Often the greatest challenge in bringing someone to Christ and his Church is finding ways to engage him in meaningful conversation. In contemporary America, most people are not moved by claims of truth or goodness. Relativism has made truth to be whatever you want, thereby turning the good into whatever makes you feel good. So how can you engage the average nonbeliever? How can you place him on the road that would lead him back to the Truth and the Good?
Even people unmoved by talk of truth and goodness usually pay attention at the mention of beauty: the flash of lightning across the sky, the dramatic auburn colors of a late-summer sunset, a sublime snatch of Mozart’s Requiem or a David Gilmore guitar solo. An even more intense encounter with beauty is when it expresses human love: the exhilaration when love is extended, when eyes sparkle, when trembling lips smile and say “Yes.” Our hearts soar, and we may even weep for joy. Though the post-modern heart may be darkened to what is true and good, it is still captivated by beauty revealing love—and this may be its road to Christ.
Enter Swiss priest and theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Born in 1905, he lived through the horror of both world wars, writing his doctoral thesis, The Apocalypse of the German Soul, during Hitler’s rise to power. He was immersed in literature, music, and philosophy. In 1929 he entered the Society of Jesus and was educated by some of the best minds of his time, including the Polish philosopher Erich Przywara and French Jesuit and patristic scholar Henri de Lubac.
Balthasar is recognized by some as perhaps the greatest theologian of the twentieth century, yet he never held an academic position in theology. Far from being an ivory-tower academic, he was involved with the pastoral duties as a student chaplain at the University of Basel, Switzerland. It was here that he came to know Adrienne von Spyer, who converted to Catholicism and became the recipient of what seems to have been intense mystical graces. Together they discerned a call to found a secular institute (a community whose members take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience but who live in the world engaged in secular professions), the Community of St. John.
To continue his work as leader of the community, Balthasar had to make one of the most painful decisions of his life: He left the Jesuit order and became a diocesan priest. It was something that in the 1950s simply was not done. This irregular ecclesial situation led to his not being invited to Vatican II as an expert theologian. However, in the wake of the Council he served on the Vatican’s International Theological Commission.
Toward the end of Balthasar’s life, Pope John Paul II named him to the College of Cardinals, but he died on June 28, 1988, two days before he was to have received his red hat. Balthasar authored thousands of works of theology and literature. His aim was always twofold: to help the believer understand his faith more deeply and to draw the nonbeliever into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church.
Balthasar realized where Western culture was headed. He knew the heights to which it could soar—in its music, art, literature, and philosophy—but that it also chose ugly depths: war, oppression, abortion, and exploitation. As a Catholic priest, he felt called to help Western civilization open itself again to God’s revelation of absolute love through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
One of Balthasar’s key insights into how God incites man with his divine love is that we must encourage the nonbeliever to ponder his encounters with beauty in the world, especially as found in human love. Balthasar encouraged people to consider the limitations of worldly beauty, especially in the brokenness and failures of all human love. Why is love in this world so finite and fractured? Why are all attempts at love stamped as failed by the inevitability of death? This predicament leads to the vital question: Is there a love beyond this world?
At this point the nonbeliever can be led to wonder at the cross as a sign of divine revelation. He can be challenged to open his heart to encounter the beautiful form of Christ crucified as revealing in its depths the Triune God of love. The nonbeliever with an open heart can be drawn by the grace coming through this form into the dynamic of love, leading to an act of faith. Though this theme is present throughout Balthasar’s vast writings, I will concentrate on two of his foundational works: Love Alone: The Way of Revelation (Sheed and Ward, ) and The Glory of the Lord (tr. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, vol. 1, Ignatius Press ).
Balthasar argues that the encounter with beauty in the world is analogous to the encounter with the Triune God. What happens in the “aesthetical encounter”? He sees that beauty is a union of two things: species and lumen. Beauty has a specific, tangible form, is situated in the coordinates of time and space, and thus has proportion so that it can be perceived (this is its species). The beautiful also has an attractive charm, a gravitational pull, a tractor beam pulling the beholder into it (this is itslumen). When confronted with the beautiful, one encounters “the real presence of the depths, of the whole reality, and . . . a real pointing beyond itself to those depths” (GL, 118).
