Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Beauty of Forgetting

Not only as a heart and mind, which by definition lie beyond the occasions of their activity, but as a theologian I have been struck by a line in a prose poem by the Greek modernist poet, Georges Seferis. The line—two lines actually—pose the question of memory and forgetting and thus their relation: “What can a flame remember? If it remembers a little less than is necessary, it goes out, if it remembers a little more than is necessary, it goes out.” The poem from which the lines are taken is called “Man,” which in turn belongs to a sequence of poems constellated around the figure of Mr. Stratis Thalassinos, who seems to be a literary stand-in for Seferis himself as he feels the pull in his own literary vocation to be free of the literary conventions of the past, but not in such a way as to be entirely cut off from it. The lines are so redolent, so indicative of the general problem of discourse in the modern world, that they can be extracted and put to use in other domains of discourse such as philosophy and theology.

That, indeed, is what I am going to do. First, however, it might be useful to attend briefly to the literary framing of the opposition in which the “flame”—best translated as the human spirit—is the key term. While the opposition in the lines of questioning are perfectly balanced between memory and forgetting and identifies bad forms of both while merely intimating good forms, the framing suggests that the issue of issues is the glut of memory, the surfeit of “debate and teaching,” a literary tradition—and perhaps more than a literary tradition—that has become oppressive.

Forgetting as such is not sanctioned—remembering too little leaves us without flame and thus dehumanizes us—and we can be fairly sure that it leads to the philistine and the barbaric. The more existential question for Seferis, as it was for his predecessor Constantine Cavafy, is whether there is a barbarism of memory as well as forgetting. What happens if memory is so overloaded, so burdened that it lacks the flexibility and mobility to adjust to and interpret, and hopefully transfigure the present?

The history of modern theology tells us that theologians no less than poets are interested in the prospects of intellectual coherence in modernity in which the “withers have been unwrung” from a completely nameable and manageable universe, and in which we are fated to move bereft of believable signposts for an integral life consistent with imagination and experiment.

In addition, theologians as well as poets are interested in and stressed by their own discursive tradition so as to feel obliged to call it to account as they look for resources to deal with a complex present and attempt to provide a measure for an unanticipatable future. In light of Seferis’s opposition of memory and forgetting setting the question about tradition and the qualification provided by the framing made anxious by the glut of memory, the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar does not immediately suggest itself as a theological analogue.

Balthasar seems to be far more exercised about forgetting than he is about memory. Moreover, his entire theology and this triptych of Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic in particular, seems to perform a heroic act of retrieval none greater than which can be thought. Not only does Balthasar retrieve the entire tradition of Christian theology and spirituality, demonstrate competence in the history of interpretation of the Bible up to and including historical-critical method, but he also comments voluminously on philosophy and literature as two ancillae to theology. With respect to literature, Balthasar shows his mettle not only with Greek classical literature that is so much the object of affection and alarm for Seferis, but the history of European poetry and drama, especially (but not exclusively) in Latin, Italian, French, German, and English. 

Balthasar’s cultural range is impressive, even astonishing; it is also intimidating. Unfortunately, the latter too often wins out, so that when we read him we often forget what he is saying and get lost in our anxiety that it is likely that we will never measure up. To be sure, to have before one the bibliography of works by Balthasar is more than a little depressing: over a hundred books, over five hundred articles. These are good statistics for a decent sized department of humanities. Balthasar was pegged by de Lubac as “the most learned man in Europe.” Although this is mere opinion and does not bear on the real issue of the value of erudition, it has come for many to name the problem rather than the solution.

