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Theology and the Drama of History

How can theology think and talk about history? Building on
the work of the major twentieth-century theologian Hans Urs
von Balthasar as well as entering into sharp critical debate
with him, this book sets out to examine the value and the
potential of a ‘theodramatic’ conception of history.
By engaging in dialogue not only with theologians and
philosophers like von Balthasar, Hegel and Barth, but with
poets and dramatists such as the Greek tragedians,
Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins, the book makes its
theological principles open and indebted to literary forms,
and seeks to show how such a theology might be applied to a
world intrinsically and thoroughly historical. By contrast with
theologies that stand back from the contingencies of history
and so fight shy of the uncertainties and openness of Christian
existence, this book’s theology is committed to taking
seriously the God who works in time.
b e n q ua s h is Dean and Fellow of Peterhouse and lectures at
the Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge. He is also
Convenor of the Cambridge Interfaith Programme.

Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine

Edited by
Professor D a n i e l W. H a r d y , University of Cambridge
Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine is an important series which aims
to engage critically with the traditional doctrines of Christianity, and
at the same time to locate and make sense of them within a secular
context. Without losing sight of the authority of scripture and the
traditions of the church, the books in this series subject pertinent
dogmas and credal statements to careful scrutiny, analysing them in
light of the insights of both church and society, and thereby practise
theology in the fullest sense of the word.

Titles published in the series
1. Self and Salvation: Being Transformed
D av i d F. F o r d
2. Realist Christian Theology in a Postmodern Age
S u e P at t e r s o n
3. Trinity and Truth
Bruce D. Marshall
4. Theology, Music and Time
Jeremy S. Begbie
5. The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus
R . W. L . M o b e r ly
6. Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin
A l i s ta i r M c F a d y e n
7. Church, World and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic
N i c h o l a s M . H e a ly

8. Theology and the Dialogue of Religions
M i c h a e l Ba r n e s , SJ
9. A Political Theology of Nature
Peter Scott
10. Worship as Meaning: A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity
Graham Hughes

God, the Mind’s Desire: Reference, Reason and Christian Thinking
Paul D. Janz

12. The Creativity of God: World, Eucharist, Reason
O l i v e r D av i e s
13. Theology and the Drama of History
B e n Q ua s h
Forthcoming titles in the series
Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action and Authorship
K e v i n J . Va n h o o z e r
A Theology of Public Life
C h a r l e s T. M at h e w e s
Theology, Society and the Church
D a n i e l W. H a r d y

Theology and the
Drama of History

B e n Q ua s h
Dean and Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge

cambridge university press
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Cambridge University Press
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Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York
Information on this title:
© Ben Quash 2005
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First published in print format 2005

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This book is dedicated to my father, John,
my sisters, Samantha and Meg,
my brother, Toby,
and most of all
to my mother,


List of abbreviations

page xi



Why history matters to theology
Introducing the cast, the stage and the action
Principal conversation partners
Summary of chapters



Dramatizing theology


The genre question: the Greeks
The genre question: an emerging profile of the ‘dramatic’
The genre question: Hegel
Theodramatics contra modernity



Freedom and indifference
The cast, the stage and the action, part i


Ethical life and indifference
Saints and world-historical individuals
Indifference revisited



Epic history and the question of tragedy
The cast, the stage and the action, part ii


The ‘prosaic’ and the ‘dramatic’ in Hegel



Eschatology and the existential register
The cast, the stage and the action, part iii


Karl Barth: ‘Tying up and locking in’
The importance of the existential register




‘Theoretical reduction’ as enemy of the existential register
Von Balthasar as epic reader
Freedom and sin: Barth and Von Balthasar newly compared


Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding
Identity and analogy
‘Unframeability’ and ‘surplus’
Analogia entis: Erich Przywara and Karl Barth
‘Jacob’s Ladder’: Von Balthasar’s exercise of analogy
‘Crystallized love’: the dehistoricization of the Church
Von Balthasar’s double indemnity against drama


Theodramatics, history and the Holy Spirit
Gerard Manley Hopkins and the wreck of the ‘Deutschland’
Divine legibility






Select bibliography



This book grew out of doctoral work on von Balthasar’s Theodramatik. It
was David Ford who led me to see how rewarding a piece of research on von
Balthasar would be for a research student with a background in English
literature as well as theology. Since then, he has been unfailingly generous
and supportive as a supervisor and colleague, and I am deeply grateful for
his guidance and friendship. Nicholas Lash also took a very valuable and
constructive interest in my research when acting supervisor for two terms.
I want to offer my sincere thanks to him.
I have debts to those who inspired me to love literature as well as
theology. In the first category, I am particularly indebted to Adrian
Barlow, Martin Golding, Chris Bristow and Adrian Poole (the latter two
having awakened a particular fascination with tragedy). Sally Bushell
helps to keep my literary interests alive, and has been a deeply appreciated companion from whose proof-reading, critical alertness and friendship I have benefitted repeatedly. David Cunningham was generous in
the way he read a preliminary version of the book with patient attention
and wrote extensive comments which helped in its transformation, and
Graham Davies in Cambridge offered constructive remarks on my discussion of Job in chapter 4.
I learned to love reading, as well as arguing, imagining and having fun,
in the home I grew up in. Loving thanks to the family I shared it with: my
father, John, my sisters Meg and Samantha, my brother Toby and especially, with the greatest love and respect, my mother Marilyn. Thanks too
to those who have become part of my family since those days and contributed in all sorts of ways to life’s fullness and rewards: Neil, Emily,
Charles and Mary, Victoria and Charlotte among them.




Lively theological communities and friendships have been important
to me at every stage of the last ten years. I owe a large debt of gratitude to Dan Hardy and Tim Jenkins in this regard: with David Ford
they have been a very significant part of life and conversation during this
time. Also, I am grateful to Michael Banner in ways both intellectual
and personal, and to subsequent Peterhouse theologians, including John
Milbank and Graham Ward. The Society for the Study of Theology and The
Catholic Theological Association of Great Britain have provided valuable and
convivial environments in which to try out and develop ideas.
My colleagues at Wesley House and Fitzwilliam College were extremely
supportive during a period when much of this was written. In the company of Eckhard Zemmrich and Judith Heinemann (now also Zemmrich)
I fell in love with Germany and was helped at a very early stage to enjoy
doing theology there as well as here. A special sharing of intellectual
adventures has been the gift of friendships with them, with Nick Adams
and with Susannah Ticciati. They are all people with whom both life
and theology keep opening up new dimensions. My doctoral examiners
Rowan Williams and John Riches were encouraging and full of constructive comment when dealing with this material in an earlier form. Many
gifted ordinands from Westcott House and Ridley Hall have helped me
make room to write while responsible for the pastoral and liturgical
life of two college chapels in succession, along with faithful and muchappreciated chapel officers. Then there are colleagues who, in countless
and bountiful ways, have fed into my thinking through conversations and
comments, and by letting me into their own intellectual worlds, as well
as in a variety of practical capacities: Imogen Adkins, Nigel Biggar, Phillip
Blond, James Carleton Paget, Oliver Davies, Hans-Anton Drewes, Bob
Gibbs, the late Colin Gunton, Mike Higton, Steve Kepnes, Basit Koshul,
Jason Lam, Riki Lange, Diana Lipton, David Mahan, Peter McEnhill, Mark
McIntosh, Rachel Muers, Edward Oakes, Peter Ochs, Oliver O’Donovan,
Chad Pecknold, Catherine Pickstock, Susanne Prankel, Randi Rashkover,
Christine Rauer, Thomas Seville, Christiane Tietz-Steiding, Denys
Turner, Markus and Jutte Vinzent, Jennifer Wallace, Sam Wells and Alice
Wood, to name only some. Kate Brett, Susan Beer and their colleagues at
Cambridge University Press have been efficient, astute and a pleasure to
work with.
A British Academy research grant enabled me to do important work
on the final stages of this book in Berlin. Parts of it were published in an
earlier form in Gardner, L., Moss, D., Quash, J. B., Ward, G., Balthasar at


the End of Modernity (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1999), as my ideas were
developing, and in my article ‘“Between the Brutely Given and the
Brutally, Banally Free”: Von Balthasar’s Theology of Drama in Dialogue
with Hegel’ in Modern Theology 13:3 (1997). A section of chapter 4 appeared
in an earlier form in New Blackfriars 79:923 (1998), and in Mike Higton and
John McDowell (eds.), Conversing with Barth (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).
During the time of writing this book, I have been part of Christian communities which have helped turn my work into worship. Thank you to the
people of Little St Mary’s and the congregations of Fitzwilliam College
Chapel and Peterhouse Chapel. Thank you to that band of fellow clergy
who make up my ‘cell group’ and offer such support, wisdom and humour
through it: Edward Dowler, Jon Lawson, Andrew Wilson and Jonathan
Beswick. Special thanks to my sons, William and Joseph, for the delight
they have brought me during the final stages of this book.
Comparatives are better praise than superlatives, because they
acknowledge that really good things never stop yielding more. In my wife
Susanna I have found ever-greater faithfulness and ever-greater love –
both of them seemingly never exhausted. My love for and gratitude to her
are ever-greater too.
Feast of St Augustine of Hippo 2004



‘In Retrospect’




Erster Blick auf Adrienne von Speyr (Einsiedeln, 1967)
Der antir ¨omische Affekt (Freiburg, 1974)
Karl Barth: Darstellung und Deutung seiner Theologie
(Einsiedeln, 1976)
English translation
Explorations in Theology i–iv (San Francisco, 1989–95)
The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics 1–7 (1982–89)
Das Ganze im Fragment (Einsiedeln, 1963)
Theologie der Geschichte (Einsiedeln, 1959)
Herrlichkeit: Eine theologische Asthetik
(Einsiedeln, 1961–9)
‘In Retrospect’ in John Riches (ed.), The Analogy
of Beauty: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar
(Edinburgh, 1986)
Maria fur
¨ Heute (Freiburg, 1968)
‘Mysterium Paschale’ in J. Feiner and M. Lohrer
Mysterium Salutis III/2 (Einsiedeln/Cologne, 1970)
Neue Klarstellungen (Einsiedeln, 1979)
The Von Balthasar Reader, Medard Kehl and Werner
(eds.), Robert J. Daly and Fred Lawrence (trans.),
(Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982)
Skizzen zur Theologie i–iv (Einsiedeln, 1960–74)
Theodramatik i–iv (Einsiedeln, 1973–83)
Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory 1–5
(San Francisco, 1988–98)
Theologik i–iii (Einsiedeln, 1983–7)


This is a book that is concerned to identify resources to help theology think and talk about history. In particular, it sets out to examine
the value and the potential of a ‘theodramatic’ conception of history. That
is to say a way of thinking theologically about historical process and the
historical character of human agents and environments that emphasizes
their dramatic features. This book assumes that a theodramatic theology’s
identification of what such dramatic features are, and of what makes them
dramatic, will need to be informed by attention to literary dramatic traditions – otherwise a theodramatics can claim to be ‘dramatic’ only in an
abstract sense. It therefore undertakes an interdisciplinary approach to
what it does. It makes its theological principles open and indebted to literary forms, and it seeks to articulate the value of a theology thus informed
for the treatment of historical life; of a world intrinsically and thoroughly
My argument will be that certain insights become available in a theodramatic approach to history which are less likely to come to light when
theology operates in more conventional modes (particularly in modes
characteristic of the late scholastic and modern periods). Likewise, I will
argue that certain complexities in the subject matter of theology are less
likely to be betrayed when a theological discussion of historicality is specifically theodramatic. A theodramatics will be less likely artificially to curtail what Dan Hardy calls the ‘dynamic, distributed and dense’ character
of historical life and historical experience.1 The chapters that follow will
draw out why this is so.
1 Daniel W. Hardy, Finding the Church (London: SCM, 2001), p. 68.



Theology and the Drama of History

Why history matters to theology
Why is Christian theology obliged to think about history at all? Why
should it be a matter of importance what resources it has for thinking
about history, or whether indeed it has any distinctive resources as compared with other traditions of historical thought? In the universities of
the modern West, as presently configured, the analysis of historical events
goes on largely in departments or faculties of history (although also in faculties of law, the history and philosophy of science, sociology, classics),
and lies in the hands of scholars who are not expected to have recourse to
ideas about divine activity, character or purpose when doing their work.
Such ideas might in some contexts discredit them as professional historians altogether, because they fall outside prevailing canons of what
counts as respectable evidence or defensible speculation. Such ideas may
breach the terms within which the conversations of professional academic
history are conducted; they may seem to break the rules which are the
condition for certain kinds of mutual understanding, interaction and
debate within the community of historians.
Nevertheless, the historical events and experiences that preoccupy historians are often not different from those that interest theology. Theology does not in general look at a different history from other academic
disciplines; it looks at the same history in a different way. It allows different people into the conversation: people for whom a different framework
for the description of historical reality is not a priori inadmissible. People
prepared, for example, to see the dense, historical world as having an origin and an end in the creative purposing of God, a God who can relate personally to his creatures. People ready to acknowledge the idea that there
can be revelation: a prevenient ground for our knowledge and perception
that is not itself the product of our knowledge and perception, and which
is moreover neither accidental nor impersonal but which freely, and even
lovingly, communicates itself. Such an attitude is not novel; it is simply
out of fashion. Until a certain point in the history of Western scholarship
it would have been not the tolerance of theological perspectives on historical events but rather their exclusion that would have seemed the more
unthinkable approach.
The readiness to see history as having an origin and an end in God’s
purposes generates the distinctively eschatological way in which Christian
theology’s consideration of historical phenomena differs from other considerations. Christian theology asserts the relationship of all historical


events, processes and agents to a transcendent order and with it to an ultimate meaning. According to Christian belief, this relationship with the
ultimate is indeed what constitutes the historical realm of events, processes
and agents. Christianity’s belief in a final judgement is a belief that the
real value of historical phenomena will ultimately and necessarily be made
apparent by the disclosure of their relationship to God’s ordering, intention and love. Viewed with this expectation, and talked about in the light
of such hope, history takes on a different aspect for Christian thought –
and Christian theology narrates and explicates history differently as a
consequence. Theodramatics in particular promises a set of resources
for thinking history and eschatology together, in their interrelationship –
hence differently from other kinds of historical analysis – for in the area
of eschatology a theology of history is always to some extent present, and
vice versa.
To sum up this section, we may say that Christian theology is obliged to
think about history because in believing that heaven and earth and everything in them are God’s creation, it therefore believes that the irreducibly
historical dimension of being is also something created by God: its temporal extension, its successiveness, its narratability. But it has more reason even than that for thinking about history. In believing that the divine
Son assumed the condition of sinful humanity in order to make divine
light and action savingly legible there, Christian theology is directed to
pay attention to finite actions and interactions in time as the medium of
God’s speech. In thinking about history in these ways it does what only
theology can do. It shows what is distinctive (though not exclusive) about
its contribution to discussion with other disciplines about the subject of
history: namely, that it is a discipline defined by its response to, and its thinking out of, divine self-disclosure.

Introducing the cast, the stage and the action
So, then, it is in certain key areas that the dramatic emphasis of a theodramatics will have its most obvious theological effects – and all of these have
implications for the way that history is conceived. Drama displays human
actions and temporal events in specific contexts.2 Theodramatics concerns itself
with human actions (people), temporal events (time) and their specific
2 These three areas of concern are not entirely unrelated to the concerns of neo-classical
drama with‘three unities’ (a concern developed from Aristotle’s Poetics) – namely, with action,
time and place.



Theology and the Drama of History

contexts (place) in relation to God’s purpose. As noted in the previous section, this means that a theodramatics will inevitably have an eschatological dimension – this is one of the things a theodramatic approach focuses
most clearly. It also means that a theodramatics will focus with especial
clarity the theological interpretation of freedom in Christian life (and in
human life more generally). This too arises from a theodramatic concern
with (i) human actions in (ii) specific contexts and (iii) through time, and
it will provoke questions in turn about a theology of the Church and the
saints – these being classic focuses for theology’s reflection on people,
place and time.
An attention to drama, in other words, draws theology’s attention to
three central concerns. These concerns are with the character of agency
(the people dimension); its necessary conditions (or ‘context’ – roughly
equivalent to the place dimension); and the way in which such agency may
or may not be related to (and narratable in the form of) a wider ‘plot’ (the
time dimension). They are crucial to a good understanding of any kind
of dramatic theory, theological or not, but they will have special connotations in a consciously theological account. A theodramatics will have
rich theological resources to bring to its consideration of the subjects of
the world’s drama (the ‘cast’); of the acting area in which they perform
(the ‘stage’); and of what may be identifiable as the movement of the play
(the ‘action’) – to its treatment, that is, of people, place and time.
These concerns should not be isolated too crudely from one another.
They are closely interrelated, and they all lead back to the central question
of freedom, and of how it comes to birth in the interaction of what I will
call (following Rowan Williams) ‘subjects’ and ‘structures’.3 The task of
bringing subjects and structures together can be a challenging one. Whenever a description of individual freedom intersects with a concern to narrate history, these challenges are identifiable. (The problematic has been
given particularly thorough expression in Paul Ricoeur’s study of historical consciousness, Time and Narrative.)4

3 ‘Structure’, in this usage, can refer both to the ‘stage’ of the action and to its emplotment.
4 Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, 3 vols. (trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer),
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984–8). Ricoeur’s mammoth study addresses the
difficulty in speaking of the ‘oneness’ of time, and yet the simultaneous pressure (often
practical and ethical in character) to continue to do so. The shared narratability of agency and
of events in and through time (history conceived as narrative) is essential to any idea that
subjects can act coherently and manifest constancy in time. Yet no narrative identity is a
‘stable and seamless identity’ (Time and Narrative, vol. 3, p. 248), and one cannot ever claim
exhaustive and definitive explanation of the meaning of a subject’s action, or the events in
which such action is embedded. My own project is very much in sympathy with Ricoeur’s in
this regard – opposing (as Ricoeur’s poetics of narrative does) ‘the ambition of thought to


One of the key challenges to which a theodramatics is required to
respond, therefore, is balancing the claims of personal freedom against
the narrated unfolding of a greater historical ‘action’ (a narration to which
Christianity is quite properly committed in the light of God’s revelation).
A theodramatic assertion of the freedom of God seems to make impossible a ‘closed’ narration of history as a merely inevitable chain of events,
and (because this divine freedom is a trinitarian freedom, which is to say
‘personal’ and above all loving) it seems to yield the grounds for seeing free
individuals as precious to and sacramental of God. The perfectly abundant
divine life, being the condition of human beings’ temporally extended
interaction as creatures, will not negate but can (in a way one cannot fully
get the measure of ) ‘contain’ and even enhance freedom.
The contention of this book is that a well-conceived and sensitive theodramatic theology, when it addresses the question of subjects and structures in history, will have the resources it needs to think about their interrelation with suitably developed wisdom. It will be protected from the pull
towards making one too crudely subject to the other. In this respect, it will
be offering a distinctively theological corrective to a central dilemma in
modern thought, which has circled almost obsessively around what it sees
as the ‘problem of freedom’. The pull towards making subjects the privileged key to the interpretation of the ‘historicality’ of life leads to a particular way of describing and enacting history. The pull towards making
structures, or systems, the key to the interpretation of the ‘historicality’
of life leads to a different way of describing and enacting history. In both
cases, there are very definite consequences, political, economic, environmental, military, and more. Dan Hardy writes:
At the risk of oversimplifying highly complex matters, there are two
major ways in which people have traced the ‘plot’ of history. One of
them focuses on individuals and their immediate connections, their
functional connections sideways, backwards and forwards, replacing
the dynamics of history with ‘family genealogies’ as it were. The other
concentrates on the dynamics of historical change, ‘systematizing’ it
through machine-like or life-like explanations . . .5
bring about a totalization of history entirely permeable to the light of concepts’ (p. 255),
while refusing the idea that there are only private histories (separate temporalities)
belonging to separate human communities or individuals, and with no possibility of contact
or overlap with each other. If temporality has a unity, it is a ‘multiform unity’ (p. 256), better
acknowledged in the ‘imperfect mediation [i.e., the complex, sometimes ragged, discursive
and open-ended mediation]’ of narrations of a poetic kind (p. 256) rather than in some total,
conceptual mediation.
5 Hardy, Finding the Church, pp. 64–5. By ‘life-like explanations’ Hardy means explanations
that work by appeal to organic models.



Theology and the Drama of History

Hardy goes on to indicate some of the ways in which these different conceptions of history have direct social consequences. He traces a habit of
mind in continental Europe that concentrates on ‘large-scale systemic
issues’. In this model it is in the operation of rational systems, to which
individuals are relatively-speaking subordinate, that historical development will work itself out – or else in the rational harnessing of systemic
forces. Policies about tax, public services, the environment, and so on are
formulated accordingly. In America, Hardy argues that it is to the individual and the defence of individual interests that primary attention is paid.
This gives rise to ‘the notoriously “litigious” society found there, the product of a combination of individualism and the search for simple causes
for any problem’.6 Historical development works itself out through the
interaction of individual interests, choices and initiatives, as in the model
of the free market.
Hardy identifies another way (which he argues is embodied in a distinctively English view of history). Such a view is best seen in ‘complex
narrative histories’, in which ‘complex – often local – connections of people, movements and events’ are allowed to become visible, and ‘primacy is
given neither to individuals nor to grand narratives with a clear outcome’.7
My argument in this book will be that not only ‘complex narrative histories’ but, more particularly, dramas offer the best literary correlate here for
the distinctive view of history that Hardy wants to promote. With the help
of sensibilities learnt from attention to drama, it is possible to approach
history in a way that is alert to the importance of ‘delicate fabrics of trust,
learning and productivity’8 – fabrics in which subjects and structures do
not wrestle with one another in a sort of competition for dominance, but
in which they interrelate and flourish in forms of (for example) family life,
local community and education. In these contexts it can be seen how ‘[t]he
quality of our individuality is inseparable from the quality of the society in
which we exist’.9 Subjects and structures can be seen mutually informing
one another in appropriately complex ways.
Such a conception of history, informed by a dramatic understanding of
how cast, stage and action need each other, will have a density to it which
will cause both the ‘systemic’ and ‘individualist’ conceptions of history
identified by Hardy to look ‘thin’. This is because, in his words, ‘[b]oth
views – systemic and individualist – privilege and implement abstractions
and principles that lead in quite different directions from the carefully
6 Ibid., p. 65.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., p. 67.

9 Ibid., p. 66.


distributed, layered, dense and dynamic’ way which a Christian view
should promote and embody.10
Above all the inevitably non-dramatic way of understanding history
through atemporal or ‘synchronic’ principles constitutes a betrayal of its
material. It fails to give due attention to particulars – to the individuals,
the exceptions to rules, the resistances to explanation and the densities
of meaning that ask for recognition in a good description of historical reality. Theodramatics offers a different ‘grammar’ for describing history, and
one which this book will claim has greater adequacy to what it seeks to
interpret and evaluate. An appreciation of drama makes available a more
adequate source of categories for giving voice to the truth of creaturely life
before God than other genres (archetypally, ‘epic’ or ‘lyric’) could ever be –
let alone the categories of analytic philosophy and the scholastic textbooks. In particular, drama teaches both theology and history to evaluate
actions and events in their constitutively, irreducibly ‘diachronic’ character, and it teaches them to bring to bear a more acute sensitivity to the
particularity of what they treat. Meanwhile, the fact that theodramatics
is Christian theology, and not a dramatic theory which refuses the idea
of a divine empowerment of and involvement in human existence, means
that it ought not to fall back too readily on apparently self-evident ‘norms’
for the interpretation of history. Its openness to the free otherness of the
divine means that theodramatics is (or ought to be) ready for transformative newness in every successive moment of history, such that principles
are always identified and marshalled only provisionally, and remain subject to correction. Moreover, its awareness of God’s use of creaturely particulars – finite and temporal – for his self-communication means that
theodramatics yields (or ought to yield) a more nuanced understanding of
the ‘shaped’ character of Christian existence, of its corporate context, and
of its temporal ‘spread-out-ness’ (Hardy) than might otherwise be possible. Or, to recall the terms used already, it ought to yield a more nuanced
understanding of the cast, the stage and the action and their interrelation
in the unfolding of the world’s drama. There are consequences to the successful development of a theodramatics that is sensitive to this temporal
vision of creaturely life and interpretation, and more careful in its reading
of particulars – consequences that go beyond the scholarly analysis of historical process. A good theodramatics lends itself to the fostering of ethical
responsibility, political creativity and liturgical subtlety.
10 Ibid., p. 68.



Theology and the Drama of History

Another crucial capacity of a theodramatics – a component in fact of
its ethical sensitivity – will be its recognition of the tragic, in and with its
recognition of the irreducible importance of particular instances. It will
not generalize away ‘the striking actuality of disruption, evil and suffering’.11 Disruption, evil and suffering occur, or ‘find room’, because there is
contingency in the ways and the institutions by which history unfolds.
The position from which I write should perhaps be acknowledged at
this point. I write as an Anglican theologian, and the particular case made
in this book for the value of theodramatics will be influenced both consciously and (more than likely) unconsciously by Anglican habits of mind.
Part of the suitability to Anglican theological thought of the kind of theodramatics I will advocate – and part of the reason its relevance to thinking
about history is so interesting to an Anglican – is because of the strongly
historical way in which Anglican thought habitually conceives of the realization of God’s goodness in the world. It does not as a rule hold what
Hardy calls ‘“systemic” conceptions of history and goodness’;12 it is provisional in its judgements (born out of and working with ‘settlements’ in
time, layered one upon another, and open to correction in the light of new
historical circumstances). In this respect it has analogies with the English
common law tradition, as opposed to its ‘Roman’ counterpart.13 It does
not, with the tendency towards making ‘total’ explanatory claims that
often accompany atemporal modes of thought, believe that God’s truth,
11 Ibid., p. 67.
12 Ibid., p. 68.
13 An interesting artistic parallel might also be pointed to here. In Wallington Hall in
Northumberland there is a central interior courtyard on the ground floor surrounded on all
four sides by murals, painted by William Bell Scott. Though it is presently owned by the
National Trust, the Trevelyan family were owners of Wallington at the time the murals were
painted. The murals all concentrate on Northumbrian history, but each mural on a different
scene in a different period. The presence of the Roman legions and the building of Hadrian’s
Wall as a defensive boundary with the Scottish north; the growth of Christianity through the
preaching of the Celtic monks; the Viking raids; and so on up to the age of iron and coal and
the coming of the railway. This central room in the house communicates something of the
complexity of a two-thousand-year span of history. It is also remarkable because all the
different scenes it depicts are about one place, Northumberland – the place where the Hall
stands, and where the viewer of the murals finds herself when looking at them. The murals
therefore give precisely the sense of a layered reality: not a tour of far-away places, but an
insight into the historical depth of one place; a cross-section through time. The present of the
viewer standing in Wallington Hall is revealed as being the product, and indeed the
continuation, of a long process of historical formation in which one historical meaning after
another is laid down upon its predecessors (while allowing its predecessors still to remain
visible). The various scenes are not forced to tell a story (although naturally they are the
product of selection and inevitably reflect a particular nineteenth-century perspective on
what ‘counts’ in history as most important, inspiring, heroic or poignant). What they do
instead is to speak powerfully about the complex implication of historical events in each
other, and make it possible for the viewer to trace many interpretative pathways through the
sequence of murals.


goodness or beauty are ‘only exemplified in [its] own system of reality or
symbols’.14 On the other side, it does not, either, work with individualist conceptions of history and goodness: ‘a conception of faith founded on
God’s choice of the human being, by the “grace” of faith enabling the individual to respond’.15 It believes in establishing forms of common life, common responsibility, common prayer which are genuinely realizable forms
of godly life in history. It is discursively held to, and aware that it is not
above but part of the contingent, incremental movements by which human
institutions and forms of life anticipate their ultimate aim in the Kingdom
of God. Nevertheless, Anglicanism has tended to believe that this draws it
more effectively into what may be called ‘the informing dynamics of all
This is the truth, the imparting of goodness, and the energizing of life for
goodness that are the Trinitarian God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit –
everywhere pressing the historical life of the world to its fulfillment in
the Kingdom of God.16

However, although finding a place in an Anglican tradition of thought,
this book’s principal dialogue partners will not in fact be Anglican. They
will be Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed thinkers of the modern
period – indeed, a very specific representative of each. Working through
sustained and deep conversation with these thinkers (and also through
sharp critique of them) is itself a recognition of the role of particularity in
the development of theory. It is in the spirit of what it argues a theodramatics should insist on; it recognises the need for specific standpoints – places
from which to act and speak – if there is to be interpretation of human
beings’ deep (and divinely given) implication in history. Acknowledging
the particularity of my own standpoint, as well as concentrating on particular conversation partners in the development of a theodramatics (rather
than attempting to lower a perfectly formed and universally relevant theodramatic theory from above), is therefore not only pragmatic but principled. It also intends to be appropriately modest. What is offered in the
pages that follow is not that dubious thing, ‘a theology of history’. It is
a heuristic for thinking theologically about history – and expects to take
its specific place in the continuing incremental, contingent, distributed
process by which history’s deepest truth comes to expression.
In this next section, then, we look at the principal partners in conversation with whom this idea of a theodramatics is to be explored.
14 Ibid., p. 72.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., pp. 75–6.



Theology and the Drama of History

Principal conversation partners
The Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar is foremost
among those whose thinking generates this book’s idea of theodramatics.
Von Balthasar explicitly chose categories drawn from drama in his attempt
to give expression to the truth that all Christian theology tries to articulate – the truth of God’s interest and involvement in the world. He thereby
made a defining claim about the dramatic character of the Christian revelation, and the dramatic response that it demands.
The five volumes of Theodramatik – where these dramatic instincts are
most fully worked out – are the heart of von Balthasar’s huge theological trilogy. It is there that the major dogmatic themes of his thought are
woven together most effectively, and in a more sustained way than in the
essays of his Explorations and Elucidations. There we find his decisive treatments of anthropology, christology (including soteriology), the Church,
eschatology, and the Trinity. These, taken together, are the matter of the
Balthasarian ‘theodrama’, and it is with these five volumes that I work
most closely in what follows.
One of the great twentieth-century theological minds to reflect upon
the way theology and history must understand each other – Donald
MacKinnon – anticipated the importance of von Balthasar’s Theodramatik
in precisely this area.17 MacKinnon had a sense that a theological use of
dramatic categories would be immensely fruitful though no less demanding when confronted with the need to do justice to the intractable difficulties of human historical experience – to the tragic realities of human
moral failure and suffering (these concerns always smouldering at the
core of his own thought). The present book follows MacKinnon in seeing
Theodramatik as the most mature staging of von Balthasar’s dogmatics, and
the most rewarding locus for an examination of what animates his theological work – as well as offering his most valuable resources for addressing the importance of how to do justice to history.
Of course, no reader of his ‘theological dramatic theory’ can take it
for granted that he or she knows what von Balthasar understood ‘drama’
to mean. There were many thinkers in the nineteenth century whose
thought about drama von Balthasar read, but far from being unanimous
17 Cf. particularly D. M. MacKinnon, Explorations in Theology 5 (London: SCM, 1979),
pp. 66–8, 164, and Themes in Theology: The Three-fold Cord (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1987),
pp. 6, 158–9, 182, 215.


about it, these thinkers debated the nature of drama. To take up the term
‘drama’ in the wake of these debates in order to put it to work theologically was to take up a contested term. In choosing its second major
conversation partner, therefore, this book looks beyond von Balthasar’s
work – acknowledging the significant diversity of theory in its
background18 – and separates what was formative in his cultivation
of the idea of a ‘theodramatics’ from what was inessential. It identifies
one particularly important debt – a source of theory that influences all
the particular readings of drama which make up Volume I of Theodramatik
(the Prolegomena) and whose character inevitably affects, for good or ill,
the theology von Balthasar subsequently seeks to convey. It suggests that
understanding this source places one in a better position to assess the
value of von Balthasar’s overall project for an historically sensitive theodramatics. This source is the thought of Hegel: a singularly significant
influence from among the variety which inform von Balthasar’s dramatic
Hegel, therefore, is my second conversation partner for developing a
theodramatics geared to serious thought about history (the one I labelled

18 Very few nineteenth-century European philosophers do not make reference to drama –
though some do so at greater length than others. Dominant figures include Schelling,
Schopenhauer (cf. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, E. F. T. Payne
(trans.) (New York: Dover, 1969)), and Nietzsche (cf. particularly, although not exclusively,
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Francis Golffing (trans.) (New York: Doubleday
Anchor, 1956)). An indication of the debate over the character of drama in this period is to be
found in the divergence between thinkers who see in drama (especially in tragedy) a
demonstration of the unimportance of individuals – and their consequent obliteration –
and thinkers who regard drama’s effect as dependent on some continuing concern with
the destiny, or pathos, of particular characters in their contribution to the overall movement
of the play. Schopenhauer sees drama’s main purpose as being to show that all human
conflicts in the end are nothing but vanity. With Nietzsche, he sees the sublime pleasure in
tragedy originating in the celebration of totality and unity at the expense of individual
human will. Hegel is an outstanding advocate of the other side of the argument. He will
not assent to such a ‘fundamental dichotomy’ between the ‘eternal core of things’ and
the ‘world of appearances’ in which there is individuation (Julian Roberts, German
Philosophy, (Oxford: Polity Press/Blackwell, 1988), p. 222; quoting Nietzsche, Birth of Tragedy,
p. 53). In this respect, as in others, he will prove to have much in common with von
19 It should further be remarked, of course, that German philosophy in the last century,
even in all its variety, is only a single part of the extraordinary multiplicity of intellectual and
indeed devotional influences by which von Balthasar was affected. In seeking to identify key
influences from amongst the wealth of references and allusions in von Balthasar it is vital to
avoid the temptation reductively to explain the complexity of his many-sourced thought by
the tracing of only a single tributary. I do not intend to do that sort of reduction here.
Nonetheless, German philosophy was a crucial source of influence on von Balthasar at least as
early as the time of his doctoral work on apocalypticism in modern German thought, and
always remained so.



Theology and the Drama of History

earlier, and a little loosely, as the ‘Lutheran’ interlocutor). I look at
him in his own right, as well as in his peculiar relationship to von
Balthasar’s thought – and in the latter respect, I look at him with the
intention that my approach should not artificially reduce the breadth of
von Balthasar’s indebtedness to others, but rather assist an appreciation of
it.20 Identification of the remarkable place of Hegel’s thought in the background of von Balthasar’s ‘theodramatic’ project does, I believe, act as a
window onto some of the latter’s key ambitions and instincts when marshalling the great variety of other material (including the plays themselves)
which appear in Theodramatik.21

20 Kevin Mongrain, in his book The Systematic Thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar: An Irenaean
Retrieval (New York: Herder and Herder, 2002), p. 225 note 1, worries that in my highlighting
of ‘formal similarities’ between Hegel’s and von Balthasar’s thought I may not be aware of
his ‘anti-Hegelian agenda’. I hope that much of this book – perhaps particularly the final
section of chapter 3 – will reassure him that I do not by any means wish to ignore this agenda.
Contrary to Mongrain’s charge that I ‘refuse to take von Balthasar’s explicit anti-Hegelian
arguments seriously’, and contrary to his assumption that the suggestion of implicit patterns
of Hegelian influence in von Balthasar is a priori an illegitimate suggestion given von
Balthasar’s explicit rejection of specific Hegelian positions, I would argue for something more
complex. Von Balthasar’s disagreements with Hegel are to be taken with real seriousness, and
they succeed in setting some clear theological water between his position and that of the
philosopher of Spirit. But this cannot be allowed to blind one to the effects of a manifestly
sympathetic instinct for Hegel’s thought at other points – many of them openly
acknowledged by von Balthasar himself.
21 Hegel accompanies von Balthasar’s thought everywhere in his trilogy. Special
engagements are to be found in Volume iii/1 of Herrlichkeit, ‘Im Raum der Metaphysik’ (H iii/1,
pp. 904–21/GL 5, pp. 572–90), and in Volume ii of Theologik (TL ii, pp. 42–5). These alone
would indicate that von Balthasar regards Hegel’s legacy to the history of Western thought as
absolutely not to be bypassed – it must be gone through. But beyond these treatments, there
are even more frequent appearances of Hegel’s thought in Theodramatik, the central part of
the trilogy. He is brought into the discussion in every volume. Some of the times when he is
most decisively present are, as will become clear, only lightly acknowledged by von Balthasar.
But there are also explicit and concentrated encounters with him. For example, in the final
volume, von Balthasar discusses the question of hope with reference to Hegel and the
Hegelian tradition (TD iv, pp. 152–3/ThD 5, p. 173) and, later, the kenotic tradition in its
Hegelian manifestation (TD iv, pp. 201–8/ThD 5, pp. 223–31). And in Volume i – perhaps the
most important volume for the task of establishing who von Balthasar identifies his principal
conversation partners to be when formulating a theory of drama – Hegel’s presence is most
pervasive of all. It should be acknowledged that of course von Balthasar spends more time on
dramatists than philosophers in this volume: in particular, he gives time to Grillparzer,
´ in an
Hebbel, Ibsen, Shaw and Pirandello in the modern period, and to his beloved Calderon
earlier time. He readily acknowledges the Greeks and Shakespeare as high points of dramatic
art, and devotes attention to them. But where philosophers are concerned – despite serious
interest in Fichte, Schelling and Nietzsche – it is Hegel who dominates. Two entire sections
are devoted to him, one near the beginning in which Hegel’s simultaneous appreciation and
relativization of dramatic insight are discussed (TD i, pp. 50–64/ThD 1, pp. 54–70; this section
will be looked at very closely in chapter 3), and one near the end in which von Balthasar
considers Hegel’s philosophy of the individual, especially in relation to his community or
‘ethical world’ (TD i, pp. 542–53/ThD 1, pp. 578–89; this will be part of the discussion of
individuality, freedom and community in chapter 2). We do not find von Balthasar agreeing


One of the things that makes Hegel distinctive among the philosophers
of his period, and makes him so important to von Balthasar’s theology, is
that he takes the unusual step of claiming drama to be art’s most developed expression of the movement of Spirit (Geist), and an exceptional precursor of a purer philosophy. This was not the case for Schopenhauer and
Nietzsche, for example. They favoured music’s greater freedom from the
restrictions and demands of physical representation, which for them gave
it a more ideal status.22 For Hegel, however, music was too one-sidedly the
‘negation’ of externality, whereas poetry (of which dramatic poetry was
the most developed form) was able to reincorporate externality as well as
the ‘inwardness’ of the subject.
Hegel’s immense respect for drama – unique among philosophers with
a comparable interest in the arts – is, I think, an especially persuasive argument for his importance to this study, just as it is a powerful indication
of his relevance to von Balthasar’s Theodramatik. Indeed, the importance
drama has for Hegel, as for von Balthasar, turns out to be a doorway into
a host of common concerns. Von Balthasar is the first to admit that both
he and Hegel are in their distinctive ways consumed with the question ‘In
what sense is all drama a drama of God himself?’ (TD I, p. 64/ThD 1, p. 69).
Both long to say that although the end is not yet known and the final act
has yet to be played, yet the great drama of the world has a telos, and the
goodness, truth and beauty of human action and interaction with other
human beings (and, as Hegel in his own way admits, with God) will find
their vindication or judgement in the light of that telos. These are claims
which, from the point of view of this book, open up theological questions
of the most compelling kind: about how human freedom can operate with
integrity in a drama that seems teleologically determined, as well as about
with Hegel in all these places: the frequency of the references to him should not be seen as an
index of von Balthasar’s acceptance of his ideas. Indeed, as we will show, Hegel is very often a
foil for the developing theology of Theodramatik. But the immensity of von Balthasar’s respect
for Hegel’s thought is made clear by his choice of him time after time as a worthy partner in
22 For Schopenhauer, the enjoyment of beauty involved the observer finding himself
removed ‘from the entire network of personal concerns and individual interests’ (Roberts,
German Philosophy, p. 175). The advantage of music was that – while ‘representational art
shows will’s eternal and irreconcilable conflicts through the struggle of particular
individuals’ – music was ‘completely independent of individuals’ (ibid., p. 176).
Schopenhauer wrote: ‘Music . . . is quite independent of the world of appearance, simply
ignoring it, and could in a sense continue to exist even if the world didn’t exist at all . . .’
(Schopenhauer, World as Will, p. 257; cited in ibid.). Hegel’s contemporary and associate
Schelling can be contrasted with him on not entirely dissimilar lines. He saw art as
‘disengaged from the material and political concerns of humanity’ (ibid., p. 144).



Theology and the Drama of History

how, in the light of this, Christian life should articulate and communicate
the dynamics at its heart (judgement, reconciliation, celebration, anticipation, and so on).23
To achieve its purpose, part of the book’s concern in the earlier stages
will be with what may be called an excavation, during which our attention to the Hegelian legacy in von Balthasar’s thought will be at its most
acute. This will result in the identification of three central concerns to
which drama draws our notice, and in which Hegel’s philosophy, too, has
a widespread and characteristic interest. These are the concerns we have
already outlined in terms of cast, stage and action: they are concerns with
the character of agency; its necessary conditions (or ‘context’); and the way
in which such agency may or may not be related to (and narratable in
the form of) a wider ‘plot’. They are crucial to a good understanding of
any kind of dramatic theory, theological or not (although they may find
themselves transformed by a consciously theological account). We can see
how von Balthasar acknowledges the importance of all three in his concern with dramatis personae (the ‘cast’, or subjects of the theo-drama), with
the acting area in which they perform (the ‘stage’) and with what may be
identifiable as the movement of the play (the ‘action’). All three are central to Hegel’s treatment of drama as well, and indeed of the historical and
social dimensions of human life to which drama corresponds. Hegel works
out a way of dealing with questions of cast, stage and action by exploring
the embeddedness of individual destinies in the medium of Sittlichkeit (or
‘ethical life’). There are valuable theodramatic resources to be mined here.
The third major interlocutor plays his key role in chapter 4. He is Karl
Barth – and is the representative of the ‘Reformed’ tradition mentioned
above (although as von Balthasar was the first to acknowledge, Barth was
23 In Volume ii/2 of Theodramatik, in a footnote (TD ii/2, p. 125, note 11/ThD 3, p. 137, note 17),
von Balthasar writes that ‘the precise distinction between our theodramatic approach and
that of Hegel’ can be found set out in Emilio Brito’s ‘Hegel und die heutigen Christologien’ (in
Internationale katholische Zeitschrift (1977), pp. 46–58). What that article in fact highlights is
something to which von Balthasar himself frequently draws attention in his own writings:
the claim that his theodramatic approach honours both the total freedom and the love of God,
neither of which is to be found in Hegel’s speculative logic. ‘The Son’s mission and
obedience’, writes Brito, ‘are topics for which there is no room within the negative
christology of Hegel’ (ibid., p. 55). Unlike Hegel’s, von Balthasar’s ‘absolute christology’ is
‘open towards an unfathomable freedom of God as well as towards relative, created
autonomy’ (ibid., p. 57).
Most commentators on von Balthasar follow Brito’s approach, and so reinforce von
Balthasar’s own self-definition against Hegel. The present work is unusual in that, while it
recognizes the limitations of Hegel’s logic, and its undramatic features, it does not move as
quickly as Brito does to portray von Balthasar as having solved Hegel’s difficulties and made
good an escape from his influence. Instead it takes a second look at whether von Balthasar’s
theology really succeeds in what Brito and von Balthasar himself claim him to have achieved.


in another sense a truly ‘catholic’ thinker in the depth of his knowledge
and use of the pre-Reformation traditions of Christian theology). Barth
emerges as a powerful proponent of the importance of time and of action
in understanding the relationship between God and creatures aright.
According to Barth, God acts in radical freedom, and is known in his acts.
His theology is a theology of encounter – and the extent to which it tries
to let the Bible speak in its own terms is a mark of his concern to show that
God is known better in narrated interaction than in abstraction from such
narratives. He is deeply important for von Balthasar’s own thought – and
quite likely one of the main reasons von Balthasar developed his conception of theodramatics at all. Certainly, his approach offers a decisive reinforcement of the choice of dramatic categories and metaphors by theology
when thinking about revelation and history.
For Barth, the subject matter of theology remains, first and last, the
God who calls human beings into a more than merely intellectual relationship with him; the personal God, who claims human persons in their
totality, leaving nothing untouched and nothing untransformed; the living God of the Bible and of faith; the one who is the only genuine ‘Subject’
of history. All history ripples out from (just as its meaning converges on)
his decisive act in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, by which he implements
his eternal decision to be in fellowship with his creatures. Revelation has
a form (Christ’s form), part of which is an historical Tendenz (Christ’s history). And all things – all things – are made sense of in relation to this
form. Creation is only understood when recognized as the outer ground
of the covenant made eternally in Christ. No useful doctrine of creation
can be ‘fleshed out without reference to the covenantal purposes of God’;
and no worthwhile anthropology can be devised independently of ‘reflection upon the true, restored humanity disclosed in Christ’.24 Thus, what
is called Barth’s ‘christocentrism’ (which von Balthasar, as is often said,
shares) is born. Von Balthasar puts it like this:
in everything that pertains to [the] world – the riches offered by
creation: science, art, technology – [Barth] never for a moment
abstracts from the light that Christ radiates upon these riches.25

Barth had a comprehensiveness of vision to which von Balthasar too
aspired, and which for him, as for Barth, was illuminated by the light
24 Bruce McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and
Development 1909–1936 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), p. 454.
25 Barth., p. 210/ET, p. 197.



Theology and the Drama of History

of Christ. In a way von Balthasar was to imitate, Barth saw Christ as the
concretissimum, and not latent or passive but vibrantly active as such, in
a dramatic personal history which animates and gives meaning to everything else: that means ‘the vibrancy of both Scripture and tradition and
the development of dogma’,26 as well as the life of the creation in its ordering to (or for the sake of) the covenant between Christ and his Church.
Barth’s account of revelation, like von Balthasar’s, sees it as a moment in
a drama ‘in Christ’, between the believer and God, which decisively recasts
the way history is accounted for and understood. His theology seeks to
convey the full implications of this insight:
Barth focuses on the Word, fully and exclusively, that its full splendour
might radiate out to the reader. Who but Barth has gazed so
breathlessly and tirelessly on his subject, watching it develop and
blossom in all its power before his eyes?27

It should be clear that in his concern with the ‘actual’, and in his manifest influence on von Balthasar, Barth’s work has much to contribute to
the idea of a theodramatics. The presumption of this present study is
that in revisiting Barth’s thought directly (and not just in its Balthasarian mediations), it continues to have much to contribute to the idea of a
theodramatics – and especially to that idea’s repair and reinforcement
at crucial points where von Balthasar and Hegel fail it. For his concern
with the ‘concrete and historical aspects of ontology’ is in the end perhaps even more tenacious than theirs, and his determination ‘to draw all
intraworldly being and essence . . . to the concrete, personal and historical Logos’ perhaps even more radical – though he has genuine weaknesses
too as a theological dramatist, which von Balthasar was among the first to
point out.28 Both Barth’s weaknesses and his corrective strengths will be
looked at in the second half of the book.

Summary of chapters
As already registered in the previous sections, there is a difficulty in trying
to isolate from one another a consideration of cast, stage and action respectively. For this reason, rather than artifically separating them out, I have
made the deliberate decision to keep all three concerns to the fore during
the course of the book, and particularly in the three central chapters, all
of which are subtitled ‘The Cast, the Stage and the Action’. Consequently,
26 Ibid., p. 26/ET, p. 16.

27 Ibid., p. 36/ET, p. 26.

28 Ibid., p. 351/ET, p. 341.


they will always be to hand, as accompanying themes. This enables the
focus of the book’s interest to move about, and allows a range of conversation partners to be brought in alongside von Balthasar and Hegel (and at
some points, especially in chapter 4, in place of Hegel), while leaving it free
at any stage to refer its conclusions directly to the nexus of concerns the
chapters have in common. So, for example, although chapter 2 is explicitly
concerned with the question of free agency (and therefore ‘cast’), it cannot follow through this concern without developing an interest in Hegel’s
politics and crucial dimensions of von Balthasar’s ecclesiology (questions
of ‘stage’). It also introduces the importance of ‘action’ by acknowledging
how von Balthasar’s saints and Hegel’s ‘great men of history’ are ‘plotted’
in relation to historical developments. This means, in turn, that chapter 3’s
explicit concern with history, when we come to it, will have been prepared
for by the previous chapter. It will issue, too, quite properly into the eschatological questions discussed in chapter 4, which are integral to the theologian’s historical consciousness. Chapter 4 will also, in its identification
of the importance of what it will call the ‘existential register’, be returning deliberately to the question of freedom, taking further the work of
chapter 2.
The divisions between the chapters are thus designed more to reflect
the stages of the argument than to be separate and subsequent treatments
of the ‘components’ of drama. They are the stages of a progressive ‘unveiling’ of the resources of theodramatic thought in relation to all of the three
interrelated concerns we have just outlined. This will make possible the
fifth chapter, in which I uncover the risks of a certain kind of analogical thinking for a theodramatic approach to questions of cast, stage and
action – showing important connections between von Balthasar’s use of
analogy and his ecclesiology (the ‘structure’ within which he locates all of
his ‘subjects’). This will be a natural development of the concerns of the
preceding chapters. It will be the concentration of earlier themes in the
form of an issue which, in the scheme of von Balthasar’s theology, underlies them all: the ecclesial nature of human reality. It will issue into a final
chapter in which the role of the Holy Spirit, as the one who animates the
Church’s life, is considered in its historical dimensions.
Having established the principle behind the organisation of the
chapters – and especially the central three – I now move to a summary of
their content and argument.
Chapter 1 establishes an enquiry into the very notion of ‘drama’ and ‘the
dramatic’, out of which all this book’s subsequent concerns will emerge.



