Balthasar's Theological Aesthetics

S. Joel Garver


Let’s return, then, to the basic problem of being which Balthasar sees as fundamental to human thought and philosophy. In particular let’s consider the problem of the One and Many which he sees as solved only in the revelation of the Triune God in the person of Christ in whom the concrete and the universal ar e joined.

The Problem of Being

Balthasar outlines three basic approaches that non-Christian philosophies have taken to the problem of being. First, there is pagan polytheism. Balthasar sees polytheism as essentially mythical. Myth functions to bring the transcendent into contact with our concrete world, representing, therefore, the immanence of the divine within the world or of the general within the particular. But in doing this the transcendent is reduced to the finite and becomes subject to human manipulation through magic.

Christ alone is the true myth, affirming that God may indeed be known in and through the world (true immanence) and yet is also truly transcendent and utterly distinct from any created thing. The formulation of Chalcedon affirms this and furthermore that Christ is no mere particular but a unique totality expressed concretely.

Second, there is mystical monism. Balthasar sees the reaction against polytheism in systems which posit the existence of a Unity, a transcendent "One." A version of monism is that of Buddhism and eastern thought which see this world as essentially maya, an illusion, leading to suffering due the failure to fulfill illusory desire. Only by setting aside such false desire and this illusory world do we arrive at the real, at nirvana—that is, nothingness. Balthasar notes that this is unsatisfactory since it cannot account for the origin of the illusion or why it causes us to suffer or why we suffer if suffering itself is an illusion. Moreover, its way of "salvation" is merely a kind of spiritual euthanasia.

The other version of the One is that of neo-Platonism which follows the via negativa, ascending to God by setting aside this world and its categories. This too is unsatisfactory since in the movement of the Many into the One, we are left without explanation of why the Many have arisen. Also it denies its own starting point in this world in order to solve the problem of this world. We are left, therefore, with a reality that is ultimately impersonal

Third, there is Hegelian dialectics. This too is problematic since it denies the true transcendence of God since God needs the universe in order to express Himself as truly God. If that is the case, however. then God is not God. Furthermore, in Hegelianism the individual is sublimated within the Absolute and any individuality that is possible is only by a relation to the Other, but a relation in which the Other is reduced to a means of self-realization rather than an end in itself. Finally, Hegel is cheap on human suffering and death, turning them into a mere speculative necessity for some kind of negativity within the self-realization of Absolute Spirit.

Thus the choices we are left with are atheism (in its Buddhist, Platonic, or Hegelian versions) or Christ. All of the atheisms are essentially world denying, seeking for a solution a transcendent Nothing. Even Marxism places salvation in an ever postponed future. But in Christ the various antinomies of non-Christian thought are resolved.

Christ is both the eternal Logos and the eternally elected Man. He is God in human flesh. And this reality finds its origin in the life of the Trinity in whom Father, Son, and Spirit have eternally existed. Thus Otherness and difference are not excluded from ultimate reality. Since the Father has eternally been with the Son, Otherness has positive value and is the condition of possibility for the creation of a world which is not merely a falling away from the One or an accident of primordial violence, but is truly real in itself. Nor is the world a necessary self-realization of God’s own Absolute Being, for the infinite "space" of love between the Father and Son is already filled by the Spirit and it is into this "space" that the world is inserted.

So it is this Triune God, revealed in Christ, that is the solution to the problem of being—being which is beautiful, good, and true.

A Preliminary Overview

With these points in mind we can turn to Balthasar’s main aesthetic contention—God is supreme Beauty, who dwells in inaccessible light and has revealed Himself, become visible, in the Person of His Son, Jesus Christ. It is of the essence of Christian faith to fix our eyes upon Jesus and in Him see the glory of the Father. Balthasar points to 1 John 1:1-2:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life, the Life made manifest and which we have seen and to which we bear witness and declare to you that eternal Life which was with the Father and was manifested to us…

Of course, this is for us, to a certain degree, metaphorical "sight" since the theological organ of perception is faith, not sight, and faith comes by hearing.

