendlichung) of the formal object—
and one can do this, if Being is not itself Mind (Geist), only through the attempt to dissolve
the finite mind centres (Geistzentren) in infinite Being (or rather “not-being-Being”). . . . The
“thirst” of Buddha which only increases with drinking from the finite, is the “philosophical”
unveiling of the illusion of the possibility of realising oneself in the private world of the

The First Noble Truth, of course, is that of suffering. Not only of human
suffering: but that of all sentient beings. Curiously Balthasar is a pleasantly
broad-minded eschatologist, who favorably considers the presence of plant and
animal life in Heaven.4 But Buddhism’s treatment of suffering is quite the
opposite of that in either the Greek or the Biblical traditions. In general, non-
Biblical religions try to avoid suffering, most of them “going the opposite way”
to that of the Christian. They attempt to “evade” suffering, to render it
“innocuous”: “Religion becomes in many ways a technique to this end.”1
Especially for Buddhism, suffering is eliminated at the price of being “I.”
Still, suffering also attains a quasi-redemptive quality in the figure of the
Bodhisattva, a figure which exercises a certain fascination for Balthasar and
which we shall explore more fully in our final chapter. Here suffice it to say that
this figure which puts off final Nirvana until all sentient beings are saved serves
as an “analogy” that cannot be denied.2 The whole notion of substitution
(Stellvertretung) is crucial to Balthasar’s soteriology, and that an enlightened
being should condescend to share the sufferings of humanity is naturally of
particular interest, even if it is quite different from Balthasar’s idea of salvation.
Such a figure serves as “a pointer in the direction of the Christian.” But what
remains problematic is that such a “personal” figure is set against the “Ineffable
—Impersonal (Nirvana)” and thus “will fall pray to the Heideggerian critique”
that is, that “the personally imagined ‘God’ is only imaginable according to the
ontic pattern of earthly being, which is then willingly conceded.”3
The shared suffering is manifested in the Buddhist virtue of karuna, of
compassion. Attention has already been drawn to this virtue, as Balthasar
contrasts Buddhist compassion favorably with the indifference/apathy
(Gelassenheit/Apatheia) of other traditions. But Buddhist compassion—karuna
or maitri—remains fundamentally different from the Western. In the East, one
must “renounce his being an I because the divine is ego-less.” In the West, most
especially in the Christian understanding of agape, one “loves God for His own
sake and one’s fellow man because his person is absolutely loved by God,” while
what the East thinks of as “selfless love” is “primarily compassion (maitri) with
the being (i.e., person, animal or plant) still imprisoned in the bands of its being
an ‘I’.” Thus, naturally, since individuality is “identical with suffering” the way
to end suffering is to be “rid of one’s being an ‘I’.”1
In broadest terms, Buddhism shares with Idealistic philosophy the need to
escape vertically. It does this through its mysticism. We will be returning to
Buddhism to look at its apophatic theory, its use of technique in meditation, and
at the figure of the Bodhisattva, the enlightened saviour figure. Here we must
note in closing that no matter how respectful Balthasar was of Buddhism, he
certainly concluded that it was as different from Christianity as water from fire.2
Now we must turn to the Western religious cousins of the Asian traditions
we have been exploring.
Looking at the West, we find three main streams of non-Biblical traditions
which are of interest to Balthasar: the Gnostic, the Neo-Platonic and the
Hellenic. In the ancient world of course the distinction between philosophy and
religion was not always clearly drawn. But each of the traditions we will look at
here are at least what might be called “religious philosophies,” the first two with
strongly mystical claims.

3. The West: Gnosis

Balthasar identifies four Greek theologians as most formative of his thought:
Irenæus, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor. If Origen was
immersed in the Platonic tradition at which we have already looked, Irenæus not
only wrestled with Gnostics but his descriptions are actually a leading source for
what is known of classical Gnosis.
As Gnosis is a term often broadly used to cover a wide range of
phenomena, we must ask what Balthasar means by it. For him, Gnosis meant
that turn from Socratic sobriety and Platonic epistemology back towards myth,
which, lacking the naivetè of myth, turned being and existence into a novel:
Gnosis was a retrogression of Platonic philosophy (which had parted from myth in order to
come to know Being) back in the direction of myth: from out of Socratic sobriety, there
came upon the Platonic ethos of cognition a novel intellectually, religiously disguised
lewdness (Lüsternheit) which, lacking the naivete of the old myth, transformed Being and
Existence into a novel.1

Balthasar is very well disposed to the original mythologies of mankind. But

whereas myth originally is grounded on particularity, Gnosis claims a higher,
abstract knowledge for its elect, an elect who are the “predestined,” who are to
have no relations with the reprobate. This of course leads to a great hubris.
Either the battle for good over evil is foregone in its “happy-end” conclusion, in
which case the myth is not serious, it is an illusion, or if it is serious, it is
dissolved in a philosophy of being—in either case, says Balthasar, Gnosis
destroys (true) myth. In the end, “one can only explain Gnosis as a manifold
form of objectivisation of existential perceptions, conditions, longings of the
human heart.”2
It is the hubris that must attract our special attention, for it is at the heart of
Irenæus’—and Balthasar’s—critique of Gnosis. The hubris arises from the
theory that there is a God behind God, an unknown abyss (Abgrund) behind the
Creator God. This forms the center of Balthasar’s generally negative assessment
of “natural mysticism,” of which Gnosis provides an extreme case. Paraphrasing
well-known passages from Irenæus’ polemic, Balthasar writes that: “They
consider themselves, as pneumatics, to be more sublime than the master builder
of the world and claim to find a further God above God, in that they scorn the
finding of God and place an endless seeking higher than the finding.” These
“pneumatics” climb above the “measure of thought which means that they have
climbed above the measure of God.” This, of course, leads to a hubris in which
those “who could not have created a single flea look down with scorn on the
Interestingly in a writer as concerned with contemplation as Balthasar, he
criticizes the Gnostics for surmounting (Überstieg) the measure of thought—
again, a sign of hubris—identifying the measure of thought with the measure of
This denial of discursive thought is, naturally enough, related to “silence,”
the sigè of the Gnostics. It is the womb from which the word is spoken in the
Gnostic scheme. All “genuine and noble thought” of the time needed to be
characterized by this image of the “primordial Father,” the non-ground
(Ungrund) who dwells in “perfect stillness and quiet.” Silence dwells with him
The attribution of a mysterious unknowability to this “primordial Father”
became a sign of all respectable thought, as Balthasar notes. Yet although he
certainly respects the mystery of God, the hidden God of the Gnostics, the abyss
(Abgrund), or here, the non-ground (Ungrund) is anathema for him, as we shall
see throughout our study. Here it is of importance to note that it was a jaded
attempt at understanding Being—a turn both from naive mythology and from
Socratic modesty—that lead to the hubris of Gnosis (which, it will be recalled, is
really a “disguised lewdness,” a getarnte Lüsternheit). The problem is one of
understanding existence properly—here: “Death unveils existence—in a
Buddhist or Gnostic sense—as the result of the Void’s sinful fall.”2 Discursive
thought is spurned, God the Creator is scorned in favor of a silence which is
present with the God “above” or “behind” God. That this has no place in the
Christian scheme of things is clear for Balthasar. Speaking in Kantian terms, he
The claim of Jesus is so provocative that it summons the whole world to the barricades. In
Him it becomes obvious that the transcendent is immediately present in the “categorical”
and that He manifests Himself in such a way that it is consequently impossible to postulate a
transcendental that remains mystery behind the “categorical” (which is transparent to critical
reason). This is something that all non-Christian religious philosophy and mysticism does. It
is in contrast to this that the absolute Logos is present in history.3

So all non-Christian religious philosophy and mysticism falls prey to this

mystification which we shall see is negated by the full revelation of God in
It is no surprise to see that Gnosis leads to atheism. We see this in the
modern world particularly. Writing of Ernst Bloch, Balthasar can say that his
“Atheismus im Christentum” could only have been written in light of the “entire
assembled Gnostic arsenal (the Ophites, Marcion, Valentinus)” which sought to
destroy the bond between Old and New Testament, something that is maintained
by an “indissoluble trinitarian interlocking.” Bloch’s work “shows yet again that
Gnosis and atheism go together and that in fact they are the alternative to a
trinitarian Christian theology.”1
Gnosis is thus a tendency that runs throughout the religious/philosophical
history of the West, running through as varied (if predictable) circles as the
Cabala and Hegel: “It is only under the condition of a double christological and
trinitarian ‘dramatic’ that the Gnosis that leads from Rabbinism to the Cabala to
Boehme and finally to Hegel can be avoided.”2 It is no surprise then to see that
Balthasar characterizes modernity as gnostic: “This age was correctly defined as
one of a new Gnosis.”3

4. The West: Neo-Platonism

A much more respectable child of the Platonic tradition, and one which was to
have profound influence on the development of Christian spirituality was that
developed by Plotinus. By birth an Egyptian, Plotinus may have been exposed to
influences of Buddhism in Alexandria or on his journey to the East: “the
Egyptian Plotinus belongs to the East.”4 As an Easterner, he is heir to the
fundamental theme of all eastern “philosophy”: “that the multiplicity of the
world cannot be at all understood except in terms of the Unity of God and in its
light.”5 His religious philosophy has had a profound influence on the West, for
whom it represents a “way of purification, of enlightenment, of unification.”1
We see Plotinus treated with great respect by Balthasar. The natural values
of which Balthasar approves—the best values of myth and religion—are
incorporated into his thought, without falling prey to “religious syncretism” (=
Gnosis). For Christians, Plotinus was respected as a religious philosopher; for
modern non-Christians he is used for Idealistic philosophy of identity. Most
importantly, he is concerned with Being which he sees as divine: “for Plotinus,
Being is itself the divine, and its entire revelation is so overwhelmingly glorious
for him, that it outshines by far all the glories of individual myths. . . .”2 But a
philosophy of identity is in need of myth in order to be a religion, and so to win
back “something of the original radiancy of Being.”3 The philosophy of identity
had been tending to consume the “Glory character of reality.” Neo-Platonism
attempted to rescue this character by dissolving “Being as a whole in a ray from
the super-Being, the Good.” Yet “even this attempt within the all-embracing
thinking of Unity” was not able “to bring to light the Glory of an absolute
Thou.”4 Without the personal Absolute and the Absolute “Thou” that only comes
with the Biblical revelation, all Herrlichkeit must disappear from reality.
Of course, any “Thou” of Neo-Platonism would hardly be the personal
Thou of Christianity. Rather, it is the “Monos,” the Alone of the well-known
Neo-Platonic doctrine of the flight from the alone to the Alone. This flight,
which is more properly the notion of conversion (epistrophe), is first of all a
solitary affair. It is so because it requires an ecstasy, a conversion (epistrophe), a
rapture (Entrückung), an ascent (Aufstieg), and “ecstasies are not shared, let
alone mass affairs—these can only be illusory self-enhancements—but [true
ecstasy is found] only in the Plotinian ‘alone to the alone.’”5 To understand
better the notion of conversion, we must look at Plotinus’ idea of the One.
Rather than a personal God, for Plotinus, there is the “One” above all
plurality (although Balthasar observes that often the word Father is used by
humanity to describe this One at the origin1), above Being. What might be called
this “absolute Being” bestows its glory on Being.2 God is the “pure mystery
(called Being) above spirit, above life, and the spirit. . . strives in eternal
movement (Sehnsucht) from the Ground to the Ground, and for the sake of this
movement discharges the objective world out of itself.”3
Interestingly, in his understanding of Being Balthasar sees Plotinus as
being a “Westerner.” He points out that behind Heidegger as well as Thomas
stands not Aristotle but Plotinus, for whom “Being remains the supra-conceptual
mystery (beyond ‘metaphysics’ whose ‘place’ is the Nous).”4 This shows how
much Heidegger’s thought “is occidental from its very foundation.”5
If we can conclude a difference in approach to Being, in their
understanding of the One and the Many Buddhism and Neo-Platonism are seen
to be more similar, for they convey the intuition that “somehow the many is a
‘fall’ from the One,” a fall that “will be assessed metaphysically or morally” in
which latter case it might be seen as resulting from a “primordial guilt
(Urschuld).” Beyond the “naive” explanations offered by myth, Buddhism and
Neo-Platonism, agreed in this intuitive assessment, yet offer alternative
solutions. Buddhism discovers the reason for suffering—the “thirst for limited
satisfactions”—and seeks to overcome this evil at the root of the fall. Neo-
Platonism “lets the One and its emanations be in a flowing and resting
coexistence” and lives with the ambiguity that “the Many is both fall and
necessary self-unfolding of the One” and that “the spirit both reflects the entirety
of the cosmos and is itself defined as longing . . . for the One.”6 The Neo-
Platonic way would seem to be less “radical,” and so more tolerant of
But in the end the flight back remains, in essence, a flight from the
multiplicity of the world. In both ways, in Buddhism as well as in Neo-
Platonism, conversion means “a stopping of the spiritual movement of one’s
entire existence which had tended away from the Absolute into the limited, from
reality into appearance, from selflessness into thirst, craving and egoism.”1
In Neo-Platonism the world of multiplicity to which one naturally tends is
the realm of dissimilarity, the Regio Dissimilitudinis. It is humanity’s finding
itself on the way to dispersion in multiplicity that leads us to a closer
examination of the concept of conversion. For Neo-Platonism there is one reality
which is superior to all others, to which words like “the True, the Beautiful, the
Good, the Holy” only point. It is conceptually not to be grasped by man, the
deepest movements of whose spirit “eternally” move in its direction. One can
“content himself with the stammered word: ‘The One’. . . .” Everything that is,
all multiplicity, proceeds from this One, but it proceeds away from the source,
into darkness and an “ever greater dissimilarity to the One.” A long tradition,
beginning with Plato and Plotinus, continuing through the Christian ages to
modernity, has called this the regio dissimilitudinis. It is that world of
scatteredness in which beings, ever more distant from unity, are lost. Conversion
signifies that moment “in which they turn themselves around to the memory of
their homeland, their point of departure.” This signals what the Greeks called
epistrophe, the Latins conversio. This “turning” means exactly that: a “spiritual
turn of 180 degrees: from scatteredness to recollection . . . .”2
Various things can provoke this move to return, can arouse the longing for
the One. Often enough, notes Balthasar, it can be the “locked door of death”3
which confronts one with nothingness. For Plotinus, “the fundamental
philosophical act of ‘conversion’ (epistrophe) becomes identical to the Gnothi
Sauton,”4 which he interprets as turning one’s vision around 180 degrees to see
the origin of the soul.
In the end, the flight of the “alone to the Alone” was inadequate, maintains
Balthasar. It fell either into a flight from finitude into the unity of the divine—
and so to loss of the world—or to an absolutisms of an inner-worldly unity.1 As
we have seen, it was unable to maintain the glory of Being to which Plotinus had
tried to be faithful but which could only be guaranteed by a personal Absolute.
There is an ambivalence to the world of multiplicity which would see it as an
outflow of the One—and so “good”—and yet tending away from unity, a unity
to which one would turn at the price of multiplicity.
Bringing together much of what we have been discussing, Fr. Copleston, in
his treatment of philosophies of the One and the Many in his book Religion and
the One sums up much of the critique of what we have been seeing of the
religious traditions both of Asia and of the non-Biblical West. He writes that
philosophies of the One have tended to lead to what is considered a “world
fleeing mystical religion” where the “world of plurality” is depreciated in favor
of a “state of oneness with a metaphenomenal ultimate reality.” Copleston
For example, in Plotinus’ often quoted phrase “the flight of the alone to the Alone,” the word
“flight” is clearly used in a metaphorical sense, but the selection of this term is none the less
significant. For it indicates a turning away from the empirical world. Again, in the Advaita
Vedanta the ideal is in the inner self’s liberation not only from the wheel of rebirth and the
world of time and change but also from the illusion of individuality, of the ego-
consciousness. Taoism . . . encouraged withdrawal by the sage rather than social
commitment. As for Buddhism, one of the objections which the Confucianists brought . . .
against Buddhism in China was that it tended to divert people from their social and political
obligations to a self-centered search for Nirvana.2

We have seen that all “eastern” religious philosophy is dealing with the
problem of the One and the Many. It is time to move closer to the world of
literature so dear to Balthasar which will move us into the world of the revealed
We begin with a brief look at the Hellenic tradition, especially the mythical
and dramatic part of that tradition.

5. The West: The Classical (Greek) Tradition

In general, we can safely say that for Balthasar the ancient Greeks were the
people closest to what would be revealed in Israel. The closeness to the truth of
revelation is seen especially in Homer and the Tragedians. This proximity to the
truth becomes lost by Plato and Plotinus, who go the way of turning “Being”
into “the ‘Sun of the Good’ the all-embracing ‘all-nature,’ this unapproachable
‘One,’” thus losing the freshness of myth, the humility of the gnothi sauton and
—not least—transcending earthly tensions and rendering drama, with its concern
about particular individuals, impossible.1
The Delphic inscription serves as model for Balthasar of what is good with
the “good pagan”: he knows as creature that he is not his own creator.2 The
humility of the creature is attested by his silence in the face of the divine. The
“noise of existence” took place against “the wordless silence of the surrounding
space.” Thus the Delphic admonition “Know Thyself” was chiselled at a temple
entrance, and one naturally lowers one’s voice on entering a temple: “Especially
when one encounters such an inscription, the original meaning of which was
nothing less than: ‘Go inside yourself, let yourself be told by God that you are
only a man.’”3 This counsel to know that one is human is so important that
Juvenal taught that it had descended from Heaven.4 Balthasar goes on to observe
that the “Faustian West” should enroll in the school of the East for whom the
beginning of wisdom “consists in creating a space for stillness in itself, in which
something like an answer (Antwort) if even wordless, can make itself at all
Unfortunately, the philosophers of Greece turned this precept into its very
opposite. Instead of seeking the silence in which one could hear the word (of
another), the philosophers taught: “Think about your true essence, your origin in
God, about the divine in you. . . .”1 This occurred especially in the schools of the
Stoics and the Neo-Platonists, where the epistrophe is that turn inward to the
knowledge of God.2 This is of course that Titanism we have seen condemned by
Balthasar, that setting oneself up as of equal rank with God, if only alienated and
in need of return.3
The meaning of the original Gnothi sauton, linked with the other maxim
“nothing in excess of the mean” (Nichts über das Mass hinaus) puts the non-
divine squarely in its place for the early Greeks who lived “in the consciousness
of a primeval analogia entis” since “speculations that tend to mystical identity
are late products in all cultures.” The early Greeks had a “natural shyness in the
face of the divine world” a divine world that could be “imagined as plural or
monistic, personal or impersonal.”4
In summary, then, the advice to “know thyself” meant “mortal, do not
presume too much” (überhebe, Sterblicher, dich nicht).5 It was a memento mori,
a call to remember limits and death—and certainly not a call to any mystical
flight to a godhead within.
The wisdom of the Delphic inscription was maintained most purely in
Greek tragedy, and lost in Greek philosophy. The ancient Greeks gave the world
the language of form, the language in which the Incarnation will be able to be
spoken.6 That which appears is for Asia more illusion than manifestation. Israel
as well will have need of the Greek language of beauty, so that as Balthasar
quotes Grousset, in artistic representation: “The first Buddha will be an Apollo
and the first Good Shepherd will be Hermes Kriophoros.”7
Balthasar’s love of Greece is based on his conviction that it was originally
closer to the religious insight of Israel than Asia, although that closeness would
be lost by the philosophers. Greek tragedy represents the culmination of Greek
art before its collapse.8 He thinks so highly of tragedy as that which especially
made possible the expression of the form of Christ: “Greek tragedy, and not
Greek philosophy, with which Christians have above all dialogued, forms the
great, valid code of the human event of Christ, in that it subsumes all former
codes in itself and surpasses them.”1
The peculiar merit of Greek tragedy lies in the fact that as with Homer and
Pindar, it is the immediate situation of man in the world that is confronted and
not, as with the Orphic-Platonic tradition, an existence after life.2 Unlike the
Buddhist tradition which seeks to flee suffering, pain is the “medium of
transcendence” for Sophocles.3 The affirmation of suffering (Leidbejahung) of
the Tragedians is at the heart of Balthasar’s praise for them.
Of course, this includes their relation to death. Euripides’ tragedies deal
especially with death. He treats of the uniqueness of death so well that “the way
leads directly from him to Gethsemane and Golgotha.”4 Of especial note is
Euripides’ treatment of “existence in death.”5 The enemy, once again, of this
realism in confrontation with death is philosophy, most particularly Platonic
philosophy. He calls Greek Tragedy the “cry of transitory existence at this border
[death].” It is “flesh risen into eternal life alone that satisfies the question and
blocks that reversion to an intensified Platonism that has had such ill effects on
Christian theology.”6
Again, Balthasar laments that the Christian tradition has dialogued for a
thousand years with Plato “without notice of the Tragedians and their forefather
Homer”7 (although we hasten to add that even here Balthasar shows a preference
for the West, conceding that “even Plato’s man is purely related to the Theion. . .
For the “forefather Homer” Balthasar reserves the highest praise. If as
noted before the poets are ultimately right, there is no poetry in the world like
that of Homer:
In no other poetry of world literature is God so unceasingly recalled in every life situation—
His might, His presence, His activity in everything through outer events, through inner
inspiration and strengthening—in no other poetry does one pray so much, petition so much
for help, render thanks, sacrifice, or make vows as in Homer.1

Homeric man lives in a world in which “the divine . . . holds sway.”2 This flows
from Homer’s decision to renounce the otherworldly explanations which already
existed. This decision lies at the base of Western art.3
For Homer, man’s beauty comes from being man—that is, limited, before
God. Thus: “In the free indwelling of God the fulfilling elevation of the human
is experienced, as that purification of his mortal lowliness which simultaneously
bestows upon him happiness, meaning of life and beauty.”4 It is this willingness
to let man be man that lets man’s true worth be seen, the “light out of darkness,
life in death.”5 This realism in the face of death cannot be overestimated for
Balthasar. The Greeks were content that the gods existed without “as mortals
raising a claim to immortality,” they were content with a “divine fullness that
justifies the questionableness of the existence unto death” without adverting to
the concept of illusion for this world. In this, they showed “such strength of heart
that to them was given the gift of beauty for endless ages. . . .”6
The greatness of the ancient Greeks then was that they knew and accepted
their place as mortals before the divine. It only follows then that sin is hubris, the
attempt to go beyond the limits and want to go it alone, without God: “sin is
simply the arrogance to want to manage without God” because man is
“essentially in need of God.”7
The consequences of this understanding for the future of the West would
be momentous. The relation of man, especially of Homeric man, to God is
naturally dialogical (and prayerful); reason—on its solitary search for “Being as
a whole” and philosophical man—the man of reason—are monological. The
beginning of philosophy marks the “abrupt” end of the “dialogical act of prayer.”
A “knowledge that keeps itself to itself” replaces the “heart that dares risk itself.”
It is precisely at this point that what the Ancients had known as “Glory” yields to
that which in the “age of philosophy . . . will be called the ‘beautiful.’”1
This will be the beauty (Schöne) of the nineteenth century Titans, the
Idealist philosophers, models of the non-prayerful assault of Reason on Being.
The world of myth is the world in which God and man stand apart from each
other; the world of philosophy leads both “to the limit of identity.”2
We close our look at classical antiquity with a quick look at the figure of
Virgil, whom Balthasar calls “the father of the West.”3 Virgil’s own humble
person is, for Balthasar, most appealing. As distinct from any Faustian or Titanic
There is nothing of the Cæsars, radiant in itself, about the shy, awkward, always sickly,
probably tubercular form. But that is the way in which Virgil is the “Father of the West” and
it is in this way that all have loved him, that all who know have spoken of him only with
restrained awe. It is thus that “that he stands in the very centre of European culture, in a
place which no other poet may claim to share with him or to usurp from him” (T.S. Eliot).
“Above the millennia he is the spiritual genius of the West. . . .” (E.R. Curtius).4

What makes the Virgilian hero so noteworthy is his self-effacement [sich-

auswischen (s’effacer)],5 his patience and humility. But unlike the Greek heroes,
who either stand outlined against a glaring heaven or who experience
humiliations as tests of their largeness of heart, “pius Æneas” experiences the
meaning and beauty of humiliations because they take place in obedience to God
(Gott-gehorsam).1 Who but Virgil could have guided Dante on his way through
the Inferno and the Purgatorio, leaving him only for “the manifestation of eternal
love, Beatrice,” Virgil who is that anima cortese who “taught him his tenderest
wisdom: amor e il cor gentil son una cosa. . . .”2
This is the first time we come across the theme of loving union, and it
opens the door for us to the religion of the God of Israel.

C. Religions of the Word

We now enter the world of Biblical revelation. This is the occidental world, with
its central idea of a personal and free God who created the world as other than
Himself, a world which bears His mark, which is somehow His image.3
Christianity is the child of the religion of Israel; Islam descends from both.
Much of what could be said, and is said, by Balthasar concerning the
religion of Israel applies to Christianity, and will not be treated separately here in
any detail. Thus the whole notion of the development of the anawim in post-
exilic Israel which flowers in the Virgin Mary, the greatest daughter of Israel, is a
theme which is left to treatment in the section concerned with the Bride. Here we
are more concerned with what is specifically Jewish and Muslim insofar as these
traditions are separate from the Christian.
What distinguishes both traditions in the final analysis is that both refuse to
let a bridge be built between man and God.4 For either religion, the distance
between the One God and His Creation cannot be, and has not been, covered:
there is no Incarnation. Moreover, both are distinct from Christianity in that they
deny any community of persons within God, and so there is no Trinity: “With
their rigid monotheism, Judaism and Islam together form a front against
Christianity which apparently threatens them with its dogma of the Trinity.”5
These two refusals lead to various mystical attempts, based on the human
longing (Sehnsucht) to overcome the gulf (Abstand), for they “could not oppose
the primordial longing of man for union with God.” And so “parallel currents” in
both traditions took elements “from the (Eastern) religions of longing” and there
emerged mystical schools, Cabalism for the Jews and Sufism for the Muslims.1

1. Judaism
Israel itself, in Balthasar’s view, had a rich relation with surrounding (pagan)
cultures. By no means would Balthasar subscribe to the view that Israel totally
rejected all that was pagan: “‘Syncretism’ in the Bible is a fact denied by no
one.”2 Thus, the syncretism can be seen beginning in the Old Testament, the
final books of which use not only Hellenistic language (Maccabees) but also
Stoic and Neo-Platonic language as well (Book of Wisdom). Balthasar further
suggests that the “Logos” of the philosophers was used in Jewish reflection on
God and that “Hellenistic universalism becomes a medium for the claims of
absoluteness of the Bible.”3 The use of pagan (mythical) images in the Scripture
shows that all that was Gentile was not to be condemned. In the earlier books of
the Bible, Balthasar sees Israel’s procession with the Ark of the Covenant as
analogous to the pagan practice of carrying images4 (one cannot help but pause
here to reflect on the importance of icons for Balthasar, and the practice of
religious processions with icons which continues to this day in the Eastern
Church). The Old Testament mentions good pagans, the psalms reflect Philistine
religion—and yet Israel is in the light while others are in darkness.5
Thus, although Israel takes much from surrounding cultures, it must be
observed that “nowhere does the Bible make concessions to a foreign religion or
form of world view as such where this were not comparable to the religion of the
living God. . . .”6 The syncretism is not therefore indiscriminate. Israel maintains
its own identity.
This is seen with special clarity in Israel’s insistence on history over myth.
Although mythical images had been used “to express the thoroughgoing action
of judgment of Yahweh,” still “the centre of the Biblical religion remains
historical.” In this, the religion of Israel is distinct from other religions of myth
or mysticism which had the choice either “to negate the being of the world as
such for the sake of the divine/Being” or else to try to break through “human
confusion and forgetfulness” to the divine laws immanent in the world. As
examples of the latter Balthasar cites “the Tao or the vedic Rta or the Logos and
Nomos of the Pre-Socratics and of the Plato of the Nomoi.” For Israel, neither is
the world denied nor must there be some new breakthrough of consciousness
into the “eternally accessible world law” but rather “a mode of protective
salvation in God is created from the freedom of the love of God.”1
The insistence on history is an insistence on the reality of the world, and so
the action of God is a saving action, rather than one of dissolution. Religion, for
Israel, is this relation with God. It is not a means by which the world is negated,
nor is it a lens through which the light of a (Platonic) God is filtered. Rather,
there is a relation with God in covenant, a God who created the world and who
wants the world to be lived in—according to His intention. It is not the world
that must be overcome or negated, but rather it is the sinful alienation from the
will of the Creator that is to be overcome by the saving action of God.
Unlike the pagans who as we have seen feel the “oppressive, diffuse
pressure of a general guiltiness of existence, a having fallen out of grace with
fortune, from which they try to free themselves through rites and techniques,”
Israel has a far greater precision to its need for salvation, for rather than some
diffuse pressure of the guilt of being, Israel feels “the pressure of its sinfulness
and the having-become-questionable of its relation to its God.”2 Sin, not guilt, is
the human situation which faces Israel—for sin means breach in a personal
relation, and Israel is in such a relation with her God. The problem of good and
evil is no easy matter for Israel. There is no easy turn to a law of karma. As
noted earlier, this is “the greatest of the world’s puzzles on which Israel had
rubbed itself raw.”1
The realism of Israel is especially distinctive in the face of death. As the
Resurrection is the central fact of the Christian mystery, it should be no surprise
that death is the central human dilemma with which Balthasar deals. Unlike the
pagan mythologies and religions, there are no trips through the underworld for
Israel, no fantastic attempts to evade death.2 Israel knows no hypothesis of an
eternal soul which survives the “mortal coil” (Socrates-Plato), no consolation
that “death is nothing final for rebirth stands to hand (the Indians, Pythagoras)”
no Nietzschean “eternal return.” Rather, the Old Testament “looks the given
straight in the face.”3
This unflinchingly realistic look at death testifies to the value Israel puts on
life, for only the unique (einmalig) truly dies, and thus it becomes especially
In the Bible, immortality is first mentioned in the late, and Hellenistic,
Book of Wisdom.5 Death remains problematic, however. The covenant is made
only with the living: with the living, corporeal man. And though Israel knew
heroic deaths, deaths of witness to its Faith (the Maccabees), death as such
remained darkness, totally alien to the covenant, and thus unrelated to love.6
Israel is, of course, the Chosen People. According to Scripture, “the Word
that went forth to Abraham and then to the People Israel was not accepted by the
‘nations’ before its fulfilment in Christ, apart from the witness of Israel.” This
difference between the Gentiles and Israel is not due simply to the “official
character of Biblical religion” but to something “more radical.” The “pagans”
are depicted as being “‘without hope and atheioi in the world’ (Eph. 2:12)” and
yet as “essentially, naturally God-seekers (Acts 4:8) . . . still, the Word of God
was not addressed to them.”7
Thus the pagans remain in a situation of silence, unaddressed by the God
who speaks to Israel: they are atheioi who yet must be God-seekers. Yet the gods
of the pagans are creations of human hands—they are projections of the human
imagination. This lies at the heart of the Biblical critique of idolatry. In spite of
this basic situation, however, God remains free to speak to anyone, of course: “It
also belongs to the freedom of the living God to reveal Himself among the pagan
peoples at His good pleasure and to summon from them individual wise men and
prophets to whom even Israel must listen and from whom she must learn.”1
The silence of God is seen by Balthasar in two important connections. First
of all, he observes that for theologians of the Holocaust, the silence of God has
taken precedence to His speech. Relatedly, in the Cabala, the speech of God is
seen as proceeding from His silence. Balthasar criticizes the latter notion
especially, insisting that God in His Word in Scripture does not reveal Himself as
idea or concept, but rather as a “free, sovereign Subject.”2 Still, the silent nature
of the God of Judaism is part of that tradition for: “In the common Jewish
imagination God is most hidden, the Messiah most absent in times of great and
greatest need.”3
The flowering of the religion of Israel in Christ and the Christian Church
left the Jews the people of the promise, but a promise whose fulfilment they
rejected. Thus, they are in the peculiar position of having a tremendous promise,
greater than any other people, while having to look elsewhere for its fulfilment.
The Jews as a people are unique for they do not exist biologically or
sociologically—but rather theologically.4 That the Jews exist as a people (a
Volk), is perhaps their central characteristic for Balthasar: the people is more
important than the individual, who only counts as member of the nation. The
Jew is a theological person, as Balthasar understands this, in those who are
called from the people to be “their prophets and leaders.” But of the other
individuals in the people, Balthasar maintains that we cannot speak of person as
in the New Testament. The problem is one of translating that which is proper to
the group, to the collective entity, into the personal. Even in the Song of Songs,
he wonders if the notion of the “union of Yahweh with His People” is understood
as something that happens “in person.” Thus: “Even when the Jewish element
sees itself as liberal, unbelieving, atheistic: Israel as a People is that which
counts in the individual.”1 Furthermore, Balthasar who sees the pagans seeking
(and losing) themselves in philosophy or mystical techniques, curiously sees the
tribally defined Jew as seeking his individuality—at the price of social ties—in
his study of the Law.2
Heaven’s Word having been rebuffed, it is only natural that the people of
such promise turn earthward with their energies. Secularized Judaism takes
many forms which “are reducible to several basic forms that today in large
measure dominate the ideological market.” While the Gentiles seek to escape the
world through contemplation, “non-believing ‘Jewry’ produces world-changing,
futurological schemes, which are mightily stimulated by the wonders of modern
technology and not least by the insights of the natural sciences concerning
evolution.” If the Gentiles are tempted to a “flight out of time,” the Jewish
temptation is the utopian one of “transforming the world into a paradise.”3
In this earthly utopia, there is no room for suffering. The representative
Karl Marx is a good illustration of this tendency of secularized Judaism. Marx
was not exercised so much by the problem of Seinsvergessenheit as he was about
“the forgotten Real” and he saw this “primarily in the form of need.”
Remarkably, this is the “primordial Christian situation, and behind it the
primordial Israelitic situation of the Old Testament and prophets” one which “the
Jew Marx, substituting (stellvertretend) for the Christians discovers anew” and
which then becomes the “theological a priori of all his thought as well as his
Here we see that the “forgotten reality” of human misery is greater for the
prophetic Marx than any “forgetfulness of Being”—in this his concerns (though
not his solutions) are seen as truly Biblical, and primordially Christian
(urchristlich), the prophetic way, not that of the Greek (and German)
philosophers. One other thinker with Jewish roots keeps cropping up in the
pages of Balthasar’s work—he is Joachim of Flores, whose interpretation of the
Trinity as corresponding to the different stages of human history, the age after
Christ being the age of the Holy Spirit, reflects the tendency towards the earthly
utopia which characterizes Jewish thinking.1
Again, because of the peculiar nature of their relation to God, it strikes
Balthasar that it may well be natural that Antichrist would himself be Jewish, as
in the end the Jewish vision is the only real alternative to the Christian. In an
unusual passage he observes:
Maybe it is after all a real theological inference and not an expression of simple
Antisemitism that according to secular tradition the Antichrist will be a Jew, for Israel alone
among all nations is the remaining bearer of an absolute hope which is identical with its
existence, a hope which in its rejection of Christ, thought through and lived to its natural
conclusion, must offer a world-historically dominant counter-proposal to the Christian.2

We see then that the people of Israel were truly the ones to receive the Word of
God—the Chosen People. From the Exile onwards, as we shall see, the true
Israel, the anawim, developed in a way which would lead to the birth of Mary,
and of Christ. The people of the Old Testament thus become the Jews, a people
who accept no mediator between God and man. In their religious mode, they are
prey to either the Gnosis of “Rabbinism and the Cabala” or to an orientalism
mysticism as that of Hasidism which attempts to bridge the gap. Without faith,
but with the promised hope, they are fated to become propagators of the secular
utopia, and in the end, the only true competitors to Christianity.

2. Islam
If the problem with Judaism which renders it incapable of being a “catholic”
religion is its national (Volk) exclusiveness, Islam is limited ultimately because
of its ritualism, a ritualism “that the Arabs themselves only observe with
difficulty and which foreigners cannot fully observe.”1 Locating Islam in relation
to Christianity and Judaism, Balthasar writes that it is “the most significant
mixed form between pagan and Jewish (or rather Jewish-Christian, Ebionite). . .
.” Were one to want to see it as an heir to Judaism, one need but look into the
field of religion to find “a thousand smaller religious projects originating in the
Bible” of which Islam would only be “the most important and historically
powerful.” On the other hand, were one to look to Christianity, one would see
that in Islam too many elements had “broken out of the Christian image of God
—Eucharist, Incarnation, substitutory salvation on the Cross, Eucharist, etc.” for
it to be seen as a “cryptic form of the Christian.”2
We see therefore that though today it is “in increasing measure one of the
great powers of earth”3 (Balthasar sees much of religious revivalism outside of
Christianity as resurgent nationalism’s expression of resentment against the
West4), Islam is a small Biblical offshoot grown very large. This is not to say it
is without Christian and Jewish influence—“contacts with Jews and Christians in
Arabia explain the powerfully Biblical flavour of his [Muhammad’s] strict
monotheistic religion. . . .”5 It is, in today’s scene, a neutral point having much
of the Old Testament without its inner dynamic, a religion in which “the
‘Absolute’ or ‘divine’ of the old religions and the supramundane Old Testament
‘God’ are blended and solidified. . . .”6
Along with Christianity and Judaism, Islam is a religion which is in
relation with a personal God, and so sin is part of its reality, as well as the
paradox that “God forgives out of free grace and not on the basis of human
penitential accomplishments, but that also this forgiveness cannot become
effective without the penitential conversion of the human.”7
Of the three Biblical religions, Islam is the religion of the Absolute par
excellence. In this, it is bracketed with other worldviews of the Absolute—“the
nihilistic or materialistic or the Buddhistic or even the Islamic”—in which, as we
have seen, “nowhere does the Absolute move itself, and in the face of its silence
all the noise of becoming and passing away must fall silent.”1 It might not be
inappropriate to suggest that in such a vision of God as unmoving Absolute there
is seen something of the irritable old grandfather who demands silence and
stillness from his rambunctious grandchildren. So the Absolute has silenced the
noise of coming and going. In such a tradition, epic is the mode of expression,
drama cannot succeed. All individual forms are crushed by the weight of this
Absolute, whose traces are seen “there, where limited form is negated and one
sees through to the Absolute.” Such a view is however an “essentially
antidramatic principle” and for this reason neither India nor Islam has known
anything comparable to the drama that has “grown up” in the Greek and
Christian worlds. Rather than the dramatic, it is the epic which “remains to the
fore.” The Absolute makes no moves to encounter “the transitory on pilgrimage”
to him; the latter must rather accommodate himself to the “eternal law” of the
former. Thus, the “way” for the time-bound on pilgrimage to the infinite takes
place under the ægis of “a ‘providence’ that appears to be chiefly ‘fate’. . . .”2
This belief in a Providence which becomes Fate (Kismet) is of course
characteristic of Islam. The individual has no freedom in the face of this
Absolute, for as Balthasar describes it, the freedom of the creature and the
freedom in covenant with God “by being powerfully grasped, from the very first,
would be dispossessed of its own groundlessness and would be smothered by an
‘omnipotence’ of divine goodness (as for example in Islam). . . .”3
There is, true to human nature, the attempt to bridge the gap between God
and His creatures. This generally occurs under Christian or oriental influence,
leading to the mystical tradition in Islam. For Sufism, the “total submission to
the will of God paints itself as selfless love which—as in every mysticism that
confronts the indivisible One—can only be understood and cultivated through
the un-becoming (Entwerden) of the creature.”
Although Islam allowed poets to sing of such an un-becoming, it could not
tolerate a serious mysticism of identity, as Balthasar recalls in the case of Junayd
and his disciple Hallaj (“the latter was crucified”). If the “great religious thinker
Al-Ghazzali” was able to “slip moments of this mysticism into Islamic
orthodoxy” still, it remains questionable just what import the human person can
have relative to God. Balthasar concludes that the last word on this subject is
given by Averroes: “all men have only one mind (Geist).”1
Thus, in the end, the Absolute is such that He stands in relation to only one
human, the individual with his freedom long since destroyed. The Silence of the
Absolute is once again met with an absolute silence from the side of an
overwhelmed humanity.

We began our chapter with a review of the three outstanding characteristics of
the human situation: longing, guilt and death. We then sketched various
responses to the human longing to overcome guilt and to deal with death. For
Balthasar, as we have seen, natural man tries to escape from this world of
limitation, finitude, death. Individualistic schemes of salvation lead him to
dissolve his individual humanity or to dissolve his ties with the rest of humanity
in attempts at union with an Absolute. In the end, all systems of natural religion
or religious philosophy are based on attempts of identity. Without the revelation
that comes from a personal God, a personal Absolute, reason tends to take over
and reason projects itself into its monologue, the union is ultimately with
There are degrees in which this is true in the various traditions of
humanity. The nearer mankind is to its “primitive,” mythic state, the less likely it
is to confuse itself with God. The distance (Abstand) remains, the distance which
allows for that analogy that will be so important for Balthasar’s understanding of
God, the Analogia Entis, and not the Analogia Identitatis of the Idealists. The
mythical consciousness is dialogical. Homeric man is involved in a prayerful
relation with a personal God in a way that is no longer the case for the
practitioners of Platonic philosophy or of the Neo-Platonic conversion.
One way to speak of this is in terms of the ascent/descent
(Aufstieg/Abstieg) polarity in religious experience. The way of human religion
and religious philosophy is the way of ascent—towards God to be sure, but most
significantly away from the world of multiplicity, individuality, relativity:
Natural mysticism and religion is an expression that proceeds from man and sets out in the
direction of God. It does this out of a most profound necessity and without anyone being
able to complain that this movement is an eros which struggles to leave earth, to ascend
(aufsteigen) and to fly above (überfliegen). But in its drive to push past everything that could
point the way to God in order to see in that thing the one truth that it is not God, this eros is
always in danger of losing both, the world as well as God. The world, because it is not God,
and God, because He is not the world and because without the help of worldly things in
which He is reflected He can only be experienced as the absolute emptiness (Leere), the
primordial Ground, Nirvana.1

Here in a nutshell is Balthasar’s problem with “natural mysticism and religion.”

One is in danger of losing both the world and God. There remains the absolute
emptiness, the Ungrund, Nirvana. This is the danger that negative theology runs,
as we shall investigate in our next chapter. There we shall see that the ascent is
always the way of silence, for “the Absolute does not reveal itself in its
emanations, it speaks neither a word of Creation nor one of salvation.” In
consequence, there is developed a “hierarchical order of levels of Being”
traversed by the “mystagogical way to the One,” a One which “remains an Un-
word (Unwort) resting in itself.” It is this which becomes the “Ascent” (Aufstieg)
both for antique philosophy and religion. The “philosophical act” itself takes on
the character of a “hymn” to the One, “to which everything strives in Platonic
Eros” a One which is best praised “‘through pure silence’. . . . The Primordial
Ground (Urgrund) is an Un-word (Unwort) and should be honoured by the
philosophical man by silence.” Although in Neo-Platonism, Proclus will write
“hymnic poems” that “praise the ineffable godhead” and “ask for enlightenment,
purification, unification,” still, the “best liturgy” is for man to become like God.
Thus, the ascent to God as prayer is “a theological hymn to the One through the
negations (of everything else).”1
Balthasar draws the conclusion that no matter the “sensible joy” of all non-
Christian mysticism and religious philosophy what remains “characteristic” is an
“unconditional tendency towards unbecoming (Entwerdung), to the entry of
everything limited in the abyss of the infinite God, to the submerging of every
sensible and formed word and concept in the primordial ground of sigè, of
silence.” Should there be any doubt as to the universality of this, Balthasar
catalogues “Chinese and Indians, Greeks and Arabs, Plotinus, Eriugena and
Böhme, Schelling and Rilke” as those who “meet each other here.”2
There remain two notes to be added to our conclusion, concerning the
surmounting (Überstieg) and the descent (Abstieg).
First, there is the question of the surmounting (Überstieg). Whereas the
ascent (Aufstieg) always contains a negative, Titanic connotation for Balthasar,
the surmounting is more positive as it contains within it something analogous to
the via eminentiæ in the Christian sphere. Thus for the natural contemplatives in
the world, the progression from beings to Being was a surmounting, a gentle
ascent which does not seem to involve the destruction but rather the “fading” of
relative beings to let another light shine. The contemplatives have “often” been
able to take the surmounting step from “the quality of all that is to the entirely
different quality of Being” without destroying the other: rather, there is a “fading
(Schwinden)” of all that is that yields to Being itself, and so the contemplatives
could “realise the surpassing (Überstieg) in their mind” and “notice something
of the Being that grounds all in the fading of that which is [and] in the fading of
their own experiences, thoughts and states that correspond to it.”1
But there remains a fatal flaw in any attempts at a surmounting as well:
unlike a way of eminence which would leave the concrete particulars intact, here
they fade away once they have yielded that which allows the seeker to move
beyond. In the chapter “Das Versagen der Liebe” in Glaubhaft ist nur Liebe he
describes one instance of the surmounting. Here, Balthasar describes the way in
which compassion is “distilled” from concrete love, but in such a way that the
particular loses its uniqueness. There is, he writes, a “natural identity” that
brings two lovers to an “island of love” from which they are able to “extend”
their love universally “through a surmounting and overlooking of what is
different.” It is in this way that even non-Christian ways like Buddhism and
Stoicism came to a certain “love of enemy” that in the name of a common
human nature “overlooked that which was hostile in the enemy or the hate-filled.
. . .” This, however, is the way of abstraction, of “philosophical and mystical
world religions” a way of transcending “the boundaries of finitude through
abstraction and identity. . . .” This move of abstraction is “above all a reasonable
procedure” that in fact leads to the Absolute viewed either as that Being which is
“finally identical in all that is” or as that Nothing which is “all that is limited
being.” These “reasonable” ways of abstraction, all called “gnoses” by Balthasar,
actually “dissolve real, finite love, diluting it in a higher medium.”
“Disembodying its [love’s] incarnate substance” the gnoses “distill from it a
peace of heart and a compassionate, considerate benevolence that passes
unharmed through all finite barriers. . . .” Thus, one has taken that from “human
substance” which “seems the most similar to the Absolute” and can “pour such a
serene essence, superior to all Fate, . . . into all finite situations.”2
Writing of those who like Buddha or Plato seek a surmounting over the
whole realm of nature to seek the place where peace reigns, he concludes by
asking “whether personal love, which appears to be one moment in the inner-
worldly Being, can be saved in this surmounting.”1 In a word, no matter how
noble or rational the surmounting, the search for a higher, sublimated view, it
seems that love which is concrete, unique and personal cannot survive the
surmounting, a surmounting to an Absolute which remains exclusively the
“totally other.” Love is replaced by “compassion,” by “benevolence,” a general
distillate to be generally applied.
Second, if there is an ascent, then there is a descent, a descent of God. The
two have not always excluded each other (although he sees the creation of a
synthesis between the two ways as impossible2), if for Balthasar the second is by
far the most important. The ascent mentality has profoundly marked Christian
spirituality—most notably in St. Augustine, but also in St. Thomas and others.3
But: “Through the descent of God, every attempt at ascent is not only relativised,
but already surpassed.”4 Balthasar is a passionate partisan of what, he observes,
St. Ignatius of Loyola calls “the movement de arriba, down from above,
whereby God empties Himself, in order to fill men with His loving
renunciation.”5 In light of this descent, then, the only acceptable ascent is that
shown in the New Testament, where “everything, that ascends from the world to
God, [is] answer and echo to the ‘Word’ that solely goes out from God.”6 In
Christianity: “There are . . . no ‘stages of development’ of the Christian life in
the sense of the ascetical-mystical schemes of the other religions, but actually
only developmental stages of the life of grace in us. . . .”7 We shall return to this
later when we turn to the particularity of the Christian revelation.
We have seen Balthasar very concerned with the problem of the non-
ground (Ungrund), of Nirvana, or the Void (Leere)—the Emptiness which is the
end of natural religion in its turn from the world and its turn to God without the
help of creatures which would mirror God. This is most highly developed in the
mystical tradition of Zen within Buddhism and it has also figured prominently in
the mystical tradition of the Christian West where it has appeared under the title
of negative theology. It is this turn of the religious consciousness that will
occupy our attention in the following chapter.

1. GINL, p. 8.
2. S5, p. 288.
1. GIMF, p. 105; TDPC, pp. 380–2, inter al.
2. S4, pp. 87 – 8.
3. S1, p. 188 .
1. TDPM, p. 315.
2. Cf. CORD.
3. TLGW, p. 16.
4. Ibid., p. 237.
5. EPIL, p. 14.
1. CM, p. 7.
2. S1, p. 135.
3. S3, p. 479.
4. CS, p. 59.
5. HSG, p. 227.
6. HFSL, p. 435.
7. CM, p. 86.
8. HRMN, p. 882.
1. TDHA, pp. 107–8.
2. S5, p. 368.
1. CS, p. 125.
1. S4, pp. 308–9.
2. TDHA, p. 208.
3. S4, p. 27.
4. S3, p. 351.
1. CS, pp. 103–4.
2. TDPM, p. 371.
1. CUDW, p. 4.
2. TDHA, p. 204; S5, p. 111.
3. Ibid.
4. S5, p. 204.
5. TDHA, pp. 185–186.
1. TDPR, p. 408.
2. EPIL, p. 84.
3. Ibid.
4. William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium,” Selected Poems and Two Plays of William Butler
Yeats (NY: The MacMillan Company, 1962), p. 96.
5. EPIL, p. 84.
1. TDPM, p. 360.
2. HFSL, pp. 683–4.
3. TDPM, p. 213.
4. MWDB, p. 65.
5. HFSL, p. 684.
6. Ibid.
1. S5, pp. 182–3. “Gelassenheit” narrowly defined indicates “calmness,” but Balthasar tends to use
it as a colorful way of indicating passionless, non-Christian indifference, and it is as “indifference” that we
will usually be translating the word.
2. Goethe, Faust, as cited in GIMF, p.77, inter al.
1. TDHA, p. 110.
2. Ibid.
3. S5, p. 181.
1. Peter Henrici, S.J., “Zur Philosophie Hans Urs von Balthasars,” Hans Urs von Balthasar. Gestalt
und Werk, ed. Karl Lehmann/Walter Kasper (Köln: Communio, 1989), p. 237.
2. HSG, p. 148.
1. S5, p. 183.
1. TDPM, pp. 360–1.
2. HFSK, p. 27.
1. BG, pp. 212–3.
2. HSG, pp. 368–9.
1. TDHA, pp. 205–6.
2. TLGW, p. 399.
1. S1, pp. 151–2.
2. HSG, p. 487.
3. TDPR, p. 130.
4. Ibid.
5. S5, p. 118, footnote 30.
1. TDHA, p. 133.
2. S3, pp. 19–20.
1. REL 1, p. 173.
2. S3, pp. 330–1.
3. S1, p. 187.
1. S3, p. 23.
2. REL1, p. 91.
3. Ibid.
4. TDPM, pp. 39–41.
5. Ibid., p. 388.
1. HRMN, pp. 879–882.
2. Ibid., pp. 889–90.
3. Ibid., p. 896.
4. TDPM, p. 388.
5. GIMF, p. 13.
1. Ibid., p. 104.
2. S4, pp. 327–8.
3. HRMN, p. 911.
4. S3, p. 451.
5. S4, p. 85.
6. TDPR, pp. 61–2.
1. Ibid., p. 360.
2. HRMN, p. 536.
3. HRMA, p. 197.
1. S5, p. 116.
2. Ibid.
1. TDES, pp. 450–1.
2. CUDW, p. 13.
3. Ibid., p. 3.
4. Ibid.
5. HFSK, p. 167.
1. HRMA, pp. 365–6.
2. S3, p. 330.
3. TDPR, p. 585.
1. CUDW, p. 2.
2. HFSL, p. 447.
3. HRMN, p. 445.
4. S5, p. 228.
5. See especially Jacques Cuttat, Begegnung der Religionen, tr. Hans Urs von Balthasar (Einsiedeln:
Johannes Verlag, 1956) for an interesting treatment of Amida and Ramanuja as signs of development of a
personalist dimension in Buddhism.
6. CUDW, p. 4.
7. S5, p. 362; CUDW, p. 15.
8. CUDW, p. 5.
1. TLWW, p. XX.
2. Henri de Lubac, Amida. Aspects du Bouddhisme. II (Seuil, 1955).
3. TLWG, p. 106.
1. S5, pp. 104–5.
2. Ibid., p. 105.
3. TDPM, p. 219.
4. TDES.
1. TDHA, p. 208.
2. S5, p. 106.
3. EPIL, p. 21.
1. CUDW, pp. 3–4.
2. S5, p. 227.
1. HFSK, p. 33.
2. HRMA, p. 213.
3. HFSK, p. 41.
1. Ibid., p. 34.
2. TDPE, p. 376.
3. TDHA, p. 404.
1. HTNB, p. 479, footnote 1.
2. TDPC, p. 125.
3. TDPM, p. 37.
4. HFSK, p. 103.
5. Ibid.
1. HFSL, p. 528.
2. HRMA, pp. 252–3.
3. Ibid., p. 207.
4. Ibid.
5. S5, pp. 20–1.
1. TLGW, p. 399.
2. HRMA, p. 270.
3. HRMN, p. 885.
4. Ibid., p. 773.
5. Ibid.
6. S4, pp. 86–7.
1. Ibid., p. 236.
2. S5, pp. 220–1.
3. TDHA, p. 103.
4. TDPE, p. 489.
1. TDPR, p. 461.
2. Copleston, pp. 30–31.
1. TDPM, p. 170.
2. S3, p. 312.
3. S4, p. 14.
4. Ibid., p. 15.
5. Ibid.
1. Ibid., p. 26.
2. S5, p. 232.
3. TDPM, p. 385.
4. Ibid., p. 317.
5. Ibid.
6. HRMA, p. 43.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., p. 94.
1. Ibid.
2. Ibid., p. 98.
3. Ibid., p. 117.
4. Ibid., p. 122.
5. Ibid.
6. HSG, p. 19.
7. S3, p. 281.
8. Ibid.
1. HRMA, p. 48.
2. S3, p. 280.
3. HRMA, pp. 47–8.
4. Ibid., p. 50.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., p. 66.
7. Ibid., p. 49.
1. Ibid., p. 144.
2. Ibid., p. 166.
3. Ibid., p. 250.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 247.
1. Ibid.
2. Ibid., p. 220.
3. CUDW, p. 1.
4. EPIL, p. 35.
5. CUDW, p. 7.
1. Ibid., pp. 7–8.
2. HRMA, p. 221.
3. Ibid.
4. HTAB, p. 66.
5. S1, p. 46.
6. S3, p. 46.
1. HSG, pp. 486–7.
2. TDHA, p. 209.
1. S5, p. 116.
2. EPIL, pp. 84–6.
3. S5, pp. 38–9.
4. Ibid., p. 39.
5. HTAB, p. 335.
6. EPIL, pp. 84–6.
7. TDPC, p. 380.
1. Ibid., p. 382.
2. S5, p. 260.
3. TDES, p. 131.
4. TDPC, p. 341.
1. TDPM, p. 392.
2. TDHA, p. 405.
3. S5, p. 353.
4. HRMN, p. 922.
1. TDPC, p. 469.
2. TDHA, p. 411.
1. CUDW, p. 7.
2. S4, p. 95.
3. S5, p. 225.
4. Cf. S1, p. 40.
5. Ibid.
6. S4, p. 64.
7. S5, p. 204.
1. TDPM, p. 39.
2. Ibid., p. 40.
3. TDHA, p. 307.
1. EPIL, p. 27.
1. BG, p. 46.
1. TLWG, pp. 99–101.
2. S1, p. 188.
1. BG, pp. 137–8.
2. GINL, pp. 44–5.
1. S3, p. 20.
2. S1, p. 187.
3. S5, p. 25; WIEC, p. 81.
4. S1, p. 187.
5. TLWG, p. 258.
6. S5, p. 150.
7. S1, p. 180.
The Via Negativa

I t has been stated in the first chapter that perhaps the key insight of Balthasar’s
theology is that in light of the Resurrection the poets are ultimately right, that
the choice for man ultimately is one between myth and revelation.1 Systems of
speculative philosophy most notably do not enter into the picture. We have seen
that his main criticism of non-Christian religious and philosophical tradition is
that the particular tends to be destroyed to make way for the Absolute. In this
present chapter we propose to further explore what Balthasar sees as happening
especially at the other end of the relation—that is, if, for the natural man, the
particular human individual tends to be destroyed in his flight to the Absolute,
what then happens to God?
Balthasar addresses this issue in terms of “negative philosophy and
theology.” The via negativa for him is something that is found in all higher
cultures, “most passionately developed in the lands of the Far East . . . but not
less in Greece, whose final philosophy, Platonism” had such far-reaching effects
on Christian thought and “finally in a radicalised Islam.”2
In this chapter we will be looking at the via negativa as developed to its
height in the religious philosophy of the Far East, in the tradition of Zen, and in
Christian theology, both in the Greek tradition, so heavily influenced by Neo-
Platonism, and in the Latin.
It will be recalled that Balthasar has great sympathy for the workings of the
human imagination, those creations of the mind which in myth, in literature,
attempt to deal with the mortal fate of man. That man’s attempts to deal with
death, in particular, were fanciful has already been made clear. Now it is
important to see that Balthasar holds that man, in his religion-making, subjects
himself to a self-delusion. All is well as long as the illusion holds. The simple
people, indeed, continue to cling to the forms of a religion long after the
sophisticated have yielded to disillusionment. But when the inevitable stripping
of the gods takes place, the sophisticated turn to the via negativa. How can they
approach the Absolute without returning to forms of which they have become
disillusioned? Balthasar answers that it will be only through “negation” of all
form, both sensible and spiritual, including “power, beauty, wisdom, love.” He
The moment in which this completely unbounded one exposed itself to the human mind was
the moment of birth of negative philosophy or, if the word “God” could still have any
meaning here, of theology. It is the necessary counterpart to the positive doctrine of the
form-bearing Godhead, and its necessary Götterdämmerung. As such it is to a great extent
the religion of the intellectuals, of the initiated, of the true savants, since for ordinary people
that which is concrete is indispensable, whether it be in the form of statues and pictures, of
altars and sacrifices, or in the form of myths, which narrate to us the fortunes of the gods.1

The idols of the human imagination are projections of that imagination thrown
against the (blank) screen of the Absolute. Hence, the tolerance in Hinduism for
those who need a personal god: let there be as many as the imagination can come
to know. Once one sees through these figures, one realizes there is no-thing
beyond, and so one turns the light of disillusionment on himself, realizing that
his own self, the features of his psyche, are precisely that which get in the way of
his correct vision of the featureless reality beyond. The awareness of that reality
“unfolded,” freed from its limits in form, represents the birth of negative
philosophy and, “if the word ‘God’ could still make any sense here,” negative
theology. That this phenomenon primarily affects the sophisticated elements of
society points the way to the Christian (and Balthasarian) predilection for the
anawim as privileged God-knowers, something that will be considered later. It is
no coincidence that the locus of Balthasar’s self-admitted polemic against
negative philosophy is a short volume with the significant title Christen Sind
Einfältig.1 That Balthasar refers in this context to the “twilight of the gods”
(Götterdämmerung) underlines the fact that the sophisticated are well
represented in the Wagnerian world of Idealist philosophy. The consequence of
this critical attack on the world of the gods is a “step back” to an Absolute which
“can only be attained through the negation of all concepts that have been seen
through as finite,” an Absolute that is stripped of any personality and that can
“only be assumed (not thought) as an Absolute that lies ‘above all existents’
(Plato).”2 In this way the destruction of images leads to the impersonal Absolute.
For the individual person, this religious move leads to radical devaluation
of the subject, of the “I” (Ent-Ichung). This will have profound effects on the
sort of approach one uses for the Absolute. Anticipating our later treatment of
prayer, Balthasar asks what the religious consequences are of such negative
theology. First, he sees the human spirit stripped of all “finite ideas” beginning
with the sensible and the power of the imagination, then those of the
understanding. The only alternative to these will be a “standing-outside (Hinaus-
stehen, Ekstase)” in a “formless condition” that “corresponds to the Absolute,
that is, to that which has been released from all.” Here Balthasar sees all the final
forms of the religions as being similar in that they lead to a mysticism in which
“the physically and spiritually limited person tries to overcome and to negate his
finitude” and to do this by using various techniques, techniques which are not to
be underestimated. They are “forms of radical ‘de-I-ing’ (Entichung)” because
that self, which is greedy, hungry, ultimately self-centered, is seen as guilty.3
In the present chapter we shall see the encounter of the natural man’s
tendency toward negative theology with Biblical revelation as prelude to our
deeper investigation of that revelation. Balthasar observes that one coming from
an exposure to world religions who encounters the Bible will be astounded to
find no negative theology at all within its pages1 (although this bold assertion is
elsewhere qualified when Balthasar observes that the “awe of negative theology,
into which the natural knowledge of God flows”2 is still present in the marrow of
the bones of Old-Testament man).
Balthasar respects negative theology, calling it “necessary,” even as he is
painfully aware of its inadequacies and hence critical of what can be its
sophisticated pretensions. Without the revelation of the Biblical God, man would
be, however, limited to negative theology, with its attendant dangers. The one
who became flesh “brought the fullness of Heaven to earth” and by so doing
showed that the Unity of God need not be destroyed when expressed in the
multiplicity of the world. And this multiplicity includes “the spoken speech of
human existence . . . the multiplicity of statements and concepts, of images and
judgments.” Were it not for this revelation, contemplation would perforce be
limited to the way of negative theology which must see God as beyond, other
than all earthly concepts and images, but which does this only by committing a
“deep injustice vis-à-vis the world and one’s fellow creatures.”3
Short of the Incarnation, then, the way of negative theology is the safest
way for the natural man, both for his religious thinking and for his religious
practice.4 Yet by its very nature, the way of negation tends to a wrong relation
“with the world and one’s fellow creatures.” That it is not the only way even for
the non-Biblical world we have already seen in Balthasar’s positive assessment
of the Greek mythical tradition. Classical antiquity in the West did manage to do
something of tremendous value, especially given the natural tendency towards
the via negativa: “The affirmation of the cosmos as a whole, together with its
lights and shadows, was the most extreme and marvellous accomplishment of
the theodicy of antiquity and was doubtless also the final reason why Dante
entrusted himself without second thought to the guidance of Virgil precisely
through the dark realms.”1 It will be recalled that Virgil thereby won the title
“Father of the West.”
The Greeks on the other hand gradually lost that simplicity they had shared
with the Latins, and which so won Balthasar’s affection. Whereas for Homer and
the early tragedians the deity was engaged with humanity (although even here
Balthasar is aware of the dark, abysmal Fate which lurks behind even Homer’s
gods),2 this did not last. In Sophocles’ work, “there are no longer any glimpses
into the heart of God.” Rather, Sophocles the tragedian could only see man set
against a dark background of an “infinitely majestic, distant God.” God becomes
dark, hidden (“Darkness, Thou my Light! Eternal Night, how you shine to me!”)
and here Balthasar sees the true beginning of that “hiddenness of God” which
will later become negative theology. He notes that it is against this dark
“background, analogous to the black or red isolating background of the vases
with their heroic figures” that the “horrifying form of suffering man” is set.3
From these beginnings, the via negativa will be carried into the West
through the Platonic current of thought. In Europe, in contrast to Thomas’
careful positioning of negative theology in his approach to God, later
philosophers will lose his sense of analogy in their approach to Being in favor of
a philosophy of identity, viz., Hegel.4 Of Hegel, Balthasar writes:
Hegel allows for no space for the “inaudible voice” of the things that are not God, and of
which the psalm spoke. Behind the speech of things about God—a speech that can only
originate in God—there is a silence of God, where the negative theologians must in the end
move His kingdom. . . .5

This inability to hear the “inaudible voice” of things—a mysterious speech that
speaks of God—is characteristic of Hegel, perhaps the ultimate “un-poet” as
Kierkegaard might have testified. Behind lurks an “empty” silence of God.
Bearing in mind God’s unknowability, if knowledge means an overcoming,
Balthasar is prepared to include Kant among the great figures of negative
theology.1 In general, the Idealists betray a feel for negative theology.2 This, of
course, fits naturally into Balthasar’s critique of the inadequacy of idealistic
Turning to the world of Christian theology, a phrase of Augustine’s echoes
throughout Balthasar’s corpus: si comprehendis, non est Deus.3 This points to
the positive use of the via negativa in Christian life.4 It anticipates the other
favorite phrase of Balthasar’s—Deus semper major, a phrase we shall return to
at the end of this chapter when we consider the via eminentiæ.
We have seen already that Hegel allows for no speech of things: he
demands an absolute silence, for behind the speech of things, there is the silence
of God. That silence of God is key to our understanding of negative theology. In
the Biblical realm, words play a different role. The question of the name of God
becomes very important in the Bible. Man then asks whether any name could be
found without “idolising something finite?” All “responsible philosophy,
religion, mysticism must end in this being silent” even though man knows that
all he knows is in fact woven through and through with fragments of meaning,
himself not least of all. And man knows “that these nameable fragments must
originate in a unifying Logos, but one for which human speech and reason can
find no word.” Man is then in a situation where “he can at most establish that
every attempted word does not suffice, and that the positive necessity of his
search is stronger than everything that can suffice as answer.”5 The way of
negative theology is the way of this honest silence: natural man is indeed
condemned to silence.
Moreover, the correct perception of things, the correct valuation of things,
is lost, as for a Hegel. It is not so for the Christian who is not condemned to a
“gnostic or mystical silence.” Rather, “the Spirit both knows the voice of God in
the Word of the Son and lets it resound over the world, so that he might lend the
right meaning and tone to the responding human voices.”1
Of course, this is a word that is spoken to man, not something to which
man can simply aspire and aspiring find. So after characterizing the natural man
as silent, we find him as a seeker, once again: it is the “search of non-Biblical
man for God” that forms the “primary locus of negative (philosophical)
theology.” “Weary” of his search man either “flees into a system (and Zen is one
as well)” or finds refuge “in a resigned agnosticism that proceeds with denials.”
Of such “primary negative theology” Balthasar observes that it “forms the
strongest bastion against Christianity.”2
Natural man then either finds himself fleeing into a system—it is
noteworthy that Balthasar includes Zen as a system—or into a resigned
agnosticism. Resignation is a spirit Balthasar refuses to allow the Christian3
whose proper stance, as we shall see, is one of obedience. It is probably because
of its extreme sophistication as the flower of natural humanity, that such a highly
developed negative theology—agnostic, resigned to silence—is so resistant and
indeed inimical to Christianity.
We recall the Neo-Platonic teaching on silence as the philosopher’s hymn
of prayer:
The primordial ground (Urgrund) is “unword” (Unwort) and on the part of philosophical
man it should be honoured by silence. After Plotinus, it is especially Proclus who speaks of
the hymnic character of philosophy and who himself writes hymnic works which praise the
ineffable deity, ask for illumination, purification, union, and yet who sees the best liturgy
that can be offered him in man’s becoming similar to God. The ascent (Aufstieg) to God as
“prayer” is: the “one theological hymn to the One passing through the negations (of
everything else).”4

The “Unword” (Unwort) which is identified with the primordial “ground,” here
identified with the philosophical (Neo-Platonic) man is also that which is most
particularly characteristic of Zen, the apex of the East Asian development of
negative philosophy. It is “reverenced” by the silence of the true philosopher.1
We now turn to a more detailed look at Balthasar’s understanding of key figures
in negative philosophy and theology. We begin with Zen, and the empty silence
it hymns so insistently.

I. Zen: Selflessness as Emptiness: The “Unword”

That Zen has become a global phenomenon with powerful influence in the
Christian world was a fact not lost on Balthasar. In the “Vorwort” to his Epilog,
he asks:
But where is the “link” in the face of the anima technica vacua? A bit of seancing, a bit of
Zen, a bit of liberation theology: already quite a lot.2

Interestingly, in this mildly ironic passage, Balthasar reveals something of his

assessment of the contemporary mind: it is an anima technica vacua, a soul
technologized to the point of emptiness which seeks fulfilment in the occult, in a
radical historicization of the Christian gospel (liberation theology)—or in Zen.
Zen represents the opposite to the horizontal concerns of the liberationists: it is
the radical flight upwards, the vertical flight at its utmost.
As mentioned in the first chapter, Balthasar was aware of Amida Buddhism
through his much admired colleague Henri de Lubac. This represented a
personalist school of Buddhism, possibly influenced by contact with Christians,
and in any event, one possible bridge with orthodox Christianity. But if Amida
Buddhism—with its personal saviour, invocation of whose name would lead his
devotees to rebirth in the Western Paradise, was the religion of the masses, most
notably in China, Zen was the tradition of the elite, first in China, then, and most
perduringly, in Japan. Most recently, this quintessence of Buddhism as Balthasar
views it has garnered the interest of much of the elite of the post-Christian West.
In his understanding of Zen, Balthasar relies very heavily on the work of
Keiji Nishitani, Masao Abe, Kitaro Nishida and D.T. Suzuki. Nishitani,
representative of the Kyoto School, was especially strongly influenced by his
contact with German Idealism.1 Balthasar refers more favorably to the work of
Shizuteru Ueda.
For Balthasar, Buddhism, notably in its Theravada form, is identified with
Neo-Platonism in the West: he equates the Hinayana Nirvana with the Neo-
Platonic One.2 Zen is different: it represents the utmost in negative philosophy,
negation pushed to its limits, and so it demonstrates the natural outcome of
natural mysticism. Recalling what we have seen about the removal of
personifications in the face of the Absolute, we read that “in Oriental religions
there exists at least the tendency to break through the zone of personification of
the divine to a purely negative ‘theology’: this tendency is most strongly
developed in Zen Buddhism which among these religious forms also possesses
the strongest presence and cogency in the world.”3
Balthasar understands the Zen view as one of “absolute nothingness.” For
Zen, if the illusion in which we live is Being, then its negation—which is
Nirvana—has the name of Non-Being. But as this Non-Being is the Truth, then
from the point of view of Non-Being, what we call Being is itself Non-Being.
Then, as Balthasar notes, this being the highest wisdom, the way of Zen is one of
realizing the identity of Being and Non-Being and of living accordingly, both in
one’s contemplation and in one’s everyday life. This is the background to what
Balthasar sees as the Zen philosophy of selflessness.4 The teaching that Nirvana
is Samsara, the identity of the world of illusion and the world of “true” Non-
Being is what is at issue in this selflessness. There is a “dual negation” to which
the “seemingly radically religious nihilism of Zen Buddhism” leads. That is, “if
the Absolute is nothing from this world (which in itself is also nothing), then this
worldly nothingness can in the end coincide with that of Nirvana.” The “I- or
self-less one” who attains to liberation from the “egotistical I” is free to
“encounter all that is worldly in ultimate tranquillity.”1
Viewed against the backdrop of this nothingness, things have an illusory
character. This is reflected in Zen art, where a mysterious quality pervades the
object portrayed, indicating the emptiness out of which things exist and which
permeates the things themselves. Without this sense for the Absolute, the Ding
an sich becomes the sole focus of attention. But where “negative theology
recognises the Absolute as ineffable and strives for it, the figure can be read and
formed as an immediate pointer to the mystery of the ‘Void’ as it does in the art
of Taoism or Zen painting.”2 The Absolute is that which is inexpressible. Art
can, however, serve as an immediate referent to the mystery of emptiness. In the
words of the Zen saying, art can serve as a finger pointing to the moon. One
would be foolish indeed to focus one’s attention on the finger.
The divine, what in the West is called God, is annihilated in the
nothingness out of which He comes as well. He disappears in an Un-ground.
“For all practical purposes,” Balthasar observes, the “Platonic doctrine of ideas
disappears in Zen.” What remains is the “total paradox of that worldly reality
which emerges from absolute nothingness and which is stamped by it through
and through.” The well-known Zen stance of the “simple affirmation of the
everyday as such” occurs with no reference to any “divine Logos” and thus “the
mediation of speech disappears and what remains is the simple, mute pointing to
‘this here’ (Dieses-da),” which yet has no meaningful grounding. Balthasar
concludes that this “disappearance of God in the annihilating ground” finds
resonances in Eckhart and in Zen-Buddhism, and that both “lead to German
Another word for the absolute nothingness of Zen is “sunyata.” Both
relative and absolute have the same nothingness as their ground. The Christian
“opposition” between God and world is thus itself “relativised.” This sunyata is
the Void out of which what Christians would call God comes. As Masao Abe
writes, “The Ground of our existence is nothing, sunyata.” Sunyata is “deep
enough . . . to embrace God Himself. For sunyata is not the nothing out of which
God has created everything, but rather the nothing, from which God Himself has
That this double negation—both of being and non-being—is unfavorably
received by Balthasar is clear: he calls it “probably the furthest possible
distancing from that which seeking means for the Biblical man.”3 That is, in the
experience of satori, in the discovery of nothingness—the “Great
Enlightenment”—one’s search is at an end, one need seek no more.
In negatively assessing the nothingness of Zen, Balthasar often uses the
word “void” or “emptiness” (Leere) against which he contrasts the fullness
(Fülle) of the God of Revelation. Time and again one comes across the phrase a
“formless Void” (eine formlose Leere).4 In connection with Christ’s descent into
hell, he writes about the Void and its ground, sin.5 Elsewhere he speaks of an
“empty and bad infinity.”6 Even more dramatically, he speaks of the role of the
“‘spirit’ of anti-godliness (Gegengöttlichkeit)” as one which wants to replace the
“anointing in the divine spirit” and the “‘seed’ of God in man and thus his ‘being
generated by God’ with the self-sufficient, self-divinising Void of the I, that
‘seeks its own honour.’”7
The self-divinizing Void of the ego which is self-sufficient and seeks its
own glory is here characterized as evil: for Balthasar, at least, the Void leads to
what is sinful and evil. Of those who would go behind the speech of created
things, Balthasar has hard things to say. The “witness of Being” becomes
imperceptible to those who “can no longer read the beautiful,” and the words
which would indicate the beautiful must begin with the “mystery of the form or
of the object.” Communication in a form of speech is the “primordial
phenomenon (Urphänomen)” and to try to “get behind it,” to seek the ineffable
ineffably, is to fall “into the Void and, worse, into the anti-True and the anti-
The Void is associated for Balthasar with Gnosis as well. Speaking of his
greatly admired Irenæus, he notes that for him, “God is the All, outside of which
nothing can be, no independently existing, opposing Void (kenoma).”2 God’s
fullness admits of no incompleteness, no limit, nor emptiness.3
We shall return to fullness in our next chapter. Here we have seen that Zen
represents the most intense, the extreme, human attempt to escape the limits of
the human condition. By its thoroughgoing negation—both of being and of non-
being—it reaches the Void, Sunyata. That is a Void against which all beings
appear as illusory, as pointers to the emptiness out of which they exist. More
importantly, God Himself exists out of that emptiness in which He is annihilated
as well.4 Thus, all that “is” is an absolute nothingness—it is empty. Moreover,
Christ’s self-emptying, kenosis, is, for Nishitani, a “becoming-empty-in-
Himself.”5 The Person, as Nishitani observes, becomes a “mask of absolute
nothingness.”6 Speech, and meaning, disappear in a mute pointing to the
concrete existent. Although Balthasar respects the thoroughgoingness of Zen, he
also sees the emptiness as dangerous, as leading to the “empty and bad infinity.”
We have seen that Buddhism is linked with Neo-Platonism—kindred
teachings of which Zen is seen as an extreme form. If today Zen is the
conversation partner for Christianity, for the first two millennia, the chief
conversation partner was the Neo-Platonic tradition. We shall see much of it as
we turn to explore six representative thinkers of the Christian via negativa.

