Balthasar Booth, Pt. 2 / Anne M. Carpenter / Balthasar, Poetry, and “Heideggerian Thomism”

Saint Mary’s College of California theology professor, Anne M. Carpenter, recently chatted with Wipf and Stock’s Zech Mickel on all things Hans Urs von Balthasar for our soon-coming virtual exhibit on Balthasar. Carpenter is the author of Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015) and the forthcoming Nothing Gained Is Eternal: A Theology of Tradition (Fortress, 2022). In our interview, Carpenter shares her thoughts on Balthasar’s poetic manner of theologizing, Carpenter’s own poetry, Balthasar’s relationship to the East, his form of “Heideggerian Thomism,” his theological risk-taking, and much more on HUvB.

ZM: Thanks for taking some time to chat with me this morning. I know you’re probably very busy. Let’s begin by giving you a chance to introduce yourself. So maybe tell us what your academic post is, some of your publications, etc.

AMC: I’m Anne Carpenter. I’m an associate professor at Saint Mary’s College of California in the department of theology and religious studies. I have published the book, Theo-Poetics, on Balthasar’s theological aesthetics. I have an upcoming book that’s a theology of tradition with Fortress Press. And I’ve published in other journals about Thomist metaphysics, Balthasar’s work, its relationship to culture, and theories of tradition.

ZM: Awesome. Thank you. All right, let’s jump right into Balthasar. My first question is: what impresses you the most about Balthasar as a theologian?

AMC: To me, one of the things that’s most interesting about him is how hard he is to fit onto an ideological team. He stands apart from most groups, partly methodologically because he’s creating a kind of hybrid theology that methodologically expands the kinds of tools theologians can use and borrow. He’s exploring what that hybrid theology might look like. He uses, of course, all kinds of resources to do it, and it helps to know the resources he knows. I find that methodological edge the most interesting and how hard he is to really place on a team.

ZM: Let’s go on to the next question, which is on the other side of the coin: what’s one critique you might make of Balthasar and his theological project?

AMC: One of Balthasar’s weaknesses is when he speaks about the East, especially Eastern religions, it’s really not until very late in his career that he’s able to distinguish the East, so Buddhism, from the Orientalism that would’ve been in the air in Europe when he was growing up. And so, for most of his career, when he brings up Buddhism, for example, he’s going to eventually talk about Hegel, but they’re not in fact related. They’re just related to one another in a sort of European Orientalist context. That’s a tendency of his that I think can really distract scholars, and there’s been really good work on that issue in particular, actually recently in the work of Joshua Brown, but it’s definitely a problem that Balthasar has.

ZM: That’s really interesting. That’s definitely not what I was expecting you to say.

For those who are new to Balthasar, obviously he’s written so many books, and they’re so varied, that it’s hard to know where to begin. Where would you say is a good starting point or maybe a couple starting places for such people?

AMC: Yeah. Let’s see. I think pretty much any angle with Balthasar will work as long as you keep reading, but for people totally unfamiliar with him, his shorter books and his Explorations in Theology essays. These several volumes of topical essays give a more focused Balthasar who’s easier to understand. Of the shorter books I might highlight Mysterium Paschale, which is both prototypical Balthasar but also very focused and methodologically clear. And of the Explorations essays, maybe start with Vol. 1, because he’s got some really interesting things to say about Scripture, spirituality, tradition, beauty in those essays.

ZM: As far as your own favorite book by von Balthasar, what would you choose, and why?

AMC: I really appreciate most of his work. So, it depends on what I’m thinking about at the time. One of my favorite books lately is the much-neglected Theo-Logic Vol. 3, which closes out his trilogy. It’s got some of the most interesting work on the Trinity that he does at length, and so I’m quite fascinated by it.

ZM: Let’s talk about your poetry. You’re not just a theologian; you’re also a poet. And in your book, you begin each chapter with a poem of your own, all of which are wonderful, by the way. Tell me a little bit about what brought you to poetry and how you’ve cultivated that skill over time.

AMC: I have a kind of funny, odd story to tell about it, because when I first arrived to graduate school in theology, I was really fascinated by this theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and I had no idea he had written a theological aesthetics. And at the time I hated all of the arts passionately. I thought it was emotivism wrapped in niceness, and I had no interest in it. So, I was very upset to learn that my hero had written a theological aesthetics. And at the same time, I had a good friend who noticed that I was good at writing and had a talent for images and words and sounds, and that I was very experimental with these without realizing that was what I was doing.

So, my friend taught me about poetry and had me read poems for the first time outside of an educational setting. And I finally was able to understand more about the way poetry operates, how it means what it means and the richness with which it means what it means. It was my fun, secret side project for all of grad school. It was the thing no one was telling me to do, that I was just learning about. It was like a brand new world, because before, poetry was very closed to me, which it is for many people.