Theology and the Drama of History

It argues that, in von Balthasar’s hands, theodramatics comes to life in
the distinctive way it does because of a momentous debt to the Hegelian
project. As we have seen, drama is acknowledged in Hegel’s scheme as having a unique dignity. The reason for this is its capacity to unify acting
subjects and individual freedoms – overcoming their plurality without
suppressing their distinctive particularities. Drama maintains particularity, but insists on a higher unity achieved by the dynamic flow of the action.
It is therefore, we will note in a later part of the book, profoundly in accord
with that flowing dynamism that characterizes Hegel’s Phenomenology of
Spirit, and the extraordinary attempt at the ‘unifying of particulars’ which
he offers us there. Hegel’s respect for drama is a feature of his remarkable
vision of what a philosophical ‘system’ might be. In a manner of speaking, he ‘dramatizes’ system: attempting not to set his system over against
historical events and cultural change (as a kind of abstraction from them),
but rather to incorporate history and culture as integral parts of the totality which he is trying to bring to expression.
Von Balthasar, more than any other theologian this century, ‘dramatizes’ theological system in Hegelian fashion. It is a vast attempt to incorporate particulars – simultaneously respecting them for their distinct and
concrete ‘natural’ integrity, and insisting on their relation to a totality
which moves to express itself in them. His theology situates particulars
in an ‘absolute’ context, but without abstracting from their historical
mode of being. His is not intended to be a system dependent on timeless
abstraction. Towards the end of the chapter, I hope to have shown how
this sets von Balthasar in contrast with some dominant strands of postEnlightenment thought.
Chapter 2 is the first of the three interrelated chapters which look at
cast, stage and action. It leads to the heart of the major question of freedom
(especially of individual freedoms’ dependence on a shaping environment
with certain necessary, positive features), and establishes its continuing
importance for the chapters that follow. The distinctive character of this
chapter is its attentive desire for ‘retrieval’. In other words, it wants first
to listen both to Hegel and to von Balthasar – mostly on their own terms –
and sympathetically establish similarities between them before undertaking a critique of either.
An important concern of this chapter will be to take Hegel’s political writing seriously in relation to von Balthasar’s thought on freedom.
This has not been a feature of any other studies of von Balthasar, plenty of
which talk about the problems of Hegel’s ‘logic’, and his views on religion


and history, while ignoring the political seed-bed of his thought. Admittedly, it is harder to argue for an explicitly Hegelian influence on von
Balthasar in the area of his understanding of freedom, and of its presuppositions and entailments, than it is with specific regard to drama. But if
there is an Hegelian influence at all on von Balthasar, then the political
is at least covertly part of it. Hegel was a political thinker from his very
earliest writings, and his concern with maintaining the full reciprocity of
individual human freedoms was never developed in isolation from a concern with institutions. Chapter 2 will show that this concern is matched
in von Balthasar’s thought by a developed ordering of creaturely freedom to participation in the positive institutions of Church life. In arguing for the significance of this similarity, it will suppose that to borrow
the Hegelian construal of drama (as that which expresses the interrelation of acting subjects in a wider unity) is already to have imported a background of thought about the character of freedom that has political features. Drama gives a representation (Vorstellung) of the same movement of
Spirit that informs Hegel’s conception of freedom-in-society. You cannot
have one and be unaffected by the other. And this means that a very fruitful
and important comparison can be opened up between Hegel’s treatment
of the State and the individuals within it, and von Balthasar’s treatment
of the Church and Christians (especially Christian saints). In precisely this
area, the chapter will point to the significance of a parallel between Hegel’s
and von Balthasar’s commendation of the virtue of ‘indifference’29 as (in
part) a solution to the difficulty of how multiple freedoms can be brought
into the service of something more substantial than their own whims or
idiosyncratic goals.
The approach has the ‘sympathetic’ character that is a distinguishing
mark of the chapter. But the material which such an approach makes it
possible to retrieve and identify will be returned to in later chapters, and
considerably more critically. This will be particularly true of the notion of
‘indifference’ just mentioned, along with the approach to freedom in and
through institutions which emerges in its distinctive Balthasarian and
Hegelian emphases. Furthermore, at the close of the chapter, a question
will be brought to the fore that has been implicit in what has gone before,
and this, too, will prepare for a more critical stage of the book yet to come.
It will raise the question of the form of narration appropriate to telling

29 ‘Indifference’ here having the particular sense of indeterminacy, or the refusal to



Theology and the Drama of History

the story of individual freedoms in relation to their embracing context. In
other words, this is the point at which the question of history comes fully
into the foreground. The chapter also begins to expose the eschatological
suppositions that underlie historical narration from a Christian point of
view, and so points forward to chapter 4 as well.
As we have noted, ‘the drama of God himself’ is the drama with the
widest conceivable horizons: all history participates in it. Both Hegel and
von Balthasar have an idea of how this drama will be resolved; of what history is moving towards; and of how one is most effectively to lend oneself to this movement. Having said that, it is when considering Hegel’s
attitude to history that von Balthasar’s distaste for the ambitious comprehensiveness of his scheme will become most apparent; and here that he
will reinvoke the continued and irreducible importance of drama at the
point where Hegel seeks to subsume it into a newly ‘prosaic’ philosophical resolution. It is here that von Balthasar’s very Barthian ‘critical realism’ (the underpinning of his Herrlichkeit project) will come into its own
as a means of re-dramatizing the movement of history and keeping the
stakes of human freedom high. God’s glory bursts unpredictably upon the
philosopher’s twilight.
Chapter 3, then, represents the point at which the Balthasarian critique
of Hegel is more fully acknowledged, and is allowed to move the book
forward. For despite the similarities in their respective accounts of how
human freedom finds expression, von Balthasar vehemently criticizes
Hegel’s failure to safeguard the integrity of human freedom, and his
tendency to subsume it instead into a more impersonal movement. Von
Balthasar thereby makes the question of freedom a locus for drawing one
of his starker contrasts between what philosophy can say inadequately
and what in his view theology (and especially theodramatic theology)
can say so much better in relation to how history is conceived and
In allowing room for this Balthasarian critique, it will be valuable to
take something of the edge off it with the help of the ‘thicker’ descriptions of Hegel’s thought put forward by Gillian Rose, Rowan Williams
and others. But, it will be argued, von Balthasar has a point, and one that
deserves close attention. He demonstrates the particularly Hegelian aspect
of the problem of bringing ‘subjects’ and ‘structures’ together (a problem
identifiable when a description of individual freedom intersects with a
concern to narrate history).


In a way that maintains this book’s interest in how literary art identifies and depicts such problems, we will spend considerable time in this
chapter considering the challenges to historical narration of what we call
the ‘tragic’ question. We do this principally because of the way it focuses
characteristics of the dramatic genre in a peculiarly effective way. It helps
us to develop (following chapter 1) what begins to be a crucial contrast
with narrowly ‘epic’ forms of interpretation and narration, and especially
(at this stage) the form they take in Hegel’s thought.
The distinction of real concern, here, will be between the ‘dramatic’
(some of whose crucial features the chapter uses tragedy to illustrate) and
the narrowly ‘epic’; it is not between ‘tragic’ and ‘comic’, nor is comedy, in
our terms, identifiable with ‘epic’. This is important. Like von Balthasar, I
do not work with a view of comedy as the all-reconciling comprehension
of difference, nor do I see it as asserting (in contrast with tragedy) a ‘higher’
and more serene view-point on the world and its conflicts. Rather, I agree
with von Balthasar that tragedy and comedy, though equally tempted by
translations into epic, are equally (at their best) able to offer alternatives
to it. In this respect, ‘there is no clear distinction’ between them (TD I,
p. 397/ThD 1, p. 424). Neither trumps or sublates the other, and ‘man cannot see where their lines intersect in infinity’ (TD I, p. 409/ThD 1, p. 437).
Both tragedy and comedy deal in ‘the unexpected and unhoped-for’ (TD I,
p. 408/ThD 1, p. 436). Von Balthasar can see an ‘idealist’ tendency to make
comedy into something less than dramatic, just as it does in the case
of tragedy. Many nineteenth-century commentators celebrate what they
see as comedy’s assertion of a great (and perceptible) identity behind the
interactions of characters: an ‘epic’ vision in which we are peaceful, clear,
autonomous onlookers. But he denies the adequacy of this view in favour
of ‘the great tradition of genuinely interpersonal conflict’ (TD I, p. 415/ThD
1, p. 443) which is as much the birth-right of comedy as of tragedy. He does
not, in short, wheel out a facile notion of comedy as the genre of ‘happy
It is at the end of chapter 3 that the book most explicitly examines von
Balthasar’s category of ‘glory’, and introduces the resources of trinitarian
theology, which will remain to the fore from then onwards.30 It is in the
context of his trinitarian theology that von Balthasar’s delicate ordering
30 In relation to von Balthasar’s trinitarian thought in particular, it will build on Gerard
O’Hanlon’s excellent book The Immutability of God in the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).



Theology and the Drama of History

of creaturely (‘extended’) freedom to divine, super-abundant, (‘intensive’)
self-giving perfection is set out. Von Balthasar’s trinitarianism (and resultant metaphysic of love) will be shown to be the main component of his
explicit self-definition against Hegel.
In chapter 4 a stage of the book begins in which I am concerned
to re-examine von Balthasar himself with a newly critical eye, in order
to begin the work of crafting a theodramatic approach to history that
while benefitting from his insights will be freer of his failings. A particular feature of this critique is that it measures von Balthasar in some
of the same ways that he measures Hegel (and other ‘epic’ thinkers). His
method of imaginatively reapplying Hegel’s contrast between his genres
to reveal the philosopher’s deficiencies, sanctions in turn a similarly creative application of the typology where his own theology is concerned. This
enables us to see that he is not true to what he himself sees as the best
insights of drama when it comes to the sensitive theological handling of
The chapter introduces a contrast with Karl Barth in order to assist
its critique. Barth acts here as something of a trojan horse, because he
is regarded by von Balthasar as a theologian with ‘epic’ characteristics –
one who is sometimes, indeed, compared directly with Hegel. According
to von Balthasar, Barth’s failure, like Hegel’s, is an inability to preserve
the importance of ‘subjects’ in relation to the ‘structures’ in which they
exist – in Barth’s case, the ‘structure’ of the great christological narration,
which encompasses all history and is charged with a powerful eschatological confidence. But Barth, though vulnerable to many of von Balthasar’s
criticisms, becomes the source of a reversed challenge to his critic. This
comes to light in the context of the category of the ‘existential’, which does
31 Some critique is sorely needed here. Much of the recent work on von Balthasar contributes
to what might be called a ‘eulogistic’ genre of Balthasarian studies, often identifiable with
the journal (and movement) Communio of which von Balthasar was a co-founder. These books
avoid raising the really critical challenges to von Balthasar which would allow new
developments of his thought, and open him to a wider audience. They often set out simply to
rehearse many of von Balthasar’s own opinions, and include Angelo Scola’s book Hans Urs von
Balthasar: A Theological Style (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1995), Breandan Leahy’s The Marian
Principle in the Church according to Hans Urs von Balthasar (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1995) and
the majority of essays in (eds.) Bede McGregor’s and Thomas Norris’s The Beauty of Christ: An
Introduction to the Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1994). John
Saward’s book The Mysteries of March: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Incarnation and Easter
(London: Collins, 1990) also tends to remain satisfied with the (very elegant) restatement of
what von Balthasar himself has already said, as do Aidan Nichols’s three companions to von
Balthasar’s trilogy, The Word Has Been Abroad: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Aesthetics (Edinburgh:
T and T Clark, 1998); No Bloodless Myth: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Dramatics (Edinburgh:
T and T Clark, 2000); Say it is Pentecost: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Logic (Edinburgh: T and T
Clark, 2001).


not relativize the claims of particular people and events however tempting
it might be to impose on them a reductive theory or superordinate ‘grand
plan’. Barth shows himself by the end of the chapter to be a vigorous champion of the particularity of creaturely freedom, above all in the medium of
his ‘close readings’ of situations and texts, where the challenge not to relativize is at its most acute. By way of an examination of von Balthasar’s
literary-critical skills, we find him, by contrast, wanting. He is often a disappointing or irresponsible reader – not only of dramas, nor even just of
certain of his philosophical or theological sources,32 but of the dramatically generative texts of scripture. And the reason for this seems to be
an instinct, despite all his protestations, to bring ‘subjects’ into a narratable framework of structured legibility, which will always have identifiably Christian hallmarks.
The category of the ‘existential’, the contrast with Barth, and the
literary-critical tests which are put to von Balthasar lead back in a fresh
way to the heart of the question of freedom and therefore of history – and
of how both are best to be respected in Christian theology. Von Balthasar’s
promotion of ‘indifference’, whose Hegelian resonances were attended
to in chapter 2, can now be subjected to a much more serious critique,
as his attempt at a theodramatics reveals itself to have an identifiably
‘epic’ strain. For all von Balthasar’s advocacy of the importance of creaturely freedom, indifference (issuing in obedience) seems to operate as a
mechanism for coping with what von Balthasar finds an unwholesome
provisionality and diversity in the collective human negotiation of existence. (It is observed that his characterization of human sin as, principally, ‘pride’ – or, often, ‘Prometheanism’ – is much narrower than Barth’s
additional considerations of ‘sloth’, ‘falsehood’ and so on. This narrow
identification of the ‘problem’ seems to correlate with the restrictiveness
of the ‘solution’: namely, indifference, or obedience. It is, moreover, a
hard ‘problem’ to answer with a really wholehearted commendation of
32 In this connection, a good example has been highlighted recently by John Webster in
his chapter on ‘Balthasar and Karl Barth’ in Edward T. Oakes and David Moss (eds.), The
Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs von Balthasar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
Webster remarks of von Balthasar’s brilliant but flawed reading of Barth’s ‘development’ that
‘[t]he strength of his interpretation (its “sense of the whole”) is also its weakness, in that it
leads Balthasar to read Barth too schematically, searching for his “deepest intuitions”, on the
basis of this hermeneutical principle: “before attending to a particular theological object, we
will have to take great care to bring to light the unity underlying inner intention and outer
language”. As a means of resisting the well-worn paths of Catholic polemic, and as an
attempt to see Barth whole, the point is well taken. But when deployed in constructing a
genetic account, it is at certain key points an insufficiently complex presentation, and one
which sustains its interpretation only at cost to the full scope of Barth’s concerns’ (p. 248).



Theology and the Drama of History

freedom, however much, on other grounds, von Balthasar wants to make
that commendation.)
The critique of von Balthasar opened up by chapter 4 is sustained and
developed during the course of a consideration of analogical thinking and
its appropriateness to theodramatics in chapter 5. Von Balthasar’s use of
analogy is meant to be an alternative to Hegel’s overwhelming subsumption of God under an identity with the world and its history. Nevertheless,
in his hands, analogy still does what Hegelian identity did, which is to give
too tidy a ‘frame’ to the theological articulation of the divine-human relationship. It therefore reveals again, and at a deeper level, his ‘epic’ side. The
dramatic room for creative response in the ‘space’ of relationship which
analogy leaves open between creatures and God is restricted because von
Balthasar forces that openness into a tighter service of his ecclesiological
priorities than is warranted. He identifies ‘patterns’ in the analogical relation between God and humanity which he maps onto ecclesial institutions
and forms of life, and, in doing so, also does violence to the relationship
between the open ‘space’ of temporal unfolding and the open ‘space’ of
relationship with God, in both of which creaturely freedom (and therefore
drama) need to breathe. He therefore cramps the most promising possibilities of his own trinitarian theology hinted at in chapter 3; and devalues the importance of time for the Christian believer. The critique of the
Balthasarian style of theodramatic approach which gradually emerged in
chapers two, three and four thus ends by being focused here, in his doctrine of the Church and the Christian life, at the point where his vision (of
what the cast, the stage and the action of the theo-drama might be) capitulates most disappointingly to the dominance of ‘epic’.
In the final chapter, chapter 6, a new theodramatic model begins to be
developed, in conversation with a new thinker: the poet Gerard Manley
Hopkins. A strong theology of the Holy Spirit shows itself to be central to what Hopkins achieves, and points the way to a theodramatic
approach to history which is at once indebted to von Balthasar, Hegel and
Barth, but attempts to move beyond them, in meeting the demands of
the fresh criteria for a good theodramatics which its conversations with
them have helped to hone. The Spirit works to create and undergird a
‘space’ that is specifically an historical ‘space’, in which the divine incorporates the fullness of creaturely response to itself. It is proper for our
creaturely response to acknowledge, celebrate and work within the terms
of this historical space (rather than seeking to evade those terms), in the
way as humans we describe history and in the way we make institutions


and relationships in history. God gives gifts to guide and help with both
insight and construction; gifts to guide and help with thinking theologically about history so that we may live wisely within it. One of those gifts is
worship through the Holy Spirit. The chapter concludes by showing how
a pneumatological theodramatics sensitive to this historical vision of creaturely life and interpretation can go hand in hand with a vibrant eucharistic theology.
This is a book which does far more than summarize the thoughts of
Hegel, von Balthasar and Barth on theology and history. It uses points
of similarity and difference between them to go to the heart of what a
theodramatics might be. It aims to develop and pursue through its conversations with them a simultaneously appreciative and critical theology –
which is creative in its own right. What it can bring with it to this task as
a result of its conversations is the appreciation of drama as a more adequate source of categories for giving voice to the truth of creaturely life
before God than other genres (archetypally, ‘epic’ or ‘lyric’) can ever be – let
alone the categories of analytic philosophy and the scholastic textbooks. It
is able to argue that theological dramatic theory can yield a more nuanced
understanding of the ‘shaped’ character of Christian existence, and its
corporate context, than might otherwise be possible. It can also bring to
bear a more acute sensitivity to the relative importance of ‘diachronic’ and
‘logical’ (or ‘synchronic’) modes of evaluating actions and events in history.
We begin, then, with an examination of how drama might best be
understood, and its distinctive aspects best articulated.



Dramatizing theology

Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita . . .
(d a n t e , Inferno, line 1)

Like Dante, we are bound to take up the interpretative task from a position
always already ‘in the middle’ of life. We are always already players in the
movement of this drama.
In his celebrated meditation on a public execution and the crowd which
gathers around to see it, Michel Foucault also articulates this condition
of all our interpretative endeavours. ‘The eternal game’, he writes, ‘has
already begun.’ The drama of life and death displayed on and around the
scaffold invites us to consider this fact in a particularly concentrated way.
It prompts us to ask with a certain urgency how we are to read this ‘eternal
game’, when we do not have a clear view of where its beginnings were, and
what its true end ought to be. Some gain from the experience a glimpse of
justice and some of martyrdom, some an intimation of paradise and some
of damnation. There is, as Foucault says:
an ambiguity in this suffering that may signify equally well the truth
of the crime or the error of the judges, the goodness or the evil of the
criminal, the coincidence or the divergence between the judgement of
men and that of God. Hence the insatiable curiosity that drove the
spectators to the scaffold to witness the spectacle of sufferings truly
endured; there one could decipher crime and innocence, the past and
the future, the here below and the eternal. It was a moment of truth
that all the spectators questioned: each word, each cry, the duration
of the agony, the resisting body, the life that clung desperately to it, all
this constituted a sign.1
1 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The birth of the prison, Alan Sheridan (trans.)
(Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979). For his stimulating reading of the Foucault passage I am


Dramatizing theology

In the middle of the journey of our life, all our experience comes to us in
some way like this: inviting but not satiating our curiosity; activating us
as readers (or interpreters) but not eradicating the ambiguities of what we
witness; leaving it unclear how the ‘signs’ are to be read. The excitement as
much as the difficulty stem from the fact that we do not stand outside, or
above, the drama. Its lineaments – its shape (if it has one) – are not available
to us in toto. We do not have a clear view of its beginnings or of its end. So
when Foucault reminds us that the drama on his scaffold is a game ‘already
begun’, to which we subsequently come, he reminds us of what is true of
all our experience: as interpreters, we do not ‘precede’ our material.
There is more to be taken into account, however, than this simple
denial of our ‘precedence’ can convey. Though we do not supervise its origins, we do not simply ‘arrive’ at our experience like spectators. We are
invested in our experience, and it is invested in us. As well as being constituted as interpreters by our experience, our experience is also in its
turn constituted by our interpretations. Our practices of ‘reading’ affect
it. Our ‘poetic’ (constructive) imagination has an influence on what is
subsequently communicated to our senses.2
The scaffold itself can be seen as a metaphor of this. Whether the platform for an execution like the one Foucault describes, or the stage for a
theatrical play (or even the apparatus and method chosen for a particular scientific experiment), the ‘scaffold’ is a means of conveying the drama
of life and death to the crowd gathered around it. But it is the spectators
themselves, in a sense, who construct the very stage on which their experience comes to them. They themselves have put the scaffold there – as well
as the drama which takes place on it. The scaffold is set up by a society for
the staging of its shared experiences and common search for the truth, and
it does not stand in neutral isolation from the play of passion and interrogation which presses around it.
This reveals yet another dimension to the ‘middle’ from which we try
to read the world. It is a social, and discursive, middle: one in which ‘all the
spectators question’. Because new circumstances are always arriving, the
grateful to Adrian Poole. His lectures on ‘Tragedy’ in the University of Cambridge played a
very significant part in shaping my approach to von Balthasar’s theology, and I am indebted
to him at a number of points.
2 John Milbank articulates this powerfully in his chapter entitled ‘A Christological Poetics’
in The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 123–44; see
especially p. 130. He describes the ‘poetic’ existence of humankind as related (as ‘a mode of
knowledge’) to the ‘integral activity’ by which we develop as human beings. Our products
(which are the scaffolding for our own experiences) carry ‘the presence of our human
community’ (ibid., p. 125), even as they ‘dispossess’ us and act in new ways upon us.



Theology and the Drama of History

questions do not stop coming – the truth is always, so to speak, ‘under construction’. It is socially borne, subject to continuous review, and so never
absolutely framed.
Those commentators who link an interest in drama to such convictions
about how we know and interpret truth are, I believe, right. In Rowan
Williams’ words, it is because:
knowledge is essentially participatory (not in the sense of a
transcendental pre-conscious union of subject and object, but as
recognition of a place within a network of relations), [that] it is
inseparable from history and praxis . . .3

And that is the spirit in which we are to read von Balthasar’s assertion that
in anything other than a most basic sense there is ‘no neutral “teachable”
truth’ (TD i, p. 16/ThD 1, p. 16; translation amended). The essential connection between this view of knowledge and the way that language works is
also an explicit feature of von Balthasar’s theology. In order to understand
anything, we must belong in a world, and one of the key ways in which that
happens is by the fact that we are first ‘admitted’ to language.4
It is the aim of this chapter to show why theology might seek to draw
so heavily on drama’s resources. The first outline of an answer is already
beginning to emerge: it is a response to the need to read the world from
the middle: passionately, socially and discursively. But we are bound to
give more substance to this outline. We need to take account of the detail
of what an option for drama would actually involve: to ask (rather than
to take for granted) what makes drama drama. Our way of approaching
this ‘genre question’, therefore, (a way which seeks to avoid the danger of
abstraction, and of moving too quickly to concepts) will be to attend first
to dramas themselves.
Von Balthasar’s value as a central dialogue partner in this area has
already been established in the introduction to this book. Here he sets
3 Rowan Williams, ‘Balthasar and Rahner’ in John Riches, The Analogy of Beauty: The Theology
of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1986), p. 26.
4 Von Balthasar stressed the importance of language as a gift from God, and a sign of the way
persons are embraced by a shared system of communication from the very beginning in which
the Divine is implicit. He writes that ‘the word of God must be written into the word of Being,
the word of Being into the words of creatures which are exchanged as comprehensible words
among existent creatures’ (H iii/1, p. 961/GL 5, p. 631; cf. also H iii/1, pp. 962–3/ GL 5,
pp. 633–4, and Ganze, chapter 7). This gift of language is a parallel to the way the child
receives a consciousness of self, and of a wider realm of Being, from the smiling face of its
mother (H iii/1, pp. 945–7/GL 5, pp. 615–17). As we shall see (see chapter 2, note 128 below),
both Hegel and von Balthasar place much emphasis on the fact that language is
simultaneously communal and constitutive of the self; it is external to the individual and yet
the medium of his or her self-expression.

Dramatizing theology

an example worth following. An attention to dramas themselves is precisely what he himself displays in the Prolegomena to Theodramatik. In this
respect, he continues his earlier work Herrlichkeit’s sustained argument for
the importance of attending to concrete reality and resisting the abstractions of universalizing philosophical theories, and he confirms the justice of Werner Loser’s
description of him as a ‘theological phenomenolo¨
gist’. Von Balthasar laments the fact that ‘Concepts have taken the place
of images that can be contemplated.’6 He thought that much philosophical thought in the post-Enlightenment period had been inattentive to the
revelatory power of the particular, in its haste to achieve clear and precise
ideas with a universal application. This for him could not be Christian: it
was not the metaphysics of the saints. As Francesca Murphy has put it:
The revealed ‘myth’ of the resurrection reminds philosophy that it
relies upon the ‘conversio ad phantasma’, the turning of the mind toward
images of facts.7

To the extent, therefore, that von Balthasar’s theological method is itself
‘phenomenological’, we do no violence to it by beginning with a look at
the ‘phenomena’ in order the better to come to an understanding of what
makes drama drama. On the contrary, we will be enabled to encounter
him, in the first instance, on ground which is largely shared, and will find
ourselves all the more sympathetic to the categories which von Balthasar
himself develops.
It will be valuable at the same time, though, to think freshly and
directly with the material he himself used, in order to gather independent resources (not only those he gives us) for a critical examination of
what he does with his dramatic material, and a constructive development
of new dramatic resources that go beyond his own. Von Balthasar is a powerful and attractive thinker, and when he so seductively draws the world’s
itineraries of thought together and interprets them for his magnificently
comprehensive vision, a certain determination is required if one is to be
able at crucial moments to think ‘against’ him. And so this first section
5 Werner Loser,
Im Geistes des Origenes: Hans Urs von Balthasar als Interpret der Theologie der
Kirchenvater (Frankfurt: Knecht, 1976), p. 11; quoted in Louis Roberts, The Theological Aesthetics
of Hans Urs von Balthasar (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1987), p. 34.
6 Romano Guardini, Die Sinne und die religi ¨ose Erkenntnis: zwei Versuche uber
die christliche
Vergewisserung (Zurich:
Arche, 1950); quoted in H i, p. 377/GL 1, p. 390.
7 Francesca Murphy, Christ the Form of Beauty: A Study in Theology and Literature (Edinburgh:
T and T Clark, 1995), p. 156. We will return at the end of this chapter to suggest some of the
remarkable ways in which von Balthasar defines himself against the ‘modern’ precisely by
making a commitment to the mobile and particular dramatic form as a medium for truth.



Theology and the Drama of History

goes to the sources – to the first extraordinary emergence of drama in the
West – and begins in the middle of an actual play: Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.

The genre question: the Greeks
If we attend to the Agamemnon, it begins to be apparent how various genres,
or poetic perspectives, represent moments which contribute to the dense
and complex effect of drama; these are moments rescued from their onesidedness by being interrupted, taken up, patterned, mutually disciplined
by drama’s combining of them. The combination of different poetic styles
in this way can achieve a two-pronged attack upon the audience which
effects a devastating capitulation to an engrossing and immediate dramatic moment.
I am using the language of ‘poetic style’ in this section (and elsewhere
referring in similar vein to poetic ‘moments’ or ‘voices’) not in the service
of a narrow characterization of the poetry’s metre (though the metre of
course makes an important contribution to the overall effect of the poetry).
I am making a broader point about the poetry’s various ways of ‘styling’
(and that means presenting and interpreting) its material. In other words,
‘epic’, ‘lyric’ and ‘dramatic’ stand for entire ways of looking at things:
they are three different poetic styles in the sense of three different kinds
of poetic perspective. Thus it is quite legitimate to talk in terms of ‘lyric
memory and forecast’ as of things proper to lyric’s own distinctive perspective, and as different from (for example) ‘epic’ memory or recall. It is
possible to describe lyricism as that which works ‘by association of ideas
[through the power of imagery and the restless configuration of symbols]
rather than in obedience to order in time, [taking us] deep away into the
past, the future, and the elsewhere’.8 In the highly developed tradition
of nondramatic poetry (both epic and lyric) on which the early tragedians
drew, these differences of perspective and approach were already in place,
and in tragedy we can witness the chorus (for example) moving distinctly
from speech ‘in character’ into long choral lyrics, into epic recountings,
and back into character again. It will be shown shortly that this identification of poetic style as more than merely metrical or formal style is in line
with Hegel’s own typological approach to poetic genre, and to some extent
Hegel’s distinctions are already presupposed in the present section.
So, for example, we witness the extraordinary power of what may be
called the ‘lyric’ utterances of the prophetess Cassandra at the point when
8 Richmond Lattimore, ‘Introduction’ in Aeschylus I: Oresteia, David Grene and Richmond
Lattimore (eds.) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 20.

Dramatizing theology

Agamemnon has vanished off stage into his palace to meet an unsuspected
death. The warrior king is freshly returned from victory in the Trojan
Wars, to his adulterous wife Clytemnestra and to her bitter fury at him
for sacrificing the life of their daughter so as to win a fair wind for his
becalmed fleet. Agamemnon has not, it seems, seen through the pretended
warmth of her welcome, and does not know what awaits him across the
threshold of his own home. It is a moment of high tension, in which the
intensity of anticipation provides a ground for the poetry to take effect.
Cassandra enters a frenzy and this alarms the chorus intensely. Why?
Because the chorus clings to a hope that it will be able to read its experience straightforwardly and without itself being implicated in the dark
prelude and ghastly entail of what it is witnessing. But Cassandra suggests
powerfully to the chorus that in truth it stands in a far more profound and
disordered relation to this experience than it likes to acknowledge. This
disturbing possibility that their reaction is actually an evasion, and hers
the more authentic response, presents itself forcefully in the medium of
her impassioned plunge into wild song.
Like the execution on Foucault’s scaffold, the clash of perspectives initiated by Cassandra’s song precipitates a crisis in how to read: it blurs the
boundaries of an experience that the chorus is trying to frame. The chorus
seeks to maintain a (supposedly) objective distance from the substance of
Cassandra’s prophecy:
Indeed we had heard of your prophetic fame;
but we seek no interpreters of the gods.
(lines 1098–9)9

but recognizes the unsustainability of its pretension to objectivity even as
Cassandra speaks. Its voices are unable, however hard they try, to avoid a
certain turbulent imaginative response to what she says.
Thus the scene begins to demonstrate the power of ‘lyric’ utterance
to affect and involve the imagination and emotions, as the resistance of
the chorus is broken down, and suddenly they are within an ‘unframed’
dramatic moment. Their position as observers and commentators is
complicated by their failure to remain detached, and the experience is
characterized by questioning. The chorus asks Cassandra:
From where have you the boundaries of your prophetic way?
(line 1154)

and, later, remarks:
9 Aeschylus, Agamemnon, Hugh Lloyd-Jones (trans.) (London: Duckworth, 1979).



Theology and the Drama of History

. . . the end I do not know.
(line 1177: my emphases)

It is the added ingredient of the unrationalized, inexplicable and
open-ended prompting (the prophecy, the hunch, the image) that is
Thyestes’ feast upon his children’s flesh
I understand and shudder at, and fear possesses me
as I hear it truly told and not in images.
But when I hear the rest I lose the track and run off the path.
(lines 1242–5)

Their alarm is perhaps related to the alarm of an audience to drama – to
our alarm – when we feel with real intensity the contagion of overwhelming emotive utterance, threatening to swamp a sought-for objective stance
(something we might describe as an ‘epic’ distance). Like the Agamemnon’s
chorus, we, as the audience to drama, are coaxed by images into a relationship with the facts of a situation where we no longer retain our bearings.
The lyric voice in a play is to us – the audience – what Cassandra is to the
chorus. It reminds us of a dimension in which songs and memories and
intimations enthrall our reason. We ‘lose the track’ of narrative inevitability, even when we know the play’s plot beforehand. The playwright commits himself in this way to persuading us into a position where we can be
knocked severely off balance.
This is not, of course, to say that dramatic experience is constituted
by the lyric moment alone and undifferentiated. Rather, it is lyricism as
it issues into the dramatically social dilemma of how critically to respond
to the sequence of events being played out before us; how to monitor and
judge what we receive together. We have just seen how drama can render
(and awaken in us) the acute immediacy of impulses which are beyond our
control. But there is more to take account of. As we have already hinted
in the opening paragraphs of this chapter, our agency is conditioned also
by the related fact of being ineluctably social (it involves entanglement with
the things experienced by other people). In this way, drama raises with
a particular, authoritative urgency not only the question of what it is to
be free (and not free), but more than that, to be free (and not free) in the
company of others.
If we turn to another play, we see again how the tragic playwright
wields the combined force of both lyric and non-lyric forms. This double battery is far more disturbing and heady than either on its own could

Dramatizing theology

possibly be. In Euripides’ Medea, the audience first hears the agonized,
primal (yet recognizably ‘lyrical’) groanings of the protagonist, coming
from off stage:
Ah, wretch! Ah, lost in my sufferings,
I wish, I wish I might die.
(lines 96–7)10

Medea is an outsider, a foreign sorceress, and the spurned wife of Jason,
whose children she has borne. It is these two children whom she will eventually murder, driven by her sense of betrayal and loss, her extreme jealousy, and her desire to hurt Jason in the most acute way available to her.
Again, it is in the tension of anticipation that the lyric voice first begins to
take its effect, feeding on the circumstances in which the audience’s imagination can run away with itself. What monstrous and desperate figure is
it that can groan as this voice groans?:
Oh, I wish
That lightning from heaven would split apart my head.
(lines 143–4; translation amended)

Yet, shortly afterwards, Medea appears on stage and is unexpectedly analytical and lucid in her explanation of her plight. Fully aware of the way
that society forms its judgements on issues and people (lines 218–19), she
makes a case for herself. She retains this quality of articulate advocacy in
arguments with Creon, Jason and Aegeus, often winning the assent of the
chorus. Medea shows herself adept at the language of political life when
she wants to be: her skill at it (especially following on the heels of the dark
and primitive rage of which she gave a token before appearing on stage)
sets up a deeply unsettling tension in the audience – especially, we can
imagine, in a normally xenophobic fifth-century Athenian audience. An
instinctive fear of the foreign and uncontrollable (fuelled by the sound of
Medea’s initial groaning) is followed by the shock of hearing one’s own
language (the language of formal supplication, and all the proper procedures that go with it – touching the beard, clasping the knees and so on)11
used by a stranger. The easy distinctions between monsters and barbarians
on the outside, and civilized interlocutors to whom one owes respect and
fair treatment on the inside, are utterly blurred. The monster is inside the

10 Euripides, The Medea in Euripides I: Four Tragedies, David Grene and Richmond Lattimore
(eds.) (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955).
11 Ibid., lines 324, 709–10.



Theology and the Drama of History

city walls, while the ‘civilized’ figures are themselves implicated in the monstrousness (witness the cruelty of Creon’s refusal to recognize Medea’s
case, plausible though it is in every aspect). The mixture of poetic forms –
wild song and clear argument – stand in their interweaving combinations
as evidence that clear distinctions between outside and inside are not to be
made in this dramatic situation. The audience responds, then, both intellectually and emotionally to the powerful figure of Medea on stage, but is
rocked between both kinds of response.
Several things emerge from this initial foray into drama which clarify
and consolidate our earlier reflections on how we interpret all our experiences. The first is the fact that pretensions to analytical distance militate
against the emergence of the ‘truth’ of drama; drama, in fact, makes it its
task to show the unsustainability of such pretensions. The truth of which
drama speaks is true in, and not apart from, a process of negotiated, discursive and emotional reception. It communicates a kind of truth not just
‘brutely given’, to use John Milbank’s phrase,12 but in motion in the imagination and interpretative activity of all those who participate in it. It is
not plausible in abstraction from the in-forming particulars of the human
characters who are implicated in one another and in the events and circumstances in whose middle they are. If we hope for the truth of this drama to
be disclosed to us, we must not try to step out of it, but must be drawn into
it more deeply.
Alongside the undercutting of attempts at analytical distance, these
brief encounters with Greek tragedy show emphases on the complex social
embodiment of truth. From this one may see that the alternative to the
‘brutely given’ is not the ‘banally free’ – a romp of private fancy and
indulgence without responsibility. Despite being uniquely hers, therefore, Cassandra’s lyrical song must (in drama) take its place as part of
a collective attempt to read the signs of what is being played out. The
search for truth – even the truth that resides in the particulars of human
experience – is a dramatically social search. The task of a certain kind
of framing, however inadequate it turns out to be, has to call us back
from the spurious belief that we can be left alone with ourselves (in an
unconstrained ‘inner space’, as it were). To deny this responsibility is a
flight from the stage – from what we have in common; from temporality,
embodiment and language; and so from the truth which drama seeks to
12 John Milbank, ‘Magisterial . . . and Shoddy?’, Studies in Christian Ethics 7:2 (1994),
pp. 29–34.

Dramatizing theology

The genre question: an emerging profile
of the ‘dramatic’
In the light of this initial exploration, it is possible to articulate those
things drama seems able to express which other genres on their own do
not. As we do so, we will find it possible to tally our conclusions with
those that arise in the course of von Balthasar’s own ‘phenomenology’ of
drama, particularly as they are summed up in the early section of Volume i
of Theodramatik entitled ‘Ortsbestimmungen’ (‘Orientations’). It is worth
spending a moment tracing these general descriptions before beginning
the close reading that will be necessary to show the more detailed contours
of his conception of drama – and, alongside it, the Hegelian conception
with which it has close parallels.
(i) Drama reflects the indeterminacy which typifies human life: the
unprogrammed and unforeseeable interactions of circumstance, compulsion and decision which are features of human existence. It can, in other
words, convey existential truth, in a powerful way.
Von Balthasar explicitly highlights this ‘existential’ dimension of
drama. It is in the ‘interplay of relationships’ which the theatre portrays –
and ‘probably nowhere else’, in von Balthasar’s view – that ‘we see so
clearly the questionable nature and ambiguity . . . of existence itself ’ (TD i,
p. 17/ThD 1, p. 17). And this is, for him, ‘the essence of theatre’. When it is
thus true to life, it has an authority which is difficult to resist. ‘[W]e are
drawn to watch it’, von Balthasar says; we recognize in it ‘the complications, tensions, catastrophes and reconciliations which characterize our
lives as individuals and in interaction with others’ – which is another way
of describing the historicality of our existence.
(ii) Drama works through the dynamic staging of ‘particulars’ (particular people; particular localities; particular actions and words) – not only in
a single performance, but often in a succession of performances through
time. Such ‘unity’ as it imparts to its particulars is dynamic and mobile in
This is something von Balthasar moves quickly to assert, too. Drama,
he says, ‘expands aesthetics into something new (and yet continuous with
itself )’. The ‘picture that can be seen’ in drama is one which has the character of ‘event’ (TD i, p. 17/ThD 1, p. 17). Drama is ‘concerned with what-isgoing-forward (Agogik)’ (TD i, p. 18/ThD 1, p. 18), and so with the particular
movements and the particular changing configurations of its characters.
(iii) Drama has an irreducibly social dimension to it. It is to some extent
social life’s staging of itself. What comes to an audience in drama comes to



Theology and the Drama of History

it as new and in need of interpretation, yet as we have already observed,
just as the crowd around Foucault’s scaffold has already to some extent
‘constructed’ the stage on which its experience comes to it (both literally,
and by its laws and mores and notions of justice), the audience around the
theatrical ‘scaffold’ has, by its shared commitment to this act of witness
and collective interpretation, ‘put the drama there’. The audience contributes to what it receives, in the mode of community, or social existence.
We touched previously on the relation that drama has to language in this
respect (p. 28 above). Our acquaintance with the signifying power of
drama, like that of language, is not achieved by a process of a priori inference, nor can it ever be ‘generally’ or ‘timelessly’ held to. It is sustained
by a kind of social witness, and in the form of particular ‘productions’
or ‘stagings’. This also, by analogy, gives us an insight into the origins
of human moral experience. The ‘good’, like language, can be seen as
embedded in particular interchanges and forms of imaginative construction to which drama gives a unique kind of testimony. All these things are
received and appropriated socially and ‘from the middle’ of our existence.
Von Balthasar shares this perspective, and himself remarks on the participatory character of our relationship to drama. ‘[W]e share responsibility for our own understanding’, he says, and this in turn makes a difference
to the ‘consequent expression’ of the drama’s significance. Drama implicates in a shared transaction not only those who present themselves on the
stage, but the audience as well. Von Balthasar remarks that ‘in the relationship between life and the stage, the boundaries between the two are
blurred’ (TD i, p. 18/ThD 1, p. 18). The blurred boundaries between audience and stage mean that everyone can be involved in the ‘working out’
of the good, which the stage invites us to. This leads him to make a point
which will be decisive for his theodramatic development of a theology of
the Christian life: there is a certain kind of truth which only action and
interaction can convey; a ‘proof ’ that can only be yielded ‘in terms of life’ –
no rational system of truths is adequate to it:
The good which God does to us can only be experienced as the truth
if we share in performing it (Jn 7:17; 8:31f.); we must ‘do the truth in
love’ . . . not only in order to perceive the truth of the good but, equally,
in order to embody it increasingly in the world.’
(TD i, p. 19/ThD 1, p. 20)

Finally, (iv) anticipation plays a vital role in drama. There is, as I have
argued, a vital unframeability to the dramatic experience. But the admission that ‘the end we do not know’ cannot, for drama to work, be

Dramatizing theology

just an admission of resignation. It must rather be the admission of an
on-going, consuming involvement in a work of interpretation by which
the audience invests itself, in some way, in what the outcome of these
events will be. Without anticipating – we might say, without hope – there
is no drama.
Von Balthasar is also absolutely committed to the importance of the
audience’s hopeful orientation to a horizon of meaning in its experience of
drama: it is here, above all, that he sees the worldly ‘phenomena’ of drama
(which for him, in this case, are theatrical plays) pointing towards an essential feature of theodramatic relation of the creature to God. The theatre, he
says, ‘holds fast to the question’ of how human existence relates to what is ‘allembracing’ (das Umgreifende). ‘And so long as the question continues to be
put, we can still hope for an answer. To that extent the theatre, in the background, is making its own contribution to fundamental theology’ (TD i,
p. 20/ThD 1, p. 21).
On the basis of what has been said so far (gleaned from consideration of the ‘phenomena’), it may be concluded that drama as an art form
is uniquely positioned to manifest complex, pluriform, multiply interpreted truth in changing circumstances. It is involving, particular, social and
anticipatory. But in von Balthasar’s view there is an aspect to drama which
has not been deduced from this examination of its empirical features, but
which is of overwhelming importance for his theological commitment to
it; an aspect which (once acknowledged) draws together with a particular
force the various other characteristics of drama we have looked at. It serves,
incidentally, to remind us that von Balthasar’s theological phenomenology does not represent any attempt at neutral empirical study – he is
dismissive of what that can yield. His interest in ‘phenomena’ is already
imbued with a worshipping conviction that God’s love in creation is to be
met in them. Approached thus (meeting love with love; sweeping ‘neutrality’ up into the vision of faith) von Balthasar is able to observe drama’s
unique suitability for giving expression to the ways of God; the form as well
as the content of God’s revelation of himself to us. This is because the selfrevelation of the living God also has to do with ‘what-is-going-forward’, to
recall von Balthasar’s phrase a second time. For von Balthasar that which is
revealed to us in Christ is not, in Murphy’s words, ‘a luminous icon, crystallized into immobile perfection. It is the beauty of an action. It shows
the dramatic movement within the Trinity to us.’13 In von Balthasar’s
13 Murphy, Form of Beauty, p. 146.



Theology and the Drama of History

The ‘forms’, ‘pictures’, ‘symbols’ which an ‘aesthetics’ can present . . .
are insufficient in themselves to interpret revelation in its absolutely
unique, definitive form and in terms of theological ‘universal validity’.
(TD i, p. 16/ ThD 1, p. 16)

God’s life itself, then, as revealed to us, is somehow dramatic. Equally, our
relationship to that life, because it has inescapably dramatic features, is
singularly well-expressed in the terms which drama offers – and for all the
reasons that we have indicated in a preliminary fashion: the revelation of
God’s gracious favour is existentially involving (it calls for response), particular (it participates in the temporality and contours of our life, and not
only safeguards but enhances our personhood), social (which is to say, at
the least, ecclesial), and anticipatory.
Our relation to God comes to be by God’s action, that is, the ‘good’ in
which we, too, are permitted to share by our actions. As von Balthasar puts
the divine ground actually approaches us unexpectedly; from its side;
paradoxically – and it challenges us to respond. And although this
unique phenomenon was described [in Herrlichkeit] in terms of ‘glory’,
it was increasingly clear from the outset that it withdrew farther and
farther away from any merely contemplative gaze and hence could not
be translated into any neutral truth or wisdom that can be ‘taught’.
What was manifest was a ‘light’ that cannot be bypassed and yet is
invisible; a word of incomparable precision, yet which can be expressed
equally well in the cry of a dying man, in the silence of death and in
what is ineffable . . .
(translation amended)

This is a vital statement of what von Balthasar understands his concern
with aesthetics to be aiming at: not a concern with the ‘static’, with formal
or timeless coherences or relations. Not for him a treatise on the divine
perfections which suppresses the fact that God’s life is (to translate the
German uber)
a ‘super-’ (or ‘supra-’) action.14 God’s is the divine dynamism
of a love utterly possessed because utterly donated, and most manifestly so
on the cross (hence the reference to the ‘cry of a dying man’ as a decisive and
glorious communication of truth). There will be a great deal more to say
about this ‘liveliness’ of the divine nature as the book develops, and especially in the final chapter. For now,though,remain with von Balthasar’s
own words:
14 For more discussion of the meaning of this prefix, see p. 148 below.

Dramatizing theology

If by ‘aesthetics’ we are thinking more of the act of perception or its
‘beautiful’ or ‘splendid’ object, we are succumbing to a static view
which cannot do justice to the phenomenon. Aesthetics must abandon
itself and go in search of new categories. . . . it is incumbent on us to
create a network of related concepts and images that may serve to make
secure, to some extent, the singular divine action in our understanding
and speech.
(TD i, p. 16/ThD 1, pp. 16–17)

Von Balthasar is after language, concepts and a register which will communicate a dramatic faith in a living God, founded in ‘a narrative both
particularizing and mobile’, drawing out ‘the imaginative meaning of the
metaphysical affirmations of Christian tradition’.15 In this narrative, ‘infinite freedom accompanies man . . . in God’s plan for the world’, rather than
bypassing his particularity and his existence in time (TD ii/1, p. 256/ThD 2,
p. 282).
The examples from drama at which this chapter has looked, and
my own provisional identification of certain general characteristics of
the genre, have been shown to bear a substantial resemblance to von
Balthasar’s own appreciation of what constitutes the ‘dramatic’ – but only
at the most general level. It is now necessary to fill out the content of these
conceptions of drama, and in relation to them to examine the philosophy
which of all the philosophies of the nineteenth century most explicitly recognized the dignity of drama as the art form truest to life: that of G. W. F.

The genre question: Hegel
The truth towards which the Agamemnon and the Medea pointed is that each
of the epic and lyric perspectives is important but insufficient in itself if
a properly dramatic perspective is to be opened up. As we saw, the pretension to ‘epic’ distance belonging to one kind of poetic stance militates
against the involving unframeability of drama, while the self-involving
‘lyricism’ belonging to another kind denies the discursive, embodied
sociality of drama. This is also, ostensibly, the truth to which Hegel tried
to do justice in the section on poetry in his lectures on aesthetics (or the
philosophy of fine art) – henceforth referred to as his Aesthetics.
Hegel, indeed, made this boldly worked out and subsequently
highly influential typology of the three genres – epic, lyric and
15 Murphy, Form of Beauty, p. 180.



Theology and the Drama of History

dramatic – nothing less than the culmination of his Aesthetics.16 And,
as Francesca Murphy mentions in passing in a 1993 article, and again
in a more recent book, von Balthasar directly derives this typology of
genre from Hegel and proceeds to use it theologically.17 With whatever
suspicion we come to regard the content of his analysis of Hegel’s genres,
there is no doubt that the broad lines of the typology offer a brilliant
instrument for appreciating the nature of drama itself. Von Balthasar,
whose academic training was as a ‘Germanist’, could hardly have taken up
the challenge of recasting dramatic theory in a theological way without
responding to what Hegel proffered at the close of his grand aesthetic
project. It is not surprising, then, that Hegel makes his first appearance at
a very early stage of the Prolegomena to Theodramatik.18 He demands to be
dealt with.
‘Hegel’s view of drama’, writes von Balthasar in Volume i of Theodramatik, ‘touches the nerve of our endeavour . . .’ (TD i, p. 50/ThD 1, p. 54).
His elevation of drama to its position as ‘the epitome of art’ is something
with which von Balthasar can only concur. In their commitment to and
respect for the art form, von Balthasar and Hegel are in complete agreement, and von Balthasar is happy to describe the Aesthetics as ‘one of the
richest and most felicitous of Hegel’s works’ ( H iii/1, p. 917/GL 5, p. 586;
translation amended). More than this, there is a basic commensurability
between the ways the two thinkers put their theories of drama to use. Von
Balthasar implies that his theological concerns are in direct continuity
with the concerns of Hegel’s philosophy of Spirit. The theodramatic theory ‘which forms the ultimate horizon of the present work’ (i.e. ‘In what
sense is the theological drama a drama of God himself?’) is ‘the theodramatic theory for which Hegel was ultimately searching’ (TD i, p. 64/ThD 1,
p. 69). Both have direct implications for the thinking of history.
A passage in Volume ii/1 of Theodramatik19 stands out as being of key
importance for understanding von Balthasar’s choice of the dramatic
genre as Theodramatik’s dominant idea, and for that reason it sheds important light on the whole of this central section of his theological trilogy. It
is all the more relevant for our purposes because it manifests a particularly
16 G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art (2 vols.), T. M. Knox (trans.) (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1975); from now on referred to as Aesthetics.
17 Francesca Murphy, ‘“Whence comes this love as strong as death?”: The Presence of Franz
Rosenzweig’s “Philosophy as Narrative” in Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theodrama’ in Journal of
Literature and Theology 7:3 (1993), p. 236; Form of Beauty, p. 163.
18 TD i, pp. 50–64/ThD 1, pp. 54–70 (and, in fact, pp. 64–9/pp. 70–5 too).
19 TD ii/1, pp. 48–55/ThD 2, pp. 54–62.

Dramatizing theology

deep debt to Hegel’s typology of poetry, without feeling the need to draw
attention to the fact in a laboured discussion. This point of contact with
Hegel is of much greater interest than the explicit (and often highly critical) treatments of his thought which occur elsewhere in von Balthasar’s
work.20 It shows von Balthasar taking Hegel’s dramatic theory, without
being bound to the letter of its original formulation, and creatively reapplying it for richly suggestive theological ends.
Von Balthasar takes up Hegel’s distinction between epic, lyric and dramatic, shows how each can be used to characterize the relation of God’s
action to the world and to people, and concludes that the dramatic (in this
case the theodramatic) must have priority. Each of the first two perspectives
(epic and lyric) is important but incomplete without its joint presence in
the third, dramatic perspective.
Epic, says von Balthasar in this passage, ‘smooths out the folds’ of past
history by reporting it under closure, so to speak. It assumes a standpoint
from which one can observe and report impartially on a given sequence
of events. Hegel had provided a precedent for this statement when he
described epic as presenting us with ‘an action complete in itself and the
characters who produced it’, in the form of a ‘broad flow of events’.21 For
Hegel, the effect of a ‘broad flow’ was to be yet further heightened by the
the finest measure for the syllables in epic is the hexameter as it
streams ahead uniformly, firmly, and yet also vividly.22

Epic is all measured progression – this was Hegel’s view. Von Balthasar
begins to weave this theme theologically. Confronted by Jesus’ suffering,
he says, the epic view regards it as ‘past history’. Epic’s attitude to eucharistic celebration, accordingly, is to keep its distance. It prefers to make the
eucharistic action narrowly an anamnesis
of Jesus’ suffering, and ‘a mere
calling to mind of a past event’ (TD ii/1, p. 48/ThD 2, pp. 54–5). Systematic (systematizing) theology, for similar reasons, is prone to using this
voice. Its concerns are often with the careful appropriation of the historical and textual traditions about God’s action, and their redescription in
terms of some kind of abiding ‘universal significance’. By extension, the
epic voice is also the voice used for ‘external’ relations, ‘at councils and in
20 See especially H iii/1, pp. 904–21/GL 5, pp. 572–90, and TL ii, pp. 40–57.
21 Hegel, Aesthetics, p. 1037.
22 Ibid., p. 1136.



Theology and the Drama of History

the theological and polemical treatises dealing with heretics or the threat
of error’. In the epic mode, God is referred to in the third person, as ‘He’,
and the subject matter of the discourse is ‘His’ nature and action. In such
cases – ‘with a kind of bad conscience’, as von Balthasar puts it – one must
speak ‘about’ (uber)
God, as though one were able to stand somehow ‘over’
such subject matter. A theology which relies exclusively on the Bible
for its norms and authority, says von Balthasar, is all the more inclined
to this epic voice. It does not allow itself to be caught up into the ongoing revealed action which that book mirrors and participates in. What von
Balthasar calls an ‘epic-narrative theology’ along these lines will ‘assume
the role of judge over the events and their actualization’ (TD ii/1, p. 50/ThD
2, p. 56).
That there are lines of continuity with Hegel’s conception of epic is
clear: epic summons up an entire narrative world in a way that proceeds
tranquilly and steadily, comprehending all kinds of detail. An understanding of individual action as the direct expression of a broader teleology is the established criterion on which a reading of epic is grounded.
The particular action and the individual agents are always, to use Hegel’s
phrase, ‘conciliated’ with ‘the general world-situation’.23 There is an element of necessity at the heart of the events and happenings that take place
(Hegel also calls this element of necessity ‘fate’). And this is one way of
choosing to read the interaction between God and his creatures. But from
von Balthasar’s point of view, it will almost certainly be an inadequate way
of reading the world. At its worst, according to von Balthasar, epic is the
genre of a false objectification. It reifies what is given to it to know. It substitutes monological narration for dialogue, without supposing that this
is a loss for truth. And it tends towards determinism.
This view of epic captures the character of the Agamemnon’s chorus as it
attempts to keep its distance from the events playing out before it, and to
preserve its status as observer and commentator. It wants to put a frame
around its experience. We are reminded, too, of the quality of articulate
account-giving by which Medea draws an illusory veil over the really far
more blurred and dangerous question of her presence in the city (and the
presence of a wild rage in her heart).
Von Balthasar continues his appropriation and reapplication of Hegel as
he turns to the lyric genre. The lyric voice stands at the opposite pole from
23 Hegel, Aesthetics, p. 1080.

