On the bridge with Hans Urs von Balthasar

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988) was a Swiss theologian widely regarded as one of the greatest theologians and spiritual writers of the 20th century. What an amazing century it was! In the midst of so much spiritual darkness there shone luminous spirits like von Balthasar. I offer here four very short quotes that I came across in my rummaging through the book The Grain of Wheat: Aphorisms, published in Germany in 1953, English translation in 1995.

How do we know that God hates sin? By the fact that Christ loves sinners. These are the poorest of all, the ones most needing protection.

 We often hear, “Hate the sin but love the sinner.” But in saying that, precedence is given to hating the sin. Loving the sinner is almost a grudging concession. And most people who do use that line, really do have a difficult time loving the sinner! Not with Balthasar. For him love of the sinner comes first, and is indeed the proof that God hates sin. The person, the individual, comes first for God. Because it is the person – the sinner – who is poor and needs protection. And it’s protection, not forgiveness, that sinners need! A truly beautiful statement. And I can write much about how Balthasar speaks of God and Christ in this divine response to sin and sinner. In three short sentences there is enough theology to fill a hundred pages.

Only in Christ are all things in communion. He is the point of convergence of all hearts and beings and therefore the bridge and the shortest way from each to each.

Christ is the source of our salvation and our communion with God. But Christ is also the way by whom we have communion with each other. Christ is the bridge that unites, “the shortest way” between human beings! Christ is not a wall that separates people. He does not teach us to distance ourselves from those who are not like us. On the contrary, he provides the “shortest way”, the quickest path to friendship and solidarity.

All great heresies strike Christ on his most sensitive and painful spot: on the center of his love. They always argue away either the divinity of his humanity or the humanity of his divinity, under the pretext of an alleged purity.

I can say from my own experience that the heresies of past and present all come down to one of the two errors that Balthasar posits here. And I love that he does not reduce them to simply errors about the divinity and/or the humanity of Christ. He states them as arguments about “the divinity of his humanity” and “the humanity of his divinity”. Truly great theological clarity in this incredibly concise statement.

Jesus before Herod: the eternally thought-provoking situation of God’s persistent silence before a man who wants to force him to talk and would like to turn him into a religious sensation, an “experience”, in Pascal’s sense.

And finally the always persistent temptation to demand signs and miracles and make Jesus Christ into a religious sensation, an “experience”! No wonder God has grown even more silent as our demands for entertainment and sensationalism have grown beyond measure. God is silent. But God has men and women who reject the sensationalism and empty entertainment that captivate the hearts and minds of so many; men and women who walk on the bridge that is Christ and invite others to join them on the path to union with God. Hans Urs von Balthasar was such a man.

2 Replies to “On the bridge with Hans Urs von Balthasar”

    1. Yes, a giant of Catholic theology. A genuine scholar, but also deeply creative in his spirituality and a proponent of mysticism. He worked closely with the mystic Adrienne von Speyr, and was her mentor. Balthasar was in many ways the Catholic counterpart to Karl Barth!

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