Fr Aidan Nichols, the Prior of Blackfriar's Cambridge, will be a Visiting Professor at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne from 19-30 April 2004.
Fr Nichols is one of the leading theologians in the English-speaking world, renowned for his knowledge of the history of theological ideas and his special interest in the revival of Catholic culture.
At the Institute he will be delivering a two-week course entitled "Introduction to the Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar". Although one of the greatest names in 20th century theology, von Balthasar is not well known in Australia, partly because his works only began to be translated into English in the 1980s. The course is therefore designed to introduce students to the major themes and methodology of the vast corpus of his publications and does not require any prior knowledge of von Balthasar's work.
Balthasar was born in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1905 into a patrician Catholic family. His father was a church architect, his mother an office bearer in the Swiss League of Catholic Women, and his sister Renee was for many years a superior-general of a Franciscan order of nuns. His family was deeply seeped in the high culture of European Catholicism and he grew up with a strong aptitude for languages and music.
His secondary education began at a Benedictine school where his love of music was fostered but he then moved on to a Jesuit school with an otherwise more demanding academic curriculum. According to his cousin Peter Henrici SJ, "a year before he graduated from high school he and two fellow students from Switzerland decided that they had had enough of the classroom and secretly matriculated in Zurich".
Balthasar began his priesthood as a Jesuit but eventually left the Society of Jesus to form his own religious community. While directing the life of this community he produced many volumes of books and papers including the seven-volume series The Glory of the Lord. This provides a rich and complex theological aesthetic, approaching God through the transcendental attribute of beauty (Glory) rather than directly through Truth and Goodness, and drawing not only upon theology but also upon the entire breadth of the European literary and religious tradition.
In a comparison of the philosophy of von Balthasar with that of John Paul II, Fr Nichols has suggested that while John Paul II's work is that of St Thomas catalysed by Max Scheler and is thus strongest in the ethical domain, Balthasar's is St Thomas fructified by Goethe and Schelling, and is therefore especially concerned with the subjectivity and interiority of the person. This territory was left largely unexplored by classical Thomism.
Balthasar's works are also often contrasted with those of contemporary Thomists, especially the Analytical Thomists commonly found in English-speaking countries. The standard comparison is that Balthasar tends to be very synthetic and interdisciplinary in his approach, while the Analytical Thomists tend to be more strictly philosophical and focused on a rigorous and piecemeal interpretation of key concepts. Thomists also tend to focus on the transcendentals of truth and goodness, while for Balthasarians there is an emphasis upon the transcendental of beauty (while not, of course, denying the importance of truth and goodness).
In this context Fr Benedict Groeschel has suggested that people characteristically have uneven attractions to the transcendentals. For some persons the pursuit of goodness is more immediately attractive than the search for truth, for others beauty may be more immediately attractive than goodness and so on. Groeschel suggests that this characteristic of human nature is of great pastoral importance.
If beauty is treated as irrelevant, or more commonly, as a luxury concern of the upper middle classes, a whole section of the faithful feel marginalised and spiritually impoverished. For many such members of the post-Conciliar generations, Balthasar's focus on the transcendental of beauty comes as a welcome relief from the emotional primitivism of what commonly passes for contemporary Catholic culture and liturgy.
Balthasar's work is also significant insofar as he was one of the original founders of the theological journal Communio now published in some 14 different languages around the world. The ecclesiology of the Communio, circle of scholars, which includes Cardinal Ratzinger and Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, owes much to his treatment of the different missions in the life of the Church, especially what he calls the Petrine, Marian and Johannine missions.
As well as being an authority on the work of von Balthasar, Fr Nichols is also well known for his book The Panther and the Hind, a theological history of Anglicanism. A number of Anglican scholars have already made inquiries about the von Balthasar course and are very welcome as students of the Institute.
The lectures will be held in the evenings from 6-9pm to accommodate those who work from 9-5. The course fee is $500 if the course is to be credited towards a Graduate Diploma or Masters degree of the John Paul II Institute, and is only $250 for those who wish to audit the course, that is, to take the lectures without completing any assessment. In order to qualify for admission to a Graduate Diploma course students require an undergraduate degree of some kind, though not necessarily one in theology or philosophy.
To enrol in the class or for more information please contact the Registrar on: (03) 9417-4349 or through firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Dr Tracey Rowland is the Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne.