Self-surrender Is the Heart of Everything: Matthew Levering on Hans Urs von Balthasar

Matthew Levering recently joined Wipf and Stock digital marketing manager, Zech Mickel, over Zoom to answer some questions about Hans Urs von Balthasar for our forthcoming Balthasar Booth. Levering is the author of The Achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Introduction to His Trilogy (2019) and An Introduction to Vatican II as an Ongoing Theological Event (2017) and co-author of Knowing the Love of Christ: An Introduction to the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (2016). He is also co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity (2014), The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology (2018), and The Oxford Handbook of the Reception of Thomas Aquinas (2021). Here Levering discusses Balthasar for Thomists, liberal Catholicism, Ignatian self-surrender, modern German philosophy, and Christic catholicity.

ZM: First things first, I want to say thank you for taking the time out of your morning to join me. I really appreciate you chatting with me. I thought we could start by giving you an opportunity to introduce yourself. Tell me a little about what you do professionally.

ML: My name is Matthew Levering, and I have the James N. and Mary D. Perry Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary, so a lot of my teaching has been involved with students getting their pontifical degree, their pontifical doctorate, since Mundelein’s a Catholic institution. I do a lot of editing. I’m the co-editor of two quarterly journals, the International Journal of Systematic Theology and then Nova et Vetera. And I do a lot of writing also. I have over thirty books, including a book called The Achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar. So I often use Balthasar. Now, I should explain that I’m a Balthasarian, in a certain sense, but I’m not of a strict observance. I have areas where I disagree with Balthasar and areas I agree with Balthasar. But I value him quite a bit as a great thinker from the twentieth century, a truly great thinker.

ZM: I should also mention that you’re the author and editor of several Cascade titles among your thirty-plus books. You’re the author of Engaging the Doctrine of Marriage: Human Marriage as the Image and Sacrament of the Marriage of God and Creation as well as Engaging the Doctrine of Israel: A Christian Israelolgy in Dialogue with Ongoing Judaism. You’re also the co-editor of a few Cascade books, Christian Dying: Witnesses from the Tradition, The Achievement of David Novak: A Catholic-Jewish Dialogue, and then Joseph Ratzinger and the Future of African Theology.

Let’s dive right into von Balthasar. To start, what impresses you the most about Hans Urs von Balthasar as a theologian?

ML: That’s a tough question. I’m most impressed by the way that he brings in so many of the greatest sources of our faith, but also has sort of a literary verve. It’s really quite amazing to read him—he’s drawing upon such a wide range of great sources, especially sources prior to the first fourteen or fifteen centuries of the church’s existence, but then also a lot of mystical theologians. And then he also draws upon poets and so on. He has an amazing range, really, and a literary verve and a deep commitment to following Jesus and a deep love for Jesus. And I love his sense of mission, where each Christian has a particular mission that shares in Jesus’s fundamental mission of self-sacrificial love.

ZM: Absolutely. So, on the other side, since I know you said that you don’t agree with everything from von Balthasar, what’s one critique you might make of his project?

ML: Well, I think that his understanding of Christ’s cross and of the Trinity is kind of too much. I know that he intends a lot of his language to be metaphorical, sort of awakening us. He doesn’t intend it, I don’t think, to be analogical. But, on the other hand, for example, when he speaks about the cross, he has a very strong substitution doctrine where Jesus endures the wrath of the Father in a profound way because Jesus really takes on sin in an incredibly profound way. And so the Father pours out his wrath upon sin upon the Son because the Son, Jesus Christ, is filled with what von Balthasar calls the “effigies” of sin. And so the Son is filled with all sin and the Father pours out his wrath. To me, this is unacceptable. This is not at all a Catholic understanding of the cross. Von Balthasar needed to have followed more the satisfaction doctrine, but he didn’t fully understand the depth of the satisfaction doctrine, which is different from substitution doctrine. When he writes about Aquinas’s version and Anselm’s, he understands partly, but he doesn’t understand, in my view, fully. And I don’t blame him. Balthasar is trying to enhance the imaginative power of Christianity. He’s trying to call to your attention the imaginative greatness. And so he does the same thing with the Trinity where he argues, for example, that hell is a trinitarian event because he says that the trinitarian Persons in their distinction are infinitely distant from each other. The Father sends forth the Son in begetting him in a way that is like an abandonment, so the distance between the divine Persons for Balthasar is infinite. It’s far greater, infinitely greater, than the distance between the most alienated sinner, like Satan, and God himself. In other words, you have this trinitarian distance. And that’s why hell is a trinitarian event in a certain sense, surely a metaphorical sense. Now Balthasar, what he’s really trying to do, though, is remind you that the Trinity is not just begetting—you know, generation, procession; word, image, love, gift. The Trinity is not just subsistent relations. The Trinity is something incredibly exciting, incredibly dynamic, infinitely dynamic, infinitely active, infinitely personal, and so the personal relations between the divine Persons are far more personal than we can imagine, far more profound, far more wondrous, than anything that human history has to offer, than anything that imagination can think of. Balthasar’s trying to capture the intensity, the glory, of the Trinity. He feels that the medieval Scholastic, and therefore the Augustinian and Patristic—including all the Greek Church Fathers—that their way of approaching the Trinity in the end sort of dulled it down so that we need the mystical insights, the sense of wonder, the sense of amazement. When you think about the Trinity, there’s nothing more exciting than the Trinity. Balthasar works to bring that out. Unfortunately, though, theologically, in my view, he goes too far. And if he wanted to speak that way, he needed to be very, very clear that he was speaking in metaphor, because he brings in some very serious problems along with the excitement.

