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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte


Peterson, Paul Silas


The Early Hans Urs von Balthasar. Historical Contexts and Intellectual Formation.


Berlin u. a.: De Gruyter 2015. XVIII, 379 S. = Theologische Bibliothek Töpelmann, 170. Geb. EUR 99,95. ISBN 978-3-11-037430-8.


George Pattison

Paul Silas Peterson’s study opens by citing Fergus Kerr’s fairly uncontroversial comment that von Balthasar »is by far the most discussed Catholic theologian at present« (1). However, the controversial nature of this study is soon flagged up in the statement that von Balthasar’s early theological development »was partly embedded in the intellectual context of early 20th century fascism« and that »While some of the subject matter of his theology transcends this context, Balthasar’s early work cannot be fully understood without this background« (2). As the accompanying footnote makes clear, the kind of elements that are relevant here include »the Germanic motif, the authoritarian social and political aspects, the re-birth of the German soul from the constraints of liberalism, the natural aspects of the Volk and the Gemeinschaft, the criticism of liberalism, the sense of a new beginning« and, getting rapidly worse, »the promotion of the Reich-theme, anti-Semitism, anti-capitalism, and racism« (2).
This is a heavy charge sheet, and even if, as P. concedes, some of von Balthasar’s theology rises above this context, his reputation is likely to be significantly damaged if the charges stick. But do they? After all, as P. himself makes clear, much of what is at issue in these early writings is widely shared in the German-speaking intellectual milieu of the inter-war years and various elements of the complex described above were subscribed to by some who became avowedly anti-Nazi.
As a case in point, we might consider Romano Guardini. P. sets out von Balthasar’s affiliation to Guardini in the early 1920s at some length. Guardini was seen by von Balthasar as helpful in developing his own nascent interest in doing theology through literature, but he was also, P. suggests, significant with regard to the larger vision that von Balthasar would develop. In the post-war mood of a »downfall of the West«, »Guardini expresses a wish for a total conceptualization of the living world together with the academic, intellectual, and social orders in a great harmonious whole with nature and the cosmos, specifically embracing family, community, state, and Church« (51). Indeed, in his Letters from Lake Como, Guardini is said to have incorporated »the popular Reich terminology into his argument« and his appeal to a »germanische Innerlichkeit« reveals the presence of a »Rassenphantasie«, despite the author’s express dissociation of German identity from issues of race. Guardini’s longing for the emergence of a »new man« and a new order dovetail with »the rising nationalistic mood« (53).
Yet, as is well known, Guardini’s teaching post would be shut down by the Nazi regime, and he was sufficiently clear of any stain of Nazism for him to be offered a range of academic chairs in 1945 (in­clud­ing that from which Heidegger was forced to stand down). In this case, P.’s hermeneutic of suspicion seems extremely severe. But if he is thus unfair to Guardini, is it the same story with von Balthasar?
Some of the evidence uncovered is unsettling. In a 1940 article, for example, von Balthasar not only complains about some of the tendencies of modern art but also commends the Nazis’ infamous »degenerate art« exhibition for exposing such art to public laughter (169) and, still worse, describes the tendency of modern art as a »niggerization« (169). As for von Balthasar’s early magnum opus Apokalypse der deutschen Seele, this, says P., »fits with the ideal National Socialist literature«, whether with regard to its language (»extreme, dramatic, mythological, trans-historical, monumental, absolutist, apocalyptic«), its historical narrative (»decline and fall, apocalyptic, end time, moment of decision, radical change«), themes (»death, war, judgement, nation, German soul, socialism, utopia, anti-Ex­pressionism, anti-modernism, antibolshevism, etc.«), authors (Heid­egger, Nietzsche, George, Hofmannsthal, Klages, Bertram, et al.), and anti-Semitism—and not least by the fact that there were no problems in getting the work published in Germany itself (see 160).
No less worrying is a 1934 review article of a book by the leader of the fascistic Swiss National Front leader, Julius Schmidhauser, published in a journal strongly associated with the ultra-right. In the review, von Balthasar comments, for example, that »in the national awakening of Germany something incalculably valuable has entered«, namely, the unity of »praxis« and »rootedness to one’s place« (146). In this new awakening, he later adds, the Catholic Church »alone would have the means today to assume the hegemony in the building of the ›Reich‹ (as Schmidhauser understands it: as the convergence of all educating/ forming powers: state, Volk, society, church)« (149). As P. expands on what von Balthasar argues here, the Swiss theologian ultimately seems to subscribe to a current of Catholic thought for which the only real problem with National Socialism is its choice of Neo-Paganism as a religious foundation instead of accepting the spiritual guidance of the Church. He connects this also to a shift away from the individu-alis­tic Kierkegaard to the collectivist Dostoevsky, whose ideas about the spiritual unity of the Russian soul gets rather unproblematically projected onto the German people. There is also a suggestion of cynicism in that a shift of von Balthasar’s thinking (not least regarding Anti-Semitism) only occurs in 1943 when it is becoming apparent that Hitler is not going to win the war.
The argument is detailed and comprises much more than it has been possible to adduce here, including von Balthasar’s important relations to Pryzwara, Barth, and de Lubac. Much is persuasive, though even on the evidence presented, it often seems that P. invariably goes for the maximally damaging reading. He never quite fixes the label »Nazi« unqualifiedly on von Balthasar, but one feels that this is what he is trying to do.
There is a peculiar mix of German and English in the text, often switching mid-sentence for no obvious reason, or with English translations of some passages offered on an apparently random basis. But a reader with no German is going to be limited in what they can get out of the book and it might have been better to go for one or the other! There are also an irritating number of minor errors.
Nevertheless, even if the book has its faults, it is a sobering re­minder that theological ideas do not operate in a vacuum and that our thinking and our rhetoric need to be constantly challenged as to their wider political and cultural implications.