The imaginative conservative:Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Noble Spirit by J. Peter Pham

Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Noble Spirit

Shortly before his death, Hans Urs von Balthasar addressed the question posed by many of those disconcerted by the large number of his books: Where must one start to understand him?…

Tragedy Under Grace: Reinhold Schneider on the Experience of the West, by Hans Urs von Balthasar, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997)

Hans Urs von BalthasarHans Urs von Balthasar died twenty-eight years ago, just three days before he was to be inducted into the College of Cardinals, the vindication of his nearly sixty years of prodigious—and often controversial—scholarship. Perhaps Providence decided that the Sacred College needed no more distinguished members. Perhaps Balthasar needed no other honors.

His achievements as a systematic theologian, patristics scholar, spiritual writer, apologist, and translator of the highest rank place him in unique class among twentieth-century scholars. While his voluminous theological works, including some eighty books and hundreds of articles, have, in the years following his death, been taken up in earnest by numerous theologians, his profound excursions into other fields, especially letters, have largely been ignored. And where they have been noted, these texts have, more often than not, not been fully appreciated.

Yet, as T.S. Eliot once noted, “In my beginning is my end.” And readers of Balthasar the theologian need to recall that his 1929 doctoral dissertation, which had as a subject the idea of the end of the world in modern German literature from Gotthold Lessing to Ernst Bloch, was in Language and Culture. Judging from his citations, throughout his career Balthasar continued to regard playwrights, poets, and novelists as theological sources as important as the Fathers or the Schoolmen. He was well-read in the literature of half a dozen languages—numbering among his friends men of letters like Albert Beguin, Georges Bernanos, and Reinhold Schneider—and has been called the most cultivated man of his age. Shortly before his death, ever the meticulous scholar, Balthasar addressed the question posed by many of those disconcerted by the large number of his books: Where must one start to understand him? While he advised starting with the trilogy of the Aesthetics (7 volumes), the Theodramatics (5 volumes), and the Theologic (3 volumes), he was quick to warn of the “too many betrayals” which would result if consideration was not given to his works on spirituality and the literary-philosophical works, among which he singled out his writings on Reinhold Schneider whom he lauded for his “genuine prophetic quality.” It is therefore of great fortune to readers in the English world that Ignatius Press has made available for the first time Balthasar’s Tragedy Under Grace: Reinhold Schneider on the Experience of the West, which the author prepared just before his death in 1988.

As he does frequently in his writings, Balthasar uses the occasion to discuss another author to expound on some of his own reflections, in this case the tragic figure of the twentieth-century German man of letters Reinhold Schneider, whom he single-handedly rescues from obscurity. In his book, following the outlines of Schneider’s literary and dramatic career, Balthasar weaves three circles, each consisting of three forms. The first contains the origins, whose “characteristic is to be the most tenaciously retained and most passionately superseded, for the first book of a poet and thinker always remains his destiny.” Schneider’s (and Balthasar’s) path began with Camoes’s Portugal to which the Spain of Philip II bespeaks the antithesis. On the basis of both of these is the question raised of the relationship between spiritual and worldly power, between the Prussia of Fichte and that of Frederick II. The second circle opens, spiraling above the first: England’s antithetical form is laid upon Portugal’s formlessness, permitting the discernment of guilt as a moving force in history. The answer to this is the mystical form of Russia. It is only in the third circle, then, that the form of the supernatural power that sets its mark on history is explicitly brought out. In this circle, the Church is initially displayed as the place of saints, that is, according to Balthasar, of absolute persons who express most fully what human nature is (Joan of Arc is the representative here) and is then described in the crossroads of her earthly existence between power and renunciation, conquest of the world and decline. The place for this is Rome. Finally, Balthasar’s eye is turned to that form of Christian existence that was the goal of Schneider’s categories from the outset: The holy man of a supernatural form, the religious knight at the border fortress of Marienburg looking toward the East, “clearing the earth in the humility of his Christian mission so that it can bear culture.” And this, concludes Balthasar, is “no longer utopia and contradiction, a sin the first of the circles…but the summons of the hour to some indi­viduals who dare confront it without a safety net.”

While to go into detail concerning this argument is, to cite an image which first occurs in the legends surrounding Saint Augustine, something like trying to put the Mediterranean into a pail, it would perhaps suffice to outline just one of Balthasar’s lyrical arguments in Tragedy Under Grace. He notes that “the decisive word that must be uttered here is tradition,” stating that “it is obvious that research cannot abolish faith.” Thus, Christian tradition means something quite different from traditionalism. In fact, it “means its exact opposite.” He argues that “It is clear that what is commanded in history is something impossible, but it must be done; grace makes the impossible possible. Out of this relationship to the world, the knightly spirit forms itself for a resistance that will demand more than everything.” Thus, tradition is the handing on of the gospel and of the fundamental attitude of Christ and of those who follow him vis-a-vis the “earthly power that overwhelms them.”

One can also interpret this deepest meaning of tradition, as Schneider understood it and bequeathed it, in another way. Subject to so many stimuli, the Christian tradition became the “catalyzing unification” that provided a criterion for evaluation and discrimination. Herein, according to Balthasar, lies the nobility—”chivalry” is the word preferred by Schneider—that shines throughout the work and life of his friend Schneider, and perhaps it is the reason why his works find almost no readers today. It was Schneider’s (and Balthasar’s) belief that “There is no republic without an aristocracy.” This is not meant absolutely as a social caste so much as a spirit. Both Schneider and his commentator Balthasar concerned themselves only with noble souls since “it is not possible for the masses to become a people.” It is typical, Tragedy Under Grace concludes, for the modern period to do nothing for nobility and that “its concept of people remains revolutionary-proletarian: a mass of equal persons who allow themselves to be ruled. In reality, a people is an articulated organism with a natural summit. Where the instinct for the nobility has been extinguished, we no longer find the instinct for order and for the great laws of life.”

It is perhaps the finest tribute to Hans Urs von Balthasar that, thanks to his solitary efforts, the literary and philosophical genius of his friend Reinhold Schneider continues to shine forth and that, despite the travails of modern life, the quest for a nobility of spirit continues to embolden the hearts of men.

No Monuments Are Safe

Today no monuments are safe.

Stone basalt marble
impervious once to all but Time

for such legends of our saints our martyrs our heroes
what haven now?

For we have trapped and harnessed
the lightning-bolts.

What if, some innocent day
they tear loose again?

Oh then
stumbling among our shattered icons
we may find
some shards
some charred fragments of pottery
an ancient seal
or a carved stele bearing symbols
we can no longer read.

A montage of messages from a wiser world.

We have heard of Dr. Faustus
who it was reported
died

and was dragged screaming
down to Hell.

And of Oxymandias
That great King of Kings
three thousand years ago

whose trunkless legs
stand near his shattered still-arrogant face
half-buried beneath the eternal desert sands.

—Louise Dauner

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 1999).

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