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Acta Theologica

On-line version ISSN 2309-9089
Print version ISSN 1015-8758

Acta theol. vol.40  suppl.29 Bloemfontein  2020 



Justice as beauty-in-action? insights from Hans Urs von Balthasar's aesthetics and dramatics1



M.J. Havenga

Department of Systematic neology and Ecclesiology Stellenbosch University ;;




This essay explores the relation between beauty and justice by turning to the thought of the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. It begins by giving an exposition of Balthasar's theological aesthetics, as developed in his work The glory of the Lord, which shows how, for Von Balthasar, earthly beauty participates in, and expresses something of God's divine glory and reaches its apex in the revelation of the beautiful form of Jesus Christ. This is then followed by an exposition of Von Balthasar's theological dramatics, as developed in his work Theo-drama, which shows how, for Von Balthasar, this beautiful form of Christ is not merely a static image, icon, or artwork but, in fact, a dynamic event, a dramatic act, an embodied performance which reveals to us, along with God's glory and beauty, God's unbounded goodness. The essay subsequently turns to questions of justice (in light of Von Balthasar's understanding of the relation between beauty and goodness), and ultimately argues that, according to Von Balthasar's thought, justice can be viewed as a form of beauty-in-action that asks to be performed in the world.

Keywords: Theological aesthetics, Theological dramatics, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Beauty, Justice

Trefwoorde: Teologiese estetika, Teologiese dramatika, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Skoonheid, Geregtigheid




Over the past few decades, there has been a renewed interest in theological conceptions of beauty, also in relation to other important theological foci such as justice (as this project confirms). One of the most influential figures behind this development is the Swiss Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar. In the latter part of the 20th century, Von Balthasar produced a seven-volume work on theological aesthetics, titled The glory of the Lord, wherein he placed beauty at the very centre of his theological thinking, and encouraged others to do the same. In subsequent works, Von Balthasar also used beauty as a foundation to explore and make sense of both goodness and truth, thereby showing how theological aesthetics is - or at least could be - relevant to almost all theological reflection.

In this essay, I will attempt to reflect on what we can learn about the relation between beauty and justice from Von Balthasar's thought. I will begin by giving an exposition of his theological aesthetics, where the focus is, ultimately, on the beautiful form of Christ. This will be followed by an exploration of how his work in theological aesthetics opens up towards, what he called, his theological dramatics, where the focus is on the enactment of the good, both by God and by humanity. This will allow us to note how Von Balthasar understood the relation between aesthetics and ethics, and why, according to his thought, justice could be viewed as a form of beauty-in-action.



Von Balthasar's seven-volume work, The glory ofthe Lord, can be described as an ambitious and, in the context of modern theology, novel attempt to "recover for Christian theology a proper aesthetic" (Wigley 2010:25). According to Von Balthasar, beauty has not only become irrelevant in and for the so-called secular world nowadays, but has also, disturbingly, been eschewed by the Christian faith (importantly, in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions). Von Balthasar (1982a:18) laments:

We no longer dare to believe in beauty and make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it.

For Von Balthasar, this repudiation of beauty, especially in contemporary Christian thought, is a devastating development that urgently needs to be remedied. For, he holds, "in a world without beauty", a world "which can no longer see it or reckon with it", the good "also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out", and the "proofs of truth" lose "their cogency" (Von Balthasar 1982a:19). In accordance with the Platonic and later also patristic and scholastic traditions, Von Balthasar believes that the three transcendentals, namely the good, the true and the beautiful,2 are intrinsically linked to one another, and that, if beauty is done away with, truth and goodness will also soon disappear into thin air. Balthasar (1982a:18) holds that beauty will

not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.

