The Art of Theology Theological: Hans Urs Von Balthasar's Theological Aesthetics and the Foundations of Faith by Stephan Van Erp (Studies in Philosophical Theology, 25: Peeters) The relationship between theology and art has been the subject matter of many theological studies of the past few decades. These studies investigate how works of art mediate the meaning of religious beliefs and how faith is expressed in the language of art. The possibility of mediation and expression is explained by the similarities between faith and art. Both refer to reality symbolically and affect people in a way that seems to be ultimately inexpressible. The present book will not attempt to explore how art can be called `religious' or how faith can be called `artistic', because art and faith are different in manner and method. Instead, the present book turns to the study of art and beauty in order to understand better the subject matter of theology.
Like philosophical aesthetics, theological aesthetics is a study of making and meaning. In both disciplines, the event of making is considered a combination of human skills and production, with the ungraspable moments of talent, inspiration and intuition, be they divine or not. As study of meaning, each discipline explores subjective responses to the givenness of reality. Though touching on these similarities, the present study will emphasise that theological aesthetics differs from philosophical aesthetics and that it is a discipline intrinsic to theology. For in Christian theology, the subjective responses to the givenness of reality are not only regarded as generating meaning, but also as participating in the meaning of divine creation. Theological aesthetics therefore relates to the themes of perception, imagination and beauty in personal and relational terms. The result is a view on the human ability to be a creator in one's own right as a given possibility to respond to the Creator. To actualise this possibility means becoming a co-creator who mediates the truth of creation.
This view has consequences for the nature of theology. Theology participates in both the life of creation and the artistic process of making meaning, entailing that it is co-creative. But what does it mean to reason co-creatively? How do the spirits of invention and discovery in modern science relate to the spirit of creation in theology? In other words, what is theological understanding if it seeks to mirror the divine spirit? Where does it find that spirit and how can that discovery be explained to others? These questions lie at the heart of this book. By introducing aesthetics as a way of doing theology, I seek to answer these questions in order to understand the art of theology.
Schematically, this book consists of three parts. Part A, Fundamental theology and aesthetics (chapters one and two), presents the main question "What is theology?", together with fundamental questions concerning the nature of theology and aesthetics, as they are discussed by representative contemporary theologians. Part B, Hans Urs von Balthasar's theological aesthetics (chapters three to seven), is a systematic study of the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and his theological aesthetics in particular. Besides offering an introduction to his life and theology, it also presents a close analysis of his interpretation of modern metaphysics, exemplified by the ideas of Nicholas of Cusa and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling. Finally, part C, Theological aesthetics as fundamental theology (chapter eight), returns to the main question, developing a new response based on the evaluation of Balthasar's aesthetics and the recapitulation of the questions about the nature of theology.
Having given a broad overview of this book's structure, I now turn to a detailed inventory of its contents.
Chapter one, Fundamental theology, introduces the main question of this study: "What is theology?" There are two problems with giving an immediate answer to that question. First, it seems impossible to reason about faith in an invisible and transcendent God. Second, if such an attempt is to be made, one has to account for the truth claims of theology in conversation with the prevailing attitude of scientific rationality and an increasingly secular culture. Therefore, to answer the question about theology, one must search for a better understanding of faith and new ways of communicating faith to others. In modern theology, this has been the task of fundamental theology. Recent literature however has denounced fundamental theology as intrinsically apologetic, or mistakenly trying to prove the existence of God by means of natural reason. This present book advocates maintaining the field of fundamental theology, especially in an age of secularism and religious diversity. It is therefore important to find a way of doing theology that performs its tasks of reasoning about God and communicating faith without isolating itself from the culture to which it belongs. At the end of this chapter it is suggested that aesthetics could be a way of doing theology that meets these demands. In doing so, it will offer an explanation of the nature of theology.
Chapter two, Theology and aesthetics, gives an overview of the recent history of theology and aesthetics. Gerardus van der Leeuw, Paul Tillich and Hans Urs von Balthasar are presented as the founders of theological aesthetics. Each shedding light on a different aspect: van der Leeuw on imagination, Tillich on expression and Balthasar on beauty. Thus, through long forgotten themes, they laid the foundations of a new subdiscipline. Thanks to these founders, contemporary theology shows a great interest in aesthetics and the arts. Therefore, a typology is given in this chapter, which distinguishes four directions in the theological study of art and aesthetics: first, theologies using works of art as sources; second, theologies based on philosophical-aesthetic theories; third, theologies that are grounded in an aesthetic transcendental category; and fourth, theologies that interpret aesthetics as a theory of redemption. Throughout this chap-ter, a preference for the fourth type of theological aesthetics as a theory of redemption is defended. But to understand the importance of this type of theological aesthetics for the fundamental theological questions raised in chapter one, I suggest that a closer examination of Balthasar's theology is required.
Chapter three, Hans Urs von Balthasar: A life in theology, presents a brief overview of the life and works of Balthasar opening with a timetable of the key dates in his life. Alongside a chronological account of his life, from his youth, through his education to the maturity of his magnum opus, I formulate a description of his theological style. It is important to understand the motives behind this style against the background of the theology of his age. Balthasar's interest in aesthetics explains what he thought was needed for the theology of his time. This chapter also investigates the influences of such diverse thinkers as Erich Przywara, Henri de Lubac, Karl Barth and Adrienne von Speyr on his work.
Chapter four, Theological hermeneutics and metaphysics, offers an overview of Balthasar's theological ideas. Although he is regarded as one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, an introduction to his work is still needed. The vast amount of his books and articles—some of which are as yet not translated into English—and his conservative stand-point in church politics have made him one of the most unread, yet most controversial theologians of this age. Therefore, it is important to study his work without prejudice and to focus on the metaphysical and hermeneutical foundations of his theology, instead of on his church political writings. First, Balthasar's own account of his position in the theological con-text of his time is recapitulated by means of the incarnational foundation of his theology. Next, the three tasks for theology that he identified, are described as understanding the relationships between revelation and history, mission and tradition. After this formal and material description of his theology, a full analysis is presented of the key doctrines that constitute his metaphysics: the doctrine of the transcendentals and the doctrine of the analogy of being. At the end of this chapter, Balthasar's incarnational foundation of theology is reiterated within the framework of his trinitarian theology that determines his thought as a kenotic ontology.
Chapter five, Theological aesthetics, presents Balthasar's theological aesthetics in three ways. First, it systematically introduces the motives and key concepts of the first part of his trilogy: Herrlichkeit. Eine theologische Ästhetik. The ideas of `beauty' and `glory', and of `perception' and `form' are understood within the context of theology in general, and of Balthasar's metaphysics in particular. Second, a guide is given through this seven-volume work that consists of more than 4000 pages. Despite their scope and diversity, his systematic introduction, the twelve theological styles that he has chosen to illustrate his views, his account of the history of ideas from Homer to Heidegger, and his two-volume biblical theology, exhibit a dazzling coherence of vision. Finally, this chapter explains the importance of this achievement for fundamental theology and for the main question of this present book in particular. At the end of this survey, it becomes clear that in order to answer the question of theology in contemporary culture in dialogue with Balthasar's aesthetics, it is necessary to investigate his evaluation of the theological and meta-physical developments of modernity.
Chapter six, Nicholas of Cusa: The catalogical imagination, presents a close reading of Balthasar's monograph on Nicholas of Cusa in Herrlichkeit III,1. Cusa has a special position in Balthasar's account of the history of metaphysics. Balthasar calls his thought the `knot' at the beginning of modernity, in which the ancient and biblical foundations of human thought are held together with a modern conception of human freedom. This chapter therefore engages with the contemporary debate on whether the Renaissance is the beginning of modernity or not, suggesting that the debate would benefit from a focus on aesthetics. According to Balthasar, Cusa's `aesthetics' is the best expression of the analogy of being in the history of philosophy, because it seeks the relationship between the biblical interpretation of divine revelation and the modern idea of a free explorative and creative human being. Thus, the result of analysing his reading of Cusa offers a further refinement of the characterisation of Balthasar's theology as being premodern. Furthermore, it underlines the importance of the concept of analogy in his work, because he endorses Cusa's idea of the human subject as a second god, which describes how the human mind desires the vision of God by means of the creation of forms that mediate divine revelation.
Chapter seven, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling: The Absolute in art, investigates Balthasar's assessment of scientific and philosophical developments in modernity that led to the ideas of German Idealism. This chap-ter centres the attention on the philosophy of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, who called art the organ of philosophy and considered it capable of expressing the Absolute. After an introduction to Schelling's philosophy within the context of the Romantic Movement and German Idealism, his idea of art as the concurrence of nature and freedom is closely investigated. For Schelling, like nature, true art is divine, which prompts Balthasar to interpret his philosophy as being tritheistic: Schelling's aesthetics might too readily identify the work of art with the Absolute. For this reason, because it risks replacing a revealing God with the mind of the Romantic genius, Balthasar characterizes Schelling's thought as `promethean'. It will become clear though that the problem is not the replacement but rather the denial of revelation, which Balthasar characterises as `the eclipse of glory'.
Chapter eight bears the title of this book: The art of theology. It begins with a critical evaluation of Balthasar's theological aesthetics and his analysis of modernity. He argues that the promethean theme in modernity resulted in the eclipse of glory. His aesthetic alternative is the description of faith as `seeing the form' and the subjective act of faith as `purely receptive'. But, these descriptions do not suffice to perform Balthasar's tasks for theology to understand the relation between revelation and history, mission, and tradition. It appears to be especially difficult to apply them to the dynamics of a living tradition in a secular and religiously diverse culture. After some critical evaluation, this final chapter returns to the main question of this book: "What is theology?" The introduction of aesthetics in order to answer that question results in a proposal for developing theological aesthetics. This proposed programme for contemporary theology consists of three movements: perceiving glory, seeking forms of faith, and understanding the sublime. The assumption is made that if the creative forms of faith and theology can become points of revelation, they should in some sense mirror the divine spirit that reveals itself in the world. In short, thinking about faith and theology aesthetically and thinking theologically about aesthetics, results in the discovery that theology is a kenotic style of reasoning in two movements: it seeks to communicate with others, without being apologetic, and it anticipates the life of redemption.
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