"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, May 15, 2015

Von Balthasar Among the Russians

Just as, recently, it seems that everyone has suddenly "discovered" the great Russian thinker Sergius Bulgakov thanks to the translations of his works that Eerdmans has been cranking out over the last decade, so too there was a period in the 1990s when it seemed that suddenly everyone had "discovered" the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who died suddenly in 1988 days before being made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II. Journals were suddenly ablaze with all kinds of articles about von Balthasar, whom Joseph Ratzinger, preaching his funeral homily, called perhaps the most cultured man in Europe. Certainly von Balthasar's vast learning, and enormous output, made him a formidable man to grapple with. Of all this many works, he is perhaps best known for his "theological aesthetics."

In the craze to engage him, many books were written, but not, to my knowledge, many engaging him vis-à-vis the Christian East--until now: Jennifer Newsome Martin, Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 315pp. The publisher tells us the following about this book, forthcoming this October:
in Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought, Jennifer Newsome Martin offers the first systematic treatment and evaluation of the Swiss Catholic theologian’s complex relation to modern speculative Russian religious philosophy. Her constructive analysis proceeds through Balthasar’s critical reception of Vladimir Soloviev, Nicholai Berdyaev, and Sergei Bulgakov with respect to theological aesthetics, myth, eschatology, and Trinitarian discourse and examines how Balthasar adjudicates both the possibilities and the limits of theological appropriation, especially considering the degree to which these Russian thinkers have been influenced by German Idealism and Romanticism.
Martin argues that Balthasar’s creative reception and modulation of the thought of these Russian philosophers is indicative of a broad speculative tendency in his work that deserves further attention. In this respect, Martin consciously challenges the prevailing view of Balthasar as a fundamentally conservative or nostalgic thinker. In her discussion of the relation between tradition and theological speculation, Martin also draws upon the understudied relation between Balthasar and F. W. J. Schelling, especially as Schelling’s form of Idealism was passed down through the Russian thinkers. In doing so, she persuasively recasts Balthasar as an ecumenical, creatively anti-nostalgic theologian hospitable to the richness of contributions from extra-magisterial and non-Catholic sources.
“With her Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought, Jennifer Newsome Martin has produced an accomplished, literate, and original contribution that is much needed in Balthasar scholarship. To my knowledge, this is the only text on Balthasar and three important Russian Orthodox thinkers—Soloviev, Berdyaev, and Bulgakov—who engaged ancient Christianity with modern philosophical currents. Additionally, Martin brings to light aspects of Balthasar’s theological method that go beyond Balthasar’s own importance to broader issues in theology.” — Anthony C. Sciglitano, Seton Hall University

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