This is why, before tending to goodness and truth, Von Balthasar begins his trilogy with an attempt to develop a Christian theology in light of the "third transcendental", a Christian theology in the light of beauty.3

Von Balthasar accordingly sets out to show that beauty is not something that simply lies in the eye of the beholder, something that can be relativised and dismissed as a mere subjective sensibility, as has become commonplace in our modern day and age.4 For him, it is rather an objective reality, something which, importantly, comes to the fore in, and enraptures the onlooker through the forms of this world. This connection between beauty and form, Schönheit and Gestalt, is of the utmost importance to Von Balthasar and stands at the very heart of his aesthetics. According to him, one can only speak of beauty, if one also takes the mystery, revelatory potential, and "indissolubility" of form into account (Von Balthasar 1982a:26). For, in beholding the beautiful, one is simultaneously confronted "with both the figure and that which shines forth from the figure, making it into a ... love-worthy thing" (Von Balthasar 1982a:20). With the beautiful, there is thus a unity between that which expresses beauty and the beauty being expressed, between the visible and the invisible that is revealed, between the surface of the image and the splendour radiating forth from in and beneath this surface. It is form, in its visible materiality, that discloses beauty to us and draws us into beauty's radiant depths, while, notably, also concealing it from us, so that the invisible is not exhausted in the appearing. Von Balthasar (1982a:151) writes the following in this regard:

The beautiful is above all a form, and the light does not fall on this form from above and from outside, rather it breaks forth from the form's interior. Species and lumen in beauty are one ... Visible form not only 'points' to an invisible, unfathomable mystery; form is the apparition of this mystery, and reveals it while, naturally, at the same time protecting and veiling it. The content (Gehalt) does not lie behind the form (Gestalt), but within it ... Whoever is not capable of seeing and 'reading' the form will . fail to perceive its content. Whoever is not illuminated by the form will see no light in the content either.5

With his thought firmly grounded in the principle of the analogia entis, as taught to him by Erich Przywara,6 Von Balthasar goes on to argue that the forms of this world, and the beauty they reveal, are not closed off from the reality of the divine, but, in fact, have the potential, in their time-and-space-bound state, to analogically disclose something of the beauty of the triune God in this world. According to Von Balthasar, it is indeed in and through the finite forms of this world that the infinite beauty of God comes to expression and that the glory (doxa, as divine correlate of beauty) of God is made present on earth. Von Balthasar's theological aesthetics (and his understanding of the working of the analogia entis), is, however, not a naïve form of natural theology. For him, the only way in which God's beauty and glory can truly be perceived in this world is in the light of God's self-disclosure in the unique form of the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, the "analogia entis in person", who comes to perfect "the whole ontology and aesthetics of created being" (Von Balthasar 1982a:29).

Von Balthasar's theological aesthetics, like the rest of his theological project, can then be described as being explicitly Christocentric (Wigley 2010:32).7 According to him, Christ, the Word who became flesh, is the "super-form" (Obergestait), in and through whom the triune God's beauty is definitively revealed in the world, and in and through whom all other earthly forms and, therefore, also all earthly instances of beauty are redeemed and renewed (Von Balthasar 1982a:432).8 For Von Balthasar, the God-man, Jesus Christ, is not merely a sign pointing to the divine, but the "form of all forms", who, in the here and now, expresses the invisible God in our midst, and who brings all other forms, and the beauty they disclose, to their God-intended end. Nichols (1998:34-35) writes in this regard:

For Von Balthasar, the incarnation is precisely the pouring out of God's glory into the form of the world in one of its principal embodiments, humankind. A form is thus taken up so that God may transfigure the whole of creation. This self-revelation of God in Christ is not a mere prolongation or intensification of the revelation given with creation. The personal substance of the Father in his Word is now lavished on the world. And yet, because the creation was from the beginning orientated towards its own supernatural elevation, and because too the incarnation, taken in the fullness of its unfolding, from the annunciation, through the resurrection to the Parousia, entails the bringing together of everything in heaven and on earth under one divine-human Head, it follows that the self-manifestation of God in Jesus Christ brings the form of the world to its perfection, and in that way uncovers the fullness of its significance for the first time.

