In his early synthesis, the multi-volume Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (1937–1939), Hans Urs von Balthasar is highly critical of the modern German epistemological starting point, namely, Kant's transcendental subject which he equates with a promethean drive towards identity with the infinite.1 Balthasar's criticism focuses specifically on the Idealist interpretation of the conscious horizon of man as the locus of the Absolute trying to realize itself by way of finite subjectivity. As is well known, this movement of the Absolute entails that the subject is de facto the locus of divine self-realization.2 On account of this understanding, thinking emerges not only as the vehicle for the self-interpretation of the Absolute but also that which makes possible the disclosure of truth.3 The orientation of thought, with respect to the modern turn to subjectivity as the measure of the real, is thus ordered to attain absolute knowledge, shape and assign meaning to the world, unveil all mystery, and interpret history. Priority for modern German thinkers, according to Balthasar, is thus given to the creative possibilities of anthropocentric thought.4 Consequently, the quest for knowledge of a thing in itself, the presumed endeavor of traditional metaphysics, is to be abandoned; for all that can ever be known about an object depends on the determination of the human knower.5 In short, radical imbalances emerge in modernity. On the one hand, the relationship between subject and object is manipulated such that the world of objects, indeed reality itself, is measured according to the subjective lens that determines it.6 On the other hand, given the priority of the subject, the infinite is perhaps for the first time in western history understood to be dependent on the finite for its own self-interpretation. The young Balthasar perceived clearly the dangers of such thought and suggests that this promethean tendency in German philosophy borders on the demonic precisely because it betokens an identity between the infinite God and finite subjectivity, indeed a dependence of God on man.7 In order to rethink the meaning and orientation of thought, i.e., to move from the modern emphasis on the subject as a necessary vehicle for the realization of the infinite to an interpretation of subjectivity as oriented to and radically dependent upon the infinite, Balthasar subjects the moderns under his lens to a critique that originates with his retrieval of the fathers, most notably Gregory of Nyssa.8 In the following essay, the focus will be on Balthasar's retrieval of Gregory of Nyssa's understanding of thought, especially as this retrieval is understood to be a response to, indeed a reversal of, the priority and dominance of the subject in modern German thought.
Balthasar's monograph on Gregory of Nyssa, Présence et Pensée: Essai sur la philosophie religieuse de Grégoire de Nysse is an extended analysis of the essence, limit, and liberation of finite human thought in relation to the infinite.9 In order to explicate this relationship between finite and infinite, Balthasar grounds it in what he understands to be Gregory's identification of God with Being.10 Accordingly, Balthasar argues that in Gregory's theological works Being does not mean the totality, or equivalent, of intelligible reality [nous, or that which can be known], which is the prevalent doctrine of neoplatonism.11 Nor is Being to be understood in the sense of ousia, which Balthasar identifies as the essence of a thing, that is, the presence of universals in particulars, making it possible to distinguish beings one from the other.12 Rather, according to Balthasar, Gregory identifies God with Being [to einai].13 This identification implies an understanding of God as the power of existence, or the ‘to be’ of beings. In other words, Being is God precisely as that mysterious power [dunamis] that is unable to be grasped conceptually yet causes all things to be by imparting existence or life participatedly.14 Gregory's understanding of Being, therefore, is connected not simply to a realm of essences or ideas but to the nature or power of existence. Balthasar's whole study of Gregory on thought flows from this principle of Being as the power of existence and how this principle determines the meaning, direction, and limit of thought. But how does Balthasar account for Gregory's understanding of God qua Being? To understand better this identification of God with Being, one must explicate Balthasar's reading of Gregory on the logoi.
Interestingly, Balthasar echos the platonic maxim that God creates according to certain dynamic spiritual principles or powers [noetas] that are the very universals, or forms, that make thought possible.15 These powers are both intelligible reality [nous] and the creative powers of God, as they are constitutive of all that is and without which nothing can be: ‘Apart from these concepts (logoi) nothing more remains.’16 Yet, according to Balthasar's reading of Gregory, these ‘logoi,’ which are the forms of Plato and the neoplatonists, do not create independently but rather are dependent on God qua the one who creates by means of these perfections or forms. Balthasar asserts: ‘For God alone is able to give a particular life to his ideas.’17 And so the forms/powers/universals, etc., are the logoi of God, that is, those principles by which God imparts existence to all beings.18 However, they are not God himself. Again, they are everywhere present in creation making things to be precisely as the creative powers of God's thought.19 Yet, God as to einai is beyond these.
According to Balthasar, Gregory of Nyssa understands the logoi as universals that are spiritually fecund, making sensible objects be what they are and making things cognizable for the human knower in virtue of being the principles of intellection.20 If one is only able to know anything according to these logoi, every thought must therefore imply God. For it is God who both causes the logoi to be and who remains present in creation through his logoi. However, an understanding of this metaphysic does not mean that God can be ‘seized’ by the mind as it cogitates according to the forms. Rather, God can be said to awaken the mind to thought. That is to say, God beckons the thinking mind to himself in the very act of enabling thought. Contrary to Fichte and, one suspects, all the Idealists, there is in this Balthasarian insight a passive dimension to the rational thinking person insofar as the person receives the form from objects which give themselves to be known through them. For Gregory (and Balthasar), thought must be directed to God who, precisely as to einai, gives himself to be known in every being.21 Significantly, Balthasar finds that Gregory's identification of God with Being, that is, Being understood as the power of existence, provides him the key to the fundamental orientation of human thought (i.e., towards God qua Being), as well as a profound means by which to address the modern German thinkers under his critical lens in Apokalypse der deutschen Seele. More precisely, since thought's ultimate horizon in the quest for meaning must be oriented to the very source and possibility of thought, namely God, any turn to the human subject as the measure of the real is a grave falling away from one of the fundamental truths of human existence, that if thought can only be true to itself by turning to God for knowledge of the truth of Being, thinking is thus moribund when it turns away from God.
Having established Balthasar's basic interpretation of Gregory's understanding of the meaning of finite thought in terms of dependence on God and God's dynamic principles of creation – an interpretation that departs from the modern German philosophical starting point insofar as finite thought is understood to be radically dependent on God and not vice versa– Balthasar deepens his critique of the modern German presentation of thought from three angles. Balthasar understands these three angles not as distinct analyses but as three ways of looking with greater precision at the same issue; namely, the meaning of thought as it emerges in the encounter between finite man and the infinite God.22
The first angle of Gregory's interpretation of thought worked out by Balthasar is that while thought is grounded in Being, indeed made possible by it, precisely as a passive receptor of the logoi, thinking is nevertheless not static but dynamically ordered to go out of itself in search of meaning and truth. This egressive orientation of thought, which suggests movement as the basic activity of thought, leads Balthasar to interpret thought not only as a horizontal ‘being-there’ that is best described as a pure potentiality (la potentialité pure)—what one might call the passive dimension that is capable of receiving the logos—but also as an ascending movement of desire. However, for created beings this movement of the desiring mind entails that thought is subject to time and space [diastema]. Yet, there is a clarification to be made between the movement of human beings who are comprised of matter and spirit and the movement of pure spiritual, i.e., angelic, beings. On the one hand, Balthasar avers that diastema, or ‘spacing,’ is a condition that entails non-identity with God. It is therefore applicable to the material world alone since time and space represent limit and finitude and this cannot be said of God. Balthasar writes: ‘The time that is unfolded is limited, or, better still, it is the limit itself of material being. There is no such thing as undefined time, because there is no such thing as undefined material being.’23 On the other hand, Balthasar acknowledges that because spiritual beings are themselves linked to creation, the process of movement must pertain to them as well. Yet, the direction of their movement, namely, an always already openness to the infinite rather than a definitive end or limit, e.g., death, is what distinguishes them. Movement is thus characteristic of all creatures. Yet, Balthasar asserts that while time/finitude is the proper dimension of material existence, spiritual existence, which finds its source in God, is open to an infinite horizon.24 Man is thus a paradox. Bound by the finite borders of material existence, he is nevertheless aware of the infinite, which haunts his steps and beckons him constantly to transcend himself.
It is the case, therefore, that for Balthasar the mutability of human beings is manifest in the inescapable necessity of movement towards God, a necessity that follows upon man's catching sight of Being in its appearance in the world. Such mutability, or movement, is the very thing that carries man to God. However, God is to be ‘found,’ if one can even speak of finding God, not in the concept of our own making, but in an ever-increasing desire that is proportional to our status as creatures determined in and by our state of becoming.25 The crucial point in this reading of the ineluctable status of man as one whose conscious and thinking life requires a constant movement towards Being, is that it challenges the propensity of modern German thought to interpret the infinite God as the one who ‘moves’ in order to realize himself in and through the finite subject. In Balthasar's reading of Gregory, the infinite God does not seek out man necessarily but rather beckons finite man to himself.
However, Balthasar is aware that if one understands the culmination of thought in terms of a desire that extends towards Being without being subject to conceptualization, to the ‘seizing’ of Being by the mind, then one might interpret any attempt at ‘reaching’ God to be in vain and thus to lead to hopeless disappointment. This disappointment would indeed be an appropriate response given that the mind is constituted to grasp the content of the objects it perceives. Balthasar, citing Gregory, understands this sense of frustration to be an inherent ‘agitation of spirit’ that not only pertains to its failed attempts to seize God but also is ‘the very nature of the spirit.’26 In other words, human thought strives to possess God, to capture him in concepts. But it is only in relenting, in overcoming one's desire to possess, that actual hope is born. Here one reaches the end of Balthasar's first angle of approach to Gregory's understanding of thought. Echoing Gregory's theory of epectasis, Balthasar, quoting Gregory, writes, ‘There is only one way of knowing transcendent power: it is in never stopping at what has been understood but in tending without rest to that which is beyond the known.’27 In other words, desiring is knowing and seeking is finding.28 Therefore, desire, or thirst for God beyond the limited frontiers of thought, is the proper direction or movement of the mind in its quest for knowledge of Being.
Balthasar plumbs more deeply into Gregory's understanding of thought by examining it from a different angle, i.e., from the perspective of the image of God present in, and constitutive of, man. In doing so, he shifts his analysis from the egressive orientation of thought to the meaning of the inner dimension of consciousness. Working out this perspective constitutes the second approach to thought that Balthasar garners from the philosophy of Gregory and that he uses to counteract the tendencies of modern German thought.
Balthasar identifies the image of God in every person in terms of the presence of spirit/reason and love.29 On the one hand, Balthasar understands spirit as ‘that capacity to see through everything, a capacity that is properly divine.’30 Thus, spirit is the capacity each person has to perceive what is constitutive of all beings, namely the logos and, ultimately, that everything has its origin in God. Spirit is, in some way, thought. On the other hand, love, according to Balthasar, is given by the Creator ‘as the expression of our human temperament.’31 What this means is that love expressed enables the presence of God to shine forth, since God is love. In other words, love is for Balthasar the expression of how humans can communicate the presence of God to other beings. The expression of this love entails ‘all virtues,’ which one takes to mean the presentation and extension of care towards beings. Expressing love also effects how one thinks about Being, insofar as thinking that is tempered by love entails a concern for the object of perception such that the subject allows for the object to give itself rather than manipulating the object to the subject's own interpretation. Without expressing this love, that is, without surrounding the object of perception with a loving openness, the truth of objects cannot be known. This failure to temper reason with love is precisely the tendency Balthasar sees in modern German thought. Hence, true knowledge of Being, of God, is not possible. In other words, spirit/reason can only, at best, perceive the truth of Being. Only by loving what thought has perceived, granted that the object is lovable, e.g., a human being, does one enter into the knowledge of Being, which Balthasar understands as unfolding in a relationship between beings, hence God. Thought (spirit/reason) cannot be the measure nor the determination of the real. Objects, ultimately God, are free in themselves to disclose their own truth. Being made in the image of God, therefore, must not be limited to the power of thought alone. Love, too, is the image. Love indeed perfects thought and makes true knowledge possible. For this reason, Balthasar finds it necessary to complement his study of the relationship between human thought and Being by means of the elucidation of Gregory of Nyssa's notion of man as being made in the image of God. Thus one notices a symbiotic relationship between these two ‘goods of the divinity,’ which work in tandem to enable one not only to perceive the meaning of thought but also to come to an authentic understanding of the truth of Being.32 The failure by the modern Germans to perceive this necessary relationship between reason/spirit and love makes illusory their unshakeable confidence in their philosophical system. Finally, the further significance of this second angle that Balthasar presents is that it supports the earlier point made that the orientation of thought, having perceived the infinite presence of the truth of Being, is to go out of itself in a loving search for God.
Having approached thought from these two angles of desire and image, there still remains another angle to this retrieval. This angle involves Balthasar's elucidation of the Incarnation and its impact on the meaning of thought. This third aspect mined from Balthasar's reading of Gregory is the most distinctively Christian dimension of the encounter between finite man and the infinite God at the level of thought, as well as the complete reversal of the modern philosophical point of departure. To Balthasar, no longer is religious philosophy ‘a question of knowing how the soul is able to approach God but of learning how, in fact, God has approached us.’33 Yet, as we shall see below, this ‘approach’ has less to do with any need on the part of God who is complete in himself. Rather, the need of man for a savior is what moves God to draw near to man through Christ. Thus, having established with the first two angles that thought is inextricably grounded in, oriented towards, and dependent upon God for meaning and direction, Balthasar is able to position himself in opposition to the moderns. Having retrieved Gregory of Nyssa's interpretation of thought in order to establish his own position on the question of thought, Balthasar is then able to consider how, if at all, one can speak of the Absolute moving in and through the finite to realize itself. For Balthasar, such a discussion is possible only in terms of the Incarnation.