I want to be clear—my view is that every theology has a certain set of problems with it. I don’t subscribe to the notion that you have sort of a perfect theology or that you have some theologian, whether it’s Irenaeus, Augustine, or whoever, who is perfect on everything, and then the rest of the ones are measured. I don’t subscribe to that. I think that all theologians have some weaknesses. So I do think Balthasar’s theology has some weaknesses, but in saying that I want to emphasize my being a Balthasarian, because Balthasar’s the first to criticize. He criticizes all the great theologians as deficient. He criticizes Irenaeus in a very sharp way, and Irenaeus is one of his favorite theologians. And he criticizes Augustine in a profoundly sharp way, too sharp, over predestination issues, that type of thing. He criticizes all the great theologians. Every one of them that you could even think of, he criticizes. My point is that Balthasar doesn’t hesitate to identify other theologians as deficient. He, too, is deficient. But he also celebrates each of these great theologians. He celebrates them, and he values them. And so they’re part of the symphony. (I really like his image of truth as symphonic.)

Now there is one thing I would add, though: he’s not very fair to the theologians between, say, 1560 and 1950. He’s not fair to those theologians—you know, it was part of the ressourcement movement, part of the time. These guys, in seminary, they read a lot of manuals. They didn’t like their teachers, honestly, and they were kind of fed up and bored with the theological textbooks. But you ought to read the theological textbooks that people write now, it’s just boring as all heck. So theological textbooks are boring, that’s kind of the problem. And so Balthasar is often too negative about the theologians preceding him in the post-Tridentine period. But oh well, he wanted to open up space for a different approach, and I value what he has accomplished very much.

ZM: You had mentioned earlier what a wide range of sources Balthasar draws from—theological, philosophical, literary. But also in his writing he’s so prolific and wrote on such a vast array of topics and published just so many books. And he’s not systematic, either, is the thing; he’s not a systematician. So I think it can be difficult to trace what his core themes are throughout his whole corpus. What would you say are some of the unifying threads?

ML: Well, as I see it, the whole thing is unified by the Ignatian theme of self-surrender, from Saint Ignatius Loyola, because Balthasar is really a Jesuit. I myself think that Balthasar is a systematician. Of course, all these guys swear that they don’t have a system, but I don’t believe that, not even for a second. If you’re a theologian, you do have some sort of systematic way that you have in mind that you’re going to undertake the task of theology. And Balthasar is very much that kind of theologian. In Balthasar, if you have a question, the answer’s going be self-surrender. No matter what topic you’re talking about, whether it’s Eucharist or anything else, Trinity, Mary, Jesus Christ, any topic else that you can think of, the answer is going to be self-surrender. And by the way, I think that’s a very profound answer. Self-surrender is just simply the going out, the ekstasis, instead of clinging to self, the pouring oneself out, the going out to the other, the love for the goodness of the other. It’s just charity. It’s a way of describing charity, the love for the goodness of the other, the pouring out, the liquefying of the self for the other. And that’s an incredibly central Christian theme. You couldn’t think of a more fundamental Christian theme. Everything is rooted in Jesus Christ, as he sees it, the form of Jesus Christ—the manifestation, the revelation, of who God is—the face of God in the love that is Jesus, the embodied love.

ZM: You orient your book, The Achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar, around HUVB’s engagement with modern philosophy, particularly the thought of Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. How would you describe Balthasar’s response to philosophical modernity in general and these three thinkers in particular?