Dramatizing theology

the epic. Hegel had described lyric as the genre of the self-contemplating
mind ‘that instead of proceeding to action remains alone with itself as
inwardness’. Its telos, Hegel had said, is ‘the self-expression of the subjective life’:
Here therefore there is no substantive whole unfolded as external
happenings; on the contrary, it is the intuition, feeling, and meditation
of the introverted individual, apprehending everything singly and in
isolation, which communicate even what is most substantive and
material as their own, as their passion, mood, or reflection, and as the
present product of these.24

We will sense the spirit of Cassandra evoked here: the whole substance
of an action is transposed into a volatile, highly individual, immediate,
and emotionally coloured mode of response and expression. The present
moment utterly dominates the foreground of lyrical subjectivity. ‘What
matters’, Hegel had said, ‘is only the soul of feeling and not what the object
of the feeling is’;25 and ‘what is satisfied . . . [is the need] for self-expression
and for the apprehension of the mind in its own self-expression’.26 The
lyric artist ‘is in himself a subjectively complete world so that he can look
for inspiration and a topic within himself and therefore can remain within
the sphere of subjective situations, states, and incidents and the passions
of his own heart and spirit’.27
Drawing on this characterization, von Balthasar is able to show how,
in the lyric moment, an individual finds him or herself able to enter into a
vivid re-presentation of some past event, and to be enriched there imaginatively. The objective circumstances of the past event are filtered and appropriated by the subjective consciousness. They act as the ‘external stimulus’, to quote Hegel, which the individual uses ‘as an opportunity for
giving expression to himself, to his mood of joy or sorrow, or to his way of
thinking and his general view of life’. In lyric mode, the subject can be seen
entirely to ‘assimilate and make his own the objective subject-matter’.28
Von Balthasar puts it this way: ‘“Lyrical” . . . means the internal motion of
the devout subject, his emotion and submission, the creative outpouring
of himself ’ ( TD ii/1, p. 49/ThD 2, p. 55). Eucharistic celebration in such a
voice is an entirely different thing from its epic counterpart. Not only is
the past event awakened by memory, its content is made present through
reflection and imaginative participation, and brought alive ‘just as if the
event itself were here and now’. The lyrical is not the voice of councils
24 Ibid., p. 1038.
28 Ibid., p. 1118.

25 Ibid., p. 1114.

26 Ibid., p. 1113.

27 Ibid., p. 1120.



Theology and the Drama of History

and controversies, and of external relations; it is the voice which speaks
in edification, from faith to faith, ‘in the bosom of the Church’. In the lyric
mode, God is addressed as ‘Thou’.
There are ways of trying to combine the two voices which do not effect
a proper synthesis. For example, theological discourse can talk ‘about’
God’s transcendence, unknowability, and so on; and councils, synods and
the like can pray before and after their discussions, but in both cases the
dominant style remains epic. The fact is that at a point very near its source,
‘the river of Christian utterance splits into two streams’ (TD ii/1, p. 49/ThD
2, pp. 55–6).29 Von Balthasar now turns to consider whether there is an
alternative to mere alternation between these two voices, and finds that
their unity rests only in the dramatic dimension of revelation. His is a classic dialectical formulation in Hegelian vein:
We shall not get beyond the alternatives of ‘lyrical’ and ‘epic’,
spirituality (prayer and personal involvement) and theology (the
objective discussion of facts), so long as we fail to include the dramatic
dimension of revelation, in which alone they discover their unity.
(TD ii/1, p. 50/ThD 2, p. 57)

Hegel had said that drama brought us nearer than any other form of
poetry to ‘the spirit in its wholeness’, because it does justice to the ‘objectivity which proceeds from the subject’ as well as to ‘subjectivity which
gains portrayal in its objective realization and validity’.30 Drama, in other
words, joins the dimensions of both epic and lyric into a new whole, which
shows the relationship between certain kinds of events (or ‘objective developments’) and their ‘origin in the hearts of individuals’:
The result is that the object is displayed as belonging to the subject,
while conversely the individual subject is brought before our eyes . . . in
his transition to an appearance in the real world.31

The significance of the acting subject, therefore, is the key difference
between epic and dramatic poetry. Happenings that arise from external
29 Early examples from the pre-modern period, in which God is addressed in devotional
intensity as ‘Thou’ without necessarily collapsing into purely ‘inward’ self-expression, show
what theology can be like when the ‘river of Christian utterance’ is still a single river. Many of
Augustine’s or Anselm’s writings, for example, show what today would be classified under
dogmatic theology being undertaken in the mode of prayer addressed to God.
30 Ibid., p. 1039.
31 Ibid., p. 1038. It is important to note, too, that drama also shows the passivity (or ‘passion’)
of the subject in relation to the very deeds which he or she has authored. A deed made
objective occasions effects, of which a dramatic agent may be the recipient.

Dramatizing theology

circumstances and not from an agent’s ‘inner will and character’ are not
dramatic, in Hegel’s terminology.
Von Balthasar’s theological transformation of Hegel’s concept of the
acting subject focuses on the figure of the apostolic witness, as the dramatic
‘person’ whose voice is most nearly a unifying and heightening of both
epic and lyric ways of speaking. The faith of the apostle speaks to those
within faith and to those outside faith – his witness is not one of impartial
report, but is witness vouched for by the participation of his whole life.
Paul’s letters put God’s action at the centre, but include himself (taken
over by this action on the Damascus road) as part of the testimony to the
truth of revelation. Paul ‘pulls out all the stops of his existence in order
to convince those to whom he is writing that they too are drawn into this
action just as much as he is’. In this dimension alone can it be seen how
Jesus’ death and resurrection are alive and present. The evangelists, too,
‘do not recount stories in which they are not involved; in fact, they know
that their only chance of being objective is by being profoundly involved
in the event they are describing’. Imaginative participation is actually the
proper form of their objectivity, to the extent that God is not ever simply
spoken of as ‘He’, without the ‘Thou’ (which acknowledges that the one
spoken of is always present) being implicit at every point. The essentially
dramatic activity of bearing witness before both Church and world – of
personally handing on the drama of Jesus’ life even as it lives in oneself –
overcomes the epic/lyric distinction. (Thus the drama is equally alive in all
good catechesis.)
Meanwhile, Scripture does not ‘stand at some observation
post outside’. It is inside the drama as well. Its content points beyond itself
to the Spirit who makes the drama present and alive in each new scene.
Scripture mirrors the drama which is manifested by the Spirit, and Scripture ‘can only be understood in reference to’ this drama (TD ii/1, p. 52/ThD
2, p. 58).
Von Balthasar is here living and breathing Hegel’s analysis of drama.
When Hegel says that in drama ‘the entire person of the actor is laid claim
to’ and that ‘the living man himself is the material medium of expression’,32 he sets a pattern for von Balthasar’s apostolic witnesses who ‘with
their lives . . . vouch for the testimony they must give’ (TD ii/1, p. 51/ThD 2,
p. 57).
We find here, too, more detailed confirmation that von Balthasar’s
notion of drama – inspired in these vital ways by Hegel – is in accord
32 Ibid., p. 1039.



Theology and the Drama of History

with the profile of drama which was outlined towards the beginning of
the chapter on the basis of an engagement with Greek tragedy. Drama
has among its defining marks its involving, particular, social, and anticipatory characteristics. These are all true of the ‘drama’ of Christian life and
speech, of participation in eucharistic community, and of apostolic witness as von Balthasar describes them. The particularity of an individual
is taken up into an all-consuming, corporate, life-long enactment of witness to God’s drama, and oriented in hope towards the promise which that
drama holds out.
The next chapter will build on Hegel’s insights into drama – taken up
so positively by von Balthasar at this crucial stage of Theodramatik. Before
this chapter ends, however, it is important to look further than Hegel
for a moment, to what von Balthasar sees as the great movement of ‘modern’ philosophical thought in the West, and place the theologian’s championing of drama – and all the ways it transforms our attitude to the interpretation (or ‘reading’) of the world – in relation to a legacy of ideas about
how we experience and how we know which is less than dramatic. This
will put a final piece in place in our account of why it is that von Balthasar
insists on enlisting drama to bring home the fact that we always speak, act
and think ‘from the middle’ of our life, and ‘in the middle’ of a relationship with the one who creates, preserves and sustains us.

Theodramatics contra modernity
It is the intention of this final section to suggest that von Balthasar’s
rehabilitation of the dramatic subject matter of theology is designed in
part to expose those ‘modern’ traditions of thought and practice which
have evaded their dramatically social, embodied and temporally unsettled
We need, admittedly, to exercise great caution when talking about
‘modernity’. As Oliver O’Donovan remarks:
It is an enterprise with glaring intellectual risks. The illumination that
is shed upon our times may be paid for by a very high level of historical
generalisation and selectivity.33

With this in mind, I necessarily rely to a large extent here on the analyses of others: most of all (with Nicholas Lash) on the history of ideas
and of practice told in Amos Funkenstein’s book Theology and the Scientific
33 Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the roots of political theology
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 272.

Dramatizing theology

Imagination;34 as well as Michael J. Buckley’s At the Origins of Modern
Atheism35 and Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis.36 While acknowledging the
difficulty of dating its origins (‘Some people date the origin of modernity
to the year 1436, with Gutenberg’s adoption of moveable type; some to ad
1520, and Luther’s rebellion against Church authority; others to 1648, and
the end of the Thirty Years’ War; others to the American or French Revolution of 1776 or 1789 . . . [and] if we see Newton’s creation of modern
science as the start of Modernity, the starting date is in the 1680s . . .’),37
nevertheless, a consensus emerges that ‘thanks to Galileo in astronomy
and mechanics, and to Descartes in logic and epistemology’ the seventeenth century was a period in which an agenda was set which focused on
the ‘pursuit of mathematical exactitude and logical rigor, intellectual certainty and moral purity’.38 As Funkenstein puts it, the ‘ultimate prospect
of science’ became in that period ‘a mathesis universalis – an unequivocal, coherent, yet artificial language to capture our “clear and distinct”
ideas . . .’;39 and this mechanical, mathematicized natural philosophy, as
Buckley argues, was allowed to ‘ground’ religion, along with all the complexity of the human experience of reality.
It is not far-fetched to see the split in what von Balthasar calls ‘the
river of Christian utterance’ as running in parallel with traceable divergences in the modern West between an ‘epic’ quest for the reification and
control of nature (on the one hand) and (on the other) an involutedly
‘lyrical’ obsession with an asocial and atemporal subjectivity – the subject’s presence to herself in a consciousness around which the world
revolves. Neither option allows for the dramatic. We shall look at each in
Epic’s pretensions to objective distance, on this account, have their
parallel in the modern belief that there can be a single vantage point on
the natural order (as, indeed, on its history). The creation is reconfigured
as ‘inert nature’,40 and its patterns and processes are valued inasmuch as
they display regular patterns of behaviour. In Toulmin’s words:
The axioms of Modernity assumed that the surface complexity of
nature and humanity distracts us from an underlying Order, which is
intrinsically simple and permanent.41
34 Amos Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination: from the Middle Ages to the
Seventeenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).
35 Michael J. Buckley, At the Origins of Modern Atheism (New Haven: Yale University Press,
36 Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (New York: Macmillan, 1990).
37 Ibid., pp. 7–8.
38 Ibid., p. x.
39 Funkenstein, Scientific Imagination, pp. 28–9.
40 O’Donovan, Desire of the Nations, p. 274.
41 Toulmin, Cosmopolis, p. 201.



Theology and the Drama of History

Gradually, the bracketing out of theological questions from this area of
study became a principled one. Buckley points out that for thinkers like
Laplace and Lagrange in the late eighteenth century, it was determinedly
and generally held that:
Physics was to be theological neither in its final reaches, as in Newton,
nor in its foundational moments, as in Descartes. . . . Physics, in its
mechanical usages and expectations, insist[ed] that [it was] not the
place for theological quarrels . . .42

This development, we should note, went hand in hand with the bracketing out of the significance of context in relation to philosophical argument.
The ‘soundness’ or ‘validity’ of ‘arguments’ was referred not to their status
as ‘public utterances before particular audiences’ (note here the denigration of the importance of the social and the particular), but to their coherence as ‘written chains of statements whose validity rested on their internal relations’.43 And, indeed, it remains the case in this modern purview
that situations, arguments and problems are supposed always and in principle to be treatable under the terms of a universal method. Rationality is
singular, determinate, unambiguous. Where it is ostensibly resistant to
consensus, it is necessarily aberrant. Paradox, indeterminacy and spontaneity are not reasonable. Modernity at its most epic, then, presides over
a shift ‘from the oral to the written’; ‘from the particular to the universal’;
‘from the local to the general’ and from the time-specific to the timeindependent.44
And yet modernity must ‘turn to the subject’ in order to anchor
this universal, epic reason, and here is one of its greatest paradoxes.
It must depend on a speculative wager which can never adequately be
underwritten: that human reason is not in significant measure assembled
out of the midst of contingency, but has an authoritative, structured, interpretative centre which time and chance cannot alter – it assumes that there
is such a thing as a ‘view from nowhere’. This abstraction from the movement of time asserts something like a steady, eternal ‘present’, which is
always nearer to the subject than anything generated by passing events
and experiences. Convinced of this ‘present’, one can presume to deny the
fragility and indebtedness of human subjectivity. On this view, one need
never adopt an attitude of thanksgiving for what comes to one (unasked
for and groundless) as the gift of one’s self; nor need one adopt the (equally
42 Buckley, Modern Atheism, p. 326.
44 Ibid., pp. 30–5.

43 Toulmin, Cosmopolis, p. 31.

Dramatizing theology

eucharistic) attitude of anticipation – anticipation of that ‘knowing even as
I am known’ which keeps Christian life in motion and free of solipsism.
The origins of this ‘lyric’ attitude in the modern period are noticeably
contemporary with those of ‘epic’ attitudes to external reality. Advances
in mechanics ran parallel with a radical shift towards philosophical interest in human processes of thought. As Buckley shows, the enquiry into
Kant’s interior moral law was held up as a way of grounding the ‘stability and objective reality’ of ‘[f ]reedom, immortality and god’.45 In Kant’s
philosophy of the will, as in subsequent ‘theological’ concentrations on
the ‘inner powers of human awareness’, it was the ‘self-apprehensions of
the knowing powers of the subject’ that were turned to in order to found
‘any subsequent statements of the object’, including God.46
That the artificial divergence of ‘natural theology’ from ‘mystical theology’ (each kept isolated from the other) corresponds to these ‘epic’ and
‘lyric’ developments in the modern period should begin now to be clear.
As a divergence it can be traced historically – and in many ways, of course,
it is the result of the collusion of Christian thinkers with their intellectual environment. The ‘fields’ of each ‘type’ of theology were increasingly
abstracted from one another; each, in Buckley’s words, ‘allowed its own
evidence, cultivation and growth’, but with natural theology being given
‘the privileged position of the spectator over the participant’.47
If we were to seek the view on this problematic of the one whom this
book has identified as the pioneer of theodramatics – von Balthasar – we
would find that this is very much his diagnosis of modernity – and of the
ills with which it infects theology. It is the cause of what for him is the disastrous separation of theology from spirituality, and another significant
spur to his own turn to drama.
The post-Reformation, post-Enlightenment Western tradition, von
Balthasar thinks, is both too ‘epic’ and too ‘lyric’ (and too often at a loss
to know how to heal the rift between the two extremes). He indicates this
in the introduction to Herrlichkeit. The modern taste for ‘epic’ generates
‘exact sciences’ whose exactness – properly pertaining to only ‘one particular sector of reality’ – is given a wider applicability through a process of ‘abstraction’. But it cannot express the rich particularity and love
of ‘the living bond between God and the world’. It produces instead (in
the artistic realm) a ‘“modern” realism devoid of awe and reverence’, and
(in the Church) ‘scientific’ theology which is increasingly divorced from
45 Buckley, Modern Atheism, p. 328.

46 Ibid., p. 330.

47 Ibid., p. 345.



Theology and the Drama of History

prayer and so loses ‘the accent and tone with which one should speak of
what is holy’. At the same time, the breathing world is disowned by the
subjectivity to which it gave birth – the subject asserts its autonomy and
self-subsistence, so that the world is concomitantly devalued as ‘but an
appearance and a dream’. This produces (in art) ‘a romanticism remote
from reality’, and (in the Church) a pious but emptily ‘affective’ theology
(Skizzen i, p. 224/ExT 1, p. 208). These evasions – ‘epic’ and ‘lyric’ alike – can
only be a prelude to a very modern despair: the world resists both moves
(is ‘unmastered’), and the human creature is left ‘to live with the object of
his impotence’, which he cannot bear (H i, pp. 15–16, 17/GL 1, pp. 18, 19).
It is this rift (between the brutely given and the banally free) which
von Balthasar tries to answer by a turn to drama; and that is what this
chapter has been concerned to depict. Drama offers neither the perspective of immediate feeling and individual association; nor an unruffled
perspective on the objectively given. As von Balthasar observes, the most
successful artists of life (the saints) ‘have always been on guard against
such [attitudes], and immersed themselves in the actual events of revelation’ (Skizzen i, p. 221/ExT 1, p. 205). Drama breaks out in such cases, as
we have seen. The ‘subject matter’ of reality reaches out and claims the
self-involved (‘lyric’) person. And this is a theological moment: it makes
saints of people, in the sense that they cease to see themselves as ‘atomistic’ individual knowers, or else as part of the manipulated matter of an
‘epic’ world; they cease to entrust themselves to imagined ‘strict scientific
laws’ (like those of the ‘market’);48 they cease to pursue mere information and ‘a thoughtless knowledgeableness’ by ‘undercutting the ascetic
and reflective disciplines which make wisdom possible’.49 Instead, they
allow themselves to become living witnesses to wisdom. (This appeal to
the witness of persons, of course – so central to Christianity – is, as Buckley
points out, inadmissible by modernity as ‘a common basis for rational
discussion’!50 ) The great achievement of drama, in Hegel’s words, is ‘to
strip externals away and put in their place . . . the self-conscious and active
individual’51 as the living embodiment of truth.52

48 O’Donovan, Desire of the Nations, p. 281.
49 Ibid., p. 282.
50 Buckley, Modern Atheism, p. 345.
51 Hegel, Aesthetics, p. 1160.
52 The stress on the corporate nature of this dramatic agency in its origins and activity is vital,
of course, to prevent a kind of voluntarism suggesting itself as the way to make ‘epic’ inert
nature conform to a ‘lyric’ individualist set of desires. Such voluntarism is not what either
Hegel or von Balthasar means to suggest when promoting dramatic agency as the key to the
dichotomy between ‘epic’ and ‘lyric’ genres and the realities they describe. This will become
more than apparent in chapter 2.

Dramatizing theology

So we come to the end of this chapter wanting to say that the development of a theological dramatic theory could offer a corrective to massive trends in modern thought. But we also need to say that the specific
attempt at such a theory undertaken by von Balthasar is a theory developed under the very substantial influence of Hegel, and sharing some of
the features of Hegel’s own thought. Given that Hegel is often characterized as the prime exemplar of modernity’s quest for absolute knowledge,
this may seem paradoxical. But the following chapters will show that in
a variety of ways Hegel’s position is more complex than the caricature
allows, and more friendly to theodramatic adaptations of it. As we shall
see, Hegel is not a pedlar of illusions about an asocial autonomy of the self.
The subjectivity which Hegel articulates is not an egoistic but rather a dramatic one. He is a nuanced student of embodied particulars, and the dramatic interchange of human beings in their shared existence – in history.
In these respects, Hegel is not so much an icon of modernity’s limitations
as a prophet of their subversion.
This is not, of course, to deny that Hegel has his deficient side. In certain (key) respects his is a very modern betrayal of drama, even drama as
understood in his own terms, and this will be something against which a
theological dramatic theory has to guard. As far as von Balthasar is concerned, Hegel is both mentor and foe, and the same may need to be true of
other theodramatic models developed in von Balthasar’s wake.
The deficiencies of a Hegelian approach will emerge gradually during the course of the book – partly under the pressure of von Balthasar’s
critique, and partly through our independent critique of both of them,
particularly where their ideas are closely shared. We move now to look
at a cluster of ideas where just such close sharing is apparent, and begin
the substantial work of the book, by looking at the question of freedom in
relation to a theodramatic approach to history.



Freedom and indifference
The cast, the stage and the action, part i

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.
(e p h e s i a n s 5:21)

A theological concentration on drama like the one undertaken here
sharply raises the question of freedom. More specifically, it raises the question of (i) how Christian life manifests freedom – often witnessed to in
the lives and examples of the saints; (ii) how the sphere of the Church can
foster and encourage such freedom, inviting people into it and making it
possible in each new generation; and (iii) how such freedom relates to the
ultimate destiny of all things. These interlocking dogmatic ‘themes’ can
be summarized – in a more or less conventional theological way – as (i) the
theology of Christian mission, (ii) the doctrine of the Church, and (iii) the
theology of history and the doctrine of eschatology (we might say, as we
have said before: the cast, the stage and the action). Any serious treatment
of the use of drama in theology will soon be propelled into a discussion of
these ‘themes’. They are certainly ever-present in the theodramatics of von
Balthasar, the importance of whose role as a key conversation partner for
this book has been advanced decisively in the previous chapter.
But identifying their theological content must not blind us to the fact
that these interlocking aspects of the question of freedom represent issues
equally present to other investigations – investigations which are perhaps
less immediately identifiable as ‘theological’. The areas a theologian like
von Balthasar is concerned with when trying to give an account of freedom
run parallel to concerns which a philosopher like Hegel also has, not to
mention social scientists, historians, and others, and this becomes clearer
if we restate them. They are: (i) the issue of how to evaluate the character and actions of those who play influential roles in the world’s drama;


Freedom and indifference

(ii) the issue of the individual’s relation to institutions (indeed, to social
life in general); and, alongside that, (iii) the issue of how to interpret and
pattern what happens in history.
The previous chapter took Volume ii/1 of Theodramatik, with its
Hegelian contrast between the categories of epic, lyric and dramatic genres, as an invitation to see parallels between von Balthasar’s theodramatic
project and Hegel’s own thought. It is now necessary to take the enquiry
further. Hegel’s distinctive way of interpreting dramatic action as the
interplay of individual character and a shaping telos is so profoundly a
product of his wider vision of how individuals and contexts are interrelated in the movement of Spirit that it cannot be detached from it. To be
Hegelian in one’s construal of drama is to import a whole background of
Hegelian speculation about political life, artistic creativity and the movement of history.
This chapter, therefore, proposes to examine some of the roots of what
Hegel understood by freedom: what he took it for granted that freedom
must presuppose; and how he thought ‘individual’ freedom must be conceived in relation to something far greater and more informing than itself.
Drama’s fascination for Hegel rides on the back of this concern with freedom. Freedom is the motor of the unfolding of Spirit in the shapes of
consciousness. He writes that ‘freedom in itself carries with it the infinite
necessity . . . of realising itself: it is itself the end of its own operations,
and the sole end of the Spirit’.1 And drama is, for Hegel, the highest art
form precisely because it is the best representation (Vorstellung) of the idea
(Begriff ) of freedom which literary art (as a precursor to philosophy) is able
to offer. The dignity which Hegel accords to drama will not be properly
understood if it is prised apart from the situation of his dramatic theory in
a much wider, complex fabric of philosophical speculation (a much bigger ‘story’) about what Hegel calls ‘the theatre of world history’ in which
Spirit attains its most concrete reality.
It is, I will assume, no accident that Hegel’s embedding of dramatic
characters in relation to their embracing context is so like the way that
elsewhere (and in political terms) he sees the State as the only possible
place where the free choices of individuals can be realized: the locus for
the reconciliation of the reality of individual initiative (on the one hand)
with the substantial reality of material, social and ethical relations (on the
1 G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introduction: Reason in History, H. B.
Nisbet (trans.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 55; from now on referred to
as World History.



Theology and the Drama of History

other). To explain the significance of that similarity, it will be a concern
of this chapter to look at the political character of his philosophy in the
early stages of his development, and then at his extraordinary vision in the
Phenomenology of the way that all individuals are implicated in the movement of rational necessity; a movement of which their deeds (by virtue
of the mediating Spirit) are a contributory part. In the developed form of
this philosophy, every individual action, every individual event, will find
its goal in relation to the embracing system, even though this system may
not be perceptible in its wholeness – as ‘system’ – at any one moment.2 A
study of Hegel’s varied depiction of the ‘whole context’ in which individual events and actions find their realization will turn out to be immensely
revealing of his understanding of dramatic justice and dramatic persons,
in a way that has implications for von Balthasar as well – and therefore for
this book’s attempt to evaluate the usefulness of a theodramatic approach
to thinking about history.

Ethical life and indifference
It is characteristic of Hegel that he understands the freedom of individuals to be constituted by, and achieved in the embrace of, a much greater
freedom: the freedom of Spirit (or ‘Mind’) itself, which is irreducible to
the operation of any single, individual instance of consciousness, and yet
is not other than it.3 But despite the ease with which a concept like freedom
lends itself to expression in formal and universal terms, Hegel ties it to the
practical realities of life together in human society, with all the mediations
that such life requires – and this is not accidentally related to his interest in
drama as the most advanced form of literary art. (It is a reason, too, why he
commands von Balthasar’s respect, however reluctant von Balthasar may

2 It is one of Gillian Rose’s main concerns to stress this point in her book Hegel contra Sociology
(London: The Athlone Press, 1981). If Hegel presents us with truth as system in the
Phenomenology, it is nevertheless not a system that can be grasped from any one partial
position. Rose sees a concern with critical discipline in Hegel’s thinking about thinking, and
not blithe theorizing about a total, reconciled historical unity. Rowan Williams has
developed and commented on Rose’s insight. Hegel’s thinking, he points out, ‘insists on the
“speculative” projection of a continually self-adjusting, self-criticizing corporate practice’
(Rowan D. Williams ‘Between Politics and Metaphysics: Reflections in the Wake of Gillian
Rose’, Modern Theology 11:1 (1995), p. 14). Thinking, on this account of Hegel, has the character
of ‘engagement’, and of ‘converse, conflict, negotiation, judgement and self-judgement’. We
shall discuss this further in chapter 3.
3 Cf. Hegel, World History, p. 55: we infer ‘the freedom of the subject to follow its own
conscience and morality, and to pursue and implement its own universal ends’ in history
from the fact that ‘the substance of the spirit is freedom’ (my emphasis).

Freedom and indifference

make that respect seem.) Hegel’s thought fully acknowledges that practical realities are not in the end extrinsic to our concepts of freedom and consciousness, but actually shape and determine them by giving them content. As one commentator puts it:
the whole point of Hegel’s philosophy . . . is precisely that it does
not shun or in any way devalue the objective world, of fact and
contingency and finitude, the historian’s world and the natural
scientist’s world and the world of every-day experience; its whole
object is to show how necessary all this is to the life of the Spirit. . . .
[R]eality, which is not just substance but active subject as well, is a
perpetually re-enacted process of self-realization, and the result
includes the process . . .4

For the Spirit to be truly absolute (to be as ‘all-embracing’ as Hegel claims),
the finite cannot be excluded from it. No philosophy that seeks to give
a true account of the field of consciousness (in which we and the things
we experience are found by each other) can afford to work only with the
kind of treatment (a system of logic, for example) which removes itself
from the particular, concrete manifestations of Spirit. (Hegel’s philosophy
tries to make a place for the two kinds of treatment together.) To put it
another way, it is no use talking about ‘the world Spirit’ or ‘the universal
Spirit’ unless one is also prepared to talk more concretely of the ‘links in
the chain’ of its actual development.5
It is particularly evident in his early work that Hegel is a man with
practical concerns about real communities. These concerns play a part in
the formation of his philosophy of Spirit. It was Hegel’s concern to see
the shaping of the ethical totality of a nation (his own) so that it could
inspire and sustain a life of political freedom for its citizens. There is
a convincing argument, made with particular force by Laurence Dickey,
that Hegel’s intentions were significantly shaped by a tradition of Protestant piety which identified strongly with the political concerns of Old
It is Dickey’s contention that ‘for most of the eighteenth
century the Protestant culture of Old Wurttemberg
was governed by an
ideal of civil piety that required extensive vigilance vis- `a-vis an absolutizing and catholicizing duke’.6 The Pietists found they had a powerful
convergence of interests with the upholders of the Good Old Law in the
Estates when they began to envisage ‘social discipline and
4 Duncan Forbes, ‘Introduction’ in ibid., p. x.
5 Ibid., p. 53.
6 Laurence Dickey, Hegel: Religion, Economics, and the Politics of Spirit, 1770–1807 (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 1.



Theology and the Drama of History

public watchfulness as extensions of religious piety’.7 By means of such disciplined ‘religious recollectivization’ civil life might be regenerated, and
expanded into an all-encompassing godly polity.8 Dickey calls this an ‘historicization of grace among a Protestant people’,9 the realization of the
people as ‘a Volksidee’.10 Hegel’s philosophy shares much of this outlook.
He saw the need for a common vision shaped by disciplined and shared
practices, which alone could ground substantial and responsible freedom.
‘[J]ustice, ethical life, and the state, and these alone, are the positive realisation and satisfaction of freedom’, he argued in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History (1830).11 And elsewhere, in the Philosophy of Right, he
remarks: ‘If we hear it said that the definition of freedom is ability to do
what we please, such an idea can only be taken to reveal an utter immaturity of thought.’12
We see the seeds here of what is later meant by Hegel when he talks
about the State as the actualization of Spirit. The State is the arena in which
the subjective will may find its unity with the universal, by its involvement in particular projects and institutions which draw it beyond itself.
This is what is implied when Hegel writes that ‘man owes his entire existence to the state, and has his being within it alone. Whatever worth and
spiritual reality he possesses are his solely by virtue of the state.’13 The
‘lyric’ voice, in other words, is reconstituted and made significant because
socially answerable. And Spirit is actualized only in such unifications of
‘subjectivity’ with ‘substance’, in which theoretical reason becomes properly integrated with practical reason.
For Hegel, it is the particular history and spirit of a nation14 which
is capable of mediating between particular, individual consciousnesses,
and the absolute, universal Spirit (which is the substance, or really significant content, of history as a whole). It gathers up all kinds of determinate
aspects and influences – in cultural, military, economic and religious life –
and yet still remains identifiable with the universal movement of Spirit
which perdures even as the particular spirits of particular nations perish.
‘Culture is the form of our thinking’, writes Hegel. In other words, we
think things, experience things and enact things ‘contextually’. This is
7 Ibid., p. 11.
8 Ibid., pp. 144, 217, 246 and passim.
9 Ibid., p. 131.
10 Ibid., p. 136.
11 Hegel, World History, p. 94.
12 G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, T. M. Knox (trans.) (Oxford: Clarendon, 1952), §15 (p. 27);
from now on referred to as Right.
13 Hegel, World History, p. 94.
14 The ‘nation’ is not quite the same thing as the ‘State’, but life in the State for Hegel is the
rational end (the properly developed form) of a free people. It is the nation at its best.

Freedom and indifference

something we have already had cause to note in elucidating the strong
lines of Hegel’s thought:
[T]he individual finds his nation already in being, as a complete and
firmly established world to which he must become assimilated. He
must take over its substantial being as his own, so that his outlook and
abilities are in accord with it, in order that he may himself become
something in turn.15

The context is the unavoidable ‘where’ of our emergence as individual centres of consciousness, in which we need to understand ourselves and the
world around us by means of assimilation, habituation and training. ‘Man
can only fulfil himself’, writes Hegel, ‘through education and discipline;
his immediate existence contains merely the possibility of self-realisation
(i.e. of becoming rational and free) and simply imposes on him a vocation
and obligation which he must himself fulfil.’16
The subtlety here is that ‘self-realisation’, which is, according to Hegel,
‘becoming rational and free’, is a kind of self-sacrifice. In order to gain
what (acknowledging Hegel’s refusal to set subjective and objective over
against each other in a merely relative identity)17 we might call objective
existence in the world and in the movement of history, an individual must
seek to obtain a certain disposition. That disposition is one of ‘indifference’, which is to say a freedom from the desire to set oneself up over
against others, and over against the absoluteness of the spiritual environment in which one is. It is the readiness not to make differences into
ultimate finalities. It is the readiness to exist and act beyond the matrix
of one’s own determinate and selfish particularities, in the interests of a
greater unity which has its life in the absolute identity of Spirit. In this
way, one’s ‘self’ will be ‘realized’.
We need to go back to some considerable time before the formulation of
the Lectures on the Philosophy of World History in order to see that the seeds of
Hegel’s thought about the State, and especially about ‘indifference’, were
already planted in the System of Ethical Life of 1802/3. There is significant
continuity between the two texts, even though nearly thirty years separate
If anything, the language of individual self-sacrifice is stronger in the
earlier text, and it is here that Hegel most insistently gives emphasis to
15 Hegel, World History, p. 58.
16 Ibid., p. 50.
17 By ‘relative identity’ is meant something like an identity that consists only in the relation
of each to the other, rather than their mutual implication in a third thing (Spirit).



Theology and the Drama of History

the importance of the disposition of ‘indifference’. If a human person is to
make his particularity – ‘his own peculiar being’ – into something that has
universal effectiveness, he must undergo nothing less than ‘an adoption
into indifference’, after which (as Hegel puts it) ‘he is now the universal’.18
For ‘[t]he singularity of the individual is not the first thing, but the life of
ethical nature’ (Hegel equates this ‘life of ethical nature’ with what he calls
‘divinity’, by which I take him to mean the binding (religio) of a people in
the community of its modes of life and objects of worship). ‘[T]he singularized individual is too poor’, says Hegel, to ‘comprise’ the nature of this
‘life of ethical nature . . . in its entire reality’.19
The ‘indifference’ for which Hegel is calling in the ethical life and
action of individuals is an apprehension (and enactment) of the fact that
the differences between particular people are underlain by a unity. This
unity is usually intuited in the dealings people have with one another. With
the help of philosophical speculation it can be consciously thought as well.
Such a moment of mutual recognition (the grasping of something beyond
difference) is a very close approximation to what is meant by Spirit’s coming to self-consciousness: ‘all natural difference is nullified, the individual
intuits himself as himself in every other individual’, as a result of which
‘the people is a living indifference . . . The universal, the spirit is in each
man and for the apprehension of each man, even so far as he is a single
In ethical life, there can, says Hegel – even in the politics of his own
day – be a restoration of that stable and harmonious relationship between
individual will and general good which existed (in an unreflective way) in
the Greek polis, when the ‘Athenian citizen did virtually by instinct what
was expected of him’.21 All the differences between people, and the dense,
teeming complexity of their interrelation, can find a ‘stable fulcrum’, as
H. S. Harris puts it, ‘upon which they all sway’.22 They can find their own
position of indifference in the living indifference which (in Hegel’s preferred term in this text) is the Volk – the people or culture, understood
as the ‘realized equilibrium’ of relations between individuals and classes.
The Volk is the self-moving, self-conscious substance, ‘the absolute one intuited indifferently in all, and . . . the absolute many or the “display of all

18 G. W. F. Hegel, The System of Ethical Life 1802/3: First Philosophy of Spirit (Part III of the System of
Speculative Philosophy 1803/4), H. S. Harris and T. M. Knox (eds. and trans.) (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1979), p. 109; from now on referred to as Ethical Life.
19 Ibid., p. 151.
20 Ibid., p. 144.
21 Hegel, World History, p. 97.
22 H. S. Harris, ‘Hegel’s System of Ethical Life: An Interpretation’ in Hegel, Ethical Life, p. 61.

Freedom and indifference

differences” intuited differently in each member when he is seen as contributing something distinctive that is necessary to the life of the whole’.23
We are now in a position to see how very far Hegel is from identifying
‘the freedom of the subject’ with arbitrary self-gratification or intellectual
For the fancies of isolated individuals cannot become binding on
reality at large, just as the laws of the universe are not framed solely for
the benefit of single individuals.24

The finite subject has a freedom which is valuable because (and inasmuch
as) it is ‘infinite’ – that is to say, shaped and called forth into service by the
substance of the world Spirit, via the mediation of life in a nation State.
The man who partakes of ‘all the deeds and aspirations of the nation’ –
through ‘[r]eligion, knowledge, the arts, and the destinies and events of
history’ – such a man is in a better position to recognize ‘the sole motive
force’ behind them all. He will be a cultured man: a man who is, in German, gebildet. This word has a far richer significance in Hegel’s usage than
the sort of dilettantism which our translation of it as ‘cultured’ might suggest. If the gebildet man has truly entered into the life of the nation in such
a way as to perceive the continuity that undergirds and moves it, then he
is nearer to that stance of indifference in which he will find not the annihilation of himself and his freedom, but its realization in something which
is all along (whether recognized or not) the substance of all freedom and
A cultured man is one who knows how to impress the stamp of
universality upon all his actions, who has renounced his particularity,
and who acts in accordance with universal principles.25

His Bildung is the means to such overcoming of particularity, as the Philosophy of Right tells us too:
[I]n order that heart, will, intelligence may become true, they must be
thoroughly educated; Right must become Custom-Habit; practical activity
must be elevated to rational action; the State must have a rational
organization, and then at length does the will of individuals become a
truly righteous one . . . animated by Spirit.26

It hardly needs to be pointed out that we have in Hegel’s account of collective life in the State a most extraordinary testimony to the relatedness
of religious and political values in his philosophical thought (and this, as
23 Ibid.

24 Hegel, World History, p. 65.

25 Ibid., pp. 56–7.

26 Hegel, Right, p. 338.



Theology and the Drama of History

we have noted, owes itself at least in part to the meaningful relatedness of
religion and politics in eighteenth-century Old Wurttemberg).
The Chris¨
tian vision of individuals who die and are reborn into a body in which they
are ‘subject’ to one another – a vision, in short, of what ‘sanctity’ might
be – here acts as an important prototype for Hegel’s vision of mutual selfsacrifice. It will now be fruitful, therefore, to look a little more closely at
whether and where ‘saints’ (or something like them) are identifiable in
Hegel’s thought on the State, introducing von Balthasar’s theology of the
saints as a vital point of reference.

Saints and world-historical individuals
Saints are vital to von Balthasar’s theology. He devotes two entire volumes
of Herrlichkeit to studies of particular Christian lives – both clerical and
lay. He wrote important studies of the saints Th ´er `ese of Lisieux and Elisabeth of Dijon. A very substantial section of his treatment of christology in
Theodramatik, Volume ii/2, (his principal treatment of christology) is given
over to a discussion of how Jesus Christ’s own mission is the embracing
mission (the ‘acting area’) within which the missions of individual Christians (and archetypally the saints) receive their definition. In this way, he
shows how Christ’s mission admits of transposition into the lives of individual believers.27
Christ’s is a humanity which expressed itself in perfect obedience to the
Father’s will. Saints, for von Balthasar, communicate this mysterious and
wonderful quality of Christ’s humanity in a way that none of the anthropological sciences can. Christ’s is a humanity that resists deconstruction;
but the concrete, personal character of individual saints and their lives
opens a way to the living heart of that divine-human fit which christology
tries to bring to light. The entire thrust of von Balthasar’s aesthetic project
was to say that God’s revelation ‘concretizes’; it is a radiancy which takes
form. The thrust of Theodramatik is to say that such forms are not static
but mobile. They have narrative extension. The analogies between what
is divine and what is human are to be found in relationship, not in a metaphysics of essential being. The saints’ relationships to God are the lifeblood of the Church’s corporate being. ‘The Church’, as von Balthasar puts
it, ‘is built on disciples’ (Geschichte, p. 111/ET, p. 146). They are the Church’s
27 Lewis Ayres has discussed this in his article ‘Representation, Theology and Faith’ in
Modern Theology 11:1 (1995), pp. 23–46.

Freedom and indifference

‘concretization’ – a principal means by which revelation takes actual form
in the Church. In the words of one scholar:
The saint . . . is the locus for a specifically theological anthropology that
sheds light on the christological meaning of all of Scripture and
ecclesial dogma.28

Having acknowledged this guiding concern in von Balthasar’s thought,
we need to press deeper into his theological construal of the Church in its
saints, alert to all the possibilities of Hegelian influence for which the first
part of this chapter prepared us. In particular, we need to look for similarities between the concrete representation of world Spirit (in a nation’s
actual history) which Hegel describes, and the concrete representation of
divine revelation which is the Church. And we need to look at the sorts of
responses and dispositions that von Balthasar expects from his ‘citizens’
of the Church – his saints – in comparison with the sorts of responses and
dispositions (most especially that of ‘indifference’) which Hegel expected
from his gebildet citizen.
Perhaps not entirely coincidentally (for von Balthasar makes reference
to Hegel in the opening pages of the book)29 a crucial text for understanding von Balthasar’s doctrine of the Church has a title – Theologie
der Geschichte – which recalls Hegel’s lectures on The Philosophy of World
History. As in Hegel’s lectures, a central question is how to give an account
of the historically particular which allows it to participate in, rather than
to oppose, the absolute (what von Balthasar in Volume i of Theodramatik
calls ‘all-embracing reality’ (das Umgreifende) (TD i, p. 20/ThD 1, p. 21)).
Naturally enough, for von Balthasar, the answer to this question must be
sought first in Christ. Christ himself is ‘the Idea made concrete, personal,
historical: universale concretum et personale’ (Geschichte, p. 69/ET, p. 89):
In order to become manifest, the absolute uniqueness of God, uniting
itself with the humanity of Jesus, makes use of the relative uniqueness
of a particular historical personality, which is something given by the
fact of being a man.
(g e s c h i c h t e , p. 16/ET, p. 13)

28 Larry S. Chapp, ‘The Theological Method of Hans Urs von Balthasar’ (doctoral
dissertation: Fordham University, 1994), p. 314; the dissertation was subsequently published
as The God Who Speaks: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theology of Revelation (San Francisco:
International Scholars Publications, 1997).
29 ‘The most grandiose attempt to master the realm of fact and history through reason was
undertaken by Hegel; he interpreted the whole sequence and constellation of facts in nature
and in human history as the manifestation of an all-embracing rational spirit, rational
precisely in its factual manifestation’ (Geschichte, p. 10/ET, p. 7).



Theology and the Drama of History

This uniting of the absolute and the relative can be attributed to the
Church only secondarily. But it is attributed quite genuinely and properly
nonetheless. As von Balthasar writes elsewhere, the Church is ‘the coincidence of the historically particular and the humanly universal’ (H iii/1,
p. 558/GL 5, p. 212). In this, it is an extension or transposition of Christ’s
life, which is ‘the “world of ideas” for the whole of history’ (Geschichte,
p. 69/ET, p. 89). It can participate in his concrete universality, and reflect
it in its own distinctive way. The Church becomes an arena for applications of the life of Christ to every Christian life and the whole life of
the Church. Christ’s commands (for instance, ‘Love one another as I have
loved you’ (John 15:12)) are kept from becoming abstract laws because the
Church, in the power of the Spirit, can transform them into laws of ‘concrete discipleship’: it can reveal ‘the meaning, the validity’ of Christ’s law
for each person as ‘something concrete and individual’.
But (as Hegel would certainly also emphasize) the ‘self-realization’ of
individuals in their obedience to the motive power of Christ’s will (communicated by the Spirit) is never solipsistically accomplished, apart from
the body of the faithful:
[T]he disciple cannot himself select the particular thing in the Lord’s
life which he wants to follow (for this would mean exalting himself to
the level of one who possesses and evaluates that life).

For this reason, ‘a higher power is needed to bring the situations in the life
of Christ and of the believer into accord: and that power is the Holy Spirit’
(Geschichte, p. 76/ET, pp. 97–98).
Like Hegel’s Spirit (despite the caricatures of Hegel to which von
Balthasar himself is not entirely immune) here is a Spirit too subtly
and intimately experienced to be dismissed as a ‘wholly supra-empirical,
supra-individual objective entity, or super puppet-master’.30 And yet, as
with Hegel, this intimate Spirit, which is present in the very consciousness
of individual human beings for Hegel, and in the ‘new minds’ of Christians for von Balthasar, has an ‘objective’ form as well. Its objective form
is not ultimately different from its life in the subject, and it does not, as
a consequence, quell the ‘freedom’ of life in the Spirit. In the Church, as
in Hegel’s State, one must experience and act in relation to an embracing
context. One’s actions will be determined and realized (made concrete) in
such a context, or not at all. They will be ‘free’ in the terms of such a context or else they will not really – realistically – be free. The movement of
the whole – for Hegel as for von Balthasar – generates a certain ‘measure of
30 Forbes in Hegel, World History, p. xii.

Freedom and indifference

judgment’ on the movement of an individual’s will and affections within
it, and this never implies that the two things stand in a somehow ultimate
or even substantially real opposition to each other.
‘[T]he Spirit’, writes von Balthasar, ‘is not only subjective and personal,
but objective, absolute Spirit, containing in himself a whole cosmos of
super-personal truth’ (Geschichte, p. 77/ET, p. 99). What counts as free and
good and true action is determined by our place in Christ’s community.
The ‘living norm of holiness’ – something very close to Sittlichkeit – is never
independent of the ‘more “formal” norms of Scripture, tradition, and the
teaching and pastoral office’. The saints ‘have to allow themselves to be
measured by these norms, and if the Spirit of God is in them, they will not
try to avoid such judgment; for he is the Spirit of the Church’. But the relationship is reciprocal, for the formal norms in turn exist ‘for the sake of the
living norm of holiness’ (Geschichte, p. 82–3/ET, p. 106). The Church – like
the Volk or the State – provides the mediation between particular impulses
and intentions and the universal (or divine) will. In order to provide this
mediation, it needs generalized structures which, while never exclusively
identical with the divine, still remain identifiable with the work and will
of the Spirit.
The Church, in other words, has ‘organs’ which play their part in the
normative functioning of what von Balthasar calls the ‘collective consciousness’ of all believers (Geschichte, p. 78/ET, p. 100). In Neue Klarstellungen, he quite explicitly compares these ‘organs’ with Hegel’s objective
manifestations of Spirit:
[O]ffice, scripture, tradition, and also church law, [are] things which
one is accustomed with Hegel to designate philosophically as ‘objective
spirit’, but which, for the Christian, are always just modes of the
presence of Christ.
(NK, p. 53/ET in Reader, p. 255)

The Church requires ‘her basic structure of the secular and religious states
[i.e., states of life] and the offices of laity and hierarchy, her sacraments, her
catechesis, her organs of Scripture and tradition . . . ’ (Geschichte, p. 78/ET,
p. 100):
[And] because it is the same Holy Spirit who creates both subjective and
objective holiness, the two belong most intimately together, and only
the spirit of dissension would try to sow suspicion between them or to
affirm that they cannot be united.
(g e s c h i c h t e , p. 83/ET, p. 106)

Von Balthasar’s frequent depiction of the Church as a Church simultaneously of ‘love’ and ‘authority’ – a Church both Marian and Petrine in



Theology and the Drama of History

form – can be seen as a way of expressing that combination of ‘subjective’
and ‘objective’ elements which also characterizes Hegel’s collective (the
Volk or the State). In von Balthasar’s thinking, as in Hegel’s, ‘subjective’ and
‘objective’ do not ultimately constitute a duality: they are a unity, because
both are aspects or manifestations of the one Spirit. The collective must
manifest and honour both, in the service of its dramatic, ‘live’, historical
And drama in the form of ‘living holiness’ is therefore the ‘live’ answer
(the answer given in the Spirit) to the problem of how to unite the sheer
multiplicity of desires and wills in a community (all its lyric variety). Christian people learn the unity of subjectivity and objectivity after the pattern
of Mary, whose individual action takes on a universal significance (she acts, it
might be said, ‘eternally’), and whose subjective consent is not at odds with
an objective obedience, because she gives herself wholly to the drama. In
her frequent treatments of the apparently irresolvable ‘problem between
authority and love in the Church’, so von Balthasar reminds us, Adrienne
von Speyr showed him and us that ‘this dualism, although it is not really
a dualism . . ., is the form in which the Church of redeemed sinners participates in the pre-redeemed consent of Mary, which eschatologically is to
become the consent of the entire people of God’ (Adrienne, p. 46/ET, p. 52).
What is needed to get these ‘redeemed sinners’ to embrace ‘consenting
participation’ is the awakening of a freedom which cannot come from acting ‘roles’. Roles may be subjectively chosen; the result of mere preference;
unaccountable to others; destined to fade away without contributing to
the movement of God’s will for history (without, that is, being ‘eternal’).
The real freedom of redeemed sinners will come from undertaking a
mission. For it is only in a mission that individual particularity and divine
will are united in the medium of corporate, ecclesial practice. Accordingly,
in von Balthasar’s view, that thing which is most personal to the saint –
her mission – is generated, shaped, and held in place by the determinate
forms of collective life – the external ‘organs’ of the body which is the
31 Von Balthasar is clear that this case can be made because being a ‘person’ is not the same as
being an individual. Personhood is not ‘inwardness’; it is that which is constituted by
relationship, and above all by being ‘someone’ for God. Being a ‘person’ in this list of
dramatis personae is attending to God’s reply to the question ‘who am I?’. And God’s reply is
mediated through other people and the structures which we inhabit with those other people.
In that reply – and through those structures and other people – we find our freedom.

Freedom and indifference

There is, though, a dimension to the missions of Christian people – and
especially the exceptional missions of the saints – of which we need to take
account in order to qualify the complete dependence on ‘embracing context’ which our description so far may have suggested. For the movement
of Spirit extends beyond those particular instances of a status quo which
provide the norms for participative action by individuals. Hegel, of course,
acknowledged this when he said that national spirits come and go, and are
ultimately dependent upon the world spirit:
The individual national spirit is subject to transience. It perishes, loses
its world-historical significance, and ceases to be the bearer of the
highest concept the spirit has formed of itself.32

Now it is quite clearly the case that von Balthasar does not suppose the
Church to be ‘subject to transience’. The Church is the counterpart of
Christ’s singular subjectivity, and exists in a complementary and responsive relation to him, even into eternity. But having said that, von Balthasar
is quite ready to admit that:
the believer in the Church must always be ready to make the leap from
the old and familiar into the essentially new – the metanoiete which lies
at the very source of the Gospel – in order to be obedient to the Holy
Spirit . . .
(g e s c h i c h t e , p. 81/ET, pp. 103–4)33

The Church, then, is frequently to be taken ‘by surprise’, and the saints
play a crucial role here, too. For the saints can become the vehicles or
agents of the movement of the Church onwards to a new stage of its representation of Christ in history (its transposition of the Christ-form into history). They can represent with crystal clarity the ‘spirit’ of a newly generated and (in turn) generative context. This does not, of course, make them
innovators who are free of their shaping environment: it is not a relapse
into the fantasy of freedom as unmediated individual autonomy. It simply
means that they are in tune with the shaping Spirit which transcends the
particularities of its contemporary institutional forms (what Hegel might
call the absolute Spirit beyond the particular national spirit). They are in
tune with a Spirit so vibrant that it bursts out of its particular vessels, and
32 Ibid., p. 60.
33 Von Balthasar may have been more reluctant to celebrate the embrace of ‘newness’ in
quite such unguarded terms after 1967, when he became concerned that the innovations of
Vatican II were undermining the distinctiveness of traditional Christian identity and
commitment. See pp. 73–4.



