A podcast interview between Larry Chapp and Kris McGregor on the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. Part One: “Only Love is Credible.”

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Linked above is a podcast I did with Kris McGregor which is part one of a two part podcast on the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar with a special focus on his small, programmatic book “Love Alone is Credible.”  (Glaubhaft ist nur Liebe).  Kris runs the “Balthasar: Beauty, Truth, Goodness” podcast which is devoted to the retrieval of Balthasar’s brilliant theology for our contemporary age.  This is a truly wonderful project since Balthasar is at once, in my view, the most brilliant theologian of the 20th century, as well as the most deeply misunderstood and underappreciated theologian of the 20th century. 

Those of you who do not know me should know that I did my doctoral dissertation on Balthasar’s theology of Revelation. I completed that dissertation in 1994 at Fordham University in the Bronx under the directorship of the late, great Edward Oakes, S.J.  I have also published extensively on Balthasar since then which is how I first came to know then Father Robert Barron who contributed a brilliant chapter to a book I co-edited with my friend and former colleague at DeSales University, Dr. Rodney Howsare, a brilliant Balthasar scholar whose knowledge of Balthasar far surpasses mine.  That text was entitled “How Balthasar Changed my Mind” and is still in print I think.  My point in this short, short biographical sketch is that I am more than a “dabbler” in Balthasarian themes and have spent the better part of the past 42 years of my life deeply immersed in his writings. 

And that brings me to this blog of mine and its endless riffs on the de facto atheism of the Church, the ideological deformations of the Church caused by the fruitless debates between various factions in the Church, and the need to recover as our best hope for the future Vatican II’s profound teachings on the universal call to holiness.  And these related preoccupations of mine all come from two sources.  First, my own lived experience as a person who came of age in the immediate aftermath of the Council and who had to endure seminary formation and graduate studies within the radioactive fallout of the Church’s equivalent of Fukishima. And second, from the theological analysis of Balthasar who showed me that the core of the Church is Christ and the holiness that he brings. It showed me the beauty and power of the Christian narrative in all its particular uniqueness.  His theology also gave me an abiding awareness that the Petrine and Marian dimensions of the human element of the Church are both needed and deeply related, with the Marian principle of holiness as the superior of the two. 

As a young seminarian I was a fire breathing, heresy hunting, Wanderer reading, little Torquemada in training.  I was an insufferable little egg-headed nerd who thought the world could only be saved through Latin, Garrigou Lagrange and ultramontanism, which was my early version of Dwight Schrute’s “Bears, Beets, and Battlestar Galactica.”  But I was not lacking in philosophical and theological intelligence or in intellectual curiosity, despite my pinched-up inquisitorial instincts, and I gradually came to be deeply dissatisfied on an intellectual and spiritual level with the neo scholastic tracts I was being taught.  On my own I had started reading modern philosophy and even though I knew it was wrong on some very deep levels, I also knew that it raised questions that the Church needed to address.  And when I turned to the neo scholastics, I found nothing.  And by nothing I mean nothing.  They only mention modern thought in order to dismiss it as “Cartesian” or “Kantian” or “historicist” or “subjectivist” or “nihilist.”  I will give this to the neo scholastics: they are good with labels. 

And so, as I mention in the podcast, I was in the room of my spiritual director, Father Anton Morgenroth (a German convert from Judaism whose family had fled Hitler in the 30’s) and who had met Balthasar several times.  I was voicing to him my frustrations with my studies and he just smiled and said “yes, yes, I vas vaiting for you to see zis and vas vondering vhy it vas taking you so long.” As I got up to leave he stopped me, went to his bookshelf and threw a copy of Balthasar’s “Love Alone” at me while saying “here read zis, it vill make you less schtupid.” 

The rest is history. I devoured that book, and everything else by Balthasar I could get my hands on and was introduced as well to the entire world of ressourcement theology where the questions I was raising were dealt with.  I still loved Lagrange (I still do) but also began to see that his is a very limited view. 