ML: Balthasar, as I see it, what he wants to do is to respond. I argue this in my book, so I’m just giving a little précis. He wants to respond to the great German thinkers who are dominating the culture of our day. He’s very concerned that Catholic theology is not responding to the rise of modern culture, that Catholic theology under the form of neo-Scholasticism, or even Scholasticism, is not rising to the level of culture. And so Catholics are no longer seen as leading the intellectual life. Catholic theologians are almost not even part of the intellectual life of the modern university or the modern culture. Modern culture doesn’t have that much of a place for Christian theological thinking. Remember, he’s writing, he’s thinking, in the Europe of his day, which was rapidly secularizing. The three key thinkers he thinks are the three drivers of modernity, at least in Europe, are Immanuel Kant, Hegel, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Balthasar is not a Kantian, he’s not a Nietzschean, and he’s not a Hegelian. He’s closest to Hegel of all three, but he’s a very strong critic of Hegel.

So, his Aesthetics, his Glory of the Lord. You have to read the neo-Scholastic manuals in fundamental theology. You read those manuals in fundamental theology, which are essentially apologetics, and what you’re going to realize is that Immanuel Kant is a key figure in the debates in Catholic fundamental theology in the early twentieth century. You have guys like Pierre Rousselot writing things like The Eyes of Faith, or you have Maurice Blondel working through very important things about apologetics and about fundamental theology. What’s happening is these great Catholic thinkers are using Kant, but going beyond Kant, as it were. When they think about apologetics, about natural theology, about proofs of God’s existence, about reality, they’re going beyond Kant. You have other guys like Joseph Maréchal—this is what is called transcendental Thomism; it’s Aquinas but Kant is a key figure. Now, the thing is, though, Balthasar is no Kantian, and he is not a transcendental Thomist, but he is influenced somewhat by Rousselot, just like Henri de Lubac is very influenced by Rousselot. And Rousselot is very influenced by Kant and by Aquinas. So if you get all that in the background, you’re going to see that the Aesthetics, where he talks about the glory of the Lord, the manifestation of the Lord, is a very strong response to Kant. Now, Kant has an aesthetics himself. Kant has a vision of the sublime, of the beautiful. Kant has a very, very complex and rich aesthetics. But Kant also his whole thing about transcendental apperception and all sorts of things on what we can know about God, so all sorts of things that involve fundamental theology. So Kant goes out in search of the ground of all knowledge. He wants to know what is the ground of all knowing, and Kant searches for that in the transcendental apperception, he searches for it in the mind, in the consciousness. Now Balthasar also searches for the ground of all knowing, and he finds it turns out to be self-surrender, it turns out to be something Kant had not realized. It goes well beyond Kant, infinitely beyond, really. It turns out to be the cross. The ground of all reality is the cross. Now, you might say, well, that puts evil into the ground of all reality. Well, Balthasar doesn’t mean to do that at all. What he is saying is the ground of all reality is ektasis, or pouring oneself out, or charity, or self-giving, or self-pouring-out. Do you see? That’s what he’s up to. The ground of all reality is this infinite pouring out of self, this infinite love for the other. He shows many things in The Glory of the Lord, which is seven volumes, and he talks about many topics. But the fundamental point that he is trying to say is that if you’re searching for the ground of all reality, if you dig into everything, what you’re going to find is beauty. And what beauty is, is this self-surrender, or this pouring out, this ektasis. It’s called Christ, the form of beauty. Christ is the form of beauty.

And so Balthasar’s in dialogue with Kant in a very profound way, but in an undercurrent, because he’s not a Kantian. In fact, he opposes Kant to Goethe and very much chooses Goethe. But the thing is that if you understand fundamental theology from that period, you’ve got to be engaged with Kant. And so Balthasar is in his Glory of the Lord. So that’s his first seven volumes of the trilogy, his Glory of the Lord. I call it a Kantian critique of Kant, but sometimes people misunderstand and say, “what do you mean, Kantian? Balthasar is not a Kantian.” And I answer to that, “Of course he’s not a Kantian.” He’s just taking elements from Kant and he’s showing how Catholic faith completely outdoes Kant. The sources of Catholic faith, including Scripture, including the great members of the symphony who understand beauty, he shows how they completely outdo Kant. And so what he’s showing, then, is that one of the pillars of modernity, Immanuel Kant, is instructive in a certain way. You have to remember when Balthasar starts writing this book, do you know where Kant’s books were kept in Catholic libraries? They were kept in a cage under lock and key, at least in a lot of places, because they were on the index, they were heretical, they were dangerous. Balthasar doesn’t deny that they’re dangerous. He agrees that Kant has misunderstood reality. But he thinks if the Catholic faith is going to truly engage with our time and truly be what it should be in our time, you’re going to have to engage with Kant. And so, of course, many other Catholics of his time agreed with him. The main point that Balthasar shows is that if you follow Kant and especially his search for transcendental apperception and his aesthetics you’re going to find that the form of Jesus Christ turns out to be the very ground of all reality, which is what you expect, because all things are created in the Word. That’s all Balthasar’s saying. At the ground of reality is this incredible beauty, and what is that beauty? It’s the beauty that reflects the Word. And what is the Word? The Word is the Father’s pouring himself out in love. So that’s the form of all things. That’s the beauty of all things.