Theology and the Drama of History

they are in tune with it at the point of its bursting. Their missions, therefore,
attain a particular quality of ‘genius’ – something we shall return to below.
What von Balthasar has to say here is of such profound importance, that
it is worth quoting him in full. For he is presenting us with an interpretation of the saints which brings him extraordinarily close to Hegel’s theory
of ‘world-historical individuals’ (die grossen Welthistorischen Individuen):
Whenever the Spirit takes the Church by surprise . . . it is going to be, in
the main, by the proclamation of some truth which has a far-reaching
meaning for the particular age to which it is given, in both Church
history and world history. The Spirit meets the burning questions of
the age with an utterance that is the key-word, the answer to the riddle.
Never in the form of an abstract statement (that being something that
it is man’s business to draw up); almost always in the form of a new,
concrete supernatural mission: the creation of a new saint whose life is
a presentation to his own age of the message that heaven is sending to
it, a man who is, here and now, the right and relevant interpretation of
the Gospel, who is given to this particular age as its way of approach to
the perennial truth of Christ . . . The saints are tradition at its most
living, tradition as the word is meant whenever Scripture speaks of the
unfolding of the riches of Christ, and the application to history of the
norm which is Christ. Their missions are so exactly the answer from
above to the questions from below that their immediate effect is often
one of unintelligibility; they are signs to be contradicted in the name of
every kind of right-thinking – until the proof of their power is brought
forth. St Bernard and St Francis, St Ignatius and St Theresa were all of
them proofs of that order: they were like volcanoes pouring forth
molten fire from the inmost depths of revelation; they were irrefutable
proof, all horizontal tradition notwithstanding, of the vertical
presence of the living Kyrios here, now and today.
(g e s c h i c h t e , p. 82/ET, p. 105)

Great men of history
At this point we can turn to Hegel, and attend to his description of ‘the
great men of history’, whose work is ‘the product of an impulse which
accomplishe[s] the end for which [their] age [is] ready’. The ‘substance’ of
these great men’s ‘particular ends’ is the ‘will of the world spirit’. When
such a great individual realizes something in accord with the will of Spirit,
‘the nations flock to his standard, for he reveals to them and carries out
what is already their own immanent impulse’.34 These individuals, Hegel
34 Ibid., p. 76.

Freedom and indifference

tells us in his lectures, are ‘geistreich’. They both know and shape themselves in accordance with the spirit of their nation (their embracing context), and also lead it onwards ‘in accordance with the dictates of the universal spirit’.35 It is not, Hegel is anxious to assert, that the universal Spirit is
reliant upon and reducible to these great men – for ‘no individuals can prevent the preordained from happening’. Nevertheless, ‘the universal substance . . . creates for itself the individuals it requires to carry out its ends’.
Hegel calls these individuals ‘world-historical individuals’, and it is their
defining characteristic (to echo Nicholas Lash)36 that they ‘know what time
it is’:
[They are those] who have willed and accomplished not just the ends of
their own imagination or personal opinions, but only those which were
appropriate and necessary. Such individuals know what is necessary
and timely, and have an inner vision of what it is . . . [R]ight is on their
side, for they are the far-sighted ones: they have discerned what is true
in their world and in their age, and have recognised the concept, the
next universal to emerge . . . [T]hey are admirable simply because they
have made themselves the instruments of the substantial spirit.37

Von Balthasar reminded us that the saints, in fulfilment of their missions,
are liable to meet with resistance or incomprehension (‘their immediate
effect is often one of unintelligibility; they are signs to be contradicted in
the name of every kind of right-thinking’). The same is true of Hegel’s
world-historical individuals. Because these individuals are ahead of the
majority of men and women in what they envision, the ‘power within
them’ can appear ‘something external and alien’.38 In consequence, they
must resolve ‘to challenge all the beliefs of their fellows’, and this will
result, not in happiness, but ‘exertion, conflict, and labour in the service of
their end’.39 But, however ‘right-thinking’ a course of action it may seem
to be to resist these world-historical individuals, resistance is in the end ‘a
futile undertaking, for they are irresistibly driven on to fulfil their task’.
They are agents of Spirit.
And here, in turn, we see a point of similarity with von Balthasar‘s theology of mission, in which person and work (principally the person and
work of Christ, and all other persons and works in participation with him)
are inseparably joined. For the actions of world-historical individuals ‘are
their entire being, and their whole nature and character are determined by
35 Ibid., p. 52; my emphasis.
36 Nicholas Lash, ‘Friday, Saturday, Sunday’ in New Blackfriars 71:836 (1990), p. 109.
37 Hegel, World History, pp. 83–4.
38 Ibid., p. 84.
39 Ibid., p. 85.



Theology and the Drama of History

their ruling passion’40 – their pathos, to echo the word which Hegel uses of
dramatic characters in the Aesthetics. Moreover, a world-historical individual – in fulfilling his work in accordance with the movement of the universal spirit – can be seen to be ‘inseparable from the cause he promoted’.
He is invested so wholly in his task that he prefigures the Balthasarian
description of the apostolic witness, whose dramatic importance lies in
the extent to which he stakes the integrity of his mind and character in a
sequence of events which he supposes to have meaning and direction, and
to which he tries to be faithful. He is not a mere role player.
Here, too, we find important preparatory material in the earlier essay
on Ethical Life, and especially in Hegel’s presentation and discussion of
what he calls the ‘first class’ of individuals, in whose hands it is to undertake the labour of ‘government and courage’. The first class – also called
the absolute class – are those people who are free from the system of needs
which constitutes the second (bourgeois) class. The bourgeoisie are reliant
on the relations of ‘possessions, gain, and property’.41 Relations of this
kind restrict their capacity to attain to the true ‘indifference’ which is
beyond such objectifications (beyond any separation of the subject from
the true substance of life together). The bourgeoisie must look to the first
class if it wants to see the indifference (the absolute identity of persons
with ethical life) beyond its own relative identifications of people with
things, and of people with other people through things. It sees this absolute indifference represented with a ‘clear, mirror-bright’ quality by the
first class, for these are people who display without resistance the universal aspects and processes of ethical life, which transcend all individual particularities. The ‘objective’ functions of government are essential
to this whole. The ‘might of the whole’42 depends upon certain essential
‘objective’ functions of government, and the first class enacts those functions. The people recognize the indifference (i.e. the collective identity)
which belongs to them as a whole Volk, by recognizing themselves in these
particular and special individuals: individuals who are in the position of
having nothing to stop ‘absolute and pure ethical life’ from being their
We are bound to register the fact that this first class is conceived by
Hegel, in the first instance, as a military nobility. And this is quite in
keeping with the detail of his later account of the world-historical individuals in The Philosophy of World History, where the examples he gives are
40 Ibid.

41 Hegel, Ethical Life, p. 153.

42 Ibid., p. 157.

43 Ibid., p. 152.

Freedom and indifference

of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Napoleon. These are men who
came to embody the destiny of their national spirits in ways that do not
permit a separation of individual and collective telos. Moreover, they do
not need to earn their keep. The people keeps them even as it recognizes
them and their authority, and informs them with its own consent. We
might be inclined on this basis to dismiss a substantive similarity with
von Balthasar’s saints. Comparison of the saints with a military nobility
seems far-fetched. But in the terms of a comparison between citizen and
Christian believer, which we have already carefully elaborated, there is in
fact a close analogy between the two, which can be understood all the better by the fact that Hegel’s vision of the practical interconnection of religion and politics makes his State impossible to contrast straightforwardly
with a merely ‘institutional’ idea of the Church (it is the renewal of a collective body united in belief and practice with which he is concerned).44
In this case, the nobles as (in their freedom from the system of needs)
the ‘clear, mirror-bright identity’ of the whole body of people in a State
begin to seem nearer to the exemplars of sanctity whose power to represent the identity of the Body (the identity of Christ in his head and in his
members) the Church acknowledges and honours. And, indeed, we find
von Balthasar himself using the language of ‘nobility’ and ‘aristocracy’ in
describing the saints:
Those who withdraw to pray and fast in silence and high places are, as
Reinhold Schneider made so vividly credible, the pillars bearing the
spiritual weight of what happens in history. They share in the
uniqueness of Christ, in the freedom of that nobility which is conferred
from above; that untamed and serene freedom which cannot be caged
and put to use [for ‘caging’ and ‘putting to use’ are bourgeois activities,
in Hegel’s terms]. Theirs is the first of all aristocracies, justification for
all the others, and the last yet remaining to us in an unaristocratic age.
(g e s c h i c h t e , p. 92/ET, p. 122; translation amended)

Here, von Balthasar seems to make the claim that his saints are a nobility
that simply trumps Hegel’s (deceased) military one. It is, so to speak, the
first class of all first classes. And perhaps even Hegel admitted something
like this, for alongside his initial characterization of the military nobility,
there emerges another example of the same absolute and noble indifference, which is the intuition of the collective in oneself, and the readiness
to abandon oneself to it. These are ‘the Elders and the Priests, two groups
44 Von Balthasar recognizes this. See note 59 below.



Theology and the Drama of History

who are strictly one’ – and they are people ‘who have, as it were, sacrificed
their real being in one class and who live purely and simply in the ideal’.45
Like warriors, as one commentator points out, these are men who ‘live in
the presence of death’, and it is partly because of this, and because of the
wisdom that comes with it, that ‘they can achieve the practical indifference
which is both the highest form of political consciousness and the practical
side of religious contemplation’.46
So the gap is not as great as it might initially seem. The class of indifferent men – the men who intuit the collective in themselves, and in whom
the collective too recognizes itself – is in some sense ‘God’s appearance’. ‘It
is the direct Priesthood of the All Highest.’47
We can pause to note, at this point, the convergence of von Balthasar’s
ideas with Hegel’s when the former discusses ecclesial life. We observed
earlier in this study how, for Hegel, the most real and substantial
events were those which turned out to accord most successfully with
the demands of the system (using ‘system’ here to mean the dynamism
of Spirit, with its dimension of ongoing ‘corporate practice’).48 Persons
find themselves in an embracing context (a context significantly articulated in the institutions of the State) rather in the way, perhaps, that they
find themselves always already embraced by language.49 And only in this
context is their subjective freedom possible. Thus their freedom is made
objective in line with a telos. Another way of putting this is to say that
the ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’ of individual freedoms is made apparent in relation to the embracing context and the movement of the rationality of the
Here we may detect an approach – perhaps even a paradigm – shared
in many of its features by von Balthasar’s theology of mission. For we
can say with some justice that for von Balthasar the most real missions
are those which accord with the mission of the Church. Mission, for von
Balthasar, is the moment in which human freedom finds a space opened
up for its self-expression against the background of the Catholica. Hegel
wrote about individual freedom in a way that has strikingly close parallels with von Balthasar’s own thought and writing on this theme. Hegel
45 Ibid., p. 158.
46 Harris in ibid., p. 70.
47 Ibid., p. 163.
48 Williams, ‘Rose’, p. 14.
49 Hegel argues for a strong identification of language and Spirit: ‘. . . language [is] the
existence of Spirit’ (Phenomenology, p. 395), and elsewhere: ‘Language [is] an outer reality that
is immediately self-conscious existence . . . the fluidity and the universally communicated
unity of the many selves . . .’ (Phenomenology, p. 430). This is similar to von Balthasar’s sense of
the importance of language, as we had cause to remark in chapter 1 (see chapter 1, note 4

Freedom and indifference

wrote, for instance, that ‘whatever worth and spiritual reality [an individual] possesses are his solely by virtue of the state’. Von Balthasar makes
the analogous claim that an individual’s ‘spiritual reality’ and ‘worth’
stem from his dramatic part in the Church, which is the (partly – though
not exclusively – objective) medium in which God confers ‘personhood’
on him, and so a sense of self. We find further close parallels: Hegel wrote
that ‘[the individual] has spiritual reality only in so far as his being . . . is
his object and possesses objective and immediate existence for him; only
as such does he possess consciousness and exist in an ethical world . . .’
For von Balthasar correspondingly, it is in the medium of the Church that
an individual’s being comes to him as an ‘object’, in the form of a definite
task. And the parallels can be deepened yet more. As for Hegel ‘the state
is the unity of the universal, essential will and the will of the subject, and
it is this which constitutes ethical life’, so for von Balthasar, the Church
is the harmonious interaction of the divine will and the will of the subject, and it is this which constitutes ‘living holiness’. Both in their descriptions of the ‘medium’ of human freedom, and in their analysis of how this
medium yields personal identity and concrete possibilities and goals for
action, Hegel and von Balthasar overlap significantly.

Indifference revisited
Both Hegel and von Balthasar (each in his own way) must resort to a particular unfolding of the command ‘be subject to one another’ as the source
and condition of freedom. Hegel writes:
When the state or fatherland constitutes a community of existence,
and when the subjective will of men subordinates itself to laws, the
opposition between freedom and necessity disappears.50

For Hegel, individuals must be brought into unity out of their dispersal
into private interests, and the State will play a crucial part in achieving
such unity. It is dangerously easy to overvalue the individual’s freedom (or
even capacity) to do what she wants. For von Balthasar, the Church represents an analogous ‘community of existence’. As for Hegel, authentic freedom can never be the same thing as abstract free will (in this – as we shall
see in chapter four – he also echoes Augustine). Our ‘dramatic’ freedom is
freedom ordered to obedience – it is the ‘homecoming of [the creature’s]
50 Ibid., p. 97.



Theology and the Drama of History

own freedom to the freedom of God’51 (Skizzen iv, p. 427/ExT 4, p. 439), and
is thus freedom viewed in a christological (and therefore trinitarian) context.52 There is an ‘authored weight’ to the incarnate state that provides
the particular definiteness required for such freedom, and like Christ we
need freely to accept (or ‘allow’) the mission we receive there.
The heart of the attitude of the good citizen in Hegel’s account, as I have
shown, is that which he calls ‘indifference’. It is a principal product of the
all-important work (individually consented to; rooted in the collective) of
Bildung. In order, eventually, to be able to see whether its apparent congruity with ideas of christological self-surrender is sustainable, this section will consider the genealogy and significance of the concept a little
more closely.
In his book Erster Blick auf Adrienne von Speyr, von Balthasar gives us a very
direct account of the disposition which he considers to be at the core of the
Church’s existence. It is the attitude of pure consent; self-abandonment;
loving obedience. (Loving obedience, we recall, is the expression of the
unity of subjective and objective Spirit: the absolute identity beyond
apparent difference of external authority and personal volition.) In the life
of the Church, it is archetypally represented in Mary:
[T]he higher unity, the absolute identity [N.B.] between love and
obedience is to be found in Mary, where love expresses itself in this will
to be nothing other than the handmaid of the Lord. No light falls upon
her, all falls upon God; no accent falls upon her consent, the entire
emphasis lies upon God’s Word. Pure transparency. Pure flight from
self. Pure emptied space for the Incarnation of the Word, and in this
state of emptiness, obedience, poverty and virginity are all one.
(a d r i e n n e , p. 45/ET, p. 52)

Hegel had written in his System of Ethical Life that after the ‘adoption into
indifference’53 which an individual participating in absolute ethical life is
51 The standard English translation loses some of the poetry of this phrase in rendering it
‘the mystery of making the freedom of God one’s own’, so I have preferred the translation to
be found in Reader, p. 321.
52 Our freedom, in von Balthasar’s terms, depends on the transcription into creaturely life
(in the person of Jesus Christ and in the area of the Church) of the trinitarian self-surrender.
This is made possible by the mediation of the Holy Spirit. The kenotic mutual outpouring in
God’s trinitarian being – an outpouring which ‘lets’ the Son ‘be’ in his incarnate state, and
an outpouring through which the Son accepts his mission (or ‘lets it be’) – is what makes
available the ‘space’ for freely accepted obedience in the terms of creaturely life: a context for
others to enter and participate in the event of Jesus Christ. Von Balthasar discusses this at
length in Volume iv of Theodramatik (see especially pp. 65ff.), and it is presented well by
O’Hanlon in his book on The Immutability of God.
53 Hegel, Ethical Life, p. 109.

Freedom and indifference

called to undergo, ‘the individual exists in an eternal mode; his empirical being and doing is something downright universal’.54 No one, surely,
can go on to read von Balthasar on the saints without being struck by
the extraordinarily similar way of conceiving and expressing the ‘indifference’ (the ‘absolute identity’) of sanctity. Von Balthasar’s equivalent of
the ‘individual existing in an eternal mode’ is ‘the consenting person . . .
formed by God into the infinite’ (Adrienne, p. 45/ET, p. 52). Likewise, Hegel
wrote that the man who has been gebildet has the ‘stamp of universality’ impressed upon all his actions, because of his indifference; he has
‘renounced his particularity, and . . . acts in accordance with universal principles’.55 And von Balthasar, in his turn, writes that for the Christian person who adopts ‘the openness of perfect readiness’, it will be possible to
receive the ‘figure that will be imprinted by God’ (Adrienne, p. 45/ET, p. 52).
When this perfect readiness exists, the ‘difference’ between the individual’s thinking and willing, and the collective being of the Church (which
exists in the Spirit) is no longer an issue:
There is a point in each individual consciousness when thinking with
the Church (sentire cum ecclesia) becomes sentire ecclesiae, the thinking
of the Church, which is not appropriately separable from the thinking
of the Holy Spirit, sentire Spiritus Sancti . . . This is, subjectively, the
collective norm, and is the rule, transcending the individual, given by
the universalization of the life of Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
(g e s c h i c h t e , p. 78/ET, p. 100; translation amended)

Hegel had a distinctively political objective in mind when he used the idea
of ‘indifference’. He was concerned – if Dickey’s case56 is persuasive, as I
think it is – with the re-establishment of a collective socio-religious identity in the face of the apparent disintegration of that identity’s shaping
tradition. He wanted to inspire a new vision of how an individual gained
his sense of self by being part of a people, and of how instinctive habits of
mutual recognition and service might guard against social fragmentation.
He wanted to inspire – at least in his early political philosophy – the will
to put the collectivity (in his case, a Protestant, covenanting people) first.
How questionable a ploy is it to set Hegel’s Protestant politics and von
Balthasar’s Roman Catholic vision of the Church alongside one another?
It is not, I suggest, as peculiar as it might at first seem. For von Balthasar’s
theology of the Church – particularly in his later, Cordula years57 – is
54 Ibid., p. 143.
55 Hegel, World History, pp. 56–7.
56 See p. 55, note 6, above.
57 Cordula was published in 1967, when many of the effects (often ill effects, in von
Balthasar’s eventual view) of the Second Vatican Council began to tell.



Theology and the Drama of History

increasingly driven by a sense of threatening disintegration, and the loss
of that which gives the Church its distinctive identity in the public realm
(i.e. its christological obedience and sanctity). If Hegel’s notion of the collectivity is defined in a situation of threat, so is von Balthasar’s theology of
the Church. He is defining the boundaries of something which (as revealed
by his concern for the objective aspects of the Church’s existence: its offices
and structures) is something like an ecclesial polity.58 Christian believers
need to look to the Church first; to receive their personhood from it in connection with a pressing mission. There is a very definite historical context
for this call.
What is interesting from our point of view is not so much the different
collectivities (or ‘spiritual bodies’) on which the two men choose to focus.59
What is interesting is how once the collectivity is defined, the relationship
of individuals to it (and, through that collectivity, to the Spirit which it
mediates and concretizes) is described and accounted for. And there is no
doubt that the strategies employed are extraordinarily similar in each case.
Von Balthasar himself writes as follows:
It is clear that the ‘generalized individual’, the community of the
nation, which, for Hegel, acquires its organisation in the state, is
ultimately fashioned after the model of a Christian community; the
spirit who, being absolute, opens up individuals into a genuinely
self-subsistent community, is understood in the sense of the pneuma
hagion, the Holy Spirit of the Church of Jesus Christ.60
(TD i, pp. 551–2/ThD 1, p. 588)61

Hegel’s use of ‘indifference’ (in the particular sense already iterated, i.e. a
refusal to self-determine, and an indicator therefore of a particular kind
58 I wholly accept Nicholas Lash’s point (‘The Church in the State We’re In’ in Modern
Theology 13:1 (1997)) that talk about the Church’s structure ought not to substitute for talk
about the Church (as that ‘fruit of God’s self gift’ which gives ‘sacramental utterance’ to
‘God’s promised healing of the human race’ (p. 122)). But this dichotomy need not apply here.
In von Balthasar’s Church, as in Hegel’s State, we are to some extent dealing with questions
about positive institutions, but neither von Balthasar nor Hegel is interested in institutions
for their own sake.
59 We are faced with two commensurable visions of how (God’s) people might be gathered
and ordered in a visible expression of the human race’s health. Indeed, precisely inasmuch as
(in both cases) von Balthasar’s Church and Hegel’s State ‘narrate, announce and dramatise the
origin, identity and destiny of humankind as common life’ (p. 122), they do not lend
themselves to a crude Church-State contrast.
60 Von Balthasar goes on to suggest that Hegel fails to meet the standard of a truly Christian
vision of community. This critique will be allowed space in the next chapter.
61 For another view of the State as parasitic on the Church, see also William Cavanaugh ‘The
City: Beyond Secular Parodies’ in John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward
(eds.), Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 182–200.

Freedom and indifference

of indeterminacy) as the means of mediating the universal and the particular has a lineage: a lineage which reveals the link between his own specifically political adaptation, and an aesthetic view of the artistic genius as
the ‘indifferent man’ whose art expresses (without the intrusion of wilful
individuality) the absolute in determinate, concrete form. This yields yet a
further insight into the field of associations on which von Balthasar draws
for his notion of the Christian believer (and especially the saint) as a dramatic character, as a transpository concretion of Christ the universal ‘Idea’
of history. The drama of Christian engagement in the life of the Church,
and (through it) in the movement of history, arises out of an acquired discipline of contemplation and the saints provide a pattern for this contemplative attitude as well as for the missions that are consequent upon it.
This is what underlies von Balthasar’s great fascination with aesthetics.
For the indifference that allows a Christian to act for the Church and not
simply for himself – and so to undertake a truly christological mission – is
learned in a kind of Bildung that has links with the contemplative training
of the artist. The archetypal readiness and attentiveness and capacity to be
impressed that Mary evidences is analogous, for von Balthasar, with that
of the artist.
Laurence Dickey – once again – has produced an extensive survey of the
links between Hegel’s conception of political indifference and the artistic
analogues (most especially in the thought of Schiller and Schelling) which
precede it. We will acknowledge these links before making the vital move
to seeing the unique flowering that von Balthasar allows the whole tradition to have in his exaltation of the indifference of the gebildet Christian.
The early Schelling had a conception of the point of indifference in relation to art. It is the point at which an identity between man and nature,
the artist and the Absolute, is revealed by its culmination in a truly artistic
creation. What the exceptional artistic individuals who can achieve this all
have is ‘genius’: a kind of inspirational capacity to bridge the gap between
themselves and nature.62
For Schiller, as Dickey has indicated, certain artists have achieved a condition in which, like Hegel’s first class, they are free from the system of
needs and the concern with provision for and maintenance of self. They
arrive at a state of what Schiller calls ‘indirection’ (Bestimmungslosigkeit)
62 The qualification which Schelling’s idea of artistic genius seems to lack, however, is the
crucial importance of time and of institutions and of other people in attaining this point. It is
highly subjective; there is no ‘project’ entailed. This sets him at one remove from Hegel (and,
probably, from von Balthasar, too). As Dickey puts it, Hegel is ‘much more a collectivist in a
socioreligious sense than an individualist in an aesthetic sense’ (Dickey, Hegel, pp. 283–4).



Theology and the Drama of History

or indeterminacy. This prepares them to become vehicles for something
beyond the constraints of the physical and moral sphere.63 Schiller calls
this state a ‘middle state’ between the ‘sensuous’ and ‘spiritual’ dimensions of human experience. It is a middle state in which ‘aesthetic freedom’ is brought to birth.64 Moreover, Schiller perceived analogies between
this aesthetic middle state and its moral equivalent. As an individual
achieves emancipation from the dominion of sensuous nature, he or she
is able to reach a state of indeterminate openness, in which to take on the
imprint of personhood. The middle state is thus also a ‘precondition’ of
moral freedom.65 In both aesthetic and moral senses, the process involves
a very real kind of Bildung (and this is the dimension lacking in the early
Schelling’s account). In moral terms, ‘man does not automatically become
“what he ought to be” by arriving at the point of indifference’.66 Though
Schiller does not have Hegel’s very developed and realistic account of how
an individual must be brought to the point of indifference (i.e. by consenting participation in the collective, obedience to institutions, etc.) –
and has a more mystical view of what it is that ‘awakens our Personality’67 – nevertheless he is quite certain that one cannot leap directly
to the Absolute ‘without having to tolerate any of the inconveniences
and frustrations of “in-betweenness”’.68 And in aesthetic Bildung, too, the
necessary cultivation of imagination is born only of ‘the spirit of long
Von Balthasar’s distinctive form of spiritual Bildung was that of a Jesuit,
and even after his departure from the Society of Jesus he remained passionately committed to the Ignatian vision – a vision derived, as he puts it,
‘directly from the Gospel’ (H iii/1, p. 455/GL 5, p. 102). The Jesuit, writes von
Balthasar, ‘receives his mission in that school [note, here, the implications
of Bildung] of abandonment and contemplation which is the Exercises and
is thereby enabled to fulfil a particular task without any mental reservations and from a disposition of transcendent universality, being basically
ready for anything’ (H iii/1, p. 456/GL 5, p. 103).
There is a variety of terms which von Balthasar employs in this context,
but absolutely vital to him is the central term in the ‘Principle and Foundation’ of the Spiritual Exercises: indifference (indiferencia). All at once we are
63 F. Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, E. M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (eds.
and trans.) (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967), p. 140 and 215.
64 Cf. ibid., pp. 123 and 161.
65 Ibid., p. 161.
66 Dickey, Hegel, p. 262.
67 Cf. Schiller, Aesthetic Education, pp. 135–7.
68 Dickey, Hegel, p. 260.
69 Schiller, Aesthetic Education, p. 59.

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confronted with a convergence between both the traditions of late medieval
spiritual discipline (and their unique development by Ignatius), and the
understandings of the relationship between the particular and the universal which German idealism produced and which we have been tracing.
Both in their extraordinary interpenetration are exquisitely suited to the
temper of von Balthasar’s theological construal of the Church in its saints,
and to his intellectual interests and sympathies. Both unite in a massively
influential shaping of his thought.
Ignatian ‘indifference’ is the one thing needful if one is to be trained
to make the sort of dramatic choices that properly arise from ‘the fullness
of the contemplation of the life of the Lord’ (Skizzen i, p. 203/ExT i, p. 188).
Indifference is that disposability which is humbly ready to serve the Lord
as his ‘handmaid’. The Exercises demonstrate its importance so well for
von Balthasar that he regards them as ‘the practical school of holiness for
all the orders’, and not just the Jesuits (Skizzen i, p. 203/ExT 1, p. 189). That
such indifference stands as part of a long and distinguished spiritual tradition is made clear by von Balthasar in his section entitled ‘Metaphysik
der Heiligen’ (‘The Metaphysics of the Saints’) in Volume iii/1 of Herrlichkeit
(H iii/1, pp. 407ff./GL 5, pp. 48ff.). It has its roots in an attitude already
present in the thought of the Fathers: an attitude of apatheia, which the
finite spirit must adopt if it is to experience the glory of ‘the unimaginable revelation of the personal God’ (H iii/1, p. 434/GL 5, p. 78). Apatheia
accepts that this encounter cannot be generated by the individual from
‘within’. The language of the ascent of eros is not adequate to describe what
is required. Rather the creature’s ultimate attitude must be one of ‘open
and defenceless expectation . . . disponible and humbly ready to serve,
as the “handmaid of the Lord”’ (H iii/1, p. 434/GL 5, p. 78). Christ’s allsurrendering attitude towards the Father – which is the origin of his allembracing mission – is the universally valid type of this. The Passion of
Christ must become ‘the concrete, normative and defining attitude of the
historical creature in general’ (H iii/1, p. 435/GL 5, p. 79).
It is on this basis that Benedict ‘sees the love of Christ as reverence and
humility’, and Francis responds to that same love by adopting ‘a cleansing poverty, the giving up of all personal possessions for the sake of pure
receptivity to the mystery of the cross’ (H iii/1, p. 455/GL 5, p. 102). And it
is for the sake of the same purgation and preparation that the Rhineland
mystics advocate abandonment (or Gelassenheit: another of von Balthasar’s
favourite terms in this area). In the grand si `ecle, Gelassenheit ‘will appear in
its final form as abandon’ (H iii/1, p. 456/GL 5, p. 102).



Theology and the Drama of History

This, for von Balthasar, makes extremely clear what are the roots of
the Ignatian Exercises, and most especially the roots of Ignatian indifference. The Christian contemplative who seeks to hear a ‘personal call from
Christ himself’ will hear that call on the condition that his contemplation is being done ‘in an attitude of “indifference” and readiness for anything God may ask. It will imprint and bestow on each person a form of
life which descends from above as a gift of grace. In that form of life the
Christian, as matter totally receptive to being conformed to God, can conform to his will and so attain the perfection of the Christian life’ (H iii/1,
p. 456/GL 5, p. 103).
The development of thought about indifference in German philosophy
displays its abundant indebtedness to this tradition of thought and experience, and helps enrich our appreciation of the sheer wealth of the polymath von Balthasar’s sources and influences. It confronts us with what is
clearly a crucial knot of ideas. For the ‘in-betweenness’ of Schiller’s ‘middle state’ between the sensuous and the spiritual, which gives a person the
possibility of acting in an ‘eternal’ or universal mode, is an aesthetic and a
moral version of the medieval Christian insight that:
the principle of indifference means detachment from all created things
for the sake of immediate union with God; it thereby places man in the
transcendent ‘neither God nor the world’ situation [‘in-betweenness’]
of The Cloud of Unknowing.
(H iii/1, p. 456/GL 5, p. 103)

All human freedom begins here, or never comes to birth at all. And as
Hegel takes the Schillerian insight and turns it to the service of a ‘practical,
collective possibility’ – with institutional and pedagogical dimensions –
so von Balthasar follows Ignatius in his belief that the ‘fundamental act,
this fundamental work, of contemplation [can] also now be translated,
without compromising its Christian integrity, into specific deeds in an
active apostolate’ – an active apostolate ‘in the Church and the world’
(H iii/1, p. 459/GL 5, p. 106).
Lest we think him to be advocating a kind of hylemorphism whereby
the creature is just formless matter which waits to receive God’s imprint,
and whose abandonment has no co-operative dimension in active surrender and service (this is a claim we shall return to below), von Balthasar
moves quickly to assure us that contemplation leads to action; theological
aesthetics to theodrama. Heroic effort comparable to that of Hegel’s selfsacrificing first class of warriors is demanded in this drama, and modelled

Freedom and indifference

for us by the saints in their Bildung (their discipline and ecclesially attuned
sensorium) and the missions that result.
Indeed, it might be said that Ignatius is specifically an inspirer of
von Balthasar’s theodramatic instincts in this regard, along with so many
other things (his ‘Christocentric mysticism’, his ‘incarnational spirituality’ and his ‘desire to find God in all things’).70 That the Spiritual Exercises are potentially generative of ‘dramatic’ activity is more than evident.
It is not a scholastic text, nor straightforwardly a spiritual treatise. It is,
as Philip Caraman puts it, ‘a manual with the practical purpose of helping a man to save his soul and find his place in the divine plan. Even in
its final revision in 1541 it is . . . not a book to be read but a guide to be
translated into practice.’71 Ignatian spirituality is mission-orientated; the
Exercises a propaedeutic to mission, geared wholly to bringing the individual face to face with her eternal calling and destiny. The Exercises are
designed to generate Christian life by negotiating and surpassing ‘epic’
(the ‘normativity’ of the Gospel narratives) and ‘lyric’ (my interpretative
freedom) components alike. In George Schner’s words, ‘Making the narrative present through the integration of it by the work of creative imagination into “my” time and space perpetuates the story’s life.’72 The individual who has really become a theological person by the reception of a
mission will enter the drama.

Throughout this chapter on freedom we have been examining the way
that for both von Balthasar and Hegel subjective and objective facets of life
in the Spirit can only be united by something that moves – by something
that is ‘live’, and historical and dramatic. Dramatic action is positively
built into Hegel’s conception of Sittlichkeit, with its ongoing call for consenting participation. The inhabiting of shared structures – of language as
much as of political institutions – is the precondition for a life lived freely
and corporately. This demands courage, good will and self-sacrifice.
Von Balthasar, too, so it seems, wants to enliven his Christian audience to the possibilities of enacted mission within the Body of the Church,
extending (as his ‘secular institutes’ do) into the life of the world. He wants
70 O’Donnell, Hans Urs von Balthasar, p. 6.
71 Philip Caraman, Ignatius Loyola (London: Collins, 1990), p. 41.
72 George P. Schner (ed.), Ignatian Spirituality in a Secular Age (Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier
University Press, 1984), p. 321.



Theology and the Drama of History

to show Christian people that it is possible to ‘make history happen’, by
consenting to participate fully in an ecclesial mission, ‘given by grace but
nevertheless put into effect by man’:
It is only in the context of being sent upon a mission that any moment
of time can finally ripen in which – by the grace of living faith – a full
correspondence is attained (on the pattern of Christ) between what is
demanded of us and what we manage to do.
(g e s c h i c h t e , p. 90/ET, p. 120)

Present implicitly throughout this chapter has been the importance of
epic, lyric and dramatic styles, the relationship between which is so crucial to what von Balthasar (like Hegel before him) means by drama. This
is signalled by the fact that a unique and powerful example of bringing
order to a diverse company of people is the ‘being subject to one another’
that is involved in rehearsal (another kind of Bildung). Here is a highly suggestive model of what is needed to temper people into solidarity with one
another; to ‘recollectivize’ them, and make something of their individual
interpretations and actions that will overflow the bounds of the particular.
Von Balthasar is very aware that the mechanics of drama offers rich analogies for the process by which individuals align themselves in accordance
with their embracing context. The mediation achieved between a single
person and a collective telos can very easily be compared with the unification of epic and lyric correlates to make something really dramatic in the
staging of a play. A drama begins with an authored text and is developed by
interpretation, but both aspects are incomplete without their joint presence in the third aspect of ‘performance’. All three aspects are associated
with drama, but under that umbrella, authorship has clear links with the
determinateness of epic, and interpretation (by the individual actors of
their parts and of the movement of the play as a whole) with a creative but
(initially at least) private contemplation in lyric mode. The consummation
and disciplining of each requires concrete, physical and essentially communal performance, in which individual interpretations are challenged
and modified by the encounter with the interpretations of others, and the
definiteness of the author’s script becomes a locus for innovative development, self-expression and relationship on the part of the performers. Von
Balthasar himself points out this three-fold distinction in his treatment
of author, actor and director in Volume i of Theodramatik (TD i, pp. 247–
83/ThD 1, pp. 268–305) and reprises it with great subtlety in later discussions of the Trinity (TD ii/2, pp. 486–9/ThD 3, pp. 531–5).

Freedom and indifference

Like the Hegel who made drama the epitome of poetic art, and who
insisted that the identifying of the individual citizen with the movement
of world spirit was something that could only take the form of engagement with the concrete particularities of ethical life, and who called for
such ethical life to be enacted courageously and practically in the company
of a people, von Balthasar wants to think about absolute (divine) freedom
in a way that respects the significance of the materially and historically
real. He wants to unite the freedom to interpret with the discipline of certain given finalities and a communal relationship to other interpreters. In
other words, like Hegel, he thinks like a dramatist.
Or is it as simple as that? How convincing does Hegel seem, in the end,
in his role of patron and sponsor of drama? How much of a stage, ultimately, do the terms of his philosophy permit him to open up for the free
interplay of his characters? And will his failings, as well as his strengths,
have correlates in von Balthasar’s theological approach – thereby affecting
von Balthasar ’s credentials as an advocate of drama?
These questions come to the fore because there is another figure looking over the shoulder of the Hegel whose sympathies (in the realm of art)
appear to be with drama; someone whose influence may be stronger than
is superficially apparent. He is a figure from the ‘epic’ world of the ancient
Greek city state, whom Hegel calls the minstrel (der S ¨anger). And his concerns are very like those which dominate Hegel’s early political philosophy. He, too, is concerned to give an account of (to narrate) what is involved
in collective life in the State. The minstrel’s song (like Hegel’s thought)
is about ‘the middle term’ of the State’s particularity; and it is about ‘the
nation in its heroes’ (echoes of the first class) ‘who are individual men like
the Minstrel, but presented only in idea, and . . . thereby at the same time
universal, like the free extreme of universality, the gods’.
All the Hegelian concerns which this chapter has traced are there. The
great (and disturbing) difference, though, is that the song of this minstrel
is essentially a monological, narrative form (an epic account) and not a
drama at all:
The Minstrel is the individual and actual Spirit from whom, as a
subject of this world, it [the world] is produced and by whom it is
borne . . . . what counts is . . . his universal song.73

He is equipped to sing this song on behalf of the collectivity with which
his subjectivity is bound up: the collectivity which is the polis or nation.
73 Hegel, Phenomenology, pp. 440–1.



Theology and the Drama of History

But it is sung in an undramatic mode, with a particular devotion to
‘Mnemosyne’, the goddess of recollection and recall.
Now we must acknowledge the fact that Hegel does not see himself as
quite like the epic minstrel. The minstrel is able to inhabit and narrate
his substantially unified epic world because he lives in an age which, for
Hegel, predates the now irreversible rise of self-conscious subjectivity. It
is a world in which the individual’s sense of himself and of his freedom in
the movement of history is quite inseparable from the ethical and cultural
life of the collectivity. ‘He is the organ that vanishes in its content.’ There
can be no going back to such early innocence.
And yet Hegel, the speculative philosopher, is manifestly concerned
with forging new relations between self-conscious subjectivity and the collective, encompassing substance of ethical life. In a sense, he is still concerned with a world in which the individual’s sense of himself and of his
freedom in the movement of history is quite inseparable from the ethical
and cultural life of the collectivity. And in a sense, he is still concerned with
‘organs that vanish (indifferently) in their content’. The unity of the epic
world retains its hold on the Hegelian imagination. He believes it still to
be the case, as this chapter has amply shown, that Spirit can be expressed
in a way that is proper to the times, by some individual who is equipped
so to speak by his particular ‘pathos’ – a ‘pathos’ that relates him to his
cultural and political environment. And although, of course, the difference between Hegel (as speculative philosopher) and the minstrel is that,
where the minstrel simply articulated his times, Hegel the philosopher
articulates the self-consciousness of his times,74 nevertheless – though Hegel
does not say this – their tasks are remarkably related. For the speculative
philosopher not only looks for a new unification of subjectivity and the
substance of life (in which particular actions serve the general well-being),
he even undertakes to narrate this. He adopts a new form of narration in
which all this can be told.
This indicates in turn the powerful drive towards teleological patterning for which Hegel is notorious, and on which this chapter alighted only
briefly in terms of his interest in the ‘whole context’ of individual action.
In his theory of the dramatic genre, as has been shown, Hegel says that
the actions of the various characters in the drama find their realization in
74 He sings his song in a world that has moved beyond the need for representational
thinking (Vorstellung), and presses forward to grasp the very Idea or Notion (Begriff ) of things
which informs all such partial representation. He speaks in a world which has become
capable of ‘the thinking of thinking’.

Freedom and indifference

line with a ‘whole context’. Individual characters and their aims on the
one hand and the shared realm of action on the other have to be fitted to
one another. But although Hegel tries to assert the continued importance
of the subject’s mind and character in its interdependence with the movement of the action, it is a basically teleological view of things that is discernible behind his portrayal of drama’s ideal form.
To phrase it another way: despite his intention to preserve the mutual
importance of individual initiative and corporate context in drama (and
more than just in drama, as we shall see), it is the latter that has the
advantage in Hegel’s thought. Because a consistent and convincing balance between the two is virtually impossible to strike – because of the
enormous difficulty of depicting the operation of genuine freedom in an
individual’s dramatic interaction with her circumstances and with the
freedoms of others – the contextual claim (the situating of freedom in a
context that will make sense of it) tends repeatedly to get the upper hand.
Sometimes intentionally and sometimes unwittingly, individual actions
are interpreted as needing orientation in relation to what is more
embracing than them, which is another way of saying that they are shown
to be determined teleologically in certain respects. A goal (or goals), or an
end, or a necessary direction, is implicitly assigned to them. The minstrel
makes his appearance.
Thus, in his theory of the dramatic genre, Hegel says that the actions
of the various characters in the drama find their realization in line with
some kind of dramatic justice or necessity. ‘Teleologically’, an embracing
dramatic justice sets the standard for each individual action and particular event. Even when events occur which appear at first to be mere accident, nevertheless ‘we feel a pressing demand for a necessary correspondence between the external circumstances and what the inner nature of . . .
[the] characters really is’.75 The characters can only realize themselves in
relation to an embracing ‘rationality’ whose self-realization is the absolute
goal of Spirit. This is the meaning of teleology in Hegelian terms. Because
Hegel believes this, he can talk about ‘the inner and universal element
lying at the root’ of particular dramatic actions,76 and about ‘the spiritual
substance of will and accomplishment’ as depicted in drama.77 Dramatic
actions which are ‘truly human’ are those which ‘actualize this their [spiritual or divine] essence’.78 This is a crucial part, for him, of why people find
value in watching drama. They will only be satisfied if the requirement is
75 Hegel, Aesthetics, p. 1231.

76 Ibid., p. 1163.

77 Ibid., p. 1195.

78 Ibid.



Theology and the Drama of History

met that ‘something absolutely rational and true shall be clearly realized
and achieved’.79 When this happens, then ‘the Divine’ is ‘made real in the
What now begins to become clear is that this strong teleology which
emerges from Hegel’s treatment of drama has corollaries in the way he
‘places’ human freedom in all its various manifestations. The question
therefore becomes pressing: is an account such as Hegel’s, in which the
shaping claims of the environment are so strong, bound to be an epic one?
Does it inherently militate against drama? Does the Spirit which sings its
universal song through this minstrel always, in the end, simply suppress
individual initiatives and the possibility of radical oppositions or contingent, bountiful novelties? Can an account of human freedom in history be
given in the terms that Hegel sets out in such a way that it does not simply
relapse into an epic perspective; an epic way of conceiving and of telling it
(and perhaps, at one extreme, of enforcing it, too)?
We raise this massive question as a preliminary to the next stage of this
book, in which we must begin to prise von Balthasar’s and Hegel’s thought
apart a little more, to see the main divergences which exist (or which von
Balthasar is most anxious to assure us exist) in the way that dramatic freedom is conceived by each thinker. Our findings will have major implications for the way that von Balthasar’s attempt to envision an account of
Christian life in the terms of dramatic freedom comes to be understood
and assessed.
79 Ibid., p. 1179.

80 Ibid., p. 1195.


Epic history and the question of tragedy
The cast, the stage and the action, part ii

Batter, batter the doom drum, but believe there’ll be better.
(a e s c h y l u s , Oresteia, line 159)

This chapter, and the one after it, continue to be about the cast, the stage
and the action of Christian life (or ‘mission’) in the world, with an increasingly focused concentration on the nature of the action – in other words,
the way that historical events and history’s ‘end’ are best understood. In
that connection, the chapter will continue to be concerned with the importance of the Church and the saints (especially Mary) in their relation to the
historical unfolding of events. The great difference between this chapter
and the previous one is that it begins to press much harder both on von
Balthasar’s and on Hegel’s thought, to see whether fissures are opened up
between them and weaknesses exposed within the thought of each by the
force of a new kind of challenge. It begins to trace von Balthasar’s attempts
to define himself against Hegel. It looks at the grounds on which he asserts
such differences, and it assesses how convincing, in the end, his arguments
At the head of this chapter stands a choric utterance from the same
work with which we began our treatment of drama in chapter 1: Aeschylus’
Sing sorrow, sorrow: but good win out in the end.
(line 121)1

1 Aeschylus, Oresteia, David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (eds.), Richmond Lattimore
(trans.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953).



Theology and the Drama of History

Or in Tony Harrison’s translation, which tries to be faithful to the often
onomatopoeic bluntness of the original chorus:
Batter, batter the doom drum, but believe there’ll be better.
(line 159)2

In a sense, this chapter wants to put a coarse, Greek tragic question to the
refined teleology of Hegel, and then to turn the question back onto von
Balthasar, to see how his own attempt to do a theology which takes drama
seriously (and in significant measure a theological reading of history which
takes drama seriously) withstands the same scrutiny. As a Christian theologian, von Balthasar is committed to ‘believing there’ll be better’. But that
is only one pole of a tension. In a perspective like Donald MacKinnon’s,
the Christian theologian is actually under an equal obligation to ‘batter
the doom drum’ when the ‘belief that there’ll be better’ takes on a complacent or triumphal quality. MacKinnon sums the matter up like this:
one could claim that Christianity, properly understood, might provide
men with a faith through which they are entitled to hold steadfastly to
the significance of the tragic, and thereby protect themselves against
that sort of synthesis which seeks to obliterate by the vision of an
all-embracing order the sharper discontinuity of human existence . . .3

MacKinnon saw himself and contemporary theologians standing under a
responsibility to resist the legacy of Hegel, and he thought he saw in von
Balthasar the resources to make such resistance possible. The question is:
was he right, and does the Balthasarian approach succeed in taking such
a stand? The dark intractability of the circumstances in which humans
have to play out their parts is the other pole of the tension in which von
Balthasar’s theology finds itself, and again is a pole which will help us to
judge the adequacy of his theology as a source of categories for thinking
theologically about history.
This chapter will show von Balthasar to be a powerful advocate of a certain open-endedness in the way he construes Christian life before God. In
other words, he is concerned to proclaim himself very definitely a ‘dramatist’ and not an ‘epic minstrel’. (A demonstration of this public resistance to dimensions of Hegel’s thought will display interesting and close
similarities to the way von Balthasar characterizes himself against a fellow theologian – his friend and inspiration, Karl Barth – and here too a
2 Aeschylus, Oresteia, Tony Harrison (trans.) (London: Collings, 1982); again, my gratitude to
Adrian Poole for introducing me to the Harrison translation.
3 D. M. MacKinnon, The Problem of Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1974), p. 135.

Epic history and the question of tragedy

tempering of the ‘belief there’ll be better’ seems to von Balthasar to be
important. But that will be matter for the following chapter.)
Our consideration of how von Balthasar shoulders his responsibility
to ‘batter the doom drum’ – to resist the cataphasis (or saying-too-much)
which, in his view, manifests itself in both Hegelian and (as we shall see)
Barthian varieties – will prove to be a means of opening long perspectives on his theology in its entirety. The purpose of this chapter is to show
how von Balthasar moves to make his theology one that will leave Hegel
behind in its allegiance to a higher and more really dramatic drama than the
German idealist ever did justice to; and to a truer and more dramatic history than he ever apprehended (theodramatic history). Von Balthasar grasps
a dimension of drama that Hegel (and the ‘philosophers of Spirit’) were
blind to – a dimension in which drama is illuminated on its far side by
a free and unconditioned (and dramatically overwhelming) divine glory.
This, as I will show, is where von Balthasar’s theology of drama is at its
best – discarding Hegel and imaginatively reapplying his typology. But it
will not cut itself loose from Hegel’s influence entirely.

The ‘prosaic’ and the ‘dramatic’ in Hegel
As we have seen, von Balthasar’s careful explanation of the way individual
believers find proper selfhood only by the bestowal of a ‘mission’ within
the Church matches Hegel’s conception of freedom in the State at a number of points. I now want to show that von Balthasar’s adaptation of this
notion to his vision of Christian life – though on one level a sign of continuity with Hegel’s thought – is on another level an energetic contradiction
of Hegel, because Hegel’s view of freedom in the State, when articulated as
an historical reality, is in the end post-dramatic. If there is room for tension
in Hegel’s conception of freedom in the State, then it is quite explicitly
(in the terms of his philosophy) a ‘prosaic’ tension, a tension belonging to
a new and ‘prosaic age’, and this is true for him despite all the analogies
with drama and dramatic justice we have traced within his thought. Von
Balthasar’s theology of mission in relation to the Church, by contrast, is
energetically committed to a dramatic principle which will give no quarter to Hegel’s ‘prosaic age’. It sustains the historical tension between the
subject and the subject’s ground of being as dramatically real (not simply
apparent), and as of ultimate personal significance. So when, as we have
seen, von Balthasar extends the principle of dramatic freedom in line with
a telos to include dramatic freedom in the body of the Church, he does so in



Theology and the Drama of History

a way that re-vivifies the usefulness of drama at exactly the point where Hegel
declares drama to be dead.
We need to explore briefly what the notion of ‘prose’ means for Hegel.
For him, the ‘prosaic’ age is inaugurated by the rise of thoughtful reflection in the modern period of European history. ‘Prose’ is the medium of
a purer kind of thinking than that which still cannot get beyond images
from the sensory realm in its depiction of ultimate truth. The ‘prose’ of
thinking does not feel the need to set up for itself a concrete (and therefore limiting) representation of the divine. ‘Prose’ is associated with what
Hegel calls Spirit’s ‘self-contained phase’,4 and is accompanied by ‘the
manifestation of Religion as Human Reason’.
It seems as though the development of this ‘prosaic’ age is very closely
related, for Hegel, to the rise of a new kind of historical consciousness.
Historical writing (a different and apparently non-poetic genre) acquires
a particular interest for him as a nearer relation to philosophy. This is
because of the contribution it can make to the process by which humanity
understands itself and its activity; a contribution which does not deflect
its account-giving into the intuition and imagery of art or the modes of
‘feeling’ and ‘representation’ which characterize religion.
Hegel proclaims drama to have been superseded, therefore, because it
is a poetic art form. He is still concerned with the relationship that exists
between individuals’ self-expression and the universal dimension that
embraces them. But he transfers his consideration of this relationship
away from the field of poetry.
Of course, Hegel is fully aware of rich analogies between dramatic
poetry and the representation of history, analogies that Hayden White has
further demonstrated in his book Metahistory.5 Just as Hegel sees drama as
the mediation between epic and lyric sensibilities in art, so he sees history
as a comparable prose representation of the dialectic ‘between externality and internality, as that interchange is lived’.6 ‘In fact’, as White puts it,
‘Hegel left very little doubt that, in his mind, the formal aspects of both
historical and dramatic representation are the same.’ It is perhaps no accident that Hegel’s lectures on the philosophy of history (first delivered in
the winter of 1822–3) came so soon after his lectures on aesthetics (first

4 G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of History, J. Sibree (trans.) (New York: Dover, 1956), p. 335; from
now on referred to as History.
5 Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore
and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).
6 Ibid., pp. 88–9.

Epic history and the question of tragedy

delivered at Berlin in the winter of 1820–1). The lectures on aesthetics, with
their culmination in poetry (and, more specifically, dramatic poetry), are a
natural precursor in Hegelian terms to the lectures on history. The importance of history can be understood with reference to what poetry said in
its own time and in its own way. But – and this is the crucial point – history has now superseded poetry. In taking this view, Hegel is making a statement about the inadequacies of poetic art in an age in which the human
subject has achieved a new self-consciousness and discovered a new interiority. He is making a statement about the inadequacies of poetic art now
that the human story, with all its conflicts, can supposedly be told with a
new claim to being ‘definitive’, in a way that is inclusive both of internal
motivation and external circumstance, and in a way that does not therefore need to use ‘pictures’. (This is because the ‘pictures’ were the false
‘othering’ of certain aspects of reason, motivation and so on in the realm
of Spirit.) He is making a claim that all the requisite means of making
sense of history are already available to reason; that nothing, ultimately, is
‘irreconcilable’ within an historical account of things, nor can anything be
‘outside’ the narratable positivities and consistencies and causal networks
of human historical experience. This, at least, is the implication of his
statement in the Philosophy of History that, whereas the Greeks still determined and interpreted their world with reference to ‘oracular decision’,
they were surpassed by a stage in man’s existence in which ‘[i]n regard to
particular aims, he . . . forms his own determinations’.7
Of course, there is a constancy to the ‘subject matter’ – to that with
which poetry as well as history are concerned – even though there has been
a significant shift, for Hegel, in the way that the ‘subject matter’ is represented. Most importantly, it is always the case, in the ‘poetic’ age as in the
‘prosaic’, that an individual’s freedom is linked to and determined by the
‘absoluteness’ of the substance of ethical life (which is to say, the relations
of belief, thought and practice of a whole society).8 But the difference in
how this relationship is conceived is, for Hegel, momentous.
In drama – in the ‘poetic’ age – the ‘absoluteness’ of the substance of ethical life had a twofold appearance. In some respects it was shown as a collectively accepted ground (a ‘choric’ ground) which convincingly made the
ethical substance present, while in other respects, the same ‘absoluteness’
found expression in forces which poetic drama could depict as ‘divine’
7 Hegel, History, p. 334.
8 The ‘state of the world’ (der Weltzustand) is one of Hegel’s expressions in this context
(Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 184).



