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No Bloodless Myth. A Guide Through Balthasar's Dramatics. (Book reviews: summaries and comments).

NICHOLS, Aidan, O. P. No Bloodless Myth. A Guide Through Balthasar's Dramatics. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2000. ix + 268 pp. Cloth, $43.95; paper, $23.95--In my previous short review of the Balthasar guide penned by the Dominican Prior of Blackfriars, Cambridge, I had included the complaint that no reference to Theodramatik is made in the discussion of the great Aesthetics. The criticism was vain, as the current book must have been well underway. In many respects this is perhaps an even better study than the previous one, and will most certainly contribute in great measure to our in-depth understanding of the innovative vision proposed by the major and increasingly influential Swiss theologian. Readers and scholars are beginning to understand better why Urs von Balthasar is so well beloved by so many, not least by the current Pope, who did all that was possible to include him in the College of Cardinals.

There is a warmth and an inclusiveness in Balthasar and in Lubac (the latter was also created a Cardinal and lived several years thereafter) that surpasses and defuses many of the current disputes (largely media-driven and media-fueled and in any case secular in origin) between "conservatives" and "liberals." Balthasar and Lubac look at such disputes from a high altitude and reduce them to the relatively tiny quibbles that they often are, a position close to that of John Paul II. (It is also providentially fortunate that such important players in the higher ecclesiastical circles as Ratzinger, Walter Kasper, Christoph von Schonborn, Francis George, and others yet, have learned much from Fr. von Balthasar). How exactly one gains such an altitude cannot be surveyed here. Instead, let us just have a quick look at Theodramatik as presented by Aidan Nichols as a case in point.

Balthasar was plainly irritated by some critiques that came out immediately after the publication of the Aesthetics which amounted to the accusation that his vision is static and fixed. Rightly so: because the second side of the panel, the dramatic-dynamic one, was just being composed and thus not available to his hasty and superficial adversaries. This second panel is (let me be frivolous for a moment) a genuine pleasure to read. The unbelievably broad erudition and reading culture of Balthasar is amply unfolded before us, in a way that manages to be both majestic and playful.

Actually the first of the five (or four--depending how you count--one volume is "double") volumes of the work (pp. 11-48 in Nichols's volume) is hardly theological at all. It is a detailed and earnestly competent presentation of what happens in drama: a phenomenology of the dramatic, if you will. The functions of author, director, actor, and audience are examined clearly and convincingly in examples that range from the Ancient Greeks and Japanese all the way to Ionesco and Brecht. Thus the foundations of the great enterprise's over-arching metaphor are laid.

From this point on, Balthasar plunges with gusto into the very heart of Trinitarianism, analyzing with tremendous love and unrivalled knowledge the interactions of the Divine Persons inside the Triune God (particularly pp. 139-84). However, Dom Nichols is plainly interested in the way in which this whole dialectic of the three hypostases--mutual engendering, reciprocal "gifting," love as action, and so forth--are also translated and transposed into the human world.

Several key points of Balthasar's masterpiece are worth repeating. One is that human freedom is a mirroring of the freedom reigning inside the Trinity, which was and remains its eternal pattern. Another is that using as a simile the elements and the behavior of theatrical activity we get an inkling, or a slightly better grasp, of what is happening on a cosmic and transcendent level, a level which always already comprises the immanent actions and destinies of ordinary, tangible creatures. Issues such as the relationship between freedom and omniscience (let alone Providence), human/divine relationships, and the like are suddenly illuminated and clarified as they have rarely been in the history of Christian doctrines. Nichols also has a good chapter on Marian theology (pp. 107-18) which has always been of powerful interest for Balthasar. I would be remiss if I did not mention that Aidan Nichols does justice to the last volume of Theodramatik, the one devoted largely to the book of Revelation, or even more generally, to the matter of the "endgame" (at the level of the individual, no less than of humanity). Balthasar was superlatively masterful in delineating with precision and delicacy the balance between the tragic and the merciful in Divine action toward humanity. Again, the parable of the theatre comes in handy, and again Nichols is correct and exact in rendering these doctrines.

Do I have critical comments? Perhaps, but always keeping in mind that a scholar such as Aidan Nichols is fully entitled to his own "take" on his subject. He is, it seems to me, more of a Thomist than Balthasar chose to be, and thus some of the latter's ludic dimensions are given short shrift. Also, probably out of a desire not to overload his text, Dom Nichols does not enumerate the multiple levels of contextualization that might have further enriched the reader's understanding of Balthasar. Thus, there is no emphasis on the Christian Neo-Platonism which is so fundamental for the whole oeuvre of Balthasar. There is no reference back to the great early nineteenth century revival (Rosmini, Balmes, and Chateaubriand are not mentioned) which offers such wonderful parallels. The neo-Orthodox movement of the Russian theologians exiled in France (and which is not that far from Theodramatik!) is not even alluded to. Balthasar's fundamental commitment to music (which, admittedly, is more obvious in Verbum Caro) is absent. However, these are, after all, good topics for other studies. We should be more than grateful for this elegant and substantial guide, which will be of much help to so many of us for so many years from now on.--Virgil Nemoianu, The Catholic University of America.
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Author:Nemoianu, Virgil
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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