Scholar, pastor, and academic dean, Layton Friesen, was generous enough to sit down with Wipf and Stock’s Zech Mickel to discuss Balthasar’s theological project, which Friesen studied in-depth during his doctoral work at University of St. Michael’s in Toronto. Friesen is the author of the recent T. & T. Clark volume, Secular Nonviolence and the Theo-Drama of Peace: Anabaptist Ethics and the Catholic Christology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (2022). He is a lifelong Mennonite and formerly served as a pastor of a Mennonite congregation and then as the Conference Pastor of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference of Canada. He is now the academic dean at Steinbach Bible College in Manitoba. Here he chats with Zech on Balthasar’s synthesis of doctrine and ethics, Balthasar’s use of contemplation as a theological source, the relationship between HUvB and Karl Barth, reading Balthasar among Mennonites, and a great deal more.
ZM: Tell me a little bit about yourself and some of the work you’ve done on Balthasar.
LF: All right. My name is Layton Friesen. I am the academic dean at the Steinbach Bible College in Manitoba, Canada. I started reading Balthasar probably back during my grad school days at Regent College in Vancouver. That was around the year 2000. And then I went on to become a pastor for many years. And even as a pastor, I did a fair bit of reading of Balthasar, and he just grew on me over the years. I was working in a Mennonite church, and so there were not a lot of people reading Balthasar around me, but I found him fascinating. And then, in 2012, when I went to do my doctorate work, I wanted to do work on Balthasar and ethics. And so, that’s what I did. I worked on his views on beauty, on ethics, on violence, nonviolence, and that’s what I spent five years working on there. And then this book that I’ve just published now comes out of that work that I did during my doctoral work and my dissertation.
I’ve been a Mennonite all my life. I have been an evangelical all my life. I’ve just really found Balthasar to be helpful in terms of getting me deeper into my own faith, even though I recognize how—obviously he’s a Roman Catholic—we have many cultural differences between us. But he does really help me in many ways get a deeper understanding of who Jesus is and of how Jesus connects and relates to the world. That’s kind of where I’ve come from personally.
ZM: Wonderful. And for your doctoral work, you were studying at University of St. Michael’s, is that right?
LF: Yeah. This is at the University of Toronto. There’s a school there called the Toronto School of Theology, which is a federation of seven different schools, theological schools, at the University of Toronto. So, I graduated from the University of St. Michael’s, which is a Catholic college in Toronto.
ZM: Got it. Let’s jump into Balthasar. Let’s start with what impresses you the most about him as a theologian.
LF: Well, I guess like so many people I’ve been impressed by what I see is the combination of an extremely humble man, a gentle writer in some ways, with a voracious curiosity. He had just a massive intellectual and personal capacity, and it seemed as though he was determined to bring the entire cosmos through the door of the stable where Jesus was born. That was his lifelong project. There was literally nothing outside of his interest, be it theology or biblical studies or cultural studies or spiritual theology, mysticism, philosophy, literature, history, the Patristics. I mean, he just seemed to be one of these rare souls who was determined to understand all of it if he could and find some way of unifying it all, too.
That’s what really fascinated me. This makes him a very difficult person to read and almost everybody struggles with reading Balthasar. I struggled mightily with reading Balthasar, not because he’s using such difficult words or jargon from his specialty so much as that he really demands that his reader has as much curiosity about things as he does. And he demands that his reader knows as much as he does. And so, he often makes it difficult. But my experience in reading Balthasar is that, yes, it’s very difficult, but there are these moments—and every Balthasar scholar will testify to that—when the cloud’s going to break apart and you see this vast cathedral that is the world as Christ has brought it together. In those moments, you’re almost weeping for joy and falling on your knees in adoration of Christ. It can be quite moving. You get the sense when you’re reading Balthasar that in order to really understand what he’s saying, you have to kneel beside him and contemplate the glory of Jesus Christ. So, reading Balthasar is not only intellectually demanding; it’s also very spiritually demanding.
He’s a bit of a strange writer in some ways. He doesn’t fit in with a lot of other twenthieth-century theology, but for that very reason he’s worth reading, I think.