II. Christian Apophaticism: Greek

A. Evagrius Ponticus: Crypto-Buddhist of the Desert
Balthasar was publicly involved with Evagrius Ponticus as early as the Thirties
when he engaged Karl Rahner in a dispute over the early Christian figure in the
pages of the Zeitschrift für Aszese und Mystik. The issue at stake was whether or
not Evagrius could properly be called a Christian mystic. Rahner enthusiastically
held that he could:
The spiritual teaching of Evagrius wants to be Christian and so it is as well: it wants to build
on the foundation of faith and it ends with the doctrine of a mystical vision of the triune

Balthasar is not so sure. He writes:

Evagrius is a genuine mystic. But does that therefore make him a Christian mystic?2

Much later, in the first volume of Herrlichkeit, Balthasar will go so far as to

write that Evagrius “tends towards the boundary of the Buddhist, where finality
and form are in danger of becoming only negative concepts which are to be
overcome.”3 Elsewhere he identifies Evagrius as an extreme Origenist:4 “He is
more Origenistic than Origen, and only in light of this Origenism is Evagrian
mysticism to be understood.”5 As Zen is radical Buddhism, so Evagrius, for
Balthasar, is identified with radical negativity.6 What in his teachings so
provokes Balthasar?
Evagrius lies at the origins of that school of eastern spirituality known as
Hesychasm. His works figure in the collection of eastern spirituality known as
the Philokalia. Silence, stillness, is a goal of the life of extermination of the
passions. Contemplation, the vision, is the goal par excellence: it leads to that
knowledge which is the true Gnosis, that vision so favored by the Alexandrines.
Their tendency to downplay the body in favor of the soul is, however, radicalised
by Evagrius until “spirit is defined as that which is capable of Gnosis, bodies as
that which are not capable of Gnosis.”1
Evagrius’ writings break down into two parts: the practical, informed by
the Desert Fathers, and the speculative, informed by the Origenistic school.2 The
speculative side is clearly dangerous. At first, the practical comes in for high
praise: “looking just at the ‘Practicus’ of Evagrius, [one sees] a masterpiece, that
already contains within it more or less all the Ignatian Rules for Discernment.”3
However, much as he admires this early work of Christian asceticism, Balthasar,
student of Origen that he was, was too aware of difficulties with Origen to let
extreme Origenism go unchallenged. Thus Balthasar insists that the “Praktike of
Evagrius was completely inspired and led by his Gnostike” and thus it would be
impossible to “simply claim the former for Christian ascesis without taking the
latter into account.”4
This spirituality of the desert combined with Alexandrine speculative
theology is potentially very misleading in Balthasar’s view. Together with its
“neighboring” Alexandrine spirituality, that of the desert threatened to “shove
the discipleship of Christ onto dangerous parallel tracks.” Although not exactly
heresies, they “could lead to rash encounters between Christianity and the Asian
world religions.” Of Evagrius’ role in this, we read:
Evagrius—from whom the road leads straight to Athos and Palamitism, and in a roundabout
way via Palladius and Cassian to western monasticism—wants to push forward to the inner
light of the soul and, transcending it, to the divine light of grace in the soul by renouncing
everything proper to the soul (phantasms, conceptual contents). Finally, in this light—why
not?—the very uncreated trinitarian light of the Father can shine forth. But even Augustine
gets himself deeply involved in the Asiatic peculiarities (Asiatismen) of the Neo-platonists
and only gradually finds the way from a philosophy of religion with a Christian
reinterpretation to a true theology of discipleship of the Cross (Kreuzesnachfolge).1

Here Balthasar clearly places Evagrius at the fount both of the spirituality of Mt.
Athos and of that trend in eastern spirituality that became known as Palamism,
as well as of western monasticism. His influence is especially strongly felt in the
work of John of the Cross, as we shall later see. The central problem is the turn
from all creatures, the purification from all images, ideas, to an inner light which
is to lead to the divine light of grace. This Platonizing spirituality is overcome by
Augustine’s following of the Cross—it will be noticed that what Balthasar is
using as standard of Christian mysticism is the discipleship of Christ (Nachfolge
Christi). The rejection of all phantasms and concepts alone, leading to a mere
“emptiness,” is anathema for Balthasar. He invokes the word “Maya” to indicate
in what spiritual camp Evagrius has ended up: “the veil of Maya becomes
progressively thinner and first the ‘pragma’ and material disappear then the
multi-coloured manifoldness of spiritual logoi, until only the formless light in
the gazing spirit remains.”2
Recalling what was said in the first chapter of the deadening role of the
Absolute and of the universal reason of the Idealists in destroying particular
beings, it comes as no surprise then to see that now “the multiplicity of the
world-logos is annulled and the ‘Kingdom of the Son,’ i.e., the kingdom of the
pluralistic world-reason, comes to an end and is subsumed to the ‘Kingdom of
the Father,’ i.e., of absolute Unity.”3
As noted, the way to experience this is through an inward contemplation
which rejects all forms which become merely “Maya” in light of the
overwhelming contemplation. What is most unique about the ecstasy proposed
by Evagrius, according to Balthasar, is the extremely strong emphasis on the
contemplation of one’s own essence,1 a self-contemplation which is at the same
time experience of God.2 Balthasar is deeply disturbed to note that for Evagrius,
the Christian teaching on love of neighbor itself becomes merely a means in the
purification—the “emptying”—of the first stage of the ascetical life.3 Indeed, for
Balthasar, “contemplation of the Trinity and contemplation of the essence of
one’s own spirit appear for Evagrius to be two sides of the same experience.”4
This “technique” of turning away from all “diabolical illusion” leads all too
easily, for Balthasar, to a “refined self-observation and experimentation.”5
Later on, Balthasar will write of the “enstasis” which Evagrius
promulgates rather than of any “ecstasy.” There is “no ecstasy to a Thou, but
enstasy to a God within (geistinwendig), through the overcoming of all sensible
and mental forms” forms that are either there in memory or that might be
“mirrored before one by the demon.” Indifference to all forms, apatheia, thus
comes to the fore. The “highest condition of prayer” then is “perfect anaesthesia,
feelinglessness” and this because “God’s Light, within which we see all that has
form, is itself formless” and “only the one entirely stripped of form can behold
the countenance of the Father. . . .”6
Recalling what was said of Zen and anticipating Balthasar’s Johannine
understanding of Jesus as the Face of God, we can see the severe criticism of
Evagrius that is being made. Balthasar’s verdict on Evagrius is thus hard, but it
is consistent with his critique of philosophy that naturally hits the extreme
Origenist at the root. He is convinced that “every great, deep, religiously
oriented metaphysics in the end somehow becomes idealism.” This is so because
the human spirit must negate the relative to attain the Absolute; from the
revelation of the Absolute in Christ, man will be given “the power from God to
affirm the relative.” In any event, “Evagrius is stuck at the level of world-denial,
i.e., on the pre-Christian level. . . .”1
Evagrius is thus not a “fallen Christian” as much as a philosopher/mystic
who has not yet reached the Christian level, but is at the level of preparation.
This will become clearer as we proceed to the more explicitly Catholic
understanding of the Christian life, where:
That which is distinctly Christian is that one not only “starts” from that which is corporeal-
sensible as from a religious material from which one can make the necessary abstractions:
rather, what is distinct is that one remains with the seeing, hearing, touching and savouring
eating of this flesh and blood that has borne and taken away the sin of the world.2

Whereas the truly Catholic view is then profoundly incarnational—it is a

remaining, an abiding with flesh and blood—the Alexandrine tradition has
tended from the beginning to turn away from the Incarnation. This has had
profound effects for the subsequent history of Christian spirituality, in a
tendency to read all that is corporeal as “‘symbol’ for the spirit.” Both the
Evagrian tradition and the Augustinian have tended to the “‘vision’ of the
formless God in His unapproachable light” and thus they have been suspicious
of “all formed visions, auditions, etc.” Evagrius, an “extreme Origenist,” sees all
possible form that would appear in contemplation as a “trick of the demons” and
Diadochus teaches it were better to reject “these forms, even should they by
chance occasionally originate from God.” Highest suspicion then attached to the
“almost inexhaustibly deceptive source of the human power of imagination.” In
the end, all that is trustworthy is “the intuition of spiritual truth, whether as self-
contemplation of the soul (as in Evagrius) or as the supernatural irradiation of
the divine light in the light of the soul.”3
Evagrius is thus an early Father who did not succeed in finding the
distinctly Christian. Although his teaching on the discernment of spirits is
profoundly rich—to compare it with Ignatius is, for Balthasar, highest praise—
still he remained at the level of “natural mysticism.” That brings with it the
difficulties of the destruction of the world of particular creatures in favor of a
“blinding light.” In the case of Evagrius, this flight is not seen so much in an
ecstasy—a flight up and out—as in an enstasy—a turn inward. The purification
is too negative, too thoroughgoing—again, we observe that Balthasar
characterizes Evagrius as “extreme” and “radical.” All words are to be
destroyed, all concepts, in a too thoroughgoing purge of all that is corporeal. The
end result of the purification, of the asceticism was to have been a vision of God;
instead, for Evagrius, one ends up all too readily with a vision of oneself. This,
for Balthasar, is spiritual shipwreck. Having seen how one of the early Greek
Fathers succumbed to the pull of pre-Christian mysticism in a way which if open
to Asian religion yet was stranger to the following of the Cross, we turn to a
Greek Father who knew considerably more success, to Dionysius the

B. Dionysius the Areopagite: Symbol and Mysticism

in Harmony
Dionysius is for Balthasar a figure with virtually no shadow. If it sometimes
seems that Evagrius can do no right, in spite of his very rich teaching on
discernment of spirits, it seems as if Dionysius can do no wrong, although he is
generally criticized by moderns for his strong Platonism. For Balthasar, he is,
along with John of the Cross, the greatest æsthetic theologian in Christian
history.1 It goes without saying that Dionysius is not Evagrian. This is illustrated
in his writings where Dionysius portrays one who denies the Resurrection as the
figure of Simon Magus: Balthasar explains this, saying that “the denial of the
Resurrection had nothing to do with the historical Simon, but presumably much
to do with an Origenistic-Evagrian contemporary.”2 Balthasar gratefully echoes
a title given Dionysius by Reichstätter, one of his critics: the “Father of Christian
mysticism.”1 In his treatment of Dionysius in Herrlichkeit: Fächer der Stile,
Balthasar launches a massive attempt at rehabilitation of the theologian whose
image had been seriously tarnished for moderns who, having discovered that the
Syrian monk had written under the Biblical pseudonym, proceeded to discount
That is something that today’s learned circles, especially in the German world, cannot
forgive him. After their devastating tank formations had driven over his garden no more
grass would grow there for them. All that remained was the “PSEUDO” written in capital
letters, underlined with all manner of contempt. Not only would he henceforth be considered
a forgerer; with the establishment of his dependence on Plotinus and on Proclus all the
originality of his thought seemed to be denied him.2

The impassioned tone of Balthasar’s defence indicates his admiration for

Dionysius and his intention to restore him to his former place of dignity in
Christian theology.
That it was a place of dignity—and influence—scarcely to be repeated is
well known to Balthasar. Defending him against the charges of a facile Neo-
Platonism and of a cheap tricksterism, Balthasar writes that in spite of all other
influences Dionysius remains, more than any other theologian, “indivisible
(unteilbar).” Balthasar is much taken with the tremendous influence Dionysius
had on subsequent theology, and maintains that it would have been as great even
without the apostolic connection alleged for his work.3
Wholeness, the “indivisibility” of Dionysius’ creation is the central
characteristic of the work. It is not a mere amalgam of various currents in early
Christianity. Instead, Balthasar insists that the currents of thought available at the
time were forged into a unity by the creative vision of a thoroughly orthodox
Christian theologian, one whose unity of person and work exude a singular force
and “luster of holiness.”4
That he did stand at a high point of various currents of thought is
undeniable. Balthasar writes that it was no “sacrilege” but rather a “fulfilment”
when the Greek Fathers and their Liturgy took over from the tradition of Greek
thought, from Plato to Plotinus, the notion of “the cosmos as the beautiful
presentation and phenomenal form of the hidden super-Beauty of God.” Nothing
however in this work of appropriation “approaches the theological composition
of the Areopagite in terms of the will and power of form.”1
He is then the greatest Christian incorporator of the æstheticmetaphysical
vision of the Greeks. It will be noticed that it is the æsthetic vision—the world as
beautiful manifestation (Erscheinung) of the God who is above beauty—that is
here stressed. Manifestation is then the “æsthetical expression for
communication and word.” The seriousness with which Dionysius takes
manifestation keeps it from becoming mere appearance, illusion—and,
eventually, Maya. Balthasar insists that it is manifestation understood in the
Greek, not in the Indian sense, as the becoming manifest “in reality” of that God
Who remains “ever greater and ever more hidden.”2
The wholeness which is characteristic of Dionysius comes out of the move
of the “exzessus,” the “over” (über) which characterizes his theology. Along
with John of the Cross, he is listed as the theologian who relies most on the
apophatic method.3 But that method is not an end in itself—it is not “radically”
or, more accurately, exclusively used, as it had been by Evagrius. Rather, it is
used in conjunction with the positive way, to lead to a correct vision. This
tension between cataphatic and apophatic is most typical of Dionysius. It is seen
in terms of symbolism and mysticism. Balthasar urges that one not see
symbolism simply as an “expression for the immanence of God” while
mysticism expresses His transcendence. Symbols are only “legible as pointers to
that God who remains ‘totally different’ no matter the analogies” while
mysticism offers negations “which only have the goal . . . to express the union
with God as He really is.”4 That is, each completes the other.
According to Dionysius himself, one cannot suppose that one’s negations
comprehend God any better than one’s affirmations. Although he sets the
negations above the affirmations, in the end one must elevate that which is
positive in the negations.1
This movement is what is meant by the “exzessus” (a name Balthasar
usually associates with Bonaventure2). This means that “the last word of
‘mystical theology’ must say that God stands not only beyond all affirmations,
but also beyond all negations.”3 One is granted no unmediated vision of God on
earth—this in contradiction to the teaching of Gregory of Nyssa and various
texts in Augustine.4 Another way of viewing this is as the overcoming of gnosis
through pistis. For Balthasar, the Alexandrines and Augustine were oriented to a
gnosis beyond pistis, although this gnosis would have “dark” elements as well: it
was not mere “knowledge” without a sense of the darkling light. What he so
favors in Dionysius is that pistis beyond all gnosis which was introduced into
Christian theology by Dionysius. In saying this, he first notes that “all true extra-
Biblical religious philosophy was always suffused with the incomprehensibility
of God and placed the via negativa higher than all affirmative ways of knowing
God—and this not out of resignation, but rather in order to express the most
positive elements of the human experience of God.” Gnosis is the “true organ of
encounter with God” but in Late Antiquity the surpassing of gnosis, the
“exzessus” took on the name “pistis,” and it was Dionysius and Maximus who
brought this over into the very center of Christian theology in a way which
proved perduring.5
Here we see again that the legitimate experience of God outside the Bible
is taken very seriously by Balthasar. He accepts the fact that, as noted earlier, it
will be permeated with the sense of God’s incomprehensibility—and so, it will
be a negative theology—but it uses this negative theology not out of resignation
to man’s inability to know more, but rather because of the positive elements in
that “dark knowledge.” This is a subtle point, but it is akin to the one that
although there is no darkness in God, as St. Paul teaches, there is a darkling light
which is dark precisely because of the excess (exzessus) of Light. It is not the
same: the darkling light is not darkness. In fact, it would seem to be the opposite.
It is the excess of light that produces the blinding.
Thus we begin to see in Dionysius what will be the conclusion of our
investigation into the via negativa: it is the via eminentiæ that Balthasar is
looking for, and that which he most praises when he finds. The via negativa is a
part of the process, it is a tension to be maintained. As we shall see, St. John of
the Cross and Dionysius are capable of such a high flight vertically only because
they are so able to spread their negative view horizontally—but that is in service
of the movement to God. Thus, the apophatic movement is never loosed from
the cataphatic.1
It was Dionysius’ influence on Thomas which proved even greater than
that of Aristotle. Aristotle is given credit for having brought the notion of “taxis”
to Thomas, but in fact, it was Dionysius who brought the hierarchical sense in its
most harmonious version into Christian theology. Aristotle may have given
Thomas the “exact categories”: it was Dionysius who supplied the framework
for the Summa and more, the “fundamental structure of [Thomas’] teaching on
God, his teaching on the angels, on the ‘sacred’ . . . cosmos, on the ecclesial
hierarchy. . . .” Balthasar waxes lyrical, writing that Dionysius further supplied
that which is “an atmosphere, something spiritual . . . that deep peace and
blessedness that Augustine does not convey in the same way and that is and has
remained perhaps the most important presence of Asia in the heart of occidental
Once again we see that there is a good side to non-western tradition—but it
must be a religion that does not become Promethean, does not seek that
systematic flight from the world which characterizes natural religion. So
Dionysius represents the greatest presence of the East in the heart of Western
theology, viz. in Aquinas to whom he supplies an “atmosphere,” a harmony, and
a peace which Augustine does not convey, at least not in the same way.
The secret of this harmony is likely the presence of boundaries, of limits,
in conjunction with a keen sense for the Boundless. If Dionysius surpassed all
others in his emphasis on God’s transcendence, no one else has “represented the
positivity of the essential boundaries of creatures and of the essential order of the
hierarchy” so “uncompromisingly” and this “because no one has so consistently
thought through and applied the consequences of this apophaticism.” It is
precisely because an objectively manifest order, like that of the Church, is the
“form of manifestation of God” that “a flight from the world is impossible even
for the highest mysticism.”1 Thus, it is only the most thoroughgoing
apophaticism that can allow for the most rigorously maintained respect for the
delineations of form of the way of manifestation.
This correct balance between the unseen God and the revealed form of God
is the key to orthodox theology for Balthasar: it is the balance which lies at the
heart of æsthetics, and so it is a balance which when found merits highest praise.
It is the “radical” negation of an Evagrius which precisely destroys the balance
which the God of Creation desires man to have. It is the knowledge of
boundaries, of limits, which is at the heart of æsthetic perception, and at the
heart of correct theology. It must again be emphasized that in this well-ordered
cosmos, the highest mysticism knows nothing of world flight.
Elsewhere, one has good reason to believe that Balthasar prefers the
apocalyptic imagination of John over the (“allegedly”) formless vision of Paul
which he maintains has proven dominant in the history of Christian mysticism.2
And again, the relation of word and silence enters into the picture as well.
Theology, for Balthasar, is “essentially initiation, myesthai.” Taking his image
from the Book of Apocalypse, he writes that theology is the “concentric ordering
of Heaven and earth, angels and men in singing praise around the throne of the
Invisible: Word that goes forth in an ever widening echo, round the centre of
silence, sound around the essential, unapproachably hidden stillness. . . .”1
Balthasar continues rhapsodically of this interplay of Word and Silence:
This central silence is for Dionysius certainly not the empty silence of non-Christian
mysticism, but rather that once-formed primordial Word, that is beyond all sounding words.
The further it reverberates, the more words are needed to convey it. For even the angels stay
behind its expression, and men indeed need many words . . . for the more we strive towards
the summit, the narrower becomes the realm of words, so that now we, submerging into the
superspiritual (übergeistige) darkness, will discover not a terse speech, but rather
speechlessness and the absence of thought; . . . in the end speech becomes inaudible and
entirely united with the ineffable.2

So theology itself is the correct ordering of Heaven and earth, of angels and men,
singing praises at the throne of the Unseen: the Word surrounds the middle of
Silence. Words proliferate the further one goes from the center. Once again, the
silence is not an empty silence, but rather the divine silence which summons a
corresponding hymn of silence as it were with which to be honoured in its
hiddenness: “theology will be careful . . . to honour with silence the hiddenness
of God which towers above us.”3
Dionysius is thus at the heart of Balthasar’s sense of what Christian
theology is about. Balthasar writes that if one strikes out of Dionysius all that
seems too Neo-Platonic, what remains is true Biblical theology of covenant, a
profoundly and thoroughly bridal theology.4
So as we have seen, one cannot then say that symbolism and spiritual
concepts are expressions for the immanence of God, while mysticism (e.g.,
wordless darkness, negation) expresses His transcendence, for symbols are
meant to indicate a God who remains totally other, while the negations of
mysticism are used to express the union with God as he is.1 This “tension
between apophatic and cataphatic pervades symbolic theology,” for this theology
treats of the God who “is all in all and at the same time nothing of any of them”
and of man who is “spiritual (indivisible) and corporeal (divisible).” The symbol
must speak to these two levels in man, and it is the “greatness and tragedy of
man, to comprehend both [the inner, simple vision and the outer, pluriform]
without bringing them into a final synthesis.” Man needs both to contemplate a
world of images and “relentlessly to transform all images into the image-less.”2
Thus, the symbol remains both “necessary” and yet “incapable.” But that
certainly does not mean that it must be destroyed in what must eventually be a
Promethean overcoming or a surmounting (Überstieg).
Dionysius is accused by some of being a parricide for having used Platonic
tools against Platonists.3 But what so endears him to Balthasar is precisely that
he took the best of the Platonic tradition and put it to the use of the Christian,
seen most clearly in the theology of St. Thomas. Noting that even in his own
lifetime Dionysius’ heavy use of the pagan forms of thought was ridiculed,
Balthasar observes that Evagrius defended himself by saying that indeed the
Greeks had used divine things in a non-divine way: the problem lay with the
correct use. Balthasar notes that the problem really emerged with the Gnosticism
and Neo-Platonism of the Christian era in which Greek philosophy came to
represent “the misuses of genuine religious thought for purposes of Promethean
speculation.” Dionysius “does not want to ‘borrow’ but to return what has been
borrowed to its rightful owner.”4
In Dionysius we have been exposed to what is called the via eminentiæ,
often echoed favorably by Balthasar in the phrase Deus semper major. As he
writes of Dionysius, it means that God is always elevated above all principles in
which He is participated, and thus is always seen as “above” (über). By grace,
creatures can participate in God through divinization—but in so doing, they
participate in that which is incapable of being participated (Unteilnehmbare)—
for were it not, then it would not be God in which they participated.1
The distinction between “God as He is in Himself” and “God manifested
toward creatures” is the source of much concern for Balthasar. If Dionysius, with
his hierarchy, his thoroughgoing negative theology at the service of a God to
whom it points hit the right balance, we turn to a Greek theologian who is much
more problematic for Balthasar, to Gregory Palamas.

C. Gregory Palamas: God Incompletely Revealed

It is a curious thing that although he so often uses the term “Asian” in a
pejorative sense as indicating a formless mysticism, Balthasar praises Dionysius
the Areopagite for bringing to theology an “Asian grace” lacking in Augustine;
on the other hand, formed so heavily at the school of the Greek Fathers—one
recalls that his most important theologians were St. Irenæus, Origen, St. Gregory
of Nyssa and St. Maximus the Confessor2—Balthasar also has great problems
with the Greeks Evagrius Ponticus and Gregory Palamas.
Gregory Palamas, canonized in the Greek Church, was Archbishop of
Thessalonika and center of a controversy in theology which has its effects to the
present day. His main enemy was the monk Barlaam of southern Italy, although
his concepts were also disputed by Gregory the Sinaite.3 The anonymous author
of Orthodox Spirituality, a monk of the Eastern Church, seeks to disassociate the
tradition of Hesychasm from that of Palamism:
During the fourteenth century, Hesychasm was identified with the theories of St. Gregory
Palamas, Archbishop of Salonica, on the “uncreated light,” conceptions disputed by Barlaam
and Gregory the Sinaite. In order to understand and estimate Hesychasm, it is advisable to
disentangle it from the violent polemics which “Palamism” has raised and which interest
dogmatic theology more than spirituality.4

Whether the distinction between dogmatic theology and spirituality can be as

easily made as our irenic monk would have it—either in the work of Balthasar or
certainly in the tradition—is questionable. But the fact is that the Orthodox
author himself seeks to distance himself from Palamas who has been used
widely in polemics.
Another Orthodox writer, famous for his presentation of mystical theology
(and no stranger to polemics), is of another opinion. In his Mystical Theology of
the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky observes that the distinction between the
essence and the energies which is at the heart of Palamas’ teaching is “of great
importance for the Eastern Church’s conception of mystical life.”1 Lossky
The doctrine of the energies, ineffably distinct from the essence, is the dogmatic basis of the
real character of all mystical experience. God, who is inaccessible in His essence, is present
in His energies “as in a mirror,” remaining invisible in that which He is; “in the same way
we are able to see our faces, themselves invisible to us in a glass,” according to a saying of
St Gregory Palamas. Wholly unknowable in His essence, God wholly reveals Himself in His
energies, which yet in no way divide His nature into two parts—knowable and unknowable
—but signify two different modes of the divine existence, in the essence and outside of the

We see, then, that the distinction between essence and energies for which
Palamas is famous is one way of dealing with the problem of the unknowability
and knowability of God. Lossky holds that only with the doctrine of energies can
“mystical experience” be understood to take place. This echoes the problem we
have considered in Dionysius of how Dionysius’ anthropology is great precisely
in that it recognizes no final synthesis, but relying on symbols maintains the
tension in God and man, and between them.3
Lossky goes on to describe the foes of Palamas as:
[E]astern theologians who had been strongly influenced by Aristotelianism (in particular the
Calabrian monk Barlaam who had received his theological training in Italy, and Akindynus,
who quotes the Greek translation of the Summa Theologica)—saw in the real distinction
between the essence and the energies a derogation of the simplicity of God, and accused
Palamas of ditheism and polytheism. Having become alienated from the apophatic and
antinomical spirit of eastern theology, they set up against it a conception of God which saw
Him, primarily at any rate, as a simple essence, in which even the hypostases assumed the
character of relations within the essence.1

It is interesting that Lossky characterizes Palamas’ critics as having departed

from the properly apophatic spirit of Eastern spirituality, for it is precisely this
apophatic spirit with which Balthasar is wrestling.
Balthasar was not unaware of the various trends in Byzantine spirituality
which flowed together into the thought of Palamas, nor was he unaware of the
rich background to that thought. He sees the history of Byzantine mysticism as a
“pendulum” between the two poles of Origen/Macarius and Dionysius. For the
former, “faith must be an inner life and realised experience”; for the latter, “God
cannot be experienced, faith is at most the total act of the person in which he
transcends all his knowledge and feeling.” Both of these “motifs” are found in
Palamas, according to Balthasar.2
We have seen this Origenistic tendency towards the inner light exaggerated
severely in Evagrius, and we have seen the Areopagitic motif of pistis (with its
dark knowledge) above gnosis and his thoroughgoing apophaticism. If both are
present in Palamas, the problem for Balthasar is something else. That is, God
seems to be removed to an essence behind His manifestations, His uncreated
energies. Balthasar does not explicitly characterize this as ditheism, but he sees it
as scattering the Glory of God to what might ultimately be an assortment of
nothing less than “principalities and powers.” That is, the Glory (Herrlichkeit)
would lose its power of manifestation, dissolving to various spiritual forces,
while the “essence of God” might “withdraw” to an unknowability such as that
which tended to characterize Late Judaism as well as Palamas in the Eastern
Church and Gilbert de la Porrèe in the Western. Balthasar then concludes: “But
thus the essence of revelation is destroyed.”1
If the problem with Evagrius was his inability to transcend natural, pre-
Christian mysticism, and so his extension of a problematical type of paganism
into the heart of Christianity, Palamas reverts as well, especially in the direction
of developments in “Late Judaism,” a subject which fascinates Balthasar. It will
be recalled from our first chapter that late Judaism tended towards Gnosticism,
e.g., Cabala. Here, it is observed that there is a hypostatisation of the “utterances
and properties of God.”2 Balthasar returns to this side of Palamism several times,
identifying it as a peculiarly Old Testament form of negative theology. He writes
that it is “tempting” to view the theology of Palamas as an “adequate
expression” of the Old Testament understanding of the relation of God and
creature. That is, God remains unapproachable in His Being (Sein): what is
known and to some extent experienced and even participated by man are His
attributes, the Palamite energies. Apart from that relation established in the
Covenant, “no other participation in Yahweh is at all possible.” It is here that
Balthasar sees the negative theology that lay behind the positive theology of the
Old Testament.3
An observation in Orthodox Spirituality would seem to confirm Balthasar’s
insight into the dangerous tendency of this hypostatisation of the energies. The
anonymous author observes that early in this century, a controversy emerged on
Mt. Athos centring on the Jesus Prayer. Noting that one school of mysticism
“extolled the worship of the Sacred Name of Jesus (onomatolatreia) as of the
actual bearer of Divinity” the Orthodox monk concludes that such a view is
“patently unacceptable.”4
What Balthasar sees then and rejects in Palamite theology is that the
essence of God recedes into an unknowability, while His “knowability” becomes
diffuse—and the revelation which He intended is thereby destroyed. That this is
not what the older Greek Fathers intended is clear to Balthasar. For them, God’s
revelation is real even as he remains “the ungraspable”:
This paradox remains the centre of the “theologia” of the Greek Fathers, who by means of it
from the very start overhaul the thesis of Gregory Palamas that God reveals Himself only by
means of His “energies,” behind which the “essence” unknowably abides. If God cannot
speak in such a way that He expresses Himself, if the Word of God as Son does not have the
power to show the Father—to make true the old saying, loquere ut videam te—then we fall
back behind Nicæa into Arianism and Middle-Platonism.1

Again, we see a regression in Palamas, for that which he maintains that so

troubles Balthasar is that God cannot fully express Himself in His manifestation,
but that rather somehow He “holds something back” in His essence. It is the Son
who can fully express the Father. Balthasar opposes the facile resolution of a
tension he feels must be maintained, and sees here a reversion—in this place, it
is to Middle Platonism. It is precisely characteristic of the God of revelation to
reveal Himself. The God of love is “apophatic” not in a “withdrawal” to a
hidden essence as Palamas intends: rather, the God of love is apophatic in that
He “brings the one filled by Him to adoring silence.”2 The moment of the
apophatic is not behind the appearance of God, but in it. The quality which
characterizes this tension in our understanding of God is paradox. The God who
reveals Himself as Trinity yet “remains the ever-more-mysterious,” the one who
“remains the why-less beyond freedom and necessity.”3
Thus, both “with and against Gregory Palamas: God’s ‘essence’ does not
cover itself with His ‘energies,’ although it really becomes known in them.”4
It is God’s freedom of expression in relation to His Word that is also at
stake here for Balthasar, and the relation of word and silence follows. Does God
fully express Himself in His Word, or does He hold something back? Balthasar
insists on the paradox that the God Who reveals Himself remains “unthinkable
and inexpressible in His revelation” yet has a “freedom for the Word” which
results from His “absolutely sovereign freedom.” In Jesus Christ, this Word is
revealed as one Who prays and Who is engaged in dialogue. The correct
understanding of the revelation of the Word of God, uttered from His freedom, is
assaulted by two “misunderstandings of the divine ineffability.” On the one
hand, the Word is no longer understood as self-expression of God but rather as
“a simple reflection.” Here, the Glory of the Lord is related to God as the
Plotinian Nous to the One, or in what was the increasing tendency of Judaism to
replace the Word with the Name of God, a Name that itself became ineffable
until what remained was the Presence (Sekina). When the Presence no longer
dwelt in the renewed temple, it became “an eschatological-messianic concept.”
In the Greek world, the Neo-Platonic emphasis on the incomprehensibility of
God continues through Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius and leads to the
Palamite “division between the essentiality and the properties of forms of
expression of God.” Balthasar clinches the matter by concluding that “both
replacements (Ersetzungen) of the Biblical Word undervalue the freedom of God
to provide for Himself a valid expression.”1
Thus, to summarize, Balthasar sees the issue here being the question of
God’s ability to express Himself fully. Balthasar insists that the Trinitarian God
is not some penultimate behind which an abysmal essence hides, but “rather in
the generation of the Son and in His mission to the world God the Father has
‘given all’ (Rom 8:32) to the world. . . .”2 In Palamas’ separation of the “Light of
Tabor,” present in the world, from the unapproachable, unshareable Essence,
Balthasar sees a division as unacceptable as that between godhead and God in
Gilbert de la Porrè and Meister Eckhart.3 We shall soon be returning to this
distinction in Eckhart.
It should be noted that Balthasar, lover of the Greek Fathers that he was,
does soften his criticism of this tendency of eastern theology by stating that were
one to desire to “reconcile eastern and western theology’s views of what in
Revelation remains mysterious, one could say at most that the difference comes
from a different understanding of participation.”1 Still, he insists that though it is
“in the immanent Trinity that the Father gives the Son everything except
Fatherhood, this is still no indication that the Father has retained something for
Himself.”2 In its correct (non-Palamite) expression, Balthasar sees an
indispensable partner for Latin theology in the Greek tradition. The Greek
tradition is characterized by the attempt to “see the ineffable simplicity of the
divine Glory poured out over the entire form,” an attempt which renders eastern
theology “especially symbolic” as it “regards the glowing middle of the
epiphany of God.” The West, on the other hand, proceeds with “rational
diligence” as it works its way from what it excludes to that middle, and it does
this in order “to better understand itself and to open more paths of insight for
others.” No matter: “the methods can and must complete each other.”3
His appreciation of the simplicity of God Whose light bathes the world of
creation certainly tends in the direction of that which Palamas has been saying
about the essence. And yet it is not an unknowable essence, a sort of black hole,
outside of which form becomes relativized to the point of confusion, which
seems to be Balthasar’s fear. Rather, the balanced view would allow for the
eastern instinct for the divine simplicity but one which shines in the manifested
Concluding our look at Palamas, it should not go unmentioned that
Balthasar is quite critical of the Hesychast focus on the vision of the light of
Tabor, as this was but one episode in the life of Jesus and one which, moreover,
moved towards directing the attention towards the Passion of Christ.4
Having viewed three representative figures of the eastern tradition of
apophasis, we now move west.

III. Christian Apophaticism: Latin

A. Augustine:
Overcoming Neo-Platonism through the Humble
If Evagrius is painted black and Dionysius is painted white, Augustine is a mix
of light and shadow for Balthasar. However much Balthasar may treasure
Augustine, his extreme distaste for Augustine’s writings on predestination
always looms in the background. Balthasar attributes this to his Manichæan past.
In our context, however, Augustine is seen in a generally positive light, as it is
the Neo-Platonic Augustine who is our concern, although even here, we see him
as somewhat ambivalent.
The ambivalence comes from the twofold fact that Augustine both tempers
the ascent schema of Plotinus, while retaining the suspicion of all forms in
contemplation. In both movements he merely takes part in the broad sweep of
the Christian mystical tradition which continues down to St. John of the Cross.
For Balthasar, it is not the hierarchical arrangement of the universe which is
problematic—not the “ladders”—as much as the Neo-Platonic identification of
the “ladder” with schemes of purification based on a progressive abstraction
from “what is material, corporeal, imaginative and finally even conceptual.”1
As we had seen in the preceding section, the Eastern Christian view of the
simplicity of the Divine Essence lighting the world of creation is positively
regarded by Balthasar. Augustine uses this eastern—and philosophical method—
apologetically, namely, indicating that “the multiplicity of the world in general
cannot be understood apart from the unity of God and its light.”2
The warning against all formed visions, locutions, etc., comes into the
tradition through two sources, according to Balthasar: from Evagrius and from
Augustine.3 We have seen earlier that Augustine’s mystical psychology is seen
as Platonizing, and that there are three levels to supernatural perceptions: extra-
corporeal, inner fantasies, and purely spiritual perceptions. The second level
which offers the greatest psychological interest rouses the profoundest
theological suspicion, for it is “the almost inexhaustible illusory source of the
human power of imagination.”1 Both philosophically and theologically a
Christian can only rely on the “intuition of spiritual truth, be it self-
contemplation of the soul (as we have seen in Evagrius), be it a supernatural
penetration of the divine light within the light of the soul.”2 The second sort of
intuition is typically Augustinian.
To find Augustine in the company of Evagrius in light of what we have
already seen bodes ill for Augustine’s worth in Balthasar’s eyes, on this point at
least. Given Augustine’s Platonizing lenses, what we see is no surprise. But how
thoroughgoing is Augustine’s negativity? Is it as radical as Evagrius’?
Although placed side by side with Evagrius, Augustine is not identified
with him. Whereas Evagrius radicalizes the Origenistic tradition, Augustine
transforms the Neo-Platonic in a Christian direction. The key difference will be
that between indifference—that “apatheia” which is so characteristic of the non-
Christian traditions—and love. Contrasting the anthropologies of Origen and
Augustine, Balthasar writes that Origen’s is characterized by the “freedom of
indifference” which allows all creatures to be returned to their “original unity of
the heavenly Jerusalem” only to fall back into “temporality.” For Augustine, on
the other hand, the heart of the matter is that “love that is in advance of all
indifference and that abides in God, one that cannot be violated by any
It is the question of the correct relation of creature to creator, of limited
freedom to unlimited freedom and, in terms of our thesis, of word to silence that
is at issue. The freedom of indifference in this context, for Balthasar, is
associated with the “Void” (Abgrund) and with the “absorption” of all individual
beings in, once again, the Absolute. Limited freedom is not absorbed, nor does it
merely confront the unlimited, but “rather it is perfected in and through the
unlimited, which is freely self-donating love.”1
The theme of time naturally occupies Balthasar in his consideration of
Augustine, especially in the Confessions. Augustine’s understanding of time is
paradoxically formed both “most closely to” and yet “with greatest distancing
from Plotinus” (who “speaks the last word of Greek philosophy”).2 The vertical
dissolution of time and history which threatens the mystic is saved, in Augustine,
by love. This dissolution, at least in theory, “corresponds to the Indian evasion
from the turning of the wheel of time (samsara) to the timelessness of the
nothing-from-all (Nichts-von-allem)” which he identifies as Nirvana. This is the
same “evasion” that the Gnostics promise with their movement “back from the
time-emptiness to the divine fullness (Pleroma).” What frees Augustine from
this movement is the “motif of choosing love” which Balthasar calls “the organ
note which perdures under all the confused music of world and time.”3
Augustine is successful in avoiding a vertical dissolution by opting for a
divine love (Agape) which chooses and provokes response.4 Augustine takes the
truth of profundity (das abgründig Richtige) and places it in the Christian order:
the temptation to a “gnosis of identity” is “shoved aside” and replaced with a
“metaphysics of absolute love.”5
Obviously, Plotinus was no stranger to eros, that Sehnsucht which he
identified as “the essence of Nous.” But Augustine deepens this understanding of
desire in a Christian way, so that the longing, rather than being the essence of
Reason, becomes the “essence of the creature.”6 Indeed, Augustine’s central
concept is this desiderium: in light of the Christian theological virtues, this
longing for God is found in faith, fueled by hope, and presses on to love.1 This
desiderium is godly “when, according to Augustine, it is pure longing
(desiderium) for God, an attitude that has understood in its innermost being that
it is God alone who in His free and graceful descending love can still this
longing.”2 Augustine the Christian is formed by the notions of Creation and of
person which were not held by Plotinus: with them, the search for the One,
conversion as the intellectual forgetfulness and recollection of the Platonic
tradition are overcome in a personal love.3 Augustine’s translation of the
Plotinian eros into the Christian desiderium is most clearly seen in his phrase:
inquietum cor, donec requiescat in te.4
The search for God must begin, for the Christian, with an already having
been found by God. Thus, the intensity of Augustine’s quærere Deum is given
meaning only because of the Christian certainty of already having been found by
God.5 This takes a very different turn from the Plotinian conversion. For
Plotinus, “self-knowledge becomes insight into the structure of the soul, the
fundamental philosophical act of ‘conversion’ (epistrophe) becomes identical
with the Gnothi Sauton. Self-knowledge for the Neo-Platonists means to look
back to one’s own origin, whence the soul has ‘descended.’”6 Augustine’s
approach is close to that of Plotinus, but also very different in its understanding
of the alienation from God: mecum eras et tecum non eram.7
This is vividly portrayed by Balthasar who describes Augustine’s lifelong
refusal to give an explanation for the “gaping abyss of sin.” The seeking soul is
satisfied with no explanations of its own origins. It is “enough” that man realize
that he has fallen out of unity, that his return (re-gressus) to his origin requires a
return (Heimkehr, conversio, epistrophe)—and moreover “that this way is itself
already divine truth and guidance and order.” And it is “enough” for man, on his
way back to his source, to “strive to win himself back in the spirit of the Gospel,
in which he ‘becomes a child again for God’ (repuerescat Deo). . . .”1
To become “a child again for God” in the evangelical sense brings a new
note to the search for God, the “eros” of the Neo-Platonic tradition. Augustine’s
Platonizing tendencies are redeemed, for Balthasar, because of his “Platonic-
Biblical enthusiasm of the heart.”2 It is an enthusiasm which finally leads him to
the “humility of the Cross,” something which overcomes the false christology of
Neo-Platonism (neuplatonische Scheinchristologie = Christologie von unten)
with an “ecclesial” christology.3 Thus as we have seen earlier in this chapter,
although deeply immersed in the same “Asiatic tendencies of the Neo-
Platonists” as Evagrius, Augustine is “saved” from a “religious philosophy re-
interpreted in a Christian way” to a true “theology of imitation of the Cross.”4
Still, Augustine will retain his ambivalence for Balthasar. In general, he laments
the replacement of the truly “fundamental incarnational tendency of
Christianity” with a “gradual dis-incarnation” which became “the model not only
for asceticism but in particular for the theory of mysticism.” If in his Confessions
Augustine explicitly faulted the Neo-Platonists for lacking the “descending
humility of Christ,” in his writing on mysticism he “presents an explicit scheme
of ascent (Aufstiegsschema)” which proposes the ascent from “bodies—to
fantasy to purely spiritual visions.” It is this mystical scheme which “sets the
standard for all subsequent ages.” The Johannine Balthasar bemoans the fact that
from this time forth “the allegedly image-less vision of Paul is clearly valued
more highly than the imagistic vision of the Apocalypse” and he sees an
“extreme growth of this tendency” in the “mystology” of Eckhart.5
Before leaving Augustine precisely for Eckhart, we must add one note as
touches the theme of word and silence. Balthasar is intrigued by Augustine’s
invitation to the Christian soul to a “wordless jubilation”: “For Augustine, word
and response between God and man, Christ and the Church, is so far superior to
all that can be said, that the word drifts off into wordless jubilation (Jubel). . . .
‘We can respond to His word with jubilation, but not word for word.’”1
Elsewhere Balthasar observes: “In Augustine the jubilus, a cry of jubilation
swelling above words, is often linked with a reverent silence before God.”2
Thus the loving encounter with the Creator God occurs in a childlike spirit,
a willingness to accept the Cross: in humility. It is the humility of the
condescending Christ, in the descending Christology, which the Neo-Platonists
lack. This humility does not destroy all words, and so does not destroy particular
beings, corporeal, imaginative, spiritual. But rather in the face of the God whose
presence demands silence, the Christian soul can utter a—childlike—cry of

B. Eckhart: The Godhead behind God

Along with Evagrius Ponticus, Meister Eckhart represents a locus classicus of
Balthasar’s critique of negative theology. He is seen as embodying an extreme
tendency in mystical theology,3 and as we have seen in Evagrius, Balthasar is
especially critical of radical tendencies. In this view of Eckhart we shall first
look at Balthasar’s understanding of him, and then seek further understanding in
a study of Eckhart and other mystics by Joseph Sudbrack.
Balthasar does not deny that in spite of all subsequent aspersions, Eckhart
desired to be an orthodox Christian throughout.4 Yet Balthasar observes that
Eckhart is a favorite of Zen masters,5 and is comparable with Sankara in
Hinduism.6 He emphasizes the links between Eckhart and Zen and German
idealism.7 Eckhart proposes a thoroughgoing dissolution of all images, until
finally God Himself—that is, the Trinity—seems to be absorbed into the
godhead beyond God. Balthasar asks whether the “radical death of the I in God”
will allow the one who remains in space and time anything but an alienated
existence: “Is it an I at all that can be distinguished from God?” In terms of
“salvation history,” this renders problematic the whole issue of a “personal
Christian mission.”1 Indeed, the individual person and his “mission” in the world
might well be seen as an instance of alienation that must be overcome. Thus, it
comes as no surprise that Balthasar ponders the fact that repeated efforts have
been made to link Eckhart with “Indian and Japanese (Zen Buddhist) mystical
metaphysics, where that which we call personal ‘role’ appears even more clearly
as ‘alienation.’” He suggests that the great Japanese teacher of Zen to the West,
Daisetz Suzuki, held that Eckhart corresponded “entirely to the ideal of Zen
Buddhism,” though he adds that the “balanced work of Shiseru Ueda” portrays
Eckhart in such wise that Eckhart’s Christianity “keeps him from drawing the
final Zen-Buddhist consequences.”2 As we have seen, one of these consequences
would seem to be that God would be absorbed into the Void whence He came.
With his use of the godhead, Eckhart himself comes perilously close to these
“final Zen-Buddhistic consequences.”
One special problem in Eckhart is that man does not “have” his being in
Himself, but only in the idea of him which is in God. Man as mirror of God, as
antitype, if one will, is literally nothing compared to man in the type, in God’s
idea of him. Balthasar sees the mystical invitation of Eckhart for men to become
what he essentially is (an idea in God) as taking on an “anti-personal
colouring.”3 This anti-personal coloring becomes more extreme when we realize
that not only is the individual creature at stake, but as we have been suggesting,
God Himself. Thus the “source (Urgrund) of God as eternal darkness is
unknowable for the light of knowledge of the Trinity itself.” Here we see that
God Himself has a “personless source” that curiously enough is “identical with
the I-less source of men,” for the human “I” is grounded in the idea (“where he
is identical with the Son”). In consequence: “Individuation is understood as a
negation, a self-denial. . . .”1
In Eckhart, then, the individual and his freedom dissolve, as we have seen
is the problem with Zen and German Idealism. Even more shocking is the
disappearance of the Trinity in the godhead. Balthasar asks if, given the tendency
of natural man to see reality flowing out of God (the Father), carried through in a
radical Neo-Platonism: “Would one not have to join Meister Eckhart in looking
behind the trinitarian face of God, which is turned towards the world, to His
Essence, abysmal (abgründiges), featureless, desert-like.”2
It should come as little surprise that Balthasar compares Eckhart with
Palamas in the matter of the distinction between God and godhead, indicating on
the other hand what is the proper relation of Trinity to world. In the revelation of
the Trinity throughout history, reaching its final peak in the Incarnation of the
Son and the breathing of the Holy Spirit God has given the world His all “as a
lasting mystery.” This renders unacceptable the distinction Palamas makes
between the Light of Tabor as “epitome of all divine activities that can be shared
with the world” and God’s “essence, eternally hidden because unshareable” as
well as that distinction which Gilbert de la Porrèe and Eckhart make between
God and godhead. Balthasar categorically refuses to see a godhead behind the
Trinity, a godhead in comparison to which the Trinity is only “penultimate.”
Rather, he insists that “in the generation of the Son and in His sacrifice for the
world God the Father has ‘given all’ (Rom 8:32) without ceasing” and this so
thoroughly that “there remains nothing more for Him to offer (cf. Heb. 6:4–8,
Printed in Balthasar’s Johannes Verlag, Josef Sudbrack’s Wege zur
Gottesmystik rehearses in more ample form much of Balthasar’s critique.
Sudbrack writes subtly, attempting to rescue Eckhart from the slurs implied
against him by the fondness shown by New Agers and by German chauvinists
(including Nazis) for whom he has represented a pure German theology.1 He
attempts to give a positive interpretation to Eckhart’s teachings, insisting on
respect for Eckhart’s desire to be an orthodox Christian. However, in the heart of
Sudbrack’s study, there is a very strong criticism of Eckhart centering on his
teaching on consolation in the Metaphysisches Trostbuch. Eckhart presents what
Sudbrack sees to be a “Buddhist” teaching. That is, in light of the metaphysical
situation, human suffering is discounted and to be transcended.
Eckhart’s notion of Christian love, according to Sudbrack, is then
“superficial”: “measured in terms of the reality of Being, love for Meister
Eckhart is only a superficial phenomenon. In the depths of reality love is raised
(aufgehoben) to an undifferentiated Unity. Reason reaches deeper than love. . .
Love then would seem to lose its interpersonal quality for Eckhart, for the
quality of “between” is lost in face of the “Ground” which knows only a relation
“out of.”3 Wishing to give Eckhart the benefit of the doubt, Sudbrack still feels
that he finally succumbed to this temptation to lose the interpersonal “in speech
and thought.”4 Moreover, love itself seems to become a hindrance on one’s
spiritual flight, an “exercise for beginners.”5 Sudbrack observes further that
“Eckhart touches on Buddhist conceptions in which even the love of neighbor is
only a way to the high flight of experience” or else it is the “abasement of the
experienced one in the lowlands of activity in order to help others too to the peak
of experience.”6 As mentioned in the first chapter, this is an “upaya,” a skillful
means, whereby love would be used as a means to lead to the purified
experience, but not an end in itself.
Sudbrack rises to a passionate pitch in his writing on Eckhart’s
understanding of the “dialectic of Being” as one in which “unity is diversity”
(Die Einheit ist die Unterschiedenheit).1 Even as the relations of interpersonal
love are threatened in Eckhart’s exaggerated verticality, so the relations of the
Blessed Trinity are threatened where it is indifferent whether there be “three or
two or a thousand.”2 In this connection Balthasar bemoans the fact that in
Eckhart he sees the “relativisation of the individual person: ‘In God there is no
Heinrich and no Konrad.’”3 It is Eckhart’s philosophical leanings that are at
fault, for like Hegel, the “mystery of God is dissolved in a would-be
understanding.”4 The experience of human love points to the Trinity, maintains
Sudbrack.5 This human intuition is confirmed by revelation. In revelation, God
is revealed as one who does not exist as a “naked unity” but rather as one Who
lives a “trinitarian life.” The dogmatic struggles of the early Church clearly show
the importance of maintaining God’s unity in tension with his Trinity, a Trinity
which allows for the “separate (selbständig) reality of the creature.” In Eckhart,
unfortunately, although he speaks the language of the dogma of the Church, the
Trinity is in danger of disappearing in the face of “the unity of a godhead.”
Sudbrack sees two conflicting sides to Eckhart’s thought: the one theological, in
which he insists on the Trinity; the other philosophical, which threatens to
subsume the Trinity to a Unity. Although Sudbrack disclaims any attempt to cast
doubt on the “subjective orthodoxy of Eckhart,” he yet states that Eckhart’s
thought on unity “possesses a centrifugal force that leads away from the middle
of Christianity and . . . from the middle of the human experience of love.”6
As we have seen before, the issue here once again turns out to be that of
the One and the Many.7 As with all Neo-Platonic thought, there is longing
(Sehnsucht) for the One behind the many which determines his thought8: “the
more one yields to this drive towards ‘unity,’ the easier do all individual things,
beings, humans go under like drops of water in the sea of ‘Being’ alone.”1
Moreover, as God has no properties, the God-seeker himself must become bereft
of them.2 Sudbrack thus has a very hard judgment to make on Eckhart in the
end: “In spite of all its greatness, his thought leads into regions that darken the
Christian Faith and that damage the humanity of love.”3
Sudbrack poses the question of whether in Eckhart “total selflessness is
confused with total emptiness (Leere). . . .”4 Colorfully, Sudbrack, citing C. Haas
(the terms actually originate in Augustine), refers to the distinction between the
“morning cognition” (Morgenerkenntnis) and the “evening cognition”
(Abenderkenntnis). In the “evening cognition,” things stand out in their variety;
in the “morning cognition,” everything is seen according to the Being in God.5
Sudbrack observes that perhaps at the end of his life Eckhart regretted the
“overly bold Titanism of his project, with which he desired to have an overview
of everything from God’s point of view, with which he wanted to unite himself
to the ‘morning cognition’ of God.”6 Thus, Sudbrack cites a late sermon of
Eckhart’s that shows a different, a more Christian direction from that of
Eckhart’s earlier Trostbuch. That is, Eckhart takes human mortality and
suffering, and the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, seriously.7
Both Balthasar and Sudbrack compare—and contrast—Eckhart with
Tauler. Sudbrack maintains that for Tauler the form of Jesus Christ is “the
hermeneutical key to speaking about and therefore to the experience of God” in
a way it was not for Eckhart. God initiated the contact with man, entering his
experience “before man could validly approach God in experience and word”
and so “the Christian experience of God can summon human analogies.” Jesus
Christ is the “unique and finally valid place where God has spoken to man.” This
is no “generalised form of a cosmic Christ who is immanent to consciousness,
but the living, historical Jesus of Nazareth.” Sudbrack again refers to Haas who
points out that Meister Eckhart had attempted “to water down this hardness of
the historical (that corresponds to God’s uniqueness) in speculations about the
general-human (that could only grasp a so-called ‘divinity.’” And Sudbrack
adds: “Many modern attempts at Christian experience of God move along
similar lines.”1
Here the incarnate Jesus Christ, God’s Word to man in revelation, is
contrasted to the speculative mind of a sort of “generic humanity” that can only
then be placed in relation to an abstract godhead. This generalized, speculative
idea destroys that which is concretely revealed in the Word spoken by God to
man in history, in the man Jesus Christ, and so assaults that which is “unique”
(einmalig), especially the “uniqueness” (Einmaligkeit) of God.
For Balthasar, Tauler is seen as using the same “Neo-Platonic and
Areopagitic language” as Eckhart, while remaining truer to the Christian
experience which is the experience of discipleship (Christusnachfolge). Indeed,
the “deep gulf” between the two mystics is located precisely in this discipleship.
While both speak of “‘annihilation’ and of ‘nothing,’ of the ‘sinking into the
Ground’ and of the ‘desert’ and ‘emptiness’ of God” Tauler is speaking “from a
concrete experience of the discipleship of the Passion and of ceaseless
humiliation.” Tauler rejected any attempt to leave the humanity of Christ behind:
“No, no one is allowed to leave behind the image of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” His
glance, turned inward, encounters precisely “the image of the suffering of Our
Lord. . . .” The Passion of Christ is not something to be forgotten in
contemplation of His life, but rather it is in the Passion that “all the trinitarian
dimensions of the God-man become known,” and so one “goes from the
humanity to the divinity and back.”2
In Tauler, Balthasar finds all that was missing for him in Eckhart. Both
Rhenish mystics—and so characterized by the “annihilation” (Vernichtigung)3—
they yet part ways. Eckhart, philosophically oriented, seeks to view things from
the divine point of view, the “morning cognition.” In the process, all becomes
void for him. Interpersonal love dissolves in a vertical flight. Love itself is seen
as but a step on the way. But the way is again an exaggerated Neo-Platonism, in
which if humanity is lost, so is trinitarian divinity in the face of “the godhead,”
the Absolute Ground which is the dark side of God, the God behind the mask of
manifestation to mankind. This, for Balthasar, is “empty speculation” (leere
Spekulation)—which Tauler contrasts to the “love in the wounds of Christ.”1
Tauler, beginning with the humanity of Christ, beginning with revelation, does
not leave that humanity behind, but staying with it, in humility (as with
Augustine) he concentrates on the Passion of Christ, on the “love in the wounds
of Christ”—and this precisely when he turns his attention to his own ground.
Here Balthasar identifies the correct movement as one which begins with the
humanity of Christ and moves into the Divinity and then returns to humanity.
We move finally to another master of the apophatic way, one of the greatest
of the Spanish Mystics, the Master of the Dark Night, St. John of the Cross.

C. St. John of the Cross: Christian Poetry of

Balthasar’s treatment of St John of the Cross easily leaves his reader breathless.
More than any other figure here studied, St. John of the Cross is identified with
the severely criticized Evagrius Ponticus—and yet St. John of the Cross is
clearly favored by Balthasar, certainly at least as much as Dionysius.
Not only is John close to Evagrius (Balthasar observes that in his Neo-
Platonic—and Buddhistic—“devaluation of all sensible and imaginative visions”
Evagrius is fully at the root of both Eckhart’s and John of the Cross’ views),2 but
his thoroughgoing rejection of all earthly forms as possibly quenching the
essential human “thirst” (Durst)3 hearkens back to Asiatic religious instincts.
John “cites many passages that reveal the futility of the effort to find refreshment
in anything other than God” and so he “fulfils, as if incidentally, the aspirations
of the great Asiatic mysticism to free man from ‘thirst’ which is tragically
increased by what is transitory.” Insofar as he does this, seeking to free the soul
of all images and forms, his writing “appears as an unbroken appropriation of the
Platonizing mysticism of the Desert Fathers, especially of Evagrius Ponticus.”
Citing phrases like the nous katharos and the gnosis aneides, Balthasar
concludes that “many statements of Juan, translated into Greek, would fit
directly in the Gnostic Centuries of Evagrius Ponticus.”1 Indeed, Balthasar raises
the question of whether in fact John does takes the importance of images
seriously enough, especially of the images revealed in the incarnate Son of God
—or whether he is too close to the radical Neo-Platonism of Evagrius who
insists that the soul be freed from all forms, who demands a nous katharos, a
nakedness which fosters a radical attitude of “apatheia.”2
One indication of John’s difference from Evagrius lies in the very reason
why forms are rejected. It will be recalled that Evagrius rejects all images, all
forms, as being interference from the devil: this is a practical consequence of the
extreme-Origenistic theory which sees all forms as a fall from the primordial
light. John (along with Eckhart and Thomas), according to Balthasar, is more
like Diadochus who recommends that images be rejected—but not because they
are all from the devil, for some are likely to be from God.3 John teaches this to
avoid the danger of attachment to visions which may even come from God: God
can accomplish what he wants in the soul regardless, and the subject is freed
from the dangerous task of discerning the origin of the vision (and also from the
temptation to vainglory): “By this attitude a person takes from these
apprehensions only what God wants him to take, that is, the spirit of devotion,
since God gives them for no other principal reason.”4 In any event, forms are
primarily to be used by beginners, although the proficient may have recourse to
them in prayer: they are like the shell to a precious kernel. When God reveals the
kernel, it will be dangerous to cling to the shell, to the pointer rather than to the
revealed essence. Nakedness is to be preferred.1 Thus, in the end, nothing here
below can be a sufficient means to union with God, and so that which
characterizes the entire opus of John of the Cross is “a vast negation or more
precisely: reduction.” This is based on a straightforward syllogism: “Nothing
created is God, and because all that is created has form, all form must be
transcended and let go if God is to become visible.” And so whether for the
senses or the reason which relies on them, “nothing of that which the power of
imagination can imagine and the understanding conceive and think here can be a
suitable means (medio proximo) to union with God.”2
The difference from Evagrius will be noted. It is not that all forms are
interference from the demons, intent on blocking one’s naked contemplation
with forms which in any event are fallout, as it were, from a fall. Forms can be
used for good or ill, but for his “Praktikos,” John insists that the soul move
beyond forms.
In personalistic terms, this is because the soul should be learning to discern
and to seek only the Giver in the gift,3 and because the soul so naturally tends to
what is sensible and away from the Giver who is far beyond anything the soul
can imagine. In terms of word and silence, Balthasar notes that as for the young
Augustine, the Church’s teaching of “faith from hearing” becomes for John an
inner silence in order to hear the “essential words”—not the formed words of
humanity—which God wants to speak to the soul, words which because they do
not have form can no longer deceive.4
Balthasar introduces St. Teresa of Avila, as critic of John’s too
thoroughgoing negation: with a refreshing boldness, she asks how, if we must be
dead to the world in order to “see God,” Mary Magdalene, the Samaritan
woman, the Canaanite woman, were all alive when they found Him.5 Even more
curiously, she compares the “spiritual” John with St. Ignatius of the Exercises,
indicating, according to Balthasar, that she intends to criticize the method of
“fundamental indifference.”1 This “indifference” (apatheia) runs like a thread
through Balthasar’s work, generally identified with Neo-Platonic (and Stoic)
spirituality which has plagued Christianity. Indeed, elsewhere Balthasar
criticizes St. Ignatius for allowing this Neo-Platonism into the Spiritual
Exercises.2 Noting that it is not the “tiered” structure of the universe that poses
problems for Christianity but the turning of the tiers into levels of “purification”
by Neo-Platonism, he observes that this “ladder of ascent to Heaven” spirituality
widely existed not only in Byzantium (Balthasar recalls St. Johannes Climacus),
but in fact this “spiritualising doctrine of perfection” amassed a vast following in
the West throughout the Middle Ages into modernity (“a John of the Cross
cannot here be excepted”). And though there were a “very few exceptions” St.
Ignatius was not fully one of them, for “he was not able to break the Neo-
Platonic trend effectively enough.”3
Surprisingly, Balthasar does not, however, pursue Teresa’s criticism
directly. Rather his description of her love of nature leads him to continue in a
description of John’s love of nature, but differently, as it is his love of the night
(in nature—with stars, moon, etc.).4
How is the emptiness of forms which John demands different from the
emptiness we have seen that is so condemned by Balthasar? Balthasar indicates
his understanding of this—and of the positive Void—in a comparison he draws
between the work of John of the Cross and The Cloud of Unknowing. The cloud
is not really either “the ‘darkness’ of God insofar as He presents Himself to the
limited understanding, nor is it the inability of the sense-bound understanding to
grasp Him: rather, it is the projection of a transcendent indifference into the ‘no-
man’s-land’ between God and world.”1 This placing oneself in the cloud
between the world of sense and God is the same as the passive night of John of
the Cross (without the latter’s “abandonment”): one hides one’s very own
“longing inclination” (sehnsüchtige Neigung) from God Himself, abiding instead
in a “Void before God” (Leere vor Gott).2
If John is like Evagrius in his thoroughgoing negation, he differs from him
on the positive side, where he transcends Evagrius in a personally experienced
night of believing contemplation. For John, the “night of faith” (one will recall
the pistis spoken of earlier)3 is an ascent, and insofar as it is negative, it is like
that of Evagrius; but it is emphatically not a philosophical ascent but rather—and
this it has in common with moderns—it is one of personal experience. Although
Dionysius brought this scheme of ascent into Thomas (and John is favorably
associated with Dionysius for Balthasar), John is superior, for he totally loses the
philosophical framework which the Neo-Platonists had imprinted on Christian
mystical theology.4 The “philosophical background disappears for John of the
Cross or is totally absorbed in the ‘personally experienced’ night of believing
contemplation (Glaubenskontemplation). . . .”5 But this experience becomes an
“experience of the Absolute in the non-experience of all limited contents and
acts,”6 this in order to attain a total “poverty vis-à-vis all that is worldly, not for
an increase of the negative, but for a becoming transparent to all that is positive
as well as negative for the dark light of God alone.”7
This purification, negatively associated by Balthasar with the worst feature
of Neo-Platonism introduced into Christianity, becomes a positive thing, for it is
a cooperation with the grace of God, a making way for God’s work in the soul.8
And, using again the notion of “emptiness,” we find that the soul does not posit
its object of Faith “in the Void of the Absolute,” but the soul is more emptied
than emptying itself, and—magnificently—“the basis of her contemplation
becomes a being contemplated.”1 Bearing in mind what we have been seeing
Balthasar saying all along about the Christian being already found by God even
before he begins his search (a search mandated constantly throughout the Bible,
as Balthasar insists), here we see the soul actually contemplated by God more
than contemplating God Himself. To leave oneself behind, to leave all one’s
concepts, images, expectations, is to enter into a void—an emptiness—but one
that is not open to the creations of one’s imagination, and therefore, it is always
safer to rely on the emptiness. But that does not mean that nothing is the last
The experience of the ascending soul gives way to a darkness, which is in
fact what the tradition calls “faith,” but one which is a “dark participation in the
excessus of eternal life.”2 The dark night is identified with the Areopagitical
Mystical Theology.3 For Balthasar, both Dionysius and John of the Cross are the
æsthetic—and the negative—theologians par excellence. They are so able to
complete the negative ascent precisely because they never lose touch with the
manifestation of God in Christ: it is only through the God become man that we
can “reach the living God”—and in Christ we “truly reach” Him. It is through
that which is visible that man comes to know the invisible: we are to be
“enraptured per hunc (Deum visibilem) in invisibilium amorem.” As we have
seen then, it is thus the two theologians who “insist the most on the apophatic
method,” Dionysius and John of the Cross, who show that they “never isolate
this from the cataphatic, and can thus extend the vertical so high because they
never let go the horizontal.” And curiously—paradoxically—these two most
apophatic theologians “can be regarded as the two most strongly æsthetic
theologians of Christian history.”4
It may seem strange that our theologian, who so insists on a naked faith, on
a darkness, should be so identified with a true relation to the cataphatic. Here,
first of all, we note that in John of the Cross Balthasar sees a valid application of
the cognitio matutina, the “morning cognition” of Augustine we had seen badly
abused by Eckhart, ill-used because used in a merely speculative way. John is
able to see all things in God because “the world wins its beauty from above for
this devotee of contemplation: from the divine love, which for its part through
the reflection of the persons in one another is the primordial image (Urbild) of
all beauty.” Rather than seeing only the beauty of God and the world in Him, or
the beauty of the world and God through it, Balthasar holds that the
contemplative “sees in this moment so to speak the analogia entis.” And, citing
John, he writes that it is an “eminent” view to which the contemplative attains, in
which though seeing how all things are other than God the soul also perceives
“that God in His Being is all these things in infinite sublimity (eminencia) [and]
that the soul knows them better in His Being than in themselves.”1
The way of purification thus moves on to a contemplation of all things in
God. The love of beauty in God is not, for John of the Cross, anagogical, as for
the medieval tradition. Rather, Balthasar maintains that John sees the “essences
of things” in God and not their “accidents.” Until he attains the vision of God,
nature is only a “sketch”: “as an image it can be considered first only in God. . .
Still, the question remains: are particular things lost in the negative way of
John of the Cross? Most especially, are the manifestations of God in revelation—
i.e., the Incarnation of His Son, lost in the dark night? Balthasar insists that
without a doubt they are not, pointing to the importance of the Incarnation, and
within it, of the Crucifixion for John, whose very name he bears.3 Balthasar
explains that the mysticism of John of the Cross is “christocentric and wants to
be understood as thoroughly theocentric only through Christ,” a mysticism
which is grounded not in philosophy, but in discipleship. The christocentric
nature is more particularly “Cross-centred” as “all words of the Bible, of the Old
and New Covenant, are ordered concentrically around the annihilation of the
Word of God on the Cross.” Accordingly, John has a great knowledge and love
of the Bible.1
But how does beauty emerge from so many negations? The key is in love,
a love “which survives in all deaths, but must also persevere through all deaths
to survive.” This is the “tormenting paradox” as to “how highest poetical beauty
can blossom forth from such negation: the Reformer of Carmel responds to the
negation of the Reformation with beauty, to the shattering dialectical word with
the successful poetical word.”2 As against the iconoclasm of the Reformers, John
is a poet, an artist.3 The prose of their dialectics is answered by his poetry.
Moreover, as Balthasar urges, he was a carver of images. The famous cross that
he carved is proof for Balthasar that “his own teaching about the transcendence
over all forms of images is not to be taken literally, but in spirit.”4
John does not offer a mere blending of positive and negative theologies
which produces a via eminentiæ: but rather—and this again like Dionysius—he
offers a “winning of all in leaving of all, a landing in crashing, a leap from terra
firma into the smashing of all rungs of the ladder.”5 He can do this because of
the relation between the mystical act and the poetic act:
The middle of the mystical act is beyond the middle of the poetic act: the middle of the latter
is located on the periphery of the former, even if the act of conception for the poem draws
itself from the more hidden conception of the mystical experience, is its echo and, bearing
witness and referring to it, strives back to it. In no way does the mystic further compose
(dichtet) the word of revelation himself: his activity lies in the realm of discipleship, that
realm in which the Holy Spirit existentially sows into the soul—and most innerly into the
womb of the Bride-Church. If this is true, then poetry at this profound level cannot be
considered separately from holiness.6

Holiness comes from the imitation of Christ, from the evangelical loss of all that
is not Christ—including creatures—in order to be a genuine witness “to the
bridal love between Christ and the Church, and God and world in the Cross.
Poetry then becomes the cry of the vivisected soul in the middle of the night,
only to end in a song of praise of the soul still deeper, still more alive, scorched
in the fire of glory.”1
Balthasar concludes that it is precisely as poet that John is more doctor of
the Church than as writer of prose,2 his prose works being in John’s own
judgment primarily “commentary to his poems.” Thus, as poet John of the Cross
indicates the unique character of the Word of God that is neither “simple prose
nor can be adequately translated into it” but rather possesses a simplicity in
which “the fullness of divinity dwells in person (leibhaftig) as the meaning does
in an inexhaustible symbol.”3
In contradistinction to Evagrius (and to Eckhart), we find that John of the
Cross is no radicalizer. He insists on the nada and yet, as Balthasar indicates, he
is a poet who loves, and yet who will see everything only in God. He is not a
literalist offering a technique of ascent to God, but a lover, who wants nothing
less than the Beloved, and anything else in the Beloved alone. If the language of
John of the Cross is not the dialectics of the Reformers nor the prose of theology,
how much less is it the “empty speculation” of philosophical ways. It is the
language of poetry which transcends the dichotomies of prose and silence, of
cataphatic and apophatic theology—not thereby discovering some trite “third
way” which resolves the first too. But persevering in the first, the way of
affirmation, and in the second, the way of negation, John of the Cross breaks
through to the word of poetry, the most adequate way to treat of the Word of
God. His Faith in the manifestation of God Incarnate leads him into the dark
night and the mysteries it reveals: the Incarnate God is never abandoned in favor
of a “higher knowledge.” The means to union for John of the Cross is “purity of
spirit in dark faith.”4