Leaving aside for the moment legitimate questions about the depth of Balthasar’s knowledge and the validity of his interpretations of theologians, philosophers, poets, and dramatists over the millennia, his level of erudition has raised the question of whether it signifies nothing less than the attempt to escape finitude. One can imagine a contemporary Heideggerian making an accusation that the historical Heidegger routinely made against Catholic intellectuals. Yet not all contemporaries lambasting Balthasar for this degenerate act of hubris are so arcane. In recent years it has become a crucial component of his dismissal even though the accusation depends far less on the power of argument than the ressentiment it supposes and incites: how dare anyone know so much more than the rest of us clever folk who are equally credentialed and surely also have a theological contribution to make? I grant then that there are serious obstacles to be overcome if one is going to see Balthasar fitted into Seferis’s interrogation about memory and forgetting and read him otherwise than unilaterally for memory. Nonetheless, I happen to be entirely confident that the obstacles can be overcome in significant part.

Productive and Reproductive Memory and Forgetting Making a Difference

There is little doubt that if one were to put a sign over either the lintel of Balthasar’s house or the portal of Johannes Verlag, which was the theology publication company he oversaw, it would have to be “Remember catholicly,” which I think translates easily enough into “remember broadly and deeply.” There is evidence that Balthasar is already enacting this motto as early as his dissertation in 1930 and especially the three-volume outflow of his dissertation, that is, Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (1937-1939). Accordingly, the triptych of Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama, and Theo-Logic (15 volumes in the English translation), written between the early 1960s and middle 1980s, represents an exclamation point to a writerly mission that is clear from the beginning, even if it takes time for the theological mission as such to become preeminent. When it comes to Balthasar’s performance of memory there are three things particularly worth keeping in mind.

First and foremost, Balthasar’s operative model of tradition and thus memory is not juridical as it necessarily was in Trent and later in Denzinger who felt obliged to continue to distinguish Catholicism from Protestantism, while keeping an eye on the emergence of Enlightened thinking that challenged not only particular Catholic truths, but the very idea of a system of truths. More proximally, Balthasar’s operative procedure of memory and interpretation distinguishes itself from those of Neo-Scholastics such as Joseph Kleutgen (1811-1883) and Johannes Baptiste Franzelin (1816-1866), the two principal theologians of Vatican 1, who favored models of tradition that were aggressively forensic and defensive, and which determined the style (if not necessarily the substance) of the theology of the manuals used in seminaries in the early twentieth century.

The manuals articulated a system of truths significantly indebted to Aquinas to combat the corrosive forces of modernity that had whittled away Catholic position by either arguing that Catholic truth claims were disproved by science or were simply anachronistic. Balthasar did not essentially contest the Neo-Scholastic diagnosis of the modern age as one hostile to historical Christianity and characterized both by unreflective and reflective forgetting. He did think, however, that wholesale demonization of the cultural discourses of modernity went too far, and that what was called for was more a careful and crucial vetting than excision.

During the period of his theological studies in the 1930s he came to the conviction that the Neo-Scholastic remedies of violent insistence on Catholic truth and commitment to formal coherence rather than Christian existence were likely to exacerbate the division between Church and the modern world and in the end effectively cede advantage to the modern world by essentially isolating the Church from any encounter. Balthasar did not contend that the juridical model of tradition, which featured the truths of Catholic faith, had no use. He did think, however, that its use was limited to testing whether theological assertions were in or out-of-sync with what the Church had already formulated. Yet he was convinced much of Catholic thought and spirituality, its practices and forms of life were not assertions and indicated a different language game entirely.

In addition, Balthasar came to believe that the propositional truths of Catholicism are best seen when brought into relation to Christian vision that alone makes sense of Catholic truths. He came to find a touchstone in the experience of the Church, and, especially in the experience of the saints. As he makes clear throughout his oeuvre, but especially in the magisterial first volume of Glory of the Lord, Christian discourse, whether the Bible or commentary on it, whether hagiography or history of the Church, functions rhetorically rather than demonstratively with the aim of deepening Christian believers in their faith and persuading Christianity’s cultured despisers of both the enduring and contemporary value of Catholicism, the one because the other. 