Theology and the Drama of History

(‘ethical powers’ or ‘gods’). Individuals stood in sharp relief against this
background. They could participate in and mediate aspects of the divine
ground, but only partially. And this partiality of the various mediations
meant that individuals frequently (and tragically) came into mutual conflict. Drama, as a poetic art form, regarded these confrontations seriously,
as of ultimate import, and generated from them what Hegel calls ‘the
religious thrill of awe’.9 In the historical and social circumstances which
spawned it, drama was a vehicle for the sense of the ‘absolute’. It participated in and made present the ethical ground (der Weltzustand) to which
it gave expression. It formed and sustained the self-understanding of a
whole society by its particular presentation of the way in which that society was related to and shaped by absolute ethical substance (the ‘gods’). It
did so by means of what Hegel refers to as Vorstellung (often translated as
By ‘picture-thinking’, therefore, is meant the ‘poetry of representation’
which is the medium of religion, as contrasted with the ‘prose of thinking’ which is the medium of philosophy. What philosophy will present
as ‘absolute’ in the form of conceptual thought is presented here in an
intermediate stage which is beyond the determinacy of intuitions, but has
not yet attained the universality of conceptual thought. Vorstellungen are
‘representational’ thoughts that still share some of the properties of mental pictures, and are not yet ‘pure’ thoughts.10
In the ‘prosaic’ age, drama ceases to be able to communicate the absolute ground or substance. It becomes relatively autonomous from other
social institutions, and cannot any longer present the way that individuals are related to reality. When it tries, its representations are artificial, so
to speak, rather than integral and substantial: its ‘representational’ thinking has become inadequate. In this sense, it ‘dies’ – lingering only in its
debased (because too private) Romantic form. The root of the change is a
new and irreversible self-consciousness of subjectivity, associated by Hegel
with the ‘Roman World’, during which ‘the prose of life’ makes its first
appearance.11 Admittedly, this subjectivity carries with it its own problems and imposes its own false dichotomies. For instance, the divorce from
the ethical substance which is initiated by too interior a subjectivity needs

9 Hegel, History, p. 290.
10 For Hegel’s main account of Vorstellung, see part 3 of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical
Sciences in Outline (published in English as Philosophy of Mind, A. V. Miller (trans.) (Oxford:
Clarendon, 1971)), §§ 451–64.
11 Hegel, History, p. 288.

Epic history and the question of tragedy

redressing. But such redress can never be achieved by a return to the lost
and illusory divinizations of poetic drama. Once the self-conscious subject
arrives on the scene, and establishes the new terms on which Spirit must
move forward, the old forms of poetic representation will no longer do. If
the self-conscious subject is to recover (to ‘re-cognize’) its bond with the
‘absolute’ (ethical substance: that which poetic art conceived as the ‘gods’
or the ‘divine’), then it must do so in new and ‘prosaic’ terms. It must do
so in a way that is free of the stylized divine/human grammar of representation of which poetic drama made use. The Weltzustand – the ‘state of the
world’ – is now conceived as in principle a field that can be understood historically, in terms already and universally available to human consciousness. This is another way of saying that our experience can in principle
yield the tools for its own interpretation. On this account, the relations of
belief, thought and practice in a society – its ethical ground – will be more
than adequately articulated in the terms offered by ‘history’ than by art;
they will be better articulated in such terms, because such terms are free of
any suggestion that we need help from ‘outside’ our own experience and
thought (and our own ‘aims’).
The writing of history as a consequence will bring the self-thinking
of humanity nearer to its issue in a comprehensive philosophical vision
where the ‘Notion’ (Begriff ) of the world’s reality and of our place in it
reaches maximum clarity for us. The writing of history characteristic of
a ‘prosaic’ age will contribute to (and be shaped by) a philosophy of Spirit,
which sees the individual and the universal as both equally manifestations of Spirit and as both situated in the same field of consciousness. This
will entail the insight that all tensions or oppositions between the individual and the embracing context can have no ultimately significant consequences. ‘Prosaic’ (as opposed to dramatic) tension merely reflects the way
the movement of Spirit is advancing to a new stage. This is what is often
meant by calling Hegel’s philosophy an ‘immanentist’ one: it seems to be
entirely reconcilable (because entirely ‘thinkable’) from ‘inside’.
It is a matter of great interest to von Balthasar that Hegel sees Christianity as playing a key role in the demise of drama (and of the ‘poetic’ age
more generally). According to von Balthasar, Hegel regards God’s becoming man in Jesus Christ as an image of the world’s abandonment of the
gods; or, put another way, of God’s manifestation of himself in the form of
self-conscious humanity and within history. Thenceforth, in Christianity
and the new phase of historical development that it initiates, it is human
subjectivity which presumes to determine the content of the ‘divine’, and



Theology and the Drama of History

it can do so, as we have observed, in the mode of historical narration. The
Incarnation initiates the ‘prose’ of Christianity, and it is well situated in
the Roman world whose ‘general principle’ for Hegel was the ‘subjective
certainty of its own existence’.12 Furthermore, in the death and resurrection of Christ, the new self-consciousness that Christ initiates is made universally available, so Hegel says, in the Spirit. Anyone can, in principle,
‘take cognisance’ of it. This is accomplished in a way that defuses the tensions between human and divine which ‘representational’ thinking had
falsely absolutized and projected:
The recognition of the identity of the Subject and God was introduced
into the World when the fulness of Time was come: the consciousness of
this identity is the recognition of God in his true essence. The material
of Truth is Spirit itself – inherent vital movement. The nature of God as
pure Spirit, is manifested to man in the Christian Religion.13

Now von Balthasar does not fundamentally disagree with Hegel’s understanding that drama (and situations that are dramatic by analogy) work
by showing individuals in relation to an encompassing ground of some
sort. This is something we have already seen. However, von Balthasar does
take issue with Hegel over the claim that a stark and essentially dramatic
dimension has now been left behind, that Christianity is ‘prosaic’. He
claims that what is true in relation to, for example, a Greek tragedy, is still
as true in relation to the story of Christ (a story which is emphatically not a
depiction of the abandonment of the divine):
In tragedy, initially, we . . . see the Absolute at play with itself: in the
Christ-event it will be seen to be at play in all earnest; but the
framework in which the Christian reality is conceived . . . is basically
the same. Both tragedy and the Passion have the same basic nature . . .
(TD I, p. 61/ThD 1, p. 66)

Von Balthasar really does believe that individuals stand before a divine reality other than themselves (that this is not mere ‘picture-thinking’), and he
believes that God’s becoming man intensifies the confrontation. Christ
is not significant only as an historical ‘moment’, from which a universal meaning can be derived. He is also more than the trigger of certain
advances in our self-consciousness. ‘The Lord who works is a person and
remains this particular person after his Resurrection.’ Hegel’s belief that
Christianity marks the moment in the history of Spirit when dramatic

12 Ibid., p. 290.

13 Ibid., p. 323.

Epic history and the question of tragedy

depictions of the world in art are no longer appropriate arises from his
allowing ‘Christ’s contribution to the total process to be subsumed into
it’ (TD I, p. 60/ThD 1, p. 65). Christ is seen as merely the initiator of a new
subjectivity, a new self-consciousness, rather than as its continuing, formative, grounding presence. Von Balthasar will not allow any such reduction. Catholicism demands that we go beyond this (or so he claims in a
section of the discussion entitled ‘Der katholische Uberhang’).
Why? Because
it keeps drama alive to Christian belief and practice in a way that makes
Hegel’s analysis of drama’s mediating function between individual will
and telos (‘ethical powers’, ‘the gods’, etc.) still relevant in absolute terms
to the Church. Hegel can only be thought right if ‘personalist Christology,
with its notion of a real acting and being on behalf of others and of a real
participatory mission’ is allowed to dwindle away, instead of being a lived
if it were to be genuinely lived, would not Christian drama (whether in
terms of life or on the stage) be presented with quite different
situations from those indicated by Hegel, that is, the mystery plays,
‘chivalry’ and its disintegrated middle-class form? Indeed, would not
this very tension between the total, secularized world and the
universality of the Christian mission in this world – would this not
maintain a living interplay?
(TD I, p. 62/ThD 1, pp. 67–68)

So the Christian drama as von Balthasar sees it is more than just one
between man and God, it is crucially also a drama between (true) Church
and (godless) world, portrayed vividly in Scripture as a battle between
light and darkness. Catholicism, says von Balthasar, preserves the sense
of a choric ground in relation to which Church and world, and the individuals within them, find their place. And von Balthasar’s christology preserves the sense of an unassimilable divine otherness in relation to which
all Christian action receives its definition (and this in a way that is far from
being ‘prosaic’).

We are now in a position to see that at whatever level the dialectic
is engaged (concrete or otherwise) in Hegel’s philosophy of Spirit, an
understanding of the nature of history is always presupposed. And von
Balthasar’s theodrama is history by another name, a name which acknowledges the encounter between God and the world at the heart of history.



Theology and the Drama of History

It is apparent that it is not only Hegel who wants to draw out parallels
between the character of the concrete, literary dramas he studies and the
all-embracing, continuing drama which is world history. Von Balthasar
does, too. Von Balthasar does in Theodramatik what Hegel does in the transition between his lectures on aesthetics and his lectures on the philosophy of history. He claims to see patterns in drama that have analogies in
As much as at any other point, the pressure of our questioning in this
area must derive its force from the Greek tragic question that we posed in
chapter 1. Is it not the case that, like the chorus in the Agamemnon, we cannot properly frame our experience – we do not know its boundary or ‘end’?
Surely we should regard with deep suspicion any talk of a rational whole
or system (however dynamic that system is conceived as being) that seems
to provide such a frame, in which suffering and negation are made sense
of ? The ‘finality’ which is the epic component of our situation is not, if
we choose at this point to make a strategic MacKinnon-like assertion once
again, a simple closure, and a shutting out of the resonances of the ‘doom
drum’. On the contrary, part of the finality of the Christian story is an actualization of ‘the whole tragic potentiality’ of human history on the cross.14
Part of the finality (part of the ‘ontologically ultimate’) is the realization
in history of God’s eternal attitude of response,15 which in its very ultimacy
preserves the value of the questioning – questioning which frequently has
a tragic quality.
In one Greek tragic formulation, the question might be this: how does a
teleologically governed view of history treat the devastating irreducibility
of a particular human being’s pain? An unacceptable answer from a tragedian’s point of view – the merits of which we are going to have to question
in relation both to Hegel and to von Balthasar – might be something like
Ovid’s in his treatment of the story of Marsyas in Metamorphoses.16 There,
Ovid manifests a certain way of coping with what is actually grotesquely
horrifying: Marsyas is flayed for challenging Apollo’s musical supremacy.
The tale is told like this:
. . . someone recalled
The satyr who had lost to Leto’s son
The contest when he played Minerva’s pipe,
And paid the penalty. ‘No! no!’ he screamed,
14 D. M. MacKinnon, Explorations in Theology 5 (London: SCM, 1979), p. 83.
15 Ibid., p. 68.
16 Once again, I am very grateful to Adrian Poole of the University of Cambridge for
pointing me towards this text.

Epic history and the question of tragedy

‘Why tear me from myself? Oh, I repent!
A pipe’s not worth the price!’ and as he screamed
Apollo stripped his skin; the whole of him
Was one huge wound, blood streaming everywhere,
Sinews laid bare, veins naked, quivering
And pulsing. You could count his twitching guts,
And the tissues as the light shone through his ribs.
The countryfolk, the sylvan deities,
The fauns and brother satyrs and the nymphs,
All were in tears, Olympus too still loved,
And every swain who fed his fleecy flocks
And long-horned cattle on those mountainsides.
The fertile earth grew moist and, moistened, held
Their falling tears and drank them deep into
Her veins and, changing them to water there,
Issued them forth into the open air;
And thence a river hurries to the sea
Through falling banks, the river Marsyas,
The freshest, clearest stream of Phrygia.
(vi, lines 382–400)17

Ovid’s treatment of the particularity of this pain is different from a tragic
treatment, because it contextualizes it in such a way that it is transmuted
into a large framed picture; framed by all the other stories in Metamorphoses
which crowd around it and mitigate its starkness, and eased by a movement from the vivid horror of the flaying to a vision of ‘fleecy flocks’ and
the ‘fertility’ of the earth, in which good things eventually emerge from
bad, and then flow onwards carrying with them an implicit blessing.
It would not be right, of course, crudely to dismiss all forms of contextualization as hostile to good drama. That would fly in the face of
all that has been endorsed in the first two chapters of the book: for example, the importance of a ‘situated’ reading of the world, which pays attention to other people’s readings as well as one’s own, and the fact that a
truer account of human freedom is to be had when viewed in relation to
the shaping demands of one’s community.
An artificial or insensitive kind of ‘context’, however, works against the
claims of those particular things that make it up: it is a ‘context’ that has
forgotten itself. In these instances, it seems to assume an authority to suppress particularities, and refuses to be called to account by what is actually
17 Ovid, Metamorphoses, A. D. Melville (trans.) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).



Theology and the Drama of History

before it. In these circumstances, it is often aphorisms (turned out with a
little too much facility) that take the place of sensitive response; perhaps
even necessary silence. It is a strong pull even in the best-intentioned, the
courageous and the loyal. Tragedians themselves draw attention to this
pull from time to time. The figure of Edgar in Shakespeare’s King Lear is a
good example. He is a hero, who has been the victim of calumny by his halfbrother, banishment from his father’s house, and severe physical hardship. He comes to the aid of his dying father, Gloucester, when he too is
falsely accused, has his eyes plucked out, and is cast from his home – and
then guides and protects Gloucester in his blindness. He will eventually
fight his half-brother and win, and he represents the promise of a better
order at the close of the play. But even Edgar – a worthy man – finds it hard
to face and accept the deep spiritual weariness first of his father and then
of Lear. He cannot accept or accommodate their longing to embrace death.
He obstructs his father’s attempted suicide, chivvies him cross-country to
the scene of the impending battle, and when Gloucester’s despair breaks
the surface in talk of death, he shows himself too eager to buoy up his
father (almost tritely) and to maintain a briskness of tone that will better
serve his own enterprise and continued struggle:
What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither:
Ripeness is all. Come on.
(v.ii, lines 9–11)18

This is a good man who evades the full intensity of some of what he is faced
with in the course of the play, perhaps lest it overwhelm him. It is consistent with his reluctance to reveal his true identity to his broken-hearted
father until he feels in sufficient control to do so – and that means when
armed, when bolstered by a public role once more, and (desperate sadness)
when his father’s life is nearly completely spent. It is consistent with his
behaviour in the final scene, when of those present he finds it the hardest
to accept the truth of Lear’s death: ‘He faints’, he announces as the king
dies, and then calls out to his corpse ‘Look up!’ (v.iii, lines 311–12).19
It is time to put the question raised by these two tragic examples to
Hegel: in relation to his view of history, to be sure, but first in relation
to his reading of plays, for one approach mirrors the other. Hegel’s great
assumption seems to be that reconciliation and resolution are necessary
18 William Shakespeare, King Lear, Peter Alexander (ed.) (London and Glasgow: Collins,
19 This is a suggested reading of Lear which I owe to the late J. W. Sanders of the University of

Epic history and the question of tragedy

to drama’s artistic effect: the evidence is abundant in the Aesthetics:
‘reconciliation . . . [is a thing] art should never lack’.20 The dramatic justice
which we have already noted as the mediating ground of individual aims
and desires is predominant as much in tragedy as anywhere else, according
to Hegel. Each of the characters is committed to a ‘one-sided’ aim, and each
(with his or her individual ‘pathos’) must impinge on the aims of others.
This, Hegel admits, produces a situation ‘pregnant with collisions’, and
the characters are often destroyed in what ensues. But in this destruction
of their very selves, they enable the opposed ‘one-sidednesses’ to be reconciled, they point towards a higher ‘undisturbed harmony’ and achieve
greatness. What ‘excites our admiration’, says Hegel, ‘is this indestructible
However justified the tragic character and his ruin, however necessary
the tragic collision, the third thing required is the tragic resolution of
this conflict. By this means eternal justice is exercised on individuals
and their aims in the sense that it restores the substance and unity of
ethical life with the downfall of the individual who has disturbed its

Although tragic characters contradict and infringe the equally valid purposes of others, and cannot avoid these fearful conflicts, nevertheless
‘above mere fear and tragic sympathy there . . . stands that sense of reconciliation which the tragedy affords by the glimpse of eternal justice’.23
Hegel, it seems, shows the qualities of an Edgar, whose striving for the
good is impressive, without doubt, but whom we can almost hear saying
(as he relentlessly presses forward):
Ripeness is all. Come on.

to the man with a broken heart. Hegel also shows the qualities of an Ovid,
finding a ‘context’ of ‘fleecy flocks’ and clear streams just beyond the
moment itself. This, inevitably, leaves him a little less dramatic than he
intends. And in his treatment of history, as we are about to see, the same
pattern continues. ‘Tears’, so to speak, are changed to water, which is:
Issued . . . forth into the open air
And thence a river hurries to the sea

The river, in this case, is the river of ‘philosophical history’.24
20 Hegel, Aesthetics, p. 1173.
21 Ibid., p. 1215.
22 Ibid., p. 1197; my emphasis.
23 Ibid., p. 1198.
24 Hegel’s discussion of philosophical history can be found in his 1822 and 1828 drafts of
‘The Varieties of Historical Writing’, reproduced in World History, pp. 23f. (preceded by his
treatment of ‘reflective history’ on pp. 16ff.).



Theology and the Drama of History

Of course, the ‘philosophical’ history Hegel engaged in is different
from that ordinarily practised by professional academic historians, both
in Hegel’s own day and since. There is always a fragmentary and arbitrary
character to specific histories, and philosophy, for Hegel, is what is needed
to mediate between them:
The only Thought which Philosophy brings to the contemplation of
History, is the simple conception of Reason; that Reason is the
Sovereign of the World; that the history of the world, therefore,
presents us with [the aspect of] a rational process.25

Now, as we have already accepted, all history to some extent relies on
interpretative strategies which are closely comparable to the way that
literary genres pattern their subject matter. But Hegel is not just any historian. As Hayden White says in his book Metahistory, Hegel often manifests a particular eagerness to undertake this speculative emplotment.26
And when it comes to the interpretative task of ‘telling’ history, his particular enthusiasms are what have led to his identification as someone with
(White’s words) an ‘Organicist’ approach to history, in the broad tradition
of Herder:
the Organicist historian will tend to be governed by the desire to see
individual entities as components of processes which aggregate into
wholes that are greater than, or qualitatively different from, the sum of
their parts.27

As Hegel himself puts it, the historian cannot ‘be content with mere exactitude in individual details’, but works instead to ‘arrange and organize
his material: he must . . . connect and group individual traits, occurrences
and facts . . . [in a coordinated whole]’.28
Because Hegel sees both tragedy and comedy as ‘unifying’ forms
of emplotment, both tragedy and comedy find a place in his (admittedly speculative) ‘Organicist’ philosophical characterization of history.
Tragedy is appropriate to the intermediate stages of the process (the rise
and fall of nations, for example), while the great overarching vision in
which all the intermediate stages eventually find their place is essentially
harmonious. All the formal characteristics that were present in dramatic
action – collisions, actions and reactions, and so on – are now to be seen
in historical action. And, just as before, they are all geared to eventual
reconciliation: ‘the final result’ is something which philosophical history
25 Hegel, History, p. 9.
26 White, Metahistory, pp. 88–9.
28 Hegel, Aesthetics, p. 986.

27 Ibid., p. 15.

Epic history and the question of tragedy

presupposes to be the full actualization of Spirit in time, issuing from ‘the
whole human machinery in will and accomplishment, . . . in its criss-cross
movement’. As in drama, this skein of conflicts has always to work out ‘its
final peaceful resolution’.29
In periods of history, as in tragedy, individual characters and their aims
stand out against the background of process, and in their ‘human will’30
give expression (or definition through resistance) to ‘substantive and independently justified powers’ (i.e. those forces which are in line with the
world’s telos). At every stage of history, the individuals or peoples involved
can only witness and participate in the process as it were from within
its unfolding. From this perspective, history is perceived as a specifically
tragic drama, in Hegel’s terms. But Hegel’s belief that at the end of a tragic
play a ‘kind of gain’ can be intuited31 means that the participants in history’s transitions may see them as fruitfully significant in a similar way.
Even when a people declines and falls (for every specific civilization has
such a tragic nature in Hegel’s eyes), its spirit finds an ideal form in its
thought and art, which is then preserved in consciousness. So the form
which philosophy gives to history as a whole is one into which all tragic
developments are assimilated. We cannot attain comprehension of the harmonious outcome of the historical drama in its entirety; the philosopher
has only an apprehension of this outcome, but he apprehends it as a possibility ‘which enjoys the authority, on the basis of historical evidence rationally processed, of high probability . . .’32
We saw the first signs of such an attitude to history in Hegel’s thought
during the course of the previous chapter, when Hegel made remarks
such as ‘no individuals can prevent the preordained from happening’33
in his treatment of ‘the great men’. Now we find ourselves once more
face to face with Hegel in this guise of epic minstrel: taking it upon
himself in the mode of monological narration to articulate not only history’s ‘thinkability-in-principle’ (we will come back to the importance of
‘thinkability’ for Rowan Williams’ interpretation of Hegel in the next section), but unmistakably to go one step further in the name of speculative
thought: to make a claim on a world-historical scale for the harmony-inprinciple of all events. It is at this point that it becomes hard not to feel
that he has overstepped the mark; that he supposes too much. We cannot
help feeling that any narration Hegel might have undertaken of the tale of

29 Ibid., p. 1159.
32 Ibid., p. 120.

30 Ibid., p. 1194.
33 See p. 67.

31 White, Metahistory, p. 113.



Theology and the Drama of History

Marsyas would have ended (as it did at Ovid’s hands) further down the river
of events, with an essential equilibrium restored.
Excursus: ‘thick description’ of Hegel
We should pause at this point to ensure that we do not fall back too quickly
onto a stereotype of Hegel’s thought, especially given the closeness with
which we have been trying to follow its contours until now. A responsible account of what he has to say about history will want to attend to
the ‘thicker’ descriptions of his philosophy put forward in recent years
by, among others, Gillian Rose and Rowan Williams (and in Williams’
case, such redescription and recovery is quite properly unapologetic about
being theological ). A detour through Rose’s and Williams’ discussions here
will equip us more subtly to consolidate our interpretation of Hegel’s
thought on history without caricaturing him. And it will enable us to
approach von Balthasar’s reading of Hegel with greater insight.
Conventionally, as we have observed already, the claim is made that the
supposed Hegelian coexistence of a dramatic subject’s mind and character on the one hand and the telos of the action on the other – a coexistence
in which there is no kind of ultimate conflict – has underlying it a more
basic belief that the consciousness of any acting subject is not a different
thing from the consciousness in which the world Spirit comes to itself (or
‘actualizes’ itself ). One cannot stress change (actions and events) in a way
that denies an underlying continuum. The key note is immanence (what
Hegel calls ‘inherent vital movement’ in the lectures on the philosophy
of history, when discussing the rise of Christianity).34 Individual actions
contribute to immanent change within the continuum; and the truth (or
real value) of individual actions is made plain by the effects that take shape
afterwards. This is, so to speak, their judgement, and the revelation of
their true nature and meaning. Truth, in the case of dramatic action as also
elsewhere in the dialectic, is a ‘result’ not an origin.35
Is this Rose’s view of Hegel? She would accept, I think, the unifying
role of consciousness in Hegel’s philosophy, what we might call the immanence of the Hegelian process as a whole, and the presentation of truth as
‘result’ not ‘origin’. She accepts that consciousness is the field in which,
for Hegel, all change, event and action unfold, and that consciousness
must therefore be seen as the mediation between notions of the ‘finite’
34 G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, J. Sibree (trans.) (New York: Dover, 1956), p. 323.
35 Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 64.

Epic history and the question of tragedy

and the ‘infinite’. All such dichotomies (not only between finite and infinite, but between practical and theoretical reason, between morality and
legality, and so on) are dichotomies within consciousness, and to see them as
such is to imply a level on which reality (which is also to say consciousness itself ) is not divided in this way. Thus the theoretical dichotomy
between finite and infinite implies a unity which is present; just as the practical distinction made between morality and legality implies a unity which
underpins both. But this ‘whole’ can only become known as a result of the
process of the contradictory experiences of consciousness that gradually
unfold – and in every case the ‘whole’ cannot be pre-judged. It is in process.
The philosopher’s role is to begin to show the deformations and reformations of consciousness in the hope that a new stance towards its false and
absolutized dichotomies will emerge. And the emergence of recognition
(‘re-cognition’) in the Hegelian vision issues from the experience of social
and historical forms of misrecognition which his philosophy traces.36
On one significant point however – and in specific relation to drama –
Rose questions the traditional interpretation of Hegel’s teleology as the
expansive overcoming of all antitheses. Traditionally, as I have said, Hegel
is interpreted as implying that the subject’s mind and character on the one
hand, and the telos of the action on the other, will not be in any kind of ultimate conflict, and that this is as true of drama as it is of historical experience. Against this, Rose asserts that:
[Hegel’s] is a tragic view of human life as eternal conflict, and it is at
odds with any interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy of history which is
based on the resolution and reconciliation of all contradictions.37

But what does Rose mean by the extraordinary phrase ‘eternal conflict’?
Precisely in its supposed quality of eternity, this principle of conflict lapses
into a strange kind of stasis, particularly when locked into the immanent unity which is the Hegelian model of consciousness. Furthermore,
Rose seems to undercut her own case by her argument for an assumption
implicit in Hegel’s scheme that there stands a basically un-tragic recognition
beyond all the forms of misrecognition. ‘[T]he absolute is present’,38 she says,
and although it is not ‘pre-judged’, she admits that we can still anticipate
36 It is only the philosopher, in Hegel’s view, who is equipped with the speculative
sensorium necessary to the task of tracing the possibility and (on some level) the presence of
reciprocal recognition. Art and religion fail where philosophy may succeed, because they
remained trapped in the dichotomy between the abstract idea and the concrete form, in
answer to which they seek the illusory panacea of ‘representation’.
37 Rose, Hegel contra Sociology, p. 134.
38 Ibid., p. 158.



Theology and the Drama of History

the comprehension (‘not yet attained’) of opposition and differentiation in
it, even if we do not anticipate their elimination. According to Rose’s view
of Hegel, tragedy in ancient Greek society may present conflict and even
the failure of justice on one (concrete) level, ‘but its injustice is recognized,
and hence transparent and visible’. We can see in this that the language of
resolution has not been eradicated from Rose’s vocabulary:
The tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles are a formative political
experience in which the society enacts and resolves its basic conflict and
is serene in its grief.39

What we witness in Rose’s assertion of a generalizable principle of conflict
(which she calls ‘tragic’) at the heart of Hegel’s philosophy, is the fact that
a ‘steady formal presence’ (Rowan Williams’ phrase) remains even in the
midst of the dialectical process of ‘converse, conflict, negotiation, judgement and self-judgement’.40 This is something on which John Milbank –
calling it the ‘myth of negation’ – has remarked. This myth of negation
is the underpinning of Hegelian dialectics, whereby, by a kind of logic,
the initial (immediate or simple) experience of an object or state of knowing leads to its negation (and consequent preservation or sublation in the
recognition of the preceding two moments). This logic of negation intrudes
its determining operation upon a realm which might otherwise be occupied by poi ¯esis: the positive, constructive generating of alternatives to any
given state of affairs (Rose is clearly concerned to make some comparable
case for the importance of ‘transformation’, but it is too weak a notion to
constitute poi ¯esis in Milbank’s sense).41 In this way, as Milbank points out,
Hegel ‘subordinates the contingencies of human making/speaking to the
supposedly “logical” articulation of a subjectivity which is secretly in command throughout’.
Milbank illustrates this most forcefully by looking at the classic
instance of the Master-Slave dialectic in the Phenomenology. Here, on
Hegel’s account, a ‘moment’ of stoic inwardness is generated (as it were
inevitably) by the mutual alienation of the lord from his bondsman. But,
says Milbank, why should one accept the purported ‘logic’ of this development, when there might be a range of possible and creative responses?
‘There are’, he says, ‘no “inevitable” resolutions of historical tensions and
39 Ibid., p. 132; my emphasis.
40 Williams, ‘Between Politics and Metaphysics’, p. 15.
41 Hegel’s own language betrays her here. When in certain contexts Hegel talks about
‘creating’, it becomes apparent that he regards it as basically a throw-back to picturethinking. He writes that ‘eternal or abstract Spirit . . . creates a world’, but adds: ‘This
“creating” is picture-thinking’s word for the Notion itself in its absolute movement . . .’
(Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 467).

Epic history and the question of tragedy

conflicts’ – this would make ‘negation’ something that led ‘of itself ’ to
new, positive upshots (in this case, the opening of a definite new level of
self-consciousness); it would make it ‘the primary instrument of . . . social
and historical critique’. In the case of the Master-Slave dialectic, other possibilities than those Hegel displays are entirely thinkable. For example,
‘a different imagination would have conceived . . . a conjoining of labour
to political power’, rather than ‘a denial which reaches back to the pure
depths of internal subjectivity’.42
We now turn specifically to Rowan Williams, and to an essay entitled ‘Logic and Spirit in Hegel’ which is unusual in the degree to which
it makes sense of the apparent tension between Hegel’s logical (seemingly ‘ahistorical’) projects and his historically sensitive ones.43 Williams
presents a Hegel who knows his need of God, and is not the propagator
of ‘a total and implicitly totalitarian scheme’.44 He begins by endorsing
Hegel’s case that we can think no thing except in contrast to other things.
These other things therefore become essential to mediating the identity of
the first thing – they realize and maintain its identity. Otherness and identity are seen to be essential to each other – mutually implicated in the act
of thinking:
To think a particular is to think ‘this, not that; here, not there; now, not
then’: to map it onto a conceptual surface by way of exclusions or
negations, yet in that act to affirm also its relatedness, its
involvement . . .45

When this idea is pushed at, explains Williams, we realize that it implies
at its outer limit a comprehensive relatedness between all things, the
42 Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, pp. 156–7.
43 Alongside the open-ended and diachronic treatments of history and social existence
illustrated in, for example, the System of Ethical Life (looked at in the previous chapter), Hegel
seems also to want to articulate a more ‘systematic’ reality (in this sense, ‘scientific’): the sort
of project we may identify in the Science of Logic and the Encyclopaedia. The Phenomenology is
interesting and difficult because it evidences both historical and analytical approaches.
(Robert Pippin gives a clear exposition of this tension in his essay ‘You Can’t Get There from
Here: Transition problems in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit’ in Frederick C. Beiser (ed.) The
Cambridge Companion to Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 52–85.)
Hegel clearly believes that historical accidents in no way dictate Spirit’s movement of
self-diremption and self-overcoming, and therefore holds that the movement of Spirit can be
articulated in essence. As well as an historical, there is a formal and ahistorical character to the
principle (the ‘myth’, in Milbank’s words) of negation, and of subsequent Aufhebung.
Williams explains the common ground underlying this apparent tension by beginning with
a consideration of the necessary conditions of our thinking, which have both a logic and a
‘time-taking actuality’ (Rowan Williams, ‘Logic and Spirit in Hegel’ in Post-Secular Philosophy;
between philosophy and theology, Phillip Blond (ed.) (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 116). What is
an ‘historical discovery or recognition’ issues in something ‘more than mere historical
narrative’. It ‘dispossesses itself of the positive so as to recover it as the content of thinking’
(i.e., something timeless, or, at least, having a more than contingent character).
44 Williams, ‘Logic and Spirit’, p. 117.
45 Ibid., p. 116.



Theology and the Drama of History

affirmation of which is nothing less than theological in character. If we are
to dare to regard the world as having that coherence (that mutual involvement) which makes it more than non-sensical; if we are, in other words,
prepared to believe all things in the world to be reconcilable at some level (for
example, in thought); and if we are to hold to the possibility that human
beings can (re)cognize themselves and others in the context of a cognisance that is ‘universally shareable’,46 then we are thinking God. To put
it another way, the very thinkability of the world points to the goodness
and power of God in it, and to God as ‘the primitive condition for thinking’.47 Indeed, for Hegel, as Williams shows, the God who is this ‘primitive condition for thinking’ is more particularly the trinitarian God in his
ecstatic ‘being-in-the-other’.48 Such a (trinitarian) mode of relating does
not demand the fusion of ‘subject’ and ‘object’, any more than it permits
them to be beyond reconciliation (or ‘wholly other’ from one another).
And the fact that our thinking is conditioned by such a (trinitarian) mode
of relating means that our thinking is something like love – divine love.
Williams makes a stronger case even than Rose for Hegel’s complexity
and resistance to closure. The dialectic in Hegel’s philosophy, according
to Williams, is that which will not let God be identified with any single,
isolatable particular that is available to thought, nor with any one harmonious constellation of particulars which our understanding (Verstand)
might temporarily get hold of. In this sense, he says, the Hegelian dialectic
is oriented to a ‘speculative’ stage which is ‘what religion has meant by the
mystical’:49 it performs a mobilizing, apophatic function and not a determinative or deterministic one.
It seems though that, in this essay at least,50 Williams rather too generously mitigates the extent to which the principle of negation (recalling Milbank’s criticisms – p. 102 above) is operative in Hegel’s historical
and political writings. Williams acknowledges, and expresses disappointment, that in his Philosophy of Right Hegel’s commendation of the positive
institutions of a particular, historical State is rather too determinate a product of the movement of his thinking on the more general need for there
to be some framework for ethical life. Hegel transforms his argument for
the need for ‘a State’ very quickly into endorsement of (and satisfaction
with) ‘this State’. But this is not a rare aberration on his part. His dialectic
46 Ibid., p. 128.
47 Ibid., p. 120.
48 Ibid., pp. 121, 127.
49 Ibid., p. 118.
50 He is prepared to be far more critical of Hegel in his recent chapter in Oakes and Moss,
Cambridge Companion, pp. 48–9, and it is noteworthy that he does so in the context of a
comparison with von Balthasar from which von Balthasar emerges much more favourably.

Epic history and the question of tragedy

frequently produces highly determinate forms of negation – just like the
one we, with Milbank, traced above when considering the dialectic of master and slave in the Phenomenology. Another example would be Hegel’s
inability (in his account of the birth of Christianity) to see Jesus’ ‘failure’
as (in Milbank’s words) ‘the [contingent and not necessary] rejection by the
political-economic order of a completely new sort of social imagination’.
Instead, Jesus’ failure is the result of his own blindness to fate, and is necessary because ‘passion must be both gone through and comprehended as
estrangement, if concrete justice is finally to arise’.51
Williams’ appreciative account of Hegel shields the latter from the
full force of a number of questions, of which we will isolate two. First,
given that the Hegelian dialectic seems often to operate in the determinate manner we have observed – a manner which stifles the contingent,
‘poetic’ creativity of thinking subjects and of God – can we possibly accept
any identification of the Hegelian dialectic with the power of the God of
Jesus Christ? Von Balthasar, as we are shortly to see, thinks not, and this
is largely because the sovereignty of his God cannot be made subject to
what is causally determinate in the working of the world, nor to what we
can interpret, contextualize and narrate in our telling of the world’s story.
This is another feature of von Balthasar’s rigorous resistance to Hegel’s
announcement of the triumph of ‘prose’: the replacing, so to speak, of
the dramatist and the theologian by the historian and the speculative
The second question is related to the first, and has to do with ‘thinkability’. To recapitulate: it is the case for Hegel (as Williams sheds light on him)
that the ‘thinkability’ of the world – and of God insofar as he is involved
in the world and available to our experience – is the basis of the world’s
‘reconcilability’ (including, we must assume, its reconcilability to God). As
we have already seen, it is axiomatic for Hegel that each particular we
think is thought in its relation to other particulars, which is to say in
context. The dialectic which mediates between particulars and expresses
their mutual involvement is the means by which this context is displayed:
indeed, the movement by which every particular is eventually situated in
51 Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, p. 171. Yet another instance is highlighted by Milbank
in Hegel’s basically arbitrary raising of quality ‘above’ quantity in the dialectic which
generates the synthetic category of ‘measure’ (ibid., p. 159).
52 Admittedly, Williams is clear that he does not want to get bogged down in a discussion of
whether Hegel is Christianly orthodox or not in relation to questions like these; and he does
not make it his task to discuss the ‘compatibility’ of Hegel’s scheme with the traditional
self-understanding of Christian doctrine (Williams, ‘Logic and Spirit’, p. 126).



Theology and the Drama of History

the broadest context of all, the context of ‘Spirit’. The risk here is one that
Phillip Blond identifies: the suggestion in Hegel that God is reducible to
‘the level and shape of our own mental life’. Against this it can only be
emphasized – as it certainly would be by von Balthasar – that:
the inexhaustibility of the Trinity, its infinity, requires that being (and
it need not necessarily be being, it could be beauty or goodness) is not
fully exhausted in being known, not even in being known as infinite

There are further implications to this equation between God and human
cognition, which bring tragedy to the fore again. Tragedy – even though
narration of a kind – testifies nevertheless (like theology) to what can neither be narrated nor thought. It has its own apophatic constraints. After
the story of Marsyas, with all its context, we are left with the uncomfortable conviction that something has escaped us. The absence of the dead
man – the silence where the scream was – indicates dark space: the gaps left
whenever something (for someone) was unendurable, and beyond reconciliation in the form of the thinkable. There is an irretrievable cost to such
confrontations with things that cannot be thought. Dumbnesses, insanities, disintegrations, suicides: in each case, lives seem to slip between the
meshes of the thinkable into places we cannot comprehend and into which
we cannot reach. This, I think, underlies Blond’s critique of Hegel in what
For Christianity, all that has occurred in history, all the satanic
negations of human life, all the death and crushed possibility, is not
a negative that can be turned into a positive . . . For there are some
events, some death events, that one should never be reconciled

What does the linking of the work of divine reconciliation with the possibilities of human cognition offer in the face of a quality of pain that simply obliterates thinking? What reconciliation does it offer (and what constraints on God does it imply) when faced with human persons who are
beyond the reach of ‘thought’ or debarred from ‘mental life’ as we normally mean it: those who are comatose, or unborn, for example – those,
even, who are dead?
All these things place a question mark against the adequacy of Hegel’s
model of the circling ‘dispossession and recovery that is mental life’55
53 Blond, ‘Introduction’, p. 18.

54 Ibid., p. 18.

55 Williams, ‘Logic and Spirit’, p. 125.

Epic history and the question of tragedy

(after each round of which there is a kind of gain to be had) – its adequacy to
a truly Christian understanding of the goodness and power of God, and of
what reconciliation really is. Certain kinds of reconciliation ‘within thinking’ seem impossible: the thinking together of different perspectives – and
of the blank spaces which some have confronted – seem wholly beyond
our imagining. We cannot call Marsyas back; we can never think or rethink
with him the place of his story in the scheme of things. His perspective and
ours are not – it seems absolutely not – reconcilable. Nor are those of the
other people who have ‘gone out into the night’ under the weight of the
unendurable; of things in excess of all reason.
There may, of course, be another kind of confrontation with what cannot be thought – one which is not tragic (in the current sense of the word),
but a kind of rapture. It may be the encounter with the living God. But
in this case, too, reconciliation may not be available to us if reconciliation
is only defined as ‘thinkability’. The experience of falling into the hands
of the living God, like tragic experience, has to do with the limits of our
‘grip’, as much on ourselves as on our place in the world’s story. Both have
to do with what in existential terms is radically unfinalizable to the extent
that how the presence of tragedy in history is dealt with by any one thinker
can also serve as an extraordinarily sensitive index to how the encounter with
God in history is likely to be construed.
Von Balthasar himself makes this close connection between tragic
experience and the experience of falling into the hands of the living God.
An Hegelian attempt at ‘reconciliation’ is wholly rebuffed in each case.
In both tragedy and the sovereign divine approach which constitutes the
world’s story as ‘theodramatic’, the human being is set:
in an exposure that, as it were, holds his whole existence out into the
abyss and upward into the air . . .
(s k i z z e n iii, p. 350/ExT 3, p. 394)

Here is a placing of the human situation ‘into the light of truth’. This is
a ‘placing’ which is consummately dramatic, and a ‘truth’ which entirely
exceeds any attempt we might make to organize or get the measure
of it. It was, says von Balthasar, to the credit of ‘the incomprehensible
power of the Greek heart’ that it celebrated this existential tension, and
he implies that it has a sacramental – even a gracious – character, precisely because its end ‘does not lie in the mastering and abolition of
the fundamental contradictions of existence’ (Skizzen iii, p. 352/ExT 3,
p. 397).



Theology and the Drama of History

Excursus: conclusion
Rose and Williams, it must be acknowledged, warn us to be alert to a tendency towards caricature where Hegel is concerned – one from which von
Balthasar’s rhetoric is not exempt. Hegel appears in von Balthasar’s work
in many cases as a straw man, whose function is to further the theological
case that is underway – and an unqualified claim that Hegel’s philosophy
is one of universal determinism or of calm impassivity is simply not adequate to its subtlety. In this sortie into thicker readings of Hegel which
penetrate beyond caricature, we have become aware of the resilience and
continuing vigour of his thought, and we should not relinquish our appreciation of this, any more than our appreciation of what the earlier chapters
have established as his formative influence on some of the most impressive principles of von Balthasar’s theodramatics. The great virtues of the
Hegelian approach stand: its concreteness; its presentation of the Spirit as
perpetually active and alive; the fact that Hegel was able to make his essay
on Ethical Life a call for courage and for historical action (giving it the character of something dramatic); the fact that Bildung (education in a culture)
was, for him, rehearsal for collective participation in this drama, enacted
within something like a covenant, and enacted by individuals who intuited themselves as themselves ‘in every other individual’56 – enacted so
that ‘all things – body and spirit, the one and the many, intuitions and concepts, universals and particulars, subjectivity and objectivity, the organic
and the inorganic, the infinite and the finite’ might converge in ‘one very
pregnant . . . historical moment of “dramatic action”’.57
But, that said, even Rose and Williams have been unable to get us
past Hegel’s too determinate principle of negation in the dialectic, even
in our attempt to allow full play to a ‘thick’ description of his thought.
Nor have they allayed the suspicion that – for Hegel – if thought is not
adequate to something, then that something is of no importance. This
should convince us that there is enough truth in von Balthasar’s case
against Hegel’s depiction of unfolding process to substantiate his endeavour to recover a sense of God’s majestic and sovereign freedom in the
face of it. Whereas Hegel ‘downplays the mysterious, violating, numinous,
revealing/concealing power of Being vis `a vis human consciousness’,58 von
Balthasar uncovers the theological roots of this ‘power’, in order to accentuate it all the more. And it is to this end that he undertakes his genealogy
(and eventual reassertion) of the experience of divine glory.

56 Hegel, Ethical Life, p. 144.
57 Dickey, Hegel, p. 273.
58 Roberts, German Philosophy, p. 112.

Epic history and the question of tragedy

The importance of the category of glory becomes apparent when we place
von Balthasar’s historical sense (the sense of theodrama) under the same
scrutiny as Hegel’s, to see whether those ways in which Hegel fell short
of the dramatic are bequeathed (like the family sorrows of the House of
Atreus) to the theologian who took up his aesthetic priorities. This is a
key test of the adequacy of theodramatics as he develops it for the kind of
responsible theological thought about history that is the main concern of
this book. Will von Balthasar, too, subsume all the pain represented by a
Marsyas (or, for that matter, by a Christian martyr) into a ‘belief there’ll be
There is much to suggest that he would not. Whereas Hegel says that
literary drama has forfeited the legitimacy of its claim to present the substance of absolute ethical life, von Balthasar says otherwise: that it can still
legitimate itself as the figuration of the tension between a really divine will
for creatures and the creatures’ freedom to resist or participate. We cannot
‘fix’ the poles of this tension within thought; that kind of ‘reconciliation’
is not available to us. And so dramatic situations exist in all the intensity
they ever did before. They do so, as we have hinted already, as ramifications of the Christ-event: Christ is alive and active as a person in this drama.
And whereas Hegel said that there is one Spirit, which has a single history
unfolding itself in the world, von Balthasar says that there are two ‘aeons’
in tension (the high point of this tension being the Church’s mission in a
disbelieving world):
In one aeon the outer man dies daily, in the other aeon the inner man
continually rises to new life; in the one he must stand guard,
responsible for the destinies of the world, which has to prepare itself
for the coming Kingdom, while in the other he has a hidden
homeland – which seems to stamp him as a foreigner in this world and
a traitor to it.
(TD i, p. 28/ThD 1, p. 30)

And von Balthasar adds – importantly for our concerns in this chapter –
‘this dramatic tension between the times cannot be maintained using the
mere category of “history”’; it needs development into the category of
Von Balthasar refuses to move beyond the moment of great dramatic tension in the Christ-event: he refuses to relativize it as a single and passing
moment in a larger process. It is actually the definitive moment in that process, says von Balthasar. The Christ-event is what transforms the concept



Theology and the Drama of History

of history and displays it as something dramatic. In Hegel, there is no such
notion of the resurrected Christ as actively engaged in the working out
of history now, as one whom it is appropriate to talk of as, for example,
‘Lord’. Hegel has no ‘personalist’ Christology (‘personale Christologie’), as
von Balthasar puts it (TD i, p. 62/ThD 1, p. 67). The most that can be said of
Hegel’s Christ is that his life was something through which certain things
became thinkable for us at a particular point in history. This is not much
different from a ‘christology of example’. Christ’s history can be interpreted on this account as the enactment of ‘a basic human reality’.59 He
may well be seen as the necessary precondition of our recognition of such
‘basic human reality’ (and no mere deduction from it). But this is not an
affirmation that he is alive, and even now a dramatic character (the dramatic
character) in history, before whose face we stand. Von Balthasar’s history is
‘theological history’ because he seeks to show history’s relationship to the
living God – a God who is genuinely free to reveal himself unpredictably in
the concrete events of the world’s life, in a way that ruptures the familiarity with causal sequences and regularities which is our normal tool in the
narration of history. The latter ‘ordinary’ (which is also to say ‘modern’)
history – including Hegel’s history of Spirit – draws the teeth of a properly
dramatic conception of the tension between the aeons, in which human
beings are challenged to respond to God’s Word to them. The widest horizon of that sphere which encompasses human life is a ‘horizon that is itself
ultimately and eschatologically dramatic’ (TD i, pp. 20–1/ThD 1, p. 21). Von
Balthasar, then, prepares to take a theological stand against what he sees as
the unrelenting immanence of Hegel’s system, and it is in the service of
this that his category of glory is invoked.
God’s glory breaks in upon human life and history, and is what constitutes people as always already recipients of something that comes from
beyond them (not only from beyond them as individual existents, but
from beyond being itself ). Yet the story von Balthasar tells in Volume iii/1
of Herrlichkeit, which is devoted to tracing the fate of this primal experience at the hands of late scholasticism, the Enlightenment, and idealism,
is a story about the waning of the category of glory. Whereas Meister Eckhart saw that ‘the innermost point within God is the infinite free “I” of the
God of Israel’, the prayerless philosophers who were to come later would
be fascinated by ‘the absolute point of identity with the divine in the subject’ (H iii/1, pp. 404, 405/GL 5, pp. 45, 46). After that ‘it is only a question of
59 Williams, ‘Logic and Spirit’, p. 125.

Epic history and the question of tragedy

time before the move is made to construe all being in terms of that point of
identity in the intellect where God and creature coincide’ (H iii/1, p. 404/GL
5, p. 45). Identity of this kind has replaced what was for faith an analogy
between (on the one hand) the representations of glory and manifestations
of Spirit that we experience in the world, and (on the other) the glory and
Spirit themselves. Hegel’s philosophy has ‘identity . . . concealed within
it’, and its ultimate historical destination is ‘the ever more consistent representation’ of this identity (H iii/1, p. 791/GL 5, p. 454). Even the
Aesthetics, says von Balthasar, ‘is virtually no more than the portrayal of an
awareness of the radiant blessedness of absolute knowledge itself, which
can comprehend all things (even the most difficult and the most painful),
justify all things and approve all things’ (H iii/1, pp. 917–18/GL 5, p. 586).
As there is no place for tragedy within the frame of a conception of
world history which is trapped in immanence, so there is no room for
judgement or atonement in the all-embracing reconciliation of the idealists, for a concept of atonement has to acknowledge its own inadequacy
before the unfathomable; it must honour a transaction that cannot be
‘thought’, and the exchange of things that cannot be ‘thought together’.
In Hegel’s thought, according to von Balthasar, judgement and atonement are lost in the confusion that occurs ‘where the events of historicity between God and man (to which also the event of an alienation of man
from God belongs) are equated with . . . the inner dialectic of the absolute
Spirit’ (H iii/1, p. 959/GL 5, p. 629). And this is what leads von Balthasar
to remark that ‘“Reconciliation” of . . . antagonistic forces – rather than
“atonement” – is the aim of all idealist drama’ (TD i, p. 360/ThD 1, p. 386).
As we have already suggested, Hegel cannot confront the problem of evil;
his tendency is to dissolve it into dialectic, and to regard it as ‘a moment
in the achievement of absolute knowledge’.60 In Hegel’s scheme, if a particular individual is destroyed in the course of the ‘self-unfolding of God’s
“goodness”’, then this ‘judgement . . . ends by becoming mercy in the mystery of universal integration’ (H iii/1, p. 909/GL 5, p. 577). For the Christian,
meanwhile, ‘guilt and wrongfulness have a quite different appearance’.
They appear as sin, which is something beyond the grasp of:
60 Roberts, German Philosophy, p. 111. ‘Whether something is held to be good or bad,’ writes
Hegel in Phenomenology, ‘it is in either case an action and an activity in which an individuality
exhibits and expresses itself, and for that reason it is all good; and it would, strictly speaking,
be impossible to say what “badness” was supposed to be’ (Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 241; cf.
also p. 468). J. N. Findlay, in his notes on the text, remarks on the line of Hegel’s thought as
follows: ‘That God becomes alienated from himself in angelic and human evil does not mean
that such evil really lies outside of God . . . Evil is nothing but . . . the first step in the direction
of good’ (ibid., p. 588).