In the perception of beauty, two moments occur: first vision, then rapture, which results in the impression of the form on the beholder. The splendor moves out from within the form, enraptures the person, and transports him into its depths. Thus the visible form “not only ‘points’ to an invisible, unfathomable mystery; form is the apparition of this mystery, and reveals it while, naturally, at the same time protecting and veiling it” (GL, 151). In beauty, the beholder is drawn out of himself and pulled into the form by the attractive force of the beautiful thing, thereby encountering the beautiful thing in itself.
A simple example to illustrate the aesthetical encounter is looking up into a clear night sky. We are struck by the immensity and order of the universe, by the beauty of the constellations, and, if we are far from the lights of a city, by the sheer number of stars. Presented with this beautiful form, a sensitive viewer is drawn in by light breaking forth from the form. This light is not simply the result of burning gases emanating from each star. It is the light of Being. Transported into the depths of the form, the viewer ponders foundational questions such as: How did this happen? Where did these things come from? Why is it so beautiful? Why am I moved by it?
The result of the aesthetical encounter is an encounter with the mystery of Being in itself. We have been shown the form and through the form been brought into an encounter with the depth of Being. The form and the depths of its being are indissoluble. In beauty one doesn’t “get behind” the form. Rather one touches the depths of Being in the form itself.
For Balthasar, things that exist don’t just lie there; they glow from their participation in absolute Being. In beauty, one is taken in and grasped by Being. In order to perceive a particular being as it is, one must surrender, be receptive, and be willing to be taken in by the form. Control or manipulation on the part of the beholder derails the aesthetical encounter. The result of the encounter with beauty is the impressing of the form on us, leaving us breathless, exhilarated, and infused with joy. We are “seduced” by the beautiful form, whether it is a stunning landscape or the face of our beloved.
Even as we acknowledge the joy of beauty in this world, and especially the beauty in human love, a terrible frustration besets us. Human love is marked by three failures: limitation, selfishness, and death. “Human love, being finite, seems to contradict itself,” writes Balthasar, because “what love means . . . is that the present should be eternal” (LA, 52, 54). Not only is human love limited, it’s also infected with selfishness. He reasons, “The ordinary level of human existence, where man meets man, is a sort of middle zone where love and self-interest, love and the absence of love, temper one another” (LA, 53).
Love’s limitation and brokenness are marked by the seal of death, which seems to rob human love of everything it strives for. “Human love, regarded as created love only, is a strange hieroglyph,” writes Balthasar (LA, 55). Man cannot find the resolution to his predicament in the world or in himself. Is there liberation from it? Yes: “God’s love [is] a love which goes in search of man in order to lift him out of the pit, free him from his bonds, and place him in the freedom of the divine love that is now human as well” (LA, 60).
How can man perceive God and give himself to God in the act of faith? God, who is love, has startled the world with his self-revelation as the Beautiful One. Balthasar argues that the beautiful is the first point of insight by which one perceives God’s revelation. God’s appearance in the world is analogous to the aesthetical encounter.
Analogy is the only possible means whereby man may speak about God without depriving God of his absolute mystery or the believer the possibility of articulating an explanation of divine revelation. Analogy neither distances nor compromises God’s transcendence and love. What corresponds to beauty on the natural plane is the Lord’s glory on the divine plane. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have revealed themselves as one God in order to liberate man and bring him to live within the divine life of the Trinity. Man could never anticipate God’s astounding initiative in reaching out to save him.
The pinnacle of this revelation, which Balthasar calls the “Christform,” is Jesus nailed to the cross. It is a paradox: In the ugliest place of human existence—Christ’s crucifixion and death—God reveals himself as absolute, total, self-giving love. And so this is the supreme moment of transcending beauty, a revelation of love visible in the world, yet pointing to a love beyond this world. As John so profoundly grasps in his Gospel, the concealment of the Son under the form of the cross is his glory because it reveals a love to the absolute end. The glory of the Son does not come after the cross. The cross is his glory.
Even in this ultimate form of beauty in self-giving love, God does not overwhelm human freedom. No one is forced to believe that this crucified man is the divine Son of God saving the world.