Second, allowing for the emotional trauma experienced by readers of Balthasar when it comes to his range of cultural competence, as well as his knowledge of the history of Christian theology, it seems illegitimate at best and cockeyed at worst to go from there to the assertion that Balthasar’s theology could not possibly be ours in the modern age where finitude and perspective are axioms. One would have thought that a more intelligent and lucid catharsis was called for. On the face of it, equating erudition automatically with the divine point of view seems to be a category mistake. There is an unbridgeable gap between knowing a lot and knowing everything, and knowing more than superficially and knowing all the way down.

To accuse Balthasar of rising to the divine point of view is, arguably, to repeat a category mistake that a prophet of suspicion such as Kierkegaard leveled at Hegel. Now, it is not simply that Balthasar routinely takes Kierkegaard’s side against Hegel when it comes to the prospects of the infinitude of knowledge. He can also call on Augustine and Aquinas as a nineteenth-century Catholic thinker such as Staudenmaier did to gain leverage on Hegel’s disabling and finitude-denying encyclopedism. While Aquinas does not play the pivotal role in Balthasar’s work that he plays in other major Catholic thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth century—plausibly less even than his two mentors de Lubac and Przywara—still Balthasar can take for granted an Aquinas who has been outfitted as a contemporary theological resource by the movement back to the historical Aquinas, on the one hand, and by Aquinas’s pairing with phenomenology in general and with Heidegger in particular, on the other.  

Behind the failure of logic, however, is the failure to appreciate the purpose and function of learnedness and erudition in Balthasar and in nouvelle theologie more generally. Stated simply, while maintaining the contours of a Christian grammar concerning God’s creating, redeeming, and sanctifying relationship to human beings and the drama of human response, the purpose of the rich display of the plurality and variety of thought, practice, and formation in the Catholic tradition is to construct the largest vocabulary of Christian faith possible so that when we encounter a historical moment such as our own that demands our immediate and concerted attention we will find some resource that fits or can be adapted to the moment.

Thus, for example, Balthasar’s reflection on, and excavation of, the marginalized transcendental of beauty in Glory of the Lord, and his reading of the theological tradition in light both of its presence and absence throughout its history, as well as its current manifest need since, he judges, that now, more than ever, what is required are Christian discourses, practices, and forms of life that will prove persuasive to those both inside and outside the Church. Since Balthasar’s genealogy of loss and gain in Glory of the Lord is not my remit here, suffice it to say that on the positive side Balthasar puts into circulation major ancient and modern thinkers who have something to say to us. The list of thinkers is long.

While Balthasar is not above impressing us with mentions, the point of his classical Greek and Latin learning, his astonishing mastery of the Patristic tradition, his considerable competence not only in High Scholasticism but the mystical traditions, his knowledge of the history of philosophy, and last, but not least, his facility with modern thinkers whether philosophers (Kant, German Idealism, Heidegger), theologians (Pascal, Scheeben, Solovyov, Hamann), or poets such as Holderlin and Rilke, but also Peguy and Hopkins—the point is that we are not completely unsheltered and that we can weather this or any other storm. What will serve us well is the copiousness of a tradition made up of finite perspectives on the mystery of the Triune God’s relation to the world and history as this relation is focused in the saving mystery of Christ. If we cannot lean on a particular perspective within the tradition, perhaps we can lean on another. If we cannot lean on a single aspect of the tradition, perhaps we can find the multiple that will steer us right in this night of forgetting and the even deeper forgetting that is the forgetting of forgetting.  

Third, and sticking as we have done thus far only to Glory of the Lord, it should be noted that Balthasar does address the other side of the problem of modernity identified by Seferis, that is, whether too much memory as well as too little memory can be a problem for individual or corporate subjects in history. The locus of his interrogation and judgement occurs in an interesting discussion of the nineteenth century traditionalistic Francois-Rene Chateaubriand (1768-1845) in the first volume of his theological aesthetics, which may well be the single most realized in his entire oeuvre.