In this chapter, we have been following the thread of negative
philosophy/theology as it leads from its most extreme—and purest—expression
in Zen Buddhism through sketches of six representative figures in the Christian
tradition. The “negative way” is the way par excellence of natural man. As we
saw, Balthasar speculates that it arises among the sophisticated members of a
society when the gods—or incarnations of virtues—pale, revealing a darkling
void behind. The search for “purity” in Neo-Platonism or in Buddhism results in
a scheme of ascent, a ladder, in which one becomes purified of all concepts,
images, forms, ascending to the One. This acid purification is raised to its
highest power in Zen Buddhism, where the negation is so total that the Void
consumes all (even itself): correctly viewed, things are seen as empty, as
revealed in Oriental art. But this is an emptiness that Balthasar cannot accept.
According to him, the via negativa must ultimately destroy all that is other than
the One, as the “other” is either illusion or inferior being.1 Zen, of course,
destroys the One as well.
For Balthasar, the only way out of this dilemma of annihilation which
threatens is through revelation. Without revelation, the negative way becomes
devoid of meaning, leading to atheism or agnosticism, or else to a mysticism of
identity: the “other” is destroyed.2 It is revelation that shows man that God is
that “other” and that God’s love allows man to remain an other.3 Put differently,
man intuitively knows of Being, but he knows it only in individual beings.
Should he try to “ascend,” he runs the danger of disappearing in “the Void,” and
of losing both his own being and Being. He is in need of revelation to show him
the right relation, something he cannot attain on his own.4
So we entered the world of early Christianity, in the desert of Egypt. In
practice, Evagrius continues the ancient mystical purification in his teaching,
combining it with Origenistic doctrine. In his teaching then, particulars
disappear, are demonic intrusions in the contemplation. Evagrius is the perfect
example, for Balthasar, of one who does not incorporate the revelation, and is
rather a natural philosopher, one on the Buddhist wavelength.
Dionysius, as we saw, receives far more favorable treatment. He is able to
retain a hierarchical scheme, and yet it is centered on a God whose light
penetrates the entire vision, not requiring the surrender of particular beings,
allowing a balanced, harmonious cosmos to exist. The way of purification
(mysticism)—the negative way, is correctly balanced with the appreciation of
symbolic reality.
Gregory Palamas represents a late reversion within the tradition of
Christian revelation to an earlier form, a byway. Insisting too much on the
incomprehensibility of God, that which is “accessible,” the uncreated energies, is
reduced to a possible collection of “principalities and powers,” hearkening back
to cabalistic Judaism. The Trinity becomes as the light side of the moon, the dark
side tends to become a Void without number, while the Trinity opens up to
possibly false hypostatisation. As with Evagrius, Palamas exaggerates a
tendency in theology. In his case, it is the Greek emphasis on the divine
simplicity which is exaggerated.
Turning West, we encountered St. Augustine. In a brief sketch, it became
clear that although he brought into Christian theology the Neo-Platonic scheme
of ascent, he was yet caught by a childlike love of God, seen in his emphasis on
humility (against any Promethean ascents) and on the Cross. And so speech is
not only possible for Augustine, but natural—but it is the cry of wonder, of
adoration that bursts naturally from the creature’s lips.
Meister Eckhart represented a reversion, once again, to the pre-Christian.
His too-thorough negation leads to a destruction of the incarnate being, placing
the individual’s reality in God’s idea of him, resulting in a cold spirituality which
seeks to evade suffering by rising above it, to the passionless godhead.
Moreover, the Trinity too can disappear in a Void which would allow a Blessed
Infinity. The right balance is lost, if at times verbally retained. As we saw,
Eckhart is contrasted with Tauler, who insisted that when he looked into his own
ground, he saw the Passion of Christ. The imitation, the following, of Christ here
becomes the central—and simple—way to God.
Finally, in John of the Cross we saw the tremendous tension of a man of
negative theology par excellence—on a par with Evagrius—who yet was able to
keep it so in tension with his positive theology that a true Christian vision
emerged. The fact that John of the Cross insisted on the humanity of Christ—“all
the way”—and that this centered on the Cross leads us to see the importance of
this for Balthasar in any adequate way to God. John is a poet, an artist: the poetic
word transcends the prose of the philosophers and the silence of the mystics.
What does this mean in terms of Balthasar’s assessment of negative theology?
We have been seeing that Balthasar rejects extremes. Thus, in mystical
theology, one could say that God is light. One could also say that God is not light
(darkness)—and this would be closer to the truth. Closest would be to say that
God is too much light, “much too much light.”1 Negative theology surpasses the
gropings of positive theology, but both are surpassed in the “revelation of grace”
in which the emphasis now falls on a “positive incomprehensibility of God.”2
This will be reflected in the relation of word and silence as well, as we shall be
Behind Balthasar’s implied criticism of the mysticism of the
“sophisticated” lies his belief that in humanity there is an innate idea of God. If
one ignores this as the sophisticated tend to do, then, rejecting simple humanity’s
inadequate attempts at constructing images of this God, one reaches the point
where all becomes nothingness and void. All the ascetical purification would
lead only to this nothingness, rendering any talk of a via eminentiæ foolish
chatter. But this is not the last word: that is offered in the “Biblical formula”
where there is a “primordial affirmation in which lies the certainty that that
which is sought is ‘over and above’ (via eminentiæ).” Assured of this, and “only
thus one undertakes the task of negating all that is limited, definable, non-divine
(via negativa), in order to strive toward the One Sought without getting lost
(unbeirrt).”3 That is, for the Biblical man, the turn to the via negativa has a
fundamentally different spirit than that of the natural man. For the natural man,
pushed to its final conclusion the via negativa leads to the voiding of all
(sunyata). For the Biblical man, the first word is that God is Creator: and so, all
other things fall into place in light of that Being. That is, one can ascend through
the hierarchies of created being by a way of negation which is yet not
destruction, as one knows by intuition that God is, and by revelation that He is
Creator, thus, that His creation exists and can exist as well, and yet that His
creation is not God.
The ultimate in negative theology is the Cross: “the Cross is the truth of
natural negative theology, but only because it is at the same time much more
than that.”1 That is to say, according to Balthasar there is no mystic of the
negative way who experienced a more profound loss of world and God than the
Crucified Christ, nor is there any “ascent” from the world to God, from
“appearance into existence” greater than Christ’s: but Christ’s death “was no
rejection of the creature in order to gain God, but rather a rejection by God of all
in the world that was not in conformity with God’s will and godly.”2
Thus we come to the via eminentiæ, that which traditionally is seen as
incorporating the phrase “God is always greater” (Deus semper major).3 This is
what the negative way was leading to, the “‘bright darkness’ of divine Glory”: it
is not the “unapproachable remainder behind the appearance of God in Christ.”4
Balthasar enthusiastically cites Romano Guardini in this connection. Guardini
proposed that beyond nature and grace there is a third realm, that of “the depths
of nature that first become visible when they are struck with the light of grace.”5
This echoes what we had said above about man’s innate knowledge of God, and
so Balthasar concludes that underneath all attempts of human thought, such as
“proofs” of God’s existence, there is a “primal statement” (Grundaussage), an
“underlying fact of man” that “consists in an “affirmation of God.” This
affirmation “both demands as well as overcomes all the consequently possible,
indeed necessary negations, because that which it affirms is also already existing
above it (as eminence).”1
Thus the via eminentiæ is already present to the man who follows
revelation, for the last word is positive. The first word, the groping after God
through the things of sense, is positive as well, but it is in need of purification—
of that negation that Balthasar himself admits is not only possible, but “indeed
necessary.” To stop at that negation, however, to let it lead one away from the
basic intuition of the existence of God is to court shipwreck, as we have seen.
Whereas the non-Christian can find—become enlightened, experience ecstasy,
and so his search can come to an end—the Christian is found by God, and so His
search is only beginning.2 We shall turn to this in our next chapter, when we
explore God’s Word spoken to man.
To conclude here, the true movement in negative theology is from the non-
word (Unwort) that especially characterizes Zen to the super-word (Überwort)
that characterizes the Christian revelation, the via eminentiæ. In the end:
The act of making space for God through a ceaseless giving away of all one has, the sume et
suscipe of Ignatius Loyola, is in the end the highest affirmation of the self-donating love of
God in the “Superword” (Überwort) of His Son, a word man attempts to answer through a
“Superword” which is given him as gift. Here “negative theology” ultimately becomes the
place of perfect encounter, not in a dialogical equivalence, but rather in the transformation of
the entire creature into an ecce ancilla for the mystery which fulfills the creature, the
mystery of the incomprehensible love of that God who is pouring Himself out.3

Having seen the various paths which men have taken on the road of negation, we
turn more fully to the way of Christian revelation, where, as Balthasar maintains:
“In God speech and silence are one.”4

1. HSG, p. 148.
2. CSEF, p. 15.
1. Ibid., pp. 14–15.
1. UA, p. 90, footnote 16.
2. TLWG, pp. 83–4.
3. CSEF, pp. 16–7.
1. Ibid., p. 18.
2. BG, p. 139.
3. Ibid., p. 46.
4. Ibid., p. 227.
1. HFSL, p. 441.
2. TLWG, p. 84.
3. HRMA, p. 113.
4. Ibid., pp. 355–6.
5. S5 p. 256.
1. HRMN, p. 830.
2. Ibid., p. 881.
3. TLWG, p. 92, inter al.
4. S4, p. 326.
5. S5, p. 255.
1. TLGW, p. 26.
2. TLWG, p. 88.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., pp. 100–1.
1. The well-known adage from the Tao Te Ching, “he who speaks does not know, he who knows
does not speak,” attests to this.
2. EPIL, p. 8.
1. The dominating influence of the German philosophical tradition in leading Japanese Zen circles
has skewed the understanding of the West by those Japanese and has led to a certain slant in presentation of
Japanese thought to the West as well. This was emphasized to me in a conversation with American scholar
of Asian religions Dr. Huston Smith in the summer of 1989. It might be observed that what an earlier
generation of ex-Christians found in the “atheism” of Theravada Buddhism, contemporaries, formed in a
worldview rooted in German idealism, have found in the Zen tradition.
2. TLWG, p. 84.
3. S4, pp. 64–5.
4. EPIL, p. 18.
1. TLGW, p. 403.
2. EPIL, p. 47.
1. TDPR, p. 523.
2. TLWG, p. 86.
3. Ibid.
4. E.g., CM, p. 20, inter al.
5. GIMF, p. 52.
6. TLWW, p. 280.
7. HSG, pp. 227–8.
1. Ibid., pp. 17–18.
2. HFSK, p. 58.
3. Ibid.
4. This recalls the teaching of the famous Prajnaparamita-Hridaya Sutra, favorite of the Zen
tradition: “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”
5. Kaji (sic) Nishitani, Was ist Religion? (Frankfurt: Insel, 1982), pp. 133–5, as cited in TLWG, p.
6. Ibid.
1. Karl Rahner, “Die geistliche Lehre des Evagrius Pontikus,” Zeitschrift für Aszese und Mystik
(Innsbruck, 1933), p. 22.
2. Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Metaphysik und Mystik des Evagrius Ponticus”, Zeitschrift für Aszese
und Mystik (Innsbruck, 1939), p. 40.
3. HSG, pp. 529–530.
4. Ibid., p. 303.
5. Balthasar, “Metaphysik und Mystik des Evagrius Ponticus,” p. 32.
6. HFSL, p. 519.
1. Balthasar, “Metaphysik und Mystik,” p. 33.
2. The Philokalia, compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, tr.
and ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware (London: Faber & Faber, 1979), p. 29.
3. Balthasar, “Metaphysik und Mystik des Evagrius Ponticus,” p. 34.
4. Ibid., p. 47.
1. S2, p. 133.
2. Balthasar, “Metaphysik und Mystik,” p. 36.
3. Ibid., p. 37.
1. Ibid.
2. Ibid., p. 38.
3. S4, p. 309.
4. Ibid.
5. HSG, p. 257.
6. Ibid.
1. Balthasar, “Metaphysik und Mystik,” p. 40.
2. HSG, p. 302. Emphasis added.
3. HSG, pp. 303–4.
1. HSG, p. 117.
2. HFSK, p. 153.
1. Ibid., p. 150.
2. Ibid., p. 147.
3. Ibid., p. 150.
4. Ibid.
1. Ibid., p. 157.
2. Ibid., p. 167. The notion of the “real” (das Wirkliche) will occupy our attention in the next
3. HSG, p. 117.
4. HFSK, p. 182.
1. TLWG, p. 94.
2. Ibid., p. 95, inter al.
3. HFSK, pp. 209–10.
4. Ibid.
5. S2, p. 76ff.
1. HSG, p. 117.
2. HFSK, p. 151.
1. Ibid., p. 169.
2. TLWG, p. 102.
1. HFSK, pp. 176–7.
2. Ibid., p. 177.
3. Ibid., pp. 177–8.
4. HSG, p. 115.
1. HFSK, p. 182.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., p. 152.
4. Ibid., pp. 211–2.
1. Ibid., p. 191.
2. UA, pp. 33–36.
3. A Monk of the Eastern Church, Orthodox Spirituality (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary
Press, 1978), p. 19.
4. Ibid.
1. Vladimir Lossky, Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Greenwood, SC: The Attic Press,
Inc., n.d.), p. 86.
2. Ibid.
3. HFSK, p. 182.
1. Ibid., pp. 76–77.
2. HSG, p. 273.
1. HTAB, p. 52.
2. Ibid.
3. TLWG, p. 63.
4. Orthodox Spirituality, p. 21.
1. TDPM, pp. 11–12.
2. S4, p. 193.
3. TDES, p. 373.
4. TDPM, p. 175.
1. HTNB, pp. 252–3.
2. TLWG, pp. 137–8.
3. Ibid., p. 137.
1. Ibid., p. 138.
2. Ibid.
3. HTNB, p. 16.
4. S4, p. 315.
1. TLWG, pp. 101–2.
2. HFSK, p. 103.
3. HSG, p. 303.
1. Ibid., pp. 303–4.
2. Ibid., p. 304.
3. GIMF, pp. 35–6.
1. TDPM, p. 211.
2. GIMF, p. 37.
3. Ibid., p. 36.
4. S5, p. 22. Balthasar cautions against a facile opposition between earthly eros and divine agape,
something with which Anders Nygren began but which Balthasar feels he overcame. We shall return to the
eros/agape issue in Chapter IV.
5. GIMF, pp. 13–14.
6. TDHA, p. 107.
1. S5, p. 279.
2. CM, p. 86.
3. GIMF, pp. 39–40.
4. HRMA, p. 265.
5. TLWG, p. 95.
6. TDPR, p. 461.
7. Ibid.
1. HFSK, pp. 107–8.
2. Ibid., p. 125.
3. TLGW, pp. 241–2.
4. S2, p. 133.
5. TLWG, p. 102.
1. S1, p. 143.
2. TLWG, p. 101, footnote 13.
3. Ibid., p. 102.
4. TDPR, p. 522.
5. TLWG, p. 102.
6. TDPR, p. 523.
7. Ibid.
1. Ibid., p. 522.
2. Ibid., p. 523.
3. Ibid., p. 520.
1. Ibid., p. 521.
2. TLGW, p. 404.
3. TLWG, pp. 137–8.
1. WZGM, p. 102.
2. Ibid., p. 119.
3. Ibid., p. 122.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 121.
6. Ibid. pp. 121–2.
1. Ibid., p. 129.
2. Ibid., p. 128.
3. TDES, p. 400.
4. WZGM, p. 128.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., pp. 126–7.
7. Ibid., p. 121.
8. Ibid., p. 122.
1. Ibid., p. 123.
2. Ibid., p. 125.
3. Ibid., p. 129.
4. Ibid., p. 126.
5. Ibid. p. 132. Interestingly, in his treatment of Eckhart, Balthasar often refers to the “morning
cognition.” The origin of the phrase, it would seem, lies in the “Augustinian cognitio matutina as intuition
of things in the Essence of God” (TDPR, p. 519, footnote 35).
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid., p. 133.
1. WZGM, p. 140.
2. TDES, p. 409.
3. TLWG, pp. 111–2.
1. Ibid.
2. S4, p. 317.
3. HFSL, p. 490.
1. Ibid., pp. 490–1.
2. Ibid., p. 527.
3. HSG, p. 303.
4. St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross,
tr. Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1973), p.
1. HFSL, pp. 491–2.
2. Ibid., p. 487. Emphasis in the original.
3. Ibid., p. 492.
4. Ibid., p. 495.
5. Ibid., p. 493.
1. Ibid.
2. As St. Ignatius Loyola makes his first appearance in our work on Balthasar in a critical light, in
simple justice one must hasten to observe that it would be impossible to find a more admiring and faithful
son of St. Ignatius than Hans Urs von Balthasar. It is a tribute to Balthasar’s freedom that his utter loving
dedication to the charism of St. Ignatius could see and remark the rare inadequacy.
3. TLWG, pp. 101–2.
4. HFSL, pp. 511–3.
1. HRMN, p. 443.
2. Ibid., pp. 443–4.
3. HFSL, p. 519.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 520.
6. Ibid., p. 527.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., p. 528.
1. Ibid., p. 504.
2. S4, p. 78.
3. Ibid., p. 77.
4. HSG, p. 117.
1. HFSL, pp. 508–9.
2. Ibid., p. 504.
3. Ibid., p. 520.
1. Ibid., p. 523.
2. Ibid., p. 480.
3. Ibid., p. 525.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 476.
6. Ibid., p. 486, italics mine.
1. Ibid.
2. Ibid., p. 530.
3. Ibid., p. 531.
4. St. John of the Cross, p. 169.
1. TLWG, p. 111.
2. GINL, pp. 37–8.
3. Ibid.
4. S5, p. 254.
1. S1, p. 190.
2. S3, p. 38.
3. TLWG, p. 90.
1. BG, p. 237.
2. Ibid., p. 47.
3. In any talk of the ways, we must recall that for Balthasar there is only one way: the One Who
called Himself the Way, Jesus Christ. And so no “way” other than the Person of Christ is the way. However,
the via eminentiæ clearly comes closest to the spirit of Christianity in Balthasar’s view and thus it represents
a “preferred way” of describing the approach to truth.
4. HFSK, p. 9.
5. TLWG, p. 88.
1. Ibid., pp. 88–9.
2. Ibid., p. 88.
3. Ibid., p. 113.
4. Ibid., p. 106.
Einmaligkeit: The Unique Word Spoken from
the Fullness of the Father

“Y ou’ve heard the bad news,” the common saying goes, “the good news
is. . . .” The “bad news” for humanity, limited to what St. Ignatius of
Antioch calls the “first speech” of God, creation, is that in order to satisfy the
longing of his heart for the infinite, man will have to negate the finite. It is bad
news because the fulfilment of the relative being, the reaching the goal for which
he seeks with his deepest desire, means necessarily the destruction of that
relative being by and for the Absolute. As we have seen, this extends beyond the
world of non-Biblical religion to include even Judaism and Islam, where the
individual is sacrificed for the People or the Umma, and where there is a gulf
fixed between God and man, which orthodoxy maintains but which mysticism
would seek to overcome—at the price, however, of a mysticism of identity in
which the individual subject disappears. The good news, from the point of view
of natural mysticism, would be that there is a way out of the choking thicket of
relativities, a way to the cool spaces of infinity beyond the crowded constraints
of limitedness. But again, the price is the loss of the world.
We saw as well that Balthasar continues his search through the ways in
which this hunger for God has manifested itself in Christianity. The natural
religious philosophy of humanity as it has found its way into the Christian
tradition is what is called the via negativa. It is based on the natural assumption
that stripping oneself of all things earthly, of concepts and images and finally of
one’s self, one will attain the heavenly. Thus, emptiness becomes the great
symbol for what is, humanly speaking, desirable: the Void becomes the goal in
Asian religion, in John of the Cross we hear the refrain of “Nada, nada.”
Balthasar has a different sense of what is good and bad news. The bad
news, according to him, is that all traditional religion is ultimately trying to
escape the inescapable facts of guilt and of death, and that however
imaginatively man tries to do this, in the end, death, at least, is ineluctable.
Somewhat in the manner of a prophet in the Old Testament who seeks to clear
the divine world of deities competing with the living God—what Balthasar
himself calls “Biblical negative theology”—Balthasar basically attacks the
attempts of man to scale spiritual heights (aufsteigen) as illusory hubris. It is
pardonable and understandable given the condition of fallen humanity, but it is
not the truth. The good news (das Evangelium) is that the truth is far simpler
than any of the schemes devised by the human mind: indeed, the simpler the
human mind the closer it comes to the truth. Myth is preferred to philosophy, the
more primitive states of Grecian culture—Homer—are far more likely to lead to
the truth than the sophisticated Neo-Platonic tradition. The good news for
Balthasar is the Evangelium of a God who speaks, a Trinitarian God of three
persons, who wants to share His Being, who wants to engage in dialogue with
others, with free beings, and who will culminate His speech in a Word which
becomes flesh and in a Spirit which gathers together all the scattered syllables of
creation to return them to the divine speech.
We turn, then, in this chapter to Balthasar’s positive vision of some key
elements of what is distinctively Christian, centering on the notion of “word.”
We will attempt this in three sections. The first will reflect on aspects of the
being of God and God’s relation to man. The second will focus on the speech
and the silence of God and of God made man. The third will explore some of the
uniqueness of this revelation. To make any claim to exhaustively present
Balthasar’s teaching on the uniqueness of Christianity would suffer from the
same hubris he so laments in humanity. Rather, with our center in the theme of
word and silence, we shall try to touch on some of the most important elements
in the unique mystery that Balthasar so rhapsodizes.

I. The God of Persons

A. Fullness. Trinity of Persons
As emptiness is so important a metaphor for non-Christian religious realities,
one which Balthasar constantly attacks, it is perhaps only right that we begin our
investigation of the uniqueness of the Christian revelation with the concept of
“fullness.” He writes: “as every limited word comes out of the endlessness of the
fullness of Being, so all the more does the endless Word come out of the
ineffable fullness of the paternal heart.”1 It will be observed that Balthasar relies
here on an analogy from creation to point to a relation within the Trinity. It is a
method which suffuses his work. The interplay itself of fullness/emptiness is a
theme which crowds the pages of Balthasar’s writings.
We find St. Irenæus portrayed as maintaining that “God is the totality,
outside of which there can be nothing, no independent, opposed void
(kenoma).”2 The Gnostics whom Irenæus fought allowed for the existence of a
Void within the fullness, but Irenæus —who avoids using the word Pleroma for
God—insists that no void remains, that all is full of the divine fullness.
Origen on the other hand sees diversity within creation as a fruit of the
Fall, a fall from an original sameness, and this is for Balthasar a fatal Platonism.
Aquinas, disagreeing, insists that the diversity of creatures does not result from
the creatures’ own merits or demerits, but rather “that the fullness of divine
perfection could only be approximated through the greatest variety of
creatures.”3 Of Bonaventure’s theology of glory Balthasar writes that it is:
[A] theology of the excessus in light of the ever greater fullness of God: the excess of
manifestation is the proper hiddenness of the Christian God; the excess of light that remains
incomprehensible demands faith; the excess of love in the Crucified demands pure humility
and self-surrender, yes, the excess of divine prodigality absolutely demands that total
poverty which as the human gesture of giving everything away is the exact answer to God’s
abandonment of all even to the Cross, an answer which is possible for humans.1

Here we see a clear instance of the via eminentiæ so beloved by Balthasar, the
excess of God’s greatness illustrating one of his favorite maxims: Deus semper
major. The best of the pagans yearned for fullness: Platonic eros strives
ceaselessly for fullness. But it is the Christian life, the life of grace, faith and
love, that lives a life “out of the fullness,” overwhelmed beyond both need and
hope by the copious bounty (Füllhorn) of eternal life.2
In contrast with India, whose ascetical exercises lead to an “empty
identity,” the Christian, with his gift of the spiritual marriage between Creator
and creature (which we shall address in our next chapter) is led to an “identity of
fullness, in which all limited being is transformed.”3
Finally, in the modern world, Nietzsche taught that God was dead; Bloch
added that it was Jesus who killed Him. But God is not dead, and because of His
“I am” claims, Jesus has fully identified Himself with God concentrating on
Himself all the diffuse claims of humanity’s religions, a vague religious horizon
that has finally thus cleared and revealed that the only alternative to God left for
modern man—and this most interesting to our investigation—is the great Void
(die grosse Leere).4
Fullness for the Christian then is one of Trinitarian love, and one which is
emphatically personal: it finds its center and focus in the mission of the Son of
God into the world:
This fullness of Trinitarian life is not experienced in a worldless solitude as is the Satori
ideal of the Orient or the ecstatic experience of the One for Plotinus. Rather, it is experienced
in that which is at the same time immanent to God and, in the Incarnation of God to the
world, transcendent: that form which is called “mission.” And this fullness is integrated
directly in the community not only of the Church but of humanity as a whole and of every
creature which is to be called home to its Maker. . . . The love which descends in the mission
from God and which has already been integrated into the world in the work of Christ should
be the decisive fact that allows one to designate as a person in a specifically Christian sense
that subject who has become by grace a sharer in absolute love, who has shared in its death
and resurrection and who has truly become selfless in this love.1

Returning to what we had seen at the beginning of this section of how the
uttering of earthly words from the fullness of Being is analogous to the
procession of the Word in the Blessed Trinity, we proceed here to see that the
fullness of Trinitarian life leads to a life of man on earth which finds its focus in
the mission (Sendung) in which man participates in the Incarnation of the Son,
and in which man finds his personhood. We will be returning to this shortly.
Here, it is vital to see that the source of this fullness is the Blessed Trinity and
that the life within the Trinity will be mirrored in creation.
As we have earlier seen in our treatment of the Gnostics, Balthasar waged
a relentless battle against those who would posit a “God beyond God,” a
godhead (Eckhart) or an Absolute who is greater than the God who can fully
reveal Himself. The Blessed Trinity has the fullness beyond which there is no
emptiness: hence, Balthasar commonly uses the phrase “the fullness of
Trinitarian life.” He strives mightily to portray this overflowing abundance as
characteristic of God and His Being. This is certainly illustrated in his fondness
for the Baroque as a style in architecture and in music, a fondness which leads
him to describe the work of Mozart as virtually divine music.2
The God of the Bible is a living God: His liveliness (Lebendigkeit) is in
contrast to the fixed nature of the Absolute. He is so alive that He is the
primordial image (Urbild) of all that is of becoming on earth, without Himself
becoming: rather, His aliveness is one of Being, but a fullness of being so great
that it is seen in creation as becoming.1
It cannot be emphasized enough that this God is personal. Although
Balthasar is aware of interpersonal elements in primitive religions, he maintains
that they were initial insights that were always soon overwhelmed by the
[T]he spiritual high points of religions are almost always impersonal, and the idea of the
transmigration of souls, spread worldwide and in places universally held, shows how
underdeveloped the sense of true personality remained. . . . Personality, lifted from plain
human subjectivity (Geistsubjektivität) first appears thematically both with and from within
Christology: there where an expressive word of mission guarantees man his qualitative
uniqueness because it bestows it upon him.2

It is Christology that thematically brings the subject of personality—and

uniqueness—to theology. The whole concept of person is possible because of the
mission which makes a person of the subject. That which occurs in the human
realm mirrors the reality of the inner-Trinitarian relations: it is this that is of
importance here.
Thus, “I possess my incommunicable subjectivity only insofar as in my
being I give space to other free subjects; and because I thereby have an
experience of the structure of Being as such, there lies there an ‘image’ of the
Trinitarian constitution of absolute Being.”3
This Urbild is then relational, made up of inter-personal contacts, and so,
of course, personal. In his creation of a Trinitarian theology of person, Balthasar
moved beyond Augustine who saw the Trinity reflected in the individual:
Balthasar sees the Trinity reflected in the community. Creation is communal,
because God is trinitarian, communal Being: this communal being, at the very
heart of reality, saves humanity from the “bad infinity” experienced in being
open to the other,4 as portrayed so bleakly by Sartre inter al.
The “action” of God towards humanity is for Balthasar primarily that of
missions which extend the processions within the Trinity into the world. The
Holy Spirit, therefore, is no “timeless Sun of the Enlightenment, always equally
available, but rather the spirit of missions and tasks” from whom “ever new,
unpredictable tasks break in on us from God.”1
We are not here interested in presenting Balthasar’s Trinitarian theology in
any detail. It is, however, to our point to present the image he offers of the
Triune God for it is contrasted with the “gods of the nations” and because this
image sets the tone for the rest of the uniqueness of Christianity.
The alternatives to Trinitarian Christianity are all ultimately either Gnosis
or atheism, according to Balthasar, and they go hand in hand: the fixed, frozen
Absolute, behind the living, self-revealing God is that of this Gnosis and
ultimately of this empty atheism.2
The Triune God is a living—and lively—relation of persons. As a human
person, who “I” am is not to be discovered, Balthasar maintains, by any gnothi
sauton or noverim me but rather through the revelation of the triune God in
Christ. This is so because my “I” is a “Thou” for God, and because “I” can only
be an “I” because God wants to become my “Thou.” For Balthasar,
if this is the primordial sense of Being and I am still not to become a necessary fulfillment of
God (i.e., God Himself), then the final conclusion is unavoidable, that God in Himself must
be an eternal I and Thou and the Unity in Love of both: the mystery of the Trinity becomes
an indispensable condition that there be a world, that the drama of love takes place between
God and world, and that the world innerly fulfills this drama as the encounter of I and

As it is at the heart of the personal and Christian experience, it is to a closer

examination of this I-Thou relation that we now turn.

B. Dialogue: I-Thou
The meeting of the I and the Thou is at the heart of Balthasar’s theology, for it is
at the heart of being human—and divine. Indeed, the human comes to self-
consciousness itself first by being addressed by another.1
It is the absence of this dialogical quality that also lies at the heart of
Balthasar’s critique of other systems. He insists that neither ancient philosophy
nor the Christian philosophy built on it has taken the I-Thou relation seriously
enough2 and faults all attempts at Christian metaphysics—including St. Thomas
—for leaving out the “Thou”3: indeed, it is a source of ongoing astonishment to
him that until very recently, interpersonal human relations were not an integral
part of the study of philosophy. This is, moreover, a further instance of his
passionate concern for the unique individual whose existence is created by such
interpersonal meetings and, conversely, is threatened when interpersonal
relations are attacked as they are today by various manifestations of “mass
man.”4 In a word, “man, this image of the Logos, is from ground up dialogically
created; every monological self-explanation must destroy him.”5 That dialogue
penetrates to the very core of the individual is corroborated by Fr. Copleston,
who points out that no metaphysician can maintain the philosophy of the One
and still speak: the only alternative to discursive thought is silence.6
Balthasar rehearses the various philosophical attempts to deal with
personhood, the unique personhood that he is urging. In Neo-Platonism,the
encounter of the alone with the Alone confirms one’s uniqueness but at the price
of one’s individual selfhood.7 Once again, this tendency is seen as continuing in
Hegel and the idealists as well: they let the “empirical-personal I be dissolved in
the ‘essential’ and ‘ideal.’”1 This requires for Hegel so great a stripping of the
particular personality clinging to itself that Balthasar calls it the “most
demanding self-overcoming known to ascetical literature.”2
Asian religion does not fare better as far as the interpersonal goes. In
Begegnung der Religionen, published by Johannes Verlag, Jacques Cuttat, who
greatly influenced Balthasar, writes that although Buddhism would seem to
encourage love of neighbor, there is no neighbor as the Christian understands it:
“two equally real individuals, both created in the image of God.”3 Instead, there
are two “aggregates” who are both “‘pain-filled, impermanent, transitory’
according to the classical formulas.”4 Hence, the Buddhist knows only a
compassion which is then extended to all beings. Cuttat goes on to criticize
Gautama for not knowing a “burning love” but rather a “passionless spiritual
clarity” which rather than embracing the neighbor, “embraced all living beings,
in order to embrace himself in all, under the masks of the neighbor.”5 The danger
of such an ultimate embrace of self haunts Balthasar as well in his reflections on
Again, myth does better than philosophy and mystical religion, for all myth
is essentially dialogical,6 and as such is the foundation of all art. This
harmonizes well with Balthasar’s observation that the self-expression of spirit is
always a dialogue with other souls, and the truth first comes to light in this
super-subjective dialogue.7 Furthermore, mythical thinking is grounded in
particularity, which Balthasar habitually contrasts with Gnosis which raises
essentially universal claims.8
The uniquely named partner to the unique God is first discovered, indeed,
is first possible, in the dramatic tension that is offered by the Bible.1 Balthasar
insists that to arrive at the uniquely personal, we need the vertical dimension of
biblical revelation: it is God’s calling the individual by name that gives each one
his unique worth. No longer is one just an individual of a species. This is a first
in the history of human thought, which left to its own devices, at its highest
reaches in Idealist philosophy, produced a mathematics, a Platonism which is
what has ultimately destroyed the West’s faith in Christianity.2 To be a person
means that one cannot be merely numbered as a member of a species, for each
person is a “world unto himself.” As he beautifully puts it, to know what it
means to be a person, one must know a face, know someone’s fate.3 Other
religions seek a cosmic way to God: the Christians seek the way in the
In a Biblical anthropology, dialogue—the Zwischenwort—is first possible
in this world where bodies confront each other.5 This Johannine understanding is
seen incarnate in that most basic of human relations, that between mother and
child. Perhaps the most commonly encountered image in Balthasar’s corpus is
that of the mother, calling her child to I-consciousness by a smile, a “spiritual
expression” as he calls it. The child first becomes aware of itself as a “Thou.”
Man, for Balthasar, is a “Thou” who learns to say “I”6: he can “only become an
‘I’ as one awakened by the love of a ‘Thou.’”7 Because one is first a “Thou” and
learns to be an “I” from the “Thou,” the “Thou” is always “older” than the “I,”
thus being prior within the “I” and opening the individual to the many relations
of “we.”8
In the relation of God and man, it is the unlimited “I” of God that calls the
limited “I” of man into existence, and this in His Word9: “To be man means to be
addressed by God in the word and to be so created in the image of God, that one
can receive the word and answer the word.”1 In contradistinction to compassion
for fellow suffering beings, it is the way of relation between the unique God and
his uniquely addressed creature.2
God relates to man as a “Thou” speaking to an “I”: but He is not simply a
“Thou” among others. He is in the “I” (even as the “I” of the mother is the
primordial “Thou” for the human child) but He is also above it. Thus, He is the
deepest grounding of the “I,” “more inner to me than I am to myself” in
Augustine’s classical phrase favored by Balthasar.3 The relation is so profound
that “my I is the Thou of God.”4 That God is love we have already seen in our
glance at the Trinity. Balthasar naturally proceeds to the conclusion that the I-
Thou of the Trinity finds its “epiphany” in the I-Thou between God and man.5
And it must be underlined that it is the Trinity—most particularly the Spirit, the
Spirit of love—that is guarantee against the dissolution of human individuals.6
Each unique human being is a “Thou” created and addressed by God, and
so should pass from egoism to a disinterested love of God, others and self.7 To
love the other is not merely to love someone who happens to share the same
nature as one has, a fellow member of the same species (as Balthasar notes the
Stoics and Spinozists would do): rather, it is to love another who is addressed
individually and uniquely by God “in what is most individual to him.”8
It is the individual nature of the call which most distinguishes the Christian
from the Jewish vision of the relation of God and man. Balthasar obviously
draws very heavily from the inspiration of Jewish thinkers, most notably Martin
Buber, throughout his discussion of the I-Thou. But Balthasar observes that the
I-Thou relation in the Old Testament tended to be between God and His People:
although he also notes that the call to Abraham was individual, it was yet
oriented toward a people. The Christian call is unique in being individually
addressed. We have already encountered the notion of mission (Sendung). It is
this individual encounter with God that is unique to the Christian understanding:
“the human spiritual subject becomes a person in the Christian, and
christological sense, only in a face to face (Aug in Auge) meeting with the
uniqueness of God.”1 Christ Himself is the “person par excellence” because in
Him, consciousness and mission are identified.2 God wants us, in Christ, to be
persons who express God’s unique idea of us.3 This is again seen in the task that
God has for us as His dialogue partners, a task which continues after our earthly
life and which is nothing less than the actual kernel of personality.4 For
Balthasar, Jesus Christ addresses each human being (Geistsubjekt) individually:
each must decide if he will bear the Name of Christ and accept the unique
mission that God has for each, within the mission of His Son.5 It is only by
identifying with this mission that we become persons in the deepest, theological
sense.6 And “person” for Balthasar is the unique (das Einmalige).7
Key to all this, of course, is the existence of the dialogue. So essential is
dialogue to being a human being that it is the sphere in which we are placed:
outside of dialogue, there is only monologue which is the sphere of sin.8

C. Abstand: Space for the Other

A central feature of the uniquely Christian vision is that of distance, space. For
there to be another, there must be space between the I and the Thou. Naturally
enough, this space is the opposite of identity: it is a space that lets the other be
other, while not being so absolute as to destroy relation, indeed, there must be
space in order for there to be love.
This has its origins in the Old Testament, where distance, along with a
most highly developed realism, is the distinctive feature of Israel in contrast to
the other religions.1 The basis of Biblical religion is the distance between
Creator and creature, based on the essential difference between God and creature
and God’s total freedom.2
But this distance between Heaven and Earth becomes secondary for the
Christian, for it becomes an economical expression of the primary
—“immanent”—distance between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.3 It
is the mystery of the Trinity that sets the correct distance for the drama that
Balthasar sees unfolding in Christianity, the correct space as between the
excessive gap between creature and God in the Old Testament, Islam, all the way
to Deism; and the too close identification of God, where He identifies with His
suffering creation but loses the distance of covenant, as in the world of mythical
dying and rising gods.4 Within the Trinity itself, the Spirit is the Spirit of
Distance (der Geist des Abstands) who bears witness to the proper proportion of
distance and unity, what Balthasar calls the “Spirit of faith in obedience” (Geist
des Glaubens im Gehorsam).5
The gift of proper distancing is the gift of the other. We begin with
creation, which we find to be good as the:
likeness of God, but also as the Other of God which is good and eternally willed by God and
which needs no annihilating sublimation (Aufhebung) to move within God. “In Him we live
and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In Him, but not as He Himself, but rather as in
the Other. All non-Christian religion feels this being-other as something tragic and in need of
abolition, for in the end there can only be the One. Time must dissolve in eternity. Only the
Christian knows that the Other is in God’s very essence: the Son who never becomes Father,
and the Spirit who never becomes either Son or Father. Only the Christian knows that this
eternal Other is the precondition on which God can be called love and thus the eternal
correspondence of love in God also justifies the correspondence between God and creature. .
. .1

It is clear that in the personal identity of each member of the Trinity —“the Son
who never becomes Father, the Spirit who never becomes either Son or
Father”—an eternal dignity is bestowed upon individual being which is not to be
dissolved. To dissolve the individual would be to remove the very possibility of
love. Thus, the Other is found in God’s very essence.
Anticipating our imminent discussion of the Incarnation, we see that the
otherness is ultimately guaranteed for man by the Incarnation, by what is
implicit in the New Testament and what has been explicitly stated in the
Councils from Nicea to Chalcedon: that the dignity of man is lifted up into the
divine life itself on the Cross, without man’s created being having to dissolve in
God.2 Thus, “salvation is not being freed from limitedness, but rather the taking
up of the limited (and thus of the Other) into the endless, that, in order to be the
life of love, must have the Other both as such (Word/Son) and as united with the
One (Spirit) in itself.”3
It must be mentioned, if only in passing, that this whole issue of distance is
intimately related to that central theme of Balthasar’s vision, analogy. The whole
scheme of salvation opposes to cosmic identity the presuppositions of “the
analogy of God-world, the freedom of divine mission, and the Trinity in God.”4
Without the analogy proper to him, man is destroyed: his natural desire for God
pulls him out of the world, draws him to deny/destroy the world in his desire for
God, and so, he loses his created place as a creature with a God-given distance
from God.5 As witness to this, beauty is based on analogy, not on identity, and
this is true both for inner-worldly æsthetics as well as for the spiritual order.6
For a capsule illustration of this, we turn again to St. John of the Cross.
Balthasar points out that John’s mysticism can only be fulfilled by the Trinity
which helps it avoid two opposite spiritual shoals: the first is the pantheistic,
what we have seen called that of identity; the other is that of an impoverished
meeting of mere accidents as between Creator and creature. John sails between
From now on, on the level of the triune life in which the creature may by grace take passive-
active part, we are on the other side of separating distance and person-threatening identity.
And it is only through a miracle of received grace that the breathtaking wonders of the
substantial contact of I and Thou are not deadly, that this and the wonders of the awakening
of the Thou in the middle of the I and of the I in the middle of the Thou become the content
of the life of love. . . . Distance of person in God in the bosom (Schoss) of a unity of Essence
is the precondition of all love, the eternal as well as the created.1

For John of the Cross, then, the distance of the persons in unity of essence
(that is, the correct distance, neither “dividing” nor yet “an identity that threatens
the person”) is the foundation of all love.
Put as simply as possible, for there to be a beautiful painting, there must be
both a unified canvas and a diversity of elements, each in proper order and
harmony with each other. Without proper space there cannot be the other, and
with no other, there can be no love—where God is love, then there must be the

D. The God who seeks

If God has created the world and man as other, thus setting up an “economical”
expression of the Trinitarian diversity, and if God is love, then it would stand to
reason that God would reach out, seek out His creature. Put in philosophical
terms, the “bridge from the One to the Many (both belong together) can only be
cast across by God.”2
For Balthasar, the Greeks are the God-seekers par excellence, and they
represent all of humanity. Opposed to them are the Jews, who are not God-
seekers “in the least”1: the Jews are the people who have been “found and
claimed” by God: “They inquire little about God, but God asks uncomfortably
much about them.”2 In his praise of the “being found by God,” Balthasar writes
Being found stands so much higher over Seeking (revelation over myth, theology over
philosophy), it has so overtaken Seeking with its light and overshadowed it into
insignificance and triviality . . . , that the stage of Seeking seems dispensable to those who
have been Found.3
We must read Balthasar very carefully here if we are not to succumb to his
poetic license. The being found by God is so marvellous that “the stage of
Seeking seems dispensable to those who have been Found.” But the seeking for
God is written into man’s very nature. This is what is so often referred to by
Balthasar as the Areopagrede: the search of man as a creature is “‘to search for
God in all,’ for God has placed humanity in the world to ‘seek Him, if perhaps
they might touch Him and find Him, for He is indeed not far from each one of
us’ (Acts 17:27).”4 But man is summoned to seek with no guarantee of finding.
The communication that is desired by man will not happen “unless God
Himself says His Word and His Name.”5 The Christian thus finds himself sought
by God and of course, God being God, the Christian is found by God. The
dynamic continues. Though overshadowed by being found—chosen—by God he
little suspects that he will then “find God, and in all things no less.”6
Biblical man has been found by God from eternity. This spells two
consequences for Balthasar. First of all, because God speaks to man with grace
and makes demands on him, man is no longer in a position to create a systematic
approach to God nor is he allowed a spirit of resignation in his relations with
God. Rather, method must yield to adoration, the basic stance now becomes a
loving obedience. Secondly—and this is surprising—man is called to an ever
more intense seeking:
No word touching the human relation to God resounds so ceaselessly, in a hundredfold
repetitions and variations through the entire Old Testament as the word: “quærere
Dominum.” It is as if the ray of grace which has struck the lowest and innermost part of man
reveals for the first time the entire reality of his being as a created nature.1

So the Biblical man, found by God, is yet constantly told to seek the Lord. But
this is a seeking which truly begins with God’s initiative, an initiative which
speaks to the deepest longing of the human heart, and the human drive to seek
for God, a drive which is well ordered when it becomes a drive to respond to the
one who has addressed him.
This is seen most clearly in the perfect man, Jesus Christ. As we shall see
more thoroughly in our treatment of the Incarnation, “all that God can say and
give to men is perfectly realised in the humanity of Jesus.”2 Interestingly, Jesus’
manhood is so thorough that the search for God is part of it. But, as distinct from
humanity who settle for magic rituals or who turn their own longing into the
measure of their relation with God, Jesus’ search is a “pure search for the honour
and glory of God for its own sake—and precisely for this reason is the search
fulfilled (erfüllt) by God.”3 Moreover: “The entire word of God addressed to the
world takes on flesh in the personal selflessness of Jesus’ pure search for God’s
honour, and that in a uniquely personal fullness (Dichte).”4
Thus, we find that man’s ongoing search, essential to his nature, for the
God Who finds him should be fueled not primarily by man’s own longing for
God, “but from the fire kindled by God’s Word in him.”5
In a vein parallel to that of the “seeking/being found” theme, we find
Balthasar speaking of knowledge of God as knowing/being known, and of seeing
God as seeing/being seen. Thus, to be enraptured in faith is not the deed of the
one seeing but of that seen. In Christian perception, what is perceived depends
finally on the initiative of the object (which becomes subjective/active).1 This
quickly takes on Balthasarian focus when he appreciates Pascal’s description as
being known by a God who is neither the god of the philosophers nor yet the
analogy of being, but rather that incomprehensible love seen in Christ’s Cross.2
Balthasar seeks to replace the Cartesian “cogito” with the Baaderian “cogitor,”3
and he recalls Goethe’s words to Schopenhauer: “What, is the light only there
because you see it? No! You wouldn’t be there, if the Light didn’t see you!”4
The divine ground actually “comes to us unexpectedly,” making known “a
‘Light,’ which one cannot bypass and yet which is invisible; a word of
incomparable precision, that expresses itself equally well in the cry (Schrei) of
dying, in the being silent of death, and in the supra-verbal (Überworthaften)
character of the awakening and in being exuded.”5 All of this is given in the face
of man’s search for God. The balance is created, the distance is mediated and
maintained in proper harmony, by God’s Word, that word of “incomparable
precision,” a precision as great as that of a human fingerprint. The Other
expresses Himself to man, and that in a word:
Glory and Power stand close together, yet to be sure not so much like the “eternal power”
(Rom.1:20) which shows itself in transitory, temporal creatures but rather much more as
God’s more astounding power to express His abyssal Being Other in His supernatural
“Word” as a revelation that is understandable and appropriate to the world.6

It is to the speech of God that we now turn.

II. The Words of God

That God’s Word to man remains far above, and other than, human dialogue was
a caution Balthasar insisted upon (Deus semper major). Thus, he wrote that one
could not make of Christian revelation a system of dialogue, for God’s Word is
the only language possible between God and man.1 Philosophy, for Balthasar, is
human talk about God: theology concerns itself with the Word from God.2
Theology involves both a word addressed and a response, and as such it should
be dramatic, avoiding the temptations of a spiritual lyricism or a theological epic
of the mighty deeds of an unapproachable God. Once again, a third way must be
chosen.3 And, bearing in mind his caution about not creating a system of
dialogue, as drama, theology must always have something of dialogue, of the
“Thou” about it.4 This living encounter with its unique God must be at the heart
of Christian theology:
Christian experience is not only “experience of something novel” but rather experience of
something unique and this to such an extent that in the face of it, all other experiences of
God somehow draw together as something generic and then settle down around that one
centre which has been given from above while being unattainable from below. Henceforth,
the understanding of the new incomparable middle in its self-interpretation will be Christian
“theology”: Logos about God from the Logos of the God who is expressing Himself in the
prophetic Word become man.5

As with the uniqueness of the person who is no longer just a member of the
species, we see that the unique action of the Christian God reduces other
experiences of God to predictable categories. The understanding of the
“incomparable middle” becomes theology: Logos about the Logos, word about
the Word. The word-character of the Biblical God is bluntly stated by Balthasar:
“God is nothing other than the voice summoning out of the midst of Glory.”1
Man has been created for this voice (and by this voice). And, in typically
Trinitarian fashion, it is the Spirit that allows us to enter into God’s dialogue.2
According to an image of St. Ignatius of Antioch much favored by
Balthasar, God has made three speeches: Creation, Scripture, and Incarnation. In
our investigation of the uniquely Christian, we have seen the grounds for the
interpersonal communication which seems to be at the heart of this mystery.
Now we proceed to a more detailed look at how God has spoken to man.

A. Creation
The first of the words of God is the Creation. It is to dishonor God to try to go
behind the God of historical revelation in search of an “unknown God.”3 God
reveals Himself first of all as Creator: “The Being of things and not something
next to or behind them is the revelation of the eternally powerful divine Being”4
—though Balthasar is quick to note that God is always other than the image the
creature has of Him; the relation is not quite a simple human I-Thou. Creation is
an image of God, but as an image of the “Other” of God.5 In this respect,
Christianity shares with Judaism and Islam respect for the distance separating
creation and Creator.6 Apart from God does not mean alienated from God (that
wrong distance of which St. John of the Cross writes): it is sin that will negate
the bond of love between creature and creator. But even sin does not cancel the
promise of a return to God held in the creature’s origin from God.
It is a commonplace (if not undisputed) that the idea of a “creation out of
nothing” is uniquely Biblical. Balthasar posits the dividing line between pre-
Christian and Biblical Christian in “the first line of Genesis” whereby man and
the cosmos are set on one side of the line apart from the Creator God on the
other.7 The uniqueness of every created thing speaks the freedom of the Creator
God, His creative Word spoken in absolute freedom.1 Something of this
wonderful uniqueness must be visible to anyone with the least acquaintance with
nature. Something of Balthasar’s sense for the glory of God’s uniqueness in
unique creation as against the killing forces of human idealistic philosophy
might be seen were one to contemplate the heavy hand of modern man visible in
wilderness, where a power line aggressively draws its straight and relentless
trajectory across a forest of infinitely non-linear variety.2 Balthasar insists that
each individual creature reflects in its uniqueness something of God’s
uniqueness, thus echoing however distantly something of God’s majestic
freedom: each created thing has a unique dignity and is not interchangeable, not
a “pure” object like a mathematical number.
In the Genesis accounts, God creates man and the cosmos by His speech.
Things themselves speak of God, but as this is the first “speech of God” God is
not yet speaking directly, as Ignatius of Antioch points out. Created things are
partial utterances—the “speech of things,”3 waiting for man to utter them (even
as all creation is good in light of the Incarnation which will be full “utterance” of
this speech). In this sense, the speech of creatures is “a speaking if silent word.”4
Among creatures, plant life is a spoken word, animals are words that speak as
well. Relative to their capacities, God’s relation to His creatures is dialogical. In
Creation, God silences Himself, and by empowering the creature to its own
speech, God will speak to it.
This whole objective, created world is constantly presenting itself to man
—but man is free to turn himself away from it, closing his eyes and “playing
dead.”5 Man is free to turn a deaf ear to the first speech of God—indeed, this is
likely what is ultimately the sin of hubris in man’s attempts to climb to God by
turning away from creatures, as we have seen in Balthasar’s critique of the
apophatic traditions. As Nicholas of Cusa wrote: “Creation is a legible book.”1
Platonic language is that of picture, of image: it is a “visible language” whereas
the Christian language begins with the talk of the person whose appearance itself
is a speaking, a language.2 In either case, one should not turn a blind eye or deaf
ear to what is being expressed in creation.
To man’s question “who am I” the answer must be: a creature of God.
Otherwise, Balthasar insists, “I” must be dissolved. It is as a creature that “I” am
intended, willed, loved and chosen by God.3 If the distance between Creator and
creature forbids any identification between them, so the otherness in the Trinity
allows for the permanent existence of the creature as beloved other: this is found
nowhere but in Trinitarian Christianity.4 Creatureliness thus becomes a guarantee
of existence for the individual. Without the Biblical view of man as a “being
with His Creator,” the Grecian view emerges in which the soul becomes creator
of the world, and creation is diminished.5 The Biblical view of creation and of
man, sober as it is, was maintained for millennia in the face of temptations to
turn to myth or to let man disappear in self-destruction. The value of creation is
inestimable then for Balthasar. It is a truth known to metaphysics only by
revelation: and a truth which is much threatened by the Promethean modern
world. As bearers of this truth, Christians become “the responsible guardians
(Hütern) of God’s Glory and of Creation for the modern world.”6
Balthasar cites Caussade as saying that things go out of God’s mouth like
words.7 Yet this first speech, even brought to the articulation of the human voice,
is still a speech about God even if it is uttered ultimately by God: we move on to
the second speech, that of Scripture in which God addresses man directly.

B. Scripture—language, poetry
In the “second speech” of God, we enter into the world of speech as we would
commonly understand it, most particularly, the world of Scripture, of the spoken
and written word. Of course, as we have seen, speech can more generally
indicate communication, and so “things” become the speech of God. On another
level, gesture and symbol are also a form of non-verbal speech. For someone as
interested in the arts as Balthasar, a sensitivity to the non-verbal forms of speech
is very important. The third speech of God, the Incarnation, goes far beyond (and
“below”) the verbal. Here, we focus on the verbal speech.
In terms of St. Ignatius of Antioch’s three-fold scheme, this second speech
is most particularly that of God to the prophets of Israel.1 If things are already
the speech of God, then man is so a fortiori. But as we have noted, man’s “I” is
not on the same level as God’s: man must be adapted to the speech of God:
between God and man the only common language is the Word of God.2 But prior
to the Incarnation of that Word, how is the Word to speak in words?
When God wants to speak to man, to reveal Himself, He must make the
created spirit capable of grasping the Absolute.3 We shall see this more fully
developed later on when we investigate the preparation of the anawim in Israel
for the reception of God’s Word in Mary. Here, it is the general human ability to
receive and articulate communication that is of interest. This is seen most clearly
in the human experience of poetry, which Balthasar calls “indispensable for the
concretion of revelation.”4
We have already seen in our first chapter that in light of the Resurrection of
the concrete individual, the poets are seen as ultimately vindicated, certainly as
against the philosophers. It will be recalled how greatly Balthasar reverences the
ancient poets Homer and Virgil, the latter being one who surpasses normal
human imaginative power and “indicates the point where . . . God begins to
speak out of the depth of His heart.”1
Of the figures Balthasar studies in the first volume of The Glory of the
Lord, Georg Hamann is the one most concerned with poetry per se. Hamann
speaks of two books, that of nature and that of Scripture,2 thus roughly
paralleling the first two “speeches” of St. Ignatius of Antioch. The beauty of
creation is seen as an audible and visual “speech” of God for Hamann as well.
Believing that language comes from God, Hamann, who was profoundly anti-
gnostic and pro-myth, religion and Incarnation, speaks of man as the “highest
word of the poet-God.”3 Although he holds that originally all theology was
poetry,4 Hamann defends Christianity from its dissolution into poetry itself that
Herder attempted5 (as well as from its dissolution into philosophy by Kant). The
disorder of the poet serves as analogy for the disorder of the Holy Spirit; the
poetic disorder of the Bible is a form of expression of the higher disorder of the
Holy Spirit.6
Poetry’s revelatory character was not lost on Goethe, for whom poetry
united heaven and earth.7 And certainly no poet more celebrated God’s unique
glory shining in the individuality of things than Hopkins.8
Poetry’s concern for the individuality of created things is true of human
speech as well. Human speech, Balthasar insists, is no vague mumbling, it is not
the incoherent grunting of animals however communicative they may be: rather,
it is the precise nature of human speech that especially commends itself to him.
In Christianity, this human language, precise by nature, is not a mumbled
groping to express some reality that remains hidden—this in contrast to the
mystical silence at the peaks of other religions.9 Mystical silence is appropriate
to the first language of creation, when one turns away from (beyond) the first
speech, that of things. For St. Ignatius of Antioch, the only possible response to
the first speech of God is exactly this “mystical silence.” But beyond that first
speech, once God Himself begins to speak all becomes an “echo” culminating in
a “yes.”1 As we shall see, the Son Himself is not an approximate, hazy image of
the Father, but a precise, essentially equal image of the unseen Father.2 And, as
might be expected, Balthasar affirms that philosophy generalizes, while theology
is concerned with the particular.3
The book that we know as the Bible largely takes its form from the desire
to abide in the “word event.”4 In it, the ineffable has put itself into words. This,
according to Balthasar, is a dangerous situation, one that requires a prayerful
stance. The words of Scripture are human, but the Word of God sounds
throughout. Because of this distance between the “ineffable”5 God and his
human creatures, a unique language is needed. The Bible itself keeps turning to
poetry and pictures although Biblical language is a language beyond prose,
poetry and all literary genres (and if that is the case, then certainly “no theology
will ever be able to finally translate the poetical and pictorial dimensions of
Scripture into abstract concepts”).6
God’s self-communication to man then develops in a level of conscious
address and response. God speaks through creation, or rather things created
speak of God; similarly with historical events, although these are raised by the
work of the Spirit into that form known to us in the Bible. The Biblical spirit is a
dialogical spirit, Balthasar notes, given to man.7 God’s speech in and through the
prophets was a mission given to selected individuals which yet was different
from the core of their beings: they performed a role, or bore tidings, but in no
case was the role, or the news identical with their person. The words which they
spoke bore witness to the Word in whose Spirit they spoke, and yet, as John’s
Prologue says, they were not the Word.
Balthasar notes that strictly speaking—and in a sense that Luther’s
understanding has obscured for us1—the Bible is not the Word of God, but rather
words about the Word. That Word Incarnate is a mysterious person whose idiom
is creative beyond the constraints of any religious or literary genre, and whose
uniqueness speaks of the love of individual forms of the “poetic” creator God. It
is to this third speech of God that we now turn.

C. The Incarnation
When we speak of Word we must be careful not to let ourselves be limited to the
narrowest sense of word. It is the communication, expression, of the Father that
we behold when we behold the Son. For Balthasar, Jesus Himself is the Gospel,
the good news. He is the Word of salvation (Heilswort), the Gospel of the Father
to the World.2 This cannot be emphasized enough. It is God’s Word made flesh,
and not the Scripture, that is to be preached to mankind3 (and then, of course, the
preaching itself must become incarnate and not limited to verbal proclamation).
In the Old Testament, attention was naturally drawn to the speaker behind
the words spoken: in the New Testament, it is the Word who speaks that draws
attention.4 The prophets in the Old Testament were given missions: Jesus is the
mission. God’s covenant with Israel rests on two pillars, that of His active Word,
and the form of the suffering servant.5 Jesus is the Word become suffering
servant, the incarnation of that post-Exilic signpost of God which Israel had tried
to evade with various theologies of glory.6 These illusions were first broken by
John the Baptist: but John is only the voice, while Jesus is the Word.1 The
Incarnation was then far more incarnate than Israel, used to word, had expected.
The Incarnation is God’s answer to the longing of human hearts: Jesus
Christ is the “fulfillment of Adam’s longing.”2 Because humanity does not have
a final goal in the world proportionate to its elevated nature, the fulfilling Word
of God fills this emptiness, and man comes to know what before he knew as only
a hunger.3 This longing as we have seen is endemic to humanity, reaching a great
height of articulation among the Greeks. It is the Western—Greek—discovery of
Being that Balthasar calls the last preparatory step for the Incarnation: without it,
he finds the basis of the general announcement of the Gospel to have been
As the Word of God, Jesus Christ fulfills creation, He is the realisation of
all the promises of the Creator.5 It is the fulfillment of creation in that God wants
to lead the entire body-soul unity to its perfection, to the glory of the
Resurrection, and He will do this beginning with Jesus.
Of St. Ignatius’ image of God’s three speeches to man, we learn that nature
is a book that is really only read by Christians who can see the hand of God in it.
Nature is an exteriorly written book, Scripture an interiorly written book, Christ
the God-man is the “apocalyptically outer and innerly written book.”6
Recalling the dialogical character of reality, Balthasar writes that the word
character of the Incarnation corresponds to the word which is at the heart of
being a human (= the “Thou”).7 Word for Balthasar means something like full
expression of abundance, the word abundantly expressing the abundance from
which it is uttered. Jesus is God’s Word to man; He is also the fulfillment of all
human words8 of whom it can be said that “everything about Him was Word.”9
Pascal has written that to understand Scripture one must have the same
Spirit in which Scripture was written.1 For Balthasar’s theology, this is a spirit
which can see Heaven in a blade of grass, one which looks for the whole in each
of the pieces. As the title of one of his books would have it, one seeks Das
Ganze im Fragment. Christ is the primordial Word (Urwort) that includes all the
words of the Old Testament (and indeed all the words of creation). He is that
which keeps the meaning of God’s expression together
(Ausdruckszusammenhang) and is the total Word-form (Gesamt-Wortgestalt) that
must be understood before one can understand any of the words of Scripture.2
We have seen Balthasar’s concern with the “liveliness of God”: so it is no
surprise that when we say that Christ is the “primordial Word” it is no static icon
to which our gaze is drawn, but rather to the heart of a drama in which Christ is
the synthesis of all Scriptural words to lead them all through the death to which
they point.3
Again, one must hear the word itself in its fullness if one is to understand
at all. In a telling image, Balthasar writes that Jesus is like a word that has three
syllables: life—passion/death—resurrection. Only with the hearing of the last
syllable can one understand what the whole word means. He uses this image to
combat the attempts of exegetes to understand isolated statements of Jesus—
words of Jesus—apart from the fullness of His expression of the Father.4
Moreover, all of Christ becomes the speech of God, from the Beatitudes to the
silence of the tomb. To be understood at all, Jesus must be understood whole.
This fullness spills over to Jesus’ expression of the Father: Jesus is the
adequate, the sufficient, the complete expression of God, beyond which no other
is needed. It will be recalled that various traditions seek to remove God beyond
what is humanly tangible. Thus, the Jews developed the notion of the Shekina
which only revealed something of God in his Name, the Neo-Platonists know
only a reflection of God’s glory, etc. It is central to the Incarnation that God both
can fully reveal Himself and has done so. So, for Bonaventure, creation reflects
Christ the Word: but Christ does not merely reflect, He fully expresses the
Father.1 Again, all non-Christian mysticism holds the word is an inadequate
expression of the ineffable Being: in Christ, the Word is God’s eternal expression
of Himself, accessible to us as “Thou.”2 And one cannot go behind the only-
begotten Son of the Father who understands Himself in no other way than as the
“Thou” of the Father.3
The Incarnation is only possible because of the Trinity, the personal word
of God the Father who is also a person.4 Again, for Bonaventure the Trinitarian
processions are expressed in the Word, or else the divine Word could not be the
primary image of the Triune God in creation.5 We see the truth that the inner-
Trinitarian life cannot be separated from the form of Jesus Christ. And, reflecting
Balthasar’s perennial concern lest there be any necessity in God, for him the
Incarnation answers no divine need, no Platonic impersonal, radiant Being Good
that needs to become man in order to learn how to love: “He must already be
personal love and relatedness in Himself, as a self-giving, fatherly ground, as the
begotten-awakened, answering Son, as the common Spirit of love, which
incarnates the miraculous character and the always more precisely of eternal
love both as fruit and as witness of this love.”6 And to complete the Trinitarian
missioning on earth, it is Jesus’ finiteness that is the condition for the sending of
the Holy Spirit.7 “Only in Jesus Christ appears the possibility that the
innerworldly dualism of speech between a free I and Thou and a common
horizon prior to or beyond speech [the überwort] can coincide: in a God who is
at the same time both Himself and His Word; ‘Word’ this time belonging to His
In the Incarnation, the eternal Word takes on flesh in the hypostatic union.
Philosophically stated, in this union, love for Being is united with love for a
finite Being.1 The view into the depths of God which we gain through the man
Jesus is, again, an introduction into the Trinity through Jesus’ prayer and
suffering.2 The hypostatic union allows us to be unique persons: our uniqueness
as individuals is grounded in the hypostatic uniqueness of the Son, we
participate in His “Thou-ness”: furthermore, the closer one comes to the Son,
following His call, the more unique one will become.3
The homoousios spells the end of Neo-Platonism as the vehicle for
Christian thought4 and the Incarnation spells an end to anti-incarnational
spiritualities, to all who like Evagrius—and even Augustine—want a vision
without form.5 Recalling our earlier observations about spiritualities of “ascent”
(Aufstieg), the Christian Incarnation is the “descent” (Abstieg) par excellence.
And descent means a transformation, emphatically not a fleshless
spiritualisation.6 In this Johannine spirit, we see that creation from the Logos
means not just from a logos asarkos but rather from that Son of God who has
been eternally marked for the Incarnation.7 Because of His full incorporation in
humanity’s lot, one need no longer look for God in the peaks, but can rather, in
the Jesuit phrase, “find God in all things.”8 The witness of the Holy Spirit then is
always incarnational: any disincarnate, idealistic spiritualization is antichristian.9
Furthermore, the Incarnation must permeate all the substance of humanity, doing
battle against all tendencies towards disincarnation in which man would like to
be “like God.”10 If “between God and man . . . the only language possible is the
Word of God”11 and that Word has been issued in Christ, then man must enter
into that Word if He is to enter into dialogue with God.
With this in mind, we will, in this section, look more closely at five aspects
of the Incarnation. As fullness and emptiness has so occupied our concerns, we
begin with an investigation of Balthasar’s understanding of the Kenosis.

1. Kenosis: Christian Emptiness

“The Trinitarian-economical self-donation is the basis of the whole of Christian
existence. ‘The doctrine of the kenosis is the unique feature of the Christian,’
correctly says Theo Kobusch.”1 The notion of emptying of self in love
characterizes Balthasar’s view of reality, from the relations within the Trinity,
through the Creation, Incarnation and saving work of Christ, on to the expected
response of the creature to this self-giving love.
This self-giving becomes visible to humanity when the Logos empties
itself into the man Jesus. This inimitable movement yet calls man to imitate it,
and yet the initiative cannot come from man:
(as non-Christian mysticism supposes in its pious self-destruction in the Absolute). Rather [it
comes] absolutely from the free will-to-divest-itself for man of the divine Logos, in order to
thereby achieve the exact opposite of that for which that non-Christian mysticism strives,
namely, the eternal fixation of man in his finite corporeality. The former is not the movement
of man from below up to the Absolute so as to be able if possible to disappear there, but
rather as Ignatius Loyola emphatically repeats, it is the movement de arriba, down from
above, by which God empties Himself in order to fill man with His loving self-divestment.2

God wants to empty Himself to fill man with His loving self-emptying. Invoking
St. Ignatius of Loyola recalls the meditation on the Incarnation in the Spiritual
Exercises in which this movement from above is depicted. It is quite the opposite
of the movement of natural humanity, one which would disappear in a formless
infinite. The Incarnation eternally fixes form.
The issue at stake is selflessness, where the one strong alternative to
Christian “selflessness” is the Buddhist (and, what Balthasar terms in general,
the “Far Eastern”):
The Buddhist view sees in the being-for-itself of the individual I the incarnation of the fatal
egoism which follows the abolition of the individual I as a challenge. The Christian view
recognises in the individual I an imago Trinitatis, in which every hypostasis constitutes and
understands itself only in terms of the others. A religion of Nirvana and of the equally void
Samsara (which can possibly be treated as equivalent in their nothingness) cannot
understand what kenosis means in a Christian sense; but it is a hair’s breadth (hautnah) away
from it. A dialogue between the two views, the difference between which could not be
greater in terms of the idea of an incarnation of God (as opposed to an avatar), could be
successful in the realm of pneumatology.1

Thus there appears the irony that while as noted earlier the movement from
below is “opposite” to that from above, and therefore seeking to dissolve the “I”
in the Void tends in the opposite direction, Balthasar yet writes that the Buddhist
understanding is very close to the Christian. Again, the difference between the
incarnation of God who will suffer and die and the avatar who is an incarnation
of the Absolute who returns to Absolute status without sharing the whole human
fate is accentuated.
Balthasar is obviously not unaware that Christian mystics have used the
negative language of the non-Christian, a language in which the “other” must be
shown to be illusion in the face of the All. But for the Christian, annihilation
(Vernichtung) means a creaturely assimilation to the Kenosis and self-
annihilation (Selbstvernichtigung) of Christ, in which Christ presents the self-
emptying love of the Triune God to the world in most radical form and invites to
imitation. The Ignatian giving away of all that is one’s own (sume et suscipe) to
make room for God is:
finally the highest affirmation of the self-giving love of God in the superword (Überwort) of
His Son, whom man seeks to answer through a superword which is given to him. Here
“negative theology” becomes in the end the place of perfect encounter, not in a dialogical
equality but in the transformation of the whole creature into an ecce ancilla for the mystery
that fulfills it, the mystery of the incomprehensible love of the God Who divests Himself.1

One empties oneself to be filled by the filling mystery of God.

It is in the realm of Russian religious thought that Balthasar finds partners
for his discussion of the Kenosis. For Bulgakov, creation, especially the creation
of free humans, was the first form of Kenosis, for God “surrenders a piece of His
freedom.” But God does this in view of the second Kenosis, that of the Cross, in
which He “includes and overtakes all the final consequences of human
freedom.”2 This is possible because of the “selflessness” of the divine persons.
For Soloviev, the process of creation is innerly perfected in the Kenosis of
God, in which space is made for the human consciousness to be handed over to
the divine. He refers to this as the “real fullness” which invites man to a free
giving of self in response to the initiative of the eternal Father.3
The heart of the matter of the divine love incarnate is the Cross: for
Balthasar, “the Incarnation has no other goal,” “it is the way to it and as work of
obedience (kenosis) already participates in it.”4 It is on the Cross that Christ will
be emptied of blood and water, the perfection of Kenosis that leaves the space of
the heart “emptied” (entleert).5
Self-donation is the essence of the mystery, as we have seen. Others have
seen this without revelation from God Himself, but without that revelation, have
taken self-donation in a literal reading of self-destruction, an emptiness which
neither comes from nor hopes for a fullness. Christ Incarnate is the perfection of
the Self-giving of God, the emptiness (in slave form) that expresses God’s
fullness. The mysterious divine essence—a superword (“Überwort”) of God—is
lived in the dialogue of the divine persons, the Son being the Word of the Father.
This Word comes into the world in an incarnation of the self-communicating
self-donation of God to invite humanity to a response (similarly, in a grace given
super-word, as we have seen). We shall explore the response of humanity to
God’s Word more fully in our next chapter. Now we turn to the Deed character
of the Word of God.

2. Tatwort: Word as Deed

Of all the literary figures who claim a place in Balthasar’s affection, perhaps
none is as firmly rooted as Goethe. From his Faust, Balthasar took a phrase
which echoes through his work: Am Anfang war die Tat—“In the beginning was
the Deed.” It is a well-known paraphrase of the Johannine Prologue. Balthasar
places Goethe in tension with John, creating something he at times calls the
“deed-word” (Tatwort). It will be recalled that “everything about Jesus was
Word.” Recalling Balthasar’s fighting commitment against any disincarnate
spiritualization it becomes clear that Goethe is helping Balthasar to a striking
articulation of the Johannine emphasis on incarnation that the language of
“word” might lead one to mistake. Thus, if it can be said that everything about
Jesus was word, we shall see that it can also be said that everything about Jesus
was deed. Balthasar would not accept Goethe as replacing John1 but he uses
Goethe to help him articulate the “event” character of the Incarnation.
Goethe is not the only one to steer the attention to deed. Again drawing on
St. Ignatius Loyola’s “Contemplation to attain the divine love” Balthasar notes
that the lover shows his love more in deeds than in words:
That is why love shows itself more in deeds than in words: because the works are the burden
(Schwergewicht) of love’s words. Without this proof through the deed, not only would the
word of love not have become fully credible, the lover himself would not have really
presented his love, not really expressed it, he would not have had the opportunity to have his
own, hidden mystery revealed and its power, depth and fullness become visible.1
It is the deed that is the significance of the words of the lover and that reveals the
“fullness” of the hidden mystery of the lover. Another favorite authority of
Balthasar’s, this time contemporary philosopher Ferdinand Ulrich, is cited as
saying that it is not the word but only the deed that can express what is most
The tension between word and deed actually has somewhat the character of
a progress about it. One could almost say that the word is in the beginning; the
deed (= the word made flesh) is in the end.3
In the beginning of the Biblical experience of God, there is the fact of
God’s word to Abraham, a word which may not have been an “articulated” word
but a deed which only became articulated centuries later. The Voice of God to
Abraham was not just a word but also a deed: “from the very beginning there
was both the Word and the Deed: both are one.” The divine Logos is a deed-
word.4 This of course from the very beginning, when God spoke Creation.
God’s word to the prophets of the Old Testament is always God Himself,
both in His dealings but also in the exposition of His heart:
A prophet is supposed to make himself so disponable in his service, that he can incarnate
what God has to say—and God’s Word is always He Himself in His majestic decision-
making and action, but also in the laying bare of His heart. G.v. Rad makes bold to say that
the prophet in the condition of receiving a revelation “was freed from his personal likes and
dislikes and was himself drawn into the Pathos of God, that not only the knowledge of
historical plans but also the emotions of the divine heart were transmitted to him: wrath,
love, concern, abhorrence and even helplessness. . . .”5

The prophet comes to know God Himself, for what God has to say reveals who,
and how, God is—and here we see the wide range of emotions which also sound
throughout Balthasar’s work as pointers to the utterly personal character of the
Biblical God.
Humanly speaking, gestures are extremely important in communication:
one can “say more with a glance than with an entire discourse.”1 Gesture—and
deed—are so important for, as Ortega says, the word is the mere “embryo” of the
total human act.2
Thus, in the Incarnation, the God of Israel who has been communicating
His Word in words and deeds now takes on flesh, and that “not to speak among
us but to ‘dwell’ among us.”3 We might say that the acting word took on flesh.
From the very beginning of the Gospel, word is deed, not just the uttered words
but the whole fleshly existence of Jesus is “interpretation” (Auslegung) of the
Father.4 Impatient with attempts of theologians to use the thought of linguistic
philosophers, Balthasar writes:
We’ve surely already lingered too long on the phenomenon of the Word, for in the
Revelation of Jesus Christ very much more is involved than problems of speech: that which
God accomplishes in Him for man is completely different from an oral protestation of His
love, it is an almighty deed, of which the explanatory speech is only a part, and not even the
most important part at that. . . . God’s Word is His free, sovereign, grace-imparting and
challenging deed, that can make itself known in the express Word as such, and that can
contain as well the promises and threats for obedience or disobedience as regards this entire
initiative of God (Dt. 4:30; 30:1, etc.). . . . It is clear from the Old Testament that the
characterisation “Word” for Jesus Christ means more than just speech, it means rather a total
“expression” of God with the emphasis on a lordly deed.5

So much is God’s word identified with His deed, that “we can never distinguish
between what is God’s Word and what is God’s deed in God’s self-revelation to
us.”1 As we will further develop later, Balthasar suggests that God is perhaps
never more “eloquent” than in the Passion and death of Jesus. Moreover, it is
“thoroughly possible that much that Jesus only did, only ‘was,’ has been
transformed into words comprehensible to us by the Holy Spirit in the Scripture
the Spirit inspired.”2 For Pascal, of course, battling against the God of the
philosophers, the Cross is the deed of God.
This of course has its roots in the Trinity. God’s Word is always His deed
because within the Trinity, the Word is the deed of begetting (Zeugungstat) of
the Father, become man through the Holy Spirit and as man is Word for He
“always does the will of the Father.”3 Moreover, the doing/speaking of Jesus is
the revelation “of the inner Being of God as abandonment of the divine
hypostases to each other.”4
As God’s Word is essentially a doing (or perhaps more precisely, as being
begotten, a “being done” which invites the response of doing), the missioned
disciples have the power not only to spread the words of Jesus but also His
deeds.5 By the very nature of the message, the Christian community does not
primarily “preach” a doctrine or spread a teaching, but rather, Christianity “can
primarily be only an action of God, the carrying through of the drama of God
with humanity begun in the Old Covenant”6 and so it is a fact, “something
accomplished”7 that is preached.
Of the three syllables that make up the “wholeness” of Jesus, the first was
His life, a life of “deed” which involved words as well. We turn to the second of
these three syllables, His Passion and death, which find their focus on the “Cry”
from the Cross.

3. Der Schrei: The Cry as Last Word of Christ

That the Cross characterizes Balthasar’s christology is well known: “The Cross
is the first, and, as long as this world exists, the unsurpassable goal of the
Incarnation.”1 It is somewhat of a surprise that this should be so, given
Balthasar’s immersion in the Greek Fathers, although he maintains that the
theology of Incarnation cannot be separated from the theology of the Cross for
them.2 The Passion and Cross are central to the deed of Christ.
In the metaphor of speech which we have been examining, the cry of Jesus
from the Cross, commonly called the “cry of dereliction” in English (der Schrei
in German), is at the center of this “second syllable” of the Word. Jesus is the
one who knows both the speech of God and of man, but on the Cross,
abandoned, he no longer hears or understands the speech of the Father.3 In his
solidarity with all of suffering humanity, Jesus stands at the edge of life and
death, at that place favored by Greek tragedy which was “the scream of passing
existence at the border” of death.4 For the Old Covenant, death had nothing in
common with the God of life: for Israel, Jesus is the unthinkable, for He is love
as death, while “death as love is an unimaginable concept within the Old
Covenant.”5 Without the cry, we would not have known that God is love
throughout all the depths of darkness—and so Christianity is the only religion
that claims (and dares claim) that God is love.6
On the Cross, Jesus is leaving the world and entering death. The Word is
leaving the world of words for the world of silence. The cry, the scream, from
the Cross reveals the heart of God, that passionate heart first revealed in the
prophets, but here it is now beyond human speech, the inarticulate cry become
the only speech for “that which in life remains inexpressible.”7 Of this, Balthasar
In the middle of all of God’s words to men stands the One Son, in whom “at the end of days”
all words become one (Heb. 1:2). But in the middle of this One Word stands death, in which
His Word becomes a cry and falls silent. Because of this, the fullness of the words
approximating to this Non- and super-word, and the renewed fullness of the words
approximating from there appear to be hopelessly subjected to the chance of historical tides,
to the prevailing preconceptions, backgrounds of understanding, categorial systems.
Something ineffable of excessive denseness and fullness, that contains within itself God’s
final and most mysterious turn to man, is surrounded by ever new word-attempts, but is
never exhausted “by all the books of the world that could be written” (John 21:25).1

In the hour of the cry, we come up against that which is ineffable in God, in the
Word that holds death (= silence) within itself. The prophets had been told to cry
out, but there remained the distance between actor and role: here, Jesus Himself
is the Word become cry.
Going even further, Balthasar, writing of the witness of the “Spirit, the
Water and the Blood” observes that the blood, which is the “perfect uniqueness
for all times” gives witness in the silence and in the “great inexplicable cry,”2
that the blood is the cry that stands in the place of the last unutterable word.3 The
cry is speech without form, communication from the “bowels” (Gr. splagkhna)
of the man who shows the heart of God, the blood is the deed of the cry, fluid,
As to the other Scriptural words from the Cross, Balthasar views them as
later interpretations of the cry.4 In this very weak word, unformed, is found
God’s answer to the problem of suffering.
The cry from the Cross is followed by the silence of the tomb, the silence
of the corpse, the wordlessness of death. Before we move on to consider it, a
final note on inarticulate speech should be made. Apart from the great cry from
the Cross, Balthasar draws attention to “wordless sighing” (Wortloses Seufzen)
on numerous occasions. It is significant enough to be called “the adequate word
of prayer to God,” similar to the cry on the Cross.1 The “wordless sighing” of the
Spirit in the heart of the Christian is part of “a trinitarian dialogue in the most
inner intimacy of the creature.”2 Not surprisingly, Hegel replaces this sighing
with the concept and a “knowledge that is not at all sighing” (gar nicht
seufzendes Wissen).3 And the passionate cry is the very opposite of resignation to
an absolute, undramatic horizon. Rather, the cry “which includes all questions”
issues into the great silence of Holy Saturday, and receives the event which is the
answer of that horizon, Easter.4
Unlike systems in which the word is uttered out of silence, in Christianity,
the eternal word is uttered from the eternal fullness of the Father, and Incarnate
from the fullness of the Trinitarian life. In the world of words, fragmented
utterances, Jesus becomes the speech of God to man and of man to God. On the
Cross, that speech is gathered into an incoherent, formless cry as He enters the
great emptiness that is death, as the Word is given over to silence.

4. The Silence of God

The question of the speech and silence of God has been with the Church from
the very beginning. It is evident that the question is important to Balthasar, so
important that in fact, for him, everything in the encounter of religious views
comes down to whether or not God has spoken to man, “or whether silence
beyond all worldly words remains the Absolute.”5
For the Ancients, the primordial Father (Ur-vater) was noble precisely in
His stillness and peace: His image (Inbild), who rests in His bosom, is silence.
As we have seen earlier, Irenæus, wrestling with Valentinian Gnosis, resisted
treating silence (Sigè) and word (Logos) together. Balthasar is much more drawn
in this matter to Ignatius of Antioch, for whom word and silence are interwoven
in God and in the Incarnation, and hence, in humanity as well. Ignatius offers
perhaps the “best illustration of the overcoming of the un-word through the
super-word”, where the Word is seen as proceeding from silence, but a silence
which “calls loudly.” The Word Incarnate speaks silently, and, conversely, he
who follows Him shares in the divine silence. Balthasar often refers to a phrase
of Irenæus: “Better to be silent and to be, than to speak and not be.”1 For
Dionysius, the Word surrounds a mysterious Silence: the further one moves from
the heart of the mystery, the more words are needed. Theology would therefore
do well to maintain something of contemplative silence, to honour the God
hidden in its midst.2 Balthasar will take the view of Ignatius on the
interpenetration of word and silence, and Dionysius’ graded relation of
word/silence and wed them in his vision of the Incarnate Word.
As against the Gnostics, Balthasar urges that the source of divinity is not
silence, but rather the “immeasurable fullness” that is the Father.3 The distinction
between a “full” silence and an “empty” silence points to what Balthasar is
trying to convey. Thus, the Gnostics want a silence from which the word
emerges, but John in his Prologue does not allow this rationalistic dissolution,
insisting on the co-eternity of the Logos, but a Logos which includes silence and
can express itself also through silence.4 Balthasar himself describes the relation
of word and silence in the divinity thus:
Put differently: the finite spaces of silence which dwell in the incarnating word of God are
not to be imagined apart from their translation without their integrity being destroyed. A God
who to the end could be expressed in finite words (and deeds!) would not be God any more,
but an idol. But also a God who did not want to give Himself right up to this end and furthest
extremity, but held back a piece of himself for himself and kept it away from us, would in
his turn no longer be our God, but an idol. So there is nothing left but once again to take
earnestly the teaching of the “Logos dwelling in the beginning with God and as God” as the
“super-word” (the self-statement within God), a word that in His human existence was able
to manifest Himself as the “interpreter” (John 1:18) of God. . . .1

It is because man cannot fully understand all in spite of his best will that there
remain for him these spaces of silence in God.2 This, it will be observed, is the
opposite movement from that of natural mysticism which seeks Silence as the
highest good, above the Word: Christians must take this yearning for silence and
situate it in the Word of God.3 As Ferdinand Ulrich puts it, Christians value “the
positive fullness of his silence, the breath of the Father in the Word.”4
Balthasar reflects on the “zone of silence” that surrounds the words of
Jesus: beginning with nine silent months in the womb, the silence that had his
parents concerned about his boyhood whereabouts, through his silence with the
woman taken in adultery, all the way to Tabor. Yet all His life, Jesus by His
words and wonders, was speaking with the Jews of His time, and speaking in the
prophetic language they understood. It is when we come to the Passion and death
that we come to the “Not-word” (Nichtwort) which is in the middle of the word,
the second syllable which is increasingly silent.5 Jesus’ frustration with His
disciples’ non-comprehension and His growing silence in the face of the leaders
of Israel—culminating in His total silence—reflect the inability of humanity to
comprehend the divine utterance, even though God is expressing Himself fully.6
When the Word takes on flesh, the Word enters the realm of silence, for
flesh is silence. The movement from the fullness of the Father to the emptying of
the bleeding, screaming figure on the Cross is the movement from Word into
silence. Similarly, as the Gospel story progresses, the words of the Father
themselves diminish, as if words—as distinct from the word-deed—had
something of the flavour of the Old Testament to them, the second speech,
something that was here being transcended in the word incarnate which is a
“super word” (Überwort) relative to all speech, even to inspired speech.1
Thus, the words culminate in the Cry from the Cross and the becoming
mute (stumm) of the corpse, the Holy Saturday mystery. In death, the Word
becomes an un-word, a not-word. The descent into hell is a passage in “pure
‘wordlessness.’”2 The silence of Holy Saturday, the “great silence” is the final
expression of God,3 where the dead Christ has become the silent word of the
Father. As Jesus’ silence, reflecting the silent word of God, the superword, is
sometimes more important than His speech, so also His descent into the silence
of hell becomes the Father’s loudest and clearest statement to the world.4
It is the Holy Spirit, expected to be the “the unknown beyond of the Word”
who begins to speak precisely where the word is silenced, at the end: the Spirit
begins to explain, to show what has come to pass, first through the Apostles and
evangelists, then, in an ever increasing volume of words, through the Church’s
theological reflection.5 As if the fullness of God were passing through a silent
hourglass to open on the other side of the passage in a hitherto unknown fullness,
the Incarnate Word transfigured, resurrected and ascended returns home, “in
order to end the world and carry it into the eternal silence of the Father.”6
This was all possible because of the willingness of the Son to do the will of
the Father: in His death, Christ gives the wordless (= formless) flesh over to the
Father so that in His “poverty (or obedience) in God’s hand, in the womb of His
mother and in the tomb, he might be made the ‘formable’ (Formbarem) Word of
God.”7 A look at this obedience will complete our reflection upon the

5. Obedience
Love describes the relations within the Trinity and between God and creature,
but the word “love” tends to convey a static character. The word which perhaps
best characterizes the active power within that love, for Balthasar, is
It will be recalled that his much admired Virgil (“Father of the West”)
presented the world a “pius Æneas” whose humble piety it was that commended
him. Virgil is seen as the first in the classical world whose humility takes on
meaning and a hidden glory because it takes place in obedience to God.1
In the natural order itself, it is the artist who, like Virgil, perhaps best
serves as image of obedience. The chief quality of the artist must be obedience,
that quiet docility that lets anima sing in him: no matter how he conducts himself
outerly, innerly, he must be “a humbly receptive womb for the ‘conception.’”2
Faith, in the fullest Christian sense, is like this: it is “to make the entire man into
a space responding to the divine content.”3
Man’s natural passivity vis-à-vis God becomes a potential obedience which
yet can only be actualized by the free call of the totally free God.4 In the relation
between God and man, everything depends on the correct difference between
God and creature: distance (Abstand),5 and this means obedience, as seen in the
blind obedience of Abraham. “To know God is to fear God and that means to
obey.”6 In obedience, the visionary (prophet) “sees as much of God as God
deems is good for him,” but the vision serves the most important thing which is
the mission.7 Through the history of the prophets, “God wants to build for
Himself in selected people a step into the godless darkness, a step made out of
obedience.”8 And it is this “thoroughgoing obedience toward God and the nation
[that ill treats the prophets—it could not be other, as the Word of God begins by
convicting man of disobedience] that allows the covenant to become
substantially incarnate on earth.”1 As we shall see more fully in our next chapter,
this relation of Israel in obedience reaches its culmination in Mary.
If, for man, “love and obedience are one in the heart’s centre”2 this is the
image of the Trinitarian original, where the obedience of the Son to the Father
leads to the hypostatic union. In the hypostatic union, the image, “without which
man is destroyed,” is restored in the heart of man, by the appearance of the
triune God in the form of Christ.3 In a striking statement of the relation of
obedience and the economic Trinity, Balthasar observes that the Cross is what
happens when the world is included in the Son’s obedience.4 This obedience of
the Son, freely accepting mission from the Father as a person, again
distinguishes Him from the appearance-form of an avatar.5
Jesus’ obedience leads to death, a death in obedience (Gehorsamstod)
which replaces the death of guilt. Jesus does take on Himself the guilt of the
world, but only “in the hour.”6 The Johannine theme of “the hour” points, for
Balthasar, to the obedience of the Son who blindly lived in obedience towards
that point of time to be revealed by the Father. Obedience is the Son’s “yes”
(Jawort) to the Father, behind which stands the heart of the Father that will allow
His Son to go to hell in total abandonment.7 The descent into hell is the most
clear—if mute—statement of obedience possible for the Son. Balthasar calls it
“the economical form of the absolute correspondence of the Son to the Father.”8
In the descent, Christ is the first person in history to display what St. Ignatius
Loyola will refer to as the obedience of the corpse (Kadavergehorsam), that
which for Balthasar is the peak form of obedience.
It is, however, not the last form of Christ’s obedience. That is what
Balthasar calls His “loving obedience” (Liebesgehorsam). This is the passive
work of Jesus in letting Himself be interpreted by the Holy Spirit. This is “His
last act of loving obedience . . . but at the same time the first work of the ruler
elevated to the right hand of the Father who now, making use of the Spirit He has
breathed out, leaves to His [the Spirit’s] discretion the endless work of
interpreting all His ‘hidden riches.’”1 It is the Holy Spirit who is the first to
make the speech of God in Christ understandable: a speech of loving obedience
in three forms: that of the serving human body of the mortal man, of the silent
body of the dying one, and the transfigured body of the Risen One.2 That is, the
Spirit, in obedience to Father and Son, for the first time opens the ears of the
nascent Church to the sound of the three syllables spoken together, the three
syllables that are the Word Incarnate.
Christian faith, then, is primarily a listening obedience to a Person, and the
service of that brother “for whom Christ died”—and not a knowledge.3 To
underline the absolute nature of that Person, Balthasar notes that Christianity is
unique in that whereas other religious founders demand obedience to the Light
of the revealing God, Christ demands obedience to Himself (der Anspruch).4 It
is no surprise then to see Balthasar contrasting obedient humility to God’s truth
to idealistic thinking: using the Kantian category of the sublime to understand
human greatness, Balthasar writes that the alternatives are either the greatness of
Promethean arrogance or the greatness of obedience and humility.5 That
obedience unto and through death is the heart of the revelation of God in Christ
who accepted His Incarnation and death in order to rescue man.6

III. The Uniqueness of the Word

Having attempted to present some key aspects of Balthasar’s understanding of
the Incarnation of the Word, it is now possible to see how Balthasar contrasts
Christ with other founders and ways.
The first thing to be said is that other teachers point to the truth, or to the
way: Christ makes the claim to be the way and the truth. Socrates “points to the
divine, in that he himself is permeable to the divine”1 but he merely points. The
same is true for Buddha or Lao Tse:
from whose lived teaching Zen proceeded, the essence of which it is in practice to learn
through training the transcending of one’s own consciousness. To make the finite mind
(Geist) into a vessel for the infinite. Into a flute, through which inspiration blows. To educate
the mind to a renunciation of its own intentionality, so that the infinite intentions are realised
through it. Evidently one here comes into an extremely dangerous twilight area, which
always hovers as well around the concrete historical forms of such teachings and practices.
For if the teaching (already in the Master and then in the disciple) is technique, then there is
present a paradox to the point of self-abolition: intentional striving after unintentionality, self
forcing—with or without teacher—of the sphere of grace.2

We shall see more of the dangers of technique in our chapter on Prayer. Here the
point is that other teachers, at their best, through their self-abnegation become
like a flute through which inspiration blows: Christ is both inspiration and flute,
the “inspired flute” itself, if one will. In terms of our thesis, Buddha must
become the un-word (Unwort), Christ is and remains the super-word
The unique word of God is a sign of contradiction in the world. In a world
of tolerant indifference to manifestations of the religious beyond, the Word
remains unique in its claims. Moreover, Balthasar maintains that in the course of
the centuries the Word “has ever more clearly destroyed the competing religions.
It is Verbum exterminans in a spiritual sense.”4
The naturally religious man listens to himself or the voice of his longing:
but he must listen to the Word of God,1 which (who) is other. It is a Word which
is not only sent, but which is unique in coming from God and from Heaven. This
claim of Jesus, the “I am” claims (der Anspruch), is “without analogy in all of
the history of religion.”2
It is the Incarnation that alone overcomes identity mysticism, allowing for
distinction of natures in one person. And the Incarnation is not just a first step:
there is no beatific vision over, beyond seeing the Son. Rather, the Son, who is
God Incarnate, is the Eschaton.3 Again, in this Incarnation, the unique God of
love is known not in some general way already known by humanity, but rather in
this “unique speech of the unique God in His unique turn to me, to the Church
and to humanity. This word, this speech, is Jesus Christ—not selections of this
speech and actions but He Himself, whole and entire.”4
Within the Incarnation, of course, Balthasar focuses on the issue of
suffering. He notes that for Irenæus, it is the real, incarnate, suffering man
[Jesus] who by what He is gives glory to God far greater than any of the
suffering-free schemes of the Gnostics.5 Other religions all seek to free man
from pain and death through liberation or at most through indifference: for
Christianity, Christ’s taking on Himself of the world’s guilt and sin on the Cross
becomes the greatest proof that God is love. This is the exact opposite of what
other religions are about. Christ’s death reveals a death that “fills the place left
empty (leergelassene Stelle) by all others”: it is His death as the fruitful “deed of
love” (Tat der Liebe).6 As locus of this deed, the Cross is not the world’s last
word, but it is God’s last word about Himself: and it is the “crossing out of the
word of the world (das Weltwort) through a completely different word, one
which the world does not want to hear at any price.”1 The Resurrection further
reveals the eternity of form, for it shows that the formed Son is not overcome by
a formless Father (and it doctrinally points to the importance of the filioque).2
Our topic could lead us to a vast number of comparisons. But with this
summary view in mind, we shall investigate three areas relative to Christian
uniqueness: the Catholica, the issue of reality (Wirklichkeit) and sin.

A. The Catholica
Catholic means universal, and it is universality at every level that so clearly
draws Balthasar. Yet the universality—and unity—of the Catholica is drawn
from one man, Jesus Christ, who is the “concrete universal.” In Him, both
universality and particularity meet in a unique individual, the fragment
containing the whole. Thus universality for the Church is not a quantitative or
geographical fact: catholicity can be reduced to one man, an Athanasius or a
Maximus.3 Totality is a further aspect of the universality of the Catholica for
Other religions are fragments in search of a whole; the Catholica is not
made up of religious fragments, but is rather a whole that may include them but
far transcends them.4 This is so because she is the living body of a living person,
and because “the truth of a living being always lies in its wholeness.”5 This
wholeness relates to the parts in a way which is illustrated by Balthasar’s
directions to a theologian: “Not every one who writes dogmatics need write an
entire dogmatics: but he must preserve the totality, the catholicity of the truth in
every feature of his thought.”6
That this truth is open to all distinguishes it from gnosis which is secret
(Balthasar further notes that esotericism always has an element of anxiety).1 The
Church is the unity of mystery and openness: God’s Word is addressed to all, but
received by only a few.2
The Catholica is the “fullness of Christ” (Fülle Christi)—but though she
has the fullness, she must continually search for it as well (the “seeking/being
found” dynamism will be recalled). Other claimants of universality—eastern
meditation, Communism—can spur her on to reach back into the treasures she
already has to find the fullness of that fragment which the others call to
The particular claims of Christianity are scandalous to the largesse of
liberal Judaism and paganism: but it is precisely this particular God, with this
particular Son who opens the way of salvation to all.4 In contrast to the national
character of Judaism, it is the individual whom Jesus calls to intimacy. Again,
against Buddhists who seek vertical flight from this world and liberal Jews who
seek to create an earthly utopia in a future time, the Catholica is unique in
accepting and loving this world as it is now, for it is the world that God so loves
and that the Son of God came to save.
It is this aspect which further distinguishes the Catholica from other
Christian groups, and which leads Balthasar to identify it with Roman
Catholicism, very specifically.5 The Eastern Orthodox represent a church of
Tabor: a vision of a world suffused with the Spirit who proceeds from the Father
alone, through which the Son walked, the Light coming into a “saved” world. It
is not the Spirit breathed out on the Cross into the profane world until the end of
time. Protestantism goes to the other extreme. If Orthodoxy is a religion of
extreme vision, Protestantism is the religion of hearing stripped of vision—a
religion which knows only the Spirit breathed into the profane world which is in
need of historical transformation.6
Roman Catholicism is mid-way between the extremes of Athos and
Wittenberg, of east and west in Christianity, even as it offers a balanced solution
to the problems addressed by Communism and meditative religion. Highlighting
what it is he sees as characteristic of Catholicism Balthasar writes:
If a religion wants to prove itself as the absolute religion, it must show that it is through this
religion that man in his temporality and historicity, indeed, in his fallenness-unto-death and
nothingness, is truly restored. In other words, it must show that both the order of creation as
well as the disorder of sin (including social sin) find a place in it. The religion must be world
affirming without becoming enslaved by worldliness. Moreover the “absolute” historical
event must at the same time remain relevant all the time, not only as a memory, but rather as
present (in Christianity, this is the role of the Holy Spirit).1

The balanced keeping together of elements that Balthasar here issues as a

challenge to religions he finds fulfilled in Christ’s obedient Bride, Catholicism.2

B. Wirklichkeit: (Historical) Reality

The second main area of Christian uniqueness which Balthasar sees is the whole
question of reality (Wirklichkeit). It is natural that one whose focus is on “seeing
the form” is keenly concerned lest the form be illusory. Throughout his work,
Balthasar contrasts the “maya” of Asia (Phantasmagorie) with the Grecian
respect for “manifestation” (Erscheinung). The Greeks were better prepared for
accepting the reality of the Incarnation than the Asians because true Greek
philosophy was interested in the depths of reality. This echoes also throughout
his polemic against the gnostic spiritualization in imageless spiritualities: he
insists that it is precisely the Beloved Disciple (or his school) who speaks in
apocalyptic images. But the images which God uses to speak to us must be read
with love if they are to be understood.3
Asia knew of the One, but Being was not seen as true and so could not
possibly be good. The Creator God creates a good, true beautiful world apart
from Himself. The Christians developed their understanding with help from the
Greeks, from whom they took the affirmation of Being (vs. the Asian
“wearinesses”).1 Reality is identified with Being for Balthasar. But Being itself
is not the light, but rather a speech that bears witness to the light. Where the
natural asceticism (of Asia, for instance, though also in Platonism) renounces
itself in favor of that light, it is good—but all too often it renounces itself as a
“defence against pain and death, and so against love as well”2 thus robbing itself
of the light of Being. That being and love are coextensive is one of Balthasar’s
chief themes: and it is in the wonder of the child opening its eyes to reality that
Being announces itself.3 Hence the importance of childlikeness for the Christian.
It is as “I” and none other that I experience reality: “Only that is real which
occurs in the genuine word between ‘I’ and ‘Thou.’”4 The essential gift of
subjective cognition is to conceive of things as they are.5 It is in concreteness, in
the encountering of others, persons or things, that we encounter reality.
This is most particularly seen in history. The God of Israel (whose first
prerogative is “participation in Reality”6) is an “I” who shows Himself to be
trustworthy in creation and history, where He is known by His deeds. In the
Incarnation of His Son, the ideas of others, whether in myth or philosophy,
become incarnate: Soloviev especially emphasizes this aspect of the Incarnation,
the realisation (Verwirklichung) of ideas.7 Moreover, Jesus Christ is the identity
of the myth and the historical actualization of it.
As a general principle, “only the unique, the irreplaceable, really dies, and
the more unique it is, the more fundamentally does it die.”8 Hence, the
cornerstone of Balthasar’s thought is the death—the mute, total deadness—of
Christ as corpse. Christians have no recourse to Nirvana, no avoidance of Being
and the Word of Being. Quite the contrary: “only that which is Christian cannot
be disarmed by any horror”1 and so does not try to escape history and the
dissolution of beloved forms. The Cross is never stylized, it is not a “mandala”
for it is not beauty but the ugliness of sin that goes to the Cross: it remains
angular, painful, historical.2 And so onto the Resurrection which is the
transformation of the enfleshed Word, and certainly not “expanded
consciousness” for which the world of creation, incarnate form, is merely an
illusory stepping stone for spiritual progress.
Thus, that the events proclaimed by Christians from the Creation to the
Resurrection actually happened coincides with the intuition of the child and the
primitive, that the world actually is. It is Being and its reality in history which
are the unique patrimony of the Christian, in and through the deepest
experiences of suffering.

C. Sin
That guilt is a part of man throughout the world, present wherever there is
personal conscience and social order, and that religion is largely an escape to
deal with this has already been presented. Here we move from guilt to sin, which
is unique to the Biblical religions (including Islam).3
The guilty man of course suffers from sin, but he does not know it. His
guilt comes from the result of sin which is essentially chaos, the chaos of fallen
man who does not know God and who must choose either hedonistic resignation
to his sinful state or else attempt to flee through technique to become pure spirit.
In either case, he will not acknowledge the analogy of creature to creator and
seeks either identity or dialectic (= denial of God). Balthasar’s answer of course
is the correct order of analogy, which is made up of the proper
relation/perspective of distance-nearness (Abstand-Nähe).4
Unlike vague and pandemic guilt, sin first comes to light with the Biblical
Word of God and its call to be holy. As seen in Adam, man became deaf to the
inner voice of things and to God’s voice within, needing the external word of the
Old Testament and the Incarnate Word of Christ.1 In Scripture, man becomes
aware of the “supernatural goal” God has set for him: sin is his inability to will
and strive for this goal.2 It is the Spirit that makes our longing—and our
sinfulness—known to us, and who reveals the fact that we cannot free ourselves
from sin, unlike the guilt which man can deal with by compensatory means.
Importantly, “the devil quotes Scripture”: with the coming of God’s Word,
confusion emerges between spirit and anti-spirit, and education in discernment
of spirits becomes indispensable.3 In the covenant relation which God
establishes with man, sin becomes unfaithfulness to the relation.
That man is sinful must be revealed to man by the Spirit of God. But the
sinfulness is present from the beginning, and with it, the wrath of God (der Zorn
Gottes) which Balthasar insists upon and which is fundamental to his
soteriology. Sin is the pure opposite of obedience, it is to tempt God by not
waiting for what is good and necessary from His hand. Elsewhere, Balthasar
writes that the central sin of world history is “self-justification” and the lies that
go with it, as with those who tried to excuse themselves of Jesus’ death.4
As we have seen, sin is monological while salvation is dialogical.
Conversion for the Christian is not a monologue between his higher and lower
selves, but a dialogue between the guilty sinner and the Lord who calls him.5 Yet
the dialogue is always one of “I” and “Thou”: one vision of hell itself is the
dissolution of the individual “I” into a collective/mass. Hell is also seen as the
refusal to meet God in the here and now of one’s world but rather seeking to
escape elsewhere, for example, into a future potential.6
Interestingly, atheism properly so called is possible only after the coming
of Christ, and with it the revelation of the “man of sin,” that man who tries to
assault Heaven by his own efforts, thus refusing to imitate the humble Christ
who has been revealed to him as the way.1 And along with this, the
“fundamental theodramatic principle of world history” comes to light: “that the
always-more of the revelation of God’s free love provokes a new and ever
greater human hate.”2
If sin is the formless disorder that results from self-willed disobedience,
conversion for the Christian means being formed in “contemplative obedience,”
following the “highest example” of her whose ecce ancilla allowed the Word to
become flesh.3 It is to the response of the Bride that we turn in our next chapter.

It is by way of analogy that the fragments of our world, greater or smaller, are
seen to reflect the whole, each fragment a unique angle, a particular “take on
reality” which yet also speaks of the whole, conveys the whole, as if by way of
that character that signs this particular piece of art as coming from this particular
artist. God can be approached as the artist whose conception has taken on
material form, as the poet whose words have come to life. The words which are
the fragments of creation point away from themselves, point elsewhere. Man,
reading this language, at first is drawn to worship, yet wearied of words in time,
he longs to rise above the language to a whole which he presumes is the silence
from which all these words would issue, but a silence that is only the refreshing
absence of words unless the lightning of grace call it to light.
This language of creation is spoken by the God who is a community of
persons in relation, who speak to each other: it is as it were an overflow of love
from the overbrimming aliveness of the Father, a creation of words which yet
speak of the Logos through Whom they were made and for whom they are all
ultimately created. Yet man soon turns a deaf ear to the language of things. God
then addresses man through prophets, through willing instruments, if one will,
who can bear His melody to mankind.
This second language involves human words and human deeds, it involves
the first language of creation and the second language of history and what comes
to light in history. The Spirit’s gift is perspective, correct vision, the seeing of
things in harmony which is to say, things correctly situated one to another in
space and time: the Spirit provides the reflecting mind a knowledge of the
distance and closeness of things which is what it is to perceive things and events
correctly. This Spirit is already at work in the Trinity itself, the Spirit of love
between Father and Son, a love which to be love must allow space for the other.
This other is reflected in the created world, and the Word which is uttered
by the Father, is begotten of the Father, takes on the otherness of the world fully,
emptying Himself of the glory of the divine community in order to take on
Himself the humility of the lowly other and lead it to its fullness. All the
fragments of reality, all the words, are drawn to him as metal shavings are to a
magnet. He is the primordial Word before all words—the Urwort—who as
sharing in the divine essence is also an Überwort, the alpha and the omega.
Word and silence are mysteriously wedded in the divine mystery, a mystery
which Balthasar will not quite characterize as silence, for this would be to
“limit” God where He is not to be limited, but rather pointing beyond, in,
through and above Word to the Full Silence which speaks.
In the flesh, He speaks words, fragments themselves which are cast out like
a net to gather in the original fragments, turned away from their telos by misused
human freedom, leading them not to destruction, but to fullness. But it is a new
fullness, one that will pass through the ultimate purification of the Word’s
entering that dead silence which knows none of the creative tension of word-
silence, that mutedness which is death. All the words of His life, all that He
would express of the One Who sent Him, are gathered into the one inchoate cry
from the fixed point at which life’s speech collapses into silence. Then there
remains the silence alone, the “Not-word.” If the “Un-word” of natural man
somehow comes close (and yet so far!) to the glowing speech-silence of God, the
“Not-word” of death is as dead and mute as anything can be. Yet the Father
raises this now formless Word to transformed life, sending the Spirit through this
silent Word to begin to transform this silent Word back into the words that will
transform all creation.
For Balthasar, the “Cry,” the Cross, is God’s last word to the world, and so
the moment where time, with its flow of words, meets eternity, and where it will
meet it until the end of time: there are no further words to be revealed, although
words first begin to be spoken then to bring to the light what has happened in the
way leading to that cry. And so the Christian life begins after all the words of
creation have been gathered up into the one Word Jesus Christ and lead with and
in Him into the silence of the grave: the Spirit continues this drama through all
time, bringing the words of God in creation to the intensity of confrontation with
that earthly silence which allows for transfiguration into that perfect word-
silence which is the fullness of God.
But how does this union of word and silence, perfect in God, come about
on earth? If Christ is all Word whose silence but reflects what humanity cannot
understand of Him, who is there in the world to hear that Word, to receive Him?
The loving tension of word and silence in God brings to mind the
dynamism of human marriage: it also calls up the image of the crowning of
Mary by the Son (with the Father and Spirit taking approving part) as Queen of
Heaven, so favored in medieval Catholic art and devotion. It is to this wedding
of the divine Word with the human silence that listens and hears that we must
next direct our attention.
1. HTAB, p. 103.
2. HFSK, pp. 58–9.
3. S5, pp. 116–7.
1. HFSK, pp. 287–8.
2. S1, p. 151.
3. Ibid., pp. 150–1.
4. TDHA, p. 60.
1. S5, p. 108.
2. S3, p. 471.
1. S5, p. 197.
2. TDPC, p. 381.
3. Ibid., p. 421.
4. Ibid., p. 420.
1. S1, p. 168.
2. HTNB, p. 479.
3. S3, pp. 274–5.
1. EPIL, p. 59.
2. S3, p. 292.
3. E.g., HTNB, p. 412.
4. Ibid.
5. TDHA, p. 133.
6. REL1, p. 34.
7. TDPR, p. 512.
1. Ibid., p. 524.
2. Ibid., p. 543.
3. Jacques Cuttat, Begegnung der Religionen, tr. Hans Urs von Balthasar (Einsiedeln: Johannes
Verlag, 1956), p. 60. Henceforth: BEGR.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 63.
6. HRMA, p. 143.
7. TLWW, p. 192.
8. Ibid., p. 213.
1. TDPR, p. 604.
2. TDPE, p. 642.
3. TLWW, p. 172.
4. S3, p. 276.
5. EPIL, p. 81.
6. S4, p. 204.
7. GIMF, p. 114.
8. TDHA, p. 92.
9. HTAB, p. 54.
1. S1, p. 23.
2. BG, p. 85.
3. Ibid., p. 18.
4. S3, p. 274.
5. HSG, p. 139.
6. TLWG, p. 178.
7. CUDW, p. 3.
8. TDPR, p. 598.
1. S5, p. 111.
2. TDPC, p. 467.
3. TDES, p. 358.
4. Ibid., p. 360.
5. S5, p. 236.
6. Ibid., p. 33.
7. GIMF, p. 64.
8. HSG, p. 459.
1. HTAB, p. 69.
2. S3, p. 156.
3. TDPC, p. 484.
4. Ibid., pp. 483–4.
5. S3, p. 158.
1. S5, p. 51.
2. EPIL, p. 30.
3. Ibid., p. 31.
4. HRMN, p. 675.
5. CS, p. 145.
6. HSG, p. 305.
1. HFSL, pp. 501–2.
2. S1, p. 152.
1. This polemical hyperbole is elsewhere contradicted, as we shall soon see—but the point remains
in the sense of an initial contact with God.
2. S3, p. 282.
3. Ibid.
4. S5, p. 368.
5. Ibid., p. 254.
6. Ibid., p. 368.
1. TLWG, p. 88.
2. TDPC, p. 385.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. TLGW, p. 337.
1. HTNB, p. 267.
2. HFSL, p. 567.
3. Ibid.
4. HRMN, p. 712.
5. TDPR, p. 16.
6. HTNB, p. 250.
1. GINL, p. 30. It must be noted that Balthasar is opposed to the creation of any system of theology.
2. HTNB, p. 94.
3. TDHA, p. 58.
4. HFSL, p. 547.
5. HRMA, p. 285.
1. HTAB, p. 146.
2. TLGW, p. 341.
3. HFSK, p. 60.
4. HSG, p. 413.
5. S5, p. 50.
6. EPIL, p. 28.
7. TDPM, p. 362.
1. TLWW, p. 106.
2. Suggestively, Balthasar cites Bonaventure’s description of how revelation appears to outsiders as
“a sort of primal forest (Urwald—silva opax).” Bonaventure, Brevil Prol, par. 6 (V 208b) as cited in HFSK,
p. 273.
3. EPIL, p. 59.
4. TLWG, p. 226.
5. BG, p. 28.
1. HRMN, p. 561.
2. Ibid.
3. S4, p. 24.
4. TLWG, p. 76.
5. HSG, p. 368.
6. HRMA, p. 28.
7. HRMN, p. 488.
1. S5, p. 260.
2. GINL, p. 30.
3. TDPM, p. 365.
4. HRMA, p. 179.
1. HRMN, p. 959.
2. HFSL, p. 608.
3. Ibid.
4. HFSL, p. 622.
5. Ibid. p. 603.
6. Ibid., p. 641.
7. HRMN, p. 687.
8. HFSL, p. 723.
9. S1, p. 86.
1. S5, p. 276.
2. Ibid., p. 264.
3. TDPM, p. 59.
4. HTAB, p. 356.
5. We use this word cautiously, to indicate that God is always greater, yet bearing in mind
Balthasar’s insistence that God can fully express Himself and has done so in Christ.
6. HTNB, pp. 248–9.
7. HSG, p. 246.
1. Ibid., p. 26.
2. S4, p. 345.
3. TLGW, p. 305.
4. BG, p. 221.
5. HTNB, p. 30.
6. HTAB, p. 379.
1. HTNB, p. 47.
2. TDHA, p. 107.
3. TDPC, p. 382.
4. S1, p. 95.
5. HTNB, p. 118.
6. HFSK, p. 313.
7. HSG, p. 385.
8. TLGW, p. 294.
9. Ibid., p. 13.
1. HFSL, p. 537.
2. HTNB, p. 253.
3. Ibid., p. 78.
4. S5, p. 302; TLWG, p. 273; CM, p. 21.
1. HFSK, p. 348.
2. TDPM, p. 264.
3. S5, p. 292.
4. HTNB, p. 255.
5. TDHA, p. 56.
6. S3, pp. 39–40.
7. HSG, p. 147.
8. TLGW, p. 333.
1. HSG, p. 186.
2. Ibid., p. 593.
3. TDPM, p. 245.
4. TDPC, p. 193.
5. HSG, p. 302.
6. TDPM, p. 333.
7. EPIL, p. 79.
8. S1, p. 190.
9. TLGW, p. 227.
10. TDPM, p. 377.
11. GINL, p. 30.
1. TLGW, pp. 276–7.
2. TLWG, p. 258.
1. TLGW, pp. 242–3.
1. TLWG, p. 113.
2. HTNB, p. 198.
3. HFSL, pp. 688–9.
4. S4, p. 139.
5. HTNB, p. 210.
1. A historian of German culture has pointed to the lack of verbal development in German culture as
a key both to the culture’s greatness and to its weakness. Its greatness, for it developed music to tremendous
heights; its weakness, for the musical development of intuitive communication robbed the culture of the
proper development of discursive reason as control to powerful intuitions. Curiously, the Slavic nations all
use the word “mutes” (Niemcy) for the Germans, while one of the etymologies of the word “Slav” is slovo,
word. This may suggest a further reason why Goethe’s replacement of deed for word at the heart of
revelation holds a powerful appeal to the music-loving Balthasar.
1. TLWW, p. 198
2. TLWG, p. 252.
3. S4, p. 298.
4. S5, p. 260.
5. HTAB, pp. 216–7.
1. S5, p. 253.
2. Ibid.
3. TLWG, p. 253.
4. Ibid., p. 14.
5. Ibid., p. 251.
1. S5, p. 244.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., p. 265.
4. Ibid., pp. 266–7.
5. S4, p. 346.
6. GINL, p. 46.
7. S3, p. 60.
1. S1, p. 120.
2. EPIL, pp. 78–9.
3. TLWG, p. 316.
4. HSG, p. 19.
5. EPIL, p. 85.
6. CM, p. 14.
7. HTNB, p. 77.
1. Ibid., p. 81.
2. S1, 146.
3. HTAB, p. 362.
4. HTNB, p. 195.
1. Ibid., p. 481. It is interesting that in the Russian tradition, one’s sighs are seen as the sighs of
one’s guardian angel, praying for one.
2. S3, pp. 162–3.
3. S1, p. 153.
4. TDPR, p. 21.
5. CM, p. 7.
1. TLWG, p. 107.
2. HFSK, p. 176.
3. TLWG, p. 139.
4. CM, p. 40.
1. TLWG, p. 254.
2. Ibid., p. 252.
3. Ibid., p. 101.
4. TLGW, p. 209.
5. HTNB, p. 176.
6. CM, p. 41.
1. HTNB, p. 145.
2. TDES, p. 242.
3. S5, p. 270.
4. TLWG, p. 320.
5. TLGW, p. 210.
6. S1, p. 155.
7. HTNB, p. 135.
1. HRMA, p. 247.
2. HSG, p. 241.
3. Ibid., p. 212.
4. S3, p. 36.
5. HTAB, p. 209.
6. Ibid.
7. HTAB, p. 217.
8. Ibid., p. 206.
1. HRMN, p. 959.
2. HTAB, p. 172.
3. HSG, p. 461.
4. S5, p. 268.
5. TDPM, p. 79.
6. TDHA, p. 460.
7. HTNB, p. 505.
8. TDPC, p. 485.
1. S5, p. 272.
2. Ibid., p. 270.
3. HTNB, p. 424.
4. HSG, p. 160.
5. HRMN, p. 852.
6. S4, p. 396.
1. HSG, p. 177.
2. Ibid.
3. TLWG, p. 254.
4. S1, p. 40.
1. S3, p. 253.
2. CM, p. 12.
3. HSG, p. 290.
4. BG, p. 144.
5. HFSK, p. 68.
6. EPIL, p. 29. The whole issue of “substitution” (Stellvertretung) would offer a very interesting
entrance into an understanding of the uniqueness of Christ. Part of Balthasar’s respect for Buddhism is
related to the Bodhisattva ideal in the Mahayana.
1. GINL, p. 92.
2. HSG, p. 242.
3. S4, pp. 62–3.
4. TDPC, p. 386.
5. S1, p. 81.
6. Ibid., p. 167.
1. Ibid., p. 73.
2. S2, p. 517.
3. S5, p. 350.
4. BG, p. 157.
5. S2, p. 495.
6. S4, p. 61.
1. CUDW, p. 15, footnote 5.
2. S4, p. 113.
3. Ibid., pp. 298–9.
1. HRMA, p. 318.
2. HRMN, p. 962.
3. Ibid., p. 963; see also S3, p. 15.
4. TDPR, p. 600.
5. TLWW, p. 114.
6. HRMA, p. 363.
7. HFSL, p. 690.
8. S5, p. 39.
1. TDPR, pp. 75–76.
2. TLWG, p. 238.
3. The distinction between guilt and sin is important to Balthasar. Unfortunately, the theoretical
distinction between non-Biblical guilt and Biblical sinfulness cannot be maintained in watertight
compartments and so for example in his works we find, naturally enough, references to general human
sinfulness and the guilt of Christians.
4. CS, p. 103.
1. HSG, p. 434.
2. HTNB, p. 439.
3. Ibid., p. 67.
4. TDHA, p. 164.
5. S4, p. 246.
6. TDPR, pp. 356–7. Of his vision of hell for contemporary man in mass society, Balthasar calls
Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago “the epic of our century, the book that should survive should all the
others perish. . . .” (NK, p. 160).
1. CUDW, p. 15.
2. TDHA, p. 314.
3. HSG, p. 467.
Hochzeitlichkeit: The Word Weds Silence

I t is a curious thing that in our sex-obsessed culture, the differentiation of the
sexes in expected social roles, occupations, clothing, appearance should be
diminished to the point of disappearing. Or perhaps this should be put
differently. Perhaps it is in a society that would turn a blind eye to gender
differences that sexuality emerges as a raw wound. We had seen earlier that
Balthasar loudly and constantly celebrates the diversity of creation. The
uniqueness of each bit of reality speaks of the imaginative power of the poet-
God who has created all by His Word. Moreover, this God is a Trinity of Persons
who in Himself has the Other, a richness of diversity within unity which is at the
essence of the Creator. It thus stands to reason that His creation should mirror
this diversity.
Because of the Incarnation, one must go further. We have seen that because
there is the Other in God, there is room for the Other in God: there is room for a
world redeemed on the Cross to be taken up into the divine life, in the Son. In
this chapter, we turn our attention to that Other “outside of” God, the creature(s)
to whom His Word is issued. We first consider the qualities required of one who
would receive that Word which Balthasar habitually describes as a “seed.” We
then turn to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was the perfect receiver of that Word,
a virgin whose virginity will bear fruit. We look at her preparation for that
reception in the history of her people Israel, as a member of the anawim. Mary’s
reception of the Word was such that she was the perfect “hearer of the Word.”
Yet as we shall see her hearing was not merely passive: the divine action was to
provoke a responding word from her, in which her action revealed her
affirmation, her “yes” (Jawort).
The whole issue of eros and agape requires our attention, as eros—human
longing—is so much at the heart of being human, and as its interplay with agape
forms the distinctive ambience of Christian spirituality in Balthasar. Here we
will spend some time exploring what Balthasar calls the “theology of the sexes,”
which includes what today might be called a study in “sex roles.” Analogy being
the lens through which Balthasar views reality, the whole question of male and
female, how each originates and how this determines their interaction will richly
illustrate the relation of God and His People.
This relation which we have seen take concretion in the Virgin Mary
moves into a new dimension as the “bridal mystery,” connubiality
(Hochzeitlichkeit), in which the divine Bridegroom creates His Bride from His
fullness on the Cross. Here we find:
[t]hat ineffable bliss which lies in the mystical experience of total release and of pouring out
the finite spirit into the infinite spirit, as China, India and Sufism join in celebrating it: it
reaches its fulfillment in the pneumatic “marriage” between God and creature. Only here the
release has lost its negativity: its presupposition is no longer the ascetical negation of every
finite being as illusion and maya, but rather loving union with the spirit of Christ.1

As we have seen before, the former “can only lead to a Nirvana as identity . . .
the second, however, to an identity of fullness, in which all limited being is
transformed.”2 As will be seen, the fullness refers both to the Bride who is the
fullness of Christ and to Christ Himself, from whose fullness the Bride issues.
This means so much to Balthasar that he maintains that “it is only on this level
that a true dialogue is possible between Christianity and other religions.”3
An extreme instance of natural humanity’s relation to the sacred can be
found in contemporary, popular culture. The American film The Doors presents
the story of rock-star Jim Morrison who mesmerised a generation by addressing
what he perceived as their “need for the sacred.”1 Using a model of shaman
which he learned in drug mysticism and in contact with American Indians, and
focussing on the eros which craved compensation for modern man’s “loss of
God,” his performances were to become increasingly sexual (and narcissistic)
until indeed he was convicted of public indecency. The dionysian frenzy of his
music and performance illustrates an extreme attempt to reach the sacred—“the
other side”—by a poet convinced that ecstasy was the way through the “doors of
perception.”2 The Christian turns another way, to an eager silence which is
listening for that word which “the other side” will utter. It is with a look at that
silence that we begin.

I. Receiving the Seed-Word

A. Silence
It would be ironical to say much of silence. We have already considered the
silence of Holy Saturday. Here it will suffice to briefly sketch the role silence
plays in the Incarnation, the formation of the Church and the Christian life.
First of all, then, the flesh itself is characterized as silent. By its very
conception, when the Word becomes flesh it becomes silent.3 Even in the First
Creation—the first speech—God Himself had become silent in order that
creatures themselves might be able to speak; in the new creation, Mary is led
“through the Word become silent in death to a new motherhood: in order to bring
forth from herself the answer of the saved creation to the silenced Word.”4
Mary’s poverty, which allows her to be open to God, is characterized by
silence. She conceives the Word of God in silence, and that Word itself “is from
now on muted to the ‘Lamb that is led to the slaughter without opening its
mouth.’”1 Moreover, the entire relation of Mary to God from conception of the
Word to the Cross and beyond is characterized by the same silence “in which
God the Father steps back into the invisible” which reaches its high point at the
abandonment on the Cross, where the Father is silent to the Son, and “the Son
Himself sinks into the silence of death. This silence of death is the indefinable
moment of the begetting and birth of the new man—from the womb of the
Church, made poor to the point of a spiritual co-death (Mit-sterben).”2 The one
who shares this death, and its silence, will be Mary.
Thus, the Incarnation reaches its peak, the Word becomes fully flesh, when
it is totally silenced: it is at this moment that it seeks “from its entire body to
make the seed of God.”3 The tension of word and silence we have seen as
characterizing God becomes incarnate in the God-man, where the fullness of the
Father speaks His Word to a receiving silence, the “flesh” that the Word takes
from Mary. As man, Christ speaks in all He does; on the Cross, silence reigns,
but it is a silence which again yields a word.
Writing of the Church at prayer, Balthasar notes that God “speaks to them
primarily in silence”: “the Liturgy of the Word sows . . . but . . . the act of
reception, of personal affirmation in stillness, is indispensable, lest all be sown
on stones and in thorns.”4 This attitude, which we will explore at greater length
in our next chapter on prayer, is seen during the earthly life of Jesus where Mary
of Bethany keeps her soul “empty,” but empty in order to receive the unum
necessarium of the Word of God.5 Augustine will greatly develop this in his
teaching on return to the heart (redire ad cor), to the place “where stillness
reigns, where a true, spiritual seeing and hearing becomes possible.”6 Silence is
thus the attitude par excellence of the one who would hear the word of God.

B. Empfänglichkeit: Receptivity as Active Passivity

If for Balthasar there were one word to characterize the correct stance of the
creature to the Creator, it might well be Empfänglichkeit. Translated as
“receptivity” or “susceptibility,”1 it is intimately related to the word for
conception—Empfängnis—and the verb to conceive—empfangen.2 Thus, the
Immaculate Conception is the Unbefleckte Empfängnis. It is this receptivity that
chiefly characterizes Christ: “receptivity for everything that comes from the
Father . . . is that fundamental state of His being in which he is ever open to
reception of the paternal missioning.”3
If this receptivity characterizes the Son in His relation to the Father—a
way of viewing things that allows for a “gender sense” within the Trinity itself,
as we shall see—it is certainly imaged in creation. God has the prerogative of
action over all His creatures. Hence, for the creature, passivity takes priority
over activity in its first relation, that to God. But it is imperative to correctly
understand the relation of activity and passivity. Balthasar would reject a pure
passivity, seeking the “passivity correctly understood of a being already active in
its receptivity, whose basic act consists in being able to receive.”4
This creaturely attitude is seen most clearly in Mary, who is characterized
by a “watchful waiting” and “active readiness,” a stance Balthasar describes as
“the moist loam in which alone the Christ form can imprint itself.”5 Not only is
this attitude not passive, it is, he maintains, the “opposite of a passivity”6 we
could characterize as “resigned.” It is, furthermore, a cooperation between
Creator and creature which is yet never on the same level. Indeed, although
human power alone can never imprint the Christ form on the human soul, neither
can this be effected without human “will and cooperation.”1 In this, Mary’s ecce
ancilla Domini is the perfect expression of that correct distance (Abstand) which
characterizes obedience.2
Mary’s receptivity is the sine qua non of the Incarnation: “Without a
receptive womb no incarnation of God. . . .”3 Moreover, Mary’s receptivity is
fecund, it bears fruit. Balthasar contrasts her attitude with that of the sinful men
for whom Christ dies, men who drive God out of their midst in order not to have
to be receptive to Him, to conceive from Him, preferring to try to bear fruit on
their own and yet who remain sterile. Fruitfulness as key to the discernment of
God’s action will occupy our attention in our final chapter, on the saints. The
theme is introduced here as fruitfulness is, from first to last, the natural
consequence of receptivity to God.
As receptivity includes the willingness to bear fruit it is a broader concept
than obedience, which of course it also includes. It is also characterized by the
willingness of the creature to be used by God. Thus, Irenæus observes that “all
activity of the creature rests on an ever-deeper passivity: in order to become, it
must entrust itself to and let itself be formed by the forming ‘hands’ of God.”4
“Imprinting” (prägen) is a figure favored by Balthasar to indicate the form-
giving work of God on His creature. Bonaventure articulates the dynamic: “the
love of man makes the wax of the heart soft, the love of God prints His seal on
it; so the advice can go out to every Christian: ‘As a seal in soft wax, so imprint
Jesus, the Bridegroom, on your heart.’”5
If the love of God prints His seal on the heart, it is a heart open to God in
faith, the virtue most associated with receptivity of the Word.6 This faith serves
as a “‘fountain trough’ (Brunnentrog) for the Truth of God which pours itself
out.”7 But in order to place no obstacles to the work of God, in order to
cooperate fully in obedient faith, receptivity needs the virtue of indifference, a
key virtue in the relation between God and the one open to His will.

C. Indifference
Even as silence is not the mere absence of words, a mere emptiness, and as the
relation of activity and passivity in receptivity is subtle and interwoven, so the
whole concept of indifference is very nuanced. Indifference is ultimately
contrasted, for Balthasar, with that resignation which characterizes non-Christian
spirituality. We might briefly designate resignation as the total passivity which is
not that active cooperation that makes for Christian indifference. In both the
Greek philosophers and in Asian religions, Balthasar was confronted with an
ideal of “apatheia,” which, at least superficially read, meant an absence of the
passions. For him, true indifference is indeed a calmness (Gelassenheit) but one
which is not a matter of “spiritual aloofness” but rather one that has the character
of being willing to be plunged into various human conditions, if it be the will of
God.1 This willing—indeed, daring—indifference is seen most clearly in Mary’s
ecce ancilla.2
The chief alternative to Christian indifference then is Stoic indifference (in
whatever form). Stoic indifference does not let the deepest self be affected by
emotions while Christian indifference allows the deepest self to be open to
suffering if God wills it.3 So for Origen, indifference was the heart of the matter:
man’s falling out of indifference was indeed the Fall.4 Balthasar contrasts Origen
with Augustine who was centered on love. Both looked to the Heavenly
Jerusalem, but Augustine identified it with the “bride without blemish or
wrinkle”—had he lived a few centuries later, he would have identified it with the
Virgin Mary, the “essence and nucleus of the Church.”5
This move from classical indifference to a love which then takes bridal
form and is identified with the Virgin Mary is a theme which runs throughout
Balthasar’s view of Christian spiritual history. In his Metaphysik der Heiligen, he
speaks of a moment when the post-medieval West, no longer Aristotelian and not
yet affected by the reassertion of the Neo-Platonic, rediscovered the classical
sense of tragedy and with it the issue of human suffering.1 For classical tragedy,
there was a suffering which no technique could overcome: one must “surrender
himself in indifference” and following the examples of Odysseus and Æneas,
know “patience in fate with the god and in the god.”2 In the fourteenth century,
there was a split between philosophers who tear their world apart in nominalism
and dialectics and “the lovers [who] give themselves over to the night and
discover the form of existence of indifference.”3
This moment was one of change from the ancient dominance of eros in
theology (Augustine) to the new indifference. The theory of eros had tended to
emphasis the ability of eros in the individual seeker to perform the “act of
transcendence” (Überstieg); in the new view, what matters is a true indifference
that is the
“passive” readiness to absorb in suffering every positive impression coming to one from
God. The “glorious” (Herrliche) does not lie any longer in the high-flight of eros which
gazes into the eternal, but rather in the encounter of the disponable spirit of the “Handmaid
of the Lord,” oriented to service, with the condescending Son.4

This represents a sea change in the spiritual theology of the Church. The spirit of
Christian indifference is profoundly feminine. Balthasar writes that “on the
creaturely level it is virginal, on the level of the revelation of love it is bridal,”
and that the replacement of the transcendence-spirituality of eros with the stance
of indifference represents “the kairos for feminine self-expression in a Church
that understands herself in a feminine way.”5 Not surprisingly, the fundamental
virtue for Balthasar is patience—as Catherine of Siena describes it, a patience
blended with “generous disponability (zur Verfügung stehend).”1
Curiously enough, it is in the school of Eckhart that this sea change takes
place. Not, to be sure, the Eckhart of dubious philosophical speculations, the
Eckhart who places human intellect “face to face” with God and who, losing the
proper relation of distance, will help in the development of that speculative
idealism in which the individual is lost in the Absolute, as we have seen.2
Rather, it is in the school of Eckhart, “choosing his Christian way and rejecting
his speculative extravagance” that the “metaphysics of the saints is grounded, a
school that stamps all Christian thought until modern times, including Ignatius,
Francis de Sales, Fenelon, Newman. . . .”3 What is it then that Eckhart proposed?
Eckhart understands indifference in a marian way: “to be present to the
highest truth virginally and freely, without any hindrance.”4 This marian
teaching on indifference moves on to its completion in a Trinitarian view: “The
marian womb receives the seed of the Father, and because the Father is begetting
the Son in an eternal present, the eternal procession of the Son takes place in the
pure medium of receptivity.”5 This “eternal conception” takes place almost
naturally, for “active and passive seek each other”6 and “the more actively God
is at work, the more passively should the creature conduct itself. . . .”7 But this
“pure surrender to conception is the work, an inner, spiritual work, that gives all
exterior work its worth and replaces all external deeds, for all fruitfulness lies in
it.”8 Although praised for this insight, Eckhart will also be criticized for
exaggerating the loss of will of the “passive” subject. Eckhart’s marian
understanding—and its relation to a correct understanding of analogy—suffer in
consequence, but the basic insight of marian indifference was invaluable.
In this epoch of changing views, the active despising of the world
(despicere mundum) which characterizes “Buddhist-Platonic-Stoic” indifference
progresses to an ideal of “being despised by the world (despici a mundo).”1 One
desires this freedom to suffer because “Christ is Himself a divine person who
suffers as man.”2 The Christian view moves beyond that of a desire to be
purified of images by apatheia in search of “pure imageless Being (the Light
Experience of Evagrius, Simeon, Palamas).”3 It is love for and imitation of
Christ that leads the believer into the darkness “in which God hid Himself,
which could also be affirmed in the not-seeing and in the naked faith of
indifference.”4 It is this indifference of love of the particular that distinguishes
the Christian above all and that renders discussion possible with other religious
And as this Christian metaphysics reaches behind Plato to tragedy and comes into
conversation with the existential situation of real people, the dialogue with the metaphysical
ways of salvation of Asia will become possible, at least beginning with a Christian Eckhart,
and probably only with him. The “indifference” (Gelassenheit) of Christian Neo-Platonism
(in sharpest form in Evagrius Ponticus) may well introduce this dialogue, but it will not be
able to conclude it; it is only where the despicere becomes despici and Gnosis in
consequence becomes love that the Occident has something of its own, something that is of
surpassing value on the same turf, to offer to the East.5

This school of Christian indifference reaches a high point for Balthasar in

St. Ignatius. In the Spiritual Exercises, the exercitant must be stripped of every
“form of his own” in order to become prepared for the call of Christ which will
sound for the exercitant in his “contemplation of the life of Jesus which is
prepared for all.”6 This call descends on the Christian by grace to “bestow on
each one the imprinting of the descending life-form in which he, as material
entirely formable by God, can fully correspond to the will of God. . . .”1 But it
must be pointed out that the matter/form analogy limps, for indifference once
again is not mere passivity, it does not indicate the destruction or disappearance
of the individual will as was the “monothelistic” tendency in writers from
Eckhart to Fenelon. Rather, what matters for Ignatius is the choice: the choice is
active indifference.2
Balthasar concedes that this Ignatian “active indifference” is a “narrow
peak,” difficult to reach and sustain. After Ignatius, there were distortions in two
directions: towards the old monkish primacy of contemplation over action, and
towards indifference as “‘achievement’ and thus understood in a Stoic-Buddhist
manner.”3 True Ignatian “transcendence” is “obedience to God, beyond passivity
and activity: an act, that . . . is most highly taut in order to be as disponable as
possible to the eternal free will of love.”4 The will of the individual is then
joined to the will of Christ, obedient to the Father, “and precisely there, adjunct
to the obedient will of the Bride Church to Christ, a Church who in her spirit of
believing obedience is our Mother and form-giver (Prägerin).”5 So we see that
the active/passive tension reaches its peak in the encounter with God in
obedience. It is an indifference which does not seek “nothing,” does not seek to
obliterate the emotions in order to be free of suffering. It is not an active
achievement of a state of soul in which a formless light can be seen, the soul
purified of attachments to all passion-provoking forms. These were the earlier
forms of indifference which characterized pagan antiquity and which were
brought over into the Christian spiritual tradition. Nor yet is it the power of eros,
the desire for God, which transforms this indifference. Rather, it is the
willingness to be in union with Christ who submits to the Father’s will, actively
receptive to that forming—imprinting—will that marks the true Christian
True indifference, then, is ordered towards prayer. For Balthasar,
everything fits toward that end as “in the huge work of constructing a cathedral.”
False indifference is prayerless, loveless, it is “incapable of penance” and leads
to hardness of heart.1 This is the great contribution of that fourteenth century
continuation of the work of Eckhart and Tauler, the theologia deutsch: it is
“essentially teaching about discernment: between the self-glorifying reason and
the reason which is listening to God.”2 Put differently, this is the difference
between the active, male intellect (reason) and the male intellect which knows
how to listen in a feminine manner.
We have seen Eckhart speak of the “marian womb receiving the seed of the
Father.” Before directly considering the figure of Mary we turn to a
consideration of the Word as seed.

D. Word-Seed
According to Balthasar, the “Word of God, sown in the world, is Jesus Christ
Himself. . . .”3 The parables He spoke while He was on earth are full of images
of seed and sowing. The seeds are vital, powerful: they grow. Yet the growth of
the seed is not presented so much as a “historical process” but rather as the
encounter of the world (which in the parables is presented as “the field”) with
the Word and the changes which come to the world through this event.4
God the Father is the sower. Balthasar writes: “As the one begetting gives
his seed, so God gives His Son: in the dark, dangerous, powerful womb of the
world.”5 Most obviously, of course, this takes place in the womb of the Virgin.
The word that Mary loves is sown (eingesät) in her heart.6 In nature, the “foreign
seed unites itself with the maternal egg”: this is “like the word that came from
outside united with the supernatural grace held ready in Mary” and became a
unity, which new unity “becomes precisely the primordial image (Urbild) of all
unity in the world.”1
Incarnate, the Word speaks often of the seeds that are sown; it is only after
His death and resurrection that these sayings are understood as referring to
Himself, the “life-giving Word.” The post-resurrection recollection of things said
and done by Jesus during His life is itself an “opening up” of seeds planted
during His earthly life.2 Making the Word of God, the “seed of the Father,”
intimately present to the soul is the “witness” of the Spirit, a work which renders
contemplation possible.3
On the Cross, His flesh is sacrificed as a “seed of new life through all the
ages for the feminine Church and through her for the entire historical cosmos.”4
Though hated by the world, this Word acts as the leaven of history, pervading it.5
As this leaven works, both individually and corporately, then, there is progress in
the world: but if the fact of progress is given to the Christian, it remains a
progress which he cannot determine.6 The ongoing work of God in sending His
Son into the world is virtually the motor of history: for Balthasar, the world
always remains the “not yet pure womb for the entire seed-word (Samenwort) of
God” and so “every present moment is ever more urgently open to the future.”7
It is virginity “for the sake of connubiality with Christ” (Hochzeitlichkeit zu
Christus) that is the true “creative power” in human history.8
The Word of God, then, must fall on ground that has been prepared; there
must be a suitable vessel to receive the seed. Comparing the Word of God to a
sacrament, Balthasar writes that it “certainly works of itself what it expresses
and means, but yet must fall as a seed upon prepared, loosened earth.”9 Having
appreciated several aspects of the seed-character of the Word of God, we turn
our attention to the perfect receiver, the virgin womb, Mary.

II. Mary: the Perfect Receiver

A. The Anawim
The Church in recent years has become much aware of the anawim, the little
people of Israel, from whom the family of Jesus, though of distinguished origins,
came. The image of a Son of David emerging from a Galilean village bears out
the destiny of Israel. The earlier visions of glory, tinged with myth,1 were
purified in the bitter history of loss of independence and exile: holiness in Israel
became interior and poor. The focus on interiority forced by historical failure
was a purification to see the far greater inner workings of God. Hence, the
anawim became the God-bearers, as it were, much as the harijan would be in
Gandhi’s India.
The word itself, according to Balthasar, means both “poor” and
“humiliated.”2 The one who listens for God’s Word must be “anaw, submitting,
feeling himself as a slave, being humble, his anawa, humility . . . becomes the
vessel in which the anawa of God, His ‘condescension’ will be received.”3 In
Israel, this listening for God’s Word leads to no “Promethean fruitfulness” but
rather to a “patient waiting”4 (but a waiting which will be vindicated in
fruitfulness). The anawim were those in Israel who, because of their historical
experience, had been molded to be receptive, patiently waiting for God’s Word.
In an especially beautiful section, Balthasar suggests that:
Perhaps it is because He is so shamefully treated in His covenant that from the very start He
loves to be together with the weakened and the disgraced: with the impotent men and barren
women . . . with the outcast son of a whore . . . with the “poorest” and “last” . . . with the
least likely of the sons of Jesse: David. . . .1

God loves to dwell with those who have been badly treated because He Himself
is badly treated by those whom He loves: it is this, more than the theophanies of
glory, that proves the enduring theme of the Bible. The prophets, of course, are
the great teachers of this purification. Jeremiah, “persecuted, mocked,
humiliated” himself, becomes the “patron of the spirituality of the poor.”2
Balthasar observes that from Jeremiah onwards, it is poverty, the “being
deprived of rights and help that infallibly draws God’s gaze to itself.”3 And
since, in the Exile, all Israel suffers the fate of this impoverishment, “it receives
rightful access to the mercy of God.”4 The “true Israel” then is a “hidden” Israel,
one which does not dominate in earthly glory, but one which is receptive to God
and His Word “through poverty, humiliation, neediness and patience.”5 It is
Israel’s poverty that gives God access to this people. What Jesus praises, then,
comes out of this experience, one stripped of all resentment, of all desire to take
the place of the wealthy: rather, He praises “simplicity not sure of itself, an
entirely un-self-conscious receptivity to the wisdom of God, a wisdom fashioned
completely differently, which seems to the Jews a scandal and to the pagans a
foolishness. . . .”6
The anawim are the truly Chosen People, those who, lifted up to the eyes
of the world, reflect the universal religious phenomenon of being open to God,
of being needy and dependent upon Him. It is they who are truly “empty” for
God. Jesus will speak of this emptiness for God in the Beatitudes. The Church
will incorporate this vision in its institution of the vows: virginity, poverty and
obedience are all ways of abandoning power in order that God may be powerful
in one.7
The sufferings of Israel had served as purification to solidify—within the
people, as it were—a new spiritual stance, and Mary, the humble virgin from a
distant village will now become locus of God’s glory in the world. It is in Mary
that the streams of prophecy and wisdom in Israel converge. Balthasar writes
that in Mary, both the “ascending Spirit-wisdom and the descending Word”
meet; she whom Augustine calls “created wisdom” “becomes the eschatological
bride of the Word, that will become flesh from her, while Mary will become both
bride and body for the Church: the return to the Father takes place in this union
of Spirit and Word.”1
It is Mary who is the one so perfectly empty for God that she will summon,
as it were, His all powerful Word to her listening person, her gifted purity that
will allow Him to do great things in her.

B. Purity of the Receiver: The Virgin Conceived

Without Sin
We might begin by asking why focus on Mary’s virginity at all. Granted what
has been said about Israel’s purified spirit finding its highest expression in Mary:
why is it so important that she be a virgin?
Balthasar observes that in early Christian theology, the emphasis was on
seeing man as the “image” of God, an image however that was only “in Christ”,
Himself the primordial image (Urbild). This then led the Christian to desire to be
purified in order to return to the primordial image, to the “pure idea” that is the
Son who is the idea of all things. But this is problematic, as it seems to bypass
the Incarnation. If the Christian is not to “turn his back on the Incarnation” to
seek the Word in a purely spiritual world of ideas, but rather is to find His way to
the Word by way of discipleship of the Word Incarnate, “then the personal
‘place’ of the Incarnation comes centrally into the Light: the Virgin-Mother
It may seem odd to matter-of-fact moderns that virginity should be prized
precisely as entry into an incarnation, a becoming flesh of pure Spirit. Yet
Balthasar enunciates what is virtually a principle: “The Word of God presents
itself to the world the more purely and unmistakably the more transparent and
pure the medium of faith is that receives it and from which it creates its form.”1
The “medium of faith” is itself a human person, one with a body. Unless one
were to fall into dualism, purity of soul would have to be joined to purity of
body. The virginal humanity of Christ is the perfect “vessel” to express the
Logos, and Mary is the perfect “vessel” essentially consisting of her faith.
Emphasizing this, Balthasar notes that Jesus was not just the fruit of Mary’s
body but of her “faith and her love” as well.2
But if Mary first “bore Christ in faith” as Balthasar often quotes Augustine
(prius concepit mente quam in ventre) she did indeed bear Him in the flesh.3
Hence the Incarnation. And if her faith and love were perfect, so must her flesh
be as well. Balthasar observes that in the New Testament, notably in Paul,
sexuality moves from “the order of marriage to that of virginity, that means into
the eschatological marriage.”4 We will soon return to the eschatological
marriage. Here we see that Mary’s virginity represents the “higher” of two ways,
one which leads to a “third” which includes and transcends both.
Balthasar notes that “Mary’s experience of God has as its basis her
virginity, her body-soul being exclusively ready for God.”5 This virginal
readiness extends, in Mary, to her very conception, which was without stain of
sin. The importance of the Immaculate Conception for Balthasar is that it keeps
Mary in perfect “availability” for God, and it has two purposes: first, that Mary
might be the best, the most pure mother for her child, and that as “‘companion’
and ‘bride’” she might suffer fully at the foot of the Cross.6 Although he reacts
negatively to baroque phrases like “co-redemptrix,” one cannot help but see
something of the sort at work here. Mary’s availability is like Christ’s but it
differs in two respects: 1. His “yes” to God is eternal, as member of the Trinity;
hers is human: she as a human must grow into it; and 2. “the Son as man actively
undertakes the will of the Father while she, as a woman, must wait until she is
moved and taken possession of by Him.”1 Mary is thus perfectly fitted to the
redemptive work of Christ, although both as creature and female her role is
somewhat different. The theme of gender difference which will much concern us
for the rest of this chapter first appears here, for Mary is the New Eve from
whom the Second Adam will be born: yet in a curious twist, her original purity
owes itself to the redeeming work of the man.2 That is, her privilege of being
conceived without sin is the fruit of her “prior redemption” (Vorerlösung) from
the Cross: in a way that transcends our sense of time, Mary is spared all sin
because of Christ’s death on the Cross, “retroactively” effective.3
Mary then is saved like all humans, but “in an eminent way.”4 Her
Immaculate Conception is an “indifference really between Heaven and Earth.”5
Something of this specialness is seen in Balthasar’s observation that Mary
“must” have thought that the same thing—her motherhood—could have
happened to any other woman, but this “anonymity” which would of course fit in
perfectly with the stance of the anawim could not long endure for “the ray of
light falls back on her . . . and she knows herself as a person who has been
isolated out of the human substance.”6
Though isolated out of that humanity (“eminently”), Mary yet represents it,
and represents it perfectly. She is the “perfect incarnation of the ‘Daughter
Zion’” whose co-operation with God represents a sort of pre-history to the
Incarnation of Christ.7 Luke identifies Mary with Zion; the author of the
Apocalypse extends this to Zion-Mary-Church, where Zion-Mary is the “pure
anticipatory essence of the coming Church,” which is “one body and one spirit
with Him” in its “perfection of the attitude of Old Testament faith, hope and
perseverance in poverty, obedience and joy. . . .”8
As the relation of image to primordial image is so important to Balthasar,
so in the relation of the sexes is the whole question of the female “facing” the
male. Here again Mary represents humanity:
Christ . . . is at the same time God as person—and man as human nature. And so the face
that presents itself to Him is not only created humanity (Menschheit) as a whole, nor yet a
femininity (Fraulichkeit) like the Church as a collective (in the aspect of “progeny”), but
rather it is of necessity an individual woman, who must however form a unity with the
principle of joint fruitfulness. And this individual woman who already is needed as the
mother of the one becoming man, and as part of this as the one immaculately conceived
(immaculate, Eph 5:27) as well as the perfectly universal and catholic believer, must be the
same one who—in fully conscious creaturely distance (Abstand)—proceeding from the
Eucharist and the Cross becomes the ecclesial vessel into which the substance of the Son,
universalised by the Holy Spirit, pours itself. . . . Redemption and pre-redemption are now
jointly utilised towards the emergence of the Church.1

This “individual woman” who will become the “ecclesial vessel” is

characterized by her “fruitfulness,” that which joins her virginity with her
maternity in that “virginal fruitfulness” which will characterize discipleship.2
Spiritually—and humanly—prepared by the centuries of suffering of her waiting
people, one could almost say that Mary experienced a dual pre-redemption
(Vorerlösung), for this suffering will be taken up in the perfect sacrifice of her
Son on the Cross, rendering her the perfect receiver of the Seed which is His
Word. Virgin “daughter Zion” incarnate in Mary is preserved from all sin not in
order to turn to a dispassionate world of ideas, but in order to be that “vessel” in
which alone the Logos can take flesh and “speak the Word” in His life and death,
and which can then bear fruit in the Church which will be born at the Cross
under which she stands, virgin receiver.
As this “vessel,” Mary proved herself to be the “hearer of the Word” par
excellence. Having seen something of her fruitful virginity let us see what this
meant for her ability to listen.

