Presence and Thought (Balthasar)

Von Balthasar’s Argument: our being is rooted in time and is a “becoming in infinity,” or creaturely infinity. This doesn’t mean the creature is infinite, but has the capacity for endless growth. Since we can never fully “grasp” God, “there arises Being itself” (von Balthasar 22). Out failure to grasp it conceptually brings “a feeling of presence” (Gregory In Cant. II; 1, 1001 B).

gregory nyssa

There are two infinities for Gregory. One is the infinity proper of God, which can never be applied to the creature. The other is the “infinity of growth in man.” In heaven, the soul is always moving towards God, yet because God will always be “beyond” the soul in heaven, the soul will always be growing. The self “perpetually surpasses the self” (Balthasar 45).

Spirit and Matter

This section is hard. Throughout this chapter von Balthasar will say things like “sensory knowledge is the foundation of spiritual knowledge.” As it stands, besides the statement being laughably false; no early Christian (or pagan) thinker would have said something like that. So he must mean something else. What I think he means is that the divisions between spirit and matter become so porous that they can be switched. We can almost speak of a materialization of the soul (which Balthasar says explains ghosts in cemeteries–those people who had given themselves over to matter).

Our knowledge is rooted in time and “the creature can never go outside itself by means of a comprehensive knowledge” (Gregory, Contra Eunomius 12; II, 1064 CD). We know the logos of a thing by an ascensional movement towards the logos (Balthasar 93). It is ana-logical (upward-to-the-logos).

Every limit involves an essence beyond it (98). This means the soul can only rest in the infinite. Knowledge by representation takes us right to the limit. One can never be face-to-face with God because that would place the knower “opposite” to God, and anything opposite to the good is evil (102). Therefore, in order to see God we must see “the back parts of God.”

Gregory sees our knowing God as imaging God and he sometimes sees the image as an active mirror, “whose interior activity is entirely ‘surface’” (115). Indeed, “image-mirror-life” are the three terms that “designate the whole created medium that allows the soul to see God” (116).

Balthasar has the interesting suggestion that Gregory rejected the distinction between image and likeness, since image for Gregory was dynamic (117-118).

The Incarnation reconciles the opposites and contraries of human nature. Becoming, to be sure, is contrary to Being, but it is not negatively so anymore. Now, notes Balthasar, we can summarize this book in three points:

1) The immediate communication between God and man is now rendered accessible (147).
2) This fact is a social fact; our nature is “common.”
3) This dynamism requires a free response on man’s part.

This is a rich and learned work. Von Balthasar captures the nuances of Gregory’s thought. Some passages are exquisite in their beauty.

Key Terms

Spacing: the exterior limit–finite being’s being “enveloped” by the infinite. It is the receptacle of the material being (29ff). Spacing is the mode of creaturely being. It is the same thing as diastesis/diastema.

Time: a progress by alteration (31). It is a tension directed towards its end but always within “the bounding limit” of spacing.

Concrete universal: priority of genus over individual (65).

Epinoia: subjective representation which does not reach the essence of a thing (91). It is an “inventive approach to the unknown.” It is the middle term between dominance and ignorance.

Dianoia: human intelligence in its entirety; no distinction between inferior and superior reason.


2 comments on “Presence and Thought (Balthasar)

  1. cal says:

    This is an excellent (albeit brief) review of an excellent work. I’m curious how Bulgakov’s notion of Sophia fits within the idea of two infitinies, creaturely and uncreated. I know some have said that HuvB is able to do what Bulgakov wanted to do without resorting to an additional concept (perhaps keeping Sophia Christological, as per Origen and many Fathers). I’m not sure, I do find Bulgakov an interesting middle between Barthian radicalism and the seemingly Catholic analogia entis. Can we speak of an analogia sapientiae(sophiae)? Does this keep the Palamite concern while advancing to the brilliance of nouveau theologie?

    Any thoughts would be of interest.



Comments are closed.