So, I started experimenting and writing poetry during this time, and it was my advisors in graduate school who had me combine the two in Balthasar and sort of perform being an artist but subordinating the artistic sensibility to theological method, to the theological horizon, you might say. I had to kind of perform what Balthasar does, while at the same time explaining what Balthasar does. They actually asked me to include poetry, which I didn’t want to do, because I thought it made me weird, and I just wanted to be normal. So, eventually each chapter got a poem that I wrote sort of in the mode of reflection of each chapter. It’s a sort of testimony to the person I became in those years, which was like learning to be a different kind of person.

ZM: Yeah. That’s very in line with Balthasar and what you’re doing in your book, as far as drawing from poetry, drawing from the arts, but also expressing his theology in a poetic manner. Speaking of that, your book is fundamentally about the relationship between theology and poetry. One of your arguments is that Balthasar’s project is distinct from the modern collapse of metaphysics into just manifestation, but also from this kind of cold and dusty metaphysics that’s absent of image. If his work is distinct from those two extremes, then how does he relate theology and poetry?

AMC: I’ve always been very close with Thomists, at least Thomists of a certain kind. I was at Marquette, and so it was especially devotees of Bernard Lonergan, and they can be quite stringent Thomists. They really struggled to understand Balthasar, how he might make sense. He seemed beautiful but foolish to them, a kind of effervescence that it was lovely to look at but ultimately contentless. This was very frustrating, of course, for me to endure. The Balthasar that I brought out in the book is the Balthasar who’s very metaphysically serious, philosophically knowledgeable, and has a real grasp of Thomist metaphysics in its fundamentals as a sort of guiding frame for the work that he’s doing and the speculation that he’s doing. But Balthasar also sees image, repetition, allusion, so various methods that poetry uses. He also cites poets themselves.

But even beyond that, he’s also doing this other layer of work that’s not just a philosophical exploration, sort of discursive, but also very imagistic and metaphorically rich. It requires knowing the allusions he’s making, just like a poem would, to understand what’s going on. Those two modes of exploring theological questions are often happening simultaneously in Balthasar’s texts. And they’re not the same, but they’re often taking place within the same overall argument. So, my task was to, on the one hand, distinguish the two, but, on the other, to show the way Balthasar’s theology of language—which I argued was ultimately christological—allowed him to be, on the one hand, metaphysically serious, on the other hand, playful and precise in the ways that art is.

ZM: I love that. You and others have made claims that Balthasar’s project—I’ve heard this a lot in respect to his trilogy—is basically a response to certain tendencies in modern philosophy. In your book, you’re highlighting the influence of Martin Heiddeger, the philosopher, and then the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, on Balthasar’s own thinking. Describe the role these two thinkers in particular played in the development of his theological project.

AMC: Balthasar has an interesting relationship to the modern world. In my book, nuts and bolts research-wise, the major contribution that it gave in a lot of ways was studying the early Balthasar, the Balthasar who wrote this enormous dissertation that eventually became a three-volume exploration of what he called “the apocalypse of the German soul.” He deals with modern philosophers and poets to try and understand his present age, because thinkers and artists are dealing with the materials of the age they live in. So, the story he tells about the West in that very early work is that it’s final word to the world is control, and that this is tragic and awful, that it comes from a kind of exhausted metaphysical tradition, but also a culture exhausted with itself, sort of staring in the face of a mirror and seeing nothing. It was written between World War I and World War II, so it’s very much written in an interwar mode of thinking. This actually makes Balthasar’s relationship to modern thought, on the one hand, very intimate. He’s very curious about it. He reads it at length, thinks it’s meaningful, thinks that the church has to deal with it because it’s the milieu of the individual Catholic. But if its final word is control, then it doesn’t actually allow people their being alive, and certainly not their being alive for God as their ultimate goal. Cyril O’Regan talks about this. He talks about Balthasar re-remembering Christianity out from underneath a kind of enormous misremembering of it on the parts of major Western interlocutors that he has.

So, Balthasar, he’s got this hostility toward what he’ll call titanism, which is very modern and by modern he’ll mean pretty much anything post-High Middle Ages onward, which is a very sort of Catholic way of talking. But it’s also a key into his work because he thinks there’s value in, for example, the emphasis on the human individual, the human person, that modernity values. He wants to borrow that and baptize it and use it as a way into a Christianity that he wants to broaden out from a narrow, calcified, defensive theologizing that he grew up with. So, that’s the larger backdrop.