C. Mary: Hearer of the Word

It is in the context of a “virginal fruitfulness” that we approach Mary as hearer of
the Word. In the Old Testament, it is God’s fertilizing seed-Word that brings life
and fertility to the earth. In the New Testament, the womb of Mary is already
fertile, ready for the seed. The Word of God comes to Mary as a masculine
person who yet “owes (sich verdankt) all to a woman, humanly speaking,” and to
whom He will owe all the “fruitfulness of faith on earth” that is to come.1 In
terms of Balthasar’s theology of the sexes, this stance of “owing” (sich
verdanken) characterizes the feminine within the Trinity itself: here we see it
within the economic work of the Trinity. It is part of Christ’s maleness to be
dependent on the woman if fruit is to be borne. Here, the “Virgin that hears the
word of God becomes Mother” and Mary, the Virgin Mother, becomes “the real
symbol of the fleshly-spiritual Church formed to the Word.”2 We must note at
the outset that for Balthasar, Mary is both “Mother Church” and “Mother of the
she can be both because at the foot of the Cross with the Beloved Disciple she becomes the
primordial image (Urbild), the primordial cell (Urzelle) of the community founded by the
Crucified and at the same time she receives the Apostle and, in him, all Christians as her

It is Mary’s total faith-act that allows for her total, virginal fruitfulness—again,
Augustine’s phrase prius concepit mente quam ventre capsulizes it perfectly.
And Jesus Himself will not give the world a partial, sexual fruitfulness, but
rather He Himself becomes fully “seed” for the feminine, receptive community.4
Mary is the “feminine womb of the Word of God, believing and
remembering womb of the Church” who does not receive the “seed of Christ”
but rather the “seed Christ.”1 It is important to underline this, recalling that the
Word precisely is seed, and on the Cross once again becomes seed for the world.
The Pietà suggests itself as image of the “second” becoming seed in the womb
of Mary-Church. In terms of the primordial “hearing,” Balthasar describes Mary
as the blessed “hearer of the Word who knows how to keep and to guard it, to
feed and to bear it, and once she has given it birth, pondering to keep it alive in
her heart.”2 Here we see the fine interplay between word as verbal message and
word made flesh, inseparable in the relation of Word to Mary. And, in all this,
Mary is ever more the primordial image (Urbild) of the Church.
God’s Word, going forth, does not primarily seek a response, but rather it
seeks the indifference of the ecce ancilla3 in which there is no “passivity or
resignation.”4 In this waiting indifference, “active and passive are one in letting-
it-happen (Geschehenlassen)”5 which is the stance of the one listening. Mary is
the “paradigm” of that correct stance, “beyond contemplation and action” which
is an “active-passive readiness for the entire Word, not suspecting how it will
articulate itself in her, together with her.”6 The Virgin then is the “hearing
person, pure and simple . . . who becomes pregnant with the Word and gives
birth to it as her Son and the Son of the Father.”7 Mary heard the word of God
more fully than anyone else, and so “her faith was the fulfilling incarnation of
the divine word of promise.”8 It is a commonplace that hearing, in religion, is
associated with obedience, and at least from Irenæus on, Mary is seen as the
New Eve, whose obedience is set against the former disobedience.9
As the “primordially authentic hearer” who ponders and understands
correctly, Mary becomes the “authentic interpreter” of God’s Word: for the
Church, she is both the “primordial contemplative” and the “mediator of right
hearing.”1 For contemplation, Mary serves as a necessary “immunization” in two
ways: first, she keeps the Word from being something merely exterior, she shows
how it is properly interiorized; but second, the Word is never so interior as to
become identified with the contemplator.2 Once again, the issue of proper
“distance” comes to light. Although Mary hears and becomes pregnant with the
Word, she herself is not the Word. Balthasar links this discernment with the Holy
Spirit who is needed both for man to receive the Word of God, but also to know
the difference between God’s “Thou” and man’s own.3
The “marian mission” is very important in Balthasar’s thought, pervading
His writing, especially about the Church. He writes that what is special about
Mary’s spirituality is exactly “her own fundamental renunciation of any special
spirituality that would be anything other than the being overshadowed by the
Most High and the indwelling of the divine Word.”4 Mary’s mission is more
basic than that of the apostolic pillars of the Church and contains “within its
shadow other feminine missions” such as Mary Magdalene’s or Mary of
Bethany’s.5 Her being a hidden member of a hidden people, the anawim, and her
own virginity combine to create a perfect ear for God’s Word, a vessel that will
offer no resistance to His imprinting action as He forms His Son in her. Her
response can be beautifully summed up in one word: “yes.”

D. Mary’s Answer: Jawort

A favorite word of Balthasar’s to describe Mary’s answer to God is Jawort.
More than a “yes,” it is the saying “yes” that has the primary connotation of the
“I do” that is said in marriage. We have seen Mary as Virgin and Mother; here
we will begin to consider her as Bride as well, in a dialogical relation with God.
The word-answer dynamism is built into nature itself. For Balthasar: “If
the man is the calling word, so the woman is the answer calling back to him in
the end, mediated in mutual encounter (Aufeinander).”1 The word of the man is
seen in the act of begetting, to which “the act of giving birth is a really effusive
word as the response of the woman.”2 The man, as word-seed, represents a
single principle; the woman, as “answer and (joint) fruitfulness” a dual
principle.3 We see this reflected in Mary, who is Bride and Mother. There is then
the face-to-face encounter in which the woman returns more than she receives, a
“something new.”4
Creation, the first speech of God, prompts man to respond with mystical
silence, as we have seen. But when the Word of God goes forth, in both Old and
New Testaments, it stimulates the “entire fullness and multiplicity of creaturely
speech to a thousandfold echo of the Word which has gone forth” reaching its
apogee in one word: “yes,” the word that “stands at the beginning of both Old
and New Testaments.”5
Bridging those Testaments, Mary, the New Eve, is the woman par
excellence who stands in the creaturely relation to God. In her, all the previous
faith scattered in pieces on earth is gathered in a perfect Jawort. Prepared in
body and spirit in her immaculate conception, she will show that the Word can
become not only spirit (as in the psalms) but flesh as well.6 She utters the
“Jawort of obedience” that Eve had refused.7
The “yes” that Mary says is uttered in her Fiat, her acquiescence to all that
will happen to her, and is her active cooperation to what God had been
preparing, the “descending grace that calls her, and the ascending grace in her
that answers the call.”8 In line with what we have seen of her character as
“eminent,” her “yes” is an answer beyond dialogue, an answer that shows that
the “best understanding of the Word can be realised in dedication and agreement
above the sphere of exchange of speech.”1 And so Mary’s answer corresponds to
the “zone of silence” that surrounds all the words of Jesus,2 and she is a
creaturely analogue to the divine Überwort.
Mary’s word “acting on behalf of all (stellvertretend)” and “grounding the
Church as the Bride of Christ” receives its power from the pre-redemption
(Vorerlösung) which Balthasar calls the “kenotic Jawort of the Son.”3 Yet
Balthasar is careful to note that Mary’s “yes” is quite different from the Trinity’s
decision for the kenosis: Gnosticism loses this distinction, making Mary, as
Sophia, the Fourth Hypostasis.4 God’s “yes” to man is Jesus in which God lets
man be man as other,5 a creature transformed in the perfect man, and this only
through a woman. The perfect surrender of Christ on the Cross evokes the
“perfect Jawort of the ‘Handmaid of the Lord’ (as fundamental stance of the
Church). . . .”6
That her “yes” will lead her to the foot of the Cross is crucial for Balthasar.
The very Annunciation is painful: Balthasar observes that at this “hour of the
birth of the Church” Mary experienced a total aloneness, one in which Plotinus’
“alone to the Alone” was never more true.7 The pain of her “yes” has a peculiar
role at the Cross: Mary “mediates between the unfaithful covenant partners of
Yahweh, who have joined up with the heathens, and the future partners, who
through the grace of the ‘slaughtered Lamb’ will come to faith.”8 As Jesus’
mother, the hardest thing asked of her is to assent to His sacrifice and, as mother
of all, to assent to “become the mother of all those responsible for this death.”9
Balthasar observes that the role of Mary on Calvary is figured even in
secular literature with its seemingly futile theme of the Liebestod: although each
dies alone, there is yet a common death (e.g., Romeo and Juliet). Jesus dies
physically while Mary dies spiritually, separated from Him by the mob: yet
“precisely here the mystery of the greatest fruitfulness of love between man and
woman is realized: where the Eucharist emerges (entspringt), the ecclesial womb
which receives it is formed.”1 Mary who had uttered an initial “yes” is wordless
on Calvary, but in her wordlessness she is “disponable to the new son John, and
thus for the Church.”2 In this moment, Mary is made the “personal centre of the
Church as ‘Bride’” for “her motherhood from the Holy Spirit carries the Church
potentially in it in a way similar to that in which Jesus as ‘Head’ in the Holy
Spirit . . . potentially carries the ‘body’ in Himself.”3
Elsewhere, Balthasar observes that Mary is not the Bride of the Father nor
the Bride of the Spirit, but, in and through the Church, she is the Bride of
Christ.4 On her own, she has no form: as Bride, she takes her form from the Son
alone, effected by the Holy Spirit, a form which is that of response
(Antwortgestalt).5 Thus at Calvary Mary is shown to be the center of the Church,
the Beloved Bride. Eastern Christian iconography in particular takes this theme
up, showing Mary in the center of the Apostles at Pentecost. Her physical
assumption into Heaven will only increase the desire of faithful hearts “for the
spiritual place where the union of bride and groom, the wedding of the Lamb . . .
is realised. . . .”6
We see Mary, then, as the perfect model of all contemplative hearing. Her
silent response transcends the duality of word and silence in an “eminent” way,
mirroring the tension between word and silence in the Trinity. Surpassing the
dichotomy of action and passivity, rendering contemplation active in her
fruitfulness, she incarnates the right relation of the Church to her Lord:
as it is exemplarily established in Mary’s Fiat mihi secundum Verbum: openness and
readiness for every sort of revelation that God may please, in every breadth and every depth,
with all the consequences for man that God might wish, up to abandonment on the Cross and
up to corporeal reception into Heaven.1

It is Mary’s “perfect act of faith in hearing the Word of God, which concludes
and summarises the ‘Daughter Zion’ and founds and introduces the ‘Bride-
Without the marian listener as other, identification looms large as an
erroneous mystical way. This remains the problem with the way of Meister
Eckhart who, when all is said and done, lacks a true sense of the analogy of
being. That is, his thought lacks a true potentia receptionis grounded in a
“secondary cause” that “is active in (passive) reception: in short the Marian
Principle is lacking,” and this in spite of the marian character of the indifference
which his school discovered. This then leads to an “identification” of the birth of
Christ in the soul with what goes on within the Trinity and eventually, “the
creature usurps the place of the Father Himself, the creature becomes the
begetting primordial ground (zeugender Urgrund), causa sui.”3 Typically,
Mary’s reaction to the words of the angel was not “empty speculation about
God” but rather reflection on how best to respond to the Word addressed.4 In this
contrast between the “empty speculators” and the simple, but fruitful, responders
lies much of Balthasar’s understanding of the different roles of the sexes in
creation and salvation. It is important to our understanding of the relation of God
and His creation that we explore this theme more thoroughly.

III. Sexuality: Eros and Agape

A. Male-Female
We have seen how Balthasar contrasts the manifold variety of God’s creation
with the void of speculative mysticisms. Even as he had remarked that
philosophy has too largely ignored the I-Thou relation, so he observes how little
philosophy has wondered about “the puzzle of human generation.”1 Interestingly
enough, the two very much go together: male and female are a “special and
incarnate” articulation of the I-Thou in Creation.2 Things themselves have a sort
of “gender” character for Balthasar: they are not merely “things.” Thus, writing
of how objects “recede” from the scientist’s grasp, he describes all living things
as being under a “coquettish wrapping.”3 Sexlessness, on the other hand, is
identified with the gnostic.4
All other mysticisms are, in the end, solitary—for them, “ecstasies don’t
happen for two, let alone for masses.”5 Christianity is unique in insisting on the
“other” in the heart of spirituality—Balthasar likes to recall Jesus’ saying
“whatever you did to the least of My brethren”—and sexuality is at the heart of
this “being other of the Other.”6 For the human being, the man-woman relation
has an ultimate flavour: the Bible rejects any “overcoming” the distinction in an
androgynous being or a “sexless primordial being.”7
Naturally, in his view of sex roles, Balthasar is aware of the classical
tradition based on the Aristotelian understanding of form (male) and matter
(female). But also aware of the findings of modern science which give the
mother an active role in the formation of the unborn child as well, he writes that
it is nature herself—“Mother Nature”—that is feminine toward God. However
active nature may be in producing, still, her very potency is something received.
In this, he sees the Church as a “final concretion of the general relation of
creature to God”8: “every creature relates to the filling (Erfüllenden) God
primarily in a feminine manner.”9 Thus, however active—and male—the
feminine may be within creation, as a whole, all of creation, and every creature,
is feminine in relation to God.
Man is male and female from the very beginning. Balthasar does not agree
with any theories of an originally a-sexual or bisexual (androgynous) human
being: rather, man is a “dual unity” in a bipolar reality,1 “two distinct, but
inseparable realities, each of which is the fullness of the other, both ordered to a
finally invisible unity.”2 There is no self-enclosed individual. Rather, humanity
has a “reciprocity of human centres of consciousness”—and the image of God is
most truly seen in the “reciprocity of man and woman.”3 The “other” for man is
based on this sexual difference which lets him glance into the profound depths of
wisdom, that which “stands at the root of the being of the species and is
grounded in eros” and yet which lets him “experience the eternally
inexhaustible, incomprehensible difference between spiritual person
(Geistperson) and spiritual person.”4 This mystery lasts forever, for however
much we may know “about the life and feelings of the other sex . . . we will
never know what it means to see and perceive the world from the perspective of
the other sex.”5
In terms of Scriptural anthropology, though Eve was taken out of Adam,
that means that Adam already had Eve (the feminine) within himself, and as
creature, of course, he himself is feminine to God. As taken from Adam, Eve has
the masculine in her. Both are feminine to God, and both have the active power
of response to God.6 She however will bear the whole child which the “seed can
only indicate” and as “helper, she accomplishes the entire work which he
simultaneously stimulates and orders.”7 As earlier noted, sexually, man is
monadic while the woman is diadic: she is oriented to being both bride and
Reflecting on Paradise, Balthasar feels that one must leave the question
open as to what an erotic yet non-sexual relation of man and woman was, for this
would point to the very center of the person and the “middle of the human is not
to be constructed from out of itself.”1 The pre-Christian world either locates the
sexual in the divinity itself—what Balthasar refers to as the hieros gamos—or
else it separates the divine from all that is cosmic and sexual, and it either
represses sexuality ascetically or condemns it as something “demonic.” And
“sometimes both extremes coincide, as in Gnosis.”2
Of the two sexes, Balthasar characterizes the male as inclined to longing
(Sehnsucht) and as being anti-institutional; the feminine as waiting/hoping for a
form.3 He sees the “radically masculine attitude towards the Absolute” in Faust,
of course.4 In Creation, Adam knew a longing for an other that nothing in nature
could satisfy until Eve was created.5 Although the male is granted a primacy, and
a superiority, he is dependent upon the woman for his fulfillment. Thus, in the
second account of Creation, Balthasar sees that man can recognize himself only
in the “gift of the Other” which is effected by God when man empties himself
(kenosis), i.e., when the rib is taken from his side.6 Moreover, the power of the
male to beget is nothing without the surrender (Hingabe) of the wife that “first
allows the man to be powerful in her, the woman.” All natural religion also relies
on man’s being so opened (Öffnung), without which one must rely on technique
(e.g., Zen).7
The woman in her turn is indeed created for the man, but it is “in the
sameness of the rank of the same free human nature. . . .”8 The woman is
primarily dialogical, oriented toward the male as his answer, oriented to the child
by her very nature as its “origin” and in this second connection, she herself
serves as the “call” (Anruf) to the child, the one who summons it to self-
awareness.9 As bride to the man and mother to the child, she is the “answering
‘face’ (Antlitz) and the principle of common fruitfulness, progeny.”10
Balthasar delights in a duet between Papageno and Pamina in The Magic
Flute (Mann und Weib, und Weib und Mann,/reichen an die Gottheit an), seeing
its link to Heaven as the openness that helps avoid the “egoism for two”
(Egoismus zu zweit).1 Without fruitfulness, the sacred male-female relation can
degenerate into such a shared egoism. Again, fruitfulness bears witness to the
mixed relation of active and passive. Theologically, if Heaven were completely
active and earth completely passive, we would have monophysitism and an
extreme doctrine of predestination. Instead, earth is enabled to bear fruit as its
response to God, and so the passivity is active: grace is what turns earth into the
“bearer of Heaven” (Himmelsgebärerin).2 The procreating love of man and
woman is oriented to a child in what Balthasar calls an “immanent
transcendence,” while it is oriented to God in a “transcending transcendence.”
Quoting Adrienne von Speyr, Balthasar notes that “without God the mutual love
of man and woman would have no more sense, it would immediately peter out.”3
The relation of man and woman was created by God “in view of Him
[Christ] and His Church.”4 Balthasar sees three basic tensions in man:
individual/society, man/woman, and body/soul. In his relation to the Church,
Christ gives them all a new value.5 The Incarnation itself is not removed from
human sexuality. Without the Incarnation and the Trinity, as we have seen, man
must either try to become God or posit an unbridgeable gap between himself and
God. He can try to bridge this gap by generation/sexuality, but the sexuality then
becomes depersonalized. Balthasar addresses Christ’s response to this human
situation unblushingly: it is “the eucharist of the pneumatic corporeality of the
Son that takes the place of sexuality. . . .”6
In the Incarnation God comes to earth as a male. This does not so much
point to the superiority of the male over the female— “although it belongs to his
role to liberate the woman, ‘to take’ a woman for himself ”—as it reflects the
superiority of God to creature: the fertility of the male stimulates the fertility in
the female, even as the earth is “potentially fruitful, but it requires the divine
seed to become so in reality.”1 The question for the male Christ is: can the Word
of God, this “male principle” as it were, form a feminine to take shape around it
in such a way “that she, herself originating in him and ‘led’ by God to Him at the
same time, be equal in birth to Him ‘as flesh from His flesh.’”2 So we come to
the doctrine of the Church. The profound mutuality of male and female in nature
carries over to the relation of Christ to His Church, but in Christ, it no longer
rests on the level of nature. Christ is feminine towards the Father, but in His
case, it is not as creature, but as Son.3
Within the Trinity itself, there is a unity of “doing and letting happen”
(Geschenlassen) that prefigures the action/contemplation tension in man. In the
world, this is translated into the two sexes. In the Trinity, the Father, the one who
begets with no begetter, is Himself the “super-male” while the Son, who receives
His Being—who “owes” (verdankt sich) His being—to the Father is the “super-
female.” Together, they are masculine in spirating the Spirit who receives His
being, again, as feminine. Moreover, insofar as the Father lets Himself be
determined by the ones He begets and spirates, He is feminine. Balthasar is
aware of the danger represented by the gnostic couples, the syzygies, which
people the pages of early Christian, anti-Gnostic texts. He does not want to lift
sexuality into the divine life, and so insists that the Trinity as precisely three
“prohibits a projection of the worldly-sexual in the divinity,” contenting himself
with pointing out that this two-sidedness of doing and “letting-happen” flows out
into action and contemplation which in turn are translated in the love which is
human sexuality.4 Perhaps the chief reason for Balthasar’s fear of the Gnostic
“coupling” within the divinity is that this often ignores the connection between
begetting and death, relegating the material world to a Sophia fallen out of
“fullness” who must be rescued by a male saviour—and lowering the dignity of
the feminine. Balthasar concedes that some of this thinking may form the
background to the famous teaching in Ephesians 5 which he uses very heavily,
but insists that “the distance between the two remains unbridgeable.”1
He is fully conscious and not uncritical of the teachings of the Fathers on
this subject. The “physical-spiritual being with and for each other of man and
woman” is something that the Fathers, the medievals all the way to the “men’s
club” moderns with their “hidden man-man eroticism of modernity” (Goethe,
Nietzsche) ignore: the “being-fellow-humans (Mitmenschlichkeit) becomes fully
incarnate-concrete in the difference and being-for-one-another of man and
woman.”2 Gregory of Nyssa saw sexual reproduction as a result of the Fall (into
animality); Balthasar wonders if Gregory and Maximus the Confessor did not
think of man as fully a-sexual in Eden.3 Balthasar himself seeks to steer a middle
course between the extremes of divinizing and bestializing sexuality.
Thus, Paul’s teaching about there being neither male nor female cannot be
taken in a sense that destroys the distinction between Creator and creature, nor
yet as a “making eternal of earthly sexes (as perhaps in the Gnostic syzygy
teaching).”4 Rather, it must be understood in light of the economic Trinity whose
form of appearance of the “absolute Trinity” is the “wedding feast of the Lamb”
(Hochzeit des Lammes).5 Here, virginity is key, virginity which we had seen as
the step between earthly marriage (blessed by God, sacramentally) and the
eschatological marriage: “at the wedding feast the law of virginity is the
ultimate.”6 Rather than denying or destroying the difference of the sexes, the
“incarnate Word is virginal in order to gather the difference between the sexes
along with all that it contains of humiliation and glory into eternal life.”7 One
thinks of the Son of Man come to fulfil not destroy, of that grace that carefully
builds upon nature, in the Catholic view.
In these matters, Balthasar is much intrigued by Vladimir Soloviev and his
writings on Sophia and the Church. Sophia is the “eternal feminine” (das ewig
Weibliche), Church and Mary,1 fruitful womb, “Bride and Spouse of the Lamb.”2
Soloviev is well know for the sober look he took at sexual eros and procreation
in which he concluded that sexual abstinence was “better by far” for one would
“be able to lift the sense of eros, purified by sexual abstinence and a transformed
sense, into true love. . . .”3 While avoiding Soloviev’s sophiological language,
the movement of purified sexuality which Soloviev advocated is very congenial
to the thought of Balthasar. This leads us to a consideration of the problem of
eros and agape.

B. Sexuality and Love, Eros and Agape

The condescending of Heaven to earth and the meeting of male and female are
themes which have at least implicitly accompanied us from the very start of our
investigation, where “ascent” and “descent” came rapidly to the fore. We have
seen that Balthasar clearly prefers the “descent” model, yet here as elsewhere, he
seems to opt for a third way, akin to the via eminentiæ which surpasses negative
and positive. Something of the sort seems to be at work in his treatment of eros
and agape. We have already seen that earthly marriage is surpassed by virginity
which is no mere ascetical purification but rather the door to the eschatological
marriage which combines virginity and marriage. It will help our understanding
of his nuanced view to take a look at the issue through the lens of an author to
whom Balthasar refers throughout his works.
Swedish Lutheran Bishop Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros4 is a sweeping
study in the history of Christian ideas. Although the study is rich, its theme is
remarkably simple: Jesus revealed the pure love of God as agape. In the early
Church, this was to confront the Hellenistic world’s understanding of love as
eros. The history of Christianity until Luther is the history of various blendings
of the two. Luther, picking up on St. Paul, returned the Christian idea of love to
its pure selflessness in his theology of the Cross. Some points that Nygren makes
commend themselves to our attention.
First of all, he equates eros with gnosis, which:
come to the same thing in the end. Eros is the soul’s longing and yearning to attain to the
blessed vision of the supersensible world and its beauty, while Gnosis is nothing other than
this “vision of God” itself. . . . Gnosis is egocentric, Agape theocentric.1

Gnosis, for Nygren, is “salvation technique,” and it is characterized by the

“symbol of the ladder.”2 The spirit of Eros on its heavenly journey—which is the
spirit of mysticism—is “a spirit akin to that of the heaven-storming Titans.”3 He
points out that Origen counsels the “gnostic” reader of Scripture to substitute the
word “eros” for “agape” whenever he comes across it.4 It is John the
Evangelist’s use of terms “which can easily strike a Hellenistic-Gnostic note”
which “creates a spiritual environment in which there would be at least some
points of contact for the otherwise alien Eros motif.”5
True Christian agape on the other hand “has nothing to do with desire and
longing . . . but consists in sacrifice and self-giving. And it bears this character
ultimately because its prototype is God’s own love”6 revealed on the Cross. It is
virtually blasphemous for the agape-Christian to speak of the “‘beauty’ of
God.”7 And so clearly the mystical interpretation of the Song of Songs is nothing
less than “disastrous.”8 Curiously, in spite of his rejection of the mystical
marriage tradition in favor of the nakedness of the Cross, Nygren acknowledges
that “it must not be forgotten that Passion-mysticism is at the same time Bride-
mysticism.”1 But mysticism of any sort is rejected.
Though much influenced by Paul, Augustine found a synthesis between the
two motifs which he called caritas. Because of this, Nygren insists that he and
Luther “are not principally on the same line.” Where Augustine created a
synthesis, “it is this very synthesis which Luther smashes to pieces.”2
In the Lutheran vein, the theme can easily be reduced to the controversy of
faith and works which provides the two magnetic poles around which Nygren
builds his argument. Although very provocative, the study is deeply
dissatisfying, as it ultimately insists on what seems to be a simplistic
reductionism. There is an insistence on a “purity” of intent which radically
rejects being human, and which rejects the human experience of love as in any
way analogous to the divine. The erotic—in the Platonic, mystical sense no less
than in the sexual—element is seen as damningly selfish, to be redeemed by a
Cross which is unremittingly harsh.3 Balthasar refers to this setting of ascent and
descent in total contradiction as the “fatal opposition of Nygren” which,
Balthasar maintains, Nygren himself eventually “transcended.”4 What was it
then that Balthasar made of this seeming contradiction? Let us take a look at his
view of the relation of eros and agape.
If Balthasar is far too nuanced to be satisfied with Nygren’s simple
polarity, he is also far too evangelical—and too much centered on the Cross—to
let the “hard love” of agape be consumed in a pastel-hued eros. Indeed,
Balthasar concedes that Nygren’s deep suspicion of eros may well be justified.
Balthasar sees a kernel of truth in Nygren’s insistence that it is impossible to
unite that eros which rises from man with that agape which descends from God:
“flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50). At his most
sober, Balthasar reminds the heaven-seeking Christian that “if even on earth eros
can be a great deceiver, who promises immortality and just as soon breaks his
vow, so will he be far less able to carry things that have belonged to this world
over beyond death.”1 It is here that he parts ways with Nygren: this does not lead
Balthasar to reject eros, but to insist that eros be purified.
Balthasar’s attitude toward eros is somewhat ambivalent. He is well aware
of its importance, not only in literature, but in human life: “The first fundamental
power is eros.”2 In nature, “eros is the chosen place of beauty.”3 He appeals for a
renewed eros in theology, maintaining that the “loss of the eroticism of the
Canticle and the æsthetic of the writings of Dionysius has had its widening
effects in theology,” a situation which can only be corrected by “heart power”
(Herzkraft).4 But eros, on the sexual level, means the inescapable bond between
generation and death: “the one who says Sexus says death as the entire order of
nature before and outside of paradise has known.”5 Insofar as eros, building on a
broad subhuman base (nature) is concerned only with generation, it is
problematic for it “dissolves” the “Thou” as a “fata morgana of the Absolute,”
but “insofar as the loving core of the individual is touched, it may last beyond
eros and it is often willed to do so, until it comes up against the tragic border of
the death of one of the lovers.”6
Eros is characterized by “the moment,” what Balthasar describes as the
“intoxicating moment.”7 Yet this moment, for him, must lead beyond, to produce
fruit: there must be a child of the lovers who if they refuse to give the race a
child, turn their relation into an “egoism-for-two” as we have seen.8 In itself,
then, eros is deceptive and unfree: it is a particularly good indication of the
“illusory character” (das Mayahafte) in the world, for one swears eternal love,
quite meaning it—but only at the moment.1
In Greece, Socrates saw eros as a great “daemon” that was neither God nor
man, but something in the middle.2 Something of this quality, this ambivalent if
not mysterious, air accompanies Balthasar’s treatment of eros throughout his
opus. For Socrates, eros desires to “beget in the beautiful” (Zeugen im Schönen)
as an answer to man’s desire for immortality.3 This desire for the other and for a
love which moves on to a third is present in Socrates whose model for relating to
“the divine, the beloved, the sought after” is in fact love between the sexes,
“which understands itself not only as pederastic transcendence, but rather as
fulfillment in the other through generation.”4 Though soberly questioning
whether pre-Christian eros, as in Plato, was truly inter-personal,5 he praises the
Greeks for the “unheard of breakthrough of their eros philosophy, in which it
dares to turn the model of mutual love to the relation with the Absolute” while
holding that this still required contact with Judaism for its fulfillment, something
which then flowered in Hellenistic religiosity.6
For Plotinus, there are three types of men called to know the higher beauty:
the erotic man, the musician and the philosopher—for how can one aspire to the
higher beauty unless one knows the lower, the earthly? But eros here does not so
much relate to the other as “Thou” as serve as a stimulus for the soul’s ascent,
something that will continue in the West: Rilke’s eros is “Platonic,” it lacks the
Thou who becomes merely an occasion that incites the soul to rise higher.7
Perhaps especially here, the poets fare better. In Homer, the “relation of
Odysseus to Athena is of a tenderness and reverence, . . . an affectionate
reverence, that remains unparalleled in extra-Christian poetry. . . .”1 Virgil is
even better, for he presents what is neither eros nor pure duty but rather a “form
of reverent love” which is characterized by one making himself obedient to God
(Füg dich dem Gott).2
If eros in the Greek world was aspiring to “the other,” and eventually to a
relation with God, the Biblical world has other mysteries. Full as it is of God, the
Bible then presents The Song of Songs in which eros is shown as “self-sufficient:
there is nowhere talk of God, which is all the more astounding, as the scenery for
the love is precisely the Holy Land.”3 This is further unique for earlier in
Scripture, eros was always either tied into generation or was the subject of
prophetic warnings of the “fearful punishment of the abuse of beauty given by
God.”4 Here, we find the love of man and woman praised in itself, without view
toward progeny. Balthasar sees in this a pointing to Christ and His Bride. In
Wisdom literature, the praying man “loves wisdom [Sophia] because she is
beautiful, but more deeply, because God himself loves her.”5 Recalling his
anthropology of the dyadic nature of the woman, we might also see here
Balthasar’s concern for the proper valuation of the woman in herself, and not
only as child-bearer.
Balthasar sees Christianity taking three great themes over from antiquity:
1. the egress and regress of the creature out of God; 2. “eros as the basic drive of
the transcending limited creature to God as the primordial One, primordial
Beauty”; and 3. “the theme of soulish-spiritual beauty . . . as reflection and
sensual image of a deeper, indestructible beauty.”6 In the linking of agape and
eros which occurred in Christian theology he sees the linking of the pagan
doctrine of the beauty of virtue in the soul with the Christian doctrine of the
justification of the soul. All will hinge for him on the concept of transfiguration
The Biblical eros-motif, interpreted in terms of Christ and the Bride (Church-Mary-Soul) led
at the same time into the heart of the uniquely Christian mysteries . . . and to the profoundest
justification of the spoliatio Ægyptiorum, (or by extension) Platonicorum. Put differently:
the glowing innermost part of the mystery of Christ is pure beauty, if it is true that all
revelation, all faith, all suffering and death issues forth and takes place for the sake of the
Marriage of the Lamb, where creaturely and Christian truth and goodness are transfigured
into eschatological beauty (Herrlichkeit).1

Thus, all the riches of the “Egyptians,” all the treasure of earthly wisdom and
beauty can be taken over into the Christian view if “transfigured.” This is seen
perhaps most clearly in Augustine, who was led to “the highest beauty, God” by
an enthusiasm that was Platonic as well as Christian.2 Whereas the philosophers
are left to pine in their unsatisfied eros, the Christian has an agape at the end of
His journey, and this promised love of God is “the organ note that sounds
steadily under the whole dizzying music of world time.”3 We note that it is not
an organ note that obliterates the rest of the music, but a perfection that sounds
under (or over) all. Rather than seeking to separate eros and agape, Balthasar
seems to rejoice in their marriage, though, we hasten to recall, without being
ignorant of the dangers of eros. He sees this throughout the writers of the
Catholic tradition, where the ascent and the descent tend to meet harmoniously.
Gregory the Great, along with Augustine, speaks of the “seeking in
finding” of the Bride for the Bridegroom which “remains characteristic of the
blessedness for men and angels.”4 For the Victorines, amor represents “the vital-
subjective side of the world harmony grounded in God”5 (Balthasar’s organ note
will be here recalled). For Bernard, as well as for the Victorines, “enthusiasm
and inspiration flow into each other” and so they “used the language of eros for
agape. . . .”1 In Dionysius, the “ecstasy of creaturely eros is itself an emulation
of the ecstatic divine eros, which because of love stepped out of itself into the
multiplicity of the world. . . .”2 Moreover, if one strikes out the Neo-Platonic
parts, one finds in Dionysius a substance that is “truly Biblical, a true Old and
New Testament theology of covenant, in which the eager and consuming love of
the divine bridegroom does his work in the bride, to lift her into the same
answering love.”3
In St. John of the Cross, the human eros which allows itself to be overcome
by the divine eros is itself already the “response” to “God’s work of grace.”4
Furthermore, in the Carmelite mystic, the Holy Spirit between Bride and
Bridegroom is the secret of the “common spirit of the Father and Son” and
represents the “awakening of Christ in the middle of the soul,” where the
Bridegroom is addressed as “Word-Bridegroom” (Wort-Bräutigam).5 Hence the
divine Word itself in the middle of the human soul represents the lifting of
human eros into the divine eros, something which would clearly be blasphemous
for Nygren.
Recalling Nygren’s harsh criticism of Ficino for equating eros and agape in
a Platonic friendship in which eros would overcome and destroy agape,
Balthasar observes that “it was already obvious to Plato and Plotinus that eros in
its highest development was seen as selfless, for it loved the good for the sake of
the good”6 and he portrays Ficino as teaching that “all true love means
essentially to die oneself (sich selber sterben), in order to live only in the
Beloved.”7 Poles apart from Nygren, Soloviev maintains that eros and agape are
not essentially different, for “Christian love is the stage of fulfillment of natural
eros.”8 Eros cooperates with agape, for it draws the man to the woman: under the
power of eros, one glimpses the divine in the other, one sees “the beloved as God
sees him” and can work for the realisation of this vision.1
Concluding our brief survey, the poet Claudel anticipates what we shall see
in our look at Dante: his glory it is to have presented “the painful transformation
of eros into pure agape” where, as in Dante, it is a woman who “drags an
unwillingly following man to the final blessed humiliations.”2 In Claudel the
transforming dynamic is seen in his play The Satin Slipper in which the hero “is
purified by night by a guardian angel in a burning purgatory from longing eros to
an abnegating agape that wants nothing other than what God wills.”3
As always it is the love of man and woman that remains focal for
Balthasar. In light of our concern for “uniqueness,” he finds that the
exclusiveness of human relations—this man, this woman—“incarnationally
represents the eternal uniqueness (je-Einmaligkeit) of personal encounter.”4 The
interpersonal, which as we have seen is at the heart of his theology, comes from
the “dialogical a priori” within man himself: it is best described in erotic terms,
although it is superior to physical eros, even as the human comes out of but
transcends the animal.5 He goes so far as to maintain that sexual union is perhaps
the only image of the intimacy of divine truth, “the act of the union of two
persons into one flesh and the result of this union: the child”—though of course
one must view this transcending the duration of time.6
It is marriage that supplies form to this union in a way which resists the
tendencies of the individuals to break away, which “resolutely confronts the
tendencies of existence towards dissolution” and it is the forge that forces the
persons “to grow above and out of themselves into real love.”7 In the world of
sexuality, there is always present the possibility of what Balthasar calls the “bad
infinity”: it is a compulsive drive common to both sexes which is this “moment
of bad infinity.”1 In the Christian world, the form of marriage, the discipline of
it, is seen as the contribution of the laity in making eros/sex translucent for
agape. Of course, this is only possible in light of the Incarnation and the
redemption of all flesh on the Cross.2 However elevated its goal, marriage, for
Balthasar, is nothing special: rather, it is legitimate as the normal will of God for
humanity.3 Aquinas writes of marital love as maxima amicitia. He writes of the
high value the Church places on marriage as a sacrament in which the Holy
Spirit “can transform the natural eros into an agape that comes from God,” an
agape that is the “primary sacrament of love between Christ and His Church.”4
Although there is a “spiritual fruitfulness” of those who renounce marriage and
serve the “spiritual body” of the Lord in virginity, and although the Church in the
Council of Trent spoke of the “superiority” of virginity to marriage, still the
Church “takes marriage under its wing” by “insisting on its sacramentality” as
over against the Reformers (i.e., Luther) for whom marriage was a “worldly
thing.”5 Marriage as a sacrament redeems eros from the melancholy to which it
is condemned outside of Christianity (in a pre-, non- or post-Christian world)6
and shows that “as the entire man, so also his eros is capable of salvation,” that
the very “covenant of God with man in Christ (and in the Church) bears an erotic
form, that the Platonic-Plotinian longing for God as the eternal beautiful must
and indeed can be justified in a Christian scheme.”7
After this intoxicating view of eros harmoniously cooperating with agape,
we enter now into the needed reflection on the difference between eros and
agape. There was always the danger, Balthasar concedes, that “metaphysical
eros” would remain dominant in any of the syntheses of the Catholic tradition
and that “the distinguishing caritas of Christ will be robbed of its power and its
salt.”1 Indeed, he sees this as the ongoing danger in the history of Christian
As we have seen, Claudel and Dante insist that Christian eros must pass
through a death “in order to become an agape than can stand before the judgment
of the eternal light.”2 This purification means the Cross. Even Goethe recognized
that “to love means to suffer.”3 Balthasar puts the right balance this way: all eros
is love this side of what is revealed on the Cross, which is agape, and which is
the measure of all other loves.4 Because this is so, eros must be “totally
transformed through agape.”5 Man is by no means limited to eros: there is also a
capacity for agape in man implanted by the Holy Spirit as response to the
descending agape of God.6 Yet eros is not something evil, something hostile to
God. Balthasar observes that with Luther, the whole world falls into Dante’s hell
except those for whom Christ died on the Cross: for Protestantism and
Jansenism, “the sinful world as a whole moves back out of the light of the divine
eros and falls into general damnation. . . .”7 It is not a question of eros or agape:
but of a correct, harmonious relation of the two.
It is on the Cross that eros and agape are seen in their right relation:
Thus the mysteries of the Song of Songs here shimmer through the mysteries of the
humiliation and the servitude unto the Cross, and the mysteries of the divine eros shimmer
through the mysteries of the divine agape. The metamorphosis of Jesus before His disciples
on the Mountain is the unveiling of the Bridegroom, as He is, before the eyes of the Church.
. . yet the Bridegroom reveals Himself physically naked only in the form of misery
(Elendsgestalt) on the Cross. . . . And only a glance like that of the virginal John would be
capable here of contemplating the two unveilings as one: the unveiling of the Song of Songs,
the physically becoming visible in the glow of eros—and the unveiling of the equally
physically suffering love of the triune God.1

It is not the case that eros is only earthly and agape is only divine: what
Balthasar is here saying is that the divine eros—that love between the persons of
the Blessed Trinity—in pouring itself out to the human eros for God takes the
form of what humanity calls agape. Put differently, for the human eros
(ascending) to correspond to, and to encounter the divine eros (descending),
what is needed is the love of God which as self-emptying is called kenosis, as
selfless is called agape.
This love of God is a fire which purifies human eros. He questions the
facile presumption of Christians that earthly relations/friendships will just
continue on the other side. Using the image of the “purifying fire” he notes that
what is “wood, hay and straw must be burned (1 Cor. 3:12) and what man can
maintain with confidence that his love is ‘gold, silver and precious stones?’”2 It
is worthy of note that in heaven the form of male and female remain even as
sexual relations will not—there will be fruitfulness, and this is a form of
“interpersonal fruitfulness” but it is virginity that is the true anticipatory form of
the “supersexual bridalness.” What remains in heaven of earthly love “is that of
heaven which has incarnated itself in it.”3 If the soul is bound for an
eschatological marriage, then the purifying fire is the narrow passage of
virginity, mediating the earthly sacrament of marriage and purifying it,
transforming it. It will be recalled that Balthasar holds that the important
discernment for the Christian is not between the good and evil spirits, as the
natural man can do this; the Christian must discern between what is of God and
what is of man: the key, and sign, to this discernment between eros and agape is
virginity, “virginity, which means the exclusive fixing of all the human powers
of love to the love of God becoming man.”4 We turn to the poet Dante to see
how Balthasar evaluated the efforts of this Christian bard of “the human powers
of love.”
Balthasar’s treatment of Dante is rich, and includes points of great
admiration as well as some considerable criticism. Here, we want to touch some
main points as Dante figures so considerably in the subject we are addressing.
At his best, Dante took the Platonic-Scholastic world view and in the
middle of it placed the love of man and woman, the eros which, purified by
agape, will lead through all the depths of hell to the throne of God.1 For him,
eros is the “divine kernel” in man, implanted by God. The “love that moves the
sun and the other stars” is hardly a matter of “principles of being” but rather of
“an existing being.”2 In his setting the “concrete, personal existant over the
Scholastic essentialist world-contemplation” Dante led the way in establishing
the primacy of the ethical over the metaphysical.3 His eros is in harmony with
ethics: “no ethics without eros and so without beauty, but so much the less a
beauty without ethics.”4
The personal finds its center in Beatrice who initiates Dante into the
Christian. Tempted to treat her as an idea, Dante overcomes this for the
contemplation of divine beauty is “in the nobility of the form, in the eye, the
mouth and speech, that reveal the cor gentile.”5 His relation to Beatrice is hardly
one of “æsthetic libertinism”: the ethical is so much to the fore that Balthasar
calls the Commedia a “penitential sermon” (Busspredigt).6
Dante’s Beatrice overcomes the classical Neo-Platonic divisions of
positive, negative and eminent theology. Noting “as Charles Williams has rightly
seen,” the principle here appears “that the Christian does not have to give up a
limited love for the sake of unlimited love, much rather he can positively
introduce the limited love in the unlimited.”7 It is this principle we have seen all
along, where Balthasar refuses an emptiness which is mere void, refuses to
sacrifice the individual for the sake of the Absolute. Here, the limited love of
man and woman is introduced into the divine love, which fills the cosmos. For
Dante, the “radiating Good is love in all without the all having to be denied for
the sake of the One.”1
Through Beatrice, the whole comedy is about the overcoming of the limits
of Dante’s earthly personality, his narrow “I” in order to be open to the “Thous”
and to the “Other.”2 Beatrice has a “purifying and saving power,” “only she
leads from eros to agape, or else it is that eros that purifies itself into agape.”3
She is that “anima ecclesiastica, that soul, whose experience and feelings,
thought and will have been taken up into the universality of the Bride of Christ,
the Bride of the Lamb, of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the community of all the
loving and the saints.”4
In the end, Balthasar is critical of Dante. First of all, he feels that Dante’s
apatheia in his treatment of the souls in hell goes even beyond that of Buddhists
who have a compassion which cannot bear to see any creature suffering and
being finally lost.5 This can be related to the other main criticism, that is, that
Dante has an underdeveloped Christology and Trinitarian understanding. Simply
put, Dante baptized classical eros, but in spite of his developed inter-personal
sense, through Beatrice, he did not attain to what Balthasar understands as
Trinitarian love. Both eros and agape are, in the end, subsumed under eros: all
reality is indeed flooded with a divine eros, but in the end, all he offers is “the
eros of antiquity vastly intensified in a Christian way.”6 It is perhaps the whole
issue of selflessness which suggests itself as that which is missing here. If Dante
encountered that other self who revealed to him his own self, and so was saved,
he did not attain to that vision of selflessness which is at the heart of the Trinity
and which, in Christ, poured itself out in abandonment on the Cross and
descended into the depths of hell, leaving no door unopened in His loving search
for the lost other. We conclude this section with a look at this selflessness.
In selflessness, the divine original and the human image meet. In God,
selflessness is not a negation of the person but a part of “the order of the
processions” that “constitutes the essence of God as absolute Love.”1 It is
selflessness that is at issue in the dialogue of East and West today, as we have
noticed before: selflessness in order to be rid of being an ego or selflessness in
order to love.2 Selflessness, for the Christian, is a love through death and
resurrection in that mission that creates him as a person: selflessness is that
dying and rising with the self-emptying God with whom one is in loving—
Everything about man is invited into this transfiguration. That includes the
erotic which is lifted up in Christ, taken into His incarnation, where it is purified.
To be “one flesh with the Lord” does not mean “virginity as contrasted with
Christian marriage, but the expropriation and impressing into service of the body
with all its powers—even eros—in the context of selfless Christian love.”4
The human mirrors the divine in a curious way. Man’s longing is an image
of God’s outpouring of self, and as such, it transcends eros for the longing of
man’s heart already bears within it the distinguishing feature of the Kenosis.5
This divine ray, this drive to giving of self, allows for agape to mediate the
divine and the human eros, meeting at the Cross. Yet behind this selflessness
Balthasar, following Augustine, is prepared to consider a divine self-love. In
Ephesians 5:23ff, one is admonished to love one’s wife as one’s own body, and
Christ is portrayed as husband to His Bride/Body Church. Might not the eros that
fills all things then be “the love, with which Christ tends and cares for the
Church as His own Flesh, a reflection of this eternal love, loving itself and
giving itself glory in all things?”6 Paul would seem to teach a self-love on the
human level that is higher than the “I-Thou” love of man and woman, pointing
above the Christ-Church, man-woman love to a “self-love above, where the
Thou-love (between Father and Son in the Spirit) is again gathered in a self love
of selfless eternal love.”1 No matter: as we have seen before, we must leave the
living mystery in a state of tension. The “self-love of selfless eternal love” is one
good way to describe the relation of the Bridegroom to His Body/Bride. It is this
that we will attempt to address in a final section.

IV. The Bridal Mystery

The core of Balthasar’s theology might well be contained in this statement: “the
encounter of (ascending) image and (descending) primordial image (Urbild)
leads to no identity, but rather to a connubiality (Hochzeitlichkeit). . . .”2
Summing up what we have been seeing in this chapter, let us explore a few key
aspects of this mystery.

A. Matthias Scheeben
It is to Scheeben that Balthasar owes his insight that the “marriage” is at the
heart of the Gospel message: Scheeben was right to treat the commercium of the
Incarnation “under the title of marriage (Vermählung).”3 In what reads like an
anticipation of his own life’s work, he writes thus of the connubium:
Here, in the Mysteries and in the Dogmatik Scheeben has reawakened the spirit of the great
Patristic-Scholastic tradition which alone can initiate a genuine conversation with the great
religions and philosophies of the world.4

Scheeben takes the “philosophical conceptual couple matter/form” and

transfigures it “into that of bride-bridegroom.”5 The theology of Scheeben is a
theology of the “divine eros that pulls humanity into itself” to fertilize it that it
may bear fruit.1 But the completion of this encounter, is “necessarily the
wordless” for in the end the connubium is “not the I-Thou but the flash of
coincidence (Zusammenfall).”2 Again, there is a “beyond” at work, a
transformation of the duality male/female, heaven/earth into something new, not
less but more than what “meets the eye.”

B. Bridegroom and the Beloved

In the early Church, there was a temptation to see only the “purely spiritual side
of human nature,” reflected in the male principle, as the image of God: this to
the loss of the female principle. The attempt to correct this miscarried in the
hieros gamos, the “sacred marriage” between heaven and earth, and to
“phantasies” like that of Sophia, or the Gnostic syzygies.3 Mistaken as these
attempts were, they pointed to the central mystery which theology needs to
articulate. The mythical marriage of heaven and earth, the Gnostic marriage of
the Soter and ecclesia realized in heaven which comes so close to the truth is
realized by Paul, who effects this purification by the Cross: “Paul takes this myth
and nails it to the Cross, thereby demythologising it.”4 Thus, the New Jerusalem
descends “as a bride for her wedding, but not for the wedding between heaven
and earth, but rather for the wedding with the Lamb, that dwelt and suffered on
earth, and that sits on the heavenly throne of God.”5 Yet the encounter of male
and female, which as we have seen is so vital in God’s Creation, and indeed of
ultimate reality, is not enough, “for it can capture neither the triune process nor
the difference between God and creature.”6 The truth requires that “blend of
Christology, Trinity and Church which lifts the basic form of human community,
the relation of man and woman, out of the generic into the personal, and more: to
a real ‘sacrament,’”7 something which cannot be found outside of the Bible.1
And, at the center of this work stands the Cross.
Scripturally, the image of marriage is most prominent, of course in the
prophets, especially in Hosea who not only casts down the Canaanite, mythical
sexuality of divine marriages, but reworking it, incorporates it “through the
revelation of a totally unsexual and yet entirely incarnate relation between
Yahweh-Husband and Israel-Bride. . . .”2 God’s tender love appears in the
deepest humiliation3: the foolishness of this love which chases a whore shows
the appearance of the “suprasexual divine love” and begins a work “that will not
stop again until Golgotha.”4
Balthasar admits that it remains questionable whether the Synoptic Jesus
used the image of connubiality applied to Himself, but He brought the image of
the marriage tie to a new depth in agapic love, viz. Matthew.5 It is the Fathers
who bring the marital mystery to greatest articulation, most notably Bernard, for
whom the traditional image of Bride as Church is expanded to include the
individual soul and Mary mediating the two.6 For Bonaventure, “spousal
theology and spirituality is omnipresent.”7 Bonaventure writes that the Cross is
“your wedding day” where both God and man meet in poverty in a “bridal kiss
on the Cross.”8
The Cross stands midway between bridal and maternal love, as the pains of
labour of a woman are midway between her “love for her husband and her love
for her child.”9 As the feminine suffering, the Passion, of one of the Blessed
Trinity, the Bridal Mystery joins the Trinity on the Cross, a Trinity that “in its
eternally Trinitarian mystery is itself mutually formed in an inner bridalness
(innerlich bräutlich).”10 And it is on the Cross that the Church, the new Eve,
issues from the side of Christ. The archetype of the marital relation of man and
woman “in transitory things” is “only great ‘because of the tie to Christ and to
the Church. . . .’”1

C. The Church: Pure Bride

If Israel could be imaged as the “Bride of Yahweh” she could hardly have been
thought of as His Body.2 The Church is Christ’s Bride insofar as she owes
(verdankt) her existence to Him as to her “Head.” As such, she is the feminine,
receptive “continuation and intensification of the relation of Israel to Yahweh.”3
She is an “answer” to His Word, that “part of humanity who factually answer to
the missioning call of God in Christ.”4 The Church is, however, also the Body of
Christ, His “extension.”5 Balthasar associates the Eucharist with the outpouring
of the Church on Calvary, for the Eucharist is both “deposit and pledge of the
eternal connubium,”6 in the Eucharist, Christ continues to “become
contemporary ever again to His Bride. . . .”7
As masculine, God Incarnate encounters “‘Daughter Zion’ in veiled
bridalness” and the new covenant instituted by Him will include from the outset
all of humanity, including “its feminine, maidenly Jawort in His work.”8 Yet is
precisely the Jawort of Mary that is the “inner principle” of the Church, without
which the “unstained Bride of Christ . . . would remain fixed at the level of the
synagogue.”9 Balthasar offers a lovely image for the relation of the early Church
to Israel: every bride, before her marriage, first listens to other older women and
to her mother, but then soon she is alone and she must listen to her own heart.10
The Church is primarily feminine: “the Church is already present in Mary
physically before it is organised in Peter.”1 The masculine elements in her, the
hierarchical, serve and help her to be herself, whose highest act “always remains
an act of feminine sacrifice, . . . of humble virginal readiness to follow and be
disponable” as a “feminine-contemplative spiritual womb.”2 Like Mary, the
Church receives the Word and returns an “active echo, that the power of the
Word has given her the power to utter.”3 It is this relation that is at the center of
the Faith: “there, where the Church is really the holy Body of Christ, which
obeys every direction of its Head, of Christ’s Holy Bride, which poses no
resistance to the demands and desires of the Bridegroom, there is Catholicism.”4
The union of Christ and His Church is a Word which
is fulfilled beyond all individual words in the stillness of being-for-each-other; as uttermost
expression (äusserste Äusserung) of God the mystery is at the same time innermost
innerness (innerste Innerung), even as the physical union of man and woman is not the place
for “conversation,” but rather for a mutually total expression, which in stillness speaks more
clearly than all individual words.5

This Church both issues from Christ’s fullness and is His fullness. Unlike
generation in human sexuality, Christ issues the Church from His own Body. The
New Eve re-created from the side of the New Adam, the Church is the “Other of
His very self, into whom He pours His fullness.”6 Christ condescends to need the
other, as man needs woman, yet He always remains a member of the “eternal,
unneedy Trinity.” And so, in what Balthasar calls an “unstoppable oscillation
between fullness and emptiness (Fülle und Leere)” there is “the appearance in
the incarnate Word of a still less graspable mystery of absolute love” and “in this
oscillation lies the possible completion of Christian experience.”7
As Christ is a scandalously unique person, so the Church shares in this
uniqueness.1 The unique relation of God to His Church reaches its concretion in
the “immaculately conceived Mother-Bride Mary.”2 This concretion is different
from the “horizontally coordinated” loves such as Dante and Beatrice, for the
“absolutely unique God relates to humanity as His Bride,” a uniqueness mirrored
in the indissolubility of marriage.3 Furthermore, a “glimmer of the divine
uniqueness” falls on every one who “encounters God in faith and in love” and
“in this glimmer the individual becomes a member of the only Bride, the
Church.”4 And, as sin is “uniquely” Christian, the saviour “puts His purple
mantel of love and of shame on His Bride and draws her distance into His
The Fathers had viewed Mary mostly as the Mother of Christ; in the
Middle Ages, this spilled over into Mary as Bride of Christ and so Mother of the
Church.6 Bride, Mother and source of His Body, Mary is the “primordial image
of the Church.”7 Pre-redeemed from His Cross, she is the primordial fruitful
hearer, the one chosen in virginal readiness to pass through the selflessness of
consenting to her Beloved’s death and so sharing in His death, in order to
become the mother of many. Mother Church, like Mary, teaches the child
language and how that language relates to reality. This rootedness in the
feminine is crucial for theology, for in woman herself man finds his very face.
Moreover, without the feminine—without the image—theology falls into the
absurd.8 The Church (and the soul) is the woman, darkly conceiving, darkly
nourishing and bearing she knows not yet what—with no masculine counter-
attempt to do what God has already done.9
Even as “the face-to-face meeting of man and woman is the foundation for
the possibility of such a face-to-face meeting of God and humanity,” in the
feminine Church humanity “receives a face for God.”1 The Son has created this
Church-Body for Himself, but we must look beyond, for in the end, it is the
“Word of the Father” and thus “Trinitarian love” that “is the single final form of
all God-human love and all interpersonal love.”2 In the end, it is the marriage of
Creator and creature alone that allows the reality of the creature to survive and
not be lost in a “Nirvana/identity”: it is the fulfillment of that blessed
“outpouring of self” other mysticisms had known, the transfiguration of all
limited being,3 purified and lifted up for the unveiling kiss of the Bridegroom.

As music serves as a frequent metaphor for Balthasar, perhaps we can compare
this chapter to that movement in which all the instruments are brought into play
in an allegro which includes and transforms the preceding movements. If in the
preceding chapter we had focused on the humanly interpersonal, and following
that thread had moved into the Blessed Trinity, in this chapter we expand our
vision, as it were, to include all Creation.
The I-Thou here became sexual and bridal. We have seen that Balthasar
uses gender imagery even for inanimate creation—how much more fertile is his
approach to living beings, to human beings. Earlier we had caricatured God-as-
Absolute as a grouchy grandfather who dislikes the noise of the younger
generation. Here, in the heart of the Catholic vision, God is the benevolent
Father who delights in beings, the person who loves a wedding and rejoices
when he hears that a child is coming.
We saw the love of God find, for companion, a lowly maid, fruit of a
nation schooled in bitter humiliation and poverty. Her silence and receptivity
invited Him to ask her to be the mother of His Son. She received His Word in the
stance of perfect indifference, a holy indifference in which she had only to
answer “yes” to all that would be, a “yes” that was really the spousal “I do,” with
all the richer and poorer, better and worse that that carries with it. She herself
had been formed from out of humanity, a new humanity to be re-created in her
who could hear more clearly than any other because her hearing was virginal,
fresh to receive the fresh imprint of the Word of the Beloved, free to respond
We saw something of the range of views concerning the love—and loves—
of heaven and earth. The God who created humanity in His image and likeness
in the first place created them as male and female, from the beginning. He did
this in a nuanced way, reminiscent perhaps of the Taoist interplay of the sexes,
where Adam preceded Eve, where Eve could be created from Adam only
because Adam already had Eve within him. Conversely, Adam was filled with
longing for an other who would satisfy him, for a face to encounter: in the face
of Eve Adam found himself, something he could not do otherwise. And Eve,
turning her face to Adam, would then also turn her face to the third that would
emerge from them, she, the mother, calling the child to awareness, to human
encounter in personhood. Woman supplies the answer to man’s word.
The longing of Adam for Eve, the desire of Eve for Adam—this is at the
heart of the mystery of the world. Sexuality could be divinized, and so become
an idol, a blasphemy to the God beyond sexuality. Sexuality could be
anathematized, treated as something diabolical, a denial of the nobility of
humanity. And sexuality, eros in its fleshly side, remains problematical, for it
means the world of generation and death. Marriage stabilizes, controls, this
raging fire, channels it for the good of humanity. But Christian marriage lifts it to
the level of a sacrament, an anticipation of what God Himself has in mind for
His Creation, purified of the world of impure desire and death. It serves as
earthly analogy of the eschatological marriage, to reach which it needs
purification in the cool fire of a virginal encounter with God.
We saw an attempt to build a vision exclusively on the moment of God’s
love for erotic humanity which is agape, pure self-giving love. But Nygren
reduces the symphony of Creation to the divine organ note underlying the rest,
he refuses the Creation its dignity, however wounded, impure—whorelike—the
creature-bride be. On the other hand, Dante’s poem resounds with that love
which fills the cosmos, but it is not yet sufficiently transformed by that other
love which will lead—and descend—to a Cross. It is this love of God that makes
a pure bride for Himself, “beginning” with Mary. She consents to be partner in
His new Creation, and so the whole music begins with her simple note.
The bridal symphony which fills creation must reach its peak, as Balthasar
says, in the one simple Jawort: “Yes, I do.” That peak is reached for Mary, and
for her Son, on the Cross, in which His Word is silenced in order to become
perfect, slumbering seed, sown into the cosmos in order to bear the rich harvest.
That narrow gate, that bridal moment, is the moment of agape between the
jungle of earthly, “erotic,” sounds, all bits and pieces, discordant yet redeemable,
of the primordial harmony, and the eros of Trinitarian love. The meeting is one
of selflessness, of outpouring, kenotic love, which, however, may be only
possible because there is a self to begin with, a self which loves itself and so
pours itself out. This is imaged in a fallen way in the man, whose narcissism is
transfigured in his love for his wife. With grace, she becomes loved as his body,
and the two become one. In Christ Jesus, the Bride issues from His own body by
no sexual generation, yet one that respects human genders. The New Eve, kept
immaculate by Christ from His Cross, has borne the New Adam—and she issues
from His side at Calvary in order to be the mother of all who will be brought to
His bridal embrace, taught the language of divine love by her who was His
mother and perfect Creation. Mary remains silent throughout, witness to the
virginal soul whose only desire is to listen and obey her Lord, whose one desire,
undistracted, is to please Him. She is the soul who can be imprinted with His
love, with His form, and so cooperate in His plan for the transformation of all
lesser loves through the one, silent love that centers on the single word “Yes.”
All are aligned, all find their harmony through that narrow gate, the musical bar
that makes beauty from an ocean of sounds. So we find ourselves in a
magnificently decorated baroque church. Clarion calls burst forth from myriad
angels, all being rejoices. At the center, there is a small Crucifix: and it is only
the center which opens to the eschatological marriage beyond, where Mary is
crowned Queen of Heaven and earth, an earth that struggles to align its loves
with the one love that is needed, that silent Word that underlies all the poetry of
creation and that elicits her “Yes.”

1. S1, p. 151.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., p. 150.
1. Suggestively, the film shows Morrison creating a film at the UCLA Film School which centers on
Adolf Hitler at the Nuremberg Rally. Morrison was also fascinated with Nietzsche’s reflections on power.
The only alternative to Morrison’s dionysian mysticism the film offers is the “clean” member of the band
who follows the ascetical way of Buddhist meditation.
2. Cf. Aldous Huxley’s book of this title from which the musical group took its name.
3. HTNB, p. 131.
4. TDHA, p. 336.
1. Ibid., p. 334.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., pp. 336–7.
4. WIEC, p. 38.
5. Ibid., p. 76.
6. NK, p. 91.
1. Collins German-English, English-German Dictionary, Peter Terrell, Veronika Schnorr, Wendy
V.A. Morris, Roland Breitsprecher eds. (Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991), p. 208.
2. Balthasar uses the same word to express reception (of a form) as well as conception; in English,
we shall use either word as the context warrants, though the reader is implored to keep the richly generative
connotation in mind.
3. THGE, p. 26.
4. HSG, p. 236.
5. Ibid., p. 542.
6. Ibid.
1. Ibid., p. 541.
2. Ibid.
3. HTNB, p. 359.
4. HFSK, p. 63.
5. Ibid., p. 279.
6. Ibid., p. 220.
7. HTNB, p. 359.
1. EPIL, p. 29.
2. HSG, p. 434.
3. TDPE, p. 498.
4. GIMF, p. 35.
5. Ibid.
1. HRMN, p. 407.
2. Ibid., p. 408.
3. Ibid., p. 970.
4. Ibid., p. 434.
5. Ibid., p. 436.
1. Ibid., p. 450.
2. Ibid., p. 409.
3. Ibid., p. 410.
4. Eckhart, Predigten 2, deutsch, Band 1, pp. 26ff., as cited in HRMN, p. 397.
5. HRMN, p. 398.
6. Eckhart, In John 1 n 177, L III 146, as cited in HRMN, p. 398.
7. Ibid., p. 402.
8. Ibid., p. 399.
1. Ibid., p. 409.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., p. 408.
4. Ibid., p. 409.
5. Ibid., p. 411. Our citation of Balthasar ends with a reference in which he directs the reader’s
attention to three books by de Lubac on Buddhism.
6. Ibid., p. 456.
1. Ibid.
2. Ibid., p. 457.
3. Ibid., pp. 465–6.
4. Ibid., p. 466.
5. Ibid.
1. Ibid., p. 412.
2. Ibid., p. 418.
3. GIMF, p. 163.
4. Ibid., p. 162.
5. S5, p. 292.
6. BG. p. 24.
1. GIMF, p. 274.
2. S5, p. 303.
3. BG, p. 72.
4. GIMF, p. 330.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid., p. 166.
7. S5, p. 296.
8. GIMF, p. 330.
9. CM, p. 20.
1. HSG, pp. 623ff. Elsewhere, Balthasar suggests that it is the historical critical approach that has
brought a similar process to bear on the Christian tradition. This may be one reason for his emphasis on
Mary and the Beatitudes rather than on a “theology of glory.”
2. WIEC, p. 77.
3. HTAB, p. 214.
4. WISY, p. 150.
1. HTAB, p. 208.
2. Ibid., p. 294.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. CSEF, p. 24.
6. Ibid., p. 25.
7. GIMF, p. 235.
1. TLWG, pp. 46–7.
2. CM, p. 55.
1. HSG, p. 517.
2. CM, p. 62.
3. HSG, p. 517.
4. HTNB, p. 453.
5. HSG, p. 328.
6. TDPC, p. 297.
1. CS, p. 161.
2. TDPC, p. 301.
3. HTNB, p. 57; NK, p. 121.
4. TDPC, p. 248, footnote 5.
5. HSG, p. 350.
6. CM, p. 58.
7. TDPC, p. 162.
8. HTNB, p. 57.
1. TDPC, p. 322–3.
2. HSG, p. 576.
1. S5, pp. 135–6.
2. GIMF, p. 329.
3. MFHE, p. 13.
4. S5, p. 136.
1. HSG, p. 516.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., p. 434.
4. THGE, p. 91.
5. NK, p. 131.
6. S4, p. 294.
7. BG, pp. 23–4.
8. MAHE, p. 275.
9. HFSK, p. 54.
1. BG, p. 74.
2. Ibid., p. 22.
3. S3, p. 164. Elsewhere, Balthasar maintains that discernment between good and evil is something
of which the “natural” man is capable. The Spirit is needed for the real discernment, that is, to distinguish
what is human from what is divine.
4. S1, p. 235.
5. TDPC, p. 256.
1. Ibid., p. 261.
2. CM, p. 68.
3. TDPC, p. 263.
4. Ibid.
5. S5, p. 276.
6. Ibid., p. 144.
7. TDPM, p. 133.
8. HSG, p. 350.
1. CM, p. 41.
2. Ibid.
3. HTNB, p. 201.
4. S4, p. 126.
5. HTNB, pp. 373–4. Interestingly, Virgil, whom we have seen is much admired by Balthasar, also
utters a Jawort which is his answer to the gentle “yes” of Being. HRMA, p. 236.
6. Ibid., p. 148.
7. S4, p. 256.
8. TDHA, p. 328.
9. Rene Laurentin, Marie, l’Eglise et le Sacerdoce, Vol. II (Paris: Lethielleux, 1953), p. 153, as cited
in TLGW, p. 289.
1. TDHA, p. 467.
2. S5, p. 145.
3. TLGW, p. 261.
4. S5, p. 142.
5. GIMF, p. 97.
6. BG, p. 253.
1. S3, p. 163.
2. GIMF, p. 94.
3. TDES, pp. 404–5.
4. BG, p. 171.
1. HRMN, p. 945.
2. HSG, p. 368.
3. TLWW, p. 86.
4. HFSL, p. 623.
5. S5, p. 20.
6. Ibid.
7. TDPC, p. 266.
8. NK, p. 122.
9. S4, p. 340.
1. TDPM, 335.
2. A. Frank-Duquesne, Creation et Procreation (Paris: Ed. de Minuit, 1951), pp. 42–46, as cited in
TDPM, p. 335.
3. GIMF, p. 229.
4. Ibid., p. 65.
5. TLWW, p. 93.
6. GIMF, p. 333.
7. Ibid.
1. TDPM, p. 350.
2. Ibid.
3. S4, p. 340.
4. Ibid.
5. GIMF, p. 105.
6. TDPM, p. 341.
7. GIMF, p. 226.
8. TDPC, p. 274.
9. Ibid., p. 269.
10. TDPC, p. 322.
1. S5, p. 122.
2. TDPM, p. 165.
3. S5, p. 122.
4. THGE, p. 50.
5. TDPC, pp. 19–20.
6. HTNB, p. 379.
1. S5, p. 134.
2. TDPM, p. 377.
3. GIMF, pp. 333–4.
4. TDES, pp. 79–80.
1. TDHA, p. 207.
2. HSG, p. 370.
3. TLWG, pp. 172–3.
4. GIMF, p. 335.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
1. HFSL, p. 659.
2. Ibid., p. 675.
3. Ibid., p. 685.
4. Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, tr. Philip S. Watson (London: SPCK, 1982).
1. Ibid., p. 143. The italics in this and the following citations from Nygren are all in the original.
2. Ibid., p. 297.
3. Ibid., p. 236.
4. Ibid., p. 389.
5. Ibid., p. 159.
6. Ibid., p. 236.
7. Ibid., pp. 223–4.
8. Ibid., p. 230.
1. Ibid., p. 663.
2. Ibid., p. 560.
3. One can only imagine Nygren’s shudder at a sentiment like that of Croce e delizia in La Traviata.
4. S5, p. 22.
1. TDES, p. 461.
2. TDHA, p. 98.
3. S4, p. 205.
4. S1, p. 132.
5. GIMF, p. 50.
6. TDHA, pp. 98–9.
7. Ibid., p. 99. The essence of this is captured in the phrase of Goethe’s he often cites: “Verweile
noch, Du bist so schön. . . .” One recalls Augustine’s prayer in the Confessions: “Lord make me chaste, but
not now.”
8. Ibid.
1. S4, p. 205.
2. HRMA, p. 173.
3. Ibid., p. 174.
4. Ibid., p. 175.
5. TDHA, p. 105.
6. HRMA, p. 176.
7. HRMN, pp. 757–8.
1. HRMA, p. 54.
2. Ibid., p. 231.
3. HTAB, p. 121.
4. Ibid., p. 125.
5. Ibid., p. 331.
6. HRMA, pp. 289–90.
1. Ibid., p. 290.
2. HFSK, p. 97.
3. GIMF, p. 36.
4. HRMA, p. 307.
5. Ibid., p. 320.
1. Ibid., p. 324.
2. HFSK, p. 208.
3. HSG, p. 115.
4. HFSL, p. 489.
5. Ibid., p. 502.
6. HRMN, pp. 598–9.
7. Ibid., p. 601.
8. HFSL, p. 710.
1. Ibid., pp. 712–3.
2. UA, p. 37.
3. HRMN, p. 628.
4. S4, p. 210.
5. Ibid., p. 207.
6. BG, p. 69.
7. HSG, p. 24.
1. S4, p. 341.
2. CS, p. 286.
3. Ibid., p. 343.
4. TLGW, pp. 317–8.
5. Ibid., p. 318.
6. HRMN, pp. 612–3.
7. Ibid., pp. 612–3.
1. HRMA, p. 26.
2. TDHA, p. 105.
3. HRMN, p. 704.
4. S3, p. 157.
5. TDES, p. 461.
6. S5, p. 28.
7. HFSL, p. 449.
1. HSG, p. 648.
2. TDHA, p. 105.
3. TDES, pp. 462–3.
4. S3, p. 164.
1. HFSK, p. 16.
2. HFSL, p. 389.
3. Ibid., p. 390.
4. Ibid., p. 461.
5. Ibid., p. 398.
6. Ibid., p. 461.
7. Ibid., p. 387.
1. Ibid., p. 425.
2. Ibid., p. 440.
3. Ibid., p. 392.
4. Ibid., p. 409.
5. Ibid., p. 447.
6. Ibid., p. 459.
1. S5, p. 101.
2. CUDW, p. 3.
3. S5, p. 107.
4. S4, p. 212.
5. S5, p. 30.
6. HTNB, p. 451.
1. Ibid.
2. TDPM, p. 302.
3. S1, p. 151.
4. Ibid.
5. HSG, p. 104.
1. Ibid., p. 109.
2. S1, p. 151.
3. TDPM, pp. 336–7.
4. HTNB, pp. 452.
5. TDHA, p. 41.
6. S4, p. 195.
7. HTNB, p. 443.
1. S5, p. 124.
2. HTAB, p. 24.
3. Ibid., p. 223.
4. Ibid., p. 227.
5. HTNB, p. 444.
6. HFSK, p. 269.
7. Ibid.
8. Bonaventure, Vit myst 2, 3 (viii 161b), as cited in HFSK, p. 357; p. 358.
9. TDES, p. 229.
10. HSG, p. 555.
1. TDES, pp. 443–4. Ref. to Eph. 5:32.
2. S2, p. 155.
3. NK, p. 120.
4. TDPC, p. 313.
5. Ibid., p. 390.
6. TDES, p. 439.
7. THGE, p. 74.
8. HTNB, p. 329.
9. CSEF, p. 66.
10. BG, p. 113.
1. MAHE, p. 276.
2. S2, p. 173.
3. CM, p. 68.
4. S4, p. 113.
5. CM, pp. 67–68.
6. GIMF, p. 332.
7. Ibid.
1. TDPC, p. 390.
2. GIMF, p. 211.
3. Ibid.
4. BG, p. 83.
5. THGE, p. 111.
6. TDPC, p. 298.
7. BG, p. 86.
8. HSG, p. 306.
9. THGE, pp. 89–90.
1. HTNB, p. 454.
2. Ibid.
3. S1, p. 150.
Prayer: Listening Rightly

C ontinuing the musical metaphor from our previous chapter, we enter the
final movements of our thesis on a reflective note after the opening of all
the organ stops in the previous two chapters. We turn to consider the effects of
Balthasar’s vision both in terms of prayer and the lives of the saints. Much of
what will be considered has already been encountered en passant: here it is
largely our task to tie together as it were the already scattered logoi that will
enflesh our theme, a theme which flows out of all we have considered so far. In
this chapter, we focus on prayer.
“Prayer is a conversation,”1 writes Balthasar at the beginning of his chief
work on contemplative prayer. This simple phrase clearly does not exhaust all
that could be said of prayer, but however one may define prayer, “it is certain
that it is also a dialogue with God.”2 That prayer is a conversation should come
as no surprise, for we have seen throughout that there are several persons
involved in this divine-human relation, beginning in the very life of the Trinity
Of course, it need not be viewed in this way. Where the Absolute is
“empty,” no speech is needed or desired. Indeed, to ascend to this Absolute, one
would have to leave the discursive mode entirely, perhaps to be plunged into an
experiential encounter, into non-verbal “seeing.” In an intermediate zone, one
might find oneself in a world of religious “monologue” where the one speaking
is, as it were, whistling in the dark, something consoling until one’s eyes become
accustomed to the dark. Or, viewed differently, one might in fact enter into what
seems to be a conversation only to discover that the conversation partner is, in
fact, only another part of himself. All of these are possibilities for humanity in its
attempts at relation with “the Other.”
Much depends on how one understands that Other (if there be an other at
all). Yet this is not to say that reality is defined solely by the lenses through
which humanity views it: both the presuppositions of the prayer and the
experience of the community of which he is a part seem to inform each other,
confirming, correcting.
Strictly speaking, it might be well to observe caution in using the word
“prayer.” If prayer is a conversation, then what a Christian might facilely call
prayer in another, non-personal tradition cannot be considered such. Meditation,
yes, perhaps contemplation: but not really prayer. It is one of the great paradoxes
of Christianity that it is the child who is held up as model. Though the child
might be a “natural contemplative,” pulsingly alive to the wonder of being, the
child’s prayer as prayer is more than its natural contemplative gaze: it is a
simple, trusting entry into a relationship with a loving “Other.” In this sense,
prayer, simple, childlike, trusting prayer, is a marvel of simplicity which
surpasses the adult training grounds of meditation and contemplation.
The conversation which is Christian prayer, then, is at the center of our
chapter. First we will investigate what it means to listen correctly, what the role
of the Word is in the prayer of the Christian. Then we will look more deeply at
some aspects of the spirit of Christian prayer, the qualities which are required of
the human partner in the divine conversation. Finally, we shall look at
Balthasar’s assessment of some of the non-Christian forms of meditation which
have had so powerful an impact on the contemporary Church.
Balthasar is, from first to last, Ignatian in his understanding of prayer. To
begin our investigation, it might not be amiss to present a prayerful reflection
with which he concludes the section “Gebet um den Geist” in Spiritus Creator, a
statement of his understanding of human nature placed in the form of the
The religion and longing of all peoples finally comes to this: to get beyond one’s own
longings. And yet we do not want to say that this longing, this thirst for the Absolute, is
nothing, for it has been implanted in us by You. Only You in Your triune love can bring us
the solution: we ourselves must surrender, in order to be confirmed by You in Your love.
From the very beginning we were a gift, that You have made to us; we give everything back
to You, dispose of it according to You will alone; give us only Your love and grace, for that
is what surpasses all our longings, and thus it is enough.1

Let us turn then to our exploration of that prayer in which man’s longing is met
by the “solution” that God has planned for it.