Along with Balthasar’s love of music and musical metaphors, this explains his emphasis on hearing the Word of God and perceiving His glory by the "eyes of faith." Faith, after all, involves surrender and hearing is the perceptual mode of surrender. Sight, on the other hand, involves dominance and distance. He writes:

The eye is the organ with which the world is possessed and dominated… Through the eye the world is our world, in which we are not lost; rather, it is subordinate to us as an immeasurable dwelling space with which we are familiar. The other side of this material function denotes distance, separateness…Hearing is a wholly different, almost opposite mode of the revelation of reality…It is not objects we hear—in the dark, when it is not possible to see—but their utterances and communications. Therefore it is not we ourselves who determine on our part what is heard and place it before us as an object in order to turn our attention to it when it pleases us. That which is heard comes upon us without our being informed of its coming in advance. It lays hold of us without our being asked…The basic relationship between the one who hears and that which is heard is thus one of defenselessness on the one side and of communication on the other…The hearer belongs to the other and obeys him.

According Balthasar, despite the biblical emphasis on glory seen by the eyes of faith, the aesthetic dimension of theology has been gradually purged from western theology, both Protestant and Catholic. His seven-volume Herrlichkeit is an attempt to compensate for that loss.

The first volume, Seeing the Form, defines the general scope, method, and purpose of the volumes and includes a general discussion of what Balthasar calls the "form" or "Gestalt" of the Lord Christ. Volumes two and three (which I will largely pass over here since they are nearly impossible to summarize) are the unfolding of historical examples of this aesthetic form as it is explicated by the early medievals (volume two: Studies in Theological Style: Clerical Styles) and by modern poets and lay thinkers (Lay Styles; a few of whom are not "lay" at all, but did lie outside of the mainstream of the Church). Included are folks such as Augustine, Pseudo-Dionysius, Anselm, Bonaventure (in volume two) and Dante, John of the Cross, Pascal, Hopkins, and others (in volume three). Volumes four and five undertake to examine the larger metaphysical context in which the form of Christ appeared (volume four: The Realm of Metaphysics in Antiquity) and in which it now cannot appear (volume five: The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age). Some of his insights here have already been sketched in my earlier comments. Volumes six and seven deal with the theology of the Old and New Covenants, respectively, examining such issues as their interrelation, how the New fulfills the Old, the glory of God in Old Covenant theophanies and the glory of Christ’s sufferings in the New Covenant.

Form and Faith

The fundamental idea of the aesthetics is relatively simple: in the Incarnation the very form (Gestalt) of God was definitively revealed providing a measure by which every other form is to be measured. This revelation, contrary to the practical elaboration of it in modern theology, is not merely a pointer to so mething beyond itself, but rather a manifestation of the form of Beauty itself in Christ.

But Balthasar’s aesthetics is not the subjectivism of 18th century aesthetic theory with its focus on the acts of perceiving that project one’s own interiority upon the object, leading to a beauty perceived within the self. Rather Balthasar’s focus is on glory of the object itself apprehended by faith. For Balthasar the illumination that produces faith is itself an aesthetic act. The very object of faith itself—Jesus Christ—draws the beholder providing its own interior light. God Himself is the light by which we apprehend Him by faith.

Thus faith cannot be theorized in a narrowly intellectualistic or propositional fashion, simply as a "believing that" or as the acceptance of a set of facts. More so it involves a receptivity to the object of faith whereby one is so impressed by it that faith necessarily ensues in obedience. Here Mary is the model in her "fiat" to God’s word—an active receptivity analogous to the receptivity of the womb.

This, in turn, raises questions as to the relation between faith and reason. Balthasar uses marital imagery, proposing that reason—womb-like—gives itself to faith to be made fruitful, not arguing itself into faith but allowing faith to come to fulfillment within it. He rejects an apologetic approach that either, on one hand, appeals to the objectivity of historical events as pointers to divine realities or, on the other, maintains a fideistic approach that begins with human subjectivity. He writes:

For [apologetics] the heart of the matter should be the question: "How does God’s revelation confront man in history? How is it perceived?" But under the influence of a modern rationalistic concept of science, the question shifted ever more from its proper center to the margin, to be restated in this manner: "Here we encounter a man who claims to be God, and who, on the basis of this claim, demands that we should believe many truths he utters which cannot be verified by reason. What basis acceptable to reason can we give to his authoritative claims?" Anyone asking the question in this way has really already forfeited an answer, because he is at once enmeshed in an insoluble dilemma…Christ cannot be considered one "sign" among others…the dimmest idea of what a form is should serve as a warming against such leveling.