ZM: Yeah, I see what you’re saying. He sort of plods along. He’s such a thorough writer and is so patient with his subject. So, like you’re saying, he requires you to have the same kind of patience. But it does kind of break into this beautiful symphony, like you’re talking about.
LF: Yeah. Balthasar is a little bit like Barth in that way as well, that he doesn’t start with one premise and then kind of build on it logically to his final argument the way some writers would. It’s not a linear way. It’s more circular, like you’re saying. And so, he keeps circulating back to these basic themes. And every time he comes back again to these themes, he’s built on it. So, my strategy in reading Balthasar, which I think works, is that when you find something that you don’t understand in Balthasar, it doesn’t really help to slow down and go and reread; the best policy, or the best strategy, is just to move forward and keep reading, because eventually he’s going to land back again where he started, just having enriched the conversation. That’s how he builds his argument. It’s a bit of a wandering, here and there, gathering things, but always coming back to some of these basic themes that become very rich in the process.
ZM: On the flip side, what’s one critique you might make of his project?
LF: As I said before, I am an evangelical and a Mennonite. And so, there are dogmatic or theological differences that we would have. But I think one of the criticisms that he often faces from people, and I think there is some value in the criticism, is that sometimes you get the sense in reading Balthasar that he almost knew too much, or that he pries into realms that I’m not sure we as human beings are supposed to know all that much about. Like, for instance, the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity in eternity. Balthasar is really confident that there is a unity between who the Trinity is in its eternal mystery and what Jesus of Nazareth revealed about God in the incarnation. And at one level, all Christians believe this, but Balthasar can get really specific and detailed about how the members of the Trinity relate in all their eternal mystery. A number of writers have worried that maybe Balthasar is prying into areas that have just not really been given for us to know. I think that’s a fair concern, though. He had reasons for what he did, and I think he had controls on what he did, but that is sometimes a criticism that I worry about. Some of this had to do with his relationship with Adrienne von Speyr, who was a mystic who saw a lot of visions and had a lot of very profound experiences of the Trinity, of the cross, of holy Saturday. And Balthasar spends a fair bit of time writing down these visions and trying to incorporate them into his theology. And that also gives Balthasar a window into things that a lot of other people might say have not really been given to us to know. I think that’s a fair concern, and it’s one that we need to struggle with, I think.
ZM: Right. We were talking about the patience required in reading Balthasar, but not all of his books are so plodding and long. For those who are new to Balthasar, what are some good starting points as far his own works but some secondary sources as well?
LF: With most theologians, I always say read them in their own words first, because that’s usually a whole lot more interesting, and then read secondary sources later on. With someone like Barth, it’s certainly the case, or Luther. I mean, Luther’s so colorful in his own words, but when people set about to write about Luther, it’s often kind of dry. But with Balthasar, I’m tempted to make an exception to that, especially if like me, you don’t come with a background in twentieth-century Roman Catholic debates. It’s really helpful to get a bit of the lay of the land before you wander into Balthasar.
There are a couple books that I’ve found really helpful. One of them is Edward Oakes. He’s written a book called Pattern of Redemption. That’s a big, broad overview of all of the big themes in Balthasar’s writing and a lot of the issues that he raises. That’s a really good introduction to almost the entirety of Balthasar’s thought. Oakes was a really good reader of Balthasar. I’ve appreciated him at a number of places. And then the second one that I’ve often recommended is Mark McIntosh. He’s written a book called Christology from Within. It’s a fairly old book by now, but it still is, I think, a very good introduction to the place of Jesus in Balthasar’s writing. And that’s hugely important, his Christology, and specifically the Christology that he picked up from Maximus the Confessor and from Ignatius of Loyola.