Theology and the Drama of History

someone who has a priori balanced all things out aesthetically in a
rhythmic law of beauty. For the Christian, it is impossible to view
sin in any way other than against the background of the eternal love
which dies for it: this is sobering; it breaks the wings of . . . the
‘phenomenology of the Spirit’ in which guilt is at most compensated
for by fate but sin is never eliminated . . .
(H iii/1, p. 979/GL 5, p. 652)

How is one ever to attain awareness of von Balthasar’s ‘background of . . .
eternal love’, the background against which everything else is shown in its
true proportions? The great failure of Hegel in this respect, according to
von Balthasar, is his failure to question the necessity of ‘Being’ itself; never
to ask why there is anything rather than nothing. This is the question that
opens the space in which glory can come radiantly upon us. In Hegel, glory
is ‘submerged in the necessity of an ineluctable self-explication of Being,
governed by no ultimate form of freedom, in order simply to be itself ’
(H iii/1, p. 951/GL 5, p. 622). Von Balthasar’s brilliant move into and beyond
the ontological difference between ‘Being’ and beings counters this.61
It takes place at the end of Volume iii/1 of Herrlichkeit. Von Balthasar
responds to a God who straddles both sides of the ontological difference
and preserves the difference intact, while not located at either one of its
poles. He explains that there is a freedom that is beyond the ‘conditioned’
and ‘dependent freedom of the existent with regard to Being’. It is also
beyond the ‘freedom of Being’, which is conversely dependent on the existent – for, even though ‘Being’ can shine ‘unconstrainedly as a light’, it
nonetheless requires the existent to be there as a vehicle for this ‘shining’.
The freedom that is beyond this mutual dependence of ‘Being’ and beings
(existents) on each other for their own possibility is ‘an unconditioned
freedom, or one which is at most one which is conditioned through itself’.
It is ‘an actus purus’, which preserves ‘the light of openness between Being
and the existent as a free and unconstrained light’. This means, first, that
‘the individual entity is not submerged within the exigencies of a process
of explication’ (in other words, it is not made vulnerable by its dependence
on ‘Being’ to being swallowed up by it – its particularity having no ultimate dignity or status). And, second, it means that ‘Being does not lose
its freedom in the . . . “Odyssey” of its cosmic evolution towards itself ’ (in
other words, the fact that it needs existents to shine in – the fact that it
needs real, historical circumstances to work itself out in – does not mean
61 This move, of course, owes a great deal to Erich Przywara too, as we shall see in chapter 5.

Epic history and the question of tragedy

it becomes tangled in some necessary and ineluctable process with a preordained end).62 God alone preserves the ‘miraculous and glorious’ character of ‘Being’, and God is ‘pre-eminently the guardian and the shepherd
of this glory: in direct contradiction to what the finite spirit imagines as
necessity and absoluteness’. He imparts to it a ‘power of gift’ of its own, an
‘unconstrainedness . . . in the manner of His [own] freedom’; and it is this
‘bestowing freedom’ of God’s which ‘deserves no name but love’ (H iii/1,
p. 965/GL 5, p. 636).
To express this fundamental contrast between Hegel and von Balthasar
in another way: Hegel has an immanentist account of being, inasmuch as
immanentism is implied when one posits a relationship between ‘Being’
and beings but has no way of relating both to a freedom that is not subject
to either. Such an immanentist account of the ontological difference normally results in an abstract notion of ‘Being’ getting the upper hand over
actual instances of ‘beings’. So, to reintroduce terms that are now familiar,
structures prevail over subjects (or, to put it another way, ‘context’ always
tends to win out). Von Balthasar’s own answer to this is his account of free
glory, which prevents the ‘horizontal’ relationship between ‘Being’ and
beings from becoming a sterile and oppositional one, in which each perpetually threatens to consume the other. For von Balthasar, to recover the
sense of the divine glory which gives and sustains ‘Being’ in the first place
is entirely to relativize the philosophy of being with which he sees Hegel
Moreover, according to von Balthasar there is a corollary between
Hegel’s metaphysical problem and Hegel’s failure to do justice to drama.
Hegel was of course right, according to von Balthasar, to see that a ‘spiritual horizon . . . was . . . the precondition for a meaningful play, whether
it was tragic, comic or simply dramatic’ (TD i, p. 66/ThD 1, p. 71). His
depiction of the actualization of Spirit as embodied consciousness against
which individuals could be observed and judged dramatically or, later,
historically, was an attempt to adumbrate just such a ‘given, absolute
62 The full and unusually dense and off-putting passage from von Balthasar I have been
trying to expound here runs as follows: ‘beyond the still conditioned, mutually dependent
freedom of the existent with regard to Being, and the freedom of Being to shine
unconstrainedly as a light within the existent [is] an unconditioned freedom, or one which is
at most one which is conditioned through itself, and which is untouched by nothingness,
an actus purus, which is posited in the first instance only in order to preserve the light of
openness between Being and the existent as a free and unconstrained light so that the
individual entity is not submerged within the exigencies of a process of explication and
Being does not lose its freedom in the same ‘Odyssey’ of its cosmic evolution towards itself ’
(H iii/1, p. 965/ GL 5, p. 636).



Theology and the Drama of History

meaning’ in a rational way. Von Balthasar does not dismiss this attempt
out of hand. But he implies that the ‘spiritual horizon’ opened up by his own
vision of God’s ‘bestowing freedom’ maintains a sense of the dramatic (and the dramatic as conceived largely in Hegel’s own terms) better than Hegel himself
ever managed. Hegel sees with great clarity what is needed for drama to
take effect: a situation in which neither individuals with their desires and
actions nor the realm of ‘externality’63 in which they operate ought to be
able to subsume the other. The trouble is, he has no conclusive way of sustaining the ontological difference between beings and ‘Being’ in such a way
that the freedom and independence of beings will ultimately be preserved in
their integrity.
Hegel’s characterization of drama, so von Balthasar seems to imply,
always has epic undertones. Hegel’s dramatic persons – even in the full
extent of their freedom – are shown to be subordinated to a wider realm of
operative circumstances (poi ¯esis subordinated to the myth of negation). ‘A
genuine end’, writes Hegel, ‘is . . . only attained when the aim and interest
of the action, on which the whole drama turns, is identical with the individuals and absolutely bound up with them . . . and at the denouement,
every part of the whole thing must be closed and finished off.’64 Thus, for
von Balthasar, Hegel’s understanding of tragedy fades into a vision which
is merely epic in its immanence. That is surely why, as we have just seen, he
asserts that ‘Being’ in Hegel and the other philosophers of Spirit ‘loses its
freedom’ in the ‘“Odyssey” of its cosmic evolution towards itself ’. All the
characteristics of epic are there in Hegel. Despite all his merits, his ends
up being a presentation of ‘the broad flow of events’; it has a strong unifying principle with which the individual protagonists are in accord; the
particular action and the individual agents are always ‘conciliated’ with
‘the general world situation’, and there is an element of necessity at the
heart of the events and happenings that take place. His very assumption
that a world process is underway which is capable of leaving poetic drama
behind makes Hegel vulnerable to a relapse into epic. The characterization
of epic which he presents in the Aesthetics would, on the basis of a Balthasarian interpretation, read like an indictment of himself:
an epic character has his fate made for him, and this power of
circumstances, which gives his deed the imprint of an individual form,
allocates his lot to him, and determines the outcome of his actions, is
the proper dominion of fate. What happens, happens; it is so; it
63 Hegel, Aesthetics, p. 1060.

64 Ibid., p. 1167.

Epic history and the question of tragedy

happens of necessity. . . . [E]pic poetry moves in the element of an
inherently necessary total state of affairs, and nothing is left to the
individual but to submit to this fundamental situation, i.e. to what is,
be it adapted to him or not, and then suffer as he may or must. Fate
determines what is to happen and what happens, and just as the
individuals are clay in its hands, so too are the results, his success and
failure, his life and his death. For what is really presented to us is a
great universal situation in which the actions and fates of men appear
as something transient, merely belonging to them as individuals. This
destiny is the great justice . . .65

Admittedly, Hegel stated that epic – as a poetic art form – was quite inappropriate for the depiction of world history: all art, even epic, needs to have
individuals to focus on. Anything greater and ‘the vessel of art, always limited in size to contain specific individuality alone, would be burst’.66 But
even world history must be plotted in some kind of narrative, and this
Hegel does, happy to point to the triumph of West over East on a world
scale (the ‘world-historically justified victory of the higher principle over
the lower’ makes us feel ‘completely at peace’, as all the great epics do).67
He writes that:
[t]he actual and organic mind . . . of a single nation . . . reveals and
actualizes itself through the inter-relation of the particular national
minds until . . . in the process of world-history it reveals and actualizes
itself as the universal world-mind whose right is supreme.68

If Hegel’s philosophy of Spirit is not epic in strict artistic terms, it is nevertheless suffused with an epic tone.
This, von Balthasar would say, is the inevitable result of seeing the
active consciousness in a relationship of identity rather than of analogy
with the divine Spirit: ‘when that happens, the finite person is bound to
be absorbed in the absolute person’ (H iii/1, p. 409/GL 5, p. 50). It is significant that Hegel avoids making the dignity of particular people anything
like a principle. The sections on self-consciousness in the Phenomenology
play down the importance of the individual. If a person is destroyed in the
course of the Spirit’s self-unfolding, then the ‘mystery of universal integration’ (H iii/1, p. 909/GL 5, p. 577) will reconcile us to the loss.
We can see that this is very far from the view of tragedy (or, indeed, of
drama more generally) for which von Balthasar seems to want to make
a case. He demonstrates consistently (assisted by the grandeur of his
65 Ibid., pp. 1070–1.

66 Ibid., p. 1064.

67 Ibid., p. 1062.

68 Hegel, Right, p. 36.



Theology and the Drama of History

conception of glory) how every time there is a strong teleological principle at work in the thought of a philosopher but only immanence in
which to anchor it, there is a capitulation to epic like that in all those
theories of human life in the world which von Balthasar chooses to call
‘horizontal’ – ‘communistic’ or ‘evolutionist’ theories which draw the
teeth of a proper dramatic perspective. These, he claims in Volume i of Theodramatik, ‘see mankind only as an historical or biological collective’, and
‘would spell the end of the dramatic dimension of human existence . . .
At best, the stage would be a random place for propaganda’ (TD i, p. 387/
ThD 1, p. 413; translation amended). The dramatic dimension of human
existence would come to an end because there could be no meaning for
human beings in conflicts which were both entirely intra-mundane and
intra-historical, and to which at the same time they were entirely insignificant as individuals. In such conflicts, there is no governing highest value
that permits them to matter, and to care whether they matter. To observe
the human person in interaction on the world’s stage, and to sustain an
interest in the exchanges that take place, we are required to ground our
respect for the individual existent. We cannot regard human beings as
merely caught in the coils of history. To begin to justify the very notion of
drama, we must regard ourselves as those who in a degree of freedom take
up specific positions and have particular effects in the course of the unfolding of events. Drama is the proper category in which to depict human freedom in relation to other existents and events, in a way that epic is simply
not. Tragedy focuses the issue here:
The hero’s ruin . . . is . . . only tragic provided that this loss ought not to
be, provided that, in the wake of this loss, the wound does not heal.
For the tragic contradiction must not be subsumed into some
superordinate sphere, whether it be immanent or transcendent.69

Von Balthasar takes up the issue which these words of Szondi raise:
Christian theology alone can prevent the tragic dimension from this
self-destruction and from being ‘sublated’ [von Balthasar here uses the
Hegelian concept of Aufhebung] . . . in the passionless sphere of a ‘God of
the philosophers’; it can do this because it combines God’s ultimate
initiative on behalf of the world and his free creature with the gratis and
unmerited quality of this loving self-gift.
(TD i, p. 406/ThD 1, p. 433)

69 P. Szondi, Versuch uber
das Tragische (Frankfurt: Insel, 1961), p. 60; quoted in TD i,
pp. 405–6/ThD 1, p. 433.

Epic history and the question of tragedy

In the Christian perspective, the dichotomy between the lyric and the
epic is overcome: the epic pull of the Hegelian dialectic is surmounted
at the same time as lyric individualism is kept at bay. With a Christian
perspective, we can with greater confidence attempt to negotiate a ‘safe
passage between the brutely given and the brutally, banally free’.70 The
self-revelation of the Christian God warrants a particular kind of human
self-understanding and a particular kind of ‘performance’ of the human
task. It is one in which it must be asserted that there can be no meaning (no
meaning which is free of illusion) for the private subject in isolation from
the wider world of relationships and the movement of history. The things
that happen to an individual do not matter only to him and only in a series
of discrete moments (a ‘lyric’ view which at its worst degenerates into the
‘brutally, banally free’). Nor, at the other extreme, do the things that happen to an individual have meaning only in relation to vast and impersonal
forces that underlie the world as we know it (the ‘epic’ or ‘brutely given’).
No ‘superordinate sphere’ is set over against the significance of individual
lives in the Christian vision. As von Balthasar puts it, ‘the divine dramatic
answer’ has taken place ‘in the form of the human dramatic question’ (TD i,
p. 20/ThD 1, p. 21). The cry from the cross ‘is the very antithesis of that kind
of religious resignation which surrenders to an undramatic, absolute horizon’. And the answer that is given in response to it is:
present to [simultaneous with] all ages, being both the answer to this
particular cry and eschatologically, ultimately, the answer to every cry.
It cannot lose its relevance because it is itself entirely act, although
admittedly it only shows itself to be such where people are themselves
acting and questioning dramatically. The precise meaning of eph-hapax,
then, is that there is a unique answer to all instances of the question.
Not an answer definitively known and kept safe, obviating the
(TD i, p. 21/ThD 1, p. 21)

On von Balthasar’s account, the trinitarian God of Love as Christians
understand Him (and only that God) makes absolutely secure the conditions upon which drama relies for its effect. This God shows that the
touchstone of what is true lies not simply in the subject’s presence to self,
and certainly not in the subject’s abject irrelevance to some abiding and
overriding completeness, but in the giving and rendering back of freedom
between a ‘Thou’ and an ‘I’. He shows that such loving freedom stands in
70 Milbank, ‘Magisterial . . . and Shoddy?’, pp. 29–34.



Theology and the Drama of History

analogical relation to the ultimate trinitarian freedom, and is dependent
on its creative gratuity. The dramatic differentiations of creatures are situated within the relational ‘supra-differentiations’ of the Trinity. Thus the
integrity of the creature as creature is preserved and intensified; it is situated in a mysterious relation (a relation in which there is no room for a
secret, underlying identity) to what is ultimate in and beyond the life of
the world. In this way, Christian theology prevents the dramatic dimension from ‘being sublated in stoically conceived transcendence’ (TD i,
p. 406/ThD 1, p. 433; translation amended). We will return to this in the
closing chapter.
The mutual self-gift of the persons within God’s own trinitarian being,
then – seen with the eyes of Christian faith – affirms human relationships
of love in all their ungraspability and their irreducible differentiation (as
well as their freedom from any assumption of self-sufficiency). It affirms
them as the best of all possible responses to the divine summons to be
God’s image, and as consequently the truest picture of what is human. In
each case, such loving relationships can be a kind of participation in God’s
trinitarian being. Von Balthasar puts it like this:
[The Christian’s] faith teaches him to see within the most
inconspicuous I-Thou relation the making present and the ‘sacrament’
of the eternal I-Thou relation which is the ground [der Grund] of the free
Creation and again the reason [der Grund] why God the Father yields
His Son to the death of darkness for the salvation of every Thou.
(H iii/1, p. 977/GL 5, p. 649; translation amended)

It is here pre-eminently that he distances himself from that presumption
of an identity between human consciousness and Spirit which he suspects
has been perpetrated by Hegel – a move in which ‘Thou’ and ‘I’ are made
to mean less than they should.
This is the ideal point at which to introduce the next chapter, with its
emphasis on the irreducibility of the category of the ‘existential’.


Eschatology and the existential register
The cast, the stage and the action, part iii

The real truth of God and man is valid when God and man are engaged
in eye-to-eye and mouth-to-ear encounter.
(k a r l b a r t h , Church Dogmatics iv/3.1, p. 458)

Part of this chapter’s work will be to introduce our third major interlocutor in developing a theodramatic view of history: Karl Barth. There are two
important reasons for looking carefully at Karl Barth and his theology in
relation to the Balthasarian paradigm of theodrama which has been a principle focus of attention in the book so far. The first is simply that Barth was
interested in the same sorts of things that von Balthasar was: they had a
mutual interest in a theodramatic reading of history, and this is one of the
supreme reasons that Barth’s influence on von Balthasar was as immense
and seminal as it was. The second is that von Balthasar’s main disagreements with Barth seem to parallel his struggle with the philosophical
inheritance most powerfully embodied in Hegel. Indeed, when in his 1951
book he described Karl Barth as a theologian who had ‘gone a bit too far
into the light’ (Barth, p. 368/ET, p. 358), he readily acknowledged this to be
an Hegelian failing on Barth’s part.1 What von Balthasar has to say to Barth
gives extra subtlety, therefore, to an appreciation of what he was saying to
Hegel, and what he meant by trying to recast history as a genuine drama,
in which the in-breaking of glory is not screened out, and individual destinies are permitted an importance that cannot be relativized. Looking
in a more than superficial way at the theological relationship between
1 Von Balthasar writes that ‘[Barth’s] method of a self-positing and self-presupposing
principle will not be able to avoid a close brush with Hegel’ (Barth, p. 218/ET, p. 207). Bruce
McCormack, too, in his authoritative book on the early Barth, shows how much more
Hegelian than Kierkegaardian Barth’s dialectic is in certain respects (Bruce L. McCormack,
Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909–1936 (Oxford:
Clarendon, 1995), pp. 268–9).



Theology and the Drama of History

von Balthasar and Barth can be part of our broader attempt to discern what
the ‘theodramatic’ might actually be, and adapting it for continued contemporary use.
Von Balthasar’s criticisms of Barth, though, will prompt a turning
point in the book: for Barth’s theology has certain in-built resistances
to the Balthasarian attack. This is particularly true of his later theology.
Indeed, Barth’s theology brings certain of von Balthasar’s own weaknesses
into the open, some of which, curiously, we may even begin to recognize
as Hegelian in character. As the Greek tragedies never cease to remind
us, debts are debts. The past to which we owe ourselves, and the inheritance which flows in our blood, can always reclaim us in a sudden, virulent
moment, just when we have forgotten where our origins were, and just
when we are confident of being free. Von Balthasar’s debts to Hegel keep
alive an Hegelian strain in his theology which will have to be acknowledged before the chapter is out. To test whether we are justified in identifying such epic tendencies in von Balthasar’s theodramatics, we will look
closely in the second part of this chapter at a number of examples of how he
reads – not only how he reads literary drama, but also poetry, philosophy
and Scripture.2 Afterwards, we will ask whether Barth’s theology actually
has the resources for a kind of come-back, offering in turn its own correctives to von Balthasar’s vision. Barth will assist us in asking whether in the
end the tying of freedom to an attitude of ‘indifference’ (even with all von
Balthasar’s Christian qualifications – or enhancements – of that notion)
need be the only way of conceiving the origins and character of freedom.
We will ask whether what is lost to von Balthasar in this commitment to a
particular portrayal of Christian freedom is something that Barth’s theology manages to retain: a sense of responsibility and even joy, in which
Christians are called by God in ever new ways into a future they cannot
The biographical details of the relationship between Barth and von
Balthasar are well documented elsewhere, so I will not retrace them here.3
Instead, I will now attempt the delicate job of identifying where the theological disagreements between the two thinkers are.
Such a concentration on the differences should not, of course, obscure
the fact that in von Balthasar and Barth kindred spirits are at work. Indeed,
2 We do this recalling the importance we attached in chapter one to learning how to ‘read’
(or interpret) properly and sensitively, in a way that does not do violence to the subject matter
by its demand for ‘clear and distinct ideas’, by its presumption of a ‘view from nowhere’, or
by its undisciplined idiosyncracies.
3 Cf. Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts, John Bowden
(trans.) (London: SCM, 1976).

Eschatology and the existential register

such differences as there are will be well appreciated only in the context
of a recognition of the widespread agreement between the two men. For
example, there is a mutual and developed sense of the sovereignty of the
divine initiative (also traceable in an earlier form in Erich Przywara’s ‘von
Gott her’). This represents a form of theological ‘realism’, which does not
deny the role played by the knowing and critical activity of the human
subject, but which maintains that ‘the divine being [is] real, whole, and
complete in itself apart from the knowing activity of the human subject;
indeed, the reality of God precedes all human knowing’.4 It could be said
that the whole of Herrlichkeit – and in particular the opening volume, and
the volume on the history of metaphysics (Volume iii/1) – is an exercise in
such critical realism. It springs from a major area of sympathy with Barth.
Then, after Barth’s move from an early stress on a relatively formal
notion of the ‘otherness’ of revelation to a more substantial, historically
extended appreciation of the incarnate form of Christ, there is in both
theologians a common ‘christocentrism’. Each has a vision of how
all things are comprehensively illuminated and transformed by the
particularity of Christ. Von Balthasar, paraphrasing Barth with approval,
writes that:
Whenever a person thinks he knows what life is all about because of an
acquaintance with the general, then we know right away that he lacks
the ear for the message of the special and particular. Or, to phrase it with
more nuance: whoever wants to start with the general must do so in the
strictest obedience: by interpreting everything in view of the particular,
expecting wisdom and direction from its concrete indications.
(b a r t h , p. 208/ET, p. 195)

Like Barth, von Balthasar knows Christ to be the most concrete and revelatory of historical particulars, vibrantly active in a way that animates and
gives meaning to the whole creation in all its aspects.
Then there is what might be called a shared ‘actualism’: a belief that
‘the content of revelation can never be cut off from the act of revealing, that
is, from the God who freely and sovereignly chooses to reveal himself’ (Barth,
p. 56/ET, p. 48). This is something at which the following chapter will look
more closely, in the context of a comparison with Przywara.
These major convergences (and there are many lesser ones too) keep the
theological differences between Barth and von Balthasar in perspective.
The differences often, indeed, seem relatively minor in relation to their
context of shared conviction. Nevertheless, from the point of view of what
4 McCormack, Dialectical Theology, p. 67.



Theology and the Drama of History

is the main concern of this chapter, the differences are profoundly important. What may be quite subtle differences – even only differences in tone
– affect the way in which an ‘existential’ register is kept alive in a theological account of the ways of God with man, and therefore the way in which
the stage, the cast and the action of this theodrama are done justice to.
The differences between Barth and von Balthasar will come particularly clearly into view in relation to two aspects of Barth’s theology –
both of which can be read as over-confidence in the way that God’s salvation ‘works’. First, von Balthasar will argue that Barth lacks sensitivity to
historical contingency. Second, von Balthasar will argue that Barth suppresses the importance that ought to be accorded to creaturely integrity.
A consideration of both criticisms will keep alive in this chapter (as in the
two previous ones) the question of human freedom in history – as important a theme in von Balthasar’s discussions with Barth as it was in his reaction to Hegel.

Karl Barth: ‘Tying up and locking in’
Both Barth and von Balthasar at different points make very similar statements about the relationship between creaturely obedience and freedom,
and yet there remains a distinct difference in what they are in fact prepared
to countenance on the creature’s part. Both have what in chapter 2 (p. 71)
we saw von Balthasar acknowledging as an ‘Augustinian concept of freedom’, in that authentic freedom is construed never as a kind of abstract
free will apart from the invitation and attractiveness of God, but only as ‘a
form of living within that mysterious realm where self-determination and
obedience, independence and discipleship, mutually act upon and clarify
each other . . . . this domain is that of the Trinity, which grace has opened
up for us’ (Barth, p. 140/ET, p. 129). Both share this vision, and yet, as Noel
O’Donoghue has stressed, there seems in Barth a more narrow construal
of the obedience of faith as a passivity without any genuinely active dimension of creaturely cooperation (a kind of ‘monergism’) and, on the Catholic
side, greater room for ‘a creative response to the enabling divine grace’
(a kind of ‘synergism’).5 This is how von Balthasar presents the contrast
at a number of points in his book on Barth. One of the substantive criticisms of Barth developed at the end of that book is precisely this: that
5 Noel O’Donoghue, ‘A Theology of Beauty’ in Riches, Analogy of Beauty, p. 4; cf. also John
Riches and Ben Quash, ‘Hans Urs von Balthasar’ in The Modern Theologians, 2nd edn
(Cambridge, Mass. and Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), p. 144.

Eschatology and the existential register

genuine mutuality between God and people is excluded. The creature –
the human being – can exercise no really significant initiative. He or she is
posited by God as a largely formal presupposition (Voraussetzung) of what
he has elected to do in Christ. In other words, a basic identity characterizes the divine activity, which only seems to unfold into relationship for a
moment before folding back into identity again. This is where Przywara’s
paralleling of ‘Reformation theopanism’ with ‘Idealist pantheism’ seems
most plausible, and Barth most Hegelian.6 The divine-creaturely relationship as he seems often to depict it is entirely subsidiary to the unified working of the divine will. In this mode, Barth, concludes von Balthasar, ‘ends
up talking about Christ so much as the true human being that it makes
it seem as if all other human beings are mere epiphenomena of Christ’
(Barth, p. 255/ET, p. 243; translation amended) – and the same is true of
the history of which they are part. ‘Monergism’ robs that, too, of a certain
This suppression of both historical contingency and creaturely
integrity seems categorizable in the terms we have already developed
as (in its peculiarly Barthian way) an ‘epic’ rather than a ‘dramatic’ perspective. Moreover, we can link what is described sometimes as Barth’s
triumphalism to it (though he reacted in horror and surprise when
Berkouwer called his 1956 book The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of
Karl Barth).7 In doing so, we vividly open up the implications which this
whole dimension of Barth’s thought has for the construal of history and

6 In the terms which Przywara set up (Erich Przywara, Polarity: A German Catholic’s
Interpretation of Religion, A. C. Bouquet (trans.) (London: Oxford University Press, 1935))
pantheism represents the divinization of the universe, and theopanism views the world as a
divine emanation. James Collins summarizes Przywara’s thought on this subject as follows:
‘If God alone is all that is and acts, then we must either identify man with God or God with
man. All halfway houses are as illusory as they are temporary: we must choose theopanism
(God alone is everything) or pantheism (everything is divine), and indeed the first choice
leads eventually to the second since the terms become at last interchangeable’ (James Collins,
‘Przywara’s “Analogia Entis” ’ in Thought 65:258 (1990), p. 272). Thus idealism and certain
strands of Protestant thought approximate in their apparent monism (their collapsing of the
distinction between God and world).
We hear von Balthasar echoing this theme in Barth as follows: ‘[In the Barthian view] nature
– by definition, what has been set at a distance from the Creator – staggers between ecstasy
and catastrophe, between total identity with the Creator, without distance or mystery, and a
falling away from him in absolute nonbeing’ (Barth, p. 73/ET, p. 66; translation amended).
7 G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth, H. R. Boer (trans.)
(London: Paternoster, 1956)). Barth wrote: ‘I’m a bit startled at the title, The Triumph . . . Of
course I used to use the word and still do. But it makes the whole thing seem so finished,
which it isn’t for me. The Freedom . . . would have been better. And then instead of . . . Grace I
would much have preferred . . . Jesus Christ.’ (Quoted in Busch, Karl Barth, p. 381.)



Theology and the Drama of History

Barth (von Balthasar suspected) presumed too much that he had got
his eschatological bearings, even while warning others of ‘eschatological exuberance’ (cf. Barth, p. 199/ET, p. 186; translation amended). The
question von Balthasar poses is whether this is merely a manifestation of
the ‘courage of faith’, properly disciplined by an acceptance of the provisionality of all theological statements and the need for perpetual critical
reservation; or whether it is the very un-existential perspective of a ‘vast
panoramic view’ (something that Bultmann, too, criticized in Barth, calling it ‘spectator theology’).8 Von Balthasar speaks critically of ‘the audacity with which the “symmetry” of judgment’ is here described as having
been annulled, in that Barth apparently refuses to admit any qualification
of God’s definitive decision to save. He senses in Barth the presumption
of ‘a gnosis, a theosophy; in short, a philosophy’ (Barth, p. 199/ET, p. 185;
translation amended), when in fact ‘the idea of being able to see and know
is absolutely excluded’ by the Christian revelation. The question of judgement and redemption is:
a mystery that must stand as a ‘holy and public mystery’ in the
principle and presuppositions of the totality of the Church’s
proclamation. It cannot be held in our minds in any other way than in
faith, hope and love.
(b a r t h , p. 368/ET, p. 359)

Von Balthasar’s repudiation of what he sees as Barth’s implicit universalism (though Barth denied the charge) is as strong as it is, not because he
wants hell to have a large population, but simply because he thinks we
do not have access to a place from which we can glimpse our last destination. He does not want to see what he calls the ‘existential character of faith and Christian life’ (Barth, p. 231/ET, p. 221) swallowed up in
‘the high-spiritedness and superiority of a victorious, all-conquering Yes’
(Barth, p. 218/ET, p. 208; translation amended). ‘Theology’, he says, ‘must
put the accent between the totality of victory and the total seriousness of
decision exactly where revelation puts its. By doing so, theology resists the
temptation of presuming to be the “enlightenment” of revelation’ (Barth,
p. 234/ET, p. 224). To do so would be to overstep the legitimate boundaries
of theology and begin doing ‘metaphysics’. Without losing his basic idea
that all evil is ‘still fundamentally conquerable’, Barth needs ‘to be much
more flexible at the . . . places where he presses down, ties up and locks
in’ (Barth, p. 256/ET, p. 244). His tone ‘veritably thrums with a hymnic certainty of . . . victory’ (Barth, p. 364/ET, p. 354).
8 Cf. McCormack, Dialectical Theology, p. 405.

Eschatology and the existential register

There seems ample evidence of this in the way that Barth treats the figure of Judas in the second volume of Church Dogmatics. In contrast to Donald MacKinnon – whom we have allowed (along with Aeschylus) to formulate what we have called ‘the tragic question’ – Barth’s seems here to be
a theology in which the tragic in human experience is wholly relativized
(even denied to be real at all) because viewed from the perspective of the
divine Passion and its outcome. Judas, though unwittingly, even participated in an ‘outstanding’ way in ‘the positive task of the apostolate’ by
handing Jesus over:9
The act of Judas cannot . . . be considered as an unfortunate episode,
much less as the manifestation of a dark realm beyond the will and
work of God, but in every respect (and at a particularly conspicuous
place) as one element of the divine will and work.

As for Calvary, it preempts any of the individual’s own pretensions to
[W]e can no longer try to experience and bear . . . an as it were, divine,
eternal, irremovable weight of sorrow . . . . a divine pain of this kind
is not only taken away from us, but forbidden to us as something
presumptuous – a tragic consciousness to which we may not pretend.10

Here, Barth’s register is that appropriate to the Christian’s ‘assured’ and
‘evident’ intimation (though ‘precarious’ and ‘beyond comprehension’)
‘of resurrection, of a justice and a love that have conquered death’ (these
are the words of George Steiner).11
Von Balthasar, it seems, is the advocate of a far more radical existential
irresolution: an arena for human possibilities to determine themselves in
various directions:
[O]ut of respect for human nature, human freedom and human
decisions (a respect that God himself shows), the eschatological climax
must remain an open question . . . there are many more transitions and
nuances here than seem to be the case in Barth . . .
(b a r t h , p. 372/ET, p. 363)

Von Balthasar does not think he is disagreeing with Barth on any principle
when he says this. He knows that Barth is quite serious in his repudiations
of neat and artificially systematic statements about the ways of God, all
of which must stand under the sign of failure. But he thinks that in
9 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics ii/2 (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1957), p. 503.
10 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics ii/1 (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1957), p. 374.
11 George Steiner, Real Presences: Is there Anything in What we Say? (London: Faber and Faber,
1989), p. 231.



Theology and the Drama of History

constructing ‘something from a relatively few passages of Scripture that
must be considered as the necessary background in all the other statements about the relation between God and man’, and even more than that
in the tone he uses to say what he says, he leaves himself a hostage to those
who want to keep the content of revelation tidy. It is these failings that von
Balthasar is anxious to correct in his own work:
Redemption [leaves room for us] to continue to change as we follow in
the footsteps of the incarnate Lord. The steps we take in this
discipleship have their own inherent meaning and weight. God takes
our decisions seriously, working them into his plans.
(b a r t h , p. 386/ET, p. 378; translation amended)

The importance of the existential register
Von Balthasar’s emphasis on the importance of the ‘existential’ will
become significant for us not only in this section, but throughout the
remainder of the book. It links us to chapter 1, in which the first point
we isolated when sketching a profile of the ‘dramatic’ was drama’s faithfulness to the open-endedness of human existence. It also links us to
chapters 5 and 6, as will become clear. Depending on how seriously it is
taken, the ‘existential’ is the arena within which human freedom will (or
will not) realize its room for manoeuvre. And if taken seriously, it will
place stern limits on what may be said about the movement of history, as
well as on the tone and content of eschatological statements.12
‘Von Balthasar has no use for a facile theological optimism’, wrote
Donald MacKinnon in 1969:
[an optimism] which forgets, for instance, the moment on the first
Good Friday, when, according to the fourth Evangelist, the
ecclesiastical statesmanship of Caiaphas had its victory, and those who
spoke for the ancient people of God cried that they had no king but
Caesar: which forgets the trauma inflicted upon Christ’s Body in that
moment, and the horrors which have been its consequences across the
centuries even to this present.13

MacKinnon’s reading of von Balthasar draws on ‘selective’ texts14 – and the
great trilogy was still in its early stages when he wrote this article – but it
12 The weight placed on the idea of an ‘existential’ register originates with von Balthasar
himself. Faith and Christian life are depicted by him as having a crucially ‘existential
character’ (Barth, p. 231/ET, p. 221).
13 D. M. MacKinnon, ‘Masters in Israel iii: Hans Urs von Balthasar’ in The Clergy Review 54:11
(1969), p. 862.
14 Ibid., p. 868.

Eschatology and the existential register

is not difficult to find material to reinforce the Scottish theologian’s view.
MacKinnon knew how von Balthasar could speak eloquently and explicitly of the crucifixion and of the descent into hell, powerfully evoking the
way that resistance to Christ seemed to increase in proportion to the revelation of his glory:
to the point that the uttermost gift of self, his gift of his flesh and blood
in the Last Supper, coincides with the deed of the uttermost hatred, the
slaughtering of this flesh and the pouring out of this blood.
(s k i z z e n iii, p. 357/ExT 3, p. 401)

Similarly, if we read von Balthasar’s fine essay on ‘Die Trag ¨odie und der
christliche Glaube’ in Volume iii of the Skizzen, we find a powerful recognition of the marred and sinful aspects of the Church: the wound of the
Reformation, the division from Israel, the atrocities and corruptions of
the Church’s history and practice. And within this Church – inasmuch
as the Christ of revelation does not prematurely foreclose or artificially
encompass the tragic fissures and the incomprehensible abysses in human
existence and experience – room is left open for the tragic and the incomprehensible in the lives of those who participate in and mediate the glory
of the Christ-form.
In relation to Christ’s cross and resurrection above all, von Balthasar
seems to resist any premature resolution. He insists ‘how paradoxical’ they
must be, and refuses to make them submit to a ‘formulation’. Christ’s
death, he says, is ‘truly a tragedy that ends in the uttermost darkness’. The
fact that ‘this end leads incomprehensibly into the Resurrection’, he goes
on, does not make it ‘in any way a fifth act with a happy ending added on
but stands in an utterly incommensurable relationship to the conclusion
of the tragedy’ (Skizzen iii, p. 357/ExT 3, p. 402). The cross of Christ, he concludes at the end of the essay:
can never become one element of a larger synthesis, since it is the
ultimate, tragic contradiction in existence, as this stands before the
gods, before the living God.
(s k i z z e n iii, p. 365/ExT 3, p. 410)

A return to von Balthasar’s short book Theologie der Geschichte, which we first
encountered in chapter 2, will make absolutely explicit why this resistance
to synthesis – this concern with the existential – has a significant bearing
on the way that history is understood and depicted in Theodramatik. In the
chapter of Theologie der Geschichte entitled ‘Die Zeit Christi ’, von Balthasar
establishes what (looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, from
Theodramatik) is clearly his genuine theodramatic concern:



Theology and the Drama of History

What tells us more than anything else that Jesus’ mode of time is
indeed real is the fact that he does not anticipate the will of the Father.
He does not do that precise thing which we try to do when we sin,
which is to break out of time, within which are contained God’s
dispositions for us, in order to arrogate to ourselves a sort of eternity, to
‘take the long view’, and ‘make sure of things’.
(g e s c h i c h t e , p. 28/ET, p. 30)

‘Taking the long view’ and ‘making sure of things’ are the characteristic
features of epic points of view and discourses. It is ‘taking the long view’
and ‘making sure of things’ to which von Balthasar takes most exception
in his treatment of Barth, and which fuels his much more comprehensive
critique of Hegel. It is ‘taking the long view’ and ‘making sure of things’
which von Balthasar actively resists by his positive statements about the
paradoxical quality of the Christian revelation, about the compromised
character of the Church, and about the role that suffering has still to play
in the Christian life.
The sin of our first parents, von Balthasar points out, taking his cue
from Irenaeus and Clement, was anticipation of an illegitimate kind: of
a kind that Christ himself eschewed (perhaps we may call it ‘epic’ anticipation). The sin of our first parents was the attempt to consolidate for
themselves a position that would soften the exigencies of time; that would
mitigate or even abolish the requirement that they receive all things at
God’s hands and in God’s time, trusting that their own flourishing would
be best served by such a relationship. Von Balthasar’s sympathy with this
view leads him to make the decisive observation that ‘all disobedience,
all sin, consists essentially in breaking out of time’ (Geschichte, p. 28/ET,
p. 30).
By contrast, Jesus, the second Adam, lives in absolute trust. He is altogether available for his ‘hour’ (a key notion also in Theodramatik’s more
developed Christology), yet without seeking to know (in some kind of epic
presumption) the details of its imminence or its content. He is prepared to
enact his mission dramatically. As von Balthasar has it:
[Jesus’ ‘hour’ has its character] as something that cannot be
summoned. Not even by knowledge (Mk. xiii 32), for that too would be
an anticipation, disturbing the sheer, naked, unqualified acceptance of
what comes from the Father.
(g e s c h i c h t e , p. 29/ET, p. 31)

A vital contrast is opened up here by von Balthasar between ‘taking the
long view’ and ‘making sure of things’ on the one hand, and ‘sheer, naked,

Eschatology and the existential register

unqualified acceptance’ on the other. Jesus, von Balthasar claims, must
epitomize the second attitude, which must in turn characterize the lives
of Christians who follow him. Jesus, when the hour of fulfilment and glorification comes:
will not want to say to the Father that he has always known this hour,
that it holds nothing new for him, brings only what has long been
familiar, what he has always savored through and through in thought,
already handled and thumbed over and fingered in his mind.
(g e s c h i c h t e , p. 29/ET, p. 31)

Likewise, obedience and patience are identified by von Balthasar as primary qualities of the lives of Christians, precisely because the paradoxes
of human existence forbid the premature tidying up of its loose ends. The
parables of expectation and waiting speak to this condition:
Hence the importance of patience in the New Testament, which
becomes the basic constituent of Christianity, more central even than
humility: the power to wait, to persevere, to hold out, to endure to the
end, not to transcend one’s own limitations [lit.: ‘skin’], not to force
issues by playing the hero or the titan, but to practise that which lies
beyond heroism, the meekness of the lamb which is led.
(g e s c h i c h t e , p. 29/ET, pp. 30–31; translation amended)

This is a forceful and persuasive evocation of the Christian life as lived into
an open future – or at least a future that is experienced as open, however
God’s fore-ordination may be conceived in relation to it.15 The ‘virtue that
lies beyond heroism’ is the seed for precisely that model of dramatic virtue
which von Balthasar will nurture and develop in Theodramatik. Such virtue
is never enacted alone (never ‘titanically’ or ‘heroically’), but corporately;16
it is rooted in faith, hope and love; and it is rooted in faith, hope and love
not – it should be remarked – as in things which are provisional and which
have to do only with our temporary perspective, but as things which must
characterize any relationship to the will and work of God – even that of the
eternal Son. Faith and hope, as intrinsic to the mystery of love itself, cannot and must not ‘be reduced to provisional things belonging to this world
[lit.: ‘this side’]’, for ‘that is an attack on the basic phenomenon of Christian existence: the perfect christological openness to every word which

15 For further discussion of this point see pp. 169–70 below.
16 There are interesting parallels here with John Milbank’s critique of heroic models of
virtue in debate with Alasdair MacIntyre; cf., Theology and Social Theory and ‘Can Morality be
Christian?’ in The Word Made Strange, pp. 219–32.



Theology and the Drama of History

comes from the mouth of God (Mt. iv 4) . . .’ (Geschichte, p. 36/ET, p. 40;
translation amended). Faith and hope, like love, are the characteristics of
redeemed, transfigured, perfected human existence just as much as of life
still in process of perfection. Knowledge does not replace faith as a complete and fixed thing might replace a partial and inconstant thing. Faith,
as von Balthasar has it, ‘is more than knowledge’17 (Geschichte, p. 37/ET,
p. 40). Faith exceeds knowledge because it so closely represents the Son’s
own attitude of obedient receptivity. Faith and hope – like love – are features of the trinitarian life itself, into which redeemed human existence is
caught up the more fully, and with which it is transformed and renewed.
The drama, in other words, goes on – even in heaven; even in God. The
restoration of the relationship between God and man in Jesus Christ is
not a simple ‘f i n i s ’. Even the eschaton itself is not, in von Balthasar’s
terms, a ‘f i n i s ’. ‘Epic’, qua ‘timeless vision’, is ruthlessly excluded by
this. There is something like time in God; something which safeguards
and heightens the features of life in time (dramatic existence, perseverance, faith, hope, ‘the power to wait . . . to endure . . . not to force issues . . .
to practise . . . virtue’). It is God’s ‘supra-time’, revealed to the eyes of
faith in its perfection in the temporal particularity of the life of Jesus of
It is precisely because the Son is eternal that he assumes temporality as
his form of expression when he appears in the world, elevating it so as
to make of it a precise, suitable, perfectly tuned utterance of his eternal
being as Son. . . . It is therefore vain to look for a contradiction between
the Son’s temporal and eternal form of existence or to seek within his
creatureliness for any opposition between a lower sphere within time
in which he receives and acts and a supreme ‘eternal’ sphere in which
he enjoys calm, self-sufficient possession of himself.
(g e s c h i c h t e , p. 27/ET, p. 29; translation amended)18

For von Balthasar, the virtues of attentiveness, receptivity, obedience
which the parables of Jesus – and Jesus’ own life – teach us, are virtues which
will continue to have a transformed importance in our restored life with
17 My emphasis.
18 This is in fact a view von Balthasar holds absolutely in common with Barth, as
Volume iii/2 of Church Dogmatics demonstrates (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics iii/2 (Edinburgh:
T and T Clark, 1960), pp. 437 ff.). There Barth talks of ‘Easter time’ (particularly manifested
in the forty days of resurrection appearances) as our unequivocal warrant for talking about an
‘eternal time’ in God which is a more real form of time than our own, but which does not
prevent God from taking our own time to himself (ibid., pp. 455–6).

Eschatology and the existential register

God, because they are (in a way impossible to define exhaustively) characteristics of God’s life itself.19 God’s life, in which we may find our place
with and in Jesus Christ through the power of the Spirit, is still in some
way a drama, in which each part is played out, as it were, ‘for the first time’,
received ‘by inspiration, scene by scene, word by word’ (Geschichte, p. 31/ET,
p. 33). No epic anticipation here. No original sin, in von Balthasar’s terms.
Simply ‘assent to the Holy Spirit, by whom, moment by moment, the will
of the Father is mediated’ (Geschichte, p. 30/ET, p. 32).
We will return explicitly to the theme of time in the following chapters.
Sufficient for our present purposes is the fact that ‘indifference’ has made
its return here (predictably, perhaps, given the centrality of the notion to
what von Balthasar thinks Christian existence involves). It has returned in
a more polemical guise than before: not simply as a way of negotiating the
tension between individual will and the conditions of circumstance and
sociality (a question more ‘internal’ to the elaboration of von Balthasar’s
theology), but as a counter-proposal to the epic ‘long view’ and ‘assurance’
which he identifies in both Barthian and Hegelian varieties. This gives the
notion of indifference a role in the more ‘external’ debates von Balthasar
conducts with those with whom he differs. Indifference, von Balthasar
argues in these contexts, is the proper attitude to adopt when living Christianly in time. It generates the proper reserve when talking about history
and where it is going (respecting the unpredictability of historical occurrence), and it concerns itself with the individuality of creatures and the
importance of their search for a mission.
This at least is the theory. But it brings us to a turning point, not only in
the contrast we have been drawing with Barth, but in the book as a whole.
This is the peripateia. For the return of indifference in the context of von
Balthasar’s advocacy of the ‘existential’ and the ‘dramatic’ should cause
us to pause. If indifference has really in von Balthasar’s mind the character of ‘sheer, naked, unqualified acceptance’, to quote again Theologie der
Geschichte, then we might wonder whether it is really so very plausible
as a quality contributory to good drama, which we might think involves
energetically committed creativity, imagination, poi ¯esis. Is it really the case
that being indifferent (even in the special sense of being actively receptive
which von Balthasar gives it) is the only alternative to being epic? Might
it in fact be that von Balthasar’s persistence in promoting the virtues of
19 This is one of the main arguments of the final volume of Theodramatik.



Theology and the Drama of History

indifference signals precisely his failure to escape from epic and find an
alternative in drama? Is it, indeed, a clue to a more pervasive epic quality
to his thought?
Of course we must recognize, as we did in chapter 2, the value of the
ends which ‘indifference’ is enlisted to serve both by Hegel and by von
Balthasar. It is meant to issue in life lived freely and corporately – free
(Hegel intends) from anti-social entrapment by private interests, and free
therefore (von Balthasar intends) for a genuine mission on the stage where
the theodrama plays. But faced now with the resurgence of the concept,
and more conscious than ever of its association with an Hegelian thoughtworld which looks epic, we must ask in a newly critical vein whether it is
capable of achieving all that it is meant to in a worthwhile theodramatic
scheme. Is its persistence at the point when von Balthasar wants to leave
Hegel behind an indicator that he cannot get free of Hegelian habits of
thought as much as he hopes? And will a theodramatics intending to do
justice to historical complexity need therefore to learn from this mistake,
and avoid the pitfalls of an uncritical commendation of indifference?

‘Theoretical reduction’ as enemy of the
existential register
In the previous chapter, we saw that it was important to rehearse von
Balthasar’s case for a more really dramatic drama than Hegel ever comprehended. This case was developed with the help of von Balthasar’s conception of divine ‘glory’ – the magnificent radiance which ‘gives’ being
to be, but does not give any grounds for assuming an ultimate identity
between being and the divine Giver. This free activity of giving – which
is in and beyond being – is what makes our own personal (‘dramatic’)
interchanges both possible and valuable (pp. 115–18). We might say that,
for von Balthasar, they are where the imago Dei is most evident, and they
are immeasurably more than mere ‘epiphenomena’ as a consequence. In
this respect, von Balthasar’s theology believes it has a way to preserve the
integrity of free, differentiated beings, as well as the abundance of undifferentiated being itself, which is a better way than any the philosopher has
available to him. It is a huge accomplishment. Von Balthasar claims to have
set the terms in which drama (and history as well, with all its particularities) can properly be viewed, because he opens up a magnificent ‘yonder’,
where he situates love (the guardian of beings in relation to ‘Being’ as a
whole, and the principle of all true freedom).

Eschatology and the existential register

And von Balthasar’s theological articulation of this field of ideas seems
at first admirably to meet the requirements for a safe passage ‘between the
brutely given, and the brutally, banally free’. Indeed, it seems to have a
particular influence on his eschatology: his sense of the mysterious freedom operative in and beyond being – and the dynamics of our participation (and continued capacity for sin and suffering) in history – engendering in him a principled reserve about how much one says about the ‘end’.
With the Agamemnon’s chorus, his theology admits that it ‘does not know’
all that the end will be. This was another point he seemed to carry when in
debate with Barth.
As the preceding chapters, and the earlier part of this one, have shown,
von Balthasar wants to say that life in God has its own ‘movement’ and
‘interaction’ of which human life is an analogue, and drama a privileged
representation. This gives a high dignity to human agency. Relationship
and interreaction, according to von Balthasar, are not annulled but have a
‘supra-form’ in God; a ‘supra-form’ towards which all history is oriented,
and which Christian theology tries to find appropriate ways of speaking
about. For von Balthasar, all encounter (in active as well as in receptive
aspects) is related to and energized by the divine revelation, and this revelation (to use Rowan Williams’ words) is not susceptible to ‘theoretical
reduction and premature or facile resolution’. Good theology and a good
‘dramatics’ of Christian life should therefore go hand in hand, and be
mutually reinforcing. Theology must refuse to be the ‘theoretical reduction’ of Christian existence. Like the paschal mystery to which it is related,
it is not (to use Williams’ words) a theoretical programme:
not a total structure of functional relations. Thus in the ‘dramatic’
perspective, with its inbuilt tension between role and plot, the creation
of meaning and the imposition of meaning, Christian theology offers a
deliverance from the menace of pure (structuralist) functionalism,
without simply taking refuge in a static essentialist dogma or a
privatised existentialism. By means of the Trinitarian doctrine and the
controlling symbol of Good Friday and Easter, it enables an affirmation
of both subject and structure without ‘freezing’ or absolutizing either

This is not, it should be emphasized, a blanket criticism of ‘theory’, as
though theory were always and inevitably in conflict with drama. Just as in
chapter 3 we were concerned to give a responsible account of good and bad
20 Rowan Williams, ‘Balthasar and Rahner’, p. 27.



Theology and the Drama of History

‘context’ (artificial and insensitive ‘context’ being the sort that occludes
the particular contours and claims of the things which make it up), so,
here, it is only ‘reductive’ theory that is resisted. Sophisticated theory
can be an energizing articulation of its subject matter, which opens more
(rather than fewer) insights into it. Neither ‘cast’ nor ‘action’ (‘subjects’
and ‘structure’ respectively) need necessarily suffer at its hands, nor
will good theory always favour the second at the expense of the first.
Nevertheless, bad theory (‘premature’ or ‘facile’ theory) is an ever-present
temptation to the theologian as to the philosopher. This is the sort of
reductionism we are alert to here.
Our joint concern with individual action and eschatology as part of this
chapter’s interest in the existential has been precisely an affirmation of
‘subject and structure’ together. Freezing the structure is a sign of failure in
one dimension – and we have seen how von Balthasar identifies such failure in Hegel’s strong assertion of the telos of reason, and in Barth’s making
the primal election of Christ into the foundation for a whole epic of divine
providence.21 But freezing the subject is a failure too. Indeed, freezing the
subject is often precisely a means of getting the individual agent to accord
with a structure similarly frozen. The two kinds of reduction frequently
accompany each other.
What begins to seem curious in von Balthasar’s case – and fuels a significant question about his adequacy to his own categories – is that when
dealing with Hegel he ostensibly rejects the freezing of structure that he
perceives, but hangs on to exactly the mechanism which tailors subjects
to it: the summons to ‘indifference’. Now at the very least there seems to
be a lack of daring in making indifference the supreme mode in which the
actors are to realize the drama of Christian life before God. But there might
be graver implications than that in von Balthasar’s promotion of it as the
only serious alternative to ‘titanism’ or eschatological arrogance. Indifference might actually make for the freezing of subjects, by a suppression of
the things that make human individuals into active, responsible, joyful
players in the drama of God and in the arena of the Church. And given
that, as we have just said, the two kinds of freezing generally accompany
each other, we have to consider the possibility that a form of freezing of
structure also persists in von Balthasar’s thought, even after all his protestations and safeguards. It might be that his theology sometimes forgets
21 Cf. Barth, p. 188/ET, p. 175.