Then you have the next set of volumes, essentially working through salvation history. But Balthasar also thinks in terms of theater. This is the Theo-Drama. In the Theo-Drama, Balthasar is quite clear that he’s trying to benefit from certain elements of Hegel, who was of course tremendously interested in drama. So, if you’re writing on drama in Balthasar’s day, you’re going to be working with Hegel, because he was a great German philosopher of drama. And Balthasar’s doctorate was in Germanistics, so that probably inclined him to engage with Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche. The point is, when Balthasar gets to the center of the Christian story, which is the cross, the Trinity, when he treats the mission of the person, the great figures like Jesus Christ and Mary in the Gospels, when he goes into eschatology and everything else, he has to engage what he calls the dramatic tension. Is God going to win, or is sin going to win? If you look around the world in Balthasar’s time, with the Holocaust and all the other things, and in our time, too, sadly, the world is a place of dreadful sin and dreadful chaos. There is some order in the world, but it’s sort of a miracle that there’s any order. Sin and chaos are so powerful and so destructive. And so there’s a real clash between holiness and sin. All of this is very eschatological. Balthasar is a very eschatological thinker, just as you have to be if you are post-Albert Schweitzer. Balthasar works this out through his engagement with Hegel and he shows that Hegel has not thought deeply enough. Hegel’s version of history is that almost everything is sort of plotted out, it’s on a trajectory. Hegel knew what history was going to be. Hegel was sort of the pinnacle of history. The Hegelian system knows everything and has a place for everything. But Balthasar points out that the Hegelian system doesn’t really have a place for God, in a serious way, the living God, the transcendent God, the God who acts rather than the God who develops. Balthasar also has a strong critique of Hegel’s understanding of the cross.

What Balthasar does find in Hegel, though, is that Hegel’s understanding of God and of the cross is somehow more exciting, somehow more filled with energy, than is the Scholastic treatment of the Trinity or even the Thomistic treatment of the cross. And so Balthasar outdoes this. When you read the Theo-Drama, you get something so dramatic that you can hardly stand it. It’s incredibly dramatic, and there’s much power to it. My view is that he goes too far, but the main point is that the Theo-Drama is out-narrating Hegel. It does a lot of other things as well. You might say, “Well, what’s the use of out-narrating Hegel? Who is Hegel, anyway?” But if we step back here, we have to realize that Marx was a Hegelian. Did Marx have an impact on history? Have you ever read about the “arc” of history? Hegel is deeply present in our culture, and he was even more deeply present in Balthasar’s culture. Hegel has all these offshoots. Marx was a Hegelian, and Marx is deeply present in our culture. So we would neglect Hegel at our peril. Our intellectual culture is still filled with Hegel; it might not call itself Hegel but it’s related to Hegel.

Then you have the third driver of modernity, which is Nietzsche. If anyone wants to imagine that our culture is not profoundly Nietzschean, then they’re crazy. For Nietzsche, truth is always the will to power. So truth is always radically contextual. It’s based upon getting something. I’m trying to get something, I’m trying to get some power, some power over you. I’m trying to get some power over other people. This is a very prevalent understanding of truth. It’s behind identity politics and all sorts of things. So Balthasar, in his Theo-Logic now, what he’s fundamentally doing is offering a Nietzschean critique of Nietzsche. Balthasar is not an Nietzschean, but his critique of Nietzsche goes along lines that a Nietzschean could recognize, because Balthasar asks, “what is truth?” What is it? Truth is the will to love. For Balthasar, if you look at truth, it is ultimately self-surrender. The truth of things is self-surrender, just like the true drama is the drama of self-surrender, the self-surrender of the Trinity, the self-surrender of Christ, and the self-surrender of all those who are in Christ. The real drama of history is self-surrender. The real truth of things, the lasting truth, the ultimate truth, and the truth of God, the truth that measures everything is self-surrender. It’s love. Love is the fundamental thing. Balthasar in this way is like a Bonaventurean, but he’s a Jesuit, he’s Ignatian. He’s a voluntarist of a kind. He emphasizes the will, and he emphasizes the good. The question is: what’s the highest transcendental? Is the highest transcendental being, or is the highest transcendental the good? Bonaventure says the highest name of God is the good, and Aquinas says the highest name of God is being. So Balthasar follows in a Bonaventurean tradition, or a Jesuit tradition; love is the key thing, love is the heart of everything, obedience in a sense.