Using Balthasar’s paradigm of the aesthetical encounter, the form is Jesus nailed to the cross. One must decipher the Christform, with which God disturbed history forever, as a concrete sign (species). Anyone can stand before it and wonder, “Who is this?” The perception of faith, however, is beyond the ability of man alone. What is required is a new light. Without this light man cannot see the depths of the form. In other words, the nonbeliever looks at the cross and says, “I see a man.” God must awaken in man the capacity to recognize the crucified man for who he is.
The splendor (lumen) emanating from the form is the glory of the Lord containing divine grace. This glory strikes the nonbeliever (vision) pulling him into the form and enabling him to believe (rapture). He is pulled into its depths, not simply for an encounter with absolute Being, but into a personal relationship with the tri-personal God (who is also absolute Being). The act of faith is to be swept up into the form of the Triune God’s self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth through the splendor of divine grace. The nonbeliever, Balthasar maintains, is seduced by the form.
Divine grace, working in the interior of the person, allows him to see the form for what it is. Only grace enables him to organize the evidence for belief into a coherent whole and see what the sign reveals. As with beauty, to share in the revelation of divine love, we must renounce ourselves and surrender to the grace offered. Furthermore, we do not “get behind” the form of the cross in order to then see God. Rather, the Trinity is revealed in the cross.
Man sees “that the love offered him is quite unlike anything he knows as love; and that the scandal [of God’s love] exists in order to make him see the uniqueness of this new love—and by its light to reveal and lay bare to him his own love for what it is, lack of love” (LA, 60). The nonbeliever asks, “With my broken love, and my life hurtling toward death, is there anything worthy of my belief?” Jesus of Nazareth draws the beholder into the same dynamic of love.
In the act of faith, as in the encounter with beauty, we are marked by the beautiful form. The Father impresses his form on the Son, and the Son, through the Holy Spirit, presses his form on the believer. Our own lives are to take on the dimensions of the Christform. He is not to be a bystander but a participant in this dynamic of divine love.
In the encounter of faith, the nonbeliever realizes that this revelation not only unites the fragments of truth in the world, not only gives meaning to mankind at the deepest level, but that he is encountering a love beyond his capacity to imagine. Finally, one finds a love worthy of his faith, of his very life. This is a love that is believable.
As we can see, Balthasar is not out to prove the revelation of God’s love through reason. Divine love is reasonable, but it transcends human reason. Rather, Balthasar provokes the nonbeliever with the historical sign of revelation in order that he may open his heart and so be drawn in by beauty. The nonbeliever, with his limited human love, is offered the possibility of sharing an eternal life of divine love. But the encounter with divine love requires an open heart, a heart sensitive to beauty, a heart able to wonder, a heart anguished by its attempts to love in the face of death.
A consequence of Balthasar’s insight is that the divine love revealed on the cross is meant to transform not just the nonbeliever but the apologist as well. As a believer, the apologist has been pulled by divine grace into the encounter of the form of Christ, and so his life must then take on the contours of the form. In this world, divine love is revealed in the suffering and death of the Son. The apologist can win a person to Christ only if he first loves that person and is willing to suffer, and even die, for him. A believer’s life must radiate the beauty of divine love. The work of apologetics goes beyond winning arguments to being grasped by the Christform: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
Balthasar’s approach is useful not only with nonbelievers but with those who have fallen away or are lukewarm. Those who wish to delve more deeply in Balthasar’s thought may begin with Love Alone and then turn to his treatment of the “Three Days” (Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday) in Mysterium Paschale (tr. Aidan Nichols, Eerdmans ). He continues this apologetic line in In the Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic (tr. Graham Harrison, Ignatius ). Those more ambitious may tackle volume one of The Glory of the Lord. For an introduction to his thought, I have found the study by Fr. Edward Oakes, S.J., The Pattern of Redemption (Continuum ), to be the most helpful work in English.
In reflecting on his own work, Balthasar wrote, “You do good apologetics if you do good, central theology; if you expound theology effectively, you have done the best kind of apologetics” (My Work . . . In Retrospect, tr. Brian McNeil, Ignatius/Communio , 100). God’s self-revelation is disguised under the crucifixion and death of Jesus, the obedient Son. Through the encounter with divine love revealed as beauty, we are led back to truth and goodness because we are led into the encounter with the One who is True and Good. Through the beauty of divine revelation, we discover a love that is believable.