I am recounting all of this for a reason.  Because this theology (ressourcement) is the theology of the Council and the theology of the previous two popes.  And so it is of more than a passing antiquarian interest.  And Balthasar in particular, along with de Lubac and Ratzinger, is particularly important. 

When I started my doctoral studies at Fordham in 1989 Balthasar was considered by the hyper Rahnerians who dominated that department to be a hopeless reactionary and romantic whose theology was just a baroque curiosity at best, and a dangerous threat to reform at worst.  His works were being translated into English and published by that renegade Jesuit upstart, Joseph Fessio, who dared to challenge the Jesuit amalgam of booze, theological dissent, and more booze, which only made Balthasar all the more suspect in their eyes.  Balthasar ran afoul of the progressive giving tree of tolerance and so needed to be silenced.  He opposed the ordination of women and of intercommunion with Protestants.  He supported mandatory celibacy for priests and was a strong supporter of Humanae Vitae. He actually believed in Holy Orders, apostolic succession, the Petrine supremacy and the important role of Mary in the life of the Church.  In other words, since he was a Catholic he was suspicious. Such were those times.

Imagine my surprise therefore, when the growing list of traditionalist theological giants like Michael Voris, Taylor Marshall and Ralph Martin came out as being implacably opposed to Balthasar on the grounds that Balthasar does not sufficiently populate Hell.  Apparently, again according to these giants of intellect, Balthasar has fooled us all – – including Popes John Paul and Benedict – – and is in reality a dangerous “modernist” who hung out with a freaky old mystic lady of dubious authenticity and dared to hope that God may end up saving everything and everyone after all. They accuse him of being a crypto universalist which is, of course, profoundly wrong, which I think should matter.  I dare any of them to read Balthasar’s theological elaboration of God’s judgment in his unbelievably profound book “The Christian State of Life” and then come back and tell me Balthasar is a universalist.  I will say it again for the slow:  Balthasar was no kind of universalist, whether crypto or kryptonite, and anyone who says he was is either ignorant or lying or both.  And what is doubly sad is that they cannot see that Balthasar is the greatest champion of the deep Tradition of the Church that they claim to love.  Which only goes to show that they don’t.  And their apparent belief that you can’t evangelize effectively unless you emphasize clearly that Hell is brimming over with the tortured souls of dead Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Thomas Merton, is not only theologically dubious, but more importantly, sadistic and insane. 

When you read their critique of Balthasar on the issue of Hell (or watch their videos) it comes across as a bunch of theological yokels trying to slay a giant through guilt by association with things they don’t like.  And they will grab at anything to accomplish this.  So Balthasar once wrote a laudatory introduction to a book by a French author who mentions Tarot cards.  Balthasar, of course, does not endorse the occult uses of Tarot cards, but the evidence is in! He’s a wizard of darkness.  Balthasar, in reflecting deeply (perhaps deeper than anyone before) on the depths of Christ’s redemptive passion writes a book wherein he offers for speculative reflection the idea that there is hope that God might save all. Universalist!  These guys are like 7th grade pre-algebra students trying to pick holes in the algorithms of Einstein’s theory of relativity because… well, relativity leads to relativism doesn’t it? I mean… it does have the word “relative” in it.

At any rate, their objections to Balthasar are utterly lacking in merit and I only mention them here in order to underscore why I think Balthasar is so important to the renewal of the modern Church in the path of the universal call to holiness.  He is important because he transcends these silly and benighted pie-in-the-face contests between the ecclesial ideologues of the Left and the Right.  And hopefully, in listening to my podcasts on Balthasar you will get a deeper insight into why I think, to paraphrase Balthasar, that only holiness is credible.  Which is the same as love.

Very soon (within the next few days) I will at long last be posting a new blog post that continues my discussion of the universal call to holiness. Specifically, I will address the accusation that such a call amounts to an elitist and sectarian tendency toward a rigorist perfectionism.  Until then I hope you enjoy these podcasts….

