A Résumé of My Thought
Hans Urs von Balthasar
I thought this short essay was marvelous (although I’m sure more than a few will find it a bit dense); a nice starting point for contemplation. I have not read Von Balthasar before and this was an intriguing first encounter. A biography of the man is here. Note that I’m not presenting a complete copy of the essay, although I’ve copied most of it.
We start with a reflection on the situation of man. He exists as a limited being in a limited world, but his reason is open to the unlimited, to all of being. The proof consists in the recognition of his finitude, of his contingence: I am, but I could not-be. Many things which do not exist could exist. Essences are limited, but being (l’être) is not. That division, the “real distinction” of St. Thomas, is the source of all the religious and philosophical thought of humanity. It is not necessary to recall that all human philosophy (if we abstract the biblical domain and its influence) is essentially religious and theological at once, because it poses the problem of the Absolute Being, whether one attributes to it a personal character or not.
What are the major solutions to this enigma attempted by humanity? One can try to leave behind the division between being (Être) and essence, between the infinite and the finite; one will then say that all being is infinite and immutable (Parmenides) or that all is movement, rhythm between contraries, becoming (Heraclitus).
In the first case, the finite and limited will be non-being as such, thus an illusion that one must detect: this is the solution of Buddhist mysticism with its thousand nuances in the Far East. It is also the Plotinian solution: the truth is only attained in ecstasy where one touches the One, which is at the same time All and Nothing (relative to all the rest which only seems to exist). The second case contradicts itself: pure becoming in pure finitude can only conceive of itself in identifying the contraries: life and death, good fortune and adversity, wisdom and folly (Heraclitus did this).
Thus it is necessary to commence from an inescapable duality: the finite is not the infinite. In Plato the sensible, terrestrial world is not the ideal, divine world. The question is then inevitable: Whence comes the division? Why are we not God?
The first attempt at a response: there must have been a fall, a decline, and the road to salvation can only be the return of the sensible finite into the intelligible infinite. That is the way of all non-biblical mystics. The second attempt at a response: the infinite God had need of a finite world. Why? To perfect himself, to actualize all of his possibilities? Or even to have an object to love? The two solutions lead to pantheism. In both cases, the Absolute, God in himself, has again become indigent, thus finite. But if God has no need of the world-yet again: Why does the world exist?
No philosophy could give a satisfactory response to that question. St. Paul would say to the philosophers that God created man so that he would seek the Divine, try to attain the Divine. That is why all pre-Christian philosophy is theological at its summit. But, in fact, the true response to philosophy could only be given by Being himself, revealing himself from himself. Will man be capable of understanding this revelation? The affirmative response will be given only by the God of the Bible. On the one hand, this God, Creator of the world and of man, knows his creature. “I who have created the eye, do I not see? I who have created the ear, do I not hear?” And we add “I who have created language, could I not speak and make myself heard?” And this posits a counterpart: to be able to hear and understand the auto-revelation of God man must in himself be a search for God, a question posed to him. Thus there is no biblical theology without a religious philosophy. Human reason must be open to the infinite.
It is here that the substance of my thought inserts itself. Let us say above all that the traditional term “metaphysical” signified the act of transcending physics, which for the Greeks signified the totality of the cosmos, of which man was a part. For us physics is something else: the science of the material world. For us the cosmos perfects itself in man, who at the same time sums up the world and surpasses it. Thus our philosophy will be essentially a meta-anthropology, presupposing not only the cosmological sciences, but also the anthropological sciences, and surpassing them towards the question of the being and essence of man.
Now man exists only in dialogue with his neighbor. The infant is brought to consciousness of himself only by love, by the smile of his mother. In that encounter the horizon of all unlimited being opens itself for him, revealing four things to him: (i) that he is one in love with the mother, even in being other than his mother, therefore all being is one; (2) that that love is good, therefore all being is good; (3) that that love is true, therefore all being is true; and (4) that that love evokes joy, therefore all being is beautiful.
We add here that the epiphany of being has sense only if in the appearance (Erscheinung) we grasp the essence which manifests itself (Ding an sich). The infant comes to the knowledge not of a pure appearance, but of his mother in herself. That does not exclude our grasping the essence only through the manifestation and not in itself (St. Thomas).
The One, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, these are what we call the transcendental attributes of Being, because they surpass all the limits of essences and are coextensive with Being. If there is an insurmountable distance between God and his creature, but if there is also an analogy between them which cannot be resolved in any form of identity, there must also exist an analogy between the transcendentals– between those of the creature and those in God.
There are two conclusions to draw from this: one positive, the other negative. The positive: man exists only by interpersonal dialogue: therefore by language, speech (in gestures, in mimic, or in words). Why then deny speech to Being himself? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1).
The negative: supposing that God is truly God (that is to say that he is the totality of Being who has need of no creature), then God will be the plenitude of the One, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and by consequence the limited creature participates in the transcendentals only in a partial, fragmentary fashion. Let us take an example: What is unity in a finite world? Is it the species (each man is totally man, that is his unity), or is it the individual (each man is indivisibly himself)? Unity is thus polarized in the domain of finitude. One can demonstrate the same polarity for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
I have thus tried to construct a philosophy and a theology starting from an analogy not of an abstract Being, but of Being as it is encountered concretely in its attributes (not categorical, but transcendental). And as the transcendentals run through all Being, they must be interior to each other: that which is truly true is also truly good and beautiful and one. A being appears, it has an epiphany: in that it is beautiful and makes us marvel. In appearing it gives itself, it delivers itself to us: it is good. And in giving itself up, it speaks itself, it unveils itself: it is true (in itself, but in the other to which it reveals itself).