on 12 January 2014
Every reader reads from a different perspective, recasting the author's thoughts in the mould of their individual experiences. My own reading of Balthasar is quite different from Karen Kilby's. She is a professional theologian, I am not (and her book will delight those who enjoy the jargon of the professional theologian). However I've read extensively in Balthasar's theology for over ten years. I suppose my reason for reading Balthasar was different from Kilby's. Indeed it would be illuminating to know precisely what Kilby's motive in reading Balthasar was. From the profound, almost comprehensive, antipathy she shows towards Balthasar's project it cannot have been that she came to him simply to listen. It is probable that her pre-disposition removed the possibility of reading Balthasar with any degree of real sympathy and already dictated a confrontational reading.
Balthasar is criticised on a number of specific points. For example his exposition of Church Fathers is criticised for its idiosyncrasy. The point is well made. But a reading that is different from the mainstream need not be regarded as a negative factor. The contributions of the Church Fathers (and of Balthasar himself) are layered, stratified and elusive and therefore not limited to one `authentic' interpretative perspective. It will however be a brave (or reckless) man or woman who presumes to possess a fuller, more comprehensive grasp of their subject than that which Balthasar possessed.
In assessing Balthasar's contribution it is well to take full account of those who interacted most closely with him, especially Henri de Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger - who both knew a thing or two! - but neither felt the need to ring the warning bells that Kilby chimes.
The most forthright of Kilby's criticisms, and the most devastating from her perspective, is her claim that Balthasar's theology was too knowing: `he frequently seems to presume ... a God's eye view'; `writing above scripture, above tradition, above history'. A `performative contradiction'; `the way his theology is done presumes something which the content of his theology rules out'. (This criticism begs the question how, without personal access to the author, one is able to gather how theology is `done' except from the `content' the text itself. If the `content' of the text `rules out' criticism of the method, then the criticism of method would seem to rest wholly in the critic's imagination.)
The way Balthasar's theology was `done' has however been disclosed in the content of his writing, it was through expansive reading, pervasive meditation and continuous prayer (the latter being the theological method for which he most pleaded). Is there not a fully legitimate sense in which a theology forged in the furnace of Scripture and shaped on the anvil of the Church's tradition will be - indeed ought to be - done with `a God's eye view'? It used to be called `prophetic' - a category that seems to be excluded from a post-modern perspective.
May we listen to Balthasar himself:
'[...] what does method mean anyway? Methodos is the pursuit of a way, and when One claims to be the way and we believe him, method could be translated as sequela, following. Since the Logos calls himself truth, there is no seamless truth other than his exposition of God, indeed of God the Father in the Holy Spirit. This exposition is at one and the same time utterly and plainly right and utterly mysterious.' (Balthasar, Theo-Logic, II, 363 and 364)
Jesus Christ comprehends scripture, tradition and history; the one who sits at his feet, hears him and follows may with some justification be found to see things with `a God's eye view' - which is not to claim that he will know things with `a God's mind knowledge'!
May this not be the hanging thread which deconstructs the core thesis of Kilby's book? To reject (what Kilby regards as) Balthasar's (fallacious) omniscience, his unwarranted presumption of `a God's eye perspective', implies (intentionally or unintentionally) omniscience, not an omniscience of perspective but an omniscience of wisdom: `a God's mind wisdom'.
In other words Kilby's claim is to know what Balthasar does not: that his methodology is deceiving and hubristic. Her assessment argues greater skill, acumen, insight and discernment to be able to understand, dissect and assess Balthasar's method. (Although in reality much of Karen Kilby's analysis appears misconceived and mistaken, indeed it appears to manifest an almost vitriolic - though ungrounded - antipathy towards her subject. This evident lack of appreciation necessarily means a failure truly to engage with Balthasar's theological contribution.)
As the focus of Karen Kilbly's attack is not on this or that theological construct within Balthasar's work but on the methodological foundation upon which Balthasar's entire theological project rests, she leaves her readers with no alternative than to decide the issue on the basis of the credentials of either author, rather than between two fairly conducted arguments. This is always so where the conflict is between two fundamental positions, where the debate rages over opposed absolutes, when it is methodology rather than conclusions that are in review. The nature of Kilby's assault means we are forced to choose to trust either one or other protagonist, not on the basis of rational argument but on the basis of holistic credibility, of their `gestalt' if you will - the very thing characterising Balthasar's project that Kilby rejects. You choose: Balthasar or Kilby?