17 comments

  1. Hi Larry,

    Might you write a blog post on your updated view of Balthasar’s universalism? Your Amazon review of DBH’s book was shared on the universalist corner of Twitter and it’s a significant view. Harmless for the EO church but potentially devastating for the RC church in the amount of revisionist qualifications to the magisterium if you were to push it as far and hard as DBH.

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    1. Thanks for this comment Brendan. I will someday write on Balthasar’s views on salvation. But with regard to Hart, I removed the review since even though I love his book and find his arguments impossible for me to refute, it still is something I cannot square with the Catholic dogmatic tradition. And as a faithful Catholic that matters deeply to me.

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      1. I can’t reconcile this comment and the review, but I can read between the lines. Paul Griffiths wrote a review on Eclectic Orthodoxy that essentially reiterates HuVB position that I found well written.

        “For Catholics worried about the magisterium…I commend attention to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar (though I do wish the man hadn’t a name that provokes the class hatred of a working-class Englishman), Trent Pomplun, Gavin D’Costa, Justin Coyle, and Ty Monroe.”

        The work of the Catholic theologian should not be to dispute universalism but to reconcile it to the magisterium, like nullus salus…but it’s such a messy job.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’d love a relatively succinct explanation of why universalism (even in a weak form, e.g., “reasonable hope”) is not quite bad, especially in a time when one is hard pressed to find young people (or old—even among priests) who really believe in an eternal hell occupied by those whose characters who became so enslaved by sin, before and unto death, that they remain forever outside of God’s friendship. The pendulum is way off to the “left” on this question. (I like Cardinal Dulles’ “The Population of Hell.” We need to work out our salvation in fear and trembling.)

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      3. You are so concerned with modernism that you are really suspicious of Balthasar, who was an anti modernist through and through, yet you cite Dulles who never repudiated his clearly modernist theological works in the sixties (Models of the Church, Models of Revelation). You traddies are really good at your little talking points directed at your favored enemies. But you are wildly inconsistent when you veer off of those talking points into real theology. Dulles was overrated. And by the way… he taught at Fordham. Oops! “Says a lot” to quote you from Facebook. Dulles was great at theography but wasn’t much of an actual theologian.
        As for universalism… I will write on it in due course in my own good time. Nor do I care what it is you hope I write.
        Enjoy your eschatological census taking. Let me know the percentages when you get it worked out.

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  2. Dear Dr. Chapp,
    I was encouraged and edified by both this post and the accompanying podcast. Thanks to you, I am now introduced to Hans Urs Von Balthasar in a way I had not previously considered. In my reading over the years, I came across him name, but never investigated further. Thank you for opening the door for me to something I didn’t know existed. I will be reading “Love Alone is Credible” as soon as I can get my hands on a copy. Somehow, I think this is the root of what we might need today in the Church and the world. Thank you for this blog and your fearless writing. Godspeed.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Looking forward to reading the upcoming posts-I have been rediscovering VII and HUvB with great joy. I did not know there was a HUvB podcast! Do you have any suggestions as to which HUvB books should be read as most representative of his theology (for a relative newcomer), and in what order? Maybe a top 5?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would read some of his smaller works to start out. Love Alone, A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen, Convergences, Truth is Symphonic, and Elucidations and New Elucidations.

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  4. Hi Larry,
    What is your impression of Ralph Martin’s soteriology? I have always struggled with the idea that, ‘Oh, of course people ignorant of the Gospel can be saved, but it’s so exceedingly rare that we cannot stretch Lumen Gentium #16 beyond its narrow purview. The vast majority of the unevangelized will be damned if we don’t do something.’ The reason I find that idea borderline repellant is that it seems to deny, in practice if not in principle, the universal salvific will of God. How can we saw that God wills (in any meaningful sense) the salvation of a billion Chinese people when their nation is in the midst of a communist tyranny which actively thwarts the Gospel, and when the West which should be sending saints and missionaries to them is more concerned with bourgeois mediocrity?

    If God privileges my desire to *not* evangelize more than he privileges His desire to save the unevangelized, how can we square that with His universal salvific will?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think what your write is correct. And my view of Martin’s soteriology is that it is theologically shallow and very flat-footed. You really can summarize his view as follows: Most non-Catholics are going to Hell. And they are going to Hell because it is hard to follow God’s will if you are not a Catholic since you are most likely culpably ignorant of what God’s will is. He is grossly inaccurate about both Balthasar and Barron and also grossly unfair and uncharitable in his reading of them. When I finally get more time I will be devoting an entire blog post to Ralph Martin and his stupidities. Stay tuned.

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      1. My analysis of Martin will be blunt and fair. It will be charitable in the sense that it will seek honesty and truth. Too bad you care so little for the deeply uncharitable reading of Balthasar given by Martin. Which tells me that your concern really isn’t about charity at all. You agree with Martin, dislike Balthasar, and want Martin’s views given the affirmation you think they deserve. So stop the gaslighting and just speak plainly. I speak plainly. You should too

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  5. I will be interested to read your demonstration that Balthasar did not support universalism. Chapter 6 on Balthasar in Martin’s book, “Will Many Be Saved”, seems to present a strong case. Re-reading it, I notice that he has very few direct quotes from Balthasar. What he does have is numerous quotations from theologians, including a couple of universalist theologians who think Balthasar supports their views. I looked up several of them and found they were reputed professors . Martin acknowledges that Balthasar himself denied being a universalist, but thinks of this as a mere formal statement to avoid accusations of heresy, after presenting reams of arguments in favour of the heresy.

    I don’t like Martin’s habit of presenting a summaries of Balthasar’s position (his own or from others), and then presenting numerous quotations from Church documents or scripture against it. One Church document if authoritative enough (eg. a Council) would do, and he could have used the space to quote Balthasar directly. Nevertheless, he has demonstrated that he is not on his own-some in thinking Balthasar a universalist. Hopefully some of the others are relying less on secondary sources. I have no way to assess Martin’s status as a theologian, but the kindle edition does have an army of endorsers, starting with four cardinals, 3 archbishops or bishops, then several theologians. Perhaps he should drop Donald Cardinal Wuerl from the list.

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  6. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of Thy mercy. This is what the Queen of Heaven implores us to ask of the Father, but i get the sense that Mr Martin and Msgr Pope are chagrined by Our Lady’s extravagance, and would like to offer her a word of advice on what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to taking advantage of God’s mercy.
    What bothers me most is that it seems as though these men want to be right. Being right should break their heart, and it doesn’t seem to. more than anything i am bothered by the fact that they don’t want Baron, HVB, or DBH to be right. Listen, i won’t begrudge anybody disagreeing with David Bentley Hart, but if he turned out to be right, and i find myself in heaven along with Judas and every other conceived human being, i will be thrilled.
    peace

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    1. This is exactly right. I am not certain I agree with Balthasar either on the issue of Hell, but his views do not trouble me in the least and I hope he is right. Because we are indeed supposed to hope for the salvation of all. But you nailed it when you said that these guys all act as if they want that to be wrong. They say all the right words with regard to hoping for the salvation of all, but then they go on immediately to say, “but that isn’t going to happen because Jesus told us it wasn’t going to happen.” And then they go on further to speculate, based on a misreading of the quote from Jesus on the wide and narrow gates, that most are going to Hell. ugh.

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      1. Dr Chapp and myshkin, Because the immediate context of these comments is Ralph Martin, I assume you are attributing base motives to him. He says in his book what he thinks his motives are (1) he is concerned that universalist views have killed off the motivation to preach the gospel [since we’ll all get there anyway] and (2)he is concerned that Jesus’ words are being ignored. Jesus warns of hell in several passages, not just the one about the wide and narrow gates. Do you have privileged access to Martin’s thinking, to say that his motivation is other than what he says it is?

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