Jesus is the objective manifestation of God but reason, on its own, cannot see this, according to Baltahsar. God’s grace is necessary and by it reason is drawn into faith wherein it can see what is objectively there to be seen—that is, the revelation of God. Seeing and believing are complementary.

To put it another way, reason is necessary to seeing, but for the revelation to be truly seen, the revelation itself must enlighten the viewer to itself by grace. So faith is not merely subjective since it is not the believer who makes a leap, but instead it is the object of faith that draws the believer to Himself by His form of beauty.

According to Balthasar the experience of faith and the assurance or certainty of salvation (especially as that was posed by Luther) are closely related. While faith is something that is experienced, it is not the experience of faith itself in an introspective and experiential fashion that gives assurance. Rather by faith we know Christ and the power of His resurrection and press on to the goal—it is in the receptive movement of faith towards its object that assurance is possessed, but this is a movement that turns away from the self, towards Christ, and is grasped by Him.

Another emphasis of Balthasar is the materiality of Christian faith. It is not a pure mysticism or non-physical thing since God is revealed in the cosmos and, ultimately, in the Incarnation. He even maintains that in the eschaton the Beatific Vision will be mediated through the humanity of Christ. Moreover, while our awareness of God in the creation has been marred by sin, in Christ it is possible to begin to restore the materiality of God’s presence. This is seen foremost in the actions of the sacraments by which Christ makes Himself present, in a sexuality that is transformed from egoistic self-gratification into self-offering love, and in the self-sacrificial love for the neighbor in deeds of service.

It follows from Balthasar’s emphasis on the materiality of faith that the mystical contemplation of God (the awareness of His presence) is inextricably tied to a life of activity. It must leave behind any world-denying Platonistic notions in favor a God who is active in history culminating in the paschal mystery of Christ. So Bultmann’s demythologization is a gnostic attempt separate faith from history which ends up positing a transcendence that reintroduces the very mythological assumptions that the Incarnation had put to rest.

Balthasar goes on to examine the specific form that the beautiful revelation of God takes in Christ. Jesus demands faith in Himself as the historical form of the eternal God, who in His divinity has universal significance and who, in His humanity, is conditioned by historical contingency. Nevertheless, Christ is the express image of the Father, revealing the very form of the Trinitarian life of God in contrast to all religions which posit God as a formless One.

The work of Christ, says Balthasar, is the living exegesis of the Father since Christ’s existence as Son consists in His obedience at every moment actualizing the immediate will of the Father. Moreover, Christ draws us into this work by union with Him. He writes:

By his prayer and his suffering the Son brings his disciples—and through them, all mankind—into the interior space of the Trinity

This form of God, though within time and history, is the utterly unique measure of relationship between God and man. Yet merely empirical and purportedly neutral scientific methods, with their suspension of judgment, cannot see this form for what it is. That is only possible with the eyes of faith and an openness to the obedience the form demands from faith.

Old and New Covenant

In the final two volumes of the aesthetics Balthasar examines the definitive revelation of beauty—the glory of God revealed in Christ—as that is authoritatively given to us in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The work of God as Creator is fulfilled in the work of God as Redeemer and so it is the creation itself which becomes of the means of God’s redemptive revelation. Human language, thought, actions, and the like are the very forms of God’s self-expression to us and so the form of revelation and the act of revelation are not to be separated.

According to Balthasar the Hebrew Scriptures in themselves are a puzzle, a promise pointing to a future that has not yet arrived. It is only in the light of the revelation in Christ that the OT makes sense. He writes:

The essential point is that Israel as a whole and existentially is an image and figure which cannot interpret itself.

