October 4, 2010 / Perspective
Brett McCracken. Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2010. 255 …
October 12, 2015
Catholics and Protestants have been at odds for nearly five centuries. From the ninety-five criticisms on a Wittenberg door to the Thirty Years’ War to the bloody politics of the English Reformation this rätselhafte Riß, or “puzzling chasm,” has led to mutual condemnations, heated polemics, inquisitions, executions, and wars. In the name of the crucified and risen one Protestants shout their solas while, animated by the same Lord Jesus Christ, Roman Catholics shore up papal authority and the extra ecclesiam nulla sallus. Protestants are destined for hell because they are outside The Church; Catholics can’t be saved because they don’t take grace seriously enough. If, as one theologian suggests, “Theology means struggle,” then Catholics and Protestants have done more than their share of theologizing this half millennium. But if this is the shape of the theological struggle, one can hardly blame Western civilization for its ever-increasing opt-out of this bifurcated Christendom. Might there be a more generative way to engage in the struggle of theology? A theological style that is no less passionate or confessional but is just more, well, friendly?
Stephen Long’s book Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation attempts to give an example of just that. It does so by describing two brilliant theological minds—one an outspoken Reformed dogmatician, the other a Jesuit with a reputation for converting high-profile Protestants—and the friendship that developed between them. What results is a biography of sorts, a biography not primarily about a person but about a conversation between two friends. This conversation, Long thinks, should lead us to a different “way of doing theology that involves friendship rather than conquest.”
On the surface Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar, the two great minds in question, had much in common. Both men were citizens of Switzerland, both maintained an outspoken love of Mozart, both had “unconventional relationships with women” (9), both owned prints of Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, and both were theologians who committed to thinking of Christian theology singularly through the incarnation of God’s Word in Jesus Christ—both thought, in other words, that “Christian theology takes its form from its Christological dogmas” (19). They were both unusually prolific authors, and they were perhaps the two most significant theologians of the twentieth century. But one was Protestant and the other, Catholic.
For his part, Barth was never a shy critic of anyone, and his comments directed toward the Roman Catholic Church are no exception. This hardly made it easy on the promising young Jesuit, von Balthasar. Upon moving to Basel in 1940, he was so entranced by the reimagining of classical theism contained in Barth’s Kirchliche Dogmatik II/1 that he gained a reputation for carrying the large tome all around town in his briefcase “like a cat carrying a kitten,” as Barth himself noted. This initial interest in Barth is what inspired von Balthasar’s famous book on Barth’s theology. As he wrote, von Balthasar remained in close personal contact with Barth. He suspected Barth had the resources to helpfully expose the theological problems inherent with the Roman Church’s sometime hobbyhorse, the doctrine of pure nature.
But this required that he correct Barth’s critique of Catholicism. Barth vehemently rejected the Catholic notion of the analogia entis, even to the point of referring to it as “antichrist.” But von Balthasar insisted that Barth misunderstood Catholic teaching about the analogia entis, and so Barth’s vehement rejection of that doctrine risked halting an opportunity for reengagement between Catholics and Protestants. Briefly (and perhaps too simply), the analogia entis, or analogy of being, refers to a Catholic understanding of the relationship between God and the created world resulting from the fact that God and creation both possess being. The impulse here is toward affirming some common ground between God and creation to clarify the possibility of God acting within creation. Protestants like Barth are concerned about the danger of overstating this common ground, risking idolatrously elevating creation to something godlike and eliminating the necessity and uniqueness of God’s definitive self-revelation in Jesus Christ.
But von Balthasar maintained that Catholics speak of analogia entis in a number of different ways and that the analogia rejected by Barth was a more extreme extension of the doctrine that von Balthasar also rejected and identified as the doctrine of pure nature. Barth was right, von Balthasar thought, to repudiate the characterization of nature as a reality purely and strictly independent from God. Von Balthasar’s account of the analogia entis rejects the idea that the natural world is the kind of thing that God would have to conform himself to in order to relate to it. Rather, the reality of nature doesn’t infringe upon God’s freedom in any way. When the analogia entis is taken as far as such a doctrine of pure nature, it hamstrings God and problematically raises nature to the point at which it starts to condition the action of God. Von Balthasar applauded Barth for his laser-like focus on the freedom of God that led to his rejection of that doctrine, and he applauded him for providing tools that Catholicism might use to excise pure nature from its theology.