ZM: One of your main goals in your book, The Achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar, is to reconcile the divisions between Thomistic and ressourcement theologians via Balthasar’s work. How does Balthasar’s trilogy, in particular, offer potentials for bridging those two camps?

ML: Some of the reviewers of my book misunderstood what I was doing, because they said, “Hey, Balthasar uses Aquinas.” They would say things like, “Don’t you know that in Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, he used Aquinas and benefits from Aquinas.” They ask because I didn’t really put that in my book. I think they’ve missed the point. Of course I do know that, and I’m well-versed in that, but the point is that Balthasarians and Thomists are going to disagree. That’s just how it’s going to be. Catholics have a lot of schools of theology, so to be a Catholic, you agree upon the creed, you agree upon these basic things, the core, definitive teachings of our faith, but you don’t have to agree. You agree about a lot of stuff, the moral life and all sorts of stuff, but you don’t agree about how we’re going to understand, for example, the cross. There are different schools of thought about how we understand the Incarnation or about how we understand the Trinity or the causality of the sacraments. Catholics have always had different schools of thought which are in tension with each other. For example, about the Eucharist, you have different schools of thought that are in tension. After the Second Vatican Council, at a certain point it appeared that Thomism—the study of St. Thomas Aquinas as a living, vibrant theological school—was going to disappear, because what they call neo-Thomism was completely obliterated by the council. The leading figure of neo-Thomism was a guy named Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange, and he was basically regarded like, if you were to even read his book, you would be tainted with a scarlet letter on your chest. The basic idea after the council, at least among some figures, was that from now on, we’ll have the ressourcement movement, which, at least in the 1990s, was led by Balthasarians, but you wouldn’t have any Thomist movement. You would have the ressourcement movement and then you would have Catholics who are more in line with Protestant liberalism, and those Catholics identified with Rahner and Schillebeeckx and others. You would have communio but no Thomism. Well, that didn’t work. I mean, that was a dumb idea, anyway. But the idea that Thomists and Balthasarians are going to agree with each other, that’s not going happen. We’re dealing here with distinct theological schools.

So the point in my book was just a simple one, really, which is that the Catholic Church is facing a very strong revival of the theological school associated with what I would consider to be Protestant liberalism, the theological school of Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx and so on. And so if you look at most Catholic universities, the theology or religious studies department would be filled with contextual theologians of different kinds, liberation theologians of different kinds, whether they’re feminist or queer theory or whatever. Essentially, Rahner is making a huge comeback, and on all levels of the church. There’s a number of reasons for that. I don’t need to get into reasons here. But there are theologians who really are committed to the creed and to the fundamental teachings of Catholic tradition, the teachings that have been handed on about the moral life, the sacramental life, the basic things. Now, we might disagree about how to understand, for example, the sacraments, but we agree the sacrament of Eucharist is the real presence of Jesus Christ, or really is the sharing in Christ’s cross, his Paschal mystery. We agree about these fundamental things, but then we disagree about how to account for that. Theologians who have this fundamental agreement need to learn how to get along, and they need to learn how to get along fast, because if they don’t get along pretty soon, they’re going to find themselves completely outflanked by the very unified liberal Catholics. “Liberal” in the classical religious liberal sense. There are a number of Catholic thinkers who really are following the model of religious liberalism. Oftentimes they don’t know they are because they don’t read Protestants. It’s kind of a shame. They don’t read nineteenth-century Protestants, so they have no idea what religious liberalism is. They don’t even know what Protestant religious liberalism might be. And the changes they want to make to the Catholic faith will result in the very same thing that happened within Protestant religious liberal communities. And what happened within Protestant religious liberal communities is that there was a massive loss of faith. Look, who’s going to follow Jesus Christ, the crucified Savior, if what that really means is that we can be ethical people or something, but it doesn’t really have any fundamental eschatological import, that Jesus didn’t really change anything in a deep way? What I was saying, then, is that Thomists and Balthasarians must take the opportunity to agree, not to condemn each other, but to work with each other, even when there are disagreements, and to try to appreciate each other in certain ways. But by saying “appreciate each other,” I didn’t really mean that now the Thomists are going to write a list of the things they agree with Balthasar about, and Balthasarians are going to write a list of things they agree with Thomas Aquinas about. Balthasarians, by the way, usually respect Thomas as a philosopher, but usually they don’t follow him as a theologian. Well, that’s not going to please Thomists. We’re not going to sit down and write lists of things Balthasarians agree with Thomists about, and vice versa. To me, that may be useful in some ways, but ultimately it’s fairly fruitless. Different schools of thought can learn to respect each other, the achievement of the other, even while disagreeing with some important elements. So, if you follow Aquinas, as I generally do, you can still see that Bonaventure makes a major contribution. Or, if you follow the Dominican commentators, you can see nonetheless that the Jesuits are great, that they are great thinkers and have a great tradition. You respect the other traditions within the catholica. In my book, I argue that Balthasar has offered a great achievement. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with it. It does mean that within the catholica, you respect the diversity of schools. Whereas, for me, it’s quite a different matter when we’re talking about religious liberalism. To me, religious liberalism is at odds very deeply with Catholicism. I would see the Catholic thinkers who advocate religious liberalism as undermining the very ground of Catholic faith. That’s different to me. They undermine the creedal ground, the ground of Scripture and tradition. They undermine the whole possibility of development of tradition. They undermine the truth of doctrine. They undermine biblical morality. The difference between Jesuits and Dominicans, that’s not what’s at stake. Religious liberalism brings something totally different to the table.

