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Balthasar on the Imitation of Christ

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.

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  1. November 16, 2011 at 3:36 am

    This is a wonderful post. I often steer people away from The Imitation of Christ, because they come away with a worse view of themselves than they before. There is an excellent annotated edition that does help the modern reader understand the world view of Thomas a Kempis.

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