Heidegger and Rilke, which he pairs together as creatures of similar attitudes, are two people whose work he really appreciates. Rilke, in particular, he loves. He loves Rilke’s poetry, which is gorgeous. In the book, I actually translated it myself, because I wanted to know what was beautiful about it, in the German. And it’s wonderful. But it’s also the exaltation of death as the final status of being human. Rilke has this one line where he is talking about stars and he says, I believe that the stars whose light reached me now, whose light reaches me now, have been dead for thousands of years. Which is gorgeous and wonderful. And there’s a certain profound despair underneath it as well. So, Heidegger’s more of the problem for Balthasar. He appropriates aspects of Heidegger’s thought that he finds useful as a way to triangulate toward human existentialism. But Heidegger, at least for Balthasar—and this is very much just Balthasar’s Heidegger—there’s a kind of nihilism that Heidegger’s unwilling to admit, but Rilke will. Rilke is the brave one who will go there.

But yes, he’s very influenced by them, but also different from them. It can be an interesting challenge to see thinkers he has a close relationship with that he’s trying to, on the one hand, borrow from, and on the other hand, critique.

ZM: I noticed in your book you quote Fergus Kerr, who calls Balthasar a “Heideggerian Thomist,” which is kind of funny because I feel like both Heideggerians and Thomists would vehemently disagree with that characterization of Balthasar.

AMC: Yes.

ZM: You seem to at least implicitly agree with Kerr’s assessment. In what ways would you say that Balthasar is Heideggerian, and in what ways would you say he’s Thomist, and then how does he bridge the two?

AMC: I remember reading that in Fergus Kerr’s essay, and he means it as an insult to Balthasar, really. He’s not a fan of Balthasar’s strange coherentizing together of Thomas Aquinas and Martin Heidegger. But I sort of flipped it into: well, what if it really is coherent, what he attempts to do with Heidegger and Thomas? So, I explored that as a positive creative contribution Balthasar makes. I think people are most interested maybe in the Heidegger. As I said before, my interlocutors were Thomists. So, I was very keen on getting the Thomism correct. Balthasar’s basic stances on what truth is, how being operates, the relationship between created being and divine being, those are all just really ordinary interpretations of Thomas Aquinas. So, I brought those forward. Created being in its truth participating in the being of God. For me to know truth is for me to affirm something, that “truth is in the mind,” Thomas Aquinas says. And Balthasar hooks together that notion of being, truth, particularly Thomas’s notion of truth. He talked about how beauty is a kind of delight in the truth. So it’s that delightful quality when you learn something, and he hooks that together with Heidegger on the expressiveness of being, truth as aletheia, an unveiling, so that he can confront the material instantiations or expressions of beings using a kind of blend of Heidegger’s truth as unveiling, or expressive being—Balthasar will say being is expressive—with a Thomist confidence in how that which expresses is knowable, really affirmable. That was my metaphysical work there, to show that he’s coherently allying the two without being beholden to either except toward the ultimate goal of describing divine revelation.

ZM: That brings us to our next question. You’re arguing in your book that Balthasar’s theo-poetic is comprised of three massive fields of knowledge. Those fields of knowledge are metaphysics, language, and Christology. How would you say Balthasar twines those three in forming his theo-poetic?

AMC: Balthasar borrows the methodological procedures of metaphysical inquiry—what is being? what is it to be? that sort of thing (philosophy)—and of the arts. And he’ll shift around which arts. I emphasized things like using images, interrelating images to one another, and allusion. So, the methodological procedure of, say, poetry, which was my main example—you could use others—to express how it means. He borrows that and metaphysical inquiry, but subordinates both to Christology. It’s how he organizes them together, distinguishes them, but also relativizes them, because for Balthasar the self-revelation of God has a kind of primacy of governing meaning that’s going to help him organize the ways that he trusts language to speak truth, even artistic language, without perplexing that expressiveness with Jesus Christ himself, the “original fact,” he’ll call Jesus.

If I’m remembering rightly, in the book I emphasized how Christology allows Balthasar to have these huge metaphysical questions—what is it to be? what’s a human being? what are we talking about when we say salvation? what’s a human freedom, if we want to call it free?—but also a fascination with what’s particular and irreplaceable, which is the Person of Christ, but also the human person. No person is alike. It’s impossible to generalize personness beyond the pure heuristic of “no person is another.” Christology is his way to care about details but also just care about the huge questions.

ZM: Got it. I’m really interested in the subtitle of your book: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being. I’m curious what you’re getting at there. What do you mean by “the risk of art and being,” what Balthasar’s theological project has to do with that, especially the use of the word “risk” there?