I would suggest, though, that there are some good things in religious liberalism, and Vatican II picked up on some of those things. Let me name some examples. Some good things are Jewish-Christian dialogue rather than anti-Semitism. Hatred of the Jews had really plagued Christian orthodoxy. Another thing would be biblical scholarship. Religious liberalism points out that we can’t be afraid of historical-critical research. We can engage it at a certain level. We can’t be fundamentalists. I firmly believe this, that being a fundamentalist is not an option for Catholicism. How can you be committed to faith and reason if you basically cut reason off at the knees? You can have critiques of problems with historical criticism, but that’s different from rejecting the study of Qumran and all the intertestamental literature, or all the other things historical scholars do. There’s plenty that can be learned from religious liberalism. I think Vatican II learned a lot of those things.

Right now, though, we’re dealing with a different situation where we’re talking about the undermining of the very deepest foundations of the Catholic faith. So, for me, that would be the neo-Rahnerian or the Schillebeeckxian schools of thought. I’m going to differentiate therefore between Catholic religious liberalism and then the schools of thought where you have Thomism, Balthasarianism. You see? What I’m saying is, “Hey, Balthasarians and Thomists, we all agree we’re not religious liberals. We’re agreeing on the fundamentals. Let’s be friends.” It’s a lesson about schools of thought. I believe that you can have different schools of thought that are deeply complementary and that share fundamental values. You don’t have to have an intra-confessional warfare within your church just because one side is analytic and the other side is more Scholastic or something. Those of us who are not religious liberals need to get our act together because, by the way, it’s very easy to unite as religious liberals, because what you’re trying to do is tear something down. It’s easy to be united when you’re tearing something down. It’s very difficult to be united when you’re fighting over the particulars, but you don’t have to fight over particulars. They’re going to tear it down. You see what I’m saying? If I’m a religious liberal, I might have all sorts of disagreement with my neighbor, but me and my neighbor, we agree: let’s tear that building down. Let’s get down to the foundations, let’s dig out the foundations. We agree about that, so we’re going to have very much a unity.

ZM: Let’s finish up with a couple last questions, which I’m going to combine. The first question is this: because Balthasar was so prolific, I think beginners can have a really hard time knowing where to start in terms of reading him. So what would you say to people new to his writing? Where should they start? What book, or books, by Balthasar himself and what secondary sources, if any? And then the second question is: what is your personal favorite book by Balthasar, and why?

ML: I’ll begin with the second question. My personal favorite is called In the Fullness of Faith. It’s a very short book that he wrote for one of his birthdays. He just sort of whipped it off and he gave it as a birthday present to friends when he was like seventy-five. The value of In the Fullness of Faith is in part because of its time period. It was written right after the council. The world was in chaos. Everyone was leaving the faith. All the priests and religious in Germany were abandoning the faith. There was a rise of these crazy traditionalists that were opposed to the council and in a deep way rejecting the council, and so they were leaving the church. People were leaving the church in all directions. And so Balthasar writes this amazing book which is about catholicity. Unfortunately, the translation can be a little bit misleading. Sometimes he’ll write sentences that say, like, “Jesus was a Catholic,” and they put it in uppercase “C.” That may be so, but Balthasar was trying to get at a notion of catholicity. In other words, Jesus had a catholic fullness. The fullness of everything is in Jesus Christ, the fullness of God. To be catholic is to share, to participate in, God’s fullness, the fullness that he offers of himself, God offering himself to us and Christ offering himself to us, the fullness of Christ offering himself to us to be the Bride and share in the fullness of the Bridegroom. Or, in the Pauline sense, to be the body of Christ and to share in the fullness of the Head. These are metaphors, but they’re obviously more than metaphors.

