Examples of how Peirce’s semiotics lend philosophical credibility to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s idea of “seeing the form” of Divine Beauty.
I. Joshua Brown: Benefits of Reading Balthasar for Comparative Theology
Strange Companions? The Possibility of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Comparative Theology by Joshua Brown
At this point we have reached a position from which we may suggest three main benefits Balthasar’s theological aesthetic offers comparative theology. First, Balthasar’s theological aesthetics offers an extremely helpful avenue for thinking about non-Christian texts, especially those of South and East Asian lineage.
There is no need here to rehearse the various criticisms about the concept of “religion” and how it effects the study of non-Christian traditions; we can here simply point out that viewing traditions such as Islam, Confucianism, and Hinduism as “religions” can easily draw attention to propositional differences with Christianity, or make one so keen to avoid conflict that the propositional content of Christian proclamation is diminished.
The theological aesthetic imagination cultivated in reading Balthasar shifts focus toward the cultural embodiment of religious doctrine and commitment as the idiom of the encounter with God.
This is an instinct developed throughout Balthasar’s corpus, which as often commends a Cervantes or Claudel as it does St. Irenaeus or St. Bonaventure. For the comparative theologian, this sort of focus on aesthetics, cultural embodiment, and practice can allow fuller insight into what aspects of non-Christian religious traditions can be incorporated into the Gospel.
The comparative theologian is able to give the same answer as St. Thomas to the crucifix as San Domenico: “Lord, I want nothing but yourself.” Such a dispositional foundation enriches comparative theology, as can be seen in Clooney’s book His Hiding Place is Darkness and indeed his theology in general. This book does not issue a challenge to Christianity that it has failed in a certain notional or practical aspect that must now be corrected by a heretofore-untested comparative reading. Rather, Clooney speaks of the experience of the grieved lover striving for the beloved, and seeks to explore this experience in greater fullness. Whereas a deficiency model of comparative theology would draw its power from limiting and critiquing its own tradition, Clooney’s model can explore the depths of both Christianity and Hinduism, all in the language of love. Hence, Clooney grounds his expansive comparative work “in the specificity and particularity” of his own enduring love for Jesus Christ. The foundation of love allows to delve deeply into the particularity of his Christian eros and draw Hindu wisdom within this eros, rather, than set it aside for the sake of a totalizing theological intellectual grammar.
I have simply endeavored to show how Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology is full of promise for the comparative theologian. Even though Balthasar himself was not trained in any comparative method and shows little ability to have done so, his theological perspective is such that it inspires deep, rich, and meaningful theological readings of non-Christian traditions. Because Balthasar sees revelation not in terms of propositions, but in terms of the divine Gestalt that approaches us, the form is itself infinite, and able to accept configurations that seem alien to it at first. Because Balthasar sees the Gestalt as founded in and testifying to Christ, it allows the comparative theological task that invaluable central anchor, informing us at all times about what sort of portrait we are composing, and allowing us a way to perceive what gives life to our reading of non-Christian texts. And, because Balthasar sees the encounter with revelation in terms of ecstatic aesthetic experience, it makes room for the loving heart to take up non-Christian testimony in understanding, perceiving, and describing the Gestalt of God.
The Community of the Beautiful is not simply an analysis of Balthasar’s theology; there exists a more personal and concrete reason for a reconsideration of the connection between God and the beautiful. The experience of a particular living ecclesial tradition, the Latin Church of the Americas, may be a guide to a world that lost its confidence in the religious dimensions of the beautiful.
Garcia-Rivera recasts the question of theological aesthetics posed above in light of the religious experience of the Latin Church of the Americas so that the question becomes: What moves the human heart?
To answer that question, Garcia-Rivera draws on along-ignored philosophical tradition. The philosophical semiotics of Charles Peirce and Josiah Royce enter into dialogue with the theological aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar to describe the traditional transcendentals, the True and the Good, as communities. The final transcendental, the beautiful, enters into conversation with the semiotic aesthetics of Jan Mukarovsky and the religious experience of the Latin American Church to become the dazzling Vision of the community of the beautiful, God’s community.
If we adopt a contemplative phenomenology that more broadly conceives religious epistemology beyond the traditional philosophical categories of epistemic justification (empirical and logical) and normative praxes (ethical, moral and practical) to include other indispensable human values as well, such as the esthetic, affective, aspirational, relational, and other embodied aspects of all that humans experience as true, good, beautiful, unitive & liberative, then these additional perspectives will contribute to a more holistic (hence, authentic) anthropology.
In a reality that is radically graced, pervasively incarnational, profusely pneumatological, we are perhaps guided more so by Beauty and Goodness to hold these types of beliefs as Truth and not so much by metaphysical proofs.
Nowhere in our argument do we presume the doctrine of soteriological universalism. As with Balthasar (1988) and Barth (see Colwell 1992), we might even hope for such, but in the end, given the creaturely freedom to resist even divine grace— as incomprehensible as such resistance might be—it remains possible that some might not be finally saved.