With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Balthasar on Bonaventure

This summer I'm taking another crack at reading through Balthasar's aesthetics (a truly Sisyphean task if there ever was one). I don't intend to leave more than a dent in it. However this time around I'm reading Aidan Nichol's The Word Has Been Abroad (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1998) in tandem, which makes the yoke easier and the burden ever so lighter. As anyone reading this likely knows, Balthasar wrote with such a combination of breadth and depth that it is frighteningly easy to lose oneself in a single paragraph of profundity; and at the same time his arguments stretch over hundreds of pages and texts from the tradition. My typical experience reading him is like walking a straight and narrow way, then being suddenly tempted to stray down all of the ever widening paths branching off from the main road. I will often go twenty pages before I turn back and realize I have followed a siren and completely lost sight of his argument. Fortunately, Nichols does a good job playing Virgil in this journey through Baltahsar's mind: he gives accurate synopses of all the tangential meditations and keeps you moving on the straight and narrow.

Anyhow, it was only when I read through Nichols' summary of Balthasar's chapter on St. Bonaventure in GOTL vol. II that I realized what a major source the Seraphic Doctor is for Balthasar's vision of theological aesthetics. One does not need to read the Centuries or Balthasar's own Cosmic Liturgy to see traces of St. Maximus all over his work; nor does one need to read the Church Dogmatics or his own The Theology of Karl Barth to see how Barth-haunted his Christology is. But I suppose I just never realized until now how important Balthasar's appropriation of Bonaventure seems.

Overall, Bonaventure's theology is aesthetic by emphasizing both the objective and the subjective aspects as Balthasar dissects them: the Trinity is where beauty truly subsists and it is by encountering this beauty in Revelation that the soul is transformed. The revelation of the form always corresponds to the ecstatic elevation of the soul, making an aesthetic dimension intrinsic to the economy of salvation. Here Balthasar is fleshing out, through Bonaventure, his conception of "Christian experience" as introduced in GOTL vol.I. It takes on a peculiarly Franciscan flavor in Bonventure's theological understanding of Francis' stigmata: "In seeing the seraphic Christ, Francis grasped that, since he was consumed by spiritual fire, he would be changed into the 'expressive image' of the Crucified" (p.86) Envisioning the form of Christ crucified enables the very particularity of Francis' worldly flesh to become the concrete form through which the Crucified God expresses Himself. In other words, Francis' experience of grace is understood as the encounter with and simultaneous transfiguration by the form of God's beauty revealed in the crucified body of Jesus. As Balthasar writes (and Nichols translates), "the stigmata were impressed on the soul's body precisely in the soul's ecstatic excessus: just as it was there that the divine beauty was glimpsed, so it was also there that the same divine beauty took on its 'worldly' form" (p.86; GOTL II, p.273). Here, Bonaventure is simply doing aesthetics in the sense that Paul is in 2 Cor 3:18: beholding His glory transforms us in glory.

Even more enticing: according to Balthasar, Bonaventure's entire understanding of the Trinity is aesthetically conceived. The expressive relationship between archetype and image subsists first and foremost in God's Triunity, as the relationship between Father and Son. The bonum diffusivum sui is, as it were, made a constitutive element of God's very Being. Thus, as Image and Beauty of the Father, the Son is the perfect expression of the Father. Balthasar writes: "If the Father has really given expression in the Son to his whole being and capacity, then in the Son everything that is possible through God has taken on reality: if anything else outside God is realised through God, it can have possibility and reality only through the Son and in the Son..." (p.88; GOTL II, pp.292-293). All finite expressions of beauty then are fundamentally copies and intimations of the beauty exhibited in the relation between Father and Son. Christ then is "both the condition of possibility and the means to full actuality for any and every created self-expression of God in the world" (p.87). We have then the "framework of an ontology of expression" grounding Bonaventure's understanding of beauty, just as Balthasar has (p.88; GOTL II, p.287). It is a rationale for explaining the structure of finite creatures in terms of the Trinitarian relations, tracing them back to their ultimate origins. All creation is in its nature an expression of God, but one that follows and presupposes a more perfect and timeless expression in God Himself. Every expression is therefore directed to the end of God's perfect self-expression in Christ. This is, as Balthasar notes, the highest degree of Christocentrism. (p.87; GOTL II, p.283).

These themes of "Christian experience" and Trinitarian aesthetic go hand in hand, the latter grounding the former. It is in Christ Crucified that the Son's supreme beauty is revealed to a fallen world, and it is in beholding the cross that this beauty draws every finite form into God's perfect self-expression. What we have here is a unique theological light shed on the relationship of imitatio intrinsic to creation (the analogia entis). According to Balthasar, for Bonaventure the analogia entis only finds its true destiny in this transfiguration. Because God is His own Beauty and perfect Image, the analogical relations instrinsic to being itself are dynamically ordered toward a Christological consummation.

More so than with Pascal, Hamann, Dante, or John of the Cross, Balthasar's treatment of Bonaventure seems to give him so many recognizably Balthasarian themes to work with. What I find fascinating is how close this picture of Bonaventure comes to Przywara and some of the other figures that Balthasar invokes to construct an authentically Catholic Chrisotcentrism in response to Barth. With Bonaventure we see that there can be no more comprehensive Christocentrism then that which upholds and transfigures the analogical relationships of created being: it subordinates those relations to Christ's Trinitarian expression, but it does not negate them. There is Maximus here, there is Barth here, there is Denys and Przywara. What value then might Balthasar's reading of Bonaventure have for understanding and legitimizing his attempts to combine the analogy with Barth's Christology?

Pax Christi,


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