While Chateaubriand is praised for his passionate devotion to the Catholic tradition, Balthasar makes it clear that he demurs when Chateaubriand insists that just about everything of the Christian past can be and should be carried forward. For Balthasar, what Chateaubriand presents is more a museum of the past than the lived historical response to a God of the future as well as the past, a God of surprise as well as a God whom we can trust and count on in all our individual and communal trials. For Balthasar, tradition does not have in the first or final analysis this kind of indigestible and suffocating quality. It fortifies and recharges us while it charges us to deal with what is to come in hope.

Memory, for Balthasar, is mobile and selective; it recalls what needs to be recalled and puts aside for another day what is not of use. This is the pragmatism of the Church, a pragmatism licensed by the Holy Spirit. The memory that is in the service of tradition or tradio as “handing on” is more nearly productive than reproductive, even if memory is always a discovery. In any event, a Catholic doctrine, practice, or form of life that is living and has the capacity to surmount the forgetting that has more or less become the adopted code of modernity bears within it the capacity to be reformatted so as to fortify and persuade.

Yet if memory is to be productive in this way, it necessarily associates with a peculiar kind of forgetting sanctioned by the Holy Spirit. To recall one facet of the tradition is not to recall another and certainly not recall all of it, even if all of it can be supposed to hold together. Though not explicitly part of his argument, nonetheless, one can see in Balthasar’s objection to Chateaubriand the seeds of an acknowledgment of a distinction between productive and reproductive forgetting after the pattern of productive and reproductive memory. Reproductive forgetting is the mark of the modern condition and it represents the condition of the impossibility of the Catholic tradition that valorizes prior responses to the mystery of Christ and is anxious to carry them forward throughout history. In contrast, productive forgetting is best thought of the other side to productive memory that has the chance of seeing us through the dark night in which we seem cast out onto the sea as in Hopkins’s “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” on which Balthasar comments with much energy and insight.

Where’s Nietzsche?

There can be no doubt that Seferis’s reflection on memory and forgetting owe something to Nietzsche’s reflections on the same in The Use and Abuse of History. I think a case can be made that Balthasar also keeps the text in mind when he reflects on tradition, even when he has come to determine that while Nietzsche’s prophetic and apocalyptic thought exposes our modern condition, it offers us no way forward. Nietzsche can give us nothing, because what abides is nothing. Or, if something, then figures of transcendence who are also figures of transgression. Nietzsche enjoined an absolute forgetting that neither Seferis nor Balthasar sanction, while distinguishing his brand of total forgetting from that of the Enlightenment which for him was simply the remains of Christianity.

For both Seferis and Balthasar—though Seferis is more tolerant of forgetting—total forgetting would in effect ablate our collective minds and null us as human beings. Yet each in his own way took half of Nietzsche’s point: memory can kill as well as make alive and a major question is how and when we know the difference and what can we do to ensure that memory is productive rather than solely reproductive. But to trust that is always to welcome productive forgetting which is closely connected to productive memory and one of the means of assuring that memory is life giving. As a theologian, however, Balthasar thinks that memory and forgetting are not entirely a human affair.

In the Church the apt recollection and the equally apt putting into the background as in a Gestalt figure is the work of the Holy Spirit who insufflates our consciousness and makes memory buoyant, truly responsive and alive, and oriented towards the eschaton in which God will be all in all. The greatness of Christianity is a coefficient of the disclosure of the glory of God in Christ that both surpasses and is the measure of intra-worldly beauty. To be responded-to adequately the glory of God has to have the qualities of intensity and freshness, and these qualities are possible only usually in a grasp of a particular aspect of the phenomenon of all phenomena. Thus, apprehension, thus productive memory are vehicles for divine beauty. Thus, also is the wise and studious forgetting, which is an indelible part of the traditioning process, as it is orchestrated paradoxically by the very agent of memory, the Holy Spirit.

Featured Image: Vermeer, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, 1665; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume treatment of Hans Urs von Balthasar's response to philosophical modernity. The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

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