AMC: So, beauty dies, and beauty is untrustworthy. On the one hand, beautiful things fade, not just human beauty, but anything. They fade away. That part’s a challenge because if we’re going to talk about the beautiful and the eternal God on that level, beauty is already a problem. But beauty can also be used to manipulate. Advertising is great for this. It creates desire. It tells us, “don’t you want this?” And I think, “well, yes, suddenly now I do want this, and it’s beautiful.” So, beauty can be deceiving. Balthasar himself says there is no more demonic transcendental of being than the kalon, the beautiful.

Balthasar sets out to do a theological aesthetic, and he knows these two things about beauty and always has them in mind. He’s set out to do something that’s really hard, to somehow articulate a theology of beauty that’s fully aware of the problems in doing so, which is why he distinguishes between theological aesthetics, where you’ve got divine revelation running the show, and aesthetic theology, which is dominated with looking nice. It’s not going to really be able to confront, for example, the ugliness of sin or the cross. So that’s the risk of art on a kind of macro-level. And there’s a further risk in his use of imagery in his theology where people will think that he’s not being technical when he is. They’ll take his images literally. But it’s an incredible risk he takes to be misunderstood, or to be taken the wrong way in this use of the beautiful and the arts. And he does it anyway. When it comes to being, especially human beings, Balthasar wants us to risk existence, to risk existing, to decide by the light of grace to do what God wills—a good world—which is an immense risk fraught with all kinds of vulnerabilities, and maybe the most vulnerable, which is to love like God does.

Asking for that kind of a commitment of, commitment to be, which is going to require the use of everything I have, which still won’t be enough to do well. And yet that’s the task, is to affirm being, to risk for it, and so to enrich it, creatively enrich it. So, at least for me, there’s a kind of daring in Balthasar that is greatly underplayed because we think beautiful things are nice things and that being is easily understood. Whereas for him, there’s this drama going on, which is to dare to beautiful and to dare being.

ZM: Thank you for that. That really clarifies the language of risk. I think one of the most common, or at least just a common, critique I hear of Balthasar is that because he’s poetic in his expression that he’s sometimes almost blasphemous, or at least ambiguous, kind of provocative. I liked your point about that poetic risk-taking being sort of fundamental to how he does theology.

Let’s do one more question, and then we can close. You talked a bit about your forthcoming book with Fortress Press on a theology of tradition. I’d love to hear a little bit more about that and what you’re doing with that book.

AMC: Yeah, thanks. So, it’s called Nothing Gained Is Eternal: A Theology of Tradition. It comes out this September. I have three things that I do in the book. On the one hand, it’s an introduction to the Catholic early twentieth century and its immense confrontation with history, with the idea that the church is subject to history, which was a moment of a very fraught conflagration for Catholics that I think Catholic theology is still living through, that insight. I give a tour of four important people in that confrontation: Bernard Lonergan, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Maurice Blondel, and Charles Péguy. I use each of these men to then argue for how tradition operates, what its basic operations are and how they relate to one another.

So, it’s also a speculation on the being of tradition. And then I take those people, and not speculation, and I ask: “well, what’s its moral content when we know that Christians sin?” They not only have a tradition, but they also sin in the world. I confront elements of Black theology, Black critical thought, to try and understand that element of Christian sin. It’s a theology of tradition that introduces readers to major issues, but also takes a more abstracted stance in order to help practical problems ultimately.

ZM: That sounds delightful. Well, thank you so much for taking some time to talk this morning. It was a really valuable conversation.

AMC: Thank you.

Anne M. Carpenter is Associate Professor at Saint Mary’s College of California. She received her PhD in 2012 from Marquette University. In addition to her interest in Maurice Blondel and the theology of tradition, she has explored the intersection between the symbolic worlds of art, especially poetry, and the rigors of philosophy, especially Thomistic metaphysics, through the principal lens of the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.  In addition to numerous articles, she is the author of Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015). She has recently completed Nothing Gained Is Eternal: A Theology of Tradition (Fortress, 2022).

Resources mentioned above

Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Apokalypse der deutschen Seele. 3 vols. Freiburg: Johannes, 1998.

———. Explorations in Theology. 5 vols. San Francisco: Ignatius.

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

———. Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000.

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

Brown, Joshua R. Balthasar in Light of Early Confucianism. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019.

Carpenter, Anne M. Nothing Gained Is Eternal: A Theology of Tradition. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2022.

———. Theo-Poetics: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Risk of Art and Being. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015.

Kerr, Fergus. “Balthasar and Metaphysics.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar, edited by Edward T. Oakes, SJ, and David Moss. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

O’Regan, Cyril. Anatomy of Misremembering: Von Balthasar’s Response to Philosophical Modernity. Freiburg: Herder & Herder, 2014.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. “Lament.” The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. New York: Vintage, 1989.


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