Balthasar speaks of the Incarnation as ‘a veritable immersion of the eternal in time.’34 Because Christ's Incarnation entailed the assumption of a human nature, even though his nature is not to be identified as human nature in the general sense, Balthasar asserts that Christ ‘touched nature in its entirety’ and communicated to it ‘grace, resurrection, and divinization.’35 This dimension of the Incarnation suggests to Balthasar that man was subject to the passions and was irretrievably bound to turn away from God and toward sin. Sin has become the condition of nature, as the image is lost. The proof of this, for Balthasar, is that even though the image of God implanted in humans was never really entirely severed from human nature – or else it would simply cease to be at all—still, upon death all human beings are subject to dissolution; which is in complete opposition to that infinite and boundless aspect of human nature made in the image of God. In this sense, it is quite true to say that the image is (or tends towards being) lost, especially when seen in the light of death. The significance of such an interpretation, which echoes Gregory's understanding of Christ as the one who alone brings to humanity the full integrity of its nature, is that it enables Balthasar to speak of a real egress of the infinite God in finite time, yet an egress that is motivated by love for fallen man and not the realization of absolute knowledge.
Accordingly, Balthasar writes that human nature has been altered by God's eruption into history. This history not only has a new center but a new point of direction for human thought. This new point of direction is neither man nor the world, but is tied inexorably to Jesus of Nazareth. A love of Jesus, therefore, emerges in Balthasar's thought as the ultimate horizon for human thought: ‘In order to appropriate its new ‘nature,’ transformed as it is by Christ (), humanity must become conscious of its new center and carry out in him and through him that supreme synthesis of death and life … the Christian must himself pass away through Christ, by means of his attitude of free acceptance.’36 What is this death that must be borne by every human person? It is nothing less than a free assimilation to Christ by the ‘putting to death’ of the old nature and handing over the whole self to God with Christ.37 To Balthasar, this death also signifies a call to abandon any interpretation of the subject as the measure of the real.
Finally, the Incarnation reveals that in God's coming to us there is movement with God after all. Yet, for Balthasar, unlike the understanding of his Idealist predecessors, this movement is a movement of love that originates with the infinite freedom of God rather than any dependence or need for finite subjectivity. Indeed, Balthasar completes his retrieval of Gregory of Nyssa on thought with the conclusion that he could not have made at the beginning of Présence et Pensée—lest his reading of Gregory be guilty of an Idealist reading; namely, God/Being is to be identified with a super-becoming and that becoming, understood as the ever-extending dimension of love towards God, is the final identification of man's thought which reflects his being made in the image of God: ‘Through the Incarnation we learn that all the unsatisfied movement of becoming is itself repose and fixity compared to that immense movement of love inside of God: Being is a Super-Becoming. In constantly surpassing ourselves, therefore, through our love, we assimilate ourselves to God much more intimately than we could have suspected.’38 And so, God descends towards us so that we might go out of ourselves in search of God. Human beings are thus called to substitute their own thought about God with an adoring return of love to God. This movement of love, moreover, has been given meaning and direction by Christ, i.e., meaning and direction by a concrete person and not some abstract idea taken to be the infinite God, and constitutes the ultimate horizon of thought.
In conclusion, Balthasar's study of Gregory is evidence that Balthasar applies the insights gained from this great church father in order to engage the modern Germans on the question of thought. What one learns from Présence et Pensée is that thought is inextricably grounded in, made possible by, and dependent upon God. As this essay demonstrated, while open to an infinite horizon, finite thought is limited by its incapacity to give meaning to its experience and therefore is utterly dependent on God, who alone brings hope. God brings hope by enabling the human person to know Being, that is, to know God by means of thinking and loving. Such modes of being human are analogous in some way to Godself since they constitute for Balthasar what it means to say that man is made in the image of God. Yet, thinking and loving require an extension of oneself towards Being. Such an understanding turns the modern German interpretation of finite thought on its head since the locus of dependence for knowledge rests with God and not finite subjectivity. Still, as this essay demonstrated, Balthasar is able to speak of the movement of God towards his creatures. We see this with Balthasar's retrieval of Gregory's understanding of the egressive dimension of a God who not only creates but who sustains that creation by means of his creative powers (the logoi), which are the principles by which one comes to know God. Yet, one's coming to know God is given the most concrete expression in the Incarnation. God does, therefore, enter into the finite realm in the concrete form of Jesus Christ. But God freely enters out of love for fallen humanity and not out of any necessity or dependence on human finite subjectivity. This last point, so powerfully argued in Gregory of Nyssa's theology and subsequently retrieved and worked out by Balthasar, is, for Balthasar, an extremely effective means of engaging modern German, indeed modern Western perspectives on thought.