Eschatology and the existential register

the ongoing, historical, often contingent aspects of all the patterns that
emerge in Christian life. It might therefore be that he slips back towards
an epic perspective.
The new ambivalence that ‘indifference’ begins to take on for us here
raises questions in turn about von Balthasar’s Ignatian inheritance – the
Ignatian tradition being the prime locus for the spirituality of ‘indifference’ (indiferencia). In chapter 2, we had cause to acknowledge that this tradition seemed potentially to be generative of drama, just as indifference
seemed to want to lend itself to the ‘dramatizing’ of Christian life. But
Ignatian ‘dramatics’ is not without its own ambivalence, and this is a good
moment to note the fact. There is in Ignatius a strongly ‘lyrical’ strain.
Even von Balthasar recognizes this. The Exercises’ invitation to ‘Imagine
Christ our Lord present before you on the Cross, and begin to speak with
him . . .’22 is turned to by von Balthasar in precisely that crucial passage in
Theodramatik where he illustrates the genres, because it exemplifies a particularly lyrical kind of spirituality. In short, he uses it to show what lyric is.
It may be no coincidence that Ignatius is often accused of a concentration
on the individual (to the detriment of the ‘discursive character of life’23 )
which is not fully dramatic.
Almost as a correlate to this, Ignatius also strongly advocates submissiveness to what might be called ‘epic’ organising principles in Christian
life. Along with his developed emphasis on the individual and his or her
experience, he is a believer in the authoritative operation of the Spirit in
the structures and institutions of the Church. To be fair to him, there is
never an attempt to make institutions a substitute for the fullness of the
life of grace in all its diversity: the letter is there to be filled by the Spirit.
But the fact remains, to use Saward’s words, that:
Ignatius is the great . . . doctor of ecclesial obedience: obeying Christ
means obeying the Pope and our superiors in God, wholeheartedly
assenting to the Church’s teaching, praising and thanking God for all
that he gives us in the real, visible Roman Catholic Church.24

Close attention to the theological relationship von Balthasar had with
Karl Barth has been very important in the first part of this chapter,
not least because of the way Barth draws von Balthasar out on these
22 Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, § 53; cited in TD ii/1, p. 49/ThD 2, p. 55.
23 Schner, Ignatian Spirituality, p. 5.
24 Saward, Mysteries, p. 27.



Theology and the Drama of History

questions of what makes for good dramatic theology. But it is necessary
to guard against an approach that relies too heavily or exclusively on von
Balthasar’s own self-description in relation to his conversation partners.
We need now to test for ‘theoretical reduction’ in von Balthasar using a
different set of tools. This involves setting Barth temporarily to one side,
and taking up some literary and scriptural material instead.
Sensitivity to history and to individual people and events in their rich
differentiation (the virtues this chapter has seen von Balthasar espousing)
indicate virtues we might anticipate in his treatment of texts, too. This is
because texts, too, have ‘structures’ and ‘subjects’. It seems entirely likely
that the temptation to reductionism in the eschatological reading of history (the ‘plot’) and of free creatures (the ‘actors’) will have its corollary in
the way that literary and even scriptural material is used to portray human
life in its existential reality. In the next section, we put this suspicion to
the test in a number of concrete ways, and demonstrate that von Balthasar
is indeed vulnerable on this front. We adopt a distinctive critical strategy – one which is literary-critical in character – in the belief that it will
give unique insights into von Balthasar’s most intimately held concerns
and patterns of thought. His failure to be alive to dramatic alternatives
to the attitude of indifference seems to correspond to other instincts for
the freezing of structure. He has a distinct tendency to filter the wealth of
the world’s drama – and its continuing dramatic possibilities – through
an inflexible set of categories. This begins to give von Balthasar’s thought
a ‘superordinate’ quality which he himself accused Barth of exemplifying. It invites us to be much more wary of the way he arrays every part
of his enormous and eclectic knowledge – always with consummate elegance – in relation to a specifically Christian Weltanschauung, to which,
we are encouraged to see, everything really belongs. It leaves him open,
finally, to the charge that, for all his polymath’s stature and the acreage
of his learning, he is often an irresponsible reader. When, at the close of
the chapter, we set him back alongside Barth, we will find that he looks
very different in the light of this examination of his treatment of texts. We
will find that we need substantially to revise the terms of the comparison
between him and Barth, adding to them a new dimension of subtlety. This
will prove to be of significant value in the refinement of theodramatic categories that benefit from the best insights of both theologians – insights
thrown into sharper relief by their mutual interrogation of one another –
and in seeking to avoid the serious pitfalls of ahistorical theological

Eschatology and the existential register

Von Balthasar as epic reader
His reading of drama
A literary-critical strategy brings to von Balthasar’s work some of the
sharpest challenges it can ever face, because so much of the weight of his
great trilogy rests precisely on the reading – the exegesis – of texts. Collectively, these readings take on a cumulative (and taken together an overwhelming) importance as part of a great narration of Western thought
and culture. And this great narration serves, in turn, what is one of
the foremost ambitions of von Balthasar’s work: to offer what is effectively a vast apologetics. It is, admittedly, an apologetics not based on
rational argumentation, but (true to von Balthasar’s resistance to narrowly ‘modern’ or Enlightenment modes of reasoning) operative as itself
a kind of aesthetic persuasion. But it is at the heart of what he has
set himself to do as a theologian: to communicate a vision of all the
world’s itineraries of thought and creativity from which the exclusion of
God seems unthinkable, or else violent, and in which Christian shapes
are repeatedly identifiable in the movement of history. And given that
this ambitious exercise depends so much on actual texts, von Balthasar
needs to do his exegesis very well indeed for his bigger project to be
We cannot deny that von Balthasar has an intimate knowledge of a
huge number of literary works, and is a sensitive and sincere reader. His
close readings yield profound and interesting insights. But there is a compromised strain to his readings, which suggests that from time to time the
Hegelian debts he owes assert themselves, or else that he imposes an alien
set of concerns on his material: in short, that he succumbs to a form of
‘theoretical reduction’.
There are those who will argue in this context that it is inappropriate
to speak tout court of ‘bad’ readings of literary texts (or even, in my terms,
of occasionally ‘irresponsible’ readings). This is an important challenge
¨ to suppose that the reading of any particinasmuch as it would be naıve
ular text could be measured by objective standards of truthfulness or adequacy, and the text’s readers shown (again ‘objectively’) to have met or else
failed to meet such standards. All readings are interested readings, and
an interested reading does not necessarily do violence to a text. As David
Cunningham has suggested, there is a sense in which a reader of texts may
operate rather like the director of a drama – ‘taking some particularly polyvalent texts and giving his own spin to them . . . presenting them for the



Theology and the Drama of History

audience’s approval or otherwise’.25 All this I would want to endorse. What
I am concerned with here, however, in terms of responsible and irresponsible readings, presumes that a text cannot be made to say simply anything;
and that while all reading is indeed interested reading, there are interests that arise from dialogue with texts (as from a relationship with something distinct from oneself, with its own integrity and capacity to resist,
illuminate and change the reader), and there are interests that are simply
imposed upon texts.
We saw how in Hegel’s view of drama there was an incipient subordination of individual will, and even individual significance, to a wider realm
of external circumstances. Von Balthasar, as we also saw, explicitly resisted
this subordination, and did so with all his theological might. But the content of his discussion of specific dramas (especially of tragedy) shows a
familiar preoccupation with what looks like the subordination of individual characters to the divine will – even, perhaps, their self-immolation –
and an identification of this divine will with that of the Christian God.
What this shows us is that his belief in a divine realm of glory, beyond
all being and bestowing all being, can itself be requisitioned to serve as
something like a meta-narrative, to which particular plays are assimilated. There is a qualitative difference, of course, between Hegel’s immanent Spirit and von Balthasar’s free, sovereign and relational God, but the
effects can be quite similar. Let us look at two principal examples of the
playwrights von Balthasar treats: first Euripides, and then Shakespeare,
with briefer reference too to Calderon.
´ 26
Echoes of a fierce and unaccountable primordial realm, liable to burst
out unexpectedly, are strong in von Balthasar’s discussion of Euripides’
plays. However, what John Kevern describes as ‘the darkness of the protagonist’s death’, von Balthasar transmutes into an occasion for seeing glory
break forth.27 In Herrlichkeit’s discussion of Euripides, von Balthasar seizes
on the theme of the protagonists’ abject self-abasement and self-loss in
play after play; a theme of powerlessness and abandonment in the face
25 Points made in personal correspondence.
26 I have had to be selective of the texts against which to test von Balthasar’s readings. This
is particularly difficult in this look at his reading of drama because of the broad field of
drama within which he situates the project of Theodramatik. But in fact, the three principal
´ are not arbitrary
examples we have chosen (from Euripides, Shakespeare and Calderon)
choices. It is these three playwrights alone who are given specific mention in his crucial, and
long, discussion of ‘Unendliche und endliche Freiheit’ in Volume ii/1 of Theodramatik (TD ii/1,
pp. 170–305/ThD 2, pp. 189–334), and he often indicates his admiration of them. Measure for
Measure is referred to both in Theodramatik and in the Skizzen.
27 John R. Kevern ‘Form in Tragedy: Balthasar as correlational theologian’ in Communio 21:2
(1994), p. 324.

Eschatology and the existential register

of events that ‘dominates’ all the plays (H iii/1, p. 102/GL 4, p. 110). There
follows a catalogue of examples. First, there are those characters who are
submitted against their will to such ‘unshielded horror’ – for example, the
Women of Troy, who:
are presented in extreme abandonment: the queen and her daughters
are distributed ‘by lot’, like goods, among the victors and one after
another are led away. The situation is beyond all beseeching; it is the
unmitigated darkness of meaningless destruction.
(H iii/1, p. 104/GL 4, p. 112)

And then there are those ‘who give themselves up, who willingly sacrifice
themselves’ (H iii/1, p. 104/GL 4, p. 112). It is here, von Balthasar argues, that
a certain glory is perceptible in Euripides’ vision:
From the beginning of the Peloponnesian War the motif of a sacrificial
death for community, city and people comes to the fore but not
exclusively so. It is frequently initiated by the late archaic thought that
the gods demand a human sacrifice, whether for the expiation of guilt
(Iphigenia in Aulis) or for the gaining of a favour (Heracleidae, Phoenissae)
or as an institutionalised ritual (Iphigenia in Tauris, in which even the
poet himself questions the reasons, as we have seen). But there is also
the death for love, which is inspired not by a god but by personal love,
and is either offered (by Pylades in Orestes) or carried out (Evadne in The
Suppliant Women, Laomedeia in the lost Protesilaus).
Everywhere it is freedom that is decisive, which appears in its most
sublime form where the sacrificial death is first imposed as a necessity
by gods or men. Thus the oracle in the Heraclidae demands the
slaughter of a prince’s daughter, Macaria offers herself and underlines
that her death is a free one: ‘This life is willingly yielded’ . . .
( H iii/1, p. 135–36/GL 4, pp. 146–47)

For von Balthasar, seeing ‘the dramatic transformation of a sacrifice
imposed by external necessity into one which is inwardly accepted’ is like
‘emerging from a dark cave into the light of day, returning to the freedom
and beauty of existence. It is here without doubt that the moment of glory
lies for Euripides . . .’ ( H iii/1, p. 131, 132/GL 4, pp. 142, 143).
Thus, in von Balthasar’s view, ‘[t]he terrifying outline ( [sic]) of
the suffering man’ etched against the fierce backdrop of necessity (like
‘the background, black or red, behind heroic figures on the [Greek] vases’
(H iii/1, p. 113/GL 4, p. 122)) can act to heighten our awareness of glory. What
is this meant to teach us? Does it inspire us, as von Balthasar elsewhere
wants Szondi to say, with a sense that the sufferings of these heroes ought



Theology and the Drama of History

not to happen? Or does it stand to train us in the work of detachment from
the world – is it an opportunity for ‘indifference’ to be commended to us
in yet another guise?
Von Balthasar seems inclined to think that Euripides’ tragedies indicate the value of a ‘free-willed acceptance’ of death which is transmuted
into ‘self-sacrifice’;28 ‘the penetration beyond a dark fate of necessity into
an assent which springs from the heart’s own inner and unfathomable
resources’ (H iii/1, pp. 131–32/GL 4, p. 143). But by his promotion of the
theme of self-sacrifice, he is clearly trying to uncover quasi-Christian contours in the material. He claims somewhat boldly that Greek tragedy in
general is a ‘great, valid cipher of the Christ event’. In retrospect, he proposes, it can be seen that:
[t]he absolute gravity of great tragedy, together with its understanding
of glory, directly enters and is so subsumed by the drama of Christ that,
after Christ, it cannot be repeated.
(H iii/1, p. 94/GL 4, p. 101)

And in Euripides’ work – more than that of the other tragedians – he finds
this ‘valour of the unshielded heart’ appearing to stand in a particularly
‘direct relation to Christ’ (H iii/1, p. 96/GL 4, p. 103). His descriptions of
what Euripides does are laden with Christian associations:
Euripides’ souls . . . sensitive in their defencelessness, wage a . . . bitter,
desperate but secretly loving, struggle with the god who tortures them,
whose personal countenance they both desire and reject.
(H iii/1, p. 126/GL 4, pp. 136–7)

This reading of ‘secret lovingness’ is surely special pleading on von
Balthasar’s part. It is so secret that it is not apparent at all, except as a
function of von Balthasar’s ‘belief there’ll be better’, and of his quest to
find glory beyond the very obvious ‘torture’. The claim to have spotted
the ‘secret’ of the struggle of Euripides’ heroes sits in considerable tension
with his simultaneous portrayal of the divine decree under which the protagonists stand as something inflexible, which will result in a progressive
‘stripping’, ‘exposure’ (H iii/1, p. 115/GL 4, pp. 124–25), a being ‘ensnared’
(H iii/1, p. 98/GL 4, p. 106), a ‘pure defencelessness’ (H iii/1, p. 102/GL 4,
p. 109).
Von Balthasar can engage in just as much special pleading in relation to Shakespeare. Even though there is a great deal of material that
28 Ibid.

Eschatology and the existential register

could be explored here, a single example will demonstrate the point:
that most irreducibly complex of plays, Measure for Measure. Here is a play
which sets up a host of problems about personal and public morality. The
dilemmas involved underpin the whole structure and plot of the play,
and resist any easy resolution. They are quite clearly charged with tragic
There have been some critics who see in the play a pattern of providence and redemption, in which the characters go astray and are restored.
Von Balthasar opts to be one of these critics: ‘This is a Christian mystery
play’, he says, ‘no matter whether or not the poet intended it as such, no
matter how many comic and tragic elements are mixed in with it’ (TD i,
p. 441/ThD 1, p. 470). And, later, he takes up the theme again:
Everyone, the guilty and the innocent, must go through judgement in
solidarity – Shakespeare underlines the fact that the guilty and the
innocent are interchangeable – for only in this way can they all receive

But the problems of the play resist such simplification. Admittedly, it is
neither simply tragedy nor simply comedy. On the contrary, it is a play that
begins with real and very vivid human problems. It is not a conventionally
trivial comic world, but a world that is harshly and, to begin with, uncompromisingly that of genuine moral dilemma and real physical threat. In
the absence of its ruling Duke, the government of Vienna lies in the hands
of a deputy, Angelo, who wages war on sexual licence, sentencing to death
a young man, Claudio, for making his betrothed pregnant before their
marriage. Faced with the pleading of Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice
nun, for his life, Angelo makes it a condition of any reprieve that Isabella
become his mistress. This she refuses to do, withstanding even the begging of her brother in prison. Then, in this dark context, a model of operative Providence is introduced in the form of the disguised Duke returning, and this is done in order, eventually, to effect a deeply suspect comic
ending. And the most disturbing thing about this providential power,
which von Balthasar never once mentions, is its manipulative character. It
arranges a mechanical ‘solution’ to the play’s problems in the form of the
‘bed trick’, and thereby increases moral questions in the proportion that
it reduces the practical problems of how to end the story. For the bed trick
involves those we regard as virtuous characters in an action that condones
the behaviour that provoked all the problems of the play in the first place
(that is to say, sex outside marriage). Isabella, for example, suddenly helps



Theology and the Drama of History

engineer something which she has until then been resisting on her own
behalf at the greatest personal cost; and in this light the bed trick cannot
simply strike the audience as a knockabout practical joke.
The Duke, as a consequence, must appear to us as a thoroughly suspect figure. His activities are artificial and emblematic when offered as
the solutions to the grim and plausible interactions of human belief and
prejudice which first engendered the dilemma. While the first half of
the play ‘moves swiftly towards the tragic calamity, twisting deeper and
deeper into the quick’, the Duke’s intervention as Deus ex machina apparently changes everything, and (as A. P. Rossiter puts it) ‘the puppet master
makes all dance to a happy ending, with a lot of creaking’.29 We cannot be
satisfied at Shakespeare’s glossing over of the very serious moral problems
which he has raised. Real wounds cannot be healed by artificial means.
Furthermore, the Duke’s methods are sometimes not only artificial but
seemingly cruel. Part of his intrigue involves keeping Isabella under the
delusion that her brother is dead; and we are bound to ask whether it is a
Christian Providence which is operating on the Duke’s terms:
I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair
When it is least expected.
(iv.iii, lines 105–6)

The problem at the heart of Measure for Measure is its superficially resolved,
but actually very disturbing, ending, in which the shallowly treated character Mariana is encouraged to act in a fearfully inconsistent way and then
married off to a man who does not love her. As a result, the ‘outwardsainted deputy’ who ‘is yet a devil’ (iii.i, lines 90–3) undergoes a perfunctory conversion and is given an amnesty: all, it seems, to allow the play to
end as happily as can be contrived. What Shakespeare has woven at the end
(and we must leave room for the possibility that he knew exactly what he
was doing) is a tissue of comic fabric which is simply not strong enough to
bear the weight of the human problems that press on it.
Yet von Balthasar sees in this play a message redolent of mercy, and a
clear figuration of the operation of grace. He describes it as ‘perhaps the
greatest parable of Christian literature, a true divina commedia, a drama that
casts light into the dirtiest corners of sin and that can succeed in doing this
because it sheds the light of the highest love on everything’ (Skizzen iii,
p. 359/ExT 3, p. 404). ‘Angelo can be forgiven’, in von Balthasar’s eyes,
29 A. P. Rossiter, Angel with horns: fifteen lectures on Shakespeare, Graham Storey (ed.) (London:
Longman, 1989).

Eschatology and the existential register

for the simple reason that ‘[Claudio] is still alive’ – not through any good
intention on Angelo’s part, it should be noted. This refusal to worry about
questions of will and intention when absolving Angelo is then matched (as
von Balthasar’s reading progresses) by quite the opposite strategy of inventing intentions on the Duke’s behalf (which are quite unwarranted by the
text) in order all the better to absolve him, too. Von Balthasar (who, astonishingly, looks at the Duke ‘as if he were the Son of Man appearing again’
(Skizzen iii, p. 359/ExT 3, p. 404)) wants to see the artificiality of the Duke’s
contrivances (and also his deception of Isabella) as motivated by a deep seriousness. How does he justify this? On the wholly speculative grounds that
‘it cannot be a matter of indifference to him to let Isabella go on thinking
for so long that her brother is dead’ (TD i, p. 443/ThD 1, p. 472). The force of
that ‘cannot’ is unclear: are we not invited to entertain precisely the fearful possibility that the Duke, even in his self-styled providential activities,
may at bottom be merely indifferent? Von Balthasar forecloses our doubts
in a way that Shakespeare, in his wisdom, has declined to do.
We must conclude, I think, that von Balthasar’s treatment of this drama
does indeed show him tempted by a strain of epic relativization to be at
work in his theology – not always as the dominant strain, but as one which
can rear its head unexpectedly. Thus, he can close his long excursus on
Shakespeare with the words:
In accordance with the Christian principle of forgiving mercy, the
dramatist causes the Good to predominate . . .

Von Balthasar, to be sure, says this in a way that seeks to take account
of the sovereign sustainer of all existing things in their particularity. He
is most impressed when the Good is shown to predominate without the
dramatist ‘feeling it necessary to reduce the totality of world events to
some all-embracing formula’. But it is frankly not true to the dark ambiguity of Shakespeare to say that ‘all the time he is utterly certain that the
highest good is to be found in forgiveness’ (TD i, p. 449/ThD 1, p. 478;
my emphases). It smacks too much of the ‘victorious, all-conquering Yes’
which von Balthasar criticized in Barth.
There is not space here for a proper consideration of Calderon
´ and his
high place in von Balthasar’s estimation. Suffice it to say that Calderon
is not entirely free of the baroque theatre’s unease with questions of
individual identity, and its fancy for miraculous intervention. Calderon
has been contrasted with Shakespeare on the grounds that the English
dramatist has ‘the profounder thoughtfulness, the more introverted eye’,
and that ‘in [Shakespeare] the action is subservient to the character, while



Theology and the Drama of History

in Calderon
´ the character is subservient to the action’.30 We might question von Balthasar’s taste for a playwright the individual roles of whose
characters ‘stand isolated and “typical” – like the angel species in Aquinas:
“the” King is sharply distinguished from “the” Peasant, and so forth’
(TD i, p. 234/ThD 1, p. 253). We might question, too, von Balthasar’s apparent preference for the stylized autos over the comedias. He sees the autos as
the transformation by ‘grace’ of the ‘natural’ stuff of the comedias, whose
‘floating plurality of meaning . . . must give way to the single meaning
which man is both privileged and bound to take on in the light of God’s
Incarnation’ (TD i, p. 107/ThD 1, p. 116; my emphasis). One cannot help
feeling that in his reading of Measure for Measure von Balthasar is making
a Shakespeare in the image of Calderon.
His reading of poetry
What we have just done has distinct similarities to Martin Simon’s exercise in the 1986 collection of essays on von Balthasar: The Analogy of Beauty.31
There, Simon brings an independent critical appreciation of Holderlin’s
poetry and sets it alongside von Balthasar’s own reading of Holderlin
Herrlichkeit Volume iii/1, just as we have done with Shakespeare. Simon,
too, is impelled to a pointed critique of von Balthasar as a reader, and he
exposes a lot of the same tendencies and instincts in von Balthasar that we
are beginning to identify in this chapter.
For example, Simon shows there to be a strategic slippage in the way
that von Balthasar uses the definite article – sometimes where it is not
required, and sometimes in place of a possessive adjective. In the case of the
word ‘spirit’ this can transmute a reference to the poet’s ‘spirit’ by sleight
of hand into an apparently theological utterance:
In the context of kenosis and Logos, Balthasar writes: ‘His great love for
Susette Gontard serves as proof positive that the descent of the spirit
into the “servant-form” of defenceless need is the ultimate truth and
glory of all being.’ Holderlin
did say something similar. But the ‘spirit’
involved here is his, Holderlin’s
own . . .32

Elsewhere in Holderlin’s
Hyperion, there comes the phrase ‘Is not holy my
heart . . . since / Love came to me?’,33 which, as Simon points out, von
´ de la Barca, Life’s a Dream; The
30 Richard Chenevix Trench, ‘His Life and Genius’ in Calderon
Great Theatre of the World (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1856), pp. 73–4.
31 Riches, Analogy of Beauty.
32 Martin Simon, ‘Identity and Analogy’ in Riches, Analogy of Beauty, p. 81; quoting H iii/1,
p. 660/GL 5, p. 315.
33 My emphasis.

Eschatology and the existential register

Balthasar prefers to recall as ‘the heart is holy since love came to it’. Simon
concludes from both examples of ‘vagueness’ in the treatment of the definite article that it is:
not so much an irritating lapse, occasional or frequent, as a
methodological tool whose purpose is now amply clear: to transform
the private, subjective, individual statement into public, objective,
universal statement.34

What Simon alleges here is a combination of two tendencies – the tendency to universalize and the tendency to Christianize – in von Balthasar’s
rather invasive treatment of the text. He disregards much of the particularity of reference and the ambiguity of nuance that is there in order to isolate
something clear and useful for his scheme. This is familiar to us now from
our examination of how he read Measure for Measure.
Then – similar to his identification of the ‘secret’ loving of Euripides’
heroes, and the ‘secret’ motives of the Duke in Measure for Measure – there is
the ‘secret’ devotion to Christ that von Balthasar reads in Holderlin.
proceeds to point out that this, too, is unjustified. Holderlin,
to von Balthasar, is superficially trapped in a dichotomy between a vision
(shared with the ancient world) of ‘theophanous reality’, and the ‘cold
reflection and speculation’ which operates through idealist philosophy
(H iii/1, p. 645/GL 5, p. 299). His painful inhabiting of this dichotomy –
neither pole of which he will abandon – is, according to von Balthasar,
‘because in secret it always has been and always will be the third, Christian
position that determines the way he feels and lives’ (H iii/1, p. 660/GL 5,
p. 315), this being the position where heart and mind, feeling and reason,
unite. Simon is surprised at this claim. It suggests in a quite unwarranted
manner (one which does not pay attention to the historical way in which
ideas develop) that the polarity between idealism and Greece somehow
necessarily implies a Christian position, like the third angle of a triangle;
whereas, as Simon says, ‘the history of ideas is not geometrically symmetrical but linear’,35 and the relationship between Greece, Christianity and
idealism involves a highly complex historical progression that must be
traced from Judaism and the ancient world through medieval times, the
Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Holderlin’s
poetry certainly reflects
a conflict between ‘reason’ and ‘feeling’, but Christianity cannot be deduced
from it. Moreover, ‘Christian interpretation is simply too blunt an instrument for its analysis’. The use of the contrast between idealism and Greece
34 Ibid., p. 82.

35 Ibid., p. 88.



Theology and the Drama of History

to suggest that Holderlin’s
theme of ‘love’ is tied to the specific person of
Jesus ‘reveals the absence of a proper argument’:
It is not a little deceptive to create the illusion that it only remains mere
suggestion because Holderlin’s
Christianity is ‘secret’.36

I do not share Simon’s view that von Balthasar needs a greater ‘lyricism’
to temper what Simon calls his grandly ‘baroque’ vision of the sovereign
God,37 nor that ‘lyrical’ is ‘the correct counterpole to “universal”’.38 The
argument of this book is that the ‘correct counterpole’ to an abstract and
generalizing instinct is actually ‘dramatic’, and that in drama above any
other genre the abstraction of freedom (divine or human) is avoided in
favour of the relational particularity it has in the Christian perspective.
But Simon, on the basis of his sensitive familiarity with the poems, gives
us a valuable glimpse of von Balthasar trampling on the genuine lyricism
of Holderlin
in his haste to uncover the form (or Gestalt) of Christ in them.
He alerts us, too, to von Balthasar’s capacity for historical forgetfulness in
the narration of his material, in favour of a way of drawing connections
between things that has more of a ‘geometric’ character.
His reading of the New Testament
It is, of course, not enough to impugn von Balthasar for his harmonizing and emblematic reading of literature without looking at the more
serious question of whether such reading finds parallels in his exegesis
of Scripture. If we detect equally harmonizing and emblematic readings
here, then a case may be made that the failings of von Balthasar’s dramatic theory play directly into the weaknesses of his otherwise promising
attempt to construct a theodramatics that will do justice to the historical
experience and existence of human beings in relation to God. It is at this
point that the literary-critical method we have adopted begins to expose
the direct connections that exist between what von Balthasar is doing with
his literary texts, and his most basic theological instincts. The continuities
between the way he reads the Bible and the way he reads drama and poetry
show that in both kinds of reading he has a particular eschatology and a particular Christian anthropology in view (and they are not by any means the
eschatology and the anthropology his debate with Barth has prepared us
to expect of him).
Von Balthasar is aware that his own emphasis on the integrity of the
scriptural revelation, in which all the many parts of the canonical whole
36 Ibid., p. 89.

37 Cf. ibid., p. 101.

38 Ibid., p. 83.

Eschatology and the existential register

mediate the Gestalt Christi (or form of Christ), ‘presupposes an understanding of totality that is spiritual and not literary and philological’ (H i,
p. 529/GL 1, p. 550). In this respect, he feels his method to be close to that
of the early Church Fathers and their art. He sees in the Bible, in both
Old and New Testaments, the filling out and completing of the revelation of Christ, and he argues that the fragments of the canon, when correctly (which means christologically) interpreted, participate in and unite
in mediating this ‘totality’ in a way that ‘will suffice for us to affirm a priori
that, theologically, things cannot be otherwise’ (H i, p. 517/GL 1, p. 539). In
other words, the parts of the canon are effective for us as an organic whole,
and their organic wholeness is imparted to them from a single source: the
‘universal concrete reality which is Christ himself’ (H i, p. 529/GL 1, p. 550).
It will be fruitless to pull this wholeness apart with reductive methods of
our own devising. We see in Scripture both God’s Word and faith’s own
reflection on that Word, and we see them ‘in their unity’. In von Balthasar’s
view, ‘the one . . . [is] brought into harmony [!] with the other . . . in such a
way that, with that evidential force which is proper to the theological outlook, both things come together to build a “necessary” unity of form’ (H i,
p. 515/GL 1, p. 536).
Now we may well see in this stress, and its brave resistance to historicalcritical reductionism, a valuable contribution to modern discussions
about exegetical method. No amount of analysis or study of the origins
of the biblical texts and the concepts that inform them is of much value
unless it helps the reader or listener to perceive and understand their
wholeness and underlying integrity (their ‘life’). Though von Balthasar is
alert to the fact that much scriptural exegesis can seem to be ‘extravagant
whimsicality’ (H i, p. 528/GL 1, p. 549), to the more staid practitioners of a
historically or philologically based method of biblical interpretation, his
insistence on this point is theologically serious.
Nevertheless, it is no more true to suppose that the form of Christ which
underlies the scriptural revelation and gives it its life is simply a bigger
and more comprehensive version of other kinds of worldly aesthetic or
dramatic form, than it is to suppose that Shakespeare is ‘all the time . . .
utterly certain’ that the Good will predominate in his plays. The kind of
‘totality’ which is intuited in the form of the Crucified One and traced in
his corpse-like obedience in Hell waits for its full revelation in the ‘Battle
of the Logos’,39 and even in the wake of that battle will bear the wounds of
39 The title of a section in TD iii/ ThD 4, pp. 425–503.



Theology and the Drama of History

its victory. The analogies drawn with any kind of dramatic resolution or
harmony of form ought to be disciplined and limited by this intuition of
the christological supra-form, which is more dissimilar from, than similar
to, any worldly counterpart.
Von Balthasar knows this, as we have seen in the response to Karl Barth
which this chapter has already traced. He admits, moreover, the way that
Christ’s supra-form is unlike any other form: he admits that its fullest
dimensions are completely beyond our grasp. The supra-form embraces
the rupture of the cross and the un-form of Hell. We should expect, then,
that the ‘“necessary” unity of form’ which von Balthasar intuits in Scripture will (like the Christ-form it mediates, and like the form of the Church
in which it has its roots) remain ungraspable in its fullest dimensions;
it will leave room for the tragic fissures which the Christ of revelation
does not suppress or abolish, but into which he enters. It is, indeed, just
such theological delicacy – or reservation – which the prefix ‘supra-’ is
designed to serve in von Balthasar’s theology, and he uses it frequently
(along with inverted commas and phrases like ‘in some way’ or ‘something
like’) to mark the points at which our language and our concepts are inadequate to what they seek to describe. As Gerard O’Hanlon has demonstrated
well, the prefix ‘supra-’ is for von Balthasar a way of negotiating the path
between the complete denials of negative theology (we can know nothing
of God; he is absolutely unlike anything else) and a rashly positive identification of God with creatures or creaturely experience.40 Here, the reservation calls to be deployed specifically as we stand before the form of Christ’s
revelation in the case of Scripture. It demands that Scripture’s fragments
must be allowed at times to remain as fragments. Not every loose end, it
says, may responsibly be tidied up by the disciple. A stringent critical reservation must be maintained – something that even Barth recognized in his
characterization of faith in God’s revelation as risk.41
Von Balthasar, however, is simply not consistent in his attempts to
safeguard the vital unfinalizability of the supra-form. He betrays himself. His harmonizing readings of Shakespeare are far from being isolated
instances with no serious theological corollaries. If we look to his exegesis
of the New Testament, we find similar examples of such harmonization (or

40 We will explore the implications of this a great deal more thoroughly in our next chapter,
on the subject of analogy.
41 Cf. McCormack, Dialectical Theology, p. 419: ‘a proper understanding of the Word of
God . . . ensures that faith can only be ventured as an act of daring, and therefore as
existential in the highest degree’.

Eschatology and the existential register

‘theoretical reduction’), and a continued reliance on the emblematic (just
that sort of reliance of which Measure for Measure should have trained us to
be suspicious). It is here more than anywhere that von Balthasar’s theological seriousness when engaging in exegesis risks a lapse into whimsicality.
The fact, for example, that Peter and John run together to the tomb of Jesus
is taken as evidence of the birth of ‘a Church with two poles: the Church of
office and the Church of love, with a harmonious [!] tension between them’
(‘Mysterium’, p. 315/ET, p. 259). How securely, though, can one make the
assertion that what John’s Gospel seeks to present in this resurrection narrative is a comparison between two ‘ecclesiologies’; that there is ecclesiological significance in the fact that one runs faster than the other; that
Peter arrives second because encumbered by the preoccupations of office?
And on what exegetical grounds is he entitled to conclude from the fact
that Simon Peter is also called Simon bar-Jonah (‘Simon, son of John’) that
this is a coded reference to his spiritual relationship to the Beloved Disciple (in other words, that, as ‘authority’, he is the ‘offspring’ of love).42 Does
not von Balthasar manifest here something of the same whimsy which
we saw in his interpretation of Measure for Measure, in his attribution of
secret motives and intentions to the author’s characters in some cases,
and his denial of the importance of such intentions in other cases (sometimes waiving the significance of authorial intention altogether)? In fact,
von Balthasar owes much to Barth in this self-consciously literary reading of the presentation and interaction of character in the Gospels,43 but
the elaborateness of his readings exceeds the critical reservation exercized
by Barth, and is difficult to dissociate from his speculations in Erster Blick
auf Adrienne von Speyr about the quasi-mathematical structure of the communion of saints and its capacity to configure the fullness of the Church’s
Scripture itself, of course, harbours an alternative to what we have been
calling ‘the tragic question’. In the story of Job, it presents us with a
quality of suffering that challenges us not to relativize or contextualize it artificially; a quality of suffering which we can only struggle to
42 Cf. Affekt, p. 135/ET, p. 161.
43 Cf., for example, Barth’s drawing of formal correspondences between Paul and Judas,
discussed valuably in David F. Ford, Barth and God’s Story: Biblical Narrative and the Theological
Method of Karl Barth in the ‘Church Dogmatics’ (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1981), p. 87.
44 Cf. Adrienne, pp. 72–4/ET, pp. 82–5. We will return to this quasi-mathematical tendency
in von Balthasar’s ecclesiology in the fifth chapter.



Theology and the Drama of History

understand, against the inscrutable background of God’s sovereign freedom. This is a challenge to exercise the proper provisionality when interpreting the existential impact of the divine providence: a speculative
restraint that is also awe. The importance of such an attitude for a theological approach to the reading of history can hardly be overemphasized. If
Job is a book about sanctification (about how to exercise freedom with obedience in the midst of unique, uncontrolled and unforeseen challenges,
and how integrity and growth are possible in such a world), then it turns
the tables on those who too readily make theories out of the providence of
At this point Karl Barth comes back into the foreground for us. He reappears because he troubles to look seriously at the Job narrative. He looks at
precisely that nexus of issues to do with ‘cast’ and ‘action’ which these last
chapters have been about: for instance, how seriously human initiative is
to be taken, how freedom relates to obedience, what significance it has in
the working out of God’s purposes, and so on. This exercise will return
us to the question of whether Barth’s is really a simply ‘epic’ account of
human freedom, to which von Balthasar’s is an unambiguously dramatic
Barth’s most arresting and sustained reading of the story is to be
found in his section on ‘The Falsehood of Man’ in Church Dogmatics iv/3.1.
He begins by observing how ‘unquestionably good, earnest and religious’ Job’s three friends are – ‘in marked contrast to the violent utterances of Job, which border at times on blasphemy and the denial of
God’. The things these friends say are beautifully suited to ‘instructional,
pastoral, liturgical and homiletical use’. They speak ‘in all good faith’,
and their speeches are ‘well-meaning and intrinsically very striking and
Indeed what they say about the working of God and how we are to dispose ourselves towards it has at times a noticeably Balthasarian ring to it.
They contend that even when appearances are to the contrary, God always
rewards the good according to their works, and the wicked according to
theirs, and if this is not immediately obvious it is nevertheless the case
‘secretly’. And more than this, as Barth points out, they counsel Job that
‘the best thing for a man to do when he is overtaken by the severity of God
is to cling the more genuinely to Him, to allow himself to be directed by
Him, and to accept His discipline’.46 They warn him urgently:

45 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics iv/3.1 (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1961), p. 453.
46 Ibid., p. 454.

Eschatology and the existential register

to think of the majesty of the divine wisdom and the consequent limits
of his human knowledge, and therefore not to give free vent to his
complaints and entreaties, nor to be so arrogant and omniscient and
defiant in relation to God . . . as if his fate were the problem of all
problems and his violent attitude the key to its solution, nor to throw
the alleged and perhaps in fact very doubtful justice of his cause into
the scales, but rather to be converted – which is surely necessary – and
thus to learn afresh the goodness of God as one who is humbled by

In short, they counsel ‘indifference’: by a contextualization of Job’s problems, they invite him to a proper humility before, and submission to, God.
‘What fault can we really find with all these things?’, says Barth. ‘Hardly a
statement which they make is not in its own way meaningful and does not
have parallels not only in the rest of the Old but also in the New Testament.
And many of their sayings leave nothing to be desired not only in thoughtfulness and perspicuity but also in noteworthy profundity.’47
And yet what they say is no better than a ‘pious lie’.48 What they say may
very well be true generally, but that is exactly its problem, and exactly why,
for Barth, it is ‘perverted and dangerous’ – because it is general and not
particular. It does not speak with any consideration of the existential reality of Job’s terrible situation. It does not have a language adequate or even
sensitive to ‘the middle’ of the particularity of his plight, and the particularity of their friendship with him. Instead, it presumes to speak from
a position ‘looking over the shoulder of God’. This makes Job’s friends
‘physicians of no value’ (Job 13:4). This is precisely that ‘theorizing of the
providence of God’ referred to above, in the opening of this section. Barth
says that they have abstracted from God’s unique encounters with individual people in time – in his freedom and in theirs – in order to develop
a patterned notion of the ways of God with humanity, and stern directives for the proper response of humanity to God. They have, in other
words, ‘frozen’ a ‘structure’ of divine-human relationship (and it is therefore singularly appropriate that Job should compare his friends’ efforts to
a stream which is frozen in winter (6:15)). The corollary to this – which we
see in their advice to Job to fit himself to the pattern they suppose themselves to have uncovered and stop his turbulent wrestling with God – is a
strong impulse also to freeze the free expression of Job’s subjectivity: to
make a frozen subject of him. They do not accept the ‘existential register’
in which he speaks. They will not accept that ‘they and he are at very different points’, and that this is a significant difference. Job does not doubt the
47 Ibid., p. 455.

48 Ibid., p. 453.



Theology and the Drama of History

truth, at one level, of what his friends tell him, but it has become falsehood
in its abstraction:
Their representations . . . rest on the assumption that . . . they have
information about God to which they have only to refer back to be able
to speak appropriately concerning Him . . . He is to them an open book,
from which they have only to read to their friend, who obviously is not
at the moment able to read for himself, and they may rightly expect
that he will hear the truth which will answer all his questions and
bring him to a better mind.49

This is an unmitigatedly epic perspective. Job, meanwhile, is the one actually witnessing to God. In fact, in this situation, he is the only true witness.
In a stubborn exercise of his own freedom, he clings doggedly to a question whose answer he does not have beforehand: whether God is or is not
‘for him’ in this unique train of events into which his whole life has been
caught up. And in thus exercising his own freedom, he is a better witness
to the unique freedom of God too.
The friends speak about God and about their friend’s situation in
terms which are, as Barth points out, ‘strikingly unhistorical’. They preach
‘timeless truths’. These truths may once have been genuine in their own
context. They may have been God’s Word at particular points in the history of Israel, and in particular concrete ways. Barth admits that just as
they were once luminous with divine communication, and alive to their
hearers, so they may one day ‘shine out again’ in the context of new and
‘definite happenings between God and man’. But Job’s comforters are producing mere ‘deductions’ from them, which ‘in abstraction can only . . .
bloom like cut flowers’.50
In Job’s speeches, by contrast, there is a vigorous and often violent persistence in the existential register. He falls back on no ‘secret’ information,
and has recourse to no ‘consciousness in excess of the story’.51 What he
says is dominated by exclamation, interrogation, and a great deal of direct
speech to God (rather than about God). This is far better conveyed as a drama
than as an epic:
In Job’s speeches we are plunged into the strain and stress of the
ongoing history of Yahweh with him. Everything that he says, whether
right or wrong, is baptised in the fire of a painful encounter with Him.
Almost every word is related to the situation in which he now finds
himself placed. At every point he is either describing the
49 Ibid., p. 456.

50 Ibid., p. 457.

51 Ford, God’s Story, p. 92.

Eschatology and the existential register

incomprehensible attitude of Yahweh towards him, or stating the
substance of his grief and suffering and the complaint, question and
protest which he must address to God.52

We now have overwhelming evidence of a side of Barth’s theology to which
von Balthasar’s critique of him drew scant attention (though, admittedly,
the passage on Job which we have just looked at was written some years
after von Balthasar published his book – and Barth’s theology had developed markedly during that time). This opens up an unusual new angle on
an established Barth–von Balthasar contrast – that is to say, the contrast
between Barth as more the ‘monergist’, and von Balthasar more the ‘synergist’ in the terms we set up on p. 122. It prompts us to think a second time
about what each theologian actually stands for when it comes to
dealing with creaturely freedom and integrity.
As we turn to von Balthasar’s (far briefer) discussions of Job,53 we may
find ourselves doubting his own presentation of what makes him different from Barth. For in some ways his short treatments of Job are paler versions of the themes already developed by Barth, and in other ways he seems
almost to betray even their spirit.
He is with Barth in his affirmation that Job’s suffering is a radically
unassimilable one in terms of any pre-existing explanatory doctrine:
Job . . . [comes] into a condition that is unknown to him and that
cannot be brought into any proportion to the states that could be
envisaged on the basis of the relationship with God which he has had
hitherto; this also means that it is not possible to identify the path
taken from those old religious experiences to this new experience,
since a yawning gulf lies between the two worlds of experience that
forbids any spiritual linking, any common language, any dialectical
reconciliation. On the one side sit the three friends with the old
experience (which was Job’s experience too), on the other side sits Job
by himself; and when both sides speak with one another, their
monologues pass each other by without meeting.
(H iii/2.1, p. 261/GL 6, p. 282)

And again he says that ‘Job has come adrift from the old relationship to
God, and all the arguments drawn from this relationship have no further
power to reach him’ (H iii/2.1, p. 263/GL 6, p. 284).
But we seem at other points to encounter something quite different. With Barth’s imprecations on the three friends still ringing in our
52 Barth, Church Dogmatics iv/3.1, p. 457.
53 Cf. H iii/2.1, pp. 260–9/GL 6, pp. 281–290, and TD ii/1, p. 96/ThD 2, p. 107.



Theology and the Drama of History

ears – his charge that ‘somewhere behind the laborious mildness which
controls their instructions there is already prepared an auto-da-f ´e to be celebrated ad maiorem Dei gloriam . . . [and which] disqualifies their speeches
in advance . . .’,54 and that ‘they . . . lay down a moral world order established and maintained by God, a universal history which is also universal
judgment’55 – we find von Balthasar ready to affirm (of Job’s fall into ‘inner
spiritual darkness’) that ‘a hidden intervention of the heavenly world is at
least one of the presuppositions of this fall’ (H iii/2.1, p. 261/GL 6, p. 282).
He implies that although Job’s suffering may not be explicable in terms of
any pre-existing explanatory doctrine, it may yet be in terms that are subsequently provided for the Christian. He is, of course, concerned to honour the fact that Job’s story ‘rejects every solution that would too quickly
transfigure harsh reality’, but he nonetheless proposes that it gives ‘a very
exact outline (in negative form) of the conditions of the possibility of a
redemptive synthesis’ – even though this ‘will not be available at any price
lower than Job’s experiences of abandonment and his terror’ (H iii/2.1,
p. 267/GL 6, p. 289). He takes the suffering of Job, in all its unimaginable
proportions, and talks of it as a ‘step’ in the power of the Spirit (TD ii/1,
p. 96/ThD 2, p. 107 – this presumably being a step from a vision where
there is no redemption, towards a vision where there is; a step on the path
of the dissolution of the Old Covenant). Job’s suffering is therefore situated by von Balthasar as part of some kind of progression (‘in terms of ideas it
belongs between Ezekiel and Lamentations on the one hand and DeuteroIsaiah on the other’ (H iii/2.1, p. 260/GL 6, p. 281)), the final stage of which
is the cross. Von Balthasar invites us to suppose that in the wake of Job ‘the
building-blocks have been gathered together for the final synthesis which
a fortiori only God can achieve: the unity of the glory of God and uttermost
abandonment by God, Heaven and Hell’ (H iii/2.1, p. 269/GL 6, p. 290). The
pull towards seeing an integrity in the whole has here proved to be even
stronger than it is in Barth: ‘the fulness of the Bible crystallises concentrically around a human and divine centre’ and von Balthasar finds a warrant here for seeing in the Old Testament, as in the history of thought, ‘an
“ ´evolution homog `ene” (Marin-Sola)’ (H i, p. 532/GL 1, p. 554).
Francesca Murphy remarks, furthermore, how in von Balthasar’s
account ‘Job’s character disappears’56 – and this is a tremendously telling

54 Barth, Church Dogmatics iv/3.1, p. 457.
56 Murphy, Form of Beauty, p. 158.

55 Ibid., p. 458.

Eschatology and the existential register

criticism in the light of our broader discussion of the effects of ‘indifference’ on theodramatics. It is yet another indication that a frozen
structure makes for frozen subjects, and that for all the weight which
von Balthasar’s theodramatics announces it is placing on the question
‘Who?’ (in the development of a dramatis personae with the saints in its
number; and in the approaching of ecclesiology through the question
‘Wer ist die Kirche? ’ (Skizzen ii, pp. 148–202/ExT 2, pp. 143–91)), nonetheless in practice the answering of the question ‘What?’ overshadows it
(what form must the narrative have? what sort of context?). Murphy
recognizes, as we have done, that von Balthasar fails as a reader in
this respect. Just as his treatment of David ‘presses so heavily on his
“humiliation” that his lightness of foot is not registered’, so too with
[v]on Balthasar sees only . . . the process of ‘pulling apart’. When he
imagines Job, as when he writes of Oedipus, he has before his mind the
objective pattern of these characters’ destiny. His interest in the
diagram of the plot, at the expense of the characters who move it, can
turn playwrights into choreographers.57

The contrast with Barth in relation to the treatment of Job forces us to
ask von Balthasar who now is pretending to a ‘consciousness in excess
of the story’?; who now is ‘pressing down, tying up and locking in’? Von
Balthasar’s dalliance (however unintentional) with the role of a comforter
of Job is a highly damaging one, for the original comforters – ‘with all
their theological excellence’ – illustrated the falsehood of man. Indeed, as
Barth reminds us with a certain relish, they are ‘so seriously and totally
wrong that they can be saved from impending destruction only by sacrifice and intercession’.58 In the fresh light that our close attention to
the treatment of texts has enabled us to shed on von Balthasar – especially in comparison with Karl Barth – we begin to see him as to some
extent compromised in his role of theological dramatist, and therefore
also in the resources he is able to offer to the task of reading history
We now turn to see what some of the implications of this might be for
the theology of freedom which he worked out so carefully (the Hegelian
parallels to which we traced in chapter 2).
57 Ibid.

58 Barth, Church Dogmatics iv/3.1, p. 459.



Theology and the Drama of History

Freedom and sin: Barth and von Balthasar
newly compared59
Fergus Kerr’s book Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity
enables us to return to the question of ‘the existential’ from an interesting
angle. Kerr prompts us to reflect on what Barth and von Balthasar respectively suppose to be the human being’s characteristic manifestations of
sin. Von Balthasar takes the fairly conventional line that Prometheanism –
overreaching pride – is the problem. Again and again, when dealing with
the philosophers of Enlightenment and their successors throughout the
modern period, it is their self-assertion that he condemns. There is in them
no obedient attention to the form from which the glory of God breaks
forth. Von Balthasar’s diagnosis of sin generally remains content with this
one (admittedly momentous) symptom. Indeed, the relatively uniform
character of the problem for von Balthasar will be what permits his comprehensive advocacy of a singly remedy (a remedy which – as we are about to
see – is clearly identifiable as a modulation of ‘indifference’). Barth, however, as Kerr points out, has a more nuanced diagnosis, and allows human
sin to present itself in many more forms (this instantly begins to make his
account of sin more persuasive). The one we will concentrate on here is the
one most different from von Balthasar’s ‘Prometheanism’ (though Barth
too, of course, writes at length on the pride of man and its effects). It is a
more quirky manifestation of sin, and one to which ‘indifference’ (were it
suggested) would seem a wholly inadequate solution.
Human beings, says Barth, are faced with a great divine invitation to
participate in the new life opened up by the resurrection, and the sin
that holds them back is Tr ¨agheit (sloth): ‘Barth spells this out as sluggishness, indolence, slowness, inertia’. Sin is ‘not merely “heroic in its
perversion” . . . the sinner is also “a lazy-bones, a sluggard, a good-fornothing, a slow-coach and a loafer” . . . [for Barth] inertly drifting is (if anything) a worse sin than shameless self-assertiveness’.60 So, then, while von
Balthasar laments self-assertion (a kind of illegitimate attempt at freedom),
Barth, in this case, condemns the refusal of freedom.
The new light we have cast on von Balthasar’s commendation of ‘indifference’ in this chapter has presented us with the possibility that his
59 Some of the section which follows can be found in my chapter ‘Exile, freedom and
thanksgiving: Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar’ in John C. McDowell and Mike Higton
(eds.), Conversing with Barth (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).
60 Fergus Kerr, Immortal Longings: Versions of Transcending Humanity (London: SPCK, 1997),
p. 41; quoting Barth, Church Dogmatics iv/2, p. 404.

Eschatology and the existential register

indifference serves what is in the end a close relation of monergism. Meanwhile, Barth – the man whose early theology von Balthasar had criticized
for at times ‘threatening the reality of the creature’ and ‘swallowing up
the reality of the world’ into a ‘monism of the Word of God’ (Barth, pp. 99,
102/ET, pp. 91, 94) – turns out here, in fact, to have become the advocate
of a kind of joyous liberation in the creature.61 The command of God, for
Barth, is here no ‘must’ but rather a ‘may’ – an invitation to freedom,
and to living as the ‘free, open-hearted, willing, spontaneous, cheerful,
bright and social being’ which God intends her to be.62 Barth views the
so-called constraints under which the creature stands as permission to
be free. When confronted with what God would have us be, it is inconceivable to Barth that we in our right minds would resent it or see it as an
obstacle to our freedom. Surely it is just a gracious possibility: you had no
right to expect to do or to be this (or indeed anything) but look! you may
do and be it!63
Von Balthasar, meanwhile, though once having entered the lists against
Barth ostensibly in the cause of the relative integrity of creaturely freedom, is nevertheless the one who dwells at far greater length on the
creature’s need to cultivate receptivity or disposability: Gelassenheit. The
Marian model for the Church’s abandonment to God is to the fore in
this aspect of von Balthasar’s theology, and Gelassenheit (close in meaning
to its latinate counterpart Indifferenz, and meaning a calm acceptance
of whatever comes or is bestowed) is the same word used by von
Balthasar both to characterize Mary’s attitude and in discussing Greek
[In tragedy] man . . . finds himself exposed to a superhuman, divine
destiny, the meaning of which remains indecipherable: is it wrath or
benevolent providence? Suffering man can rebel against it, but at a
deeper level he knows that he must place himself at the disposal of
the divine disposition he cannot escape. He must give himself up in
abandonment (Gelassenheit), which is not a technique for avoiding pain

61 It is important to be fair to von Balthasar here, and to acknowledge that his criticisms of
Barth could only have been based on what Barth had published up to that point (1951). Most
commentators agree that the theology of iv/1 of the Church Dogmatics was significantly
different from, say, volumes i and ii, not least in its shift from a minimalized appreciation for
the creature to a much more developed one.
62 Barth, Church Dogmatics iii/2; quoted in Barth, p. 128/ET, p. 118.
63 Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics iii/2, p. 580, where Barth writes that ‘God’s own Word, of
election, covenant, salvation and hope . . . [is] valid for all . . . The testimony to each and all is
that each and all . . . come from here and may live as those who do so [even though] [i]t is to be
noted that this is never a self-evident reality or natural condition . . .’