All seven volumes of Von Balthasar's theological aesthetics are accordingly concerned with the seeing of the Gestait Christi as the definitive revelation of God's glory and beauty in history, which in-forms and trans-forms all other earthly forms and our seeing and understanding of their beauty. After the important introductory volume, titled Seeing the form, in which Von Balthasar offers a first extended reflection on the beautiful form of Jesus Christ, the second and third volumes of the work deal with twelve Christian thinkers, from the patristic period to the 20thcentury, whose theologies, according to Von Balthasar, are marked by an attentiveness to the beauty of God's revelation in the form of Christ, as well as in the forms of creation.9 The fourth and fifth volumes of The glory of the Lord deal with how different metaphysical conceptions throughout the ages either stood in service of, or hampered our perception and appreciation of divine and earthly beauty, while the last two volumes of the work focus, respectively, on the beauty of the form of revelation in the Old Testament, which, for Von Balthasar, has a "proleptic character" and reveals an anticipated Christology (Wigley 2010:37; Von Balthasar 1982a:336), and on the beautiful form of Christ in light of the writings of the New Testament.



Following this last volume of The glory of the Lord, Von Balthasar deliberately makes a transition from aesthetics to dramatics, from "theo-phany" to "theo-praxy", from seeing to doing. In the opening pages of the first volume of his theological dramatics, titled Theo-drama, Von Balthasar remarks that, if we look closely, this beautiful form of Christ, as examined in his aesthetics, is not simply a static image, icon, or artwork "crystallised in immobile perfection", but, in fact, a dynamic event, a dramatic act, an embodied performance that reveals to us, along with God's glory and beauty, God's unbounded goodness (Von Balthasar 1988:15; Nichols 2011:49). In perceiving and being drawn into the beauty of the Gestalt Christi, it indeed becomes clear that who Christ is cannot be separated from what Christ does; that God's beauty and glory are tied up with, and come to expression through Christ's actions here on earth - actions that are aimed at bringing about the good "for us" and "in us" (Von Balthasar 1988:19). Von Balthasar (1988:18) writes that there is "nothing ambiguous" about what the beautiful form of Christ does on earth: "it is simply good". According to him, we, as human beings, are also then called, in the moment of perception, when we are enraptured by the beauty of Christ, to respond through action on our own part; to follow and imitate Christ in performing the good in our own lives, and to become part of, and play our part in God's redemptive activity in the world. Von Balthasar (1988:20) holds that the "good which God does to us" can only be experienced as the truth "if we share in performing it", if we also "embody it increasingly in the world". He asserts that God's "saving drama" is not "a self-sufficient armchair drama", and that neither "faith, contemplation nor kerygma can dispense us from action" (Von Balthasar 1988:22).

By emphasising the fact that the beautiful form of Christ, as discussed throughout The glory of the Lord, is not merely an "object to be looked at", but an "action in and upon the world" (Von Balthasar 1988:15), which "requires a self-involving response of engaged action from ourselves" (Nichols 2000:12), Von Balthasar affirms, once more, that the transcendental category of the beautiful is intrinsically linked to the transcendental category of the good, and that any reflection on aesthetics should, therefore, open up to a reflection on ethics. It is this connection between aesthetics and ethics, between beauty and goodness, which prompts Von Balthasar to embark on an extensive theological engagement with the one art form, which, according to him, has the unique ability to convey and make visible the performative nature of the beautiful. This art form - as hinted to above - is drama. Contrary to many theological voices throughout history, Von Balthasar (1988:12) believed that the theatre could be viewed as one of the most "promising point[s] of departure" for theology, as it offers, according to him, "a framework and a set of resources for thinking, not only of the whole of history, but of the whole of history in relation to God, and God in relation to history" (Kilby 2009:58).

