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Was Balthasar a Universalist?

March 7, 2007

There is perhaps no greater theologian of the 20th century in terms of influence and insight than Hans Urs von Balthasar. Student of Henri de Lubac, theological mentor to Pope John Paul II, colleague and associate to Pope Benedict XVI–Balthasar’s fingerprints are all over the life of the Church today. What makes Balthasar so unique as a theologian is his ability to reach every Catholic spiritually and intellectually. The same man was able to produce a dense, insightful, exhilarating and academic theological trilogy in The Glory of the Lord, Theodrama and Theo-logic, while at the same time possessing a unique pastoral sense which led to such generally accessible works as Contemplative Prayer, Mary for Today, Unless you Become Like this Child and A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen. Balthasar was an every man’s (and woman’s!) theologian, defending the rich tradition of the Church and promoting a spirit of awe and reverence before the mysterious unfolding of God’s self-disclosing revelation in history.

Speaking of the merits of Balthasar, Pope Benedict proclaimed:

I can testify that von Balthasar’s life was a genuine quest for the truth, which he understood as a search for true Life. He sought everywhere for traces of God’s presence and truth: in philosophy, in literature, in the religions, always managing to break those circuits that make reason a prisoner of itself and opening it to the spaces of the infinite.

Hans Urs von Balthasar was a theologian who put his research at the service of the Church, since he was convinced that theology could not but have ecclesial connotations. Theology, as he conceived it, had to be married to spirituality; only in this way, in fact, can it be profound and effective.

In a word, von Balthasar deeply understood that theology can only develop in prayer that accepts God’s presence and entrusts itself to him in obedience. This is a road that deserves to be followed to the very end. It implies avoiding unilateral paths that can only lead away from the destination, and commits us to shunning ways that fragment interest in the essential.

Rather, the example that von Balthasar has bequeathed to us is that of a true theologian who had discovered in contemplation coherent action for Christian witness in the world. Let us remember him on this significant occasion as a man of faith, a priest who in obedience and concealment, never sought his own personal affirmation, but in a truly Ignatian spirit always desired the greatest glory of God.

With these sentiments, I hope that you will all continue with interest and enthusiasm to study von Balthasar’s work and will find ways to apply it effectively. (from Message of Pope Benedict XVI for the Centenary of the Birth of Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar)

Unfortunately, there are still many in the Catholic Church who slander Balthasar’s name, but not out of any real familiarity with his works. The limits of sheer ignorance are often times set by a fear of the unknown, and many Catholics today, out of ignorance and fear, refuse to grant to Balthasar a fair hearing. Those of us who know Balthasar’s works can only be dumbfounded by the foolish attempts of the uninformed to label Balthasar with such ridiculous terms as “liberal” or “heterodox”. Would that those who use such labels or even remotely believe in their legitimacy actually read Balthasar!

Thanks to another blogger, I came across an uninformed and slandering article on Balthasar over at SperoNews. What struck me immediately was the scarcity of quotes from Balthasar’s works. One would think that any respectable article that would explicitly charge Balthasar with “heresy” and the propagation of “dangerous views” would back up this charge with substantial documentation and evidence. But fear of the unknown overcame poor Susan Beckworth, the author of the article, and instead of reading Balthasar or at least attempting to partially reconstruct Balthasar’s position on any given topic, she resorts to vacuous judgments, shoddy theological reasoning and utter misrepresentation. The result? Histrionics masquerading as religious insight.

One of Beckworth’s misfired charges against Balthasar is that he promoted a dangerous mode of universalism, the idea that all people will ultimately be saved. Of course, anyone who knows Balthasar recalls the splendid Short Discourse on Hell where Balthasar denies that he ever held such a view. But what about the carefully argued Dare We Hope that All Men Be Saved? where Balthasar asserts that all Christians ought to hope that all people be saved? Beckworth seems utter unfamiliar with the arguments of either work.

I could defend Balthasar myself, but why don’t I instead relay the views of individuals far more intelligent and theologically versed than both me and Beckworth:

Richard John Neuhaus:

Balthasar’s is a very careful argument, clearly distinguishing between universal salvation as a hope and universal salvation as a doctrine. He supports the former and rejects the latter. In sum: we do not know; only God knows; but we may hope. (from “Will all be saved?“).

Avery Dulles:

The most sophisticated theological argument against the conviction that some human beings in fact go to hell has been proposed by Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved?” He rejects the ideas that hell will be emptied at the end of time and that the damned souls and demons will be reconciled with God. He also avoids asserting as a fact that everyone will be saved. But he does say that we have a right and even a duty to hope for the salvation of all, because it is not impossible that even the worst sinners may be moved by God’s grace to repent before they die. He concedes, however, that the opposite is also possible. Since we are able to resist the grace of God, none of us is safe. We must therefore leave the question speculatively open, thinking primarily of the danger in which we ourselves stand.

This position of Balthasar seems to me to be orthodox. It does not contradict any ecumenical councils or definitions of the faith. It can be reconciled with everything in Scripture, at least if the statements of Jesus on hell are taken as minatory rather than predictive. Balthasar’s position, moreover, does not undermine a healthy fear of being lost. But the position is at least adventurous. It runs against the obvious interpretation of the words of Jesus in the New Testament and against the dominant theological opinion down through the centuries, which maintains that some, and in fact very many, are lost. (from “The Population of Hell“)

I think Beckworth has some real explaining and theologizing to do if she wants us to take her seriously as a theological commentator and critic.

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