Pure nature needed to go, and von Balthasar judged that Barth could help Catholics see that fact. Christians need to affirm the possibility of contact between God and creation, an idea that Catholics have long affirmed under the banner of analogia entis. But this analogy is caused by God’s free action and doesn’t really exist “naturally” at all; it only exists through the free and gracious action of God. Von Balthasar claimed that Barth actually affirmed this account of the Catholic analogia entis (that is, the account of analogia entis divorced from a doctrine of pure nature) throughout his Church Dogmatics, though obviously not by name. The analogia, he explained, is a central doctrine of Roman Catholic theology, whereas pure nature is more speculative and ancillary. If Barth’s rejection of the Catholic analogy of being was based on a miscommunication—if the analogia entis didn’t necessitate a doctrine of pure nature—then Barth could not only help clarify this issue for Catholics, he could have actually stumbled upon a bridge to reconnect.
So von Balthasar saw that his task was to help Barth see his misunderstanding of Catholic teaching and therefore to convince Barth to return to Rome. He embarked upon a lifetime of attempts to explain this mistake to Barth. But Barth, apparently a less than receptive audience for such clarifications, continued to lob his vociferous critique at the Catholic linchpin doctrine of the analogia entis, while von Balthasar patiently attempted to make Catholicism’s analogia intelligible in a way he thought Barth would and should affirm, while redirecting Barth’s own criticism toward the stream within Catholic theology that founded itself upon a pure nature. This issue is at the center of what Long calls von Balthasar’s preoccupation with Karl Barth.
Von Balthasar suffered for their friendship. Catholics didn’t want to listen to Barth because he was a Protestant and because his theology was novel and thus sounded modernist to them. Long narrates the price von Balthasar paid by describing the lengthy publication process of his book about Barth: for example, the first edition failed to be published because it could not pass the line of neoscholastic censors. In spite of this and other roadblocks, von Balthasar persisted for years in his work on Barth’s theology and the potential present in it for rapprochement with Catholicism. Von Balthasar was obedient to the Catholic censors but unwavering in his theological preoccupation.
From Barth’s side, Long’s depiction of this friendship results in a Barth who is more open to Catholicism than he is often portrayed. While von Balthasar for his part maintained a “preoccupation” with Barth and his theology, Barth himself “suffered” Catholicism (14). Barth was more than a little cautious and critical about Catholicism, but for a conversation partner, he unhesitatingly preferred it to the liberal Protestant heirs of Friedrich Schleiermacher. That’s because he found Catholicism more able to engage theologically in a way that liberal Protestantism could not. Barth describes Catholicism as “the only real conversation partner Protestant theology can take seriously” because Catholicism as a tradition has the resources to take Christ seriously and to not get swept aside by the intellectual headwinds of modernity (16). Long outlines Barth and von Balthasar’s conversation along three different axes: the doctrine of God, theological ethics, and the doctrine of the church.
On the topic of the doctrine of God, von Balthasar was both “for and against” Barth (129). Von Balthasar admired Barth’s doctrine of God and the way it remains anchored in the real acts of God rather than in abstract metaphysical speculation, but von Balthasar argued that it needs a form of the analogia entis, not because of a commitment to Aristotelian philosophy but for the theological necessity of bearing witness to the incarnation. Long reads von Balthasar as steering between a Ressourcement Thomism represented by (the inconveniently named) Stephen A. Long and a postmetaphysical Protestantism represented by Bruce McCormack. Ressourcement Thomists want to base their understanding of God on metaphysical abstraction, whereas McCormack and his ilk would have all metaphysics purged from theology. Barth and von Balthasar, in contrast, both understood that the oneness and threeness of God cannot be collapsed into one thing like McCormack would have us believe, nor can they be strictly divided as in Stephen A. Long’s thought. The perfections of God—omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, et cetera—are traditionally described as prior and independent of God’s self-revelation, but for both von Balthasar and Barth they must instead be articulated in terms of that revelation rather than the other way around. God’s perfections, in other words, must be described in christological terms rather than allowing the incarnation of Christ to be tempered by God’s perfections. The divine economy of salvation doesn’t come after the doctrine of God, but it is intrinsic to it. This is the Barthian rehashing of classical theism that initially engrossed von Balthasar in Kirchliche Dogmatik II/1.
Next, Long takes a look at Barth and von Balthasar’s conversation about theological ethics. Neither Barth nor von Balthasar divides theology from ethics; both instead locate ethics among the several topics of dogmatics. According to Long, both see ethics as a crisis in modern theology, and so they “intersperse ethics throughout dogmatic loci” (177) as their strategy for keeping theological ethics theological, and both also agree that “human agents do perform God’s goodness” (178). But von Balthasar maintained a wider berth for human agency as opposed to Barth’s more measured and cautious approach. The sphere in which Christian ethics is lived out is that of the church, whose division Barth and von Balthasar’s friendship ultimately addresses, though it does so without resolving the tensions of the rätselhafte Riß between Catholics and Protestants.
It is this tension that Long explores in the final chapter of Saving Karl Barth. At the center of this chapter is an enthralling account of a seminar Barth taught on the Council of Trent—a seminar attended by von Balthasar himself. From that fascinating set of classroom conversations to Long’s account of von Balthasar’s concerns about Vatican II, the chapter explores the ecumenical desire and difficulty at the root of their friendship. Von Balthasar started out on a mission to convert Barth; Barth started out in vehement intolerance to Catholicism. But neither theologian remained there. Long summarizes: “What began with an effort to demonstrate the superiority of each one’s respective tradition, culminated in an ecumenical rapprochement that showed how much Protestants and Catholics needed each other if Christianity was to be grounded upon the Word God spoke in Christ” (281). However, the contemporary state of the conversation between Barthian Protestants and Roman Catholics resembles much more closely where Barth and von Balthasar started than where they ended up.
Barth and von Balthasar’s relationship started from a place of opposition, but it opened up into a theological friendship that did not paper over real differences. Rather, these friends acknowledged the differences and wrestled with them. Although nothing was ultimately resolved, no real and lasting rapprochement was found, what was found, according to Long, was a theological style in which strong convictions can engage with other strong convictions, while maintaining a singular focus on what must remain central rather than obsessing over boundaries and differences. Reactive theologies easily lose the thing they are supposed to be for as that thing is eclipsed by what they are against. But instead of articulating theology in terms of a “counter,” Barth and von Balthasar discovered what many of their Protestant and Catholic heirs still struggle to discover: “how to affirm Christ as the center of our common faith and allow that center to radiate onto all things, without allowing those things to somehow usurp the center” (282).
Von Balthasar and Barth’s relationship started from a place of opposition, of Catholic versus Reformed Protestant. But in the end, Barth and von Balthasar are both Christians whose viewpoints have singularly centered around the person of Christ. Because of this common focus, von Balthasar was able to foster a preoccupation with Barth’s account of Reformed dogmatics that he thought might open up space for renewed relations across the puzzling divide that has separated Rome from Augsburg and Geneva for nearly five hundred years. And because of this common Christ-centered focus, Barth was able to suffer Catholicism in the form of his friendship with this one unflappable young Jesuit.
What impact can one friendship between two theologians have on five hundred perplexing years of church division? Protestants and Catholics remain separate; Barth and von Balthasar did not end this separation in any way. But in a sense, their Christian friendship overcame it. If other Christ followers follow along, the puzzling divide will still remain for the foreseeable future. But Christ might be less divided.
 James William McClendon, Ethics: Systematic Theology, Volume I, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2002), 17.
 Long, Saving Karl Barth: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Preoccupation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2014), 2; subsequent references to Long are in the text.
 Barth’s controversial relationship with his secretary, Charlotte von Kirschbaum, is well documented, while von Balthasar’s relationship with Adrienne von Speyr, and the mystical influence of her work on his own, was certainly not typical for a Catholic priest.
 Barth, as quoted in Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1976), 302.
Cabe Matthews serves as one of the pastors at Montgomery United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Texas. Find him on Twitter @cabematthews and online at cabematthews.com.