When reading through Von Balthasar's Theo-drama, a work in which he sets out to produce a theological dramatic theory centred on the good, we note how the initial two volumes primarily focus on, and attempt to give an exposition of the critical intersections and correspondences between drama, as performed on the theatre stage, and the drama of real life, as it is acted out on the world stage. Von Balthasar is particularly interested in how the theatre offers us language to describe our individual and communal lives on earth, while also serving as a mirror that reflects and thereby "illuminates" the drama of human existence (Von Balthasar 1988:18). According to Von Balthasar (1988:10, 17-18, 259), one of the great benefits of the theatre, also for theology, is that it shines a "ray of light into the confusion of reality", helping humanity, as actors on the world stage, to better understand and come to new convictions about the role that they have been called to play in their day-to-day lives. At the outset, Von Balthasar's theoiogicai dramatic theory is thus mainly concerned with the dramas in which we, as human beings, partake in on earth, whether in the theatre itself, or on the stage of life.

As his theoiogicai dramatic theory progresses, Von Balthasar, however, increasingly turns to more theological subject matter. From the third volume of Theo-drama onwards, he deliberately embarks on an extensive exploration of the dramatic performance of Christ on the world stage. Just as Von Balthasar, in his aesthetics, describes the Gestait Christi as the "form of all forms", he now describes the Drama Christi as the "drama of all dramas", which serves as the all-defining turning point in history, as it brings about redemption and liberation for humanity and the whole created order. Focusing on what he views as the three distinct-yet-unified acts of the Christ-drama, namely Christ's public life and witness, which herald the kingdom of God, Christ's death on the cross, where Christ suffers for us and with us, and Christ's resurrection, where death evermore loses its sting, Von Balthasar shows how everything that Christ says and does on the world stage, while captivating us with its beauty, demonstrates to, and can be viewed as dramatic embodiments of God's goodness. In Christ, Von Balthasar argues, beauty and goodness indeed coincide and come to expression in and through one other. The more we see and are drawn to Jesus' beauty, the more we become aware of the good that he does, the more we see and are drawn to his beauty.

For Von Balthasar, this interplay between beauty and goodness, between form and performance, as well as between aesthetics and ethics has a transformative effect on the onlooker. Von Balthasar indeed believes that any encounter with Christ, whether in Holy Scripture, or in another person, or even, perhaps, through the arts, serves as an invitation to a life that participates in, expresses, and points towards the reality of Christ. He holds that the resurrection of Christ opens up a new acting area where all are encouraged and enabled, through the Spirit, to share in and re-perform the missio Christi through the dramas of their own lives. Von Balthasar (1990:91) asserts that "God does not play the world drama alone [but] makes room for humanity to join in the acting". He thus believes that, as we are enraptured by the beauty of the form of Christ, and come to recognise this beauty as a beauty that is tied to and continuously translates into the performance of the good, we are also called and sent into the world to live a life that speaks of and expresses both God's beauty and goodness, so that - as he argues in his Theo-logic, the third instalment of his trilogy -the world can know the truth and believe (see, for example, Von Balthasar 2000a:9).



But what about justice? Does Von Balthasar's conception of goodness also pertain to sociopolitical and economic realities? Could we, perhaps, speak of justice as a form of beauty-in-action?

The answer to these questions is, undoubtedly, "Yes". Even though Von Balthasar cautioned against reducing the redemptive work of God, in toto, to the realm of the political, and, like his friend and colleague in Basel, Karl Barth,10 critiqued what he regarded as certain promethean tendencies in liberationist thought (Von Balthasar 1982b), he was convinced that any talk of God's beauty and goodness, as embodied and performed by Christ and those following in Christ's footsteps, should involve and relate to the "social and political dimensions" of human existence (Von Balthasar 1988:119). Already in the opening section of Theo-drama, Von Balthasar (1988:37-40) identifies "political theology", concerned with the liberation of the oppressed, as one of the building blocks of his theological dramatic theory. In his investigation of the relationship between the theatre stage and the world stage, Von Balthasar (1988:413-480) also mentions and explores various dramatic representations of justice from the time of antiquity onwards. It is, however, above all in his extended consideration of the beautiful form of Christ's performance of the good on the world stage, as well as humanity's dramatic response to this performance, where the concept of justice comes to play a vital role in his thinking.

Von Balthasar, for example, believes that one of the central features of Jesus' public life and ministry, which, while drawing onlookers in through its beauty, reveals God's goodness to the world, is the way in which he enters into solidarity with and, importantly, brings about justice for those who suffer poverty, hunger, tears, and persecution (Von Balthasar 1994:210; 2014:444, 445).11 According to him, Christ does not only speak about the coming kingdom of God, but performs this kingdom, by siding with and uplifting those who have been marginalised, exploited, and are being treated unjustly by the powerful and the rich. This is why he is brought to the cross. Von Balthasar furthermore believes that, while the cross brings amends for our sins, it also serves as the ultimate sign of protest against the injustices of this world. Von Balthasar (1988:456) writes that, during Christ's death on the cross, he takes upon himself and cries out against all the injustices throughout history. This cry is indeed then answered in the resurrection, an event that signals, once and for all, that the coming of God's righteous kingdom cannot be stopped; that suffering, death and destruction will not have the final say in this world, and that God's beauty, goodness, and - indeed - justice will ultimately prevail. According to Von Balthasar (2000b:53; 1994:363), the resurrection causes nothing short of a "revolution" in world history, a "revolution" that becomes "operative" wherever sin, death and injustice reign supreme.

While Von Balthasar indeed believed that the Christ-drama, in all its beauty and goodness, cannot solely be understood in sociopolitical terms, he was convinced that it did include, and have a transformative effect on the material realities of people's lives. This is why, when discussing our response to, and re-enactment of the beauty and goodness of Christ in the fourth volume of Theo-drama, Von Balthasar (1994:422) particularly emphasises that followers of Christ should press "for the removal of injustices", counter "racial discrimination", fight against the "repression of classes or people", work towards the fair "distribution of goods", and bring about hope "for the poor and the oppressed". For Von Balthasar, in performing these actions, we express and, in fact, continue to encounter the beauty and goodness of God in this world:

Whoever is concerned about the demolition of injustice, lovelessness, and hard-heartedness in any shape or form - by helping the poor, by really taking up the cause of the rights of the proletariat ... by fighting for the elimination of war, of nationalism, of racial hatred, or against whatever there is of unbearable injustice in the world -stands right at the place where one encounters God (quoted in De Gruchy 2009:131).

According to Von Balthasar, it can thus be said that, where justice is done, the good comes to expression, and where the good comes to expression, beauty shines forth, and vice versa - something that is, above all, seen in the drama of the Christ-event. For him, justice is, therefore, an essential part of the good and, importantly, of the beautiful. In bringing about God's justice in the world, we are indeed not only enacting the good, but also expressing "the beauty reflected in the Christ-form" - which means that it is certainly appropriate to speak of justice as a form of beauty-inaction, justice as a form of beauty-being-performed (De Gruchy 2009:133).



In this article, I began by exploring Von Balthasar's conception of beauty in his pioneering work in theological aesthetics, and indicated how, for him, the Gestalt Christi can be viewed as the definitive expression of divine beauty on earth, which in-forms and trans-forms all other earthly forms and our seeing and understanding of their beauty. Next, I discussed Von Balthasar's transition from aesthetics to dramatics, as the beautiful form of Christ is not merely a static image, icon, or artwork, but a dynamic performance, which, along with God's glory and beauty, also reveals God's goodness to the world. It was noted how, for Von Balthasar, aesthetics is intrinsically connected to ethics, which means that any talk of beauty should also include words on goodness. Lastly, it was shown how, for Von Balthasar, the doing of the good, above all by the beautiful form of Christ, includes the bringing about of justice, which means that justice can be viewed as a form of beauty-in-action - something that asks to be performed in the world. How exactly this "performance" would look, also in this time marked by, for example, the Covid-19 pandemic and a renewed awareness of the injustices underlying societies all over the world, is something that needs to be discerned and worked out in future scholarly work, but especially in real-life contexts, as we increasingly come to follow the source and ground of all earthly goodness and beauty, namely Jesus Christ.



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Date received: 4 June 2020
Date accepted: 28 July 2020
Date published: 30 November 2020



1 This article will partly draw on research related to my dissertation. The dissertation is titled Performing Christ: A South African protest play and the theological dramatic theory of Hans Urs von Balthasar, can be accessed here: [accessed 21 August 2020].
2 For an informative discussion on the history of these and other "transcendental categories of being", and how they have been construed and used by Von Balthasar, see Van Erp (2004).
3 The first line of the foreword to Von Balthasar's The glory of the Lord, Volume I reads: "We here attempt to develop a Christian theology in light of the third transcendental, that is to say: to complement the vision of the true and the good with that of the beautiful (pulchrum)". See Von Balthasar (1982a:9).
4 This is mostly a result of the way in which someone such as Immanuel Kant relegated beauty "to the realm of the non-real, the realm of subjectivity and taste". See Garret (2013:62), especially Immanuel Kant's divine correlate of earthly beauty.
5 Garret (2013:68) notes that Von Balthasar uses the Thomistic terms "species" and "lumen" interchangeably with "forma" and "splendour" (or form and beauty). For more on Aquinas' own use of these terms, see Eco (1998).
6 The principle of the analogia entis affirms an ontological continuity-amidst-discontinuity between God and creation. It found its classical expression in the work of Thomas Aquinas, and was revived in the previous century by Erich Przywara, one of Von Balthasar's mentors while studying philosophy at Pullach near Munich. See Przywara (2014) and Long (2011).
7 Von Balthasar was greatly influenced by Karl Barth in this regard. See, for example, Oakes (1994:45-71). It is important to note that - as was the case with Barth - this Christocentric vision did not keep Von Balthasar from taking seriously, entering into dialogue with, and learning from other philosophical and/or religious positions, but in fact enabled him to engage with these positions from out of the particularity of Christian revelation. Like his mentor at the seminary at Fourvière, Henri de Lubac, Von Balthasar would indeed be very open to entering in conversation with philosophical and religious ideas from all over the world, including the Far East. See, for example, Sohn (2018), as well as the fascinating new monograph by Brown (2020). See also Von Balthasar's interesting booklet Truth is Symphonic (1987), wherein he argues for, what he calls, a "Christian pluralism".
8 This understanding of the wide-reaching scope and depth of the incarnation, grounded in the thought of Patristic thinkers such as Irenaeus, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers and Maximus the Confessor, has come to influence many contemporary reflections on the matter. Von Balthasar's Christology is, for example, regularly invoked in discussions surrounding someone such as Niels Gregersen's notion of "deep incarnation". See Gregersen (2015:178, 185-194, 200, 217-218, 372).
9 Von Balthasar (1984:13, 20) writes that his aim is to present a "series of Christian theologies and world-pictures of the highest rank, each of which, having been marked at its centre by the glory of God's revelation, has sought to give the impact of this glory a central place in its vision". He states that this "is naturally, not to deny that, between these twelve figures picked out as typical, there is not a host of others who could have clarified the intellectual and historical relations and transitions between them and would in themselves also have been worthy of presentation". The twelve figures, who are divided into theologians working from within formal church structures (which he calls "clerical styles") and theologians working on the margins of (or even from outside) formal church structures (which he calls "lay styles"), are: Irenaeus, Augustine, Denys, Anselm, Bonaventure (as "clerical styles"), and Dante, John of the Cross, Pascal, Jakob Hamann, Vladimir Solovyov, Gerald Manley Hopkins, and Charles Péguy (as "lay styles").
10 For more on Von Balthasar and Barth's friendship, see Long (2014).
11 See Nichols (2000:157).

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