Then, in terms of reading Balthasar himself, I always tell people to start with his book on prayer. It’s a small book. It’s meant to guide people in contemplation and how they relate to Jesus in prayer. I think Eugene Peterson has said that this is the best book on prayer that was ever written, which is a pretty amazing endorsement. That’s a great book to start with. The other one that gets into more of the stuff that I deal with in my dissertation—an introduction to a lot of that stuff—is a book called Engagement with God. You might say it’s kind of a common man person’s version of his Theo-Drama, which was the second part of his trilogy, which is much more extensive, but Engagement with God is a small book again. It describes Balthasar’s whole view on freedom and the relationship between God and the world and how God gives the world freedom and engages with the world. That’s another book that I think is fairly accessible. Nothing is easy when reading Balthasar, but these are books that one can start reading and begin to see some of the basic themes and patterns that come up in Balthasar’s thought.
ZM: What’s your personal favorite book by Balthasar, and why?
LF: Well, that would probably be the book on prayer. I mean, that was the first book that I read. So, I think that will always have a special place in my library. And as I continued reading other books by Balthasar, the more I learned about him, the more I came to see that all of his theology sort of comes home in his book on prayer. It’s really a bottomless reflection on what it means to contemplate Jesus, to see Jesus and then to respond to Jesus. Of course, I’ve always been very interested in Balthasar and his thought on ethics. The important thing here is that for Balthasar, ethics flows out of contemplation. As we look at Jesus, as we adore the manner of living that he had before his Father and before the world, our hearts are transformed and we’re moved, we’re motivated, to get up and follow this Lord. Even to think about ethics from Balthasar’s point of view is to first talk about prayer. So, I think that book has been pretty foundational in my appreciation of Balthasar.
ZM: You had mentioned earlier how you were a Mennonite pastor and you didn’t know many other people in your circles who were reading Balthasar. And also in your book you mentioned that you’re the first Mennonite theologian you know of to treat Balthasar’s theological project. So, I’m curious what led you to study Balthasar?
LF: I have to admit that back in grad school twenty years ago, the thing that really peaked my interest was his cool name. I mean, how many twentieth-century writers can trot out a name like Hans Urs von Balthasar? That’s what kind of grabbed my attention. Who could write books with names like Theo-Drama, right? So, there’s a certain kind of cool factor there, I guess. But I think what convinced me to study his work during my doctoral studies was the way he struggled with what it means to follow Jesus in a modern, secular world, and a modern, secular world that is, on the one hand, absolutely fascinated with Jesus—in some ways our world can’t look away from this man on the cross—and, on the other hand, a world that is desperately trying to scrape every semblance of Jesus off its hands. Mennonites, we have often struggled with questions of worldliness. What does it mean to be conformed to the patterns of this age? And how do we live life in the world but not of the world? Those struggles have just become more intense with time. This seems to be the big question that Mennonites have been given to sort through on behalf of the larger church. Balthasar, it seems to me, has a very unique view on how the person of Jesus and the world come together. That’s what drew me to write about Balthasar, because I think he has something to teach people like Mennonites, but many others as well, who really have a strong emphasis on the ethical, on the moral, on being obedient, on discipleship. He has a lot to teach folks like that about what that means in a secular age. That’s what attracted me to Balthasar.
ZM: You’re kind of touching on this already, but my next question is similar. In your book you distinguish between, on the one hand, Mennonites whose faith has maybe been secularized (or just lost altogether) and then, on the other hand, Mennonites who have retreated from the world into different forms of separatism. And then you present Balthasar as offering a third way, in some ways bridging these two, or just a third option at least. So what would you say is the wisdom that Balthasar offers to Mennonite churches and individual Mennonites grappling with the temptation to either of those two extremes?
LF: I think this goes back to what I said before about the relationship between Jesus and secularity, this modern mindset that is now almost invincible in the West. On the one hand, secularity has a deep fascination with Jesus. For example, the compassion of Jesus for the poor and the marginalized. These are aspects of Jesus’s teaching that secularity is built upon. But, on the other hand, secularity has been deeply suspicious of Jesus and tries to get away from the one sort of basic conviction that drove Jesus forward, and that is his love and surrender to God the Father. The secular age that we live in has often seen this as being far too narrow, far too focused on self-sacrifice. It’s just not good for people. Secularity begins with human experience, with evaluating all reality by how it fits with our experience right now. This doctrine of self-sacrificing oneself for God is just seen very suspiciously. So, on the one hand, there’s so much within secularity that is so Christlike, but on the other hand, there is so much that is completely antithetical to the way that Jesus lived his life. And that makes it very difficult to live like Jesus in the modern world.