I. Listening to the Word

Much has already been said about the Word nature of God’s revelation, most
visibly seen in the great receiver of God’s seed-Word, Mary. Here, we seek to
understand more deeply the dialogical relation between God and man in prayer.
It is indispensable to recall what Balthasar says about the Word-Character of the
Biblical God and what this means for Christianity in relation to other traditions:
“everything is decided by the question of whether God has spoken to man—
about Himself, of course, and then about His intention in creating man and his
world—or whether the Absolute remains silence beyond all earthly words.”2
With this in mind, let us first consider three aspects of the relation with the God
Who has spoken.

A. Parrhesia: Uttered Ineffability

Perhaps the single most important consequence of the Incarnation for humanity,
in Balthasar’s eyes, is the direct access which man now has to God because God
has become man in Christ. This is likely the first and last thing to be said of
Christian prayer as well, the entry point into an understanding of its nature and
dynamic, of what it is and what it is not. This direct access, “Parrhesia,”3 is a
note sounded boldly throughout the Balthasarian corpus. In a characteristic twist,
Balthasar observes that both Christian and non-Christian religions agree that
God is ineffable but the Christian then goes on to say that this God has expressed
Himself: the ineffable God is Himself Word.1 It will be recalled that this is a
point of crucial importance for a theologian who wages war against any who
maintain that there is a godhead “hidden” behind the God Who has revealed
Himself—definitively and fully—in Christ.
Balthasar sees etymological links between “Parrhesia” and the words
“Parousia” and “Epiphany”—as well as with “Doxa,” all of them indicating “the
becoming obvious of the wonder of the divine being and doing which were once
concealed (in the hiddenness of the Father and the slave form of the Son).”2 This
becoming manifest of God has repercussions for the praying Christian. As we
shall see a bit later, St. Augustine recommends the Christian turn within,
silencing the worldly words, in order to be able to move up and out to God.
Although this has much to commend itself and contains a truth that Balthasar
will praise and upon which he will even insist, still this first step within
represents an “ante-chamber” which Balthasar resists. Balthasar suspects that
this chamber, the place of self-recollection, although a jumping off place for
Christian contemplation in Augustine, becomes itself the resting place for non-
Christian contemplators who do not move on to an encounter with God. Because
of the Parrhesia, Balthasar insists that: “The fullness of God is accessible
without ante-chambers, it requires no far journey ‘up to Heaven’, no sinking
(Versenkung) ‘in the Void below’” that, as Scripture teaches, “the Word of God
addressed to me is not ‘above my ability and unreachable’, but rather ‘very
close, in your mouth and in your heart’ (Dt. 30:11–14).”3
The ante-chamber motif also leads Balthasar to contrast the attitude of the
Christian to God as one of filial and fraternal relation, rather than the stance of a
subject to his monarch. Thus, the Christian is privileged with the possibility of
“childlike behaviour with the Father” and this because the “door is open, and
wherever there is a child of God, there is also the open door.” This open door is
not the heart of man “but Christ.”1 Christ has opened the way through the heart
objectively by His Incarnation and has opened the way subjectively by the
“dizzying” gift to man of a “good conscience.”2 Prayer, then, is “walking this
open way through the heart. . . . It is based on the knowledge that one speaks
into the open, hearing ear of God.”3
Elsewhere, we find that: “The Son is the openness of the Truth of the
Father.”4 The relation between Heaven and earth is characterized by openness in
its bridal character: “The open heaven is the eternal Son of the Father sent to
earth, who wants to lead the creation of the Father home as the bridegroom does
his bride,” and the corresponding openness of earth “is the will of the Bride to
dispose herself to the love of her Lord . . . to take seriously the words ‘on earth
as it is in Heaven.’”5
Yet for all the dazzling truth of the Parrhesia of God in the Incarnate
Bridegroom Christ, there remains the fact that we do not yet fully see Him, but
rather, in Paul’s famous phrase, we see as “in a mirror dimly.” Balthasar says
that this is so not because the face of Christ is a cover over the face of God, but
“rather because our eye can only learn to recognise things ‘piece by piece’ and
because it has not yet grown used to being viewed by God.”6 Thus, any
hiddenness that we experience does not occur because of an absconding deity,
but rather because we only come to perceive a face piece by piece. We have been
fully seen in Christ, as it were, and if we do not yet fully see the face of God, it
may be, because we have not yet fully recognized the face of Christ in what
Balthasar calls the “sacrament of the neighbor.” No matter: objectively the veil
has been torn; now what seems to be required, subjectively, is Balthasar’s
supreme virtue of patience.
Finally, in terms of Christian contemplation, the question will arise as to
how explicitly Christian one’s contemplation must be. Balthasar resists what he
calls “positivism” throughout, and the sort of narrow-minded, fearful, even
magical invocation of Christian vocables that one associates with Christian
sectarianism is far from him. Although he insists on Christ as the way to the
Father—indeed the only way, as in John, and so “the contemplation of the Son
remains the ontological context in which all contemplation of the Christian
which is acceptable to God realises itself ”—still “not every contemplation need
begin with Christ as object of contemplation” but rather “it belongs to the
freedom of the children of God to gain access to all the goods of God directly.”1
It is important to bear this in mind, for Balthasar will place no limits on the
power of God to speak to—and with—His children “directly” even as he can
never forget the objective, “ontological” presence of Christ as the “door”
through which this divine-human encounter will occur, explicitly or not.

B. Listening: Hearing–Seeing
It will be recalled that Balthasar describes man himself as “that being that is
created as hearer of the Word and that comes to his own dignity in his answer to
the Word.”2 Of course, it is “not to himself nor to the voice of his longing that
man is supposed to listen, but to the Word of God.”3 Since the coming of Christ,
one no longer listens to the whirl of words at the periphery of experience: rather,
one listens now from the Center, from the Word, in which all the dispersed logoi
spermatikoi are drawn as to a magnet.4 Indeed, we can hear God’s Word
“because we are in God’s Word [Who] . . . takes us up in Himself and gives us
Himself as our form of existence.”5 It is now man’s task to become a “hearer of
the Word” and as such to hear the many words in and through the one Word,
Yet at the very outset of our reflection on hearing we encounter a
paradoxical tension. If Balthasar seems to emphasize hearing, it is not as if
hearing were univocal in meaning. There are two sides to this coin, seeming
contradictories which yet must live in tension. That is, baldly put, hearing is
hearing and hearing is more than and indeed other than hearing, a name for
obedient perception which includes vision.
The meaning of the first is obvious. As such, the Christian is to listen to
God’s Word in Scripture and in his life as the Spirit teaches. Moreover, a
response is required of this having heard the Word. To really “hear” one must
also answer—and this answer must be personal. It is not enough for the Holy
Spirit to pray in one: one must pray oneself.1 This leads of course to the whole
question of the response, the Antwort to God’s Word. Balthasar notes that
Abraham supplies the best example of hearing and response, where hearing
God’s Word means letting it become effective in the hearer. The Word of God
wants to convey a blessing, but this can only be realized in obedience.2 Much
has already been written of Mary as hearer of the Word. Here it will suffice to
recall that “the hearing person pure and simple is the Virgin, who becomes
pregnant with the Word and gives birth to it as her and the Father’s Son.”3 The
listening demanded of man then is total: as God is present to man “corporeally”
so He demands from man a “corporeal” response: He calls on “man in his entire
existence as hearer and answerer of the Word.”4 But it is precisely this
wholeness of attention that must lead us beyond the simple category of
In the second sense, we approach the wider aspect of the truth by observing
that hearing is a corporeal sense that opens onto a spiritual sense and
encompassing both is the presence of the whole person. Put differently, when we
speak of hearing, it is faith first of all of which we speak. Thus, “faith is the
organ of hearing”5 and “believing and hearing the Word of God is one and the
same.”1 And—here the paradox—this hearing is intimately interwoven with
seeing throughout.
There is a dimension of hearing God that can be called seeing, and this
rests on being seen by God.2 In the Incarnation, seeing does not exclude hearing:
for John, “knowledge” includes both seeing and hearing.3 Indeed, Balthasar
describes the Word as “audible-visible” (hörbarsichtbares Wort).4 Balthasar
speaks of a “light-word” (Lichtwort): from the light sounds the voice that calls
the individual by his name.5 Commenting on the Johannine text “Who has seen
me, has seen the Father” Balthasar coyly observes: “seen but with the listening
eye and the beholding ear.”6 We can also recall the descriptions of Creation as a
“speech” that must be “heard.”7
Yet hearing has a dignity peculiarly its own, and Balthasar strongly urges
that hearing is not just a prelude to seeing, as the tradition had maintained until
St. Ignatius Loyola. Rather, the fact that God speaks to us in His Word includes
us in His Trinitarian dialogue and this is indeed the greatest sign of our dignity.8
It is an academic commonplace that classical Greece was a culture of
seeing whereas Israel was one of hearing. Balthasar does not deny this, seeing in
Biblical hearing a personal tie to the Word which he contrasts with Greek
contemplation.9 Culturally, this has meant that the Eastern Church has tended to
be Johannine, a church of vision, while the West has been Synoptic, Pauline, a
church of hearing.10 Each of Christianity’s two branches has tended to absolutize
one sense over the other, and so to fall into its characteristic heresy. For the East,
Theosis, divinisation, is . . . the final goal of Eastern Christendom, because it is the final aim
of pure vision. Therefore the East aims at mystical and supernatural identity, and
Monophysitism is the heresy proper to the East. . . . The Eastern Church became heretical
because it abandoned itself to the absolutising of the inner dynamic of vision, which in its
impetus basically comes from identity with God and world-denial. . . . Only where this
impetus to identity remains innerly tied to the form of a lasting, opposing distance, that is,
where the foundational form of creatureliness and with it a spiritual place of hearing is
preserved, only there does the eastern form of Christian piety remain a form not to be lost
(unverlierbar) in the realm of the Church.1

Thus, the Eastern Church, Church of vision, can fall into heresy where it loses its
bond with that creaturely distance which is required for correct hearing. The
Church of vision and divinization must fit into a universal Church which is
“oriented toward hearing and oriented toward the world because of the mission
of the Word.”2 At the same time, the Western Church has its own temptations.
Being the Church of hearing, it is tempted to pure immanentism, to an activism
of pure activity, it is a Church that can become so immersed in the world that it
forgets “the mission itself and the hearing,” becoming “prisoners of this world to
which we should have announced the word.”3 This is the “immanentism of
Not surprisingly, then, in the final analysis, the “Christian revelation is not
primarily a revelation of seeing, but rather one of hearing.”5 In this age, we are
more hearers than seers of the Word, for the Word purifies us and we wrestle
with it—it thus seems to come from outside us, hence the importance of the
distance. Seeing is more an anticipation of things to come (yet even so, in
Heaven we will still be God’s “listeners” as well as seers).6 Hearing represents
the eschatological element in Christian contemplation which is no timeless
“sinking (Versenkung) in the presence of eternity.” Were the Christian to so
“sink,” he would lose that watchful waiting for the Word which came in the
“middle of time.”1 The Church does not repose in the vision of Tabor, but moves
on in patient obedience to the will of God. As if to underscore the hearing-seeing
polarity of the one reality, where hearing is dominant, Balthasar observes that in
the Apocalypse, the One on the throne is not visible, even for those in Heaven:
but His voice is audible.2
Once again, the Word of God is a living Being, no static sun of the
Enlightenment to be contemplated apart from response. Man cannot divine the
will of God, reasoning to it from nature: rather, because God is sovereignly free,
one must keep listening to know His will in this prayer time, in this hour.3 Yet
ever careful to keep a balance, Balthasar, though willing to give the listening
West the “edge” over the seeing East, does so only in a sense of balance of two
sides of one coin, two aspects of one reality, each of which has its dignity and
runs its dangers (not unlike the theology of the sexes we have already studied).
Thus, eschatologically oriented, responding to the Word she has heard by serving
the world, the Church “should continue to shelter and develop the great
contemplative tradition of the Christian East in her and thus also grant room in
her for a human treasure that threatens to disappear in contemporary Asia.”4 This
contemplative tradition is not a natural contemplation with a “Christian mantle
thrown over it” but rather a part of the Christian tradition itself, in which “the
Church keeps watch on the mountains of the world for the promised eternity.”5
Returning to the stance of the listening Christian, we see that there is
something the Christian can do to prepare himself for prayer, Parrhesia and
childlikeness notwithstanding. Again, it is the paradox that with the openness
there is always a distance between creature and Creator. And so, one prepares
oneself for the encounter with God as if one “were waiting for an audience with
a king or with the Pope.” The attitude is one of “receptivity of the divine
presence” in which one prepares oneself to hear things from God that are
unexpected, to be prepared for “what God wants to say to me and that which I
certainly do not know.”1 One will encounter an “other” as Adrienne von Speyr
writes: “Every act of adoration (Anbetung) has as its primary ground the being
other of the Other. Adoration would not be possible in simply being one.”2 Here
as always, identity, though seemingly the satisfaction of vision, loses that
distance which is required for the dominant element of obedient listening, ready
to hear and do the will of the God who speaks. Once again, it is man’s ability to
hear and to respond generously (Jawort)—that is the basis of prayer.3

C. Word and Contemplation

It is, then, the Word that is at the center of the Christian’s contemplation—
indeed, it is in the Word that the Christian prays. Describing his book on prayer,
Balthasar observes that “no introduction to such prayer would be possible if it
were merely ascetical or spiritual”: instead, he had to give the book “a truly
Biblical foundation in the act of hearing the divine Word.”4 Moreover, he
attributes the main source not to the Fathers, but to the Scriptural commentaries
of Adrienne von Speyr with her unique ability to hear and contemplate “the
Word of God of the Old and New Testaments.”5
Although prayer is a conversation, it remains always a conversation
between two partners who remain unequal, where “God’s Word takes the lead
and in which we cannot be anything else but listeners at the beginning. . . .”6
Hence, the importance of listening and listening correctly. It is the
“contemplation of Scripture” that is “the school of correct hearing and hearing is
the source of all Christian life and prayer.”1 Again, “genuine Christian
contemplation is rooted in the Biblical hearing of the Word of God.”2
Now the Word of God is incarnate in Jesus, Himself the “praying Word.”3
Indeed, Jesus “must experience in His human nature how a man gets along with
God” and Jesus becomes Himself the “way that leads into Christian prayer.”4 If
we must be attentive to the Word of God, then it is a Word that is at the heart of
God and that God has given to us: “This is My beloved Son, you should listen to
Him!”5 Jesus is the Word that “satisfies the hungering soul.”6 Christ is the Word
that gathers all the words of Scripture and all the words of Creation and
humanity together in one Person.7 Everything finds its focus in the person of
Christ. For the Christian then there is really no need to turn away from
multiplicity or the worldly in order to turn to the One,8 for in the One Person
Jesus Christ all the scattered bits of reality are drawn as through the center of an
We might begin to contrast this with the hunger of natural man for
recollection. The prayer of natural man tends toward “unity, recollection,
contemplation (Versenkung)” while Christ has come from Heaven bringing
treasures of all sorts, all within the living limits of form. Catholicism as a
praying tradition is so rich and yet so concentrated on that form, that it serves as
a sort of “barbed wire” for the contemplative who would dissolve the limited
form for a flight to the unlimited.9 It is as if the contemplative naturally wanted
to disappear in the beauty of a Zen garden, to float away on the sound of the
shakuhachi, and instead God presents Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, a riot of
sound richly blended in a unifying harmony.
That man cannot float away in prayer is at the heart of the Biblical
message: God’s Word comes to confront man, and confront him in his concrete,
incarnate situation. One cannot avoid this confrontation which means being
judged by God’s Word, and this takes place in the encounter between two
people. Balthasar wants to avoid at all costs the flight into some sort of “concept
of God” that leads to reflections, reasonings about “the order of the world and
existence.” Rather, one must be encountered by the judging Word of God in an
interpersonal way: “in love from person to person, from divine and thus judging
person to human and sinful and therefore judged person, can the human truly be
obedient to the judgment of the Word.”1 To avoid encountering the Word
Incarnate who is God Himself in humanly accessible form, to flee the face-to-
face meeting for some abstract generalisations is “disobedience.”2
The “vague” and “fuzzy” quality that Balthasar associates with non-
Christian meditation is directly contrasted by the Word of God which is always
“exact.”3 The God who speaks to man in history does not exist, for man, “in any
other way than as a unique, historical being”4 and so in the meditation of the
Christian, Christ does not make Himself present as “a general omnipresence of
God,” but rather lets His presence be known “precisely in this word, this gesture
or this attitude.”5 This is contrasted to the natural contemplation which is “a
looking up at the Absolute, as detached as possible from all connections with the
world.”6 God remains Other, ineffable, infinite, in short, divine: but God has
revealed Himself to the world in the man Jesus Christ, and every event,
everything about the man Jesus is a window to that “Other.” Indeed, in Him, the
divine and the human meet in human time in a way which allows humanity to
contemplate and contemplating to transcend the limits of creaturehood while
always respecting the limits of creaturehood. Echoing St. Teresa of Avila in
particular, Balthasar insists that “we can no more leave the humanity of the Lord
behind us in our contemplation than we can the Word in human form.”7 One
contemplates the incarnate Word and thus shares in “the language of the
humiliated flesh,” something Balthasar faults the Alexandrines for evading in
their excessive use of analogy that strayed too far from the words of the text.1
Moreover, the Gospel world is not “sublimely mystical” but rather one of
everyday human relations, and precisely as such it lets the “purity of God” shine
through.2 For Balthasar, the image of the ladder of contemplation with its
overtones of the “Ascent” (Aufstieg) is generally a negative one, yet insofar as he
uses it he writes that the “heavenly ladder of contemplation begins with the
Word of Scripture, and no rung leads above the hearing of the Word.”3
Although the Word is uttered from the timeless beyond, Christian
contemplation is no study of a work of art, no gaping at a drama unfolding, but
rather it is the involvement of the one praying in the very drama that is
unfolding. So the Christian is inserted in the mysteries themselves and knows the
wonder “of one who himself stands in the middle of the drama of God and
shares in a role.”4 This is so of course because the one who prays in the Biblical
tradition though led to meditating “the inexhaustible divine depths” can never
leave the incarnate situation in which God has addressed him as “His covenantal
partner, here and now.”5
Lest this notion of prayer as judgment strike an unduly gloomy note, the
interplay of word and silence in Christian prayer brings out the rhapsodic in
Our best prayer is a being-taken-into the speaking silence and silent speaking of Heaven,
yes, of God Himself. . . . Prayer is like a kiss and like the resonance (Nachklingen) of the
kiss and the anticipatory joy at the coming kiss. . . . Spoken prayer has its rest in
contemplative prayer and vice versa. And all of prayer is a Being and a Becoming. It is
always word and answer.6

The “judgment” which the Word makes of man in his situation is an invitation to
an answer which continues the prayerful dialogue.
It is the Spirit of God that leads the praying man into a space far deeper
than anything human, the space between the Father and the Son, the Spirit that
leads beyond words to the Word, to the “Super-Word” (Überwort) that is Christ.1
The danger for the hearer of the Word is to lose the “word of prayer” and thus to
lose his way, absolutizing a word without its divine depths and thus being left
with a “philosophical logic or philology.”2 The Word loses its prayer character,
interestingly, when it loses respect for the ineffability of God.3 This difficult
balance should cause no surprise in a religion which wants to take the world
seriously while trying to love and serve the world in the light of the Creator.
It is in the initial encounter of the creature and Creator that negative
theology has its value. The Super-word which is Christ summons the response of
a Super-word by man, but though this is dialogical, it is not a “dialogical
equality of value” but rather is “the transformation of the entire creature into an
ecce ancilla” for the outpouring love of God.4
Man is created ready to hear the Word of God: he is a “tabernacle” for the
Word, “built around a sacred mystery.”5 On the anthropological level, this
corresponds to the teaching of the Parrhesia. Man does not have to create some
prayer space—does not have to fly in ecstasy or to silence himself (unduly). It is
true that the sacred space at the center of man has become a “junk room” that
needs to be cleared and the way to clear it is contemplative prayer. One turns
inward and then outward to the “highest Thou.” God is already present in one as
one’s “deepest self ‘more inner to me than I am to myself.’” Yet this deepest self
is first and foremost the other “Thou.”6 And so it is God’s prerogative to purify
and order “what He has already created, that dwelling place in the heart of each
person, created in order to hear the Word of God.”1 Thus, the Christian does seek
to still himself, but in order to hear the Word of God. And even so, Balthasar
puts little value in this sort of inner-silencing, as Jesus tells us that as the little
ones have their angels always before the Father’s face, so the Christian is already
present to God. Hence, “as preparation for meditation there is needed no long
psychological volte-face, but rather the short realisation in faith of where our
true centre and emphasis has already been and is.”2 It is the Word that gathers all
the scattered (and noisy) words, reducing them to a speaking silence and a silent
speaking, much as “noise” is harmonized into “sound” as an orchestra responds
to the baton of its conductor.
It is this intimior intimo meo that reveals to the Christian his true self. To
try to find himself in prayer is folly unless he first encounters the Word of God
who will reveal to himself his true self. That is, to know one’s self, one must
encounter God’s Word. Balthasar criticizes Evagrius and others for making too
much of self-observation in prayer “as if they had photographed their own
transcendence,” noting that this is dangerous.3 In a lovely passage, Balthasar
notes that the “fisherman Simon” could have “rummaged for his ‘I’ in all
directions before his encounter with Christ” without finding anything “Petrine”
anywhere: it is in the “mystery of the soul of Christ” that the “form of Peter” lies
hidden, to be found only in the encounter with Christ.4
Though cultivation of silence is no guarantee of finding anything but
emptiness, to “pray fruitfully” one must head for solitude and stillness (as Jesus
often did) to recollect himself from the “entirely unholy contemporary
scatteredness and anæsthetisation through the mad rush of the world.”5 “Today
the encounter should take place in the inescapable aloneness of my ‘I’ before
Yet this solitude of the one praying needs to be balanced with a note of
community. It is the Church that is the “medium between Word and hearer,” the
guarantee of “right hearing” which no individual can be for himself.1 That
Church remains the Bride, and it is the Bride united to the Head as His Body
who prays far more than the individual.2 It is the Spirit who provides the “final
enablement of contemplation” rendering it always an ecclesial act—and yet, for
all that, contemplative prayer remains the most solitary act of the Christian.3 So
much does Balthasar insist on the Trinitarian, incarnational and ecclesial aspects
of contemplation that he says: “All other depths and shallows into which human
contemplation could descend (versenken) are, if they be not explicitly or
exclusively depths of the Trinitarian, theandric and ecclesial life, either no
depths at all or else demonic depths.”4
Thus, listening to the Word and responding, led by the Spirit to issue a
“super-word” which is loving response to the one “Super-Word” sent from God,
the Christian lives a life which is itself dialogue, a dialogue in which God has
taken the initiative and sent the Spirit to help the soul respond. There is precious
little the human can do to prepare the ground to receive this seed, although
silence and solitude are helps. Here, as we have seen before, if man stops at
silence, the mere absence of words, he will really only have found himself and
not the self that God has in mind for him, the depth of his contemplation being
either no real depth at all (but merely the ante-chamber of the deep self) or a
thou which is opposed to God.

II. The Spirit of Christian Prayer

This naturally leads us to a consideration of some characteristics of Christian
prayer. The “Word” character of Christian prayer is something that pervades its
constitutive elements—praise, petition, thanksgiving, adoration—and as these
various forms are rather alternating moments of the one relation of God and man
they themselves need take little of our attention. Instead, it is to four features of
Christian prayer that have a particular importance for Balthasar’s thought that we
will next turn our attention.

A. Receptivity
We have already encountered this key stance in our treatment of the Bridal
Mystery where we saw that receptivity characterized the Son in relation to the
Father, Mary in relation to God, and with her all of creation. Here we would like
to explicate some of its consequences for prayer.
Needless to say, receptivity implies readiness, and it would not be amiss to
start by noting that along with Balthasar’s insistence on watchfulness in prayer is
his observation that “sobriety is one of the most frequently emphasised virtues in
the New Testament.”1 We have noted that the Church’s contemplation is an
eschatological look-out for eternity: to that end, the Christian is aided by a stance
of not-knowing which is yet an abiding in the Lord which is the “better part”
“because only the one who doesn’t know can actualize that readiness of the heart
that evenly fills all the moments of time.”2 It is this “not-knowing” that is the
“‘habitual act of faith’ that the ecclesial tradition calls ‘the act of
This stance of receptivity in not-knowing has its roots in the ancient world
where Balthasar again contrasts the Greeks with the Hebrews. Whereas the
Greeks took Being for granted, distinguishing between being and appearance,
the Jews had a much deeper contemplation, for they were grateful as the
recipients of Being itself. The Greeks could conclude from the dualism of Being
and appearance to a monism which allowed a “harmonious circle dance”
between gods and men: “the Biblical man on the contrary may not take it for
granted for a second that he exists” and so for him the “spiritual fundamental act
of the creature becomes a pure reception of its self, in the deepest astonishment
that it is. . . .”4 It is this same “receptivity” of Being which leads to that wonder
which Balthasar so treasures in the child.
This receptivity has priority to any response, and in this sense
contemplation has priority over action, “logos” over “ethos,” the “unity of faith”
over the “multiplicity of doing.”1 It is this openness that Balthasar will associate
with “poverty of spirit” in its reception of Being, noting that in metaphysics it is
called apatheia/indifference. Plato had seen this as the highest “level of eros”
which had to renounce all individual forms—and this could be transformed into
evangelical poverty, but it is dangerous, for often this renunciation of
indifference merely serves as a defence against pain and death. Christianity helps
“arm” the soul against such an abuse of indifference and helps “disarm the heart
for pure receptivity . . . to pain and spoliation.” What is received by the Christian
is a “food worthy of the spirit . . . the ‘Word of Being.’”2
Beginning then with the very fact of Being itself which leads one to
wondrous contemplation, the praying person is receptive to whatever it is that
God will send his way. It is a “watchful waiting” and an “active readiness” to
receive the informing action of God: what matters is not to get in God’s way
with one’s own desires, plans, imagination.3 Thus, the “stance of Christian
contemplation” is “one of pure receptivity (with body and soul) of the entire
incarnating Word, and thus to become pregnant and to cherish and reflect on it in
the heart.”4 This was the stance of Christ, Mary, John and Paul, all of whom are
characterized by virginity, the sign par excellence of fruitful receptivity for it is
the sign “that divine love has taken up dwelling in the creaturely world.”5 For
the man who would seek God, the search begins by being found by Him, the
search “is in its first logical formation a reception, a substantial opening, a
receiving and thus primarily a passivity. . . .”6 What is to be received is Christ,
the Word of God become man.7
Thus a sober, virginal watchfulness—a waiting to receive—is the first
hallmark of Christian contemplation. As Balthasar observes, “as Christ never
ceases to give Himself, so we can never cease to receive—never put the act of
reception behind us. . . .”1

B. Childlikeness
One of the Scripture texts Balthasar is fondest of quoting is: “Unless you
become as children, you cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”2
Throughout his works of erudition, the theme of simplicity, of childlikeness, in
relation to God is constant. Childlikeness serves as a metaphor for that state of
soul most in harmony with our position as creatures and indeed with the very
nature of reality, for, according to him, existence is itself play.3
What makes the child most appealing, for the philosopher, is its wonder at
Being. Children are drawn by an intuition to wonder at Being, something that is
found “in the wonder of the first opening of the eye of a child to reality.”4 One
loses this ability to wonder as one matures in the ways of the world, and so it is
crucial for one to “turn and become as children” if one is follow Jesus and
encounter reality.
The family is the natural base on which this grace works. Noting that “only
the Christian vision of the mystery of childhood” can protect humanity against
the excesses of the world’s intoxication with progress, he spells out his
understanding of childhood:
Every child begins at the same point: in the absolute newness of Being, in the very same
absolute wonder that is the fundamental act of philosophy, and enters into the same game
which is the perfect superiority over all things, but is in them, without the chilling, resigned
distancing (Abstand) from them; every child knows, or should now, absolute security in the
bosom of the mother, of the father, of the family. . . . Every child understands, or should
understand, his speaking as an answer to an awakening word of love. . . .1

The child, then, secure in the love of his family, begins with that “wonder”
(Staunen) at Being that leads into play which is a relation to things that precludes
a “resigned distance” from them. Surrounded with love, the child should
understand his speech as the answer (Antwort) to the words of love addressed to
him. The key points of the Balthasarian anthropology are thus found in his
doctrine of childhood.
It is no wonder then to find that the Holy Spirit is the “spirit of childhood,”
a spirit both of “open access to all the treasures and mysteries of God”
(Parrhesia) and yet which is a filial spirit “that does not take unwarranted
liberties.”2 Parrhesia is nothing less than the “freedom of the child of God”
which is the “highest law” of the contemplative.3
To become a Christian is to leave all that pertains to Adam, that is, the
being a slave, in order to become not only a child but also childlike. This points
to what Balthasar calls “one of the wonders of the divine relation”4 namely that
for the Christian “childhood and maturity are one,”5 that “maturity and the spirit
of childhood grow in a similar relation.”6 For prayer to know this open access,
this freedom, presupposes, of course, that timor filialis which is the correct
distance of the child to its Heavenly Father.7
The Christian turning to the Father as a child clearly rules out technique in
prayer. What is required of the Christian is “the ‘most naked’ simplicity,” a
“childlike simplicity” which can speak the “yes,” the Jawort.8 This is the
greatest challenge to “complicated and reflecting” adults, something “that would
be easy enough for a child were we but children, something that all the religious
techniques of Asia aim at and yet, because they are techniques or because they
reach for God by bypassing people, always miss. . . .”1 For other religious
traditions, being a child is only a transitional phase: for the Christian, the
Incarnation teaches “the eternal meaning of being born, the final blessedness of
coming here from a begetting-bearing womb [God].”2
As we shall see more fully in our next chapter, in contrast to natural human
wisdom which treasures aged sages, Christianity is always a religion of youth.
An extreme illustration of this is Balthasar’s use of the image of play in
reference to the very Passion of Christ itself. Writing of Jesus as the eternal
Child of the Father, he writes that the play of Jesus is one that leads to
“scourging and crown of thorns and yet does not cease to be play and delight. . . .
We other children are invited to play precisely in this game.”3 This action is part
of the prayer itself, for prayer naturally flows into deed.

C. The Beatitudes
The lowliness of the child and the helplessness of the infant are given utterance
in Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes, that which incarnates for Balthasar the
Christian “program” for the world. It is here that a prayerful stance becomes
incarnate in how one lives one’s life in the world. The Christian must do, in
order to be: only the Christian who does can really contemplate.4 To know Christ
can only come about in the following of Christ. The Christian is called to be
“formed to the functional behaviour of Christ” rather than treating Him as the
“object of appreciative contemplation.”5 The Beatitudes, which together with the
Our Father, are the “purified quintessence of the piety of the anawim”6 are the
Christian’s rules of conduct: precisely as such, Christians will never be able to
make Christ’s behavior and teachings efficient as the Communist Manifesto
It is in the teaching of the Beatitudes that true emptiness is to be found.
The anawim “offer empty space for the Holy Spirit,” the principle behind the
teaching is that “the weak one poses less opposition to the power of the love of
God.”2 The poor in spirit, those “hungering for justice, the weeping and the
persecuted, have an emptiness in them that can be inhabited by God, the
crucified God,” while “the rich, the full, the laughing, those praised by man, do
not have this free space, but rather have replaced it with their bloated ego.”3 In
His teaching of the Beatitudes Jesus introduced a foreign element into the
anawim piety in His prediction of “persecution and humiliation” for Himself and
His followers4: the scandal is that that creature least god-like in fact “has its
primordial image in the very innermost mystery of God, and for that reason it
lies nearest to His heart.”5
In contrast to the “bloated ego,” the emptiness of the poor in spirit also
means that one has been stripped of one’s illusions about oneself, that one has
nakedness of soul. This nakedness is a gift which comes from the encounter with
Christ, and it is essential to conversion.6 Recalling what Balthasar says of the
child’s wonder, true contemplation becomes possible when one is stripped and
humiliated in order to “contemplate the light of Being” in the “Sun [sic] of God”
revealed “in the humble, renouncing Heart of Jesus Christ.”7 If philosophers
themselves are willing to strip themselves of the whirl of existents in order to
contemplate a concept, the “sun of reality,” how much more must the Christian
follow in the emptying and humiliation of the Son of God in order to see “the
light of the One” who “illuminates everything.”8
It is the Beatitudes that Balthasar especially sets in contrast to any form of
technique in meditation. Anticipating our imminent look at this whole issue, we
find that for Balthasar, part of the “freedom of the form of Christ” is that one can
find Him without any technique for “His are humility and lowliness and all that
is called blessed in the Beatitudes.”1 The simplicity of the poor in spirit “is in
Christian terms certainly not the result of a ‘wise and clever’ procedure, as to
how one can unify one’s sense capacity, concentrate his attention, etc.”2 If the
“way” is to become poor in spirit, the one proficient in spiritual exercises runs
the risk of becoming the “rich man” of the Gospels. Balthasar asks: “can one
who ‘masters’ the eight stages of yoga really be called ‘poor’ in spirit. . . ?”3
Although there is a teaching of progress in Christian prayer, coming out of
Neo-Platonism and applicable to various religions, the spirit in these other
traditions can be not only different from but actually opposed to the Christian.
The Christian may either attain the prayer of quiet (einfach) or he may abandon
the search and find himself limited to the prayer of childhood (einfältig),
something which can be a deep humiliation for one with spiritual hunger: the
irony of the Christian way is that the latter may actually be more “blessed,” for
“Christian perfection” is not “determined forms of ‘God-experience’” but rather
“the readiness to fulfil the will of God.” The true Christian at prayer is then like
the man at the back of the Temple aware of his own unworthiness at prayer but
ready to “let the whole will of God be realised in his life.”4 The fundamental
stance of Christian prayer to which all these elements lead is disponibility to the
will of God.

D. Disponibility
The word we are translating as “disponibility,” Verfügbarkeit, can also be
translated as availability and obedience. Etymologically, it carries the
connotation of being at someone’s disposal, and furthermore of being able to be
molded by the forming hand of another. Virgil had as his motto: Füg dich dem
Gott (“obey, submit to, the god”).1 Catherine of Siena identifies disponibility
with obedience, holding it to be more important than the evangelical counsels
The bridal character of disponibility will come as no surprise. It is that
character of Christian love which does not desire to be melted together into God
but rather is a stance of reverence and service of His will.3 St. John of the Cross
holds that it is part of “the bridal-marital love of the soul for God” to hold itself
and all it has in disponibility for God.4
Disponibility as the heart of Christian prayer is of course clearly seen in
the life of Mary. Balthasar sees prayer itself as a habitual way of being before
God: in Mary, this meant her perfect availability to her Son, her being present to
Him, which was always prayer, whether or not she was consciously praying. She
was “full of graces,” unlike us who need to turn our attention to the Lord by
fixed periods of prayer.5 The bridal soul asks no questions of the Lord for whom
she holds all in availability;6 in imitation of Jesus and Mary, that soul lets God
mold her, resolved “absolutely to set no boundaries conscious or unconscious to
the will of God. . . .”7 Again, Mary was perfect disponibility, and the Church,
“founded in the chamber of Nazareth, where the Jawort of the Virgin was
[uttered] was—and always remains—pure availability (contemplation) to greater
effect (action).”8 We note that availability is identified with contemplation and
that it is oriented towards action.
Interestingly, of the elements of prayer that Balthasar mentions, he singles
out the prayer of petition as one that comes “with recognition of the limitedness
of our freedom.”9 The prayer of petition shows clearly the difference with the
philosophical attitude which with its notion of the unchangeability of God
spreads its “mildew” over the mythical view of early man: as man “matures,”
prayer either becomes the individual harmonizing himself to the overarching
Good and thus what seems to be a dialogue (prayer) is in fact a monologue of
“the ethical subject with himself,” or prayer “disappears entirely, because the
‘exemplary identity’ between the human and his idea in God has simply become
an identity, in which there is no subject left to be addressed but the human.”1 It is
then a revelation that Jesus “never rejects the prayer of petition” always turning
Himself to His tender Father “in childlike receptivity for His Will and His
gifts.”2 Indeed, compared with other developed religions, the prayer of petition
would seem to be uniquely Christian.
The stance of the one waiting to know God’s task for him is one of prayer:
as we have seen, man cannot reason to this himself. Man’s opening to God’s
disposing will has itself “the character of prayer,”3 a prayer that is itself
pervaded by the Holy Spirit. This is the Holy Spirit that Jesus had within
Himself which, while showing Jesus the Will of God, was already present in
Him (and presumably in the praying Christian) as “readiness for obedience.”4 In
this stance of openness to the unfolding will of God, Jesus is fully identified with
earth and the children of earth: “every step of the Trinitarian Revelation is the
answer (Antwort) of Heaven to a question of obedience (Gehorsamsfrage) of
To know one’s mission, then, one must pray, even if the prayer is only
“implicit, a readiness to be shown” and a lack of defensiveness in the face of
something one might not have chosen but that reveals itself as the will of God.6
This disponibility requires a constant vigilance, for it is never the case that the
Christian has already “heard” the Word of God: rather the Christian is listening
to that Word, to be obedient and responsive to the very slightest nod.7 Balthasar
often contrasts this to the attitude of non-Biblical religions which, in terms of
literature, are all ultimately “epical,” that is, they place the human drama against
a background of “Nothing or Nirvana or Kismet or all of life and evolution.”1 In
the face of the Absolute, the stance must be resignation, apatheia. In the Biblical
vision, the apatheia which truly does belong to the human condition is
transformed, lifted into the “readiness to commitment to every role ordered by
God in the play.”2 The epical moment is then taken up into the Christian drama
precisely in this being ready—in an Ignatian indifference—to take on whatever
role it is God assigns the person, an availability to mission. Indeed, it is only in
one’s mission that one can pray: otherwise—again drawing on Jesus’ teachings
—one can pray all one wants but he will just be calling “Lord, Lord” and not
doing the will of God.3 Action, then, becomes the fullness of contemplation as
the Bride-Church is the fullness of Christ.4 And as the one who contemplates
begins to see with the eyes of faith and know himself “more deeply as one who
is seen by God,” so “in the moment in which he resolves himself to do his
highest deed, he knows himself as one who is done by God (als ein von Gott
Getaner).”5 Action then, like contemplation from which it is inseparable, has its
origin in the Holy Trinity: man in right relation with God cooperates but does
not initiate.
We turn now to look at the prayer of those who initiate, of “natural
humanity,” and its relation to the prayer of the Christian.

III. Meditation and Technique

A. Asian Contributions
Throughout our work we have been encountering non-Christian mystical and
philosophical traditions, most notably, Zen Buddhism. In this section, we would
like to see how Balthasar assesses the impact of Asian meditation on the West.
As is well known, Balthasar long wrestled with Karl Barth’s difficulties
with analogy.1 Barth held that the attempts to reach out for and find God by
natural mysticism are all doomed to be Titanic and anti-God. Although tempted
to agree, Balthasar holds that this need not be so. Although the search tends to be
tinged with these fruits of original sin, man is not at fault here, for, as Augustine
correctly notes, the heart naturally hungers for God.2 On first blush, then, one
must admit that Balthasar is positively disposed to all the best in “natural man.”
Balthasar had a profound love for human culture, and the depths of Asia were
reverenced by him, as we have seen. That he was in the end perhaps more aware
of its limitations will also be seen.
The first, and perhaps most important thing that Asian forms of meditation
have to offer the West is “room for silence to listen.”3 Inner quiet is something
the East has learned to cultivate, and the Church, concerned with developing the
whole person, must also be concerned with developing contemplation—and this
not least in her encounter with the “‘ancient ascetical and contemplative
traditions of Asia’ which the Church cannot encounter unless herself pervaded
with the spirit of contemplation.” In the same breath, he praises the tradition of
eastern Christian monasticism.4 He has high praise for Buddhist monks, holding
them up as models for students of theology today who need to get “free from
slogans and agitations” and find “something of the innerly enlightened peace,
with which for example Buddhist monks, from entirely different motives, decide
to choose celibate life from a deep vision of the entire constitution of
existence.”5 Indeed, without such a contemplative vision, nothing less than “the
transmission of the Gospel will be endangered.”6
There are two aspects to this “room to listen” of inner quiet. The first is a
true contemplative stance of reverent openness which Balthasar will praise; the
second is the “ante-chamber” of inner quiet, which is more problematic for him,
as we shall see.
As we have seen, Balthasar was cautious of the dark side of the eros he so
appreciated, and he finds a kindred spirit in the Buddha who was correct in his
assessment of the futility of the “bad infinity” of earthly desires, man’s “thirst for
false endlessness (which, as Buddha has rightly seen, only increases itself in a
never ending spiral).”1
Yet that which Balthasar praises on the one hand is soon trimmed down on
the other. Eastern meditation—along with Marxism—are seen by him as the
main challenges to Christianity in our age, and the Church, confronted with
them, must ask if she is called to assimilate elements from them in a new
synthesis, or whether she has had whatever truths they are offering present in her
all along, and now she need but “give birth to them from herself in a form that is
true to her nature.”2 It is to the latter attitude, that of seeing the Asian
contribution as one of stimulus rather than substance, that Balthasar tends. As to
the stance to be adopted towards Eastern meditation which is having such an
impact on the Christian West, Balthasar suggests the Christian behave:
in the way the Church Fathers and the old monks withstood the entirely analogous challenge
of the contemplative method of the Neo-Platonists (possibly also influenced by India):
critically selecting and adjusting through a thoroughgoing and total transformation, precisely
as they had done with the Greek philosophical concepts which they took over for the
expression of the Trinitarian and Christological mystery.3

Thus, one must be discerning and careful as to what elements are to be

assimilated and even so, the elements to be assimilated are to be thoroughly
transformed. Attention must be drawn to the fact that the contemporary
encounter parallels an earlier encounter of the Church Fathers with the
methodical contemplation of the Neo-Platonists which was “possibly also
influenced by India.”
Balthasar is fairly skeptical of those who would separate physical
meditation exercises from philosophy. Although he does allow for these
exercises as “mental hygiene” and does not especially concern himself with
those who use them as such, still he insists that “the eastern forms of meditation
are not isolable from a definite Weltanschauung.”1 At his most expansive,
Balthasar writes that in terms of adaptability to the Christian vision, traditional
Indian thought (with significant corrections as regards active service of neighbor
along with contemplation, a sense of the worth of suffering, and the world as
free creation) is in the end more adapted to the Bible than the world view behind
modern Western culture. Similar things could be said of China.2 Thus, ways
must be found in which to express the Christian mystery in terms of those
cultures as were found for Greece.
Yet when all is said and done, all these noble traditions can offer the
Christian is a stimulus to a deeper recollection of that which it has already
known. The individual Christian, being a sinner, can never be a perfect mirror of
the fullness of the Catholica, and so he is in need of the stimulation that other
religions and cultures can offer. At the same time, “he must say that in the
fullness of Christ all logoi spermatikoi are already integrated. . . .”3 And so
external stimuli are “to be accepted ultimately as exhortations to a deeper
anamnesis of the Catholic Tradition, from which they receive the form which
lets them be useful for the Christian.”4
Balthasar also sees the value of the contemplative traditions in stimulating
Christians to want to share in the prayer of Jesus to the Father, rather than being
satisfied with articles of faith in the hypostatic union which they “believe” (a
belief which if properly dogmatic is yet stripped of any hope of vision and
“positivistic”). That union opens for the Christian an entry into precisely that for
which the other religions so long. Thus, the non-Christian religions make a great
contribution in keeping man honestly aware of his hunger for God and not
settling for any simply pious solution, as those who would mouth “positivistic”
formulæ would offer.1
Apart from a shared human longing, however, East and West are ultimately
as different as fire and water. Although co-existence and even harmony between
them is possible, both have a fundamentally different understanding of
conversion. To treat the world as illusion has nothing to do with the Gospel,
although “many naive people, including Christians, today do annihilation-
exercises (Vernichtigungsübungen) with the idea of calming their nerves and
thereby achieving heightened performance, but they are really slipping from the
seriousness of their own conversion and pursuing harmless mental hygiene.”2
Asia offers some initial help in recollecting oneself in the “inner chamber,”
however this remains but the “antechamber to real prayer, to true contemplative
encounter.” How quickly, he observes, the ways diverge between the all-negating
One, and the Trinitarian love which has removed all that stands between man
and God in the work of the Son. Once again, the fundamental principle at work
is “what Paul calls ‘Parrhesia’ . . . the lasting direct access of the believing
Christian to his God, without having to pass through antechambers . . . without
stages to be passed through.”3
Thus, Asia contributes in keeping man aware of his spiritual hunger, by
insisting on vision and by recollecting scattered modern man by the deep inner
quiet—but these contributions are propædeutic, tangential to that direct access to
God which every Christian has in Christ, inserted into the life of the Trinity by
the Holy Spirit. That direct access is simple and childlike and requires no leap
above one’s natural human capacities as the mystical ways insist.

B. Mysticism
In this section we ambition a brief overview of Balthasar’s understanding of
mysticism and of certain key notions fundamental to it. Light and shadow are
interwoven, as his ideas of mysticism Christian and non-Christian are set against
each other, sometimes complementing, more often contrasting.
He notes three different attitudes toward the relation of Christian and non-
Christian mysticism. The first attitude holds that in light of the considerable
amount of overlapping, all traditions can be subsumed under the one category
“mysticism.” This would be the way of contemporary schools of comparative
religion. Here the dogmatic and institutional side of the Church is relegated to
what is (merely) “positive.” In the second view, Christian and non-Christian
mysticism have nothing in common, i.e., only Christian mysticism is real
mysticism or else mysticism has nothing to do with Christian experience, as seen
in Emil Brunner’s contrast of mysticism and prophecy. The third view is the
Catholic position, characterized by the way of analogy. In this view, for example,
although one might agree with Maritain that in practicing Transcendental
Meditation one only contacts oneself (and Balthasar sees this as a very real
danger), still, “no one can prevent the living God from making Himself known
to the person, should it please Him. . . .”1 Respecting the form of revelation, God
yet remains supremely free.
What is mysticism? Etymologically, it comes from mystis, being initiated
into the knowledge of God.2 It implies an “experiential” contact with God. In
mysticism in general—and in the mystology which has influenced much of
Christianity in spite of ecclesial cautions—Balthasar sees seven characteristic
components: 1) finding the way (dhammapada); 2) an “awakening” from all that
is not Absolute; 3) use of a method to attain emptiness; 4) a vision, theoria; 5)
union (the realm of “super” words); 6) the use of paradoxical language,
indicating the tension between that experience and speech about it; and 7)
though not universally found, the presence of the “holy marriage” as the likeness
of the highest union.3 Although these elements are found in Christian mysticism,
it will be clear by now that Balthasar differs in some key respects, seeing the
Biblical approach offering a turnabout to various mystical approaches (indeed,
one must be careful in speaking of “mysticism” which is not, after all, a Biblical
term: it is applied “by analogy” to Christianity).1 Thus, God finds man and not
man God; instead of a spontaneous “awakening” Balthasar insists on the
readiness to hear and obey; Christians are indifferent in order to be ready for the
will of God in obedience.2 For the Christian the measure of perfection, of the
highest level of ascent, is not the experience of union with God but “rather the
obedience that can be just as united with God in the experience of abandonment
by God as in the experienced union.”3 This raises the whole issue, so pressing
today, of experience.
The ambivalence we have seen which characterizes Balthasar’s attitudes
towards such issues is very much present here. Positively viewed, Balthasar
insists that the hunger of man for experience of divine things not be disparaged
for God has Himself set man to seeking (the Areopagrede). And although
Christianity offers a very different way, still it does not fundamentally destroy
nature: thus, “a total separation of the God-seeking non-Christian and God-
seeking Christian mysticism does not work nor can it work.”4 Moreover, no
matter how abused the concept of experience may be today, it remains
indispensable as God wants to engage the whole man.5
Yet the concept is indeed abused today. He observes that contemporary
demands for experience have an element of atheism behind them, and that the
demand for experience in the Church is a surrender to the spirit of the times
which is given to the experimental method.6 Until modern times, Catholic
theology worked out of a middle ground that did not radically separate
experience as something mystics had as distinct from ordinary believers: what is
considered “mystical” was then considered “as the (specially) becoming explicit
of a general, so to say ‘normal’ experience of the Christian who seeks to live his
Faith earnestly.”7 The “foundation and condition for all Christian experience” is
not anything “mystical” but rather “the encounter with the God of the Bible. . .
.”1 Particular charisms that are called mystical are given to the individual only
“in functional connection with ecclesial mission.”2 Thus any “mystical
experience” is dethroned from the center of the Christian life.
Elsewhere the demand for experience is far greater. The Zen teacher Keiji
Nishitani writes that “the only real reality is pure experience” and Balthasar
observes that Plotinus would have said the same.3 For the Zen tradition, “the fact
that grounds all is . . . the (not directly comprehensible) conviction that there is
the experience of Satori.”4 In a word, all is based on mystical experience.
At the heart of the mystical experience in the non-Christian world is the
experience of ecstasy, the moment of union with the Absolute in which the
“small I” is overwhelmed and disappears as one flies out of oneself, as it were.
Balthasar is not opposed to ecstasy in itself, but he is opposed to making a
certain type of ecstasy the basis of the spiritual life. That he is not opposed to it
must be clear from his own epistemology: we need ecstasy (Entrückung) in order
to reflect the Glory of God and be transformed into His image: “without ecstasy
there is no glimpse: as Christ . . . is ‘ecstasied’ to the Father (in the Resurrection
and anticipating this in the Transfiguration) . . . so we have to look away from
ourselves in order to be able ‘to reflect the glory of the Lord with uncovered
faces and be transformed into the same image (2 Cor. 3:18).’”5 But he adds a
qualifier to this need for ecstasy: that it be understood “in a New Testament
way” which leaves man no spectator, but rather taken up by God’s glory and
love to become “a co-worker of Glory.”6 Rather than ecstasy as an alienation of
man from himself in a flight out of himself, it is God’s Trinitarian love that
overcomes the alienation and draws us into the “sphere of Glory between the
Father and Son as it has appeared in Jesus Christ.” This is effected by the Holy
Spirit and is at the heart of Christian experience.1 It is faith that is the “ecstasy
out of the I,”2 faith that “touches God”3 in an ecstasy that consists as we have
seen not in intoxication but service.4
Both Plotinus and Augustine would seem to hold a similar view of
“ecstatic being” but for Augustine no matter how important the experience of
ecstasy is, the Church is not to attain eternity through ecstatic leaps out of time,
but rather through “obedience and submissiveness in the renunciation that is
demanded of her: blessed the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven;
blessed the patient, for they will inherit the earth.”5
In the great Christian mystics, from an early date, the notion of an “ecstasy
of love” is present which took the form of a “mystical death” which could even
include physical death. Balthasar sees this as a dangerous tradition which has
tended to forget the bearing of one’s Cross in this world in favor of the
mystical/ecstatic way. The balance was restored by Ignatius of Loyola “when he
said, that in spite of his longing for Heaven he would rather work in the mission
of Christ in the world until the end of the world even were his own blessedness
to remain uncertain because of this.”6 The voice of St. Paul can be heard echoing
here, and the sentiment is clearly a return to an earlier Christian view. The
Christian does not need to rise up above his own heart to find God, but need
rather dwell in “the profoundest depth of our Christian hearts” where he
encounters and dwells with “the brotherliness of the fellow human being Christ
in our depths.”7 In order to find God, then, one need not stop being either
personal or social, one need know no flight of “the alone to the Alone”: one need
only see the world and the self as God sees them.8
Here we return to the question of the self. For the non-Christian, the self, at
least the worldly self, is ultimately empty/illusory. Thus, when he realizes
enlightenment, he has “little trouble in consequence realising the inner emptiness
of the world and his worldly self.”1 Rather than seeing God in the world and in
his self, such a mystic quite clearly sees through himself, and as his gaze is fixed
on no-thing, so he sees the no-thing that is (not) there, and emptiness remains.
Recalling the contrast of fullness and emptiness, the Christian who finds “the
secret of the fullness of God in His inner-divine self-sacrifice, manifested in
Jesus Christ, in His Eucharist and His Church . . . will have little trouble finding
this fullness again in the seemingly so God-empty world.”2 The secret lies in
what it is one is viewing. The Christian finds himself looking into the mirror
which the Word of God offers him.3 In the directives of Augustine and Eckhart,
Christianity shares with Platonism and Buddhism the call to look inward, to turn
within. But the Christian does not encounter himself, his true “I” or the “Self”
but rather “what Augustine calls the Magister Interior, the Inner Teacher, the
Word of God”: “that speaks to me from grace and reveals to me both who I am
and what God wills.”4 And here Balthasar becomes stern: other than looking at
that Inner Teacher who is the Crucified Christ, one’s look in the inner mirror
tends to be sinful, and as sin is untruth, what one sees of oneself will tend to be a
Mysticism in the context of Christian prayer then is first and foremost
grounded on faith and the relation to God in faith.6 Experience is relegated to a
supplementary role, not unlike the role we have seen Balthasar assigning non-
Christian contemplative traditions: supports, perhaps, to the main business at
hand which is the relation in faith.
Three things then are distinctive for the Christian in his “prayer life.” First,
it is love of God and of neighbor that is the measure of the Christian, not
experience. The directive of Christ to enter one’s chamber (Kämmerlein) to pray
is of course a call to personal prayer: “but nowhere in the Gospel does this take
on the colouring of transcendental meditation.” Unusual charisms—often
understood as mysticism—are given for the good of the community. Secondly,
Christian love follows the way of Christ. Although it can take the “most varied
forms of intensity of experience,” still it is not “intensity of experience that
offers the measure.” Thirdly, there is a tension between the ineffability of God
(“for non-Christian mysticism”) and His self-utterance (“in Christian
mysticism”). Although God has become Word this does not mean that He has
become reducible to human logic: “Christ as the Word is the revelation of God’s
freest sovereignty, the opposite of a grammar to be studied, not to be enclosed in
a Hegelian system of logic.” That is, the more uttered the Word is, the more
mysterious it becomes, and so the “speechless” returns to the scene in Christian
mysticism, “only now it is no longer set against speech, but lies in the inner
depth of the Word itself.”1
As will have become obvious, Christian dogma is intimately associated
with Christian prayer. Most particularly, Christian contemplation is completely
based on the dogma of the Trinity. Thus, in other mysticisms, the “I” must die in
order that the “greater I” may live: in Christianity, this death also occurs, but it is
a death which leads to a “real and corporeal resurrection” in God, and which
finds its source in the “circumincession” of the Trinity, that shared life which
allows each person to dwell in each other without “threat to their personal
Along with this Trinitarian characteristic, Christian prayer always
participates in the Incarnation and so is “deed” as well, even as we have seen
that Word and Deed are identical for Balthasar. There are “no prayer wheels” for
the Christian whose existence must correspond to the Word, whose very silence
is powerfully expressive.3
The final characteristic of Christian prayer is that it always takes place
within the communion of saints: “Everything in the Church can be personal, but
nothing private.”4
The real experience for the Christian, for whom God is always revealed as
a God in love with the world in Christ, is his mission (Auftrag): anything else,
such as mystical gifts, is just an encouragement on the way.1 Contrasting vision
with contemplation, Adrienne von Speyr, Balthasar’s constant source on prayer,
notes that because of the hypostatic union: “From now on, contemplation can
never be regarded as a preliminary stage of mystical vision.”2 This is so because
for the human being: “Vision is something borrowed from Heaven and must be
treated with the greatest discretion. It is like a spice which makes a meal tasty.
But the meal is contemplation; it is what nourishes the soul.”3
Contemplation is always contemplation of the Word. And yet, as we have
seen, contemplation—and mystical prayer in particular—tend toward silence. In
this regard, Balthasar writes that Christian mysticism is only possible—is
“justified”—because in the cry of death (Todesschrei) all that is utterable is
overcome by the Word become naked and silent. This ultimate Word of Silence
on the Cross, the “inarticulate cry,” both contains within itself and surpasses all
the articulations of the faith, speaking “loudest where no formulated statement is
possible any more.”4 The co-suffering of the Bride then “demands the life of
contemplation,” where God “shares the night of the Cross” with the
contemplative.”5 Again, the one who would bypass the Cross and “meditate
himself into a supramundane, unworried-blissful God, would let himself be
lulled into an illusion, bypassing the deepest depth of Truth.”6
There are several final areas to be investigated to round out our look at
mystical prayer.
The first involves the whole question of Being and the contemplator. The
Neo-Platonic tradition encountered Being in an ecstatic opening of the spirit,
something taken over by some of the Fathers who called this the experience of
faith.1 Without this question of Being, “theology becomes void of mysteries and
positivistic.”2 For the Christian, the natural way to Being—the way of reason in
general—remains the way to God. Although this runs the risk of idealistic
(Platonic) and monistic (Stoic) misinterpretations, it is still preferable to the way
which rejects reason and Being, relying solely on “revelation.” He calls this
latter “Christian positivism” and sees it as at the heart of Protestantism. This
second inevitably leads to atheism as the opposite of the “revealed” positivism
which “suspects and anathematises the way shown by nature.”3
For Christian contemplation, it is seeing God in and through the forms that
is important (hindurchschauen) and not passing beyond all forms in order to see
the light of Being. The Christian emphatically sees Being in beings and does not
try to get past beings in order to confront Being, even if this were possible
(Balthasar wryly observes that even Plotinus admits to this experience briefly
and rarely).4 The Christian then is truly contemplating Being in all individual
beings, although the temptation has always been to try to contemplate Being as
the total of all beings. This true contemplation is the contemplation of the
hypostatic union, where “hearing, seeing and touching of a worldly form we
should enjoy company with the eternal ‘word of life’ that is with God and is God
Himself.”5 The natural contemplation of Being-beings is thus analogous to the
contemplation of God and the God-man.
Not surprisingly, then, this contemplation of Being in the Church is both
sacrificial and bridal, it is “a being sacrificed—a being taken up—into the
mystery of bridalness between God and world that has its glowing center in the
marital relation between Christ and Church.”6 It is so because the “renunciation
of the philosophical eros of beautiful bodies and souls for the sake of the One
Beautiful becomes divine renunciation itself” in the Kenosis and the share in it
which Christ grants His Bride Church.1 This sacrifice of Bride with and for
Bridegroom “is the Christian surpassing and perfection of the philosophical
act.”2 Yet it is not a “self-sacrifice of one’s own consciousness, that sacrifices
itself as a drop in the sea of Nirvana” but rather it is “Christian love, that rests on
the hypostatic unity of Christ and that joins together that which is humanly
forever separate: the love for a being with the love for Being.”3
Thus, the Christian sees “Heaven concretely in the most concrete things of
earth.”4 This is opposed to that “radical mysticism of union” which would reject
man’s senses. Balthasar observes that there are two main trends in spirituality:
that which would bypass the senses for a “mystical, non-discursive contact with
God” and another which is open to the sensual, to worldly impressions.
Mediating the two he suggests something that brings them together, a “spiritual
sensibility.”5 Observing that the “radical mysticism of union” is alien not only to
the “spiritual senses . . . but to the Christian as such,” he suggests spiritual senses
that “presuppose pious corporeal senses” and that, like “the sensibility of Christ
and Mary, are capable of ‘Christification’” (Verchristlichung). Typically he notes
that man seeks to flee God, both into “the abstract world of the spirit and the
spiritless world of the senses.” God—the “hunter God”—then meets man from
below, “flesh speaks to flesh; the Word has chosen this speech that cannot be
ignored. . . .”6 For the true Christian mysticism, the “senses are the
externalisation of the soul”7 as “Christ is the externalisation of God,” and man
meets God as humiliated in His kenotic-slave form.8
Again, in the tradition of Christian contemplation, Balthasar distinguishes
between two main schools, the one “naked”, without forms and images, the other
believes in the senses and concepts as portrayed in the Gospel as introducing us
into the very life of God. The latter is seen clearly in St. Ignatius, but Balthasar
adds the proviso that Ignatius also allows a “naked” being touched by God.1
Those who counsel against images are discounting the Holy Scriptures
themselves and run the temptation of becoming gnostics; but images themselves
offer dangers, and that is why the rich imagery of the Apocalypse is only
entrusted to the “Beloved Disciple.”2
For example, Evagrius turns the “ecstasy to a Thou” inward, replacing it
with an “enstasy to a God dwelling within, through an overcoming of all sensual
and spiritual forms.”3 This turn within for the truth, away from the deceiving
senses, is ultimately the “way of rationalism and of idealist mysticism.”4 This
leads to an intuition of a “mystery” but one that proves itself “empty,” and so
this is a way that is “ultimately hopeless.”5
Rather than following a way of stripping down which leads to mere
emptiness, Balthasar does acknowledge the role of purification which non-
Christian mystical traditions offer. As we have seen, the Neo-Platonic Augustine,
along with Asia, knows a vestibule (Vorhof) to which one turns, the turn within,
from the many to the One, the return to the depth of one’s own heart. The danger
here is that one remain where one is and consider it the actual goal, whereas it is
only the first step of the journey. One must turn to that which is more intimate
than one’s own intimacy, and this means turning above (or being turned
upwards). Yet, this first step is a needed purification: Christians cannot reject this
first step of the world religions.6 It is in this sense that Buddhism and Taoism
prepare the way for Christianity, preparing an emptiness into which the mystery
of death and resurrection, the “revelation of the heart of Being itself,” can be
Ultimately, the stripping of individual forms which begins with the
“philosophical night” which lets the “bright darkness” of divine formlessness
shine passes onto the purifying night of St. John of the Cross2 if the mystic is
intent on the following of Christ. Without this following, such contemplation
would lead to “Gnosis or an empty reaching into empty voids.”3 In the following
of Christ, the ultimate union for the Christian may be the night of the senses and
the night of the spirit, for it was in such a night that Jesus ended His earthly
existence.4 But so far from a being silently resigned to dwelling in an empty
void, this night of abandonment is in union with one who will be raised from the

C. Polemic vs. Technique

Throughout his descriptions of mysticism and meditation, there is one theme that
Balthasar highlights perhaps above all others: it is the ultimate futility of human
technique to approach God. We live in an age in which man is accustomed to
view creation from the elevation of his recent technical competence. This
attitude in itself is disrespectful and in fact may well prove to be catastrophic:
transferred to his relations to others and then to God, it is utterly disrespectful
and blasphemous. Balthasar conducts an extended polemic against technique in
prayer, and it is important that we investigate this. Then, as in the preceding
section, we will look at the roots of this attitude in his understanding of Christian
prayer. To understand the animus which Balthasar displays against technique in
meditation it is necessary first to understand his critique of the attitude of
modern man.
The change in man’s relation to the things of creation in the modern world
is indicative of his changed attitude to God. Man no longer looks at things as
“access to a contemplative ascent to the Absolute” but rather is only interested in
“their practical mastery as technical tools.” In the first case, man “looks upwards
through things”; in the second, “he looks down on things from his superior
height.”1 It follows that “God is grasped as man takes the things of this world
into his grasp,” an attitude that is atheistic.2
The modern, Western roots of this attitude reach back in a line through
Marx and Feuerbach to Hegel.3 One indication of it is that since Descartes there
has been no philosophy of prayer in the West until Blondel and Ulrich. The
power of modern, atheistic man without prayer becomes an ever expanding
“tyranny over the earth, that exploits and carelessly renders it a wasteland,” a
“technocracy and manipulation of things and reified man. . . .”4 It is against the
background of this dystopic view of modernity—Balthasar evidenced great
concern for the nightmares of Nazism and the Soviet Gulag and was apocalyptic
in his sense of the emerging world—that Balthasar looks at humanity’s use of
technique in prayer.
From first to last, the divine prerogative that technique attacks is the divine
freedom. From the very earliest times, the attempts of the oracles and haruspices
of classical antiquity were “assaults from below on the sphere of divine freedom.
. . .”5 In philosophy, this early became the attempt to escape from the dilemma of
the One and the Many in which the man longing for the One was left with the
“eternal torment” of an “existential longing” for the One which must remain
“incapable of fulfillment.” In spite of the “limitedness that is constitutive of the
being,” there arose “innerly contradictory attempts to storm the Absolute
through religious ‘techniques of mystical ecstasy.’”6 They were “innerly
contradictory” because the gulf between the One and Many must remain
unbridgeable, and the only way to resolve the dilemma was to dissolve one or
other of the poles. Technique offered the way of mystical ecstasy at the price of
individual identity.
In a richly symbolic expression of the issue of technique which develops
his theology of the sexes, Balthasar characterizes technique as a sort of
homosexual prayer, radically male, which assaults God. He is explicit that non-
Christian mysticism falls into the “sin of Sodom” insofar as it “assaults” God in
a homosexual fashion.1 What Balthasar is here saying is based on his
understanding of sexual complementarity. The male, it will be recalled, is
characterized by longing (Sehnsucht), the female by receptivity (waiting for
form). As we have seen, the latter attitude is eminently Christian. The former is
to yield to the latter to find its fulfillment. Without the active receptivity, without
the dominant feminine element in a sexual complementarity there is “a sort of
religious homosexuality in which the creature conducts itself in a masculine way
before God.”2 This is the stance of modern, technological man for “wherever . . .
the positivistic way of thinking based on technique comes to sole dominance the
feminine element disappears also from the conduct of the male.”3
Put differently, the danger of technique is that man descends into his own
depths to take “possession” and so “God becomes a function of the man who is
liberating himself into the Absolute.” Referring to Paul’s teaching in the first
chapter of Romans, Balthasar sees this as very dangerous, as man is a sinner who
“misuses and perverts his most essential, religious, drives (Rom. 1:18–21).”4
Apart from the assault mode of “homosexual prayer,” the Sin of Sodom is
also seen in “pride, bloatedness, careless rest.”5 Here we must recall the
warnings Balthasar has issued to those who master yoga or who seek spiritual
bliss on mystical paths and who seem to him to represent the wealthy, proud
Pharisee of the Gospels, no matter how “ascetical” they may appear: the
question here is poverty in spirit, where the feminine is seen as inherently
humble, maidenly, receiving, while the male is arrogant and aggressive.
Something of these spiritual attitudes is seen reflected in literature. In the
young Goethe, Balthasar sees an attitude that is “baptised in the names of
Prometheus and Faust, with an express renunciation of prayer: a masculine-
creator attitude towards Being” where “Faust . . . will also not be able to do
without the Ganymede-like. . . .” Continuing in this vein, Balthasar writes that
the philosophical act is “extremely masculine-forming in Kant and Fichte,
hermaphroditic in Schelling, receptive of the world forms in the natural
philosophers Goethe and Jean Paul, finally masculine in Hegel.”1 The suggestion
of a needed homosexual component for Faust, the definitive “masculinity” of
Hegel well illustrate that male assault on the Absolute which Balthasar identifies
as the sin of Sodom.
It should also come as no surprise that religious technique is seen as having
its roots in magic. There is an inevitably close relation between religions of
awakening and cultic religion which provides this link.2 He even notes that
behind the technique of Zen there is a certain magic.3
Thus, in general, technique in prayer, something that “one learns and
masters” is something that replaces “salvation through God” with “Titanic self-
Turning to the world of Christian prayer, we learn that nowhere in Jesus’
teaching is technique found.5 Jesus praises the poor in spirit and not those wise
ones who “know many techniques in order to fashion a spiritual ladder to
Heaven.” Balthasar continues:
Nowhere in the comportment of Jesus, in His instruction to His disciples is there to be found
even a trace of a technical instruction for a condition of immersion-contemplation
(Versenkungszustand), and just as little enticement to crave or to strive for special religious
“experiences.” Thus it could have been expected in advance that through the ever so great
similarity between Christian and non-Christian mysticism there opens an ever greater

As we have seen, although a Christian must also recollect himself, must bring
his thoughts back to the presence of God and so some forms of meditation can
serve as preparation for prayer, in the end, his prayer is quite something other
than that of the eastern meditator. The difference “is that the Christian is the one
expected by God and His saints, the God who always meets a readiness to
receive . . . while the one who is meditating on the Absolute must himself make
his own way in the mysterious Void and may encounter no one.”1 Certain that
“God’s free revelation cannot be narrowed to theoretical laws or practical rules
in the way of human science or technique”2 Balthasar concludes that instead of
“technique” or “training,” the presuppositions of Christian prayer are “‘purity of
heart’ and submission in faith.”3
Christian prayer runs two dangers. The first is an over-reliance on method
which may be good, even necessary, for the beginner, but which must be
abandoned “for personal encounter,” and, at the other extreme, a falling short of
love, lingering so long in the intellectual that one arrives at gnosis instead of
love and adoration.4 No technique then can lift the Christian from faith to vision:
rather, it is our being crucified with Christ that allows us to be raised with Christ
by the Father who alone can effect this.5 This is a spiritual stance that is
incumbent on all Christians.
Recalling the bloated idleness of the “sin of Sodom,” Balthasar observes
that in the Biblical tradition “there is no restful æsthetic contemplation of the
divine Glory which would get to see God ‘in Himself’ while prescinding from
the opposition of God’s holiness and the unholiness of the world (whose
representative is the contemplator).”6 That is to say, there is no “blissed-out”
contemplation for the Christian but rather an encounter in which his own
unworthiness as representative of the world in this moment with God is brought
to light. In a word, sin is brought to light when man meets God.
These hard words notwithstanding, Balthasar offers a nuanced
understanding of technique, appreciating its natural role for natural man. Thus,
he sees technique as the inevitable result of negative theology in which one must
be stripped of everything of the senses and then of the imagination and limited
concepts. The techniques which humanity has developed to attain the ecstasy
“out of oneself into a formless condition that corresponds to the Absolute” are
not to be dismissed lightly: “they have nothing in common with the decadent
forms which they have taken on in the Western society of the good life, where
they are used for the goal of psychological-hygienic relaxation.”1 Thus his
polemic is initially turned not so much to the traditional techniques, East and
West, for ecstasy, but rather their trivialization by contemporary man. Buddhist
“atheism” is radically different from the secular atheism of the West (which, he
notes, has no roots in negative theology): indeed, Balthasar calls the Buddhist a
“super-theist.” Still, the end result of all these techniques tends toward a
depersonalization, in Buddhism a radical “de-I-ing” (Ent-Ichung) because it is
the ego itself that is ultimately seen as “guilty” and to be abandoned.2
The Christian needs no technique, for he knows a personal being-found-
by-God and responding to that being-found: for Asia, with its hunger for the
Absolute, it is always a question of a psychological technique. Balthasar
contrasts this insistence on technique with the marital mystery, observing that
even in marital eroticism an over emphasis on “technical directions” is more
harmful than helpful to marital intercourse: if this is so for human interpersonal
encounter at its deepest, it is “certainly so” in the encounter with God.3 Once
again, Balthasar proceeds to praise the simplicity and humility of the true
Christian stance as seen in the Beatitudes.
He often contrasts technique with prayer. Technique is a “means of power”
which “wants to reach in a practical way a goal set by man”: prayer is the
opposite, it is the openness to receive what God wills.1 We have seen that in
Christian prayer, a preoccupation with technique as in Evagrius and other
masters tends to lead “to an all too refined self-observation and experimentation
with oneself.”2 As far as meditation is concerned, all human forms of meditation
are similar, indeed, “the more radical the search to rise above everything
transitory the more similar they become: from the Far East to the final forms of
Mediterranean antiquity in Plotinus, whose directives for ecstasy the young
Augustine had also attempted (without success).”3 Human ascesis, thus, all too
easily represents an alternative to God’s speech.4
It is ultimately inadequate because in fact God has spoken. As we have
seen that Trinitarian prayer is the correct basis for contemplation, so here we see
that the answer to technique is found in the doctrine of the Incarnation, and
within that doctrine, the focus is on the Resurrection. The ultimate problem of
natural religion is that it does not know the Resurrection and the light that it
throws on the material cosmos. In light of the Resurrection, the “turning God-
ward of the spirit does not mean turning away from the world for man, but rather
a certain form of transcendence over the narrowness of the corporeal-historical
here and now, in which the human enters into contact with the world as a whole
being. . . .”5 It is only in the “transposition” to the world of God that the
Resurrection offers that the soul stands in right relation to the cosmos and to
God. Natural religion can never discover this on its own, and this goal of
transposition in light of the Resurrection is unfathomable to the natural man who
is seeking the peace of contemplation from the “natural busyness of man.”6
That is, the natural man seeks to rise from the constraints of space and time
by means of contemplation. This is understandable for it gives man a sense for
immortality—but such flights, if and when they occur, are only for the spirit. In
the Resurrection, the world of space and time is “mastered and spiritualised” and
this in a way that is open to “common humanity.”1 After his flight out of time,
mystical man must return to sinful time, to “empty” time.2 The Christian who
follows Jesus “should be in time and not try to lift himself above time.”3 It is
there, where God has placed him, that he can receive the “content and meaning”
that God gives to him here and now “without the attempt to usurp them for
himself in a Promethean fashion.”4 In the end, the attempt to escape from time
itself is sinful for it leads to a disincarnate splintering of the whole man. In light
of the Eucharistic mystery, the believer “will turn away from all attempts of
meditation to ‘sublimate’ from the corporeal to the ‘purely spiritual’ as unfitting
for the Christian way.”5 It was not the Greek world’s overvaluation of the
contemplation of ideas that was its chief fault, but rather an undervaluation of
worldly engagement: the followers of the carpenter’s Son must learn to be in the
world “as one who serves.”6
In light of the Incarnation, then, the Christian way is one of obedience, not
of technique. The Christian follows Jesus, and “every technique of overcoming
time is foreign to Him, he lets himself be borne along from one day and night to
the other: ‘Have no care for tomorrow, sufficient for the day is the evil
The freedom of the Christian is a crucified freedom, that is, one in union
with that Jesus who accepted His human limitations and was no more concerned
with an “expanded consciousness” than a Christian should seek to break through
the shackles of ecclesial form to attain some vague “freedom of the children of
God.”8 God is totally free of man’s attempts at “storming Heaven.” Balthasar
attempts to articulate the delicate balance between being passive and active,
receptive and searching by saying that Christians “must and should knock, but
we cannot attribute to our knocking the magical power that corresponds
necessarily to the opening of the door.”1
If there were to be a Christian “technique” then it could only be the
following of Christ: “the archetypical method is Christ, who comes into the
world in order to do the will of the Father. . . . His being man is itself already the
expression of His obedience.”2 The way “beyond,” to the Resurrection and the
heights of God, only leads “in and through” for humanity who are to follow the
footsteps of the Incarnate God through all the hot and desolate afternoons of
time and so to be open in obedience to the unfolding will of God.