Theology and the Drama of History

(a-patheia), but the patient perseverance (- ) of Odysseus and
Aeneas: patience, in the face of one’s destiny, with the God and in the
(H iii/1, p. 408/GL 5, p. 49)

There can be no doubt that both Barth and von Balthasar order freedom
to obedience. They both, as we have said, have an ‘Augustinian’ concept
of freedom. But there is a fine but important difference in how they do it,
and what they bring to the discussion in terms of presuppositions and concerns. The difference between them can, I think, be suggested in a kind of
formula. Barth wants in the creature the obedient embrace of freedom – he
says ‘obedience’ in order then to be able to say ‘freedom’. Von Balthasar,
on the other hand (and inasmuch as the relative freedom and autonomy
of the creature permits it), wants the free embrace of obedience, obedience
seeming at times to be what has the last word.
Barth presupposes that there is initially not-much-to-speak-of in the
creature – all is owed to the positing work of the Holy Spirit. The creature becomes interesting as a subject only when he or she stands under
the divine call or injunction and responds appropriately. He characterizes the divine call as something which summons the whole person; something which claims one’s entire existence. But from this initial restriction
of what we might think of as creaturely entitlements or faculties, there
opens up a great domain of freedom in Christ – life in a dynamic and open
space (which is how he envisages the Church):
We can live life with head held high, with a free heart and a clear
conscience, proclaiming to God, ‘Lord, how good are your works!’
(Ps. 104:24).64

Barth is not weighed down or preoccupied by questions about some general or abstract or neutral free will in the human. He is not terribly interested in the way that human subjectivity is structured, apart from in the
hearing of the Word. He is not bothered with trying to explain how absolute and relative freedoms can co-exist: ‘we have no idea or concept for
describing it’, he says.65 It surprises him that people can not have faith,
but he does not agonize over why this is. He concentrates on the de facto
occurrence of God’s speaking and people’s hearing. The Word of God,
says Barth, ‘brings powerfully to light the forgotten truth of creation’ –
so why speculate about any other supposed ‘truths’ the creation may have
64 Barth, Church Dogmatics iii/3; quoted in Barth, p. 122/ET, p. 112.
65 Quoted in Barth, p. 145/ET, p. 133.

Eschatology and the existential register

laid claim to apart from this Word’s ‘striking against it’? A ‘natural theology’, he admits, is, ‘justified – indeed, necessary – inside revealed theology’, but why concern oneself with a natural theology apart from revealed
theology? It is inconceivable in any case.66 People answer Christ’s call: why
look anywhere else if we want to see the meaning and implications of created freedom? He focuses, in short, on the freedom that follows upon the
fact of obedience, rather than reading anything back from it (a theory about
the human potentia obedientalis, for example).
When we understand this, we will perhaps see the tendencies of Barth’s
theology as less ‘epic’ than von Balthasar supposes them to be, and Barth
himself as more the ‘joyous partisan’ that he hoped to represent. He did
not feel the need to defend a set of human entitlements in principle, when
he could celebrate countless human endowments in fact. He hated abstract
certainty. He thought that neo-Protestant theology suffered from a certainty that was ‘unheard of’ in the world of Anselm’s intelligere. He loathed,
eventually, the complacency of Gogarten who was too certain about the
grounds and warrants of a theology which ought properly to be undertaken only in faith. And he wrote his commentary on Romans not for the
sake of unbelievers, but for the sake of believers who were too confident. This
urge remained as much a feature of the later Barth as it was of the earlier,
and it was this urge that shone so fiercely through his treatment of the
Book of Job. ‘Theoretical reduction’ is not his aim. The risk of obedience
to the Word of God as it speaks to his understanding is.
The ‘freedom’ for which Barth first says ‘obedience’ is spoken ‘under
the sign of failure’, and so ‘freedom’ construed in quite a specific and
distinctive way in the context of a theological ethics – one which makes
possible a wrestling altogether as intense as Job’s. Von Balthasar, on the
other hand, says ‘freedom’ in a rather more general way in order then to
be able to say ‘obedience’ rather specifically, i.e. rather ecclesially. He is
much more preoccupied about conditions in the human being which are
notionally ‘prior’ to the gracious encounter with God (for example, the
potentia obedientalis that, he assumes, must at least logically precede obedience itself). He wants to safeguard (indeed, sometimes simply presupposes) certain things about the human (human nature and human subjectivity) in principle, so that they can be asserted in aid of a distinctively
‘Catholic’ point of view. To achieve his aim, he expends enormous time

66 Karl Barth, Die Theologie und die Kirche (Munich, 1938), pp. 374–6; quoted in Barth,
pp. 104–5/ET, p. 96.



Theology and the Drama of History

in his book on Barth tracing formal conceptions of nature as that which
is the subject of ‘being graced’ even though accepting – with Barth as
well as with Henri de Lubac and others – that in practice nature is inseparable from grace, that ‘there is in fact no slice of “pure nature” in this
world’ (Barth, p. 298/ET, p. 288), and that both the regnum gratiae and the
regnum naturae are ‘the Kingdom of the Son’ (Barth, p. 95/ET, p. 88). Von
Balthasar, throughout his work, is prepared to dwell at greater length on
the character of human subjectivity and selfhood (including Christ’s own
subjectivity: the significance of his obedience in exercising a human will,
and so on). And it does not come as a surprise that when discussing the
whole question of how human beings communicate in Volume i of the
Skizzen (as well as in Volume ii/1 of Theodramatik), he gives priority to what
one already ‘possesses inwardly’ (so to speak) before going out to the other
in speech: the autoexousion, or autarkeia, of the finite will. ‘Human speech’,
he says, ‘is the free manifestation of one’s inner personality to others in
significant sounds’. And of the three elements to such speech, in his view,
the first is (sure enough) ‘self-possession [Selbstbesitz] on the part of the
spiritual person, who is present to himself and so knows his own truth’
(Skizzen i, p. 86/ExT 1, pp. 80–1).
Von Balthasar extends his assumption of a degree of autonomy or selfpossession in individuals to apply to the Church, too. Yes, her ‘relational
otherness to Christ is a freedom of dependence . . . But it really is a freedom’, says von Balthasar. This is what makes Bride imagery so important to von Balthasar’s doctrine of the Church as compared with Body
metaphors, for instance. ‘Freedom’ – the potentia implied in a potentia
obedientalis – is presupposed for the sake of the ‘obedience’ which is to
That this is indeed von Balthasar’s preferred ordering of things
becomes clear whenever his defence of a formal human autonomy issues
in the specific call for ecclesial obedience – a much more specific call
than we ever find in Barth. It is here that some of the general preconceptions about von Balthasar’s ‘conservatism’ have their roots. As we saw in
chapter 2, von Balthasar is eloquent about the importance of practical disciplines of self-denial. The saints whose lives he illustrates invariably manifest this quality of being ready to receive an imprint. The archetype of
the Church’s soul, Mary, is the most perfectly receptive of all Christians.
It is this receptivity which makes hers the consummate ecclesial disposition. Her mission is the most comprehensive of all the missions of the
saints – it has the furthest ‘reach’ – precisely because she makes herself

Eschatology and the existential register

more available in God’s service than any other person in the drama. Even
though von Balthasar tries to give a distinctively activist twist to this
apparently passive depiction of a mission, Mary’s renunciation nevertheless also grounds his call for respect towards the shaping structures of
objective Spirit, that is, the institutional Church. These, when accepted
obediently, will direct our own renunciations and make them fruitful –
just as (he argues) they have done in the lives of countless saints, all of
whom were attuned to the keynote of obedience.67
But the pressure which von Balthasar puts on his ecclesial subjects in
such cases seems really to stem from an inclination to try to give shape to
material that is more disparate and intractable than he will allow. Marian
self-abandonment (echoing the Hegelian call for a sacrifice of the individual ‘pathos’) is made to advertize a sort of ecclesial resolution of the interaction of God and the creature, which reflects in turn von Balthasar’s great
desire to see a generalizable shape in the life of believers. Von Balthasar
writes that ‘[t]o the extent that the Church is Marian, she is a pure form
which is immediately legible and comprehensible . . .’ (H i, p. 541/GL 1,
p. 562). And by the fact that the ecclesial ‘constellation’ of saints and their
exemplary relations are included within this Marian form of the Church
(as we shall see in the next chapter), we are encouraged to draw the conclusion that this Marian Gestalt archetypally represents the ideal role of all
humans in the theodrama.68 This is the ultimate issue of Balthasarian freedom (or ‘active potency’). It is an issue into a legibility which the Church
brings about in the medium of obedience, ordered in turn (as receptivity)
by its inescapable relationship to (‘Petrine’) church office.
67 Cf. Christian State of Life, pp. 257ff.: ‘the last formal element in the gift of self in love – the
element that not only is now, but always has been, the most essential component of the love
of Father and Son and that must continue to be, in the future, the formal element of the
Christian gift of self since the Lord has bequeathed to the Church his own love – [is]
obedience . . . [and] if Christians are actually to achieve this radical and extreme obedience, they
must be given an authority that is or can become for them as concrete, intimate and inevitable, as
demanding and unrelenting, as the Father’s authority was for the Son on the Cross’. Von
Balthasar adds a few pages later that: ‘an authentic priestly office must embody for the whole
Church . . . divine authority’ (ibid., p. 260).
68 Barth, by contrast, predicates sanctity of the Church in the medium of the plurality of her
membership, and not by pinning it on a single (putative) ‘subjectivity’. Here, again, he places
the accent on differentiation. ‘The truth is that the holiness of the community’ is predicated
‘as of its individual constituents’ (Barth, Church Dogmatics iv/2, p. 513). Barth has a
characteristically Protestant sense of the contingency of the Church, which is tied to his sense
of the discontinuity of the divine appeal (a feature of God’s sovereignty). The Church is a
people whose existence is temporal, diachronic. It has no greater claim to sanctity than that
yielded by a constitutive ‘common history’ in relation to God. The grammar of the Church’s
being is the grammar of providential care within the ongoing movement of a covenant. It is
not the grammar of essential being, infallibility or immaculateness.



Theology and the Drama of History

Here is a ‘theoretical reduction’ of both structure and subjects. Even if
one is initially sympathetic to this vision of how the Church can best be
itself (and thereby fulfill its mission in the world), the memory of what
von Balthasar made of Measure for Measure should remain unsettling. For in
defence of a sincere belief that that particular drama could ‘shed the light
of the highest love’ on all the people and events it involved, von Balthasar
was quite happy to condone the manipulative intervention of a figure of
power: the Duke. Actually, what von Balthasar called the ‘shedding of the
light of the highest love’ seemed in his mind to be identifiable with a particular structural tidiness in the play. Furthermore, he leapt very quickly
to the idea that the intervention of the figure of power was essential to safeguarding that tidiness. We are bound to ask, did he leap too quickly? and
was it a leap too far?

The present chapter has given us not only literary-critical and exegetical, but theological reasons for asserting the frequently ‘epic’ character of
von Balthasar’s thought, and thus the vitiation of what his theodramatic
scheme might contribute to a genuinely satisfactory theological approach
to history. While recognizing that it is almost entirely to him that we owe
the sense of the value of the theodramatic task, we are nonetheless in a
position to raise certain questions about his adequacy to it. The comparison we made between von Balthasar and Barth left us with a provocative contrast between the latter’s blithe disregard for creaturely claims on
integrity which paradoxically celebrated wholeheartedly what the creature is once claimed by God, and the former’s early proclamation of the
creature’s dignity which equally paradoxically ended in a slightly tetchy
summons to individual persons that they submit to authorized patterns
of behaviour.
We should not, of course, forget the power and attractiveness of the
vision that von Balthasar holds out to us, and the resources it holds for
a resilient and open quality of Christian mission in the world. These last
three chapters have enabled us consistently to display these resources in
von Balthasar’s thought. He is very often a most powerful advocate of
what he calls ‘the kinetic variety of forms and styles’ which can be used ‘to
express the one truth . . .’ This, he says, ‘arises because of the unimaginable
fullness of individual traits in peoples, epochs and personalities in their
unique talents and missions’ (Barth, p. 263/ET, p. 251). ‘Catholic theology’,
he goes on:

Eschatology and the existential register

will burst the confines of any specific and limited structure of
thought. . . . Indeed its special characteristic is that it tends to keep
opening up even more. From the standpoint of systematics, this might
easily seem rather unsatisfying and formless, lacking definition. And
its apparent evanescence and elasticity might seem to be contradicted
by the clear and definite pronunciamenti of dogmatic statements. But
there is no contradiction here, but only the deepest correspondence.
No matter how definitive or irrevocable an ecclesial definition is, its
object is still revelation alone and not the philosophic system from
which it borrows a concept or a term to give more appropriate
expression to its meaning . . . [not, therefore] the expression of one
limited period of history that, after its brief candle has flickered but a
moment, can no longer be understood.
(b a r t h , pp. 265–6/ET, pp. 253–4)

This is a von Balthasar who resents ‘the obdurate people for whom time
seems suddenly to have stood still because, after all, everything necessary has already been thought and said with such exhaustive sufficiency
that nothing new need be generated even to the end of the world’ (Barth,
p. 21/ET, p. 11). This is a von Balthasar whose own theology is a ‘thinking
after’ (Nachdenken) the history of God with his people, and therefore, at its
best, a building where the subject matter is allowed to ‘do its own edifying,
build its own edifice’ (Barth, pp. 35–6/ET, p. 25).
Nevertheless, in certain key places, he imposes his own plan on the
building, and this is what makes him unequal to his self-assigned task
of providing a corrective to Barth’s vision of the cast, the stage and the
action of human life in the world’s story. His implicitly Hegelian association of drama with the notion of harmonious resolution invites the
charge that he is often in danger of looking for an innate stability in the
constitution of human life and its interactions which it is not theirs to
possess. It is a habit all too reminiscent of Hegelian theory. Dramas, on
an Hegelian model, give formed, generalized expression to human patterns of encounter (and therefore, by extension into theodramatic terms,
can be expected to do the same to divine/human patterns of encounter).
That von Balthasar is indebted to such habits of thought in a way that has
eschatological as well as ecclesiological implications is perceptible when
he talks of drama’s ‘unificatory endeavour that sheds light on existence’
(TD i, p. 241/ThD 1, p. 262) as mirroring ‘the eternal, divine plan’ (TD i,
p. 109/ThD 1, p. 119), of ‘the indivisible unity of the play’s ideal content’, or
of ‘the pleasure of being presented with a “solution”’ (TD i, pp. 242, 243–
4/ThD 1, pp. 262, 264). This is a very different side of von Balthasar from



Theology and the Drama of History

the one that MacKinnon, that theologian of stark interrogatives, found so
We are face to face here with a question that has been accompanying
us ever since the close of chapter 3, when we witnessed von Balthasar situating creaturely freedom ‘within’ the trinitarian freedom of relation. It
has been near the surface whenever we have spoken of relationship and
interaction as having a ‘supra-form’ in God. It has been at work in all von
Balthasar’s talk of ‘harmony’ – especially of divine–human ‘harmony’ – and
therefore in his elevation of Marian receptivity (and behind that a particular typology of the male-female relation) to a dignity whereby it uniquely
corresponds to God’s kenotic being. The question is that of analogy –
offered by von Balthasar as the saving alternative to Hegel’s assumption of identity between humanity and God, and yet risking the serious
undercutting of its effectiveness whenever the field of relations it displays
becomes too finalized and too incautious a middle ground for depicting
their interaction; a field of relations in which too much is assumed to be
perceptible; a field of relations which is the ‘theoretical reduction’ of its
subject matter.
I look now at von Balthasar’s deployment of analogy. In doing so, I ask
whether the instances when structures or subjects (and often both) have
seemed to be ‘frozen’ by von Balthasar’s theology are merely occasional
(and ‘accidental’) instances, or whether there is a methodological explanation for them – and I take further, in particular, the effects this has on
his doctrine of the Church. This will lead to the conclusion that the advocacy of ‘indifference’ on the one hand (with its effect on the ‘subjects’ –
or ‘cast’ – of the theodrama) combines with an advocacy of the ‘objective
holiness’ and mediating power of particular Church structures and offices
on the other (with its ‘structuring’ of the stage and the action of the theodrama) in order to squeeze the real drama in the middle, with damaging
implications for the way historical events and processes are related to and
69 Barth ought not to get off scot free, even in our re-evaluation of how he handles freedom
in the creature. For all the developments in his theology, Barth resists that most crucial
aspect of Catholic (and, more particularly, Balthasarian) anthropology, the ability of the
creature to participate in Christ’s work, his sufferings and merits. For von Balthasar, it is
important that we can ‘be “with” [Christ’s] being “for” us . . . thereby helping to be “for”
others’ (Barth, p. 255/ET, p. 243). It is a corollary of von Balthasar’s assertion of the human
being’s ability to receive an imprint that he has room (a room which Barth seems not to have)
for an abundance of transpositions of Christ’s work, and even his characteristics, into the
lives of the saints. Individual missions interact with the mission of Christ, and share many of
its features, so that they become vehicles of revelation in their own (relative) right.


Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

A clear night in the desert
And even the camels are blinking in wonder:
The ladder is too famous
To be anything other than golden
glorious, great before God,
Unless you were there
In which case it shone
In a ray of moon made sun
Softly enmetalled and yet
A thing of wood
Angled from earth
To heady nothingness.
Jacob sees each rung
Each nail dug in
Unaccountably scaffolding skyward.
How long it must have taken
What endless patience
In heavenly construction.
How it must have disturbed the angels –
Who watched it with a thankful sigh
Lower through cloud –
Who tread upon it cautiously.
(s a l ly b u s h e l l )

Identity and analogy
What the last chapter raised was the crucial question of whether the
force of theodramatics – with all its potential in the service of a vibrant



Theology and the Drama of History

theological approach to history, and a vibrant eschatology – is not
inevitably muted by stressing the importance of a certain sort of Christian
‘indifference’. A concept of ‘indifference’ in the guise of ecclesial obedience is what we find in von Balthasar’s work; it is a concept which, while
drawing on a long Christian tradition, nonetheless acquires a significant
part of its content from a set of Hegelian associations.
It was a question that had begun to emerge already at the close of
chapter 2. The conclusions of these two chapters converge sharply in this
crucial challenge to the ‘tone’ with which a portrayal of historical creaturely life in its variously free, creative, joyous and responsible relation to
the ever-greater God is imbued. There is a good deal at stake here for a theodramatics that seeks to follow von Balthasar’s lead but avoid his mistakes.
The preceding chapters have also enabled us to come to a clear formulation of how it is that von Balthasar supposes his theology to be free
of Hegel’s unwholesome influence. The point von Balthasar takes issue
with – which emerged in relation both to the question of freedom and its
extension into a consideration of history – is Hegel’s underlying presumption of an identity between individual consciousness and action on the one
hand, and absolute Spirit on the other (in von Balthasar’s words, between
man and God).
We are encouraged, therefore, to look at what it is that, while not as
manifest or readily identifiable as full-blown Hegelian identity, nevertheless operates in von Balthasar’s thought to ground certain recognisably
Hegelian features. How does it come to be the case, for example, that
von Balthasar’s extensive critique of Hegel’s suppression of the integrity
of personhood1 is nevertheless capable of coexisting with a theology that
presses human freedom and responsibility into tight ecclesial moulds?
An adequate answer to this question must try to give an account of what
is perhaps the most comprehensive ‘medium’ of von Balthasar’s work –
the atmosphere in which virtually every aspect of his theology breathes –
and that is a mode of thinking that is often described as ‘analogical’. His
theology – and particularly his great trilogy – are inconceivable without
a distinctive understanding of analogy. This chapter will give an account
of that understanding. A great deal of sensitive treading will be involved –
rather like that of the angels on the ladder in the poem Jacob – not least
because, as that poem puts it, the ladder is so ‘famous’. Analogy – made
the basis of a ‘doctrine’ about the relation between God and the world – is
1 E.g., in the passage from TD i which we looked at on pp. 115–16.

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

regarded both as one of the greatest achievements of scholastic conceptual
sophistication, and as an immensely damaging feature of Catholic theology, and the greatest stumbling block in Protestant–Roman Catholic relations. For Barth, notoriously, it was the work of ‘anti-Christ’.2
Even a brief look at the history of theological thought about (and use
of) analogy indicates the momentous significance it had for two of von
Balthasar’s most powerful theological influences. One we have encountered already in the previous chapter : Karl Barth. The other is Erich
Przywara, the Jesuit priest whom von Balthasar first (and formatively)
encountered at Pullach in the early 1930s. They are defining figures in the
twentieth-century debate about analogy (though they are both, as we shall
see, innovators on a theme).
In von Balthasar’s scheme it is analogy that is set up to counteract
Hegelian identity. It is with the help of analogy that he argues for a more
really dramatic drama than Hegel ever comprehended, on the basis of an
understanding of the unbridgeable difference between Creator and creature which identity suppresses. It is a difference which he believes that
analogy will safeguard. Its importance to the concerns of this book is
therefore clear. If in fact von Balthasar’s theology seems unable to break
free of an Hegelian undertow, it is the efficacy of analogy which comes
under suspicion, because of its failing in precisely the role it was enlisted
to play.
The question this chapter keeps in mind, in short, is whether analogy itself – at least as von Balthasar understands and uses it – interferes
with a full differentiation between Creator and creature, thus denying
the best and most promising insights of drama for thinking theologically about history. Could analogy operate as a a sort of intermediate middle
ground between God and the creature which, while replacing the lifeless
and immobile monism of a complete identity between them, nevertheless
introduces a (secretly a priori) patterning of their respective freedoms-inrelation, which is itself, in the end, little more than a static ‘form’ (Gestalt),
and not dramatic at all? A consideration of this question will lead straight
to the heart of an aspect of von Balthasar’s theology upon which all the
other chapters on ‘The Cast, the Stage and the Action’ have been converging too: his doctrine of the Church. This will be a final testing ground of
the efficacy of his use of analogy. I will then by way of a conclusion to this
2 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics i/1, 2nd edn (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1975), p. xiii. The
accusation is conditionally retracted in Church Dogmatics ii/1 (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1957),
p. 82.



Theology and the Drama of History

chapter offer a verdict on the success of von Balthasar’s attempt to articulate the drama of Christian faith and life in Theodramatik as a whole. This
will be done with special reference to what is regarded by many commentators as the climax of the divine drama as von Balthasar presents it – or
at any rate his most adventurous flight of theodramatic speculation: his
treatment of the descensus of Christ into hell.

‘Unframeability’ and ‘surplus’
I have identified ‘unframeability’ as a principle of dramatic effectiveness
(on the basis of chapter 1’s forays into Greek tragedy) and respect for
‘unframeability’ as a mark of theological responsibility in relation to the
way that history and with it the eschaton are envisaged. Drama’s particular ability to convey the unframeable quality of the divine involvement
in the world’s life, I have said, is what makes von Balthasar’s choice of it
so appropriate and effective. It is necessary also, therefore, to keep alive
a concern with unframeability alongside this chapter’s treatment of analogy. It is unframeability which will turn out to characterize at least part of
what analogy tries to guard in the face of the theologically damaging pull
towards identity. The way that analogy is put to work theologically, as we
shall see, is in part to remind us that ‘the end we do not know’.
Nevertheless there is more to what analogy reminds us of than ‘not
knowing’. Von Balthasar himself would say, with some justice, that just as
dramatic moments even of the most immediate and intense kind are never
so unframed that they cannot be re-presented in new contexts, so likewise
humans can and do read and interpret divine actions and divine presence
in the terms that are available to them in their humanity. Just as the dramatic includes a dimension of the ‘epic’ within itself, and the intensity of
the ‘lyric’ does not eradicate the continuing role of ‘account-giving’ (compromised though that supposed ‘distance’ and ‘objectivity’ now is in its
new dramatic form), so the Christian is committed to a revealed faith that
does impart the responsibility to give an account of its experience – that
does on one level suggest that the ‘shape’ of God’s trinitarian plan of love
can be adumbrated. What MacKinnon calls ‘the quick broken movement’
of Jesus’ life3 does not mean that the theologian is unable ever to do anything but question. Von Balthasar believes in the ‘final source of meaning’,
as Rowan Williams puts it, which underwrites the shape of the theodrama
3 MacKinnon, Explorations, p. 79.

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

and will ensure that there is indeed a final act (Endspiel). He holds that the
Christian ‘belief there’ll be better’ is warranted, and that a certain positive expression of that fact is possible because analogies between God’s
life and love and our experience of those things are to be had. Analogy is
more than just a via negativa: as we saw on p. 148, von Balthasar uses the
prefix ‘supra-’ so much precisely because it suggests more than the prefix
‘non-’.4 In mounting a critique of the legitimacy (or not) of a teleological
narration (such as von Balthasar’s placing of the Book of Job as part of an
‘ ´evolution homog `ene’) in which suffering is always displayed as being relative to the emergence of the good, there is no need to deny that there may
indeed be a telos; such a critique need not undermine the faith that God
intends the good of his children, and will accomplish it. There is certainly
an obligation laid on the Christian theologian at certain points to ‘batter
the doom drum’, and this ought to affect the way he speaks about the ‘end’
that is hoped for. But in exercising a right caution about teleologies of any
kind, and a disciplined avoidance of decisive and complete ‘framing’ from
this side, the theologian need not imply God’s deficiency or ‘entrapment’
in history. In this light, statements about God and God’s action may be
responses not to God’s deficiency, but to his surplus, and may therefore
become (properly used) an appropriately creaturely way of honouring that
divine excess and living in and for it. Analogical statements in particular
may achieve this.
Recalling the sort of unframeability which was discussed at the beginning of chapter 1 will help reiterate the point. The sort of unframeability looked at then was typical of the unframeability of most human
experience: Foucault’s crowd, or the Agamemnon’s chorus, could neither
plumb its experience, nor prevent itself from being surprised and mystified by it. Likewise, it was argued soon afterwards, there is an unframeability about history from the perspective of human experience: we cannot see
into the future, nor exhaustively into the past. But it needs now to be borne
in mind that these are ‘subjective’ or ‘existential’ unframeabilities. They
do not deny that history might in fact have an ‘end’, or that there might
be ‘a final source of meaning’ in the world. They simply acknowledge that
no one has the vantage point that will enable him or her fully to know such
finalities. The ‘measure’ of them is not in human hands. Inasmuch as the
‘meaning’ of time is only to be found in eternity, and one’s own ‘meaning’

4 And, as will be seen, the prefix ‘supra-’ is, for von Balthasar, the doctrine of analogy at
work (and at its best) in theological speech.



Theology and the Drama of History

is only to be found in who one is for God (one’s ‘theological personhood’),
then the ‘measure’ of one’s unframeable experience lies only in God.
Now the experience of God himself, such as it is, may have analogies
(themselves impossible to frame) with all our other kinds of unframeable experience. For example, I have suggested at certain points that the
unframeability of what is inadequately called the ‘tragic’ might be analogous to the experience of ‘falling into the hands of the living God’ (see
p. 107). But again, in both cases, the ‘measure’ belongs only to God.
What becomes interesting in any talk about the experience of God is
that the ‘subjective’ unframeabilities which are typical of all human experience, whatever it is one is experiencing, become unframeable in
principle because of the unique nature of the case – because of God’s Godness. The unframeability of God is an unframeability of a kind qualitatively different from any other. The trinitarian life, it might be said, is in
principle unframeable because intensively self-surpassing in some way.5 To
emphasize what was hinted at above, we are dealing here with an unframeability that cannot be written off as simply the product of a deficiency in
human knowledge or understanding (though our knowledge and understanding may well be deficient). It is God’s ‘surplus’ that causes it.6
Once that is admitted, of course, the possibility arises that the other
things which seem difficult to frame – whose ‘measure’ lies with God – will
not have an ‘end’ in any conventional or worldly way either (one where the
deficiencies in human knowledge are simply cleared up by the arrival of
new information). Though not themselves divine, they will be drawn into
the unframeability-of-surplus which is God’s, because their true ‘end’ is to
be found in God. The ‘end’ of history, for example, might be its participation in the (realer) history of God, which is infinite. Our own ‘end’ might be
a similar participation in the movement of love between the persons of the
Trinity. These are possibilities we hinted at in chapter 4, when tracing the
outline of von Balthasar’s suggestion that knowledge is not the answer to
faith, or its termination, but that faith is a greater thing than knowledge –
that there are something like ‘faith’, ‘hope’ and ‘love’ in heaven. This is the
transformation of our deficiency into the divine excess.

5 I will say more about this below, p. 181.
6 John Milbank explores the idea of a never-exhausted divine surplus in Theology and Social
Theory, p. 428, and elaborates it further in Word Made Strange, pp. 187–8. He explores the
human possibilities of ‘poetic’ participation in God’s surplus at another point in the latter
book (ibid., pp. 141–2).

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

All these things are held out promisingly by a doctrine of analogy, and
von Balthasar is acutely alive to this promise. It will be possible to evaluate
his success in responding to it before the chapter is out.
A great deal of careful scholarly work has already been done surveying the development of analogical thought in the history of western
thought.7 I do not propose to repeat that work here, except to stress
that in medieval thought (and quintessentially in Thomas Aquinas’
thought) analogy came to serve disciplined speech about God. Analogy
in this theologically developed form consistently worked to prevent capitulation to inadequate ‘closures’ of sense. It struck a balance between univocity and mere equivocation in what humans attributed to God, and
encouraged a proper humility in them when they attempted to talk about
the divine.8
This is not to deny that there were significantly different developments
in the theological use of analogy that emerged in the post-Aquinas tradition. In some of these developments, ontological claims moved from the
background to the foreground, and (accordingly) there was an increased
temptation to see in analogy a warrant for deducing content-full knowledge of God from experience of the world (Barth’s greatest fear). The question became more than one simply of striking a balance in the way we use
language; it became concerned with what (if anything) could be supposed
about the reality of the God-world relation on the basis of the forms by
which that reality is mediated to us in experience. Perhaps more than anyone, it was in the hands of Erich Przywara that analogy was refined to serve
a nascent metaphysics, and this in turn became the spark which would
ignite the well-known debate with Karl Barth. It is to this debate alone,
because of its more immediate relevance to von Balthasar’s theodramatics,
that we will give necessarily brief consideration here.
7 See, for example, Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies of the Creation of
Meaning in Language, Robert Czerny (trans.) (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), p. 271.
8 Aquinas classically strikes this balance in Question 13 of his Summa. He is concerned to
avoid that ‘closure’ of meaning that would come about if one were to try to make the
applicability of certain ‘perfection terms’ a frameable applicability. He resists, in other words,
a univocity which would be unsustainable (enforcing such univocity would at the very least
involve denying all the usages of terms like ‘wise’ and ‘good’ which occur in worship of God).
He also resists the mere equivocity which would make absurd the use of such terms to refer to
God. The logic of Aquinas’ position makes analogy a magnificent safeguard against
‘framing’ the God–world relation in linguistic propositions. It maintains (in a way that
metaphor does not) the possibility of real reference – it does not need to pass through a prior
denial of the literal sense. Nevertheless, its highly disciplined function is not to



Theology and the Drama of History

Analogia entis: Erich Przywara and Karl Barth
Przywara, as I have hinted, owes much to the scholastic tradition which
intervenes between him and Aquinas, including its flirtation with an
immodest ontology of the God-world relation. This goes some way to
explaining how different from Aquinas’ his ‘doctrine’ of analogy appears.
But Przywara is subtle enough not to be beguiled by anything too crude in
that tradition. Instead, he makes his watchword a small ‘definition’ of the
Fourth Lateran Council in 1215: ‘Whatever similarity there may be between
the creature and God, the dissimilarity is always greater.’
It may be noted in passing that in this conviction he is also true to
his heritage as a Jesuit (which is von Balthasar’s heritage, too). As much
as it is an intellectual commitment, his appreciation of analogy is the
product of a certain kind of spiritual formation (or Bildung) in the Ignatian tradition. In his prayer and in his life, in the Exercises and in his
letters, Ignatius demonstrates the truth of the simple formula of 1215:
all love of God is caught up in ever-increasing awe. (This permits Hugo
Rahner to describe Ignatius as virtually ‘the sacred icon of what the Fourth
Lateran Council defined’.)9 Humans live in the polarity between God’s
intimacy and distance. What is distinctive of Przywara’s position is that
this love and fear – which are poles of human experience – are seen to
correspond to poles in created being, namely, the simultaneous capacity and incapacity of created things for God; their likeness and unlikeness to God. The forms of creaturely existence bear a real relation to the
divine ‘being’, though this relation is unfinalizable. On his account, it
seems only a small step from the subjective and practical attitudes of
Ignatian spirituality – with their irreducible twofold emphasis on love
and fear – to saying that these attitudes are an appropriately ‘irresolute’ expression of the actual, ‘ontological’ relation between Creator and
It is in the area of ‘being’ that both Przywara and Barth concentrate their
discussions of analogy, and it is with this set of developments that we now
concern ourselves. What Przywara’s work raises in a new way is just that
set of concerns about the propriety of deducing knowledge of God from
a property (of which we have ‘prior’ knowledge) which is presumed to be
common to both him and his creation, and thereby making God the prisoner of an idea.
9 Hugo Rahner, Ignatius the Theologian, Michael Barry (trans.) (London: Geoffrey Chapman,
1968), p. 2.

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

In fact, as will become apparent, Przywara’s dedication to the Fourth
Lateran Council’s formula made him more like than unlike Barth in many
respects – some of which Barth himself found hard to recognize. The way
that the debate between Barth and Przywara was focused, both at the
time and in much subsequent exposition, set up a deceptively momentous
contrast between analogia entis and analogia fidei. But this distracted from
much of the most important conceptual subtlety on each side. A catalogue
of misunderstandings dogged the relevant terminology; and the phrase
analogia entis became freighted with interpretations that Przywara would
often have been no more ready than Barth to admit.
It will be valuable to clear the misunderstandings out of the way at the
outset. Przywara’s analogia entis is not, to borrow McCormack’s words, ‘the
ill-advised attempt to order both God and humankind into a higher concept, namely “being”’,10 though Barth and Barthians since him have at various times understood it as such. No such ‘neutral’ notion of ‘being’ is supposed, of which God and humans are equally exemplifications. Rather, we
have here a formal description of the way that createdness is posited by,
and ordered to, God’s Creatorhood, Preservation and Sustenance, not as
continuous with it, but as corresponding to it in its own proper and distinct way. Creatorhood and creaturehood do not share a common term,
but they are ordered to one another, analogously (as von Balthasar points
out) to the way that in analogia fidei God’s grace and the creature’s faith are
not the same thing, but are ordered to one another. The initiative is on God’s
side in analogia fidei (grace makes faith possible), just as it is in analogia
entis properly understood (Creatorhood makes creaturehood possible).11
Von Balthasar is right to say that analogia entis ‘rests entirely on the prior
and absolute one-sidedness of God’s decision to create and sanctify’ (Barth,
p. 123/ET, p. 113), and so concludes that therefore ‘nothing whatever can be
found of the spectre that Barth has made of the analogy of being’ (Barth,
p. 269/ET, p. 257; translation amended).
What is so remarkable here, though, is that a discussion of analogy
is being conducted in these terms at all. Both Barth and Przywara seem
to be taking it for granted that analogy is a way of conceptualizing the
10 McCormack, Dialectical Theology, p. 389.
11 A good deal of the angst would be avoided if the word ‘being’ were not used to describe
both terms of analogia entis: it tempts people to suppose that the word carries some sort of
substantive information, and that God’s being-God and the creature’s being-created draw on
some independent repository of being per se. Analogia fidei avoids this by having different
words for grace and for faith. But it does not operate in a fundamentally different way from
analogia entis.



Theology and the Drama of History

divine-human mutual relationship (their only difference being over what
it would mean to talk of this relationship as grounded in ‘being’). In other
words, the question Przywara and Barth have taken up is not one that
Aquinas’ notions of analogy would have accommodated: it is not merely
the question of how we may speak about God. What in fact Przywara and
Barth have done is to take up the work on analogy of the (sub-Thomist)
scholastics and (going beyond even them) to assimilate to analogy a range
of concerns to do with the creature’s actual ‘participation’ in God. As
Aidan Nichols puts it, ‘Essentially they turn the analogy of being idea into
a doctrine of participation, of a sharing in the divine life . . .’12 Analogy
becomes a way of articulating how it is that the creature (in particular, the
human being) may have any kind of relationship with God; how he may
be justified and made holy; how he may find a place within (hence ‘participate in’) God’s economy. In each theologian’s case, this is an innovation on
classical usage (though, in Henri Bouillard’s words, their essential ideas
remain ‘assuredly in accord’ with the tradition).13
It may now be clearer why it was important to make reference to
Ignatius, and not only to the intellectual tradition of the scholastics,
when coming at the modern discussion of analogy. Even though Ignatius
did not intend to offer his insights into the ‘subjective’ experience of
the God-world relation as the basis for a theory of analogy, nevertheless he was concerned with the question of how we may participate in
God’s life (and conceive other creatures as participating in God’s life).14 In
Przywara’s thought, analogy helps us to understand the ‘ontological
openness which characterizes the creature as such’; in Barth’s thought, it
helps us to understand ‘the existential openness which characterizes the
obedience of faith’.15
Przywara saw in the principle of analogia entis a singularly adequate
explanation of the structure of reality – and in particular, of human
reality – and thought that it would be possible to develop this explanation without letting go of the principle ‘von Gott her’ which has already
been touched on. He thereby extended the emphasis on the absolute
12 Aidan Nichols, The Word Has Been Abroad, p. xiii. He is in fact referring to Przywara and von
Balthasar, here – but it describes Barth’s understanding of analogia entis too.
13 Henri Bouillard, The Knowledge of God, Samuel D. Femiano (trans.) (London: Burns and
Oates, 1969), pp. 120–1.
14 It is not an accident that Przywara’s doctrine of analogy (for it is, by now, a ‘doctrine’) is
partly hammered out in the context of a theological commentary on the Spiritual Exercises.
15 Bouillard, Knowledge of God, p. 121.

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

priority of God which was implicit in Aquinas’ per prius et posterius rule
when using analogy. For Przywara, analogia entis transposes what appear
to be mere contradictions in the human condition (both in its existential, experienced condition, and in its very ontological make-up) into a
context in which these apparent contradictions can be seen as what they
truly are: as tensions (or polarities-in-tension) which are there, and are
held together, by virtue of God.
The polarities which Przywara theorizes in terms of analogia entis are
those we observed as informing the spirituality of Ignatius: God’s immanence and transcendence with respect to the creature. They also correspond to Augustine’s Deus interior and Deus exterior. God’s inmost presence is required to maintain the creature in existence; but at the same
time his transcendence is never compromised. This is the ‘explanation’ of
why human existence is so widely experienced (both in and outside Christian faith) as unresolvable in some way: suspended, as James Collins says,
between ‘autarchy’ and ‘indigence’.16 Something in the constitution of the
human creature (the Christian recognizes this ‘something’ as the intimate
presence of God) presses her to go beyond herself (towards the God who
is also transcendent). Przywara believes this to be a sort of invitation – an
invitation ‘inscribed in the very nature of our being’, as Nichols says –
to enter God’s mystery.17 In this way, our own being – and the ‘suspension’ (the finite ‘openness’) which we observe in the being of all created
things – becomes a disclosure of the divine life and movement. Our being
‘corresponds’ to the fact that it is the gift of the ‘ever-greater Lord’. ‘The
more man is permitted to live his life from out of this divinely impelled
movement’, the more he realizes the ‘ever-greater quality of God’. ‘The
more intimately he shares the divine life, the firmer his grasp of the divine
transcendence as infinitely above him.’18 The polarity, therefore, does not
become an identity any more than it is a dichotomy; rather, it is sustained
in a ‘unity-in-tension’. God is immanent in the world. But the world and
God remain different (otherwise there is a collapse into either ‘pantheism’
or ‘theopanism’ – see p. 123 above). The creature has a relation to the Creator (the Creator’s transcendence is not such as to make it impossible), but
the divine immanence does not extend to complete identification with the
world. In maintaining this bipolarity, the standpoint of analogia entis:

16 Collins, ‘Analogia Entis’, p. 271.
18 Ibid.

17 Nichols, The Word Has Been Abroad, p. xiii.



Theology and the Drama of History

bows itself without cavil before Deus incomprehensibilis, by full
renunciation of any hope of a final explanation (which would ever lead
to the need of a still further explanation) of the mysterious tension
between the complete reality of God and the individual reality of
man. . . . [Moreover] if the creature according to its own essence is born
of the processio Dei ad extra, then, on the one hand, the proportion of
Divine self-impartation of Deity in this movement is in no wise capable
of estimation by the creature; while, on the other hand, no ultimate
duality in such tokens of impartation is possible because they are tokens
of God, and therefore unified in God.19

Przywara’s short-hand for the tension he expounds is ‘God “in-over” us’ –
a phrase he returns to often. As well as being a slogan which summarizes
his own thought on analogy (the unity-in-tension of being itself), it is a
further compression of the already compact definition of the similarityin-dissimilarity of the Fourth Lateran Council. It is at every point accompanied by his stress on the principle that everything is ‘from God’s side’.
All things (above all analogia entis itself) owe themselves absolutely to
God. We are dealing in the creature with a processio Dei (though a processio
Dei ad extra). The principle of the creatio ex nihilo is adequately preserved
here, though with an important dimension of continuity in time (creatio
continua).20 There is no reliance on a common third term between God
and the world. Nor, however, does the emphasis on the independence
and aseity of God lead to an equivalent assumption about the world’s
This turns out to be crucial in relation to Barth’s attitude to analogia
entis. Barth, as we have said, is remarkably similar to Pryzwara in that
he uses analogy (in his case, above all, analogia fidei) in order to give an
account of how it is we participate in God (in his case, in God’s action),21
and this similarity of approach becomes clearer over time as Barth’s and
Przywara’s respective presuppositions get drawn out and modified. But
the fact remains that in the early stages of the Church Dogmatics Barth saw a
great gulf between his own position and that represented by analogia entis.
Barth suspects that Pryzwara – and a broader Catholic tradition behind
and around him – suppose the ens of analogia entis to have ready-made
meaning which will by itself yield content-full knowledge of God. But
19 Przywara, Polarity, p. 76.
20 Bouillard, Knowledge of God., p. 120.
21 For Barth, as Alan Torrance says, ‘Correspondence of the human with the divine is
grounded . . . in a form of human participation in a dynamic which recognizes God as
Subject’ (Alan J. Torrance, Persons in Communion: An Essay on Trinitarian Description and Human
Participation (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1996), p. 153).

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

Przywara shows himself ready to ‘loosen and dissolve’ his metaphysical
formulations (Barth, p. 414, note 98/ET, p. 362, note 121). For him, analogia entis represents not so much a principle as it demonstrates the character
of a process. Analogia entis is shown to be talking about God’s action (or ‘history’) before any general notion of being in which God’s action is bracketed
out. Analogia entis is shown to be an appropriate response to the fact that
God’s is:
[a history that] cannot be depicted except by a theology that is itself on
the way from a theologia directa positiva to a theologia indirecta dialectica,
which then opens up into a theologia negativa . . . , a theologia excessus.
(b a r t h , p. 414, note 98/ET, p. 362, note 121)

In other words, over time Pryzwara makes more room for the unframeable, ‘event’ character of God’s relationship to reality within what he says
about being, and this makes a difference to how he says it.
Barth’s emphasis, meanwhile, is so much on ‘event’ that to begin with
he seems almost to deny that any ontology at all is necessary to his use
of analogy. (We are reminded here of von Balthasar’s stringent criticism
that Barth denies the reality of the creature.) For Barth, as von Balthasar
It is not Being as such that the creature has in common with God . . .
Rather it is an action (inaccessible to all theory): it is human decision
that is similar to God’s action, despite their fundamental dissimilarity.
(b a r t h , p. 117/ET, p. 108)

Now Barth does not mean this ‘action’ (by which man responds with
faith to God’s grace) to be a free-floating, or ‘discrete and discontinuous
momentary event’ (punkthaft Ereignismoment) (Barth, p. 204/ET, p. 191). It
is meant to be the highest determination of the existence of the whole
creature: it makes the creature most truly what it should be, in every
aspect. Faith in Jesus Christ, in other words, is the fullest realization (the
point) of human being itself. But he can seem to talk about the event of
faith in a way that suggests it is the mere insertion of a truth about God
into the realm of the creaturely (sometimes, it seems, specifically into the
‘conscious and cognitive’ realm of the creaturely), complete and sufficient
in itself. He can seem, when he talks like this, to have no regard for the patterns of thought, the human languages and discourses, and the material
substance of the world which is meant to receive this ‘truth’. It is hard to
see how this could possibly constitute communication. Von Balthasar sees it



Theology and the Drama of History

as a clue to why Barth gives so little weight to the sacraments in Christian
Barth too, though, finds his position modified – not least by von
Balthasar’s study of it. Von Balthasar argues that in Catholic thought
nature exerts no rights over grace, and is never placed outside the bracket
of grace, and yet can be allowed (within that bracket) a ‘proper meaning’.
The existence of nature need not be set over against the priority of grace
(which is God’s act). Indeed, analogia fidei might even find analogia entis to
be a part of itself. The greatest success of this kind of argument is the way
that it confounds the crude being/act dichotomy on which the original
stand-off between Pryzwara’s position (analogia entis) and the Barthian
position (analogia fidei) is based.22 Von Balthasar is clear about this:
An either-or between a theology of the actual and existential and a
theology of the prior capacities and essences is impossible. For both
forms overlap and condition each other.
(b a r t h , p. 270/ET, p. 258)23

For von Balthasar, quite explicitly, all the ‘relational’ modifications of
analogy (analogia libertatis, analogia relationis, analogia historicitatis, analogia
dramatica: each of them fruitful and appropriate) do not need to compete
with what is meant by analogia entis, because ‘even according to a relational
definition, it is still a case of reality, ens’ that is at issue (TD ii/1, p. 293/ThD 2,
p. 321). Acts and relationships between things are ‘real’ and it is appropriate to speak of them as such even where God’s acts are concerned, always
provided the ‘greater’ (the ‘more dissimilar’) character of God’s action is
alive to us, and provided that what we mean by being does not become
‘framed’ for us, but is always referred to the absolute and primary initiative of God.
With analogia entis thus subordinated to analogia fidei – we might say,
with being viewed in a properly dynamic way, within the action of God –
Barth is content to be reconciled somewhat with it. He concedes that one
can speak of an analogy of being between man and God on condition that
one admits it to be ‘created by the Father acting in Jesus Christ through

22 It was, of course, a feature of Aquinas’ thought all along that being has an
‘event-character’ (it is caused, and its esse relates to God’s esse, though not univocally). In
Ricoeur’s words, ‘The discovery of being as act [was] the ontological keystone of the theory of
analogy’ (Ricoeur, Rule of Metaphor, p. 275).
23 This renders peculiar McCormack’s claim that in Barth’s theology ‘the “being” of the
human subject is not altered through the experience of faith’s knowledge of revelation’
(McCormack, Dialectical Theology, p. 17).

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

the Holy Spirit, and consequently to be real only in faith’.24 In Volume iv
of the Church Dogmatics, he is prepared to write as follows:
God creates, preserves and over-rules man for this prior end and with
this prior purpose, that there may be a being distinct from Himself
ordained for salvation, for perfect being, for participation in His own
being . . .25

It is a statement he is happy to make, provided it is set in the context of a
belief that God ‘is who He is, and lives as what He is, in that He does what
He does’. We cannot know God ‘if we do not find the truth and power of
His being in His life, and of His life in His act’.26
The figures we have been surveying here, and the tradition of thought
to which they belonged, were extremely influential on von Balthasar’s
understanding of analogy, and the way he put analogy to work in a theodramatic context. I propose now to turn from surveying what was in the
background of his theodramatics to the making of a more direct assessment of the role analogy plays in his thought.

‘Jacob’s Ladder’: Von Balthasar’s exercise
of analogy
From Aquinas, von Balthasar takes above all the emphasis on the proper
humility of analogical usage of any kind. From Barth, he takes something
similar – perhaps especially the emphasis on act, and an alertness to the
danger of forgetting, when one talks about the ‘being’ of God and the
‘being’ of humankind, that all must be referred to God’s ‘doing’.
From Przywara, as the fourth and final volume of Theodramatik makes
abundantly clear, he takes his unremitting attention to the maior dissimilitudo of the Fourth Lateran Council: God’s quality of being ‘ever-greater’.
Von Balthasar finds he must speak of the divine life as complete peace
which is nevertheless ‘not rigid, but rather “eternal eventfulness”’ (TD iv,
p. 67). God is not only ‘ever-more’ than humanity can grasp; he is ‘also
the ever-more for himself’ in a kind of perpetual ‘overflow’ (TD iv, p. 68).
There is in God a movement of something like anticipation and fulfilment,
so that what is unsurpassable is nevertheless always being surpassed: the
‘fulfilment’ in all its ‘gratuity’ overtakes and wonderfully surprises the
original anticipation. There is a ‘letting-free’ of the ‘other’ in love which
24 Bouillard, Knowledge of God, p. 122.
25 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics iv/1 (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1956), p. 9; my emphasis.
26 Ibid., p. 6.



Theology and the Drama of History

yields the realization of untold possibilities (TD iv, p. 85). The Father lets
the Son ‘surpass’ (ubertreffen)
him, accepting (even as divine ‘source’) his
own kind of ‘receptivity’ or ‘responsiveness’ (thus von Balthasar can say
that ‘receiving’, or ‘letting-happen’, is just as essential for absolute Love
as ‘giving’). Even in God – perhaps in God more than anywhere – there
is the endless superaddition of ‘a “divine ever-more”, an “intensification,
surprise” [Steigerung, Uberraschung],
an “effusion” [Uberschwang]’
(TD iv,
p. 78).
And ‘the becoming of the world’, says von Balthasar, ‘is grounded in
[this] “supra-becoming” of the inner-divine event’ (TD iv, p. 70). This is
where analogy must come in, for this ‘inner-divine law of life’ makes a difference to our own existence. It is what makes the drama of our life, which
we glimpsed in the figure of the Pauline apostolic witness in chapter 1,
and in the disciplines of the mutual submission of the faithful in chapter 2, conceivable as a kind of ‘correspondence’ to the divine life (TD iv,
p. 78).
The attitude of looking outwards to the ‘always more’ is primary in
human being. Von Balthasar is sure of this. It is an attitude of being able to
listen and be affected (an ‘affective openness’).27 His use of analogy, in the
wake of Przywara, is intended to show how human experiences of freedom
or of love (indeed, of ‘drama’ in all its various forms) can make apprehensible a divine Giver – a free and freedom-imparting trinitarian love. In such
cases, the ‘world’ points one in the direction of seeing the form of God’s
revelation, though it is never adequate to yield the form fully. This is what
underlies his use of the prefix ‘supra-’. Von Balthasar’s vision, in other
words, is one in which God simultaneously bestows and withdraws from
our creaturely being, calling us ever onwards whenever we experience and
contemplate the existing things of the world. He never suggests that there
can be ‘a kind of synthesis’ of creaturely being and God (that being Hegel’s
transgression). Analogy’s preservation of the dramatic polarity is unsurpassable. But this is still a warrant to take creaturely things with immense
seriousness. God’s revelation is incarnate and the manifestation of the
‘supra-form’ of Christ respects worldly forms and allows them their own
relative integrity.28
27 Francesca Murphy, ‘The Sound of the Analogia Entis Part II’ in New Blackfriars 74:877
(1993), p. 563.
28 The theologian is permitted to explore what is concrete and distinctive (indeed, ‘all
human thinking’ can profitably become his concern) because this proliferation, when
contemplated aright, is an expression of the greater dissimilarity on which all