And Mennonites, I think, have gone in three directions on this. Actually, I think there’s the more progressive liberal option that has tended to teach those aspects of nonviolence that any good, progressive, secular person would agree with. And the temptation here is actually to leave Jesus behind. Jesus doesn’t really form the foundation for this anymore. In a secular world you just don’t need Jesus to form that foundation. The second option, which is more the conservative Mennonite one that you might see more with Amish or Hutterites, is to say that we can live like Jesus, but we can’t live like Jesus in the world. So, let’s withdraw into these close-knit enclaves of the pure church. The third one is maybe more of an evangelical Mennonites option. And that is to say, let’s focus on Christ’s relationship to the Father. Let’s take his message out into the world, but let’s leave behind his ethics. Let’s not focus so much on his way of life. None of these three options really follows the whole Jesus with the whole of life into the whole of the world. Here, I think, the Mennonite experience is a microcosm of a dilemma that the larger church has in the secular world.
And Balthasar struggled with all of this. This is exactly the question that drove so much of his writings. On the one hand, he could be fiercely anti-modern, but on the other hand, he saw the modern age as presenting a kind of an opportunity actually for a new kind of discipleship. So, he had a bit of an ambivalent view of the modern age, and his response to this dilemma that I’ve just described here was threefold. First of all, we start with contemplation, by which he meant a real, live, vibrant, day-to-day beholding of the Lord. Christians are those who track Jesus. We’re not just charting our own path or constructing our own ideas. We cannot sever some principle from Jesus and then live on that principle alone, apart from the life of Jesus. So, that’s the first thing is that you start with revelation, you start with beholding the glory of the Lord as it appears to you and as it appears in the world. And then the second thing for Balthasar was the presence of the Holy Spirit. We’re not condemned to figuring these things out on our own. The Holy Spirit takes us into the mission of Jesus in the world. And the Spirit gives us insight and wisdom to know how to tease things apart, how to make distinctions, how to live with courage this vision of Jesus in a world that is full of riddles and dilemmas. The Spirit doesn’t solve these things for us so much as the Spirit takes us into the world where we struggle with courage and insight and creativity with these dilemmas that we have been given to face. And then the third thing is suffering. It’s hugely important for Balthasar. This vision of tracking Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit in the real world is going to involve suffering, and suffering not only just in the sense that the world is going to persecute us, but suffering in the sense that we’re not always going to know how to fit everything together and we’re often going to struggle to do what Jesus wants us to do in the world. That’s a form of struggle that I see throughout Balthasar in so many ways.
That is how I think Balthasar would say we live as followers of Jesus in a secular world. We track Jesus in a very explicit day-to-day way. We live by the power of the Holy Spirit. And then we expect a certain kind of ambivalence and difficulty and even suffering.
I think that actually matches a much earlier form of Anabaptism that goes back to the sixteenth century that wasn’t quite as confident as we are today about taking this non-violence and making it work in the world. It’s more attuned to just union with Christ and then suffering the kinds of dilemmas and riddles that that faces in the world.
ZM: As a Mennonite, you come from a pacifist tradition, whereas Balthasar, as a Roman Catholic, comes from more of a just war tradition. I know you deal with this in your book, but would you describe Balthasar as a pacifist? Why or why not? And then just more generally, how would you describe his theology’s relationship with violence?
