Many analogies to the Trinity are to be found throughout the Christian tradition. Whether or not St. Patrick used a shamrock as an illustration of God’s triunity, it seems like a good day to call attention to a novel analogy from Balthasar. Balthasar develops a theatrical analogy for the Trinity within the economy of salvation as Author, Actor, and Director (see Theo-Drama, 1.268-305 for Balthasar’s primary exposition of this triad). The author has primacy in the drama as the one who brings unity to the drama: “[The author] stands at the point where the drama (which is to unfold between the individuals and their freedoms) comes into being as a unity” (268-269). As the origin and unifier of the drama, the author has “ontological primacy” over against the actor and director.
Yet, this primacy does not mean that the actor is the puppet of the author. The author and actor are mutually dependent upon one another: “There are not two things, the script (the idea) and the performance; the two are profoundly one” (284). The author’s work is potentially drama and needs the actor in order to become reality. Far from being a passive servant of the author, the actor’s job can be characterized as one of creative obedience. In consonance with the author’s unifying vision, the actor’s enactment of the drama is a creative task for which the author explicitly leaves room in his work.
The director has the essential and difficult role of bringing together the author, with his original, creative contribution, and the various actors and their differing abilities. The director has the task of maintaining the creative vision of the author and supporting the use of the actors’ own imagination and creativity in bringing about this vision. Thus, within this analogy, the Father is the playwright, the Son is the protagonist who carries out the heart of the drama, and the Holy Spirit is the one who guides the Son and brings other actors in the drama. While the Son is always receptive to the Spirit and is always fully one with his role on the stage, the Spirit must lead others through grace to becoming more closely identified with the role God gives them in the drama.
Balthasar is oftentimes placed within the stream of ressourcement theology which sought to revitalize Catholic theology and the Church through a retrieval of various parts of the Christian tradition. One can see this clearly in Balthasar’s early work on figures from Nyssa to Maximus to Lisieux and this continues through the rest of his life. Precisely because Balthasar is continually trying to retrieve past voices I am always interested in noting those moments when he critiques important texts or persons. These criticisms unveil a great deal for us in terms of Balthasar’s theology and the way forward as he sees it. In the midst of his “metaphysics of the saints” in GL 5, we find the following footnote on The Imitation of Christ:
This is the most widely read book in Christendom after the Bible, and yet, for all its sobriety and forcefulness, there is something strangely opaque about it. It rejects and eliminates every speculative element not only of scholasticism but also of mysticism, and yet, at the same time, it abstracts from the colourful multiplicity of the Bible and – since it is written for those who have turned from the world – disregards the world, in all its richness, as a field for Christian activity…In place of the openhearted readiness of a Catherine of Siena, a subdued and melancholy resignation runs through the book…there is an excess of warnings about the world, the illusions of egoism, the dangers of speculation and of the active apostolate. In this way, even the idea of the imitation of Christ does not become the dominant perspective. There is no mention of the mediation of the God-man, of access through Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to the Father. The mystery of the Church, therefore, does not come into view either. The individual is unaware that his love of God can only be fulfilled if it expands into love of neighbor and into the apostolate. All [that] remains is a flight from the world, a world that has not been brought home in Christ.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord V: The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age, 103-104.
Finding a place to start in Balthasar’s extensive corpus is difficult to say the least. The center of his work is the trilogy: Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic. Obviously these works are essential for a nuanced understanding of his thought. GL 1 is probably his best know and perhaps most important work but most people I know who have tried to start with this have not made it all the way through. Perhaps the starting point depends on your principle interests: philosophy? take a glance at GL 5 and TL 1; Christian history? look at Balthasar’s early work on Maximus and some of the essays in GL 2; biblical theology? GL 6-7 should do the trick; ecumenism? turn to his Karl Barth (which also provides an outstanding reading of nature/grace disputes if you are so interested); literature? learn German and then read Apocalypse der deutschen Seele (or maybe just read his books on Bernanos and Schneider). Obviously there a number of places you can jump in depending on your interests. For a more basic introduction let me recommend the following shorter reads:
- “Theology and Sanctity” in Explorations in Theology I (1960; 29 pages): this early essay is one of Balthasar’s most famous (and most widely cited) essays. In it he laments the separation of spirituality and theology and argues for how this separation impoverishes both. It also includes his idea of a “kneeling theology,” an idea which attempts to reunite spirituality and theology and which aptly describes his own self-understanding as a theologian.
- Razing the Bastions (1952; 103 pages): the “bastions” here are the walls which Christians have built to keep the Church separated from the world. In this work Balthasar harshly criticizes the neo-scholastic theology in which he was trained and calls for a more thorough engagement with the world.
- Love Alone is Credible (1963; 153 pages): this work is the positive counterpart to Razing. The earlier work does provide some positive vision but it is in Love Alone that Balthasar presents his vision of “theological aesthetics” as a way forward in theology. Love Alone presents a nice introduction to Balthasar’s thought and in particular to some of the core ideas found in the first part of his trilogy, The Glory of the Lord.
- Engagement with God (1972; 120 pages: entitled “Living within God’s Engagement” in the German, this book offers a glimpse into many themes from Balthasar’s theodramatics (the second part of the trilogy). The focus here is on Christian discipleship in the light of God’s engagement with the world.
- Epilogue (1987; 123 pages): this is an epilogue to the trilogy that Balthasar wrote the year before he died. It is more technical than the previous recommendations but it provides an excellent account of Balthasar’s vision for Catholic theology as well as rehearsing many of the central ideas in the trilogy.
You also could also start with what Balthasar himself recommended: Prayer. As for secondary sources, there is a ridiculously comprehensive list here. There are a number of helpful secondary sources that are worth looking at, but one that deserves special note is Aidan Nichols’ five-volume introduction to Balthasar (three on the trilogy, one on Balthasar’s early philosophical and literary work, and one on the rest). Nichols’ work is pure exposition. Thus it can be a bit tedious at times but it also provides an informed walk through of most of Balthasar’s corpus.
The idea of approaching Christ as a form–an idea popularized by Hans Urs von Balthasar (among others)–tends to crop up wherever the mere fact of revelation becomes the primary locus of theological attention, as it does, for instance, in the first volume of Balthasar’s Glory of the Lord, subtitled “Seeing the Form.” The decision to prioritize the fact of revelation finds its catalyst, and perhaps its warrant as well, in the epistemological anxiety of the modern age, within which, at least since Kant, it has come to seem impossible to think of the divine except as located on one or the other side of a fateful dividing line: that between the world of phenomenal objects present to consciousness, on the one hand, and the theoretically unknown noumenal beyond (for Kant a purely negative construct), on the other. If the former, then “God is dead” and there are only idols; if the latter, then “God,” if anything, is inaccessible, and this is all that can be said. The fact of revelation shatters this dichotomy: Christ, as visible form of the invisible God, makes actual precisely that which modern epistemology conceives as impossible.
In his theological aesthetics, Balthasar richly develops this remarkable fact into a formidable theory of revelation, which has enjoyed a wide influence. Without disputing its importance, I would, however, like to raise one concern, in the form of a question: To what extent does the perspective which presents Christ as a form promote, almost certainly despite itself, a certain formalism in theology? I’m thinking here of a style of reasoning in which the mere fact that God is revealed in Christ (or analogously, in the church) takes precedence over questions regarding the determinate content which comes to light in Jesus’ parables, his healings, his prayers, the particular way he died, the particular way he rose from the dead, the precise images and concepts which the church has developed in order to understand itself in relation to Christ, and the many ambiguities which accompany these developments.
I cannot at the moment point to any textual location (and, of course, Balthasar himself does not shy away from detail), but over the past several years I have heard praise expressed, on a number of occasions, for a theological text because it is Christological, ecclesial, Trinitarian–or in other words because it accepts the mere fact of revelation in one way or another–with almost no attention given to how adequately the text in question brings out those details which are most decisive for the gospels and for Jesus’ first disciples. I propose that Jesus and his followers were not primarily concerned with the issues framing modern epistemology but rather with things such as death, disease, poverty, holiness, wisdom, the law, the prophets, the empire, the end of days, the promises of God, . . .
Approaching Christ as a form is probably a necessary condition for the possibility of our appreciation of the details of revelation, precisely insofar as we find ourselves in the modern academy, but sometimes it seems easy to forget that this transcendental theological intervention is far from sufficient. It is only a beginning–and perhaps finally not really the point.
A nice piece alongside Rahner’s:
How strange it all seems to us! We know nothing of the way the cosmos, of which our earth is a part, is related to a heaven that occupies no localized position. Is not God everywhere?…we wonder why it is important to attribute such an improbable privilege to the Mother of Jesus, to assert that her body does not belong to the dust from which it was made, like everyone else’s, but – as the old legends depict it – is supposed to have disappeared from its grave, to the amazement of the assembled disciples, leaving roses blooming on the sarcophagus. Let us press the point: we may be believing Christians, but we hardly know anything about the relationship between death and resurrection. It is a brutal fact that we have before us a dead body, and it must go into the earth or into the fire. Another fact, an uplifting one, is that the Christian lives in the hope of being kept safe in God’s hands after his death; but how, in concrete terms, can we envisage this?…
What, therefore, is the Church celebrating today? That a simple human body, inseparably united to its soul, is capable of being the perfect response to God’s challenge and of uttering the unreserved ‘Yes’ to his request. It is a single body – for everything in Christianity is always personal, concrete, particular – but at the same time it is a body that recapitulates all the faith and hope of Israel and of all men on earth. Consequently, when it is taken up into ultimate salvation, it contains the firm promise of salvation for all flesh that yearns for redemption. For all our bodies long to participate in our ultimate salvation by God: we do not want to appear before God as naked souls, ‘not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life’ (2 Cor 5:4); and God, who caused bodies to die, ‘subjecting creation to futility’, has subjected it ‘in hope’ that it ‘will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God’ (Rom 8:20f). So we are celebrating a feast of hope; but, like all the New Testament feasts, it is celebrated on the basis of a fulfillment that has already taken place.; that is, not only has the Son of God been resurrected bodily – which in view of his life and death, is quite natural – but also has the body that made him man, the earthly realm that proved ready to receive God and that remains inseparable from Christ’s body. Today we see that this earth was capable of carrying and bringing to birth the infinite fruit that had been implanted in her. Today we celebrate the ultimate affirmation and confirmation of the earth.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, You Crown the Year with Your Goodness: Sermons through the Liturgical Year, 186, 190-191.