I’m writing an essay on this and have read things by a number of Protestants, including my dear friend, Jerry Walls, who wrote Roman but Not Catholic, and also another dear friend, Kevin Vanhoozer. They just have no idea what Catholics mean when they say “catholicity.” They think that catholicity means Rome. What a disaster. What a shallow and pitiful reading of another person’s faith. Catholicity means sharing in Jesus Christ, our Lord; he’s the catholic one. Now it is true that for Catholics there is an ecclesiology that indicates that Jesus really is enabling the church to share in his fullness, but that’s a dynamic sharing. It’s not as though the Catholic Church claims now to have the perfect fullness. Catholicity is growing. In other words, there’s a growth of catholicity. You might say, “Well, how could that be?” Well, the church can be one, holy, and catholic without being in the fullness that it will have one, the eschatological fullness of its unity. The church can be a unity, but not yet the eschatological fullness of its unity. I mean, the church can right now have all sorts of wounds to unity. There’s a certain dynamism there toward an ever-growing fullness that really has an eschatological dimension, that the church will be fully catholic at the consummation. Catholics agree with great Protestant thinkers that catholicity is not about Rome. It’s about Jesus. It’s about sharing in the Trinity because the Trinity is where the fullness is. To me, then, In the Fullness of Faith is an extremely wonderful book because it gives an argument for why the Catholic Church is catholic (lowercase “c”).

The main audience is not intended to be Protestants, of course. It’s intended to be a response to Rahnerians because Rahnerians are busy throwing out a bunch of Catholic elements. Liberal Protestants would throw out this and that from Protestantism, like, “we don’t need that anymore.” So, the same for religious liberalism within the Catholic world. You would throw out a bunch of elements. “Oh well, that’s outdated, we don’t need that anymore, the church has grown beyond that.” Balthasar says, “wait a second, let’s look at each element one by one and see how it relates to catholicity, to Jesus Christ, to sharing in Jesus Christ.”

To your other question, how would you begin to read Balthasar? My own view is that a good way to begin to read Balthasar is by reading his short books. That’s my opinion. If not that, I would say reading The Glory of the Lord, just reading Volume I. That could be a good idea. It depends on what level of theological reader you are. His trilogy is much more complicated and more difficult to read. You might start with something like Truth Is Symphonic or Love Alone Is Credible. You might start with a book called Convergences. These are short little books. There are a lot of them. You might also start with his book on prayer.

You notice I didn’t talk about Adrienne Von Speyr, but I’ll throw in Adrienne von Speyr at the end. Adrienne has a lot of short books herself that can be very enriching. I’m not scared of Adrienne von Speyr, even though I think her work is very metaphorical. I think it’s very much shaped by Balthasar himself. Sometimes people say that Balthasar was impacted by Adrienne. I actually believe it’s the other way around, that Adrienne was impacted by Balthasar. And, of course, Balthasar wrote out everything that she wrote down. She didn’t write anything. Balthasar wrote it down, from transcripts or whatever. The point is: there’s some good stuff in Adrienne, too, but in the short books, I do think that on some matters she says stuff that I can’t agree with at all. But, again, the principle of all or nothing is not how to read Balthasar. Sometimes people read Balthasar expecting to read him like Thomas Aquinas. But of course not. You have to understand you’re reading someone coming from a distinct theological school, one which is really his own—he’s very creative. But if you’re coming to Balthasar having read Karl Barth or Sergius Bulgakov, you will understand Balthasar. In other words, Balthasar is a school of thought shaped by a certain reception to Hegel and a certain reception of Schelling and some others, and so he’s going to have a lot of agreements with people who have any sort of German background like that. Certainly Barth, certainly Sergius Bulgakov, because the Russians were reading a ton of these German philosophers.

ZM: I think that’s a great place to wrap up. I just want to say thank you again for chatting with me.

Matthew Levering holds the James N. Jr. and Mary D. Perry Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary, where he also directs the Center for Scriptural Exegesis, Philosophy, and Doctrine.  He serves as co-editor of two quarterly journals, Nova et Vetera and International Journal of Systematic Theology.  He is past president of the Academy of Catholic Theology and the co-founder of the Chicago Theological Initiative.  The author of over thirty books and the co-editor of more than twenty volumes, he has most recently authored The Abuse of Conscience: A Century of Catholic Moral Theology and Engaging the Doctrine of Israel: A Christian Israelology in Dialogue with Ongoing Judaism.

Levering’s Wipf and Stock books

Twelve Catholic theologians and philosophers on the great Jewish theologian, David Novak. Each of the twelve essays is followed by a response by David Novak, and it thereby represents a significant addition to his oeuvre. Among the topics treated by the authors are religious engagement in a pluralist and secular culture, the question of whether Jews and Christians worship the same God, the morality of suicide, the role of divine commandments in Catholic moral theology, the question of whether classical versions of natural-law doctrine are susceptible to the critiques proffered by Novak, the pedagogical impact of Dabru Emet, religious freedom, the recent debate about Pope Pius IX and Edgardo Mortara, the nature of justice, the relationship of reason and revelation, the sanctity of human life and the death penalty, and supersessionism.

We human beings are mortal. Our lives in this world inevitably terminate in death. This reality, however, need not cause us to despair, since Jesus Christ has gone before us into the far country of death, giving us hope that this defining feature of our earthly lives is not the end, but instead is an entrance into Christ’s presence and a path to the fullness of the Spirit’s new creation in which God will be all in all. Christian Dying: Witnesses from the Tradition is a collection of essays containing reflections from Christian authors—whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—on the meaning and appropriation of Christian hope in the face of death in conversation with a number of great voices from the Christian tradition.

This book is the dogmatic sequel to Levering’s Engaging the Doctrine of Marriage, in which he argued that God’s purpose in creating the cosmos is the eschatological marriage of God and his people. God sets this marriage into motion through his covenantal election of a particular people, the people of Israel. Central to this people’s relationship with the Creator God are their Scriptures, exodus, Torah, Temple, land, and Davidic kingship. As a Christian Israelology, this book devotes a chapter to each of these topics, investigating their theological significance both in light of ongoing Judaism and in light of Christian Scripture (Old and New Testaments) and Christian theology. The book makes a significant contribution to charting a path forward for Jewish-Christian dialogue from the perspective of post-Vatican II Catholicism.

God created the cosmos for the purpose of the marriage of God and his people—and through his people, the marriage of God and the entire creation. Given that the central meaning or “prime analogate” of marriage is the marriage of God and humankind, the study of human marriage needs to be shaped by this eschatological goal and foregrounded as a dogmatic theme. After a first chapter defending and explaining the biblical witness to the marriage of God and his people, the book explores various themes: marriage as an image of God, original sin as the fall of the primordial marriage, the cross of Jesus Christ and marital self-sacrificial love, the procreative and unitive ends of marriage, marriage as a sacrament, and marriage’s importance for social justice and for the upbuilding of the kingdom of God.

This book engages the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI in dialogue with African Catholic theological concerns and challenges. After an Introduction by Matthew Levering arguing that African Catholic theology is an important resource for the whole Church, the book contains ten chapters by African and non-African Catholic theologians. Paulinus Odozor investigates whether and, if so, how the God of Jesus Christ stands in continuity with the God known to African Traditional Religions. Joseph Lugalambi proposes that the Catholic liturgies of Africa are in need of reform. Mary-Reginald N. Anibueze explores the Eucharist as a socio-communitarian event. Emery de Gaal reflects upon Ratzinger/Benedict’s theology of inculturation. Joseph Ogbonnaya treats Caritas in Veritate with a focus upon the case of Nigeria. Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai meditates upon Ratzinger’s understanding of political power.

Other resources mentioned above

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Convergences: To the Source of Christian Mystery. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1983.

———. The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. 7 vols. San Francisco: Ignatius.

———. In the Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988.

———. Love Alone Is Credible. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2005.

———. Prayer. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1986.

———. Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory. 5 vols. San Francisco: Ignatius.

———. Theo-Logic. 3 vols. San Francisco: Ignatius.

———. Truth Is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1987.

Collins, Kenneth J., and Jerry L. Walls. Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.

Levering, Matthew. The Achievement of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Introduction to His Trilogy. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2019.

———, et al. International Journal of Systematic Theology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

———, and Thomas Joseph White, OP. Nova et Vetera. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. New York: Vintage, 1968.

Rousselot, Pierre. The Eyes of Faith: With Rousselot’s Answers to Two Attacks. New York: Fordham University Press, 1990.


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