The Old Testament poses the following problem: on one hand, God, who is faithful to His Word, the very Word by which the world was made, has called a people to Himself by mighty acts manifesting His glory. On the other hand, how can God remain faithful to His word in light of His glorious holiness when His people keep breaking the covenant He has established?

This Old Testament covenantal dynamic is seen in the increasing participation of Israel in the sphere of divine holiness (e.g., consider the 70 elders in the Pentateuch in contrast to Zechariah’s vision of the outpoured Spirit). At the same time, however, the mighty acts of God, the evidence of the presence of His glory, become increasingly less prominent and more concealed (e.g., consider the deliverance of Israel in the Exodus as opposed to that which God worked through Esther). God presents Himself as ever more incomprehensible, yet, paradoxically, Israel is never surer of her God than when she seems to be forsaken by Him in exile.

The Old Testament leaves off with a fragmentary picture without any form by which the fragments may be brought together. Only with the revelation of Christ is a form given by which the Old Testament may be understood. Balthasar writes:

The individual forms which Israel established in the course of her history converge together upon a point that remains open and that cannot be calculated ahead of time on their basis of their convergence or their mutual relationship, especially since they stand in opposition to one another so often.

The revelation of Christ, therefore, is a manifestation of God’s glory that can embrace even the seemingly contradictory fragments of the Old Testament and this glory was ultimately revealed in Christ’s obedience even unto death on a Cross, in the inglorious form of a slave. The power of God was manifest in powerlessness. This revelation is totally unexpected, beyond what could possibly be imagined.

First, however, is Christ’s claim for Himself not as One who merely points to a way to God but who is Himself the Way. Jesus brings people to crisis by His authority, by forcing the issue of the people’s acceptance or rejection of Him. His presence and questions make others transparent to themselves for this is the presence of One who is transparent to Himself. Jesus is therefore announcing Himself as God’s definitive Word.

In contrast to His authority, however, Jesus is also the one who became poor for our sakes and this theme of poverty can be seen in relation to three areas: prayer, the Holy Spirit, and faith. In regard to prayer we see Jesus offering Himself up to the Father in Gethsemane. But in the "Our Father" that is given to us to pray we also have a similar model of humility before God and complete reliance upon Him (consider the petitions).

Jesus is also supremely gifted with the Spirit by whom He was conceived, who descended upon His in baptism, and so on. Yet Jesus not so much possesses the Spirit, but rather yields completely to the Spirit to be possessed by Him—from being driven into the desert of temptation to finally offering Himself to God upon the cross through the eternal Spirit (Heb 9:14). By this total surrender to the Spirit He is able to give that same Spirit to us.

Balthasar, interestingly, also presents Jesus as a Man of faith—one who surrenders Himself to God in trusting perseverance, not by His own initiative, but in response to the prior faithfulness of the Father who, in grace, had chosen Him. Thereby Jesus is the "pioneer and perfecter of faith" (Heb 12:2), fulfilling the faith of Abraham even to the faithful obedience of the Cross, where, forsaken of God, He could only live by faith and not by sight. Jesus, therefore, is not merely a model of faith, but by our Baptism we are engrafted into the very faithfulness of Christ—Jesus believes in us so that we too believe and, in the work of faith, like Him, surrender ourselves to the Father.

Above all, however, it is the Johannine vision of Christ that most intrigues Balthasar: "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father" (John 1:14). But for John, the cross and the glorification of Christ are inseparable realities—coming from the Father, the Son’s whole life is one of glorifying the Father through obedience moving relentlessly toward his "hour" of glorification in powerlessness upon the Cross.

It is in the formless, the deformity (Ungestalt), of the Cross that the very form of God’s glory (Ubergestalt) is revealed as the boundless, self-giving love that characterizes the very life of the Trinity. This form of glory unseats all worldly aesthetics and all classical notions of beauty as proportion and harmony, making way for a new theological understanding of beauty in the Trinitarian dynamic of cruciform love seen by the eyes of faith. And that is the fundamental point that Balthasar expresses in his aesthetics.