D. Resignation
One of the central concepts which has pervaded our investigation is that of
indifference. Apatheia, Gelassenheit, indifference: these names for a spiritual
stance are a constant undercurrent to Balthasar’s work, based as he is on the
spirituality of St. Ignatius. We have already looked at indifference at some length
in the previous chapter. Here it remains to look at indifference under the aspect
of resignation as a stance of the prayerful man and to contrast it to what
Balthasar recommends as true indifference.
In broadest terms, resignation is the attitude of man in the face of an
implacable Fate, of an unchangeable Karma, of a faceless (and heartless)
Absolute. We have seen that one tendency is for resignation to lead to hedonism.
This is a natural enough response—“Eat, drink, be merry: tomorrow we die.” Yet
humanity at its spiritual best longs for a more noble solution than that which is
so resignedly offered by, say, the book of Ecclesiastes (which, as Balthasar
points out, is extremely “Oriental”). In the face of an “All” that is identical with
“Providence,” antiquity knew only resignation: it did not know hope.3
In the contemporary world, resignation is a “renunciation” of the
philosophical question which leads to a “terrible impoverishment of the human
who, tired of questioning, consciously limits himself to a small foreground, turns
himself . . . to his mini-world and through organisation and technology tries to
form existence for himself and his descendants as bearably as possible.”1 Here is
contained a terrible critique of the pragmatic hedonism which might well
describe the spiritual state of contemporary man. In the face of the challenges—
and terrors—of Being, he builds walls of technical competence and material
well-being around himself and his loved ones, trying to shut out the unwelcome
hunger for Being which is at the core of his being (and perhaps more
importantly, to shut out the God of Being Who is in search of him). The result is
that man cuts his umbilical cord to the Absolute and then “circles within relative
values that naturally place each other in doubt and destroy each other.”
However: “Resignation cannot be limited to the edges of things, it pervades
everything and gives all its flat taste.”2 The flat taste comes from the spirit
behind the intellectual pose: there may be a pouting self-pity behind the Stoic
Religiously, it was Israel’s glory, in a curious twist, to have been less
resigned than the pagan nations. The latter could more easily “be reconciled with
the impersonal One”: Israel was “provoked to opposition . . . by the personality
of the One, beside Whom there is none other.” Here the operative principle
seems to be that “it is easier to submit oneself to a law of being that is necessity,
than to a divine will, whose freedom demands obedience in positive acts.”3
Rather than resign herself, Israel tended to revolt.
The relation to the divine will thus opens up the whole area of obedience
and rebellion: it opens the whole question of sin. Even within the Biblical
tradition, attitudes toward God differ, leading to different attitudes as regards sin
and indifference.
One indicator is spiritual sadness. There are two types of spiritual sadness:
the one is appropriate, the other leads to death. In the face of the overpowering
justice of God, Biblical man can tend toward his own type of resignation, a sort
of “affected, weary moroseness” that God is right “once again.” Yet this is a
resignation that masks rebelliousness. Although this is the stance of Job, it
“remains something of the Old Testament and is not worthy of the Christian”: it
“has not overcome revolt” against this overpowering deity. Rather, Christian
sadness is a form of love that is “godly,” it is a way in which the Christian
admits the details of his wrongdoing without writing blank checks titled
“resignation.”1 True Christian (and Ignatian) indifference is based on the
recognition of the “yawning void” within opened to one’s perception by the
consideration of sin, an indifference which leads to letting God dispose of one.2
Ignatian indifference is unique in that it has an emptiness which is completely
different from the emptiness of the East Asian practices: it is based on the
recognition of sin.3
The key virtue in this matter would seem to be love. It is (alas) only
natural, Balthasar writes, to be resigned and distanced from what is earthly: “age
recommends this in its own gentle way as a preparation for death.” But recalling
that for Balthasar age has little to commend itself spiritually, he adds: “But to
embrace the earthly, just as it is, right up to being nailed to it, right up to an
interior experience of its distance from the Creator: that is another wisdom.”4
True indifference then leads to adoration and to an “endless melting of the
heart” whereas false indifference, resignation, comes from one’s own will and it
is “prayerless,” “loveless” and leads to a “petrification of the heart” incapable of
entering into the mystery of confession.5
Thus, the Christian is fully himself and fully alive, and so exposed to all
the “slings and darts of outrageous Fortune” even as was God Himself Incarnate:
indeed, being a man even as God chose to become one, the Christian “continues”
God’s “experience.” Rather than “submitting to Fate,” the Christian is to
cooperate, literally, be a co-worker, with the will of God, always of course on his
own creaturely level.
The whole question of spiritual technique appears here as well. Apatheia
for the ancients had been a technique for the “self-salvation of the world”: the
Christian knows no technique other than “the unlimited readiness of love for
gracefully encountering the ever greater glory of the love of God in the Cross: ad
majorem Dei Gloriam.” The Christian stance rejects “the storming of God, in
intellectual grasp or in ascetical-mystical technique” trusting in a grace which
will not destroy nature. Indeed, “only Gnosis that replaces a venturing trust with
a manipulative knowledge, is destroyed.”1
Because man is found and addressed by the God He has sought with
technique, “an abrupt end is prepared for every systematics and every
resignation.”2 What takes the place of the mute stance of resignation (and natural
negative theologies play their role here) is the silence of adoration.3 Balthasar is
happy to quote Marcus Barth: “theology is something that doesn’t work without
prayer.”4 The theologian must force himself to utterance, to speech: he is
continually placed before “a Truth that is ever greater than what he had set out to
understand” yet “it is forbidden the theologian to resign himself to plain
apophasis in the face of the God who is always revealing Himself as new.”5 That
is, the theologian cannot throw up his hands in the face of the unknown,
ungraspable God of surprises and find refuge in apophasis: he must dare say
something, knowing that what he says will be inadequate and overcome. Speech
must be strained if even to the limits (poetry) to express the ineffable. The
attitude to be avoided in the face of the awesome otherness, the unknowability,
the relentless righteousness of God is one of a sullen resignation. Instead, of
course, the Christian cultivates an attitude of obedient love. This too is
ultimately a silence, but not the silence that “stands at the end of all negative
philosophical theology, because the arrows of all concepts and words sink to the
ground short of their goal.”1 Balthasar writes that “there stands at the end of
Christian theology another silence: that of adoration, that loses its voice as well
because of the overwhelming quantity of gifts.”2

An essay of Balthasar’s which has served in this investigation is entitled
“Meditation als Verrat,” “Meditation as Betrayal.” The title itself is perhaps the
most polemical among Balthasar’s works. The essay is not directed towards the
practitioners of meditation in the Asian religions so much as to those in the West
who have taken up the prayer forms of those traditions. It is Balthasar’s
contention that the great wave of meditative-religion that has come from the East
can help Western man recall the recollectedness which is important for prayer.
More importantly, Eastern meditation can help Christianity recall the treasures of
its own traditions.
The “betrayal” to which he refers is two-fold. In the first place, one is
“betraying” one’s own tradition which is ultimately contemplative itself,
however much contemporary activism has blinded believers. By turning to other
traditions of prayer and ignoring one’s own, one betrays one’s own tradition. In
this sense, the Asian imports can serve as a valuable stimulus for Christians to
re-discover what has been there all along.
In a deeper sense, however, meditation when used by a Christian as a sort
of spiritual narcotic is a betrayal of Jesus Christ and His mission to the world.
One must hasten to mention that the problem here is with the abuse of a noble
tradition and not so much with the tradition itself, although beyond an initial
quieting meditational techniques have no value for Balthasar. The issue rather is
one of choice as to how one relates to one’s God.
In this sense, dogma is crucially important for prayer. For those who
believe in an impersonal Absolute by any name, certain consequences naturally
follow. All the multiplicity of the world will be negated in order to rise above the
demands of this world which are ultimately unsatisfying to the infinite longing
of man’s heart. A formless inner state will be sought, by technique, which will
correspond to the ultimately formless “beyond.” This form of meditation has
many names in many traditions, but it has existed from antiquity. In the face of
the vicissitudes of life, it counsels a wisened resignation, an acceptance of fate.
In terms of “prayer,” it counsels the disciplines which lead to the ascent beyond
all forms, beyond oneself.
The “betrayal” of which Balthasar speaks is a betrayal of a personal God
who has dared to become a human being and to fully share in the vicissitudes of
His human creation, submitting Himself to all the indignities of human life from
infancy to a crushingly humiliating death: it is to render His horrible passion and
death unnecessary in the face of a bloodless, blissful meditation. In the
Incarnation, He has opened up for humanity a space within the life of the
Blessed Trinity itself: in the man Jesus, every human has access to God Himself.
The way to enter this space is to follow Him who is, after all, “the way.” To
follow Him is to imitate Him, even as He claims to follow the Father. The way
of discipleship then is the stance of the Christian who would pray.
From first to last, the way of Christian prayer is adapted to human beings
as they are. Human life from start to finish is a rich interweaving of speech and
silence, even as words themselves are only distinguished by silent interstices. So
it is with prayer which is summoned forth by a Word addressed to humanity, a
Word which responds to the longing cry which humanity utters in its very being.
Far from the way of any heroic mysticism, the way of the Christian is to be
small, childlike, receptive: in short, it is the “program” of the Beatitudes. At no
time does the one praying take the initiative. At most, he should recollect
himself to realize what God has already done for him by creating him, and to
realize the relation which already exists by his “mere” being. The more he can
come to appreciate the wonder of Being, the more he will be drawn into the true
stance of Christian contemplation.
This contemplation is itself a rich weaving of reflection and action, of
Word and Deed in which the two become indistinguishable. The attitude to be
cultivated is one of disponibility, one of availability to the will of the personal
God who has very definite things in mind for each of His creatures and for all
His Creation. What He has in mind is revealed in time and events, and so the
listener must keep listening for the unfolding Word. But at the same time, the
archetype and model has already been fully revealed in the drama of the life of
Christ, a drama into which the human person is invited to enter.
Mystical gifts, touching God and being touched by Him, the naked,
burning encounter—these happen, indeed, they are given whether or not one is
practicing a method. They are gifts, encouragements for the more important
matter which is not in the end mystical prayer, but a loving obedience to God’s
will which leads the one who is formed in Christ to a full insertion in the silent
Word of adoring love.
We turn in our final chapter to look at what it means to follow this
“method” of Christ as fully as possible and at some human beings who have
done this, the saints.

1. BG, p. 9.
2. CSEF, p. 109.
1. S3, p. 479.
2. CM, p. 7.
3. “Parresìa (pas + resis full liberty of speech) outspokenness, frankness of speech that glosses
nothing. . . .” Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament
(Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1981), p. 133.
1. S4, p. 307.
2. BG, p. 38.
3. CM, p. 19.
1. BG, pp. 38–9.
2. Ibid., p. 39–40.
3. Ibid., p. 40.
4. Ibid., p. 43.
5. Ibid., p. 88.
6. HTNB, p. 441. Italics mine.
1. BG, pp. 242–3.
2. Ibid., p. 17.
3. S3, p. 253.
4. The image of the Word which gathers all the logoi spermatikoi scattered throughout Creation is
central, of course, for Balthasar, the student of the Fathers. Visually, we might say that Jesus presents a face
which has gathered the logoi spermatikoi.
5. BG, p. 50.
6. Ibid., p. 15.
1. Ibid., p. 87.
2. S5, p. 275.
3. BG, p. 29.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 201.
1. Ibid., p. 26.
2. HTAB, p. 63.
3. HTNB, p. 255.
4. Ibid., p. 258.
5. S4, p. 201.
6. S5, p. 53.
7. HRMN, p. 976.
8. CS, p. 319.
9. TLGW, p. 341.
10. S2, p. 493. Yet even here, Balthasar observes that “hearing” occurs 58 times in the Gospel of
John. For John, hearing is the same as obedience: receptivity to what God’s Light-Word has to say to human
1. Ibid., p. 494.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., p. 495.
4. Ibid.
5. CS, p. 318.
6. BG, p. 20.
1. Ibid., pp. 134–5.
2. TLGW, p. 410.
3. BG, p. 19.
4. Ibid., pp. 134–5.
5. Ibid., p. 135.
1. CSEF, p. 110.
2. Adrienne von Speyr, Die Welt des Gebetes, p. 191, as cited in TDES, p. 84.
3. S3, pp. 308–9.
4. UA, p. 89.
5. Ibid.
6. BG, p. 9.
1. Ibid., p. 26.
2. S3, p. 163, footnote 1.
3. HTNB, p. 246.
4. Adrienne von Speyr, Die Welt des Gebetes, pp. 21–66 [sic] as cited in TLWG, p. 263.
5. Mt. 17:5 as cited in BG, p. 9.
6. CM, p. 11.
7. BG, p. 14.
8. Ibid., p. 58.
9. Ibid., p. 45.
1. Ibid., pp. 202–3.
2. Ibid., p. 200.
3. Ibid., p. 80.
4. Ibid., p. 30.
5. CM, p. 32.
6. Ibid.
7. BG, p. 6.
1. Ibid., p. 236.
2. Ibid., p. 206.
3. Ibid.
4. “Meditation als Verrat,” Geist und Leben, Würzburg, Echter Verlag, 1977, p. 264.
5. CSEF, pp. 20–1.
6. UA, p. 195.
1. TLGW, pp. 178–9.
2. HTNB, pp. 246–7.
3. Ibid.
4. TLWG, p. 113.
5. BG, p. 18.
6. Ibid.
1. Ibid.
2. CM, pp. 17–8.
3. BG, p. 103. Elsewhere he criticizes John of the Cross for the same self-observation.
4. Ibid., pp. 51–2.
5. Ibid., p. 83.
6. Ibid., p. 84.
1. Ibid., p. 74.
2. Ibid., pp. 252–3. Moreover, “the objectivity of liturgical prayer is the participation in the mystery
of the Bride of Christ. . . .” BG, p. 219.
3. Ibid., pp. 72–3.
4. Ibid., p. 65.
1. Ibid., p. 123.
2. Ibid., pp. 132–3.
3. WIEC, p. 79.
4. S4, p. 289.
1. WISY, p. 101.
2. HRMN, p. 962.
3. HSG, p. 542.
4. S3, p. 164.
5. Ibid.
6. Henri de Lubac, Chemins de Dieu, p. 158, as cited in TLWG, p. 95.
7. TDPC, p. 396.
1. WISY, p. 31. Balthasar goes on to note that this is why “there can be no theological system of
divine truth.”
2. HRMN, pp. 946–7.
3. Ibid., p. 947.
4. Ibid., p. 963. On wonder, cf. TLWW, p. 305; TDHA, p. 128; and TLWG, p. 232.
1. GIMF, p. 283.
2. Ibid., p. 117.
3. BG, p. 118.
4. GIMF, p. 117.
5. NK, p. 133.
6. GIMF, p. 117.
7. TLGW, pp. 177–8.
8. CSEF, p. 85.
1. HSG, p. 471.
2. S5, p. 173.
3. Ibid., p. 174. Cf. the section Kind und Tod, and within it the essay “Jung bis in den Tod” in Homo
Creatus Est.
4. BG, p. 147.
5. HSG, p. 318.
6. HTNB, p. 70.
1. TDPC, p. 23.
2. GIMF, p. 235.
3. S5, p. 358.
4. HTNB, p. 70.
5. S5, p. 359.
6. S4, p. 244.
7. S2, p. 380.
8. Ibid.
1. HSG, p. 470.
2. S4, p. 79.
3. NK, p. 90.
4. CSEF, pp. 115–6.
1. HRMA, p. 231.
2. HRMN, p. 451.
3. CS, p. 52.
4. HFSL, p. 526.
5. CM, p. 60.
6. S4, p. 297.
7. Ibid., p. 217.
8. Ibid., p. 297.
9. TDPM, p. 265.
1. Ibid., pp. 267–8.
2. Ibid., p. 271.
3. TDPC, p. 468.
4. Ibid.
5. BG, p. 171.
6. S5,p. 237.
7. S4, p. 293.
1. TDPM, p. 52.
2. Ibid., p. 53.
3. CS, p. 64.
4. S1, p. 252.
5. HSG, p. 184.
1. Cf. “Universalismo Barthiano e Teologia Della Storia” in Guerriero, Hans Urs von Balthasar.
2. Balthasar, “Meditation als Verrat,” p. 262.
3. S4, p. 15.
4. S3, p. 230.
5. S4, pp. 373–4.
6. Ibid.
1. Ibid., p. 342.
2. Ibid., p. 77.
3. “Meditation als Verrat,” p. 260.
1. Ibid., p. 261. This point is also made in the Schreiben an die Bischöfe der katholischen Kirche
über einige Aspekte der christlichen Meditation, a document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the
Faith which could serve as a precis of Balthasar’s teaching on Christian meditation.
2. WISY, p. 47.
3. S5, p. 350.
4. Ibid.
1. S3, p. 369.
2. S5, p. 228.
3. S4, p. 79.
1. S4, pp. 302–4.
2. Ibid., p. 299.
3. Ibid., pp. 309–12.
1. HSG, p. 394.
2. S4, p. 312.
3. Ibid. p. 314.
4. Ibid., pp. 319–20.
5. HSG, p. 211.
6. S4, p. 326.
7. HSG, p. 286.
1. Ibid., p. 289.
2. Ibid., p. 399.
3. S5, p. 111.
4. Ibid.
5. HTNB, pp. 21–2.
6. Ibid., p. 26.
1. Ibid., p. 262.
2. Ibid., p. 381.
3. “Meditation als Verrat,” p. 261. “God is beyond all experience (of self); only the ‘Überstieg
(excessus) of faith’ touches Him.” This is the “way of Christian meditation” as attested by Bonaventure and
the Greek Fathers.
4. BG, pp. 69–70.
5. GIMF, p. 59.
6. TDES, pp. 307–8.
7. HTNB, p. 484.
8. CM, p. 10.
1. Ibid., p. 79.
2. Ibid.
3. S5, p. 235.
4. Ibid., pp. 237–8.
5. Ibid., p. 238.
6. TDES, p. 85.
1. S4, pp. 321–2.
2. BG, pp. 66–7.
3. S5, pp. 244–5.
4. Ibid., p. 246.
1. S4, p. 35.
2. Adrienne von Speyr, The World of Prayer, tr. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,
1985), p. 95. Italics in the original.
3. Ibid., p. 97.
4. GIMF, p. 305.
5. S2, p. 385.
6. CM, pp. 85.
1. HSG, p. 152.
2. S3, p. 289.
3. S2, p. 367. One must here recall Karl Barth for whom the doctrine of analogy was an
unbridgeable chasm between Catholicism and Protestantism.
4. Ibid, p. 382.
5. BG, pp. 137–8.
6. S2, p. 383.
1. Ibid.
2. Ibid.
3. HSG, p. 186.
4. BG, p. 257.
5. HSG, p. 354.
6. Ibid., pp. 392–3.
7. Although Balthasar writes much of the spiritual senses, he also warns against a dualism,
observing that Ignatius does not distinguish between “spiritual” and “corporeal” senses: there is one
spiritual soul which animates man, unity of body and soul, and it is this totality which encounters God in
Christ. Cf. S5, p. 55.
8. Ibid.
1. BG, pp. 233–5. Here he seems to be referring to Ignatius’ “consolation without previous cause.”
2. S4, pp. 317–8.
3. HSG, p. 257.
4. TLWW, p. 149.
5. Ibid., pp. 150–1.
6. S2, pp. 367–8.
1. Ibid., p. 370.
2. Ibid., p. 383.
3. BG, pp. 239–40.
4. Ibid., p. 242.
1. S3, p. 266.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. TDHA, p. 146.
5. Ibid., p. 208.
6. CSEF, p. 105.
1. S2, p. 198.
2. Ibid.
3. NK, p. 110.
4. Ibid., p. 14.
5. S2, p. 267.
1. HRMN, p. 609. It should be noted that whereas Balthasar concedes that the mature Goethe was
not explicitly prayerful, he was the embodiment of reverence, and so, we can perhaps conclude, implicitly
2. S4, p. 84.
3. S2, p. 98.
4. HSG, p. 162.
5. S4, p. 305.
6. Ibid., pp. 305–6.
1. CSEF, pp. 112–3.
2. HTAB, p. 28.
3. Ibid., p. 63.
4. BG, p. 120. “[T]he fundamental stance of adoration disappears because one falls into brooding
and the fumes of gnosis!”
5. S2, pp. 373–4.
6. HTAB, pp. 15–6.
1. CSEF, p. 16–7.
2. Ibid.
3. S4, pp. 78–9.
1. CSEF, p. 113.
2. HSG, p. 257.
3. CM, pp. 7–8.
4. Ibid.
5. BG, p. 223.
6. Ibid., p. 233.
1. THGE, pp. 27–8.
2. Ibid., p. 32.
3. Ibid., p. 88.
4. Ibid.
5. CM, p. 23.
6. BG, pp. 251–2.
7. S5, p. 46.
8. S4, p. 130.
1. CM, p. 43.
2. S4, p. 314.
3. WISY, p. 149.
1. Ibid., pp. 43–4.
2. Ibid. This “flat taste” that resignation can give to a whole world seems to be captured in Eliot’s
The Wasteland.
3. S2, p. 368.
1. BG, p. 203.
2. S5, p. 32.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., p. 176.
5. HRMN, p. 412.
1. Ibid., p. 383.
2. TLWG, p. 88.
3. Ibid., p. 98.
4. Marcus Barth, in Theol. Zeitschrift, p. 41 (Basel, 1985, pp. 330–348), as cited in TLGW, p. 330.
5. TLGW, p. 331.
1. TLWG, p. 98.
2. Ibid.
Mysticism and Holiness

I t would not be far from the mark to say that mystical experience is commonly
seen as being at the heart of religion: the mystical experience is that from
which the religion comes, around which it is formed, and toward which it leads.
In Christianity, mysticism is, in Balthasar’s view, a part of the life of the body—
but only a part. From another point of view, we might look to Jesus’ entire life
and death as a mystical experience, but then we are moving out of the range of
what we mean by mysticism. If we mean the mystical experience as ecstasy, then
certainly not: His life knew tedium and everydayness. But if we include
precisely this fully incarnate quality in the “ecstasy” of being God, then
Christianity has totally altered the meaning of the mystical by letting the divine
penetrate every atom of human life. But then, instead of mysticism, we would
have to speak of particular mystical graces or else of charisms within a life the
totality of which is “mystical.”
We have frequently seen Balthasar equate Word with Deed, insisting that
the two are inseparable, indeed, in the case of God, that they are identical. This
finds full resonance in the thought of Adrienne von Speyr, who writes that “what
prayer really is” is “doing the Father’s will.”1 Thus the one who prays “best” is
the one who is most fully able to fulfill the Father’s will. If Word equals Deed,
then the conversation takes place by what one does: the story is not a
philosophical argument, but a history of lives in which the conversation has
taken flesh in the following of Jesus, in the lives of the saints.
Without the lives of the saints the Christian message becomes just a
“positivism” of the sort Balthasar deplores. The most intricate dogmatic
speculations become mental filigree unless they be enfleshed in the lives of men
and women, acting and suffering in time and space.
In the end, Balthasar maintains, “the saint is the apology for the Christian
religion.”1 To understand what he means, we propose in this chapter first to take
a brief look at some leading figures in the non-Christian religions and how
holiness is understood there, according to Balthasar. Against this background,
we will look at his understanding of holiness in Christianity and then look at the
“lived apology” of some particular holy people.

I. Non-Christian Founders and Holy Men

A. The Persons
We began our work by exploring Balthasar’s view of non-Christian religions.
Here, we focus briefly on the persons involved as the heroes of those non-
Christian traditions. It is tempting to speculate as to whether, theologically, such
religious figures can be seen as persons at all—whether they participate in the
missioning which creates the person theologically or whether they remain at the
level of the human subject (Geistsubjekt). This, of course, raises the question of
whether and to what extent the missions some explicitly saw themselves as
sharing—Muhammad, for example—could legitimately claim divine origin.
That leading figures in other traditions could and did have experiences of
the Absolute is not doubted by Balthasar. What role this experience then plays
depends of course on the value assigned this religious experience in a particular
tradition. In any event, explicitly mystical experience is not that on which the
Christian life is based.
In general, Balthasar displays great respect for the founders of the world
religions. One who evidences such impatience with the foolishness of much
contemporary life could only respect the great ascetical achievements of one
who like Sakyamuni broke through to Enlightenment.1 Balthasar briefly recounts
the life of Muhammad and the origins of Islam which “means submission,
dedication to God.”2 He respectfully observes Muhammad’s call and contact
with an angel, observing only that: “Contacts with Jews and Christians in Arabia
explain the strongly Biblical element in his strict monotheism. . . .”3
Although the founders may well be sincere and may indeed see something
of the true Light of God, one problem that arises is that the second generation
tends to introduce a mythical structure to the religion.4 Thus, “following the laws
of the mythical imagination, his disciples will . . . redirect the pointer to the
Divine Light that the sage, teacher, initiator tried to give on the basis of his own
experience into a pointer to his person.”5 So for example the Buddha who was
silent on the subject of God himself becomes a saviour figure in much of
Buddhism. In stark contrast to these figures stands Jesus, who “demands faith in
himself as a historical figure, something that a religious founder or thinker or
artist neither will nor can do, if he himself understands himself as one who is
obedient to the eternal Light.”6 Balthasar insists that Jesus’ claim to be the Son
of God was unique in not being put into His mouth by a later generation.
In light of the revelation in Christ, “theologically there are no callings that
are absolute beginnings (like King Yima in the Avesta or Zarathustra or
Muhammad etc.) or that mean raptures into the timeless (as with non-Christian
mystics).”7 Such ecstasy—such super-sensorial contact with the Beyond—
characterizes the non-Biblical religious experience, as we have seen: “‘Holiness’
outside of Biblical religion and its circle is mostly a willed . . . losing of self in
the Absolute, dissolution of the human, finite, mortal . . . in front of the
Absolute.” However sympathetic—empathetic—Balthasar is with such a
yearning of the human spirit, his judgment of it is finally harsh: “To want to
disappear in the Absolute is an alibi to shrink from the play on the world stage,”1
something that happens because “in the moment the Absolute can so blind that
the task of transforming the temporal is forgotten.” Holiness, then, outside the
Biblical realm, is an aura which attaches to those who have lost themselves in
the Absolute—but this tends to happen in such a way that the self is destroyed
and the world and concern for the world with it. Thus it is that mystical
experiences alone cannot be the base from which a theological calling emerges:
“In the Christian view the one called becomes personally himself in the service
of the affairs of God in Jesus Christ.”2 Much will hinge on the notion of fruitful
service in distinguishing holiness in mystically based traditions and in the
Biblical world.
Although Balthasar genuinely shows reverence for the founders of the
world religions and the great ascetics of man’s spiritual history whose mystical
experience he respects, he is prone to irreverence when treating of those
humanity reveres as sages. There are several reasons for his impatience with the
First, as we have seen, old age is not a virtue in Christianity, a religion for
children and the childlike who innocently embrace life—and death. So the Cross
is never lost to sight, even in considerations of childlikeness. Thus: “The old
sages—a Laotse, a Socrates—detach themselves gently and forbearingly from
the illusions of the worldly world: here on the other hand one will be thrust into
the bloody thorn bushes of bodiliness, there to perish.”3 As already noted,
“resignation and distancing from the earthly is not difficult: old age recommends
it in its gentle way as a preparation for death.”4 Here Balthasar introduces the
element of folly, something we shall see is characteristic of the saints. Contrasted
to the wisdom of the “resigned sages,” it is the way of the Christian saint “to
embrace the earthly, just as it is, to the extent of being nailed to it, to an inner
experience of its alienation from the Creator,” and, Balthasar concludes, “this is
a different wisdom.”1
Because of the drama of the suffering Christ earthly heroism is now seen in
a different light: the hero of classical antiquity “can still be beautiful, glorious is
he no longer and he soon becomes tedious.”2 This is so because “‘classical man’
in the Christian era is always somehow melancholy in his beauty. He is not a
proper fool,”3 and true “foolishness” is a peculiarly Christian grace.
The Christian, living from a personal relation to a personal God, totally
dependent on God every moment, never comes to really “possess” a wisdom like
one of the classical sages. It is the possession of this wisdom that characterizes
the sage and that Balthasar so likes to tweak: he describes the sage as “that
unmistakable type of human whom one encounters in all Weltanschauungs and
who astonishes one by his superior illumination and who, in the long run, gets a
bit on one’s nerves.”4 The Christian does not really possess this wisdom for the
wisdom of the Christian “is more in God than in himself.”5 The sage tends to
take over the functions that the Head, Christ, has for the Body: the one who
“thinks, sees, speaks, looks to Heaven for the whole Body.”6 The Christian, on
the other hand, only follows the Head Who is Christ, and so the Christian
ultimately has his head “in heaven, where he lives hidden with Christ” while on
earth he dies daily.7 This is the “simplicity of discipleship,” the wisdom of
which, like that of the Cross, is folly to the world and the wise of the world.

B. Conversion
One key area of distinction between the wisdoms is in the understanding of the
meaning of conversion. As a concept, it is common to both Biblical and non-
Biblical religions: it is the “freely willed transformation of a person which
effects his moral attitude and the works that spring from it, but also and above all
effects his religious attitude to God or the divine or the Absolute.”1 To see
wherein the views of conversion differ, we return to our first chapter and the
distinction between guilt and sin we noted there.
For Balthasar, guilt is pandemic. For the religious East (and this includes
Neo-Platonism), guilt is identified with a fall from the Absolute into “new
individuation.” Burdened by guilt, man seeks to fly from this twisted world,
back to the Absolute. Sin is different: it is the “wounding of the personal love
and holiness of God, as well as of His command of love of neighbor.” Balthasar
then concludes: “Man can, by compensating deeds, fundamentally free himself
from guilt, but not from sin, unless the pardon of God take the initiative to which
the human responds by conversion.”2 The “compensating deeds” of course
include those contemplative techniques through which the “guilt” of
individuation is overcome and the illusion of individual (personal) being is
overcome through absorption in the Absolute. It is this which Balthasar
understands as conversion in the non-Biblical mystical traditions, and as such it
is radically different from the personal encounter and ongoing need for
conversion that makes up Biblical change of heart. Let us look at this a bit more
We begin with Buddhism. In today’s world, it represents the alternative
form of “radical conversion.” For it: “Existence, as long as it lasts, is unrelieved
suffering: if this existence is affirmed through desires, it thus immortalises itself
through new births. . . .” This is an “inescapable carousel” unless one is able to
“see through its nothingness” and so to “also see through one’s own nothingness
that egotistically wants to be a particular I, and thus to annihilate while
sublimating (aufheben).” This is what Balthasar calls “the option of the Buddha
for the nothingness of the world and for salvation in Nirvana. . . ,”3 an option he
insists be treated with utter seriousness.
Not unrelated to this historically—Balthasar often mentions Stoicism in the
same breath—is the wisdom of classical antiquity. Though (blessedly?) not as
thoroughgoing, Neo-Platonism saw the condition of fallen humanity as a fall
from that which it called “the One,” that which Balthasar sees as containing “the
true, the beautiful, the good, the holy.” To fall from this is to fall into the regio
dissimilitudinis in which beings departing from unity are lost, dissipated.
Conversion (epistrophe, conversio) in this view begins the moment one recalls
one’s “homeland” and must turn one’s spiritual being around “180 degrees”:
“from dispersion (Zerstreuung) to recollection, from the distant to the near. . . .”1
This is the way of seeking inner peace, to “liberate the heart and to pacify it. . .
.”2 It is the way of “standing still” which at first is a going against the stream of
the world, but as it approaches the deepest levels of reality, is in fact a profound
harmony and peace, in harmony with a deeper current.3
Such views obtain where “God or the Absolute, to which one converts
oneself, is not love itself” and in consequence “it will be the bitter pangs of
hunger of the one far away that push him to departure.”4 This, in general,
characterizes all the view of the ancient world and the East: it is seen in the
“fundamental experience of the East, in the many forms of Buddhism above all,
but also in the Stoa and in Platonism.” Balthasar contrasts it with the Biblical
view—Islam included here—where “one knows the personal goodness of
Yahweh, Allah, the Father of Jesus.” Here it is “the image of love, in which we
had our home and would like to have it again” that becomes the “basis of the
movement of conversion. . . .”5
As might be expected, the Biblical God is the one who summons to
conversion. One realizes that “he is perceived by another’s ear and eye.”6 That:
“The closed sphere of his freedom is transparent to Another” is for the Biblical
man something that in fact “spares him the hardest part of conversion. . . .”
Called by God, “the person stands still on his way and obediently listens” and “if
he wants, he turns around (converts) in the power of the call.”1 This is the work
of “grace.”2
In the Catholic view, of course, grace builds upon nature. We see this most
clearly in Balthasar’s descriptions of St. Augustine whose Christian conversion
is interwoven with his Neo-Platonism. New to Augustine, the Christian convert,
is the element of the historical which becomes the “medium” for “all that
happens between God and the world.”3 For if God, eternal Being, is also “the
absolutely living and ruling” Creator, then “epistrophe to Him” means not only
“turning away from the Many to the One, but also a rethinking of the thoughts of
man according to God’s own sovereign thoughts.”4
The conversion to the calling God which is common to all the Biblical
religions reaches “its final radicality in Christianity.”5 Balthasar sees it most
clearly expressed in Paul, whose powerful conversion turned him from one who
persecuted the Church to one who saw in the folly of the Cross the supreme
wisdom of God. At the heart of what Balthasar sees in Paul, is his woundedness,
the “angel of Satan” that lashed at Paul, for it is only through the Cross that one
is saved, and only through one’s woundedness that one can participate in that
salvation and become oneself a participant in the work of salvation: “Does not
one need somewhere an opening, a wound, a painful laceration, so that
something will flow from my ‘I’ and so can effect something healing, saving,
health giving?”6 Thus conversion means a letting one’s heart be wounded in
union with Christ on the Cross. It is a turning back, “change of direction”7 which
emerges from the hunger of the human heart for peace. But the peace—the
“standing still (Stillstand) of the direction of the spiritual movement of one’s
entire existence”8—comes to mean indeed an insertion in the heart of reality but
not in that of a trans-mundane, unmoved Absolute. Instead, it means
identification with the will of God, in time and history, to the point of sharing in
the Cross of His Son. Conversion in this light means a constant turning from
one’s own will to His will in one’s life, where health is found in being wounded
along with Christ. In this sense, then, the saints must say the “Confiteor” daily.
For if Augustine, Francis and Ignatius made one major turn to God, they still had
to deepen it every day. And if Paul was thrown to the ground and came to share
and to preach the Cross of Christ, he yet admonished the Philippians to “work
out their salvation in fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12ff).”1

C. The Bodhisattva
Yet what of the notion of “postponing” one’s final salvation for one’s fellows,
most notably seen in Mahayana Buddhism with its characteristic figure of the
Grossly speaking, whereas Theravada Buddhism focused on the liberation
of the individual monk, “his” entry into Nirvana, the Mahayana developed a
doctrine in which the Bodhisattva, the enlightened monk, would not enter into
Nirvana as long as suffering existed in the world. According to the “Bodhisattva
vow,” he would remain in the world of suffering and work to “save all sentient
beings.” Buddhism is quick to point out that unless one has one’s foot on firm
ground, he cannot save the drowning: hence, the need for enlightenment. At the
same time, as seen graphically in the well-known “Ox-Herding Pictures,”
enlightenment once attained, the truly enlightened being returns with “helping
hands in the market-place.”
That this would appeal to Balthasar with his passionate polemic on behalf
of human solidarity—sanctity is fundamentally a willingness to undergo even
hell for others2—is clear. That the Bodhisattva figure plays so small a role in his
otherwise frequent references to Buddhism is surprising. He does however
occasionally refer to the figure. Thus, “the thought of a substituting suffering of
one ready for bliss on behalf of those who are still laden with karma-guilt is like
a signpost in the direction of what is Christian.”1 Affirming that both Buddhists
and Christians recognize “the monstrous burden of world suffering, behind
which stands the burden of guilt,” he yet adds that “for the Christian, this burden
cannot be lifted by meditation (as unburdening), nor even through the famous
‘compassion’ of the one become Buddha who renounces his entrance into
Nirvana as long as beings suffer in the world.”2
What then is Balthasar’s attitude toward this most noble figure? As with
his attitude toward Buddhism in general, there is both a reverence and a sense of
analogous truth—that yet remains inadequate. The reverence is clear.
Surprisingly, Balthasar writes that in spite of the profound differences between
Asia’s law of karma and the Christian sense of what freedom is left to the
individual, “an analogy cannot be overlooked. Also the moment of intercession,
at least in the form of compassion (karuna), but also up to the Bodhisattva-vow:
‘however countless sentient beings may exist, I vow to save them all.’”3
Analogous though the notions may be, Balthasar sees these ideals as but part of
those “sign-posts” which have occurred throughout human history. Another
analogy is seen in the Greek tragic ideal of expiatory suffering for the salvation
of one’s land.
The inadequacy comes from the absence of a correct understanding of the
relation of the form to its background. Looking at Taoist or Zen painting,
Balthasar sees an attempt to represent the ineffable. The figure in the painting
“will be read and formed as an immediate pointer to the mystery of the ‘Void.’”4
But “because what it points to is ‘void,’ then the form, which becomes
fascinating, is also void.”5 In Buddhism, the form is indifferent, something
which is patently unacceptable in Christianity where the form fully expresses the
fullness of the ineffable that is uttering itself here—and uniquely here. Put
differently, the idea of the Bodhisattva, analogously related but ultimately
inadequate, forms a sort of spiritual background to the “thought of substitution
which realises its perfection in the Cross of Christ. . . .”1
In the end, the Cross of Christ is something “totally different” from the
“compassion” of the Bodhisattva. Golgotha means “substitutive carrying away
of the guilt of the world, solidarity in abandonment by God, but done from love
for those turned away from God, and so their reconciliation. . . .” From this
substitutive death which springs from love and leads to life Balthasar concludes
that “there is no Christian way to God—be it ‘mystical’ or any other—that is not
stamped by the event of the Cross.”2 It is to a deeper understanding of that
Christian way to God, the way of life nourished by His holiness, that we must
now turn.

II. Christian Holiness

A. Overview
To attempt a definition of holiness would be, perhaps, only a little less untoward
than to attempt a definition of God. Of the latter attempt, Balthasar has said:
“Were there to be a definition of God, it would have to be: unity as being-for-
one-another (Einheit als Füreinander).”3 Holiness is an attribute of God which
extends—by contact, as it were—to people (and to things) touched by God. Thus
the twin characteristics of unity and community in Balthasar’s “definition” can
be applied as well to holiness. We might say it is a being God-like which accrues
to those who have been affected by God. They in turn are people of integrity
(unity) and yet it is an integrity which is not a self-sufficiency but rather a
turning outwards, indeed, a having one’s center outside oneself, in God (and
thus, in the Thou).
In Himself, “only God is holy, no creature could or would attribute
substantial holiness to itself. . . .”4 Not only is holiness not a natural attribute of
any creature, the creature cannot produce a “self-activated conversion in order to
receive a share of the divine holiness. For this one needs the divine spirit of
holiness, and He alone . . . can ‘anoint’ the finite spirit with divine holiness.”1
In Israel, that which “is holy is that which pertains to the sphere of God”:
those who would serve Him cultically must be purified and consecrated to Him.2
Israel “sanctifies” the Holy God in her correspondingly active obedience.3 In this
encounter with God there are two chief moments, the moment of grace and the
moment of judgment.4 Balthasar never tires of pointing out that the God Who
reveals Himself as holy also reveals man as sinful: man is thus the representative
of the world in this encounter with God. There is no “restful, æsthetic
contemplation” of God which could prescind from this confrontation between
holiness and unholiness. This “distinguishes the Biblical reality from the extra-
Biblical divine theophanies.”5
The fruit of these “extra-Biblical divine theophanies” as seen in mysticism
is generally seen as an ascent to God in mysticism characterized by the desires
for experience and for dissolution in the Absolute. The price paid tends
ultimately to be “the fullness of Creation as desired by God.” Holiness, on the
other hand, is the service of God that comes from availability to His will: it “lets
God and world be in each other ‘unseparated and unmixed’ [cf. Trinity,
Incarnation] in eternity.”6 We shall soon return to the divine antitype of the
divine-human relation.
Turning to our theme of the sage, we see that in the Wisdom literature of
Israel, one relates to Wisdom as a petitioner for an “ever new granting of
discipleship and of childhood.”7 Holiness there requires this stance of
supplication and of “littleness” in relation to a living reality. Nearer our own
times, reflecting on the Christian experience, Charles Peguy will observe that it
is the Christian martyr who “must represent the Christian to the pagan sage” and
he must do so “on the level and in the mode of the human.”1 Both of these point
to the this-worldly, incarnate nature of the Biblical presentation of holiness,
which is always something given from God requiring a childlike receptivity.
If holiness is distinguished from mysticism and worldly wisdom, it
certainly is distinct from Gnosis. Balthasar sees this opposition most clearly in
Irenæus who “only wants to know one thing, Jesus the Crucified, because He is
love,” this in opposition to the “knowledgeable Gnosis.” Indeed, for Irenæus
“holiness stands over Gnosis: holiness is the ideal in the Catholic religion, as
opposed to the ideal of Gnosis in all oriental and Greek religions.” The key is to
approach God not through knowledge—we might have knowledge and yet
offend God—but rather to be “uneducated and men of little knowledge and thus
come close to God through love.”2
For the Christian, all holiness comes from the Head of the Body, that is,
from Christ.3 As seen in Paul, the Christian is always mindful that holiness is
something he has received from God, it is always a gift.4 The outpouring of
holiness from Christ naturally turns attention to His Kenosis: “He can sanctify
others in himself, in that He sanctifies Himself in them and for them.”5 Christian
holiness ultimately rests on taking the Incarnation of Christ seriously. Here the
humanity of Christ takes on a special importance, for it is in His humanity that
the Christian touches the divinity. Here, correct dogma is important for the
correct shaping of the believer: as bad art (“kitsch”) follows from bad theology,
so presumably a distorted Christian witness—and diminished holiness—would
follow from a bad Christian understanding.6 The “primary sharing of God’s
holiness” is with “Jesus Christ, and that means with the whole man, body and
soul, inside and outside.”7 The one “taken for the son of Joseph” chose “to be
flesh and not spirit: Son of Man, and not sage nor ascetic nor mystic nor
Yet for all its earthly, incarnate character, true Christian holiness remains a
“psychological puzzle” and that because it is something super-personal, it shares
in the “liveliness of the tri-personal exchange of life” of the Trinity but
“mysteriously and in a way not capable of formulation.”2 Mystics “who are not
Trinitarian” come to an “identification of giver and gift” and only push on to the
“overcoming of the dualism of Creator-creature. . . .” For the Christian, the
center of reality is “‘beyond’ this identity” and “is only thinkable within the New
Testament-Trinitarian revelation” in which the Father calls us to be fellow Sons
(in a co-birth, Mitgeburt) by sending the Spirit “into our hearts.”3 Again, the
unity and diversity, the unity which is a sharing, is the Trinitarian model of all
Christian and incarnational holiness.
We see this clearly in the Church. Holiness there comes from the
indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the saints. St. Augustine, of course, knew this
from his struggle with the Donatists, insisting not on the subjective holiness of
the official but rather on the holiness of the Church, the “columba.”4 The
institution provides a skeleton for what is “catholic” in the Church, and that
comes from her being “‘Bride,’ columba” which indicates her “sphere of
holiness.”5 The greater the holiness of the Christian, too, the greater the
identification with the Church. This is seen in all true Church reform, which
proceeds from solitude to holiness.6
Other saints emphasized various aspects in their teachings of holiness.
Dionysius emphasized the objectivity of holiness and the “mission character of
all Christian grace” whereby “the one personally deemed worthy by God, must
in his worthiness (axia) live in the required order (taxis) that lays claim to his
most personal life.”1 For Bonaventure, wisdom and holiness must go together:
“Non sufficit ad habendam sapientiam scholastica sine monastica” and this
because it is “not through hearing alone, but through obeying that man becomes
wise.”2 Not surprisingly, this emphasis on lived holiness finds its apogee in St.
Ignatius whose “Book of Exercises has become a practical school of holiness for
all orders.”3 Holiness then is something that devolves upon one who is touched
by God: it includes the will of the subject, and so leads to fruitfulness in the

B. Fruitfulness
Perhaps reflecting the very spirit of the concept, “fruitfulness” appears
abundantly throughout Balthasar’s work. Hardly any aspect of his thought is
unaffected by “fruitfulness.” Here we can at best pass in review some of the
many ways in which this concept is present at the heart of his criteria for
Christian holiness.
First of all, fruitfulness and unfruitfulness are most basically a measuring
rod for good and evil: “only the good, the selfless bears fruit, the evil is the
unfruitful.”4 As we can expect, given the foundation of the Balthasarian
worldview in inter-personal relations, the spiritual alternative to being fruitful is
“to exhaust oneself in oneself.”5 Fruitfulness is “the fundamental reality of the
mystical body of Christ,” the fruit of “‘the divine virtues’ in the life of those who
are sanctified through them: every one who allows them to work in him without
constraint, becomes, through them, whether he wants and knows it or not, one
who lets the divine life flow into the world through him.”6 Moreover, this is not
limited to Christianity: “Non-Christian religions have also known about this
secret, but mostly in a more limited sense.”7
Fruitfulness is so crucially important because God Himself is fruitful. It is
so important an attribute of God for Balthasar that it would be little exaggeration
to lift fruitfulness to the level of the transcendentals. God’s fruitfulness is seen
everywhere: “every mystery that He reveals gives birth to a new one: this is his
fruitfulness. . . .”1 This divine fruitfulness is based in the Trinitarian Being of
God. Thus, the love of the Father and the Son “must show itself as the eternal
fruit in God and the infinite fruitfulness in the world. . . . The Spirit is the
fruitfulness of the paternal and filial love, and the fruitfulness that He is . . .
pours itself out as free gift.”2 If the Spirit is the fruitfulness of the love of the
Father and the Son, then the Son’s fruitfulness is seen in the sacrifice of His life
for His brethren: this “opening of one’s inmost heart for the brother, and that not
in words but in deeds” is a “dying to all self-will” that is “the principle of
Christian bearing fruit (Fruchttragen), because it is the abiding in the being and
thought of the Lord.” This obedience of the Son in dying to self in self-sacrificial
love for the brethren is so much at the source of Christian fruitfulness that
Balthasar concludes: “Nothing is fruitful in a Christian way but that which
originates in Christological obedience.”3
If then fruitfulness is at the very heart of the divine Being itself, that
feature is characteristic both of Creation and the relation between Creator and
Creation. Reality, both supernatural and natural, has a triadic structure. This is so
important for Balthasar for on the one hand he wants to avoid an Augustinian
“being-closed-in-on oneself” (Ichgeschlossenheit) and on the other the danger of
the dialogical thinkers who tend to end up with two monologues delivered
against a religious background. The way to the third in Creation is the principle
of fruitfulness.4
We have already encountered this in another connection in our look at the
sexes. Whereas the man represents a “single principle (Word-Seed),” “the
woman represents a double principle” that is, both “answer and (joint) fruit.”1 If
the male represents the Word-seed, the woman has an even deeper symbolic role,
for she is not only a “vessel for his fruitfulness” but she is “fitted with her own,
expressive fruitfulness” which is yet “a responsive fruitfulness (antwortende
Fruchtbarkeit).”2 Even as a third mysteriously emerges from the sexual
encounter of two individuals—Balthasar emphasizes that the physical
fruitfulness remains forever free and mysterious, something science will never
fully understand—so this serves as an analogy to the mysterious character of
spiritual fruitfulness.3
The fruitfulness of God is seen in His astounding willingness to “throw
Himself away (as seed and Word),” something that reveals “the principle of all
bearing fruit.”4 Balthasar makes much of the principle of “dispossession”
(Enteignung): man must “join himself” (aneignen) to God’s dispossession
(Enteignung) if he is to bear fruit: “the one who bears much fruit, glorifies the
principle of bearing fruit.”5 The seed of God in the Old Testament falls to earth,
fructifying it. In the New Testament, the soil, Mary, is already fruitful, the “Word
that comes finds a fertile earth,” an earth that has been made fruitful by the faith
of Mary. Thus, her physical fruitfulness is intimately united with her spiritual
fruitfulness.6 The word of Mary is “more deed than word: the letting-happen of
the divine deed-word (Tatwort). And the fruit of this fruit is Jesus. . . . And this
love is given us as fruit in our heart: the Holy loving Spirit of God.”7 The
circular movement is clearly seen, where the Holy Spirit descends upon Mary, a
Mary who is fertile in faith and rendered fruitful by her participation in the work
of the Holy Spirit. She who is already fruit—fruit of the faith of Israel, an Israel
which knew no Promethean fruitfulness but a “patient waiting” on the Lord,8 the
faithful perseverance of the anawim—bears fruit, and her fruit, obedient to the
Cross, bears fruit in the Church.
At the Cross, Balthasar sees sinful humanity’s “attempt to drive God out of
finitude in order not to have to conceive from Him but to fructify themselves. . .
.”1 This bears out what we saw in our last chapter regarding the sin of Sodom.
All attempts at self-fertilization are ultimately futile. It is at the Cross where the
Word is fully seen as the Seed become flesh (“in the centre of all fruitfulness
now stands the body”2), at Calvary, where the Son and Mother are separated by a
“physical and spiritual death” that “the mystery of highest fruitfulness of love
between man and woman is realised: where the Eucharist springs forth, the
ecclesial womb that will receive it is formed.”3 The Eucharist, which Balthasar
sees as symbolically originating at the Cross, is fruitfulness poured out for all
mankind, a mankind who can receive it if conformed to the image of the
receiving “womb” of the Virgin-Mother-Church. The role of the body in this
cannot be underestimated. Virginity is the “victory of the agape-death as a life
form which bears fruit.”4 Virginity is key to the agape-purification of love the
fruitfulness of which is not at all disincarnate, not even—no, especially not—for
the virgins, but rather bears its eucharistic fruit in and for the world. Balthasar
proclaims that: “Fruitfulness is always Eucharist. . . .”5 The “wonder of virginal
fruitfulness” is quite other than anti-sexual ascetical teachings which hold
individuality and generation to be “bad and thus to be overcome through
continence”: rather, the Christian understanding is fully based on the love of God
for the world which is ultimately not a humanistic love among humans, but the
outpouring of the love of the Blessed Trinity which flows into the “love of Christ
imprinted on the Church by the Holy Spirit.”6
All fruitfulness on earth is tied to the Cross. It requires of the disciples a
purification by the Father7 who is the one who “prunes the vine” that it may bear
fruit. The image of the vineyard is the central image of fruitfulness from the
teachings of Jesus that draws Balthasar: “the faithful only bear fruit by their
‘abiding’ in the vine.”1 Naturally, then, fruitfulness is the very “essence of the
The Church itself is “fruit of the Cross”3 and: “All fruitfulness for the
Church grows out of the Cross.”4 On the Cross, it is no longer a single seed
sown in one womb, but rather the entire “fruitfulness of God’s seeds” that is
poured out on the Cross, “sown into the spiritual-corporeal womb of the Church
and everyone in her who is ready to conceive.”5 This is especially true of the
contemplatives in the Church, for the one praying “keeps himself ready
exclusively as the vessel for every fertilising seed of the Beloved.”6
There is spiritual fruitfulness in Heaven—an “interpersonal fruitfulness”
which is yet non-sexual. This is anticipated on earth by “the Eucharist as
exchange of love between Christ-Bridegroom and Church-Bride [and by] the
form of life of virginity as a participation in such supra-sexual connubiality” all
under the sign of the Cross.7 The contemplative saints in particular know of this
fruitfulness. In a tradition extending from the Rhineland mystics through Teresa
of Avila to the Little Flower, the saints have held contemplation to be “the most
fruitful work for the world and for the Church,” a contemplation which then
moves on to expression as “apostolically active individual acts on behalf of one’s
neighbor.”8 Fruitfulness then is for Balthasar first and last the great test of
genuineness in the saints.9

C. Discipleship (Nachfolge)
Holiness, we have seen, is given by God: God is all holy and only God is holy.
Others share in His holiness. We shall, in our final section, look explicitly at the
saints, those who embody holiness in an exemplary way. As they are the
quintessence of human holiness, it is difficult not to anticipate by looking at their
witness. Briefly, then, the saints “receive their task in the Church from a super-
ecclesial encounter with the source from which the Church emerges.” The saints
who are involved in reforming the Church “need no other experience of the
Church than the experience of the source” in order to know what they are to do.1
Put differently, Balthasar writes that: “The saints found Church. They receive her
singly from the Lord and expand her as communio.” In fact, he notes, this work
is not limited to the saints but extends to all the “hidden Christians who draw
others to themselves as magnets draw filings of iron, unbeknownst to
What, then, is this “experience of the source,” how is it to be had? As we
see, it is an experience that is at the root of Christian holiness, one that ripples
out into the world, drawing others into the sphere of the Church and then
opening out into an encounter which passes through and above that Church to
the “source.” The way to experience the source is what Balthasar calls Nachfolge
and which we will translate as “discipleship.”3 To contact the living God, one
must contact the human Christ who is God become man. God has tied our
contemplation to the Incarnation of His Son: “He sends us a concrete
contemplation of Trinitarian life through an insertion realised by grace and in the
seriousness of the discipleship of Christ.” One enters into the faith-obedience
(Glaubensgehorsam) “accomplished along with Christ in the Spirit.”4 It is no
surprise that the perfect model for such a Trinitarian contemplation is Mary and
her answer to the Word addressed to her.5 The Gospel world which one
contemplates is no “sublimely mystical” world but rather an everyday world of
everyday human relations: yet it is precisely as such that it expresses the
“consuming beauty of God.”1
Rather than primarily an imitation, in which one might seem to set out on
one’s own program of imitating, the actual following of Christ depends upon an
indifference which frees one up to follow the will of God, an indifference “that
sets the will of the Lord higher than all one’s own programs of perfection.”2 One
wants neither to be “melted” into God nor yet does one want to have one’s ego,
one’s will fully extinguished, but rather one strives for “the appropriation of the
divine will into one’s own will with the express awareness that thus the will of
the Lord is taken up into the will of the servant and thus is realised by him.”3
The one “condition of discipleship” which Jesus sets is to leave everything and
follow Him.4 Salvation has “appeared in human form: to be in salvation means
to be with this man.”5
It should be noted that for Balthasar, the discipleship of Christ was truly re-
discovered by St. Ignatius who provided a wedding of scholasticism and
mysticism, as seen in the important role of Thomistic secondary causes and
analogy in his Exercises. Thus, in the meditation on the Kingdom, the Christian
can “represent” the king as a vice-regent without surrendering anything of his
personhood. “Representation” then becomes the keystone to “baroque culture”
seen especially in the great missions of St. Francis Xavier and the Paraguayan
Reductions and in the theatre of Calderon: it offers a “new consciousness of the
appearance of divine Glory in the world” wherein the Glory can find an
appropriate vessel without (contra Eckhart, Ockham or Luther) destroying that
vessel.6 Typically, Balthasar observes that the more a servant bears his master’s
orders, representing him, the more he distinguishes himself from the master: so
“precisely where the servant distinguishes himself more deeply and
unmistakably from Christ he becomes more like Him. . . .”1
The “law of discipleship” then is that “the disciples must also do what He
does and is, in order that in realising this they might receive some idea of Who
He is: that is, so that in realising they might not be actualising themselves, but
Christ in them.” Balthasar observes that no matter how well-intentioned, it is the
“mystical forgetfulness of this fundamental law” that drags Christianity down
“to the level of any human world religion . . . and to that against which the Old
Testament had struggled as against the arch-fiend.”2 Here again the correct
distance (Abstand) in relation is what is at issue, the reverence which lets the
Lord, the sovereign, be Lord: and yet, paradoxically, the only way to know the
Lord is to follow Him, but as He has chosen to reveal Himself, as a humble man,
not as “ascetic, mystic, sage” but rather as the son of the Carpenter. To follow
Him is first and foremost to enter on the path of self-renunciation which takes
most concrete form in that renunciation of one’s own will which is obedience.
Holiness is a “‘sacrificial consecration’ in the will of the Father that perfects the
sacrifice.”3 Holiness is an identification fully with Christ in doing the will of the
Father. And the life of the vows, of poverty, chastity and obedience, if truly
lived, is “the essence of holiness itself.” This form, the life of the vows, is the
“form-giving condition for every life in the discipleship of the Lord.”4 The
holiness which flows from this consecration and sacrifice of self in union with
Christ is a charism for the entire Church. So holiness has a role to play “like the
official service of the priest.”5
The true delight, indeed the ecstasy of the Christian is not a matter of great
experiences of God, but rather it is the experience of obedience in line with Jesus
“wherein the one who serves wants to find his final delight nowhere other than
in the realisation of the will of the One Who has sent him.”6 This obedience of
course means openness to mission from the Father, a mission that is subsumed to
the form of the life, passion and death of Christ. The glorification of the Son by
the Father is “the proof given by the Father that everything glorious that has
resulted as fruit from the Son’s mission is finally based on the perfect, absolute
obedience. . . .”1 Obedience is nothing less than faith itself: “Christian faith is
not primarily a self-understanding of Christians nor yet is it a self-understanding
of the Church as a community, but rather an obedience. . . .”2 The simple
discipleship of this man who praised the Father for preferring the lowly and the
“mere babes” is perhaps most clearly seen in the Christian phenomenon of
“foolishness for Christ.”

D. Foolishness for Christ

It is in the notion of the fool for Christ’s sake that many typically Balthasarian
concerns find their center. The “folly” of which Balthasar writes is ultimately the
Cross: as Paul writes, the wisdom of the Cross is “a stumbling block to Jews and
folly to Gentiles. . .” (1 Cor. 1:23). The wisdom of this world, then, regards the
highest wisdom of the Christian as foolishness. On another level, as
childlikeness is so key a characteristic of the Christian, so foolishness is
identified with childlikeness and contrasted with the way of the “sage.” Let us
look at some ways in which this theme is developed.
The fool for Christ is distinctively Christian, contrasted with earlier
“philosophy” and with sages: foolishness is a “moment” that “characterises . . .
the hidden heart of Christian piety.”3 Foolishness in the eyes of the world bears
witness to another order, that of grace approached through faith, in contrast to
the best wisdom of the world with its concern for virtue.
Balthasar traces the development of this image in the history of Western
culture. Looking at the development of a true portrayal of man, he finds that
most of the arts were too idealized for the task: the architecture and music of
antiquity were “much too neutral and unobtrusive in their effect, painting can
dominate the cultic image in its abstract and heavenly dignity.”1 It is poetry (and
literature) that has proven the best art form for revealing the flesh and blood man
in the Christian view. The West long struggled in an effort to convert the heroes
of antiquity into saints, but “the saint as hero was always a misunderstanding. . .
.”2 For what should happen to the image of the hero when the saints
“disappeared into the ungraspable”?3 So the saints were sketched alongside great
men, Athanasius and Constantine, Ambrose and Theodosius, Benedict and
Totila. Yet Balthasar notes, “a sketch is not yet a form.”4 It was the figure of the
fool that eventually emerged as distinctively Christian in literature. On the one
hand, he finds Parsifal in the world of chivalry, the Praise of Folly in the world
of Humanism, Don Quixote and Simplicissimus in the Baroque—a “gallery of
representative fools and idiots” that he also finds in Shakespeare’s “bright and
tragic fools” and in Dostoyevsky’s Idiot.5 Transcending all other forms, the
image of the fool becomes the “‘classical’ image of man in the modern West:
from Parsifal to Prince Myshkin.”6 The appeal of the fool, he maintains, is that
an “aura of unconscious, unwilled holiness surrounds the true fool” who is
unburdened with any of the self-conscious melancholy of tragic figures and,
aware of the distance between himself and God, he is “closest to the saint, often
closer than the man who cultivates his perfection. . . .”7
Of the fools in literature, Balthasar is especially fond of Don Quixote who
is “a piece of dogma that has been overlooked by Catholic theologians, a dogma
that on the Catholic side can only be written with and through humor. . . .”8 Don
Quixote is so delightful precisely because “he makes no subjective claims to
holiness and objectively his laughable deeds can in no way, not for a moment, be
compared with the serious deeds of God and Jesus Christ. He knows about the
absolute distance between God and man, Christ and Church (insofar as he,
Quixote, incorporates this). . . .”1
If Cervantes knew how to portray man (= the Church) in his true relation to
God, it is especially the Russians who saw in the mad the “special friends of
God,” Dostoyevsky in particular whose Prince Myshkin offered “the ‘most
beautiful image of Christ.’”2
Literature—and poetry in particular—is then the vehicle for this sound
presentation of the image of man. We recall that Hamann had argued for a
“poetical disorder” that is the “manner and expression of the Holy Spirit.” The
apparent madness of the poet reflected the higher order in which he dwells. For
Hamann, God is a poet and “the Incarnation and the incorporation of the world
in Christ is the perfection of the poetry of God.”3 But poetry is the special
prerogative of youth, and at the very least of a youthful heart. As we have seen,
aging, which is “unthinkable” without resignation “is no Christian virtue”4:
“There are no ‘old’ saints.”5 The saints all have a quality of youthful folly about
them: Peter is accused of being drunk, Paul of being mad, Augustine’s
Confessions seem “juvenile” in comparison with Plotinus.6
Youth then with its enthusiasm, its poetic sense and its folly is near the
heart of what it is to be Christian. A strikingly beautiful passage illustrates this
Until the very end and in everything that he does, the Christian has the privilege of being a
“poet,” in the eyes of the children of this world a dreamer . . . in the sense of being
youthfully inflamed by a model which has been discovered and chosen as an idol of the
heart, that at least for the moment appears perfect. An idol whose deeds, words, style
(Haltungen) are admired and imitated right down to the smallest detail. An idol of which one
dreams, to whom one secretly swears fidelity and emulation, without sharing this with
anyone, an ideal, that if it is a person, will soon enough reveal itself as an illusion, but if it is
God in human form, will keep the jubilation of the heart fresh until hoary old age and will
inflame it ever again.1

The poetic act centers on the periphery of the mystical act. The genuine mystic is
not to compose poetry expanding the revelation of God, but rather to live
discipleship, following the Holy Spirit. Stripped of all lesser loves, mystical
poetry must renounce the “æsthetic” it must be purified by the “sword of the
Spirit.” John of the Cross is a particularly good example of “the cry of the soul
vivisected in the middle of the night, in order to end in the song of praise of the
still deeper, still livelier soul, sounded in the fire of Glory.”2
This is all contrasted with the wisdom of non-Christian religions which do
not know this foolishness, but rather have virtue and wisdom. The foolishness of
God, revealed in the Cross, is “wiser than all the religious wisdom of mankind”
and it further “demands that the religions become foolish as well in order to
become truly wise for the first time.”3 It is the saints who supply models of this
folly which offers a “high flight” above the virtues philosophy cultivates, flight
higher than apatheia.4 Here Balthasar sees two lines converging on the figure of
St. Ignatius and his understanding of indifference. The first line is that of the
saints, what he calls the “metaphysics of the saints” which is “grounded on a
fundamental passivity to the will of God.” The other line is the “metaphysics of
the fools” and it is “grounded on the being open to the will of God greater than
that of all the teachers of wisdom.”5 What results when the two are wed, when
the indifference which comes through Eckhart meets the indifference of
foolishness—of youthful, poetic enthusiasm—is that indifference represented by
Ignatius, that is, disponibility.1 Foolishness then becomes not only the penance it
had been in early Christian fools like Francis or Jacopone da Todi, nor “pure
passivity of the reason toward God” which opened the door to grace, but now, in
the Ignatian embrace of humility in the following of Christ, it becomes “the
conscious, loving preference for the infinitely lordly will of God over all
spiritual harmony of the cosmos of the cardinal virtues.”2 In this, the foolishness
of Christian holiness reflects—indeed, participates in—the foolishness of God’s
love, the madness of a God descending into the turbulence of the world in order
to save His creatures. This is a madness that destroys the wisdom of this world,
and the right understanding of this foolish love of God by Christian dogma is
what keeps agape from being “stormed” by Gnosis.3 Appealing as it sounds,
urged on by the trumpet calls of youthful infatuation, discipleship in folly is yet
the way of suffering, as the folly always remains the Cross.
E. Suffering
To become holy, as we have seen, is to have been touched by the God who alone
is holy. For the Christian, this means the following of God-made-man, of the
man Jesus Whose life reveals Who God is. This following reaches its peak in the
“folly of the Cross” and all around it, the Passion and Death which form the
acme of the Revelation. Suffering is at the very heart of the Gospel message for
Balthasar, and as such, is at the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
Balthasar did not shy away from as bold an assertion as this: “Suffering only has
meaning in Christianity,” adding that: “All the other religions are only palliatives
against suffering.”4 It is not our purpose here to fully develop his theology of the
Cross, but we clearly cannot avoid some consideration of Balthasar’s doctrine of
suffering if we are to understand his understanding of Christian uniqueness and
We can take our cue from Irenæus, who contrasts Christian suffering with
Gnosis. For Irenæus: “It is the real, suffering and dying human being who . . .
gives glory to God, and this suffering one, humiliated unto death, is much more
splendid than all the painless schemes of the Gnostics. . . .”1 If we bear in mind
that for Irenæus, “the glory of God is the living human being” and that for
Balthasar the glory of God for man is always cruciform then the man who is the
glory of God is not a human being “in top shape” as it were, well-fed, well-
exercised, well-developed—a view Balthasar is quick to parody—but the human
being wounded, broken, suffering. This is not a bizarre celebration of human
misery, unredeemed, but rather it is (suffering) man lifted into the suffering form
of Christ that is this glory. Let us look a bit closer at this suffering modelled by
Christ under the three aspects of God-forsakenness, obedience and substitution.
Rather than focusing on the physical tortures of the Passion of Christ,
Balthasar’s passiology focuses on the cry of abandonment on the Cross and the
solidarity with sinners—experiencing abandonment by God—which Christ
experiences as He descends into hell. Godlessness is the “possible final
consequence of human freedom,” answered by the man Jesus who descended to
the depths of God-forsakenness. In this abandonment, “God lets God go into the
abandonment by God” but Balthasar adds “in that He accompanies Him there
with His Spirit.” This total divine engagement in the mystery of the human
freedom to reject God and the willing suffering by God of the consequences of
such a rejection form that uniquely Christian understanding of the riddle of
suffering, “the only acceptable solution to the puzzle of the world. . . .” This is a
mystery: indeed, it is the peak of the mystery of the relation between God and
man, something which transcends even God-made cosmological laws, revealing
“the mysterious dialogue between human freedom—that may utter its final word
—and the divine freedom, whose final word is no longer a ‘word’ but rather a
deed that sinks into total darkness.” This is a “silence” which transcends human
powers of imagination and creativity and in which “God reveals Who and What
God is.”1 Christ’s death, then, the abandonment by God on the Cross in
solidarity with humanity, is “no rejection of the creature in order to attain God”
but rather God’s abandonment by God in order to save the creature.2 As such,
the “whole form of the Christian is first realised through the suffering of Christ. .
. .”3
The implications for Christian holiness as a following of Christ are vast.
First of all, as it was an individual who died on the Cross, so the encounter with
the Cross is only possible for individuals, as individuals.4 Second, as Christ—
God and man—has loved man through every conceivable pain and alienation,
through every conceivable sin, and asks man’s love in return, a disinterested
contemplation, detached from His Passion and Cross, is an outrage. This, for
example, was intuited by Augustine, who knew that “the way of longing was
paved for him by the humility and Cross of Christ, and not from the self-
assurance of Plotinian Gnosis.”5 Again, Balthasar’s coolness toward self-
realized spiritual figures comes to the fore.
The Christian saints find their center in Christ’s Passion. The point of their
meditation on His Passion is not a being moved that is external, but rather a
contemplation that leads one to “order one’s life according to this insight.”6
Some saints experience the pains of hell, of abandonment by God, “including
temporarily being handed over to demons.”7 Ultimately, he sees no contradiction
at all that one who had experienced the bliss of bridal mysticism “should still die
in a subjective abandonment by God: this could indeed be a form of higher union
with the Lord, whose night of the senses and of the spirit was the conclusion of
His earthly experience.”8 So much is Balthasar convinced of this, in fact, that he
maintains that a death patterned after Christ’s, in abandonment by God, is to be
preferred to a “mystical death” in an ecstasy of love. Bernanos is the writer who
is singled out as having understood this mystery and as having portrayed it in his
writings on the Carmelites, where a “true Cross-death (Kreuzestod) in extreme
God-forsakenness” also “possesses the fruitfulness of the Cross to be true
substitution (Stellvertretung) for another death.” This overcomes the “illusory
tradition” that a Carmelite was supposed to die a “mors mystica in an ecstasy of
We cannot fail to observe that the death of Christ on the Cross is
characterized by “death-fruitfulness” (Todesfruchtbarkeit) where “the man Jesus
becomes the origin of the Woman and of the Bride Church. . . .”2 The nearer the
Christian wants to come to His Lord, then, in discipleship, the more He will
suffer, and in particular, suffer even abandonment, God-forsakenness in order to
share in the redemption of mistaken human freedom, in love.
Here we return to the question of experience, of mystical experience. It is
presumed, of course, that “experience” signifies raptures, ecstasies, bliss. In this
sense, we can say that the experience of Christ in obeying the Father was a
renunciation of the experience of God in favor of obedience. The experimental
knowledge which He then received was that of man alienated from God—seen
in its extreme in the Cross and Descent into Hell. This too is experience, of
course. But the emphasis is laid on the obediential aspect of Christ’s sacrifice.
Thus, “it is not the experience of union with God that represents the measure of
perfection (the highest stage of ascent) but rather obedience, that even in the
experience of abandonment (Gottverlassenheit) can be just as bound to God as in
the experienced union.”3
To really experience God then is to “work with” God. God has turned
toward the world, and to turn away from the world in search of God “through
ascetical and ‘mystical’ exertions” is quite the opposite of what He has chosen as
the way to union with Him. Rather, what is demanded is an “active appropriation
of God’s movement toward us.”1 Again, this movement has its origin in an act of
obedience within the Blessed Trinity, an obedience which bears the Holy Spirit
with it to the depths of Hell. Everything about Christ, from His Incarnation
onwards, is “an expression of His obedience” and so He is Himself the
“archetypical method to be followed. . . .”2
The “readiness” to do the will of the Father thus assumes first place, a
higher value than any “experience” and “the whole status of mysticism is thus
transformed.”3 True wisdom, then, is that of “Christological obedience in love”
(Liebesgehorsam) which is “wiser than all wisdom without obedience.”4 The
“personal experience” of each Christian is to be conformed to the Cross and
Resurrection of Christ. What remains of “unusual mystical experiences” is
something that is given only “for the sake of the others,” hardly something to be
sought after for its own sake.5
Christ’s death on the Cross “for us” (pro nobis) is the point “on which all
of Christian theology depends.”6 Christ’s death was one in substitution for our
sins: He took our place, represented us (though “representation” is really too
weak a word). According to Paul, it was a death in obedience “that takes away
the disobedience of Adam. . . .”7 This “substitutory salvation” (stellvertretende
Erlösung) is Christ’s primary task.8 The question before us, as we look at
Christian holiness, is to what extent the disciple can take part in this death.
Of course, all Christians are sinners, and so Christ’s death is for them,
before they themselves can have any share in a death for others. Our first share
in the Cross then is as those who are themselves “unjustly striking” Him: we are,
first of all, those who cause Him to suffer His death on the Cross. Yet, as we
come to follow Him, we are ourselves supposed to bear “unjust suffering . . . in
imitation of Him.” Of this form of “imitation,” Balthasar is quick to observe: “in
tanta similitudine major dissimilitudo.”1
Yet the Church is represented at the foot of the Cross where Mary, herself
preserved from sin by the sacrifice of the Cross, represents the Church, the
communion of saints. If Christ took the place of all men on the Cross, where
“the Word of God . . . dies in the darkness,” then at the foot of the Cross stands
the Church, uttering her response in the darkness, “taking their place” as well.2
No one, not even Mary, can actively save himself: and yet, “it is not impossible
that Jesus gives those saved by Him the possibility of having a share in His
power, to reach into the realm of human freedom saving, liberating, supporting. .
. .” This is done in such a way that “according to the laws of the communion of
saints he could place himself at God’s disposal for other men . . . in intercession,
in suffering-for and being-for (Für-Bitten, Für-Leiden, Für-Sein).”3 Thus, the
communion of saints, those saved in Christ, does have a share in the saving work
of Christ, by suffering for the other.
Indeed, from being a possibility, this becomes an obligation for Christians
who must now “continue the work of substitution as the fundamental ethical
act.”4 The silent suffering at Calvary, both on the part of the Crucified and the
Church gathered at the foot of the Cross is a being-with to which all Christians
are called. The descent into Hell is a solidarity with sinners which allows for no
self-righteous moralism on the part of Christians who must be willing (in the
Holy Spirit) to accompany their brothers and sisters through the depths of the
human journey, assured that their Lord has gone this way before them. As we
have observed, the willingness to undergo suffering—and hell—for another is
for Balthasar a chief sign of sanctity.
This sign marks the “fools” in particular. Again, in Russian literature,
Dostoyevsky has Prince Myshkin write of love that it is “communication with
the sinner, communion with his guilt without any desire to distinguish and as
exchange of the Cross with him, as on Holy Saturday, where love has died the
death of sin with sin and for it.” It is the mystery of Holy Saturday that is
inviolable against all onslaughts, for “here love has already conquered in
silence.” This single individual represents the “senselessness and idiocy of
existence” and spills over into “the gentle divine idiot on the Cross, who silently
shelters everything in Himself and gives His form to everything.”1 And as if to
accentuate the humility of the Incarnate God, He accepts “the law of fellow
humanity which leaves the other man free to say ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”2 That is, His
loving embrace is open to being rejected.
In the end, then, Christian holiness requires a share in the suffering of
Christ, in His abandonment out of obedience which allows Him to suffer the
sufferings of others, for others. Suffering can be overcome by no doctrine, no
words, and finally by no technique. Rather, Biblical theology and the Fathers
came to find the sense of suffering from within the Cross itself: that the “solution
for the puzzle of human existence” exists “in the possibility of a co-suffering
(indeed, a suffering ‘for’) of God with man in the God-man. . . .”3 That a human
sinner, himself saved by the Cross of Christ, can take part in this redemptive
suffering is the highest privilege imaginable.
If the encounter with Christ is always one on one, still, the work of
salvation takes place within the communion of saints. It is to this communion
and the lived “apologies” for the Christian faith that it offers that we finally turn.

III. The Saints

A. Overview: the communion of saints
At the heart of what Balthasar understands by being a saint is the “mission”
(Sendung). The German word well conveys the thrust—the “sending”—that is
less tangible in the Latin-based “mission.” The “sending” begins within the
Blessed Trinity, and “overflows”1 into the world. The mission is a sort of seed
that bears fruit and brings back a rich harvest; viewed differently, the one with a
mission takes part in the work of the sower, the great harvest of humanity.
The saints are recipients of special graces, and along with each grace, there
is a “mission” given, missions that are “the answer of Heaven to the questions of
earth”2: “both the missions and those persons identifying themselves with them
interpenetrate one another to become what is called the communio sanctorum in
which clearly not only the goods and valuables belonging to the persons become
common property, but also the person himself.”3 Again and again Balthasar will
insist that the individuals, the saints, are “deprivatised” but never
“depersonalised.”4 This is so because they share a common ground which is
personal.5 The relation between unity and diversity in the Trinity is perhaps
nowhere seen more clearly than in the communion of saints. This unity-in-
diversity is a “fellowship” of those united by “the mysterious laws of their
‘mutual recognition’ (Füreinanderkennen) in prayer, substitution, suffering-for-
others. . . .”6 This being “for-one-another” (Für-einander) is at the very core of
what it is to be a saint, and it means that in the communion of saints there is only
“Thou”, no “I.”
A reflection of the Trinitarian reality, as it were, the communion of saints
serves a function like that of the iconostasis in the Greek Church: the iconostasis
should remind the faithful “that we do not encounter Christ and the Triune God
turned toward us other than in and with the ‘communion of saints.’”7 Indeed,
among other elements, “Christ exists concretely only together with the
communion of saints (united with the Immaculata). . . .”8 Mary of course is seen
as “the innermost heart of the Church with the crowd of true saints gathered
around her.”1 As we have seen, Mary’s response to God allowed her to be the
perfect example of the successful mission. The saint also shares in this
missioning, the primordial image of which is, of course, the mission that the Son
receives from the Father. To be Christ-bearing (christophor) is quite literally the
same as to be marian. The whole relation of antitype and type (Urbild and
Abbild) and the receptivity to this imprinting are the conditions of Christian
holiness. Unlike the master artist who sketches the outline and leaves the filling
in to underlings, here the work is God’s alone, and man’s task is to surrender, in
obedience, ever more to the work of God2 (and, needless to say, to place no
obstacles in the way of God). In the great mystical saints, we see a “convergence
of æsthetics and mysticism” in the way in which “the Formless-Ineffable of God
presents itself as fascinating-enrapturing Superform and summons in man the
response of the forming powers and lays claim to them.”3 But it is God who
appropriates man’s gifts and puts them to use, not man who consciously gets to
work. Bearing in mind the importance of the “correct distance,” we find that the
“true saint is always the one who confuses himself least with Christ and thus can
be the most convincing transparency to Christ.”4
It is the “becoming translucent of their spiritual mission” that allows for
the “full incarnation or becoming person” of the saints.5 There emerges here the
interplay of objective and subjective holiness, a theme which looms large for
Balthasar. The objective part is the mission itself; the subjective is the response
to that mission. The greatness of the saint depends both upon the greatness of the
mission and the response given. Human freedom is always at play: “subjective
factors can destroy the mission.”6 When greatness in both coincide, then the
Church finds a Christian life that is “paradigmatic and imitable because it
reflects much of the Holy Spirit and Christ” and so leads to canonization.1 It is
this “objective ecclesial holiness” that distinguishes the saint from a pious
believer who has not yet been brought to a total self-giving to the work of God
on earth.2
Because they are special, with a gift that comes, as it were, from without,
their missions are disturbing to others, and they are generally ignored in their
own time or shoved aside: “as a rule, their greatest effect is after their deaths.”3
This ability to receive “fresh from the source” is perhaps that which
characterizes the saints most of all.4 They are the ones who let fresh air into the
Church, and so they become the sources of reform, for they are the ones who are
able to contact the Word and so be lifted out of the (closed) circles of human
discourse. One way of viewing this is in terms of nakedness to the Truth.
Balthasar notes that sinful humanity is uncomfortable with too great a proximity
to God, and likes to vest itself “in the sheets of false tradition.” He alludes to
Francis of Assisi, standing naked before the bishop, “for Christ on the Cross was
also naked” and he concludes: “This immediacy to the source is the true
tradition, that of the saints, where they are genuine.”5 This reflects the
willingness, by the saint, to live that directness which is the fruit of Parrhesia, a
standing naked “in the love of God.”
Turning to the question of Christian saints and other traditions, we find
Balthasar writing that “the counterpart to the eastern yogi or Zen master . . . is
not the Christian mystic, but the Christian saint whether he be a mystic or not.”
This is so because: “Ultimately the supreme Christian value is not the experience
of transcendence, but getting through the grayness of everyday in faith, hope and
love.” Like the eastern mystics, the Christian saint knows ascesis in order to
recollect himself: but he is “addressed” in this recollection and receives his
mission which “coincides precisely with his intelligible ‘I.’”1
As noted, not all saints are mystics, and Balthasar sees this as something
that distinguishes the saints from the “holy men” of other traditions. The sages
“have overcome the emotions that render the spirit turbulent, but they are
without God. The Christian sage has overcome personal egoism and has entered
into the friendship of God.”2 This two-fold, interpersonal movement must be
emphasized. For along with the holy ones of other traditions, the saints of
Christianity are to be rid of their egoism. But it is not in order to disappear and
be overpowered by another “consciousness,” as Balthasar sees the case in Zen:
rather, one is “dispossessed” in order to take up residence in another, and to let
that other take up residence in one in a Johannine sense. The failure to live up to
this Christian standard has had devastating consequences. Ferdinand Ebner
observes that the cause of the shipwreck of the West is the “Platonization of
Christianity,” the “stylization of the Cross,” by which the center of gravity in
Christianity moved from the I-Thou to the individual soul, leading to “the most
dangerous sidetracking (Verkehrung) of Christianity into sterile churchiness or
mysticism.”3 Of course, God can give mystic graces to the Church through a
saint, though often these “words” will only be understood later, not in the saint’s
own time4—indeed, it is part of the saint’s fruitfulness to bear fruit without
knowing much of it. One further note of distinction. The individualism of
“Platonizing mysticism” is seen as ultimately quite at odds with the communion
of saints: “The Neo-Platonic schema remains individualistic while in the
Christian view it is always substitution (Stellvertretung) and the ‘communion of
saints’ that matters.”5
The split between dogmatic theology and spirituality is found rooted in the
focus of mystics on their own experience which led to the development of
spirituality as a separate discipline: when one emphasizes the experience, not
God, then God is left to the “dogmatic specialist” while the saints lyrically write
of how they experience God.1 Hence the great importance of dogmatic, objective
holiness for Balthasar. “Mysticism of service” is eminently Biblical, seen in the
Apocalypse of John, forgetful of himself, and in the “mysticism” of Joseph and
Mary. A further consequence is that dogma, with its teaching of God, Creation
and Redemption is shoved to the background, in favor of “one’s own inner
experience” and that which comes to the fore “are often the connections,
parallels and analogies with the religious conditions and phenomena in the extra-
Christian realm.”2 That is, true Christian holiness is one of service, one of
fulfilling the mission. To focus on one’s mystical experience removes the center
of attention from God to the mystic himself, and, turning things subjectively
inwards, the “Christian mystical experience” is now subject to comparison (and
identification) with the religious experiences of other traditions. Balthasar wants
to stress the dogmatic character of missions in particular in an attempt to
overcome this split between mystical and dogmatic theology which he sees as
the greatest tragedy in the history of Christian theology. Hence also his
occasional criticism even of the Spanish mystics with their detailed descriptions
of inner states which he feels leads them to focus more on the states of the
mystic himself than on the mystery which the dogma articulates and to which the
mystical saint has access experientially. Hence, “service” becomes a key word
for that which will distinguish a mysticism which is turned outward, toward the
neighbor, on mission, from one which runs the risk of becoming preoccupied
with internal, psychological states which, in the end, say much more about the
universal structure of human consciousness than about the Triune God revealed
in Christ. Service is also another way of speaking of the historical nature of the
saints’ involvement with the world. The great saints from Anthony and Origen,
through Teresa of Avila to Charles de Foucauld were all involved in helping the
world, engaged as they were in a spiritual struggle which very much included the
salvation of the world.1
The saints, then, are the ones who make Christian love “credible, and they
serve poor sinners as guiding stars. But they only want to be pointers away from
themselves, and towards love.” Wherever this is diminished—for example in
references to Francis or to a priest as alter Christus—then the “love of the
Biblical revelation is already no longer credible.” Their own personality dare not
come too much to the fore, there can be no laying of “a golden mantel around
their fully revealed ‘religious personalities’” for this reason.2
These personalities however are unique, and their uniqueness reflects the
uniqueness of the God Who is molding them, yet it is precisely in the depths that
their missions, no matter how different they may appear, meet.3 The form which
molds the saints is the “super-form of the Cross” and they are only
understandable in its light.4
In the encounter with other traditions, Balthasar singles out three Catholic
figures as representative, model Christians.
In Mother Teresa, Balthasar sees a St. Peter Claver for our times. Whereas
the East can show the West the “need of inner peace and reflection” as the
necessary presupposition of “hearing in the heart the speechless Word that God
addresses to us,” Mother Teresa shows the East “what the personal love of God
and neighbor is and that of which it is capable—beyond any ‘compassion.’” Her
work among the wretched of Calcutta is something that “no Indian has done”
and adds: “That God turns to the man who is seeking him, entering into what is
unique and historical, is the plus of the West. . . .”5 This dogmatic truth is seen
incarnate in the mission of Mother Teresa.
In Charles de Foucauld, Balthasar sees an alternative model to ecclesial
mistakes like the bellicose missionary expeditions that conquered Latin America.
In Foucauld, there is the witness of “presence of a defenseless Christian in an
Islamic land, living simultaneously in service of the poor and in eucharistic
The third model Christian in modern times that Balthasar singles out is
Cardinal Newman, whose achievement it was to break through to “the living
catholic (sic) unity” beyond Orthodoxy’s fixation with the Patristic period as
solely normative for all subsequent Christianity and Protestantism’s fixation with
In summary, then, the saints “are those who live out of faith, that is, out of
the form of the love-obedience (Liebesgehorsam) of Jesus Christ in His
discipleship, no matter to what ecclesial state they might be assigned, in
whatever cultural or technological age they live and work.”3 As such, they are
the “great experiencers” in the Christian sense, they are the “great interpretation
of the Gospel, more true and convincing than all exegesis.”4 Their communion
comes from the unity of God: and this unity is “nothing other than pure ‘for-one-
another’ (Füreinander).”5 As source of life for the Church6 they are “on the way,
sent with Christ to the world.”7 Balthasar writes: “It is not dry textbooks, even
when they are full of doubtless truths, that plausibly express the truth of the
Gospel of Christ for the world, but the existence of the saints, those who are
gripped by the Spirit of Christ. No other apologetics did Christ envision.”8 This
is so for the “truly holy person . . . is according to the spirit of revelation itself
the best ‘proof’ for its truth.”9 And it is the saint who gives birth to Christ again
in the world. According to Hippolytus: “The Word that proceeds from the
Father’s mouth is ‘born from out of the saints’ a second time: ‘continually giving
birth to the saints, it itself is born from the saints in its turn.’”10
In looking at the life of a saint, one must not so focus on the individual life
as not to be able to see “through” to the Lord: and yet the saint must also have
his own form as well. Thus, what is at stake in looking at the saints “is always
both universalisation and individualisation.”1 We turn now to the “apologetics
that Christ envisioned,” to three saints in whom Balthasar was particularly
interested, trying to see both the objective and subjective, the de-privatized and
personalized aspects of their service of the Lord in mission.

B. Therese of Lisieux
The first two figures we will look at were both Carmelite contemplatives who
lived at the turn of the century. For Balthasar they represent models of Christian
sanctity. He does not present them uncritically, however, and in his very
criticism, especially of Therese, we will see the articulation of the values in
holiness that we have been examining in theory.
Why Carmel? Balthasar believed that the Carmelites had been given graces
particularly needed in our time, graces which balance contemporary excesses.
Thus, in the age of pragmatic action, Carmel offers a call to contemplation
“without consideration of ascertainable fruit”; in the age of psychology, Carmel
offers a return to anonymity; in the age of the “ideal of personality” it offers a
return to “the supernatural mission” that “demands the readiness to sacrifice
one’s entire nature.”2 Even as throughout history the movement in the Church
has been toward an increased “apostolic opening to the world, interpenetration of
action and contemplation,” the Carmelites here studied illustrate “the Biblical
grounding of the purely contemplative vocation,” something that had been
prepared by the Rhenish and Spanish mystics.3
Balthasar calls Therese and Elizabeth of the Trinity “sisters in the Spirit,”
but sisters that complement rather than duplicate each other. Therese so wants to
incarnate Scripture and dogma in her existence, that it “contains the danger that
at its extreme the objective truth could vanish in the existential,” and that the
greatness of the Church teaching might be constricted to her “little way.”
Elizabeth has the opposite tendency: she submerges her existence in the Gospel
“so far that the overwhelming objectivity of the divine truth threatens to destroy
her subjectivity.” Balthasar treasures both, though it seems that he somewhat
favors Elizabeth in whom, “the subjectively weaker, objectively stronger, the
contemplation of faith expands to its full Biblical dimension.”1
In Therese we see incarnated much of Balthasar’s teaching on holiness.
Thus, because God is not some anonymous law, the Christian who follows His
will for him becomes truly himself, and “no one becomes so much himself as the
saint.”2 Yet modern hagiography is mistaken in focusing on history and
psychology and ignoring the theological missions of the saints. They themselves
normally want to put their missions in the light, while leaving “their poor
personality” in the dark.3 In the saints, the Holy Spirit is illuminating aspects of
the tradition in each age, making of the saints “the ‘living Gospel.’”4 Thus:
“Every Christian and even more every saint lives a theological existence. . . .” It
was part of Therese’s mission “to illuminate anew certain pages of revelation for
Christendom. . . .” Most particularly, her mission finds its center in the “Little
The identification of her own “littleness” with a theological teaching
causes Balthasar great concern. As we have noted, he believes Therese
appropriated the dogma so existentially that it threatened to obscure the
objective teaching, so that she would point to herself rather letting herself point
to the teaching. This is seen in her use of Scripture. Scripture should normally be
a “school of unpersonalisation.” Therese never knew this, and though she “fed
her spirit and her heart through the persistent contemplation of Sacred
Scripture”5 she lived in a “sort of naivetè convinced that the Scripture stands at
her service.”6 Yet Scripture did confirm her in her mission, providing a
“strengthening of that which the ‘Inner Teacher’ had given her.”1 Again, she
wants to live the Word she hears, to lose her “I” in her mission: but she wants to
do this in such a way as to make of her life her work of art, to sculpt her life as
an artist.2 Unlike other missions in which the “I” is lost in the mission, for
Therese, “the missions seem again to be called Therese.” Her life is to be the
model “for all little souls” and so she enters on a “conscious self-canonisation.”3
Although she does want to make of her life a work of art, it is primarily to be
done “in a very feminine stance” where she receives the form from the Word of
God and lets that form her life: “She only wants . . . to conceive and to bear the
conceived with perfect love.”4 St. Paul also points to himself this way, and this
remains a bit problematical for Balthasar (and much more so for Adrienne). It is,
in the end, the way of spiritual childhood which will allow her to abandon
herself in childlike obedience, living in the will of God in this moment, saving
her from the worries and nothingness that signal “disobedience.”5 The perfect
image of this is the “little ball” which represents the readiness to receive
anything at God’s hands: this becomes the “Christian ideal of perfection” thus
altering “the status of Christian mysticism,” relativising it as an “unusual
experience of God.”6 We shall soon return to this.
Therese’s objective mission was damaged by two subjective “mistakes.”
The first concerned a mystical experience she had early in life, a miraculous
healing and vision of the Virgin. She felt a strong desire to silence, but shared
this with her sisters in spite of that reaction to “Be silent! Preserve the secret.”
Later, aware of this special gift, her superiors will constrain her to write about
her own experiences and not about dogma, thus forcing her attention to herself.7
The other mistake had deeper consequences. A confessor early on told her she
had never sinned seriously. This effectively “killed her sense of sin” leaving her
only “imperfections.”1 She was then “separated from the sinners, transfixed in
the isolation of holiness.”2 And because of this ignorance of sins “central
mysteries remain closed to her theology: the mystery of the bearing of sin and of
solidarity in sin . . . above all, the mystery of penance.”3 She comes dangerously
close to being confused with the Immaculate Conception4 and as one “preserved
from sin” she “has no connection with hell.”5 Although just before her death she
will come to have a sense of sin, it remains true that for her, “fixed in her little
way” it is the “beginning of the Passion, on the Mt. of Olives . . . that forms the
centre of her piety” rather than “the complete night of the Cross to the point
where the Son, abandoned by the Father, stands in the absolute God-
abandonment of the sinners.”6 Thus two key elements in holiness, the
substituting suffering for sinners and the abandonment of Holy Saturday are
missing, and this because of an error made on earth as regards the mission sent
from Heaven.
But the heart of her mission, the “Little Way,” is what liberates her from
the choking holiness that had been imposed on her.7 As she moves through life,
it is no longer holiness for which she primarily strives, “but the glorification of
God, the glorification of the Church, the salvation of souls, the fulfillment of the
divine will,”8 but all this in a way of extreme everydayness. Her “Little Way”
forms a sort of counterweight to the way of the “great souls” of Spanish
mysticism, and, Balthasar feels, proves evangelically richer. She had
experienced mystical phenomena, but she so turned against any unusual mystical
phenomena that Balthasar concludes “Therese does not want to see.”9 Rather
than longing for the Liebestod that John of the Cross describes, she wants only to
die the death of the Lord: “To die from love does not mean to die in raptures.”1
Her desire to spend her Heaven on earth, working for the good of souls, is
suggestively reminiscent of the Bodhisattva vow which we have seen. Balthasar
especially likes Therese’s rediscovery of the ancient Patristic notion that
“Heaven” (before the Final Judgment) will “bend over earth with concern” until
the “last of the expected brothers enters”: a sort of anticipatory Heaven, for such
saints as Therese “whose joy is unbearable as long as another suffers.”2 In her
understanding of Heaven as love (and service) of God rather than bliss,
Balthasar sees a major advance in Christian spirituality, for the repose of
classical antiquity had, he feels, infected Christian spirituality, replacing the
“laws of love” with “the laws of bliss” and the “laws of rest.”3
This compassionate element is one of other typically Balthasarian concerns
in Christian holiness. Needless to say, the “Little Way” is nothing if not
childlike. For Therese, disponibility is at the center of the religious life, it is
itself the fruitfulness of that life.4 Part of her theological mission is to transform
the notion of action as “effect” which came from the “Neo-Platonic meaning” in
contemplation to that of “fruitfulness.” In her revolutionary work on the relations
of contemplation and action, in which she made the contemplative fully a
member of the “active” Church5 she seems to even surpass St. Ignatius (in
actione contemplativus) by becoming “in contemplatione activus.”6 She is
successful in her interpretation of the superiority of contemplation over action
because her contemplation does not come “out of a void, a simple vacare, but
from a fullness.”7 To understand contemplation, then, it is better “to look away
from Aristotle” and “to tie oneself to the immanent interpretation of the words
and deeds of the Lord and His Saints in the Gospel.”8 For the saints, “all love is
fruitful”1 indeed, “without fruitfulness . . . no communion of saints.”2 And yet
“the contemplative renounces seeing his fruit himself” in order to be completely
“poured out with the contemplative and eucharistic Lord.”3
Finally, of silence, she wrote that it is “the speech of Heaven”: “Oh how I
love Your eloquent silence!”4 Balthasar writes that she “has never heard the Lord
speak and yet knows that He is in her. She prefers His silence to His speech. . . .
[Therese:] ‘this silence of the Divine Master is like a melody for my heart.’”5
As we have seen, Balthasar believes that because she was so subjective and
because she had no particular relation either with Church office or, most
especially, with a confessor, certain central mysteries remain undeveloped in
Therese: this is especially true of the “dogma of the Trinity” which “is very
weakly represented in her.” It is Elizabeth of the Trinity, “completely oriented
towards the objective, that which is independent of the subject” who will “be
able to develop an explicitly Trinitarian teaching.”6

C. Elizabeth of the Trinity

It is perhaps surprising that Elizabeth of the Trinity should have been less
“subjective” than Therese (who yet wanted to make of her life a work of art). As
a young woman, Elizabeth was an accomplished pianist, an artiste: prior to
entering “her affect and not her mind was fostered.”7 Yet though aware of the
life and writings of Therese, she developed differently, away from a focus on her
own personality. Whereas Therese “is expansive, an original personality that
makes everything she touches lovable in a Christian and human way,” the world
of Elizabeth “is narrow and high, her human side paler. . . her speech vanishes
more and more like a shadow before the illumining ascent of the one Holy Word
that says all, fills all.”1 Indeed, although Therese praises silence, the image of the
bubbly, high-spirited girl remains: silence is at the heart of Elizabeth’s being in a
different way. Asked in a questionnaire upon entering the novitiate which point
in the Rule most appealed to her, she answered: “Silence.”2
Silence runs through her thought like a great undercurrent, uniting Heaven
and Earth even as Mary represents, for her, the “dual-unity of the soul with God,
the silent listening to the silent Word.”3 The Word plays a different role in
Elizabeth than in Therese. Here the Word is received, contemplated, not to feed a
mission already received, to confirm that which was intuitively known, but
rather the Word of God “is for her what it was for the Church Fathers. . . . Her
asceticism is one of Scripture, and her mysticism is one of Scripture. . . . Every
word of Scripture appears . . . to force her to an adoring silence. . . .”4
There are two main theological mysteries which draw Elizabeth to this
adoring silence. The first is the mystery of predestination, something which is of
passionate concern to Balthasar, Swiss and friend of Karl Barth’s that he was. It
is a mystery which filled her, for she realized that all were chosen to the “praise
of God’s glory” as she read in Paul. Without this predestination to God’s glory,
her new name (“Praise of Glory”) would have been “Float in Emptiness.”5 She
approaches the Pauline teaching on predestination “with the lightheartedness of a
child of God,” with none of the heaviness and “soulful horrors” of theologians
from Augustine to the Jansenists: “A child encounters the abyss of predestination
and this abyss seems to it as a unique, adorable light.”6
Predestination, in this view of the trusting child of God, is the circular
motion of a life that comes from God and is predestined to return to God, as the
believer is conformed to the form of Jesus Christ. Because of this predestination,
“the space in which the believer moves has long been the space of eternity: his
homeland is there, where God is, the house of God, the Civitas Dei, the
communion of saints.”1
The thought of this predestination to glory summons from Elizabeth “an
immediate and comprehensive answer, a Jawort” and this is precisely the
response that Balthasar sees Paul and all of Scripture with him aiming to elicit
through this mystery.2 It is Elizabeth’s peculiar contribution to the Church to
have returned to the “original glory of the revealed mystery”3 in which there is
“no ‘I’ outside the ecclesial ‘we’ and . . . no Calvinist-Jansenist ‘we’ outside of
solidarity with the least of sinners.” The correct answer (Antwort) to this
revealed mystery of God’s salvific will is the “total Jawort” that is full of love of
God and neighbor.4 This might have been more natural to Elizabeth, who was
aware of herself as a sinner and whose awareness of sinfulness only spurs her on
to greater disponibility to “become” the Gospel, a “light that forms
community.”5 Though aware of her sinfulness, she yet shares (with Therese) a
“‘confidence’ (Parrhesia) in the day of judgment” which she must share with
others in whom she stands in “indissoluble solidarity,” an attitude of love, not of
fear.6 Thus contemplating the Word of Scripture: “Her mission is the
contemplation at the source in order to direct the rushing current to the
But if the source provides a readily channeled stream in the teaching of
divine predestination, her contemplation on the divine infinity would seem to
lend itself less readily to regulation. Infinity was the “horizon” for Elizabeth who
had a “thirst for the infinite.” She writes that “God and love are ‘like an ocean, in
which I sink, in which I lose myself,’ ‘everything disappears, and I sink in Him
like a drop of water in the sea.’”8 The encounter with God which is this
encounter with infinity reveals the futility of human speech—the description of
the experience is perforce far removed from the experience itself:
One cannot describe God: one cannot even describe the encounter with God. . . . Elizabeth’s
statements possess nothing of the conjuring power of a poetic word. Her word is most poetic
where it silences itself in the infinite Word that is God and that obtains audibility for itself in
the Revelation of Jesus Christ.1

The encounter with God leaves Elizabeth speechless. It is curious that even as
we found a central element in Therese’s spirituality—Heaven on earth, saving
others—highly reminiscent of the Bodhisattva vow in Buddhism, so Elizabeth’s
encounter with the Ineffable leaves her speechless, an encounter described in
oceanic imagery of which Balthasar would elsewhere seem to disapprove.
Especially troublesome would be any talk of dissolution as a “drop in the sea.”
What keeps Elizabeth’s mystical longing here from being merely a
“metaphysical wish” to lose oneself in the infinite is that this is a “simple
movement of love.” To “‘lose oneself’ must be understood entirely in the sense
of the Lord’s commandment: in the loss of one’s own soul lies the key to the
entrance into the kingdom of love, in which surely the ‘I’ but not a single ‘Thou’
is lost.”2 The key is the encountered presence that “demands an immediate and
unconditioned answer.”3 Her knowledge of infinity is only possible because of
the Incarnation, which is the only point where “infinity breaks into the finite”
and there it is “in the Passion and in the Eucharist of the Love of God in
Christ.”4 It is in Christ that the ineffability of God becomes audible. And in the
Incarnation, it was the suffering of Christ that tended to become for her
increasingly the “gate to infinity.”5 It was not the immanent Trinity but the
economic Trinity that ultimately concerned here and “finally the point where this
world becomes co-formed to the Son through the work of the Holy Spirit to a
praise of the all-completing grace of the Father.”6
The stance of the soul which encounters the infinity that is a “Thou” is one
of “humiliated, silenced” adoration.1 It is only a “great inner silence that allows
God to imprint Himself on them [souls] and to transform them into Himself.”2 It
is a silence in which the abyss of God’s Presence meets the abyss of the soul’s
nothingness, something “that is only understandable as the following of Christ
(Nachfolge Christi).”3
Thus, we see a theological mission to the Church incarnated in Elizabeth of
the Trinity, who gradually became a “hearer of the Word.”4 Her own personality
receded to allow the objective mission to take over and imprint her teaching,
while she cooperated in adoring silence, in marian receptivity, responding with
her “Yes,” her share in that “One holy Word that says all, fills all.”5

D. Adrienne von Speyr

No look at holiness and mysticism in the work of Balthasar would be complete
without at least a “glance” at Adrienne von Speyr. Though not canonized, her
work has been the object of approving interest at the very highest levels of the
Church. It is a work of theological mission combined with personal holiness
very much in line with the saints we have been studying, and a work that could
not be more intimately involved with that of Balthasar.
Fr. Peter Henrici observes that “Balthasar insisted time after time that his
work was absolutely inseparable from Adrienne von Speyr’s,”6 and to be sure
Balthasar himself writes: “Her work and mine cannot be separated either
psychologically or philologically, they are two halves of a whole, that has one
single foundation as its middle.”7 Elsewhere Balthasar insists that her half is the
more important (e.g., “Today, after her death, her work seems to me far more
important than mine”),1 and Johann Roten echoes this by observing: “He goes so
far as to believe that people will first become aware of his writings, when they
have thoroughly appreciated Adrienne’s.”2 Let us look at some of the aspects of
Adrienne’s life and work that so influenced Balthasar, aspects that will by now
be thoroughly familiar to the reader.
Balthasar observes that her character was marked by cheerfulness, courage
and childlikeness. It is a childlikeness which unites all believers who are “little
children, too dumb to recognise the orders of God. . . . a sort of fellowship of
stupidity, of childlikeness”3—and yet one which is to be obedient, and that in a
very precise manner: “the Word of God to man is precise and the obedience that
is expected must be just as precise and not vague and approximate.”4
Although she greatly emphasizes objective mysticism, biographical
elements constantly push to the fore in any look at her. Born and raised a
Protestant, she was never happy in that tradition which struck her as “empty.”5
Early in life, she had a vision of Mary, and “her entire later mission will be
profoundly marian in form.”6 The fact that her own relation with her mother was
in a word, terrible, until shortly before the mother’s death, and that it is the first
thing about her Balthasar mentions, cannot but invite the sort of psychological
“hagiography” they would avoid.7 But even Adrienne will admit: “It is often so
hard to distinguish between mission and character.”8 Her conversion was fed by
a life-long hunger for sacramental confession and a life-long practice of
substitutory penance, in which she had especially wanted to share in the
suffering of the sick9 and indeed she became a physician who herself suffered
greatly. Her conversion itself revolves around the entire issue of obedience.
Plunged into grief by her husband’s death, she found she could not in
integrity say the words “Thy will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer. A Protestant
pastor mistakenly suggested she try another prayer. It was only Balthasar who
was able to tell her that “with ‘Thy will be done’ we do not offer God our own
achievement but rather show our readiness to be taken over by His achievement
and to be transferred wherever.”1 The submission of one’s own will which
allows for total disponibility was the spiritual lesson here imprinted on her soul,
and the fact that her spiritual director had told her could only heighten the
emphasis on obedience. The result was dramatic: it was, says Balthasar, “as if I
had unsuspectingly pushed an electric button that simultaneously lit all the lights
in the hall” and her prayer was released “to rush forth like a long-dammed
flood.”2 What happened was the “switching off of the ‘I’” which then opened the
door to the proper reception of the sacraments3 and to a “veritable cataract of
mystical graces. . . .”4
Among other graces, Adrienne possessed miraculous powers of healing.
Henrici observes that at the time of her conversion there was only “gossip about
miracles”5 in Basel, but that after her death, it became clear that there had been
“multiple stigmatisations, healings and other miracles, vision upon vision.” And
“above all” she had the gift of “knowing people’s hearts” which helped Balthasar
in his “spiritual and pastoral work.” These further served as proofs for the
compelling shared mission with Balthasar.6 It must be noted that a “peak” of
these miraculous gifts was her renunciation of the use of this gift to raise the
dead child of a friend: the greater sacrifice was not to use her power of prayer in
a “soundless adaption to God’s will.”7
Mystical graces were additional lights to her main task which was a
selfless disponibility to God. In this, she was involved in what Balthasar sees as
a tremendous renewal of Catholic mysticism, the elements of which we have, as
it turns out, been exploring throughout our work. The importance of the
Resurrection of the Flesh as “permanent Incarnation” in contrast to “many other
religions” is a contribution of Adrienne’s.1 Adrienne emphasized the importance
of images in Christian contemplation in light of the Incarnate Son as Urbild of
Creation, and so offered a “comprehensive (anti-Platonic) presentation of that
which Christian mysticism is.”2 The “theology of the sexes” owes its origin to
her. Adrienne’s repeated mystical experiences of the Passion and Descent into
Hell were crucial in Balthasar’s own awareness of God-forsakenness. It was she
who taught that any “training for mysticism” is “fundamentally false, an
abomination. . . .”3 Instead, penance “merely” marks the passage from the
legitimate pleasures of life to the atmosphere of God.4 Adrienne was opposed to
any system in the “things of God.”5 That “Mary becomes ‘Church’ at the Cross
(in her innermost being as Bride of Christ), is the thoroughgoing teaching of
Adrienne.”6 Most importantly for our purposes, it was Adrienne’s Biblical
commentaries that directed Balthasar’s attention beyond the Fathers in his work
on prayer to the “truly Biblical foundation of the act of listening to the Word of
God. . . .”7
For her, everything begins with the “marian Jawort,” a becoming
“infinitely disponible to the infinite.”8 The Church is formed from Mary’s
Jawort, and the true anima ecclesiastica must be “freed from its egotistical
isolation, broadened to the dimensions of the ecclesial (marian) Jawort, entirely
formable by God”9 in order to bear fruit. Indeed, “the concept of fruitfulness is
central to Adrienne”: for “only the infinity of the Jawort, that as answer to God
anticipates nothing and knows nothing in advance is fruitful.”1 This prayer is
grounded in the “Trinitarian conversation” which in Christ is open to Creation.2
For the one praying, however, this always means selflessness for one must “give
the Word of God the preponderance over one’s own truth. . . .”3 Finally, one of
the central mysteries Adrienne’s theological mission illumines is that of the
“communion of saints” itself. Part of Adrienne’s mission was the gift of being
transported (in obedience) “to Heaven as a guest, among the multitude of saints
and angels” and to meet “them without shyness and in spiritual friendship,” to
come to know their prayer from within, then to return to earthly affairs. If the
missions of the saints keep them turned toward earth, “here below they have
participated so much in the grace of Heaven.”4 It is as if there were a continuum,
a single “family life” of the saints on earth and Heaven: “For the Christian
saints, Heaven is not future. . . .”5 In the section of Unser Auftrag in which some
of these messages are presented in the context of the Spiritual Exercises,
Adrienne writes of prayer. It seems peculiarly fitting that our final chapter close
with these words—some of which we have already encountered in the preceding
chapter—ostensibly transmitted from Heaven through Adrienne which contain,
in nuce, Balthasar’s teaching on word and silence:
In Heaven, speaking and silence are so interwoven that one cannot distinguish between them
at all. The Son is silent, in order to speak with the Father, and still He invents words as well
for this conversation. It is like a music with pauses. . . . So much so that if there were no
silence, one could not understand the words. When the Son speaks, and when He is silent, it
takes place to the greater honour of the Father. . . . Our best prayer is a being-taken-into the
speaking silence and the silent speaking of Heaven, yes, of God Himself. . . . Spoken prayer
has its rest (Pause) in contemplative prayer and vice versa. . . . It is always word and answer.
. . . And if God asks and man responds, then the answer is already included in the question.1

We recall Balthasar’s important statement that the counterpart to the Indian yogi
or the Zen master is not the Christian mystic, but rather the saint, whether mystic
or not.2 It is not a question here of a religious chauvinism, although one does
well to keep one’s eyes open to such a danger. Rather, concluding as we do with
the saintly-mystic Adrienne von Speyr, we have a sense of the burning, pulsing
life of the living God in contact with the family—the communion—of saints. It
is a fullness which is overflowing, a rich music of companions in missions which
makes up this community. It is not that other traditions have not known either
God or His holiness. Balthasar never denies this. Indeed, he is always quick to
assert: Deus semper major. And yet in Christ God has become fully involved
with His world and has spoken the definitive Word to His Creation through
which their scattered words are to flow back to the Father. More: in that Word,
He addresses His creatures and gives them tasks, missions. The stance of the
Creature is readiness, receptivity. The creature remains a subject. But God
addresses an objective word, a mission, to this creature, and in the interplay of
this objective Word and the subjective response lies the story of true holiness,
one which is based on a principle of unity within an ever greater diversity, a
paradoxically intensifying intimacy and distance.
The key to the mission of the saints is to remain “pointers to the divine
Light,” “guiding stars.” The interplay of earthly subject and person being
transformed in mission makes for a very rich telling of the Gospel in ever new
keys, as the one Revelation in Christ has new lights thrown on it by every saint.
It is the saints who are the true exegesis of Scripture. Their missions,
mysteriously, are the “answer of Heaven to the questions of earth,”3 questions
which are answered in anticipation, as it were. Thus, the fruitfulness which
characterizes all Christian holiness need not be measured by any saint. Indeed,
they are most often rejected, their words ignored in their own time. But the saint
takes part in a trans-temporal reality: not so much rooted in earth and longing for
Heaven as already rooted in Heaven (in Christ) and reaching out on mission to
earth. In this sense, the saint always lives on the Cross, risen already in Christ,
and yet sharing in the cruciform relation to earth which allows the saint to suffer
on behalf of others, bearing, living a wisdom which will naturally be scorned
and rejected by the children of this age. The faces of the saints, then, form an
iconostasis in which the Glory of the Trinity is visible to contemporaries, their
mouths are channels through which the Word can be expressed in the words of
their world. Their prayer is the doing of the Father’s will, based on the “Yes” of
Mary who is Queen of Saints: as Adrienne writes, the saints are the “train of the
Mother of God.”1 In them, become little, childlike, foolish as they follow Christ,
the “unity-for-one-another” that is the Blessed Trinity is reflected ever anew on
earth, and through them all Creation is lifted up through the Cross which alone
purifies and leads back to the Source. This is all possible only because of that
obedience which is faith, and in light of which all extraordinary experiences
become adjuncts, helpful, perhaps, but mere grace notes to a far simpler, more
incarnate and more comprehensive melody.

1. Adrienne von Speyr, The World of Prayer, tr. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press,
1958), p, 153.
1. HSG, p. 221.
1. S5, p. 225.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. HSG, pp. 161ff.
5. Ibid., p. 162.
6. Ibid., pp. 161–2.
7. TDHA, p. 247.
1. Ibid., p. 101.
2. TDPC, p. 247.
3. S5, p. 176.
4. Ibid.
1. Ibid.
2. HRMN, p. 494.
3. Ibid.
4. BG, pp. 147–8.
5. Ibid., p. 148.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
1. S4, p. 236.
2. CUDW, p. 4.
3. S5, pp. 227–8.
1. Ibid., pp. 220–1.
2. S4, p. 237.
3. Ibid., p. 236.
4. S5, p. 222.
5. Ibid.
6. S4, p. 237.
1. Ibid.
2. Ibid.
3. GIMF, p. 42.
4. S2, p. 365.
5. S5, p. 228.
6. Ibid., p. 229. The phrase much used in contemporary spirituality, “wounded healer,” accurately
describes Balthasar’s point here.
7. TDHA, p. 103.
8. S4, p. 236.
1. S5, p. 231.
2. E.g., HRMN, p. 500.
1. EPIL, p. 47.
2. NK, p. 95.
3. S5, p. 106.
4. EPIL, p. 47.
5. Ibid.
1. Ibid., pp. 55–6.
2. NK, p. 95. Balthasar adds wistfully: “one hears almost nothing about this in the numerous
Christian books about Zen meditation.”
3. KLAR, p. 60.
4. TLGW, p. 250.
1. Ibid.
2. HTAB, p. 58.
3. Ibid., p. 60.
4. Ibid., p. 59.
5. Ibid., pp. 15–6.
6. S5, p. 25.
7. S2, p. 95.
1. HFSL, pp. 801–2.
2. HFSK, p. 45.
3. S1, p. 65.
4. S4, pp. 181–2.
5. Ibid., p. 190.
6. BG, p. 152. Adrienne von Speyr, he notes, teaches that there are different degrees of realisation of
holiness, reflected in different levels of fruitfulness (Cf. UA, pp. 59–60).
7. S4, p. 180.
1. BG, p. 155.
2. S2, p. 109.
3. HTNB, p. 370.
4. S4, pp. 184–5.
5. Ibid., p. 283.
6. Ibid., p. 281. In this connection, it might not be amiss to share Balthasar’s puzzled reflection that:
“In the history of Catholic theology there is hardly an event that is less noted and yet deserving of more
notice than the fact that since High Scholasticism there have been few holy theologians” (S1, p. 195). And
so: “At some point in time there came the turn from a kneeling to a sitting theology” (Ibid., p. 224).
1. HSG, pp. 204–5.
2. HFSK, p. 283.
3. S1, p. 203.
4. KLAR, p. 62.
5. CS, p. 367.
6. S4, p. 440.
7. Ibid.
1. TDES, p. 453.
2. HTNB, pp. 232–3.
3. Ibid., pp. 238–9.
4. TLWG, p. 57. Hegel’s Spirit is, according to Balthasar, not yet the Holy Spirit: Hegel really has
only a “binity” (Binität) because he lacks the “miracle of Fruchtbarkeit” (TLGW, p. 40).
1. TDPC, pp. 262–3.
2. Ibid.
3. S4, p. 209.
4. HTNB, p. 405.
5. Ibid.
6. S5, p. 136.
7. KLAR, p. 37.
8. WISY, p. 150.
1. TDHA, p. 336.
2. TDES, p. 382.
3. TDHA, p. 467.
4. TDPM, p. 379.
5. KLAR, p. 63.
6. HSG, p. 577.
7. HTNB, p. 394.
1. Ibid.
2. Ibid., p. 394.
3. S2, p. 221.
4. S4, p. 284.
5. CS, p. 189.
6. Ibid., p. 21.
7. TDES, p. 462.
8. HRMN, p. 459.
9. S5, p. 413.
1. S4, p. 282.
2. Ibid., p. 284.
3. The Collins German Dictionary in fact indicates that die Nachfolge Christi is the “imitation of
Christ,” but Balthasar would rather use Nachahmung for imitation, letting Nachfolge convey more of its
etymological sense of “following,” of being with. But as Balthasar uses Nachfolge and as English lacks
ready equivalents for these subtleties which in any event enter little into our argument here, we will
translate Nachfolge as “discipleship,” understanding that this means a following after and a being-with more
than an “imitation” which might lend itself to the self-reflection Balthasar would see avoided.
4. BG, pp. 170–1.
5. Ibid. p. 171.
1. Ibid., p. 206.
2. HTNB, p. 184.
3. CS, p. 52.
4. S2, p. 87.
5. Ibid., p. 91.
6. HRMN, pp. 459–60.
1. S2, p. 110.
2. Ibid., p. 93.
3. CS, p. 305.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 308.
6. Ibid., p. 60.
1. HTNB, p. 231.
2. Ibid., p. 424.
3. HRMN, p. 437.
1. Ibid., p. 492.
2. Ibid., p. 493.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., pp. 493–4.
6. Ibid., p. 437.
7. Ibid., p. 494.
8. Ibid., p. 519.
1. Ibid., pp. 527–8.
2. S5, p. 373.
3. HFSL, p. 622.
4. GIMF, p. 287.
5. S5, p. 179.
6. Ibid.
1. GIMF, pp. 292–3. Although the Christian must not be “simply a child” but “rather be young in a
supratemporal and yet fully human sense” this is not quite possible in earthly life, where the (naturally
aging) poet tries to do all sorts of things to keep his perceptions fresh but in the end is forced to live off the
“emergency rations stored up in his youth” (GIMF, pp. 285–6).
2. HFSL, pp. 496–7; p. 526. This poetic/mystical enthusiasm must characterize theology as well:
“the inner sanctum of theology lies much rather in rhapsody than in a speech that . . . distinguishes and
defines” (HSG, p. 73).
3. S3, pp. 49–50.
4. HRMN, p. 498.
5. Ibid., pp. 978–9.
1. Ibid., p. 552.
2. Ibid., p. 971.
3. KLAR, p. 30.
4. LRLG, p. 129.
1. HFSK, p. 75.
1. KLAR, pp. 53–5.
2. BG, p. 47.
3. S2, p. 127.
4. HSG, p. 503.
5. S5, p. 13.
6. Ibid., p. 371. In this connection, Balthasar mentions the need for “Passiology” today, and asks
why no one has ever studied the experience of the Passion undergone by mystics, and done so in a dogmatic
way (S1, p. 211).
7. HRMN, p. 495.
8. BG, p. 242.
1. TDES, p. 309.
2. EPIL, p. 88.
3. S4, p. 314.
1. S5, p. 369.
2. S4, p. 314.
3. Ibid., p. 319. Here Balthasar is sympathetic with Gogarten’s disapproval of and challenge to
4. TLGW, p. 222.
5. S4, pp. 323–4.
6. TDPM, pp. 107–8.
7. TDPC, p. 103.
8. Ibid., p. 248.
1. S2, p. 127.
2. TDHA, p. 336.
3. TDPC, p. 248.
4. KLAR, p. 49.
1. HRMN, p. 551. One recalls the words of the Christmas carol, “What Child is This”: “Good
Christian, fear, for sinners here the Silent Word is pleading.”
2. HTNB, p. 375.
3. TDPM, pp. 107–8.
1. Überschwenglich is a constant in Balthasar’s vocabulary.
2. THGE, p. 82.
3. TDPC, p. 321. Here Balthasar is alluding to the earliest understanding of communio sanctorum in
which it was taken to mean “communion in the sacred things,” only later taking on the personal meaning
where the sancta became the sancti.
4. HTNB, p. 431.
5. Ibid.
6. TDPC, p. 258.
7. MAHE, p. 263.
8. TDHA, p. 426.
1. TDPC, p. 26.
2. HSG, pp. 541–2.
3. Ibid., pp. 578–9.
4. Ibid., p. 207.
5. TLGW, p. 177.
6. MAHE, pp. 272–3.
1. Ibid., pp. 272–3.
2. TLGW, p. 340.
3. TDHA, pp. 435–6.
4. Much of what is said of the inspiration of the saints could be said of poetic inspiration: Peguy
writes of “the missions of the poets” and describes them “as the sinners who dedicate themselves in their
work to an idea of holiness and represent it in this service—these missions are like special emanations from
the order and beauty of the saints, they are, in the line of theological beauty, the witness and making present
of the saints” (HFSL, p. 873). Something of the difference in orders is seen elsewhere, where Balthasar
observes that Therese, living in the will of God in this moment, discovers that eternity in the moment for
which the poets longed. This is so because “unlike them, she does not seek the delight or the experience but
only dedication to the beloved God” (SIMG, pp.63–4).
5. S5, p. 297. We must observe that this immediate contact with the source is something that also
characterizes artistic inspiration.
1. NK, p. 96.
2. LRLG, pp. 193–4.
3. TDPR, p. 603.
4. TLGW, pp. 346–7.
5. S4, p. 316.
1. S1, p. 207.
2. Ibid., p. 206.
1. WIEC, pp. 81–2.
2. GINL, p. 81.
3. S1, p. 243.
4. S3, p. 57.
5. CUDW, pp. 4–5.
1. Ibid., p. 9.
2. Ibid., p. 12.
3. S3, p. 258.
4. KLAR, p. 79.
5. Ibid., p. 59.
6. WISY, p. 91.
7. THGE, p. 92.
8. HSG, p. 476.
9. TDPM, p. 113.
10. TDES, p. 427.
1. UA, p. 58.
2. SIMG, p. 354.
3. Ibid., p. 10.
1. Ibid., p. 11.
2. Ibid., p. 17.
3. Ibid., pp. 22–3.
4. Ibid., p. 21.
5. Ibid., p. 28.
6. Ibid., p. 78.
1. Ibid., p. 77.
2. Ibid., p. 52.
3. Ibid., p. 53.
4. Ibid., p. 60.
5. Ibid., pp. 61–4.
6. S4, p. 316.
7. SIMG, pp. 91–2.
1. Ibid., p. 98.
2. Ibid., p. 97.
3. Ibid., p. 100.
4. Ibid., p. 335.
5. Ibid., p. 342.
6. Ibid., p. 344.
7. Ibid., p. 103.
8. Ibid., p. 104.
9. Ibid., p. 321.
1. Ibid., p. 326.
2. Ibid., pp. 67–68.
3. Ibid., pp. 69–70.
4. Ibid., p. 177.
5. BG, p.77.
6. SIMG, p. 188.
7. Ibid., p. 191.
8. Ibid., p. 192.
1. Ibid., p. 195.
2. Ibid., p. 200.
3. S1, p. 258.
4. SIMG, pp. 219–20.
5. Ibid., p. 327.
6. Ibid., p. 291.
7. Ibid., p. 363, footnote 8.
1. Ibid., p. 355.
2. Ibid., p. 468.
3. Ibid., p. 463.
4. Ibid., p. 462.
5. Ibid., pp. 367–8.
6. Ibid., p. 368.
1. Ibid., pp. 372–3.
2. Ibid., p. 381.
3. Ibid., p. 386.
4. Ibid., p. 388.
5. Ibid., pp. 389–90.
6. Ibid., pp. 396–7.
7. Ibid., p. 400.
8. Ibid., p. 402.
1. Ibid., p. 401.
2. Ibid., p. 415.
3. Ibid., p. 410.
4. Ibid., p. 411.
5. Ibid., p. 413.
6. Ibid., pp. 450–1.
1. Ibid., pp. 416–7.
2. Ibid., p. 458.
3. Ibid., p. 452.
4. Ibid., p. 364.
5. Ibid., p. 355.
6. Peter Henrici, “A Sketch of Balthasar’s Life,” Communio, Fall 1989, p. 335.
7. MWDB, p. 71.
1. EBAA, p. 11.
2. Johann G. Roten SM, “Die Beiden Hälften des Mondes,” in Hans Urs von Balthasar: Gestalt und
Werk, ed. Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper (Köln: Communio, 1989), p. 108.
3. EBAA, pp. 41–3.
4. Ibid., p. 74.
5. Ibid., p. 18. Although very critical of her native Protestantism, we must observe that in her
visions, Adrienne saw Protestants at prayer in Heaven, and Balthasar observes that she had very cordial
relations with the female branch of Taizé (EBAA, p. 225).
6. Ibid., p. 20.
7. Ibid., p. 16. Balthasar writes: “more than once I have heard her calling for her mother in her
dream as if desperate.”
8. Ibid., p. 161.
9. Ibid., pp. 17–19.
1. Ibid., p. 26.
2. Ibid., p. 26.
3. Ibid., p. 140.
4. Ibid., p. 29.
5. Henrici, p. 320.
6. Henrici, pp. 324–5. Cardiognosia is, of course, one of the charisms most treasured among
spiritual guides in the Eastern Church.
7. EBAA, p. 30.
1. UA, p. 57.
2. Ibid., p. 92.
3. Ibid., p. 60.
4. EBAA, p. 171.
5. Ibid., p. 44.
6. UA, p. 93.
7. Ibid., p. 89.
8. EBAA, p. 45.
9. Ibid., p. 46.
1. Ibid., pp. 47.
2. Ibid., pp. 54–5.
3. Ibid., p. 55.
4. TDES, p. 101.
5. Ibid., p. 116. Balthasar adds: “One can say the same for every living believer.”
1. UA, p. 166.
2. NK, p. 92.
3. THGE, p. 82.
1. EBAA, p. 63.
General Conclusion

I n Berkeley, as in Cambridge and other intellectual centers of the West there is

a popular bookstore which specializes in mystical literature. “Shambhala” in
Berkeley, “Yes” in Washington, these stores began with the tremendous interest
in Asian religion which hit the intellectual class in the Sixties. Beginning with
Buddhism and Hinduism, the stores soon expanded to cover everything from
Sufism to shamanism to artificial intelligence, and, most recently, New Age. In
Berkeley, this store is not an arcane antiquariat but rather a most appealing,
lively, busy store on the main avenue of bookstores. Christianity has always been
very weakly represented at these stores. The tendency toward the exotic, the
esoteric, is clearly seen in the selection of books in the lone Christian shelf. Over
the years the Philokalia, with its large section of Evagrius Ponticus, and the
works of Meister Eckhart have found new neighbors in Thomas Merton and
Bede Griffiths. St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila may now be found
there, although more recent Catholic mystics, like the contemplatives we have
here viewed are generally missing, as is Balthasar. Non-mystical saints are not to
be found there.
Yet in spite of this considerable, indeed overwhelming, interest it is
problematic to say an “encounter” with Asian Religions has been taking place.
On one level it is certainly true that many Westerners have been seriously
involved in Asian religious traditions for the past several decades. Those great
traditions have been sending influential missionaries to the West and have
received many disciples among hungry Westerners. Naturally, the quality of
these representatives has varied. But the question arises as to what tradition the
Westerners themselves represent in this “encounter.” Orthodox Christianity has
been on the defensive for centuries in Western Europe, and is virtually a thing of
the past in much of the Continent. With the rise of tremendously powerful means
of communication and the rapid disintegration of traditional family and
communities, it is a very real question as to how much of the Christian tradition
is alive at least among the intellectual classes in the United States as well.
Certainly, as Balthasar would be the first to point out, the “seeds” of the Gospel
are present throughout the world, bearing fruit in hidden, unknown ways. So the
values which the Westerners (and indeed today’s Easterners as well) hold are
largely drawn from the Gospel. But many other values have their historical
origins in a conscious rejection of the Gospel, and so the encounter is often one
in which the Western partners are really de-Christianized people (who may well
have never encountered the Christian tradition in anything like a coherent form)
starved for something more spiritual than the silly godless materialism which
lies near the root of the modern world’s “rat race.” Obviously, such would not be
the case with a Merton or a Griffiths, Enomiya-Lassalle or William Johnston.
But for one hungry for God in Berkeley, such a mystical book store is the natural
place to go, and there his attention will be drawn elsewhere than to the “faith that
comes from the Jews.”
The American Catholic novelist Walker Percy had a peculiar fixation on
the Jews. He was convinced that the People of the Promise were integral to the
sanity—the spiritual health—of humanity. Curiously, he held that the very word
“Jew” had a unique meaning, a meaning that always pointed to a particular
individual in one’s acquaintance, unlike other ethnic names that would suggest
some banal stereotype. The word has a meaning, a particular, unique meaning,
incarnate in individual people. Unlike other races, the Jews, he maintained,
would never fit into trite categories, and so must ultimately prove inassimilable
to any state with absolute claims, as happened in Germany and as might happen,
he seems to suggest, in the contemporary world. In his novel The Second
Coming, a main character is constantly asking people anxiously if there are still
Jews in North Carolina. As might be suspected, although our mystical
bookstores will have much on the Cabala, one will be hard pressed to find the
Hebrew Scriptures.
Our investigation into the works of Hans Urs von Balthasar began with an
interest in trying to understand what is unique about the Catholic vision. The
stores in Berkeley and Cambridge are surely no different from those in Basel or
Zürich where Balthasar came to be increasingly aware of the profound nature of
the encounter with Asian religious traditions in our day. Balthasar had from the
start of his work been concerned with the mind of modern man. His
contemplation of Christ within the Catholic tradition—the sacraments, the
communion of saints, the dogma and theology—all took place in a world in
which the horrors of the Twentieth Century were unfolding, and the search of
modern man for something more, other, than technological mastery led him
increasingly to seek ancient wisdoms.
That the modern world is a horror is well attested in modern literature. In
the collection of essays entitled The Dyer’s Hand, the poet W.H. Auden has
written that the temptation of the modern artist, surrounded by the incredible
ugliness of the modern wasteland—the very word bears the signature of T.S.
Eliot for us—is to become a Manichee. That is, to believe that the world was
created by an evil spirit, and that it is incumbent on man to try to flee this
ugliness to another world. The Nobel Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, who
fled Soviet occupied Poland for the German occupied part because the Nazi
occupation seemed “better” than the Soviet, (and who finally settled in
Berkeley), admits to being virtually a Manichee himself. The mood is not new:
one recalls Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “The horror! The horror!” Balthasar
who lauds the work of Solzhenitsyn and who had to leave Nazi Germany himself
was no stranger to this world. It even seems that Adrienne von Speyr was able to
“mystically” visit concentration camps during the War.
Yet if this century has seen the blossoming of many “flowers of evil,”
modernity has no monopoly on horrors. Given the nightmares of time, and of
this time, Balthasar refuses to escape time: for him, there is no horror too great
for the Christian to face, for all the horror of the world has already been faced
and embraced by God in Christ on the Cross. It is this figure, bloodied, fixed to
the Cross, who stands as the symbol par excellence of the Catholic vision of
reality, the Crucifix. The smiling Buddha, with his inner knowledge, his vast,
oceanic peace has no appeal for Balthasar, for the Buddha has opted out of this
world of woe, however he might compassionately condescend to help others
who are still caught in the world’s traps. The option of the Buddha, Balthasar
says, must be respected. The horror of the world, the bad infinity of human
longing which finds humanity trapped in compulsions of all sorts, must be
overcome. One way to overcome is to flee. Balthasar respects the problem and
understands the solution, and yet he rejects this solution because it is a negation
of the incarnate, particular human being whom the Creator God so passionately
The empty vastness of the Islamic mosque, mirroring the cosmic dome and
the all-powerful Other of Allah likewise leaves Balthasar cold. The God of
Israel, apart from the anawim, is sadly separated from His People by an
unbridgeable gap which was bridged in Galilee but rejected by those who then
formed what became Judaism. Closer to home, in the Christian world itself,
neither the austere, naked cross of Protestantism nor the stylized, glorious cross
of Orthodoxy are fully expressive of that body nailed to the Cross which for
Balthasar is God’s answer to the problem of human suffering, to the ugliness and
evil in the world. The answer is love, the Trinitarian love expressed once and for
all in the Son and poured out into the world in the Spirit. It is a love that accepts
the world as it is and is immersed in that world to the point of sharing the death
which is the world’s ultimate destiny.
Another way to look at the world is in terms of speech and it has been our
entry into Balthasar’s thought. Walker Percy was very concerned with the
problem of language: he felt that our contemporary spiritual malaise was due to
the fact that words no longer had a meaning. Language has become abstract and
abstracted, “cut off” from things and so cut off from reality as well. This century
has been dominated by the abstract language of ideologies, Marxist in the East,
“politically correct” speech in contemporary English, language artificially
created by powerful elites to reflect ideological concerns. Apart from such
abuses of language, the inanities that ceaselessly flow out of dozens of “means
of communication” are certainly enough to drive man to seek refuge in silence,
to reject words. And Balthasar insists that man is by nature weary of words.
This again is very much the appeal of mystical traditions for man of all
ages and especially for modern man. We have seen that Balthasar refuses to
allow man to escape language, to escape words, into a formless silence, into a
Void. He refuses this because the human being, according to Balthasar, is
dialogically created, he is made for speech, for conversation, from the ground up
and any attempt to reduce him to a monologue will destroy him. Man is made
this way because he is made in the image and likeness of God, and the God of
Christianity is a Trinitarian dialogue, a conversation between an “I” and a
“Thou.” Man cannot live without an image: to lack an image for man is to be
destroyed. Likewise, the human being cannot live without a dialogue.
This is not to say that idle chatter, or worse, the inanities of word-mills and
the verbal nightmares created by voluble ideologues are part of this dialogue. In
this sense—but only in this sense—does Balthasar hold that Asian mystical
traditions, including their techniques, can be helpful for the Christian. That is,
they help create a space of quiet where the noise of the world (world in the
negative sense) is quieted. But no matter how blessed this quiet itself might
seem, Balthasar rejects any silence as itself desirable. Rather, the poet is the one
who has contact with the living springs of imagination and who brings
“freshness” to the world from his contact: in this, the poet is first cousin to the
saint who has an even more profound contact with the Source and who thus
brings life to the world.
Balthasar rejects an ultimate silence not only because he sees its Gnostic
associations, but most importantly because it is not true. He maintains that God
is a fullness in which there is no emptiness, even as John tells us that God is
Light with no darkness. If God seems to man to be silence, it is not because God
is some empty, silent void like Yeats’ sphinx, his “gaze blank and pitiless as the
sun.” God is Word, in the Son, a silent word and a speaking silence. Balthasar
will allow paradox and paradoxical language, for Deus semper major. He rejects
any scheme whereby the Word issues forth from Silence for this is the scheme of
the Gnostics. Rather, the Word which is Christ issues forth from the Trinitarian
conversation. The God of Israel is Himself a poet, a creator, and His words
throughout creation are expressions of Himself, an expression that He is able to
fully realize in His Son, His perfect Word. So there is no godhead behind the
Triune God.
If man feels that God is silent, it is primarily due to man’s inability to hear
the speech that is there. The image comes to mind of an animal which can only
hear certain ranges of sound, or of a man who is color blind. It is not that the
sound is not there: it is rather only that there is an inability to perceive. So,
Balthasar suggests, it is with the silence and speech of God.
Although Dionysius does speak of the grand silence from which words
emerge, Balthasar would prefer to keep the paradoxical tension in describing the
relation of speech and silence in God.
Where silence emerges clearly, distinctly for Balthasar, is at the Cross. It is
there that the word becomes silent, there that silence does reign. Curiously—but
again paradoxically—that silence of the Cross takes the form of a Cry, and as the
jeering and cursing of the Passion no doubt was accompanied by the
imprecations of the hosts of hell, this cacophony surrounds the true silence of
that Cry of Christ, dead, offering no resistance to evil, joined in solidarity with
all the corpses that have ever been.
The “silent Word” is never more silent than in His obedience to the Father,
and this character attaches to all who share in His life. Most notably, of course,
in the Virgin Mary, she who is the perfect listener to the speech of God. The
fruitful Virgin who receives the word so perfectly that she conceives from it, and
lets it become flesh in her. The marian listening is what Balthasar holds is at the
heart of the Biblical way. It is at the heart of what it means to be a contemplative
and to be a saint. One must let Christ be formed in one, one must let the Father
speak His Word into one’s soul and there let that Word take flesh again in a
discipleship, an incarnate following of the man Christ.
It is remarkable that Balthasar who scales the peaks of thought, conversing
with giants like Plato and Hegel should rise to another level of discourse, a far
greater reverence, when he treats of what might seem to be the pious story of a
maid of Israel some thousands of years ago. For him, the Incarnation of God in
the body and soul of this “simple” woman points to the unique ways of that God
who had earlier selected Israel as His partner, an Israel whom He likened to an
adulterous spouse. In the New Testament, Balthasar likewise finds no Socratic
dialogues, no metaphysical treatises, no teaching of elevated spiritual analysis:
rather, simple stories of simple people reveal the profound mystery of this poet-
God, this creator who wants to sing a love song and wants to elicit a loving
response from the creature whom He has created in order to freely love Him.
This God is so foolish in His love that He has risked coming to earth in person in
order to pour out His love for His beloved.
Balthasar thus shows that all earthly wisdom, all the sages, great men of
whatever philosophical or religious tradition, pale in comparison with that folly
which God has chosen to raise on the Cross as salvation for all, the non-
mystical, the non-gifted, the simplest and most foolish of people.
Man desires God, says Balthasar, but man’s efforts to reach God are
doomed to failure. The way of negating the world, followed by almost everyone
sooner or later, in order to ascend to God, is ultimately an insult to the God who
created this world and wants man to live in it. Man finds his salvation in doing
the will of God, in obedience to that which God wants. The first thing is that
man must be man, that is, a creature, one created by God, part of a good
creation. And man trying to deal with the guilt he naturally has wants to escape
his very being for it is guilt-ridden at every turn. But spiritual exercises,
techniques of meditation, can be used to deaden oneself, to try to flee this
doomed being, this individual being whose very being is a sign of its having
fallen out of primal unity, out of grace. This is the natural way of man. These are
the annihilation exercises, the Vernichtigungsübungen that Balthasar so strongly
Balthasar rejects any “empty” spiritual tradition. By empty we mean that
view of the Absolute in which a silent void is the ultimate beyond all relative,
individual being. To attain this, one must become silent and void oneself, and
thus one will attain “union” with what is “real.” The price one pays is one’s own
being. The world must be sacrificed. Of course, the world of appearance still
exists. As the Zen phrase has it, one experiences “mountain—no mountain—
mountain.” That is, one sees the world, then doesn’t see it anymore, then returns.
One sees it with new eyes, of course, in a new way. But Balthasar maintains that
this insight, this new way of seeing it, is grounded in the Void, in which one will
have seen through all relative being, one will now see that everything is empty
within the overarching emptiness. It is this which he rejects. Whereas one might
say that fullness and emptiness are flip sides of the same mystical reality, a
simple example might free us from this temptation. It is of course possible to
describe the proverbial glass as being half full or half empty. But it is quite
something else to describe the glass itself as being wholly full or wholly empty.
Should one be describing the glass to a man dying of thirst, the importance of the
condition of the glass is readily apparent. That is, one can either offer the man
the full glass, or else, faced with the reality of the empty glass, convince the man
that his thirst is also empty. Should the glass be empty, then man’s thirst must be
dissolved by realizing its own emptiness: the attitude man must adopt is one of
resignation in the face of such a situation, a calm, indifferent resignation.
It is perhaps surprising that a man of such erudition as Balthasar clearly
prefers simple people and simple cultural levels to those of sophisticated culture.
His conviction that non-Trinitarian metaphysics must be ultimately atheistic, that
such a sophisticated philosophy must end in an idealism is his key to
understanding Jesus’ preference for the simple and the unlearned. The “wise and
the clever” do not have access to the Truth that the living, creating poet-God has
revealed. Instead of sophisticated philosophy, Balthasar prefers the world of
myth, of poetry, of drama.1 It is because of the Resurrection of the flesh, he
maintains, that the poets have the “last word.” In terms of his constant polemic
against Idealism and rationalism, this last word is a word which “incarnates”
things. In an effort to free his readers from the alienation of ideas, the poet
Robinson Jeffers urges his reader: “love things, things are the god.” Balthasar
would be sympathetic.
The earthly and the everyday thus are the locus of salvation in the
Christian understanding, and Balthasar sees this most clearly in the realm of
sexuality. As there is nothing about man that is to be lost or discarded, so much
the more is this true of his being male and female. The relation of man and
woman, in Christian marriage, mirrors on earth the relation of Christ and His
Church, that Body for which He gave His life.
Balthasar saw that the modern world was based on Idealist philosophy, a
philosophy that posited a non-personal Absolute that must eventually destroy the
relative. That is, that man, in his particularity, his variety must be destroyed.
Nowhere else is man’s humanity more clearly threatened than in the sphere of
sexuality. The feminine in particular is threatened in a world which has opted for
what we might call the via technica, a preeminently male world in which there is
no place for the receptive, obedient, fruitful female, a world in which
manipulation by technique is the rule for survival, a world in which sterility is a
Balthasar’s love for the feminine is mirrored in his studies of the saints in
which one is hard pressed to find a male figure. His understanding of the female
in relation to the male leads him to the view that all creation, and the soul with it,
must be female in relation to the Creator God, who is totally male in relation to
“her.” Fallen man—and man has never seemed more fallen than in modernity—
is the man of Sodom, the man who turns from a tender relation with the woman
to a man-man competition with God Himself, by which man assaults God by
spiritual technique. Disobedience is at the heart of this stance.
We have seen then that such a movement as “unisex” in contemporary
mores is very clearly explained by Balthasar as the natural consequence of the
rebellious state of man. The rejection of sexual differentiation in dress, the
weakening of traditional marriage and the emergence of homosexual marriage
would be no surprise for Balthasar. The question would be then what the task of
the Biblical believer is in such a world. Perhaps it would be no different than it
had been from the time of Sodom: to move in faith toward the Voice which calls,
without looking back to Sodom.
For Balthasar, as for his partner in mission Adrienne von Speyr, obedience
is the key to all that is Christian. Obedience is a fairly unappealing word, and
that not only for unworthy reasons: it readily calls to mind alienating submission
to martinets in the military or religious lives. But obedience for Balthasar means
something else entirely.
Obedience emerges from the question of where one’s center is. For the
non-Trinitarian mystical traditions, ultimately, the via negativa would lead to an
emptiness in which an empty center unites with an empty beyond. For others,
one centers in one’s “self,” and yet for Balthasar this self will be lost as it is a
trap. For Balthasar, one’s center must be in the Other. This is so of course
because man is dialogically created, there is always the I and the Thou, and man
is to be centered in the Thou which God is for him. Obedience is to want to let
God be my center: to want to let my will be subsumed under His, to let God be
God in my life. It is not a matter first of understanding, of reasoning, of coming
to an equality of stature which would be only hubristic. Rather, it is a love in
which I want the Beloved to dispose of me fully. Indeed, the less I understand,
the better my trusting availability can be to go and do things of which I would
never otherwise have thought.
This all presupposes faith in God, of course. And obedience is
emphatically faith, and what faith is about, for Balthasar. For the ways of natural
philosophy and negative mysticism, atheism lurks around the corner. Balthasar is
totally theistic. Yes, he insists on the otherness of God, the mystery, and the
ineffability—but it is an ineffable God who can fully utter Himself and has done
so in Christ. In a word, man is not called to understand, to reason his way to
salvation, nor is he called to ascetical feats which will purify him and make him
other than what he is. Man is called precisely to be what he is: a creature, a
sinful creature in need of salvation, of forgiveness. But that forgiveness comes to
him, it is not something he earns. Man is always in relation, and it is God who
repairs the ruptured relation man has with him.
Thus, we see that Balthasar