LF: That’s a really interesting question. I go into quite a bit of detail about that in my book. Balthasar would’ve never called himself a pacifist, as you say. He kind of associated that word with certain aspects of liberation theology that in his mind was imposing the cross on the world as a kind of secular political reality. He just was suspicious of that kind of a project. I think he didn’t like the “ism” part of pacifism. It sounded too much like it was a neat and tidy principle that you can extract out of the life of Jesus and then you can apply that in a fairly easy way to secular life where Jesus is not Lord, or not recognized as Lord. And he just was suspicious of those kinds of principles, those kinds of programs. And yet at the same time, he was fascinated by this question, and he keeps coming back to questions of violence in his writing. His understanding of Jesus and the life of faith, they almost demand a strong refusal of violence. The Christian tradition, as you know, has sought to make peace with violence in various ways over the centuries. And the just war tradition is the most notable example of that. But in all of my reading of Balthasar, I’ve never seen him try to make peace with violence in that way, to try to chasten violence or to make violence into something that can be like an act of righteousness for disciples. This is what has fascinated me. There’s a strong gospel nonviolence at the heart of Balthasar’s thought, even though he didn’t want to call himself a pacifist.
Here’s how I see this working out for Balthasar. Balthasar understood the life of faith to be a lifelong process of entering into the work of Jesus. And that’s the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Very central for Balthasar to the posture of Jesus in the world was a kind of non-resistance. Balthasar talks a lot about this posture of letting be. It’s what we see in the response of Mary to the announcement of the angel: “Let it be with me according to your word.” You can think of this letting be, this posture of letting be, as an inner nonresistance, going in two directions for Jesus: first, in the direction of the Father who sent him into the world, and so Jesus is nonresistant to the Father, but secondly, there’s a letting be to the world as well, to the world in all its wretchedness. And this is the letting be of love. This non-resistance in two directions is eventually what got Jesus crucified. It was his response to evil. And my argument in this book is that this posture of letting be, of non-resistance in two directions to the Father and because of that to an evil world, this is kind of the spiritual, theological, ethical furnace of a gospel pacifism. That’s the argument that I make in the book. I’m not arguing that Balthasar was a pacifist. I am arguing that his theology of Christ’s vocation from the Father to love the world is kind of the inner heart of gospel pacifism, or it can be.
ZM: We recently at Wipf and Stock interviewed William Cavanaugh, and he talked a bit about differences between popes who emphasize clarity over charity versus popes who have emphasized charity over clarity. Whereas with with your book and with Balthasar’s broader project, they’re actually interdependent. Doctrine and ethics are interdependent. So, how would you describe the relationship Balthasar puts forth between the church’s doctrinal teachings and then the Christian’s mode of action in the world? Or, put another way, does doctrine actually matter for life according to Balthasar (and you)? Why or why not?
LF: That’s a very good question. In the last five hundred years, we’ve gradually been driving a wedge between doctrine and ethics. And I think part of the motivation for this wedge was the inability of European society after the Reformation to find a practical unity in confession, in theology. And it became apparent that theology was just going to drive society into endless conflict and violence. So, beginning already in the seventeenth century, I think, there was a project begun to see if we could figure out a way to be good, decent, civilized people, even though we do not agree on theology. What gradually happened out of that project, that obviously went on much longer than that, was that even for Christians, it’s come to be assumed that you don’t need doctrine in order to be good.
But what people like Balthasar, and I think Karl Barth as well, began to see in the twentieth century was that not only did this result in really, really awful theology, theology that was dry as sawdust. It was abstract. It was separated from life. It was even separated from spirituality in some ways. Not only did it result in awful theology, it also resulted in awful ethics. The twentieth century was one long example of this, the Holocaust being the chief among them. And so, both of them began going back to something pre-modern, something that I think is much more biblical, which is to see that ethics emerges from the acts of God. It is controlled and judged and directed by what God is doing. And so, the first thing you have to do, if you want to be a good person, is you need to look, you need to see what God is doing in the Scriptures, what God is doing in the present world.
And once you have looked, then you can begin to act. And one of the chief ways that we look, one of the chief ways that we can see what God is doing is by having our eyes trained through the great creedal convictions of the church. These dogmas are ways of training our eyes to see the mighty acts of God in the world, and to understand those acts properly as God intended them to be understood. It is once we understand those acts that we can begin to contemplate how we might get in on that action, how we might participate, and that’s where ethics comes in. So, to become a godly person, you first need to contemplate the acts of God and understand them correctly and then think about how we are going to get in on that, how we’re going to participate in those actions and what that kind of life would look like. That’s how I understand Balthasar coming to ethics and how he is uniting dogma and ethics into one whole. These dogmas, these convictions of the Christian church, they’re not just sort of timeless propositions; they’re actually descriptions of what God has done for us in the history of salvation. And that gives us then the foundation for thinking about ethics.
ZM: Let’s jump to our last question, which is the relationship between Balthasar and Barth. How would you describe the intellectual relationship between Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar, in some ways the great Protestant theologian and the great Catholic theologian of the twentieth century? How did they influence each other and what were some of their main agreements and disagreements?
LF: Actually, there’s a really good book that’s been written on this, and that’s Saving Karl Barth by D. Stephen Long. I’d encourage anyone to read that book if you want more in-depth discussion about their friendship. Balthasar and Barth were great friends for much of their lives. They both lived in Basel. Apparently they would vacation together or get together to play piano and listen to Mozart. They both loved Mozart. We know that Balthasar read a whole lot of Barth. He was a great fan of Barth’s writing and whenever Barth would put out another publication or another volume of his Church Dogmatics, Balthasar would snatch that up and would be reading that. It’s not really that clear that Barth read as much of Balthasar, which is unfortunate, but they shared some basic instincts.
That basic instinct is that we start with the revelation of God rather than human religious experience. That was a basic conviction that they had. They were both fighting against a certain kind of Schleiermachean privileging of human experience that in their minds had created a lot of mischief in theology and in culture. They both worked very hard against that, but they also had their differences and these were pretty fierce as well. They had a lifelong dialogue that’s been really interesting. Because of the track record of liberal Protestant theology in the nineteenth century, Barth wanted to have absolutely nothing to do with natural theology, any kind of natural connection between God and humanity. He was suspicious of anything like this. He thought this would inevitably become idolatry because as soon as there was some kind of natural connection between God and humanity, humans would sort of have their own path to God and grace would no longer be needed. On one level, who could blame him? Barth had seen where this kind of idea would lead in the liberal German church with the Nazis, et cetera. But Balthasar saw things a little bit differently. Though he had some of the same concerns, Balthasar had a stronger sense that God had created the world, so that the world could serve as a divine revelation. For Balthasar, creation is not a secular thing, it’s actually created by God, which of course Barth would’ve agreed with. But Balthasar had a stronger sense that because the world is created by God, because God has saved the world, it is possible for us to understand creation, understand culture, understand the human spirit as revealing some things about God and that this is not necessarily just idolatry. This was a basic debate that they argued about till the day they died. And I don’t think they ever resolved it, and theologians are actually still debating about this. I just read an article last night about about this debate. So, it keeps going on.
But nevertheless, they remain friends. This is a fascinating story: I’m told that near the end of his life, Barth was attending a Catholic church every Sunday. And so, maybe he did learn something from Balthasar after all.
ZM: That’s so funny. I didn’t know that fact about Barth. I think this is a great place for us to wrap up. It’s been a really rich conversation. I just want to say thank you for taking the time.
Layton Friesen (BRS, MCS, ThM, PhD) is academic dean and professor of theology at Steinbach Bible College in Manitoba, Canada. Prior to this he was the Conference Pastor of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference, and the pastor of the Fort Garry EMC church. His book on Hans Urs Von Balthasar and Anabaptist ethics, Secular Nonviolence and the Theo-Drama of Peace, was recently published by T. & T. Clark.
Resources mentioned above
Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Engagement with God: The Drama of Christian Discipleship. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2008.
———. Prayer. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986.
———. Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory. 5 vols. San Francisco: Ignatius.
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. 31 vols. London: Bloomsbury.
Friesen, Layton Boyd. Secular Nonviolence and the Theo-Drama of Peace: Anabaptist Ethics and the Catholic Christology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. London: T. & T. Clark, 2022.
Long, D. Stephen: Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014.
McIntosh, Mark A. Christology from Within: Spirituality and the Incarnation in Hans Urs von Balthasar. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000.
Oakes, Edward T. Pattern of Redemption: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. London: Continuum, 1994.