Balthasar: Interventions

Kilby, Karen
Eerdmans (2012)
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It is not quite so precarious to be a Roman Catholic theologian as it is to be a manager in the English Premier League but the comparison is not improbable. In her introductory chapter Kilby cites the cases of Henri de Lubac and Yves Cngar who were each under a cloud before they came to exert such great influence on Vatican II and similar stories could be told of Marie-Dominique Chenu and, to a lesser degree, Karl Rahner. She might equally have mentioned Hans Kung whose star so radically waned after Vatican II. No case she mentions, however, comes close to the case of Hans Urs von Balthasar: marooned in the 1950s and through Vatican II, he began to gain a reputation in the 1970s and is said to have been Pope John Paul II's favourite theologian, also highly esteemed by Pope Benedict XVI.

It is Kilby's overall case that his earlier dismissal and later lionisation are equally reprehensible and she sees it as her duty to present a cool and balanced - a word she frequently uses - assessment of this theologian who was monumental in his creativity, breadth of imagination, articulation (though not always logically coherent), learning and output. One might say that he is Proust to Barth's Mann.

But in spite of her heroic attempts to be even-handed, ultimately, Kilby cannot forsake her loyalty to her own chosen career of academic theology which alienates her from Balthasar's preference for assertion over argument. He is all too overpowering, putting himself 'above' Scripture and sound method, speaking as if he knows the 'mind of God' from the 'inside'; he is the novelist who imagines himself into the divine; he is the Alpha male of the aphorism, the indefatigable gatherer and scatterer; and, above all, he is a man of risk and promise.

Although Kilby's opening chapters are extremely helpful at navigating through Balthasar's massive output to outline his important motifs of aesthetics, Theo-drama, fulfilment and the point, or circle, she is a little pinched in her appreciation, for reasons which become clear, particularly in her exposition of Theo-drama. She then illustrates Balthasar's strengths and weaknesses through an examination of his writings on the Trinity (omitting any significant mention of the Holy Spirit) and gender, where she scores some palpable hits which serve to reinforce her general criticism that Balthasar starts with his paradigm and fits Scripture to it rather than the other way round, although in the latter topic Scripture is not of very much use to her.

Having tantalised with the thought that Balthasar was an incipient Fascist (my word, not hers) one wishes she had taken further his writing on ecclesiology but she goes far enough to indicate his intense clericalism, a stance well suited to the papally led campaign to frustrate the purposes of Vatican II and she quite properly notes, in that regard, his tendency to rank tradition above Scripture.

Kilby also wonders whether the unaccountable author, lacking academic colleagues and  students, editors and publishers, and other sorts of peers, was too strongly influenced by the mystical Adrienne von Speyr who seems to have prompted a self-recognition of the importance of humility massively transgressed in his over-bearing, sweeping but, Kilby thinks, ultimately shallow conclusions. She closes by saying whatever Balthasar might have been, the one thing not to learn from him is how to be a theologian.

Which leaves some important questions for Kilby and for us: first, she dislikes his Hegelian technique of fusing opposites to produce an emergent concept but does that necessarily discredit the process? Secondly, one of the casualties of Balthasar's withering salvoes was neo scholasticism but was it really worth mourning, compared with its eponymous forebear? Thirdly would she have been so censorious if Balthasar's mighty pen had been wielded in the cause of 'liberalism'? And, finally, and most important, I suspect, from Kilby's perspective, how valuable is the academic theological train set? The Sainted Thomas used the novel Aristotelian tools which came to hand but what tools might we best choose now? Certainly, the majority of working theologians, including Balthasar and Kilby, would agree that the 'Enlightenment' project did more harm than good but she still persists in lauding a process which, in a recursive fashion, not dissimilar to the unverifiable principle that the only phenomena which are real are verifiable, is entirely concerned with /process which, For all its internal consistency, very similar in approach to classical mathematics requires, as Gödel famously posited, can only be validated by an external language.

Having said all that, this book wins a personal plaudit from me for exposing the terrible analogy of Christ and his church being likened to a groom and his bride which 'justifies' the inalienable inferiority of women.

Although it is relatively slim, this book is neither an introduction to Balthasar nor, with relatively little ground covered, an adequate critique; but those who want to 'play the game' will find it useful but Balthasar's scope, both in his virtues and his vices, deserves more magisterial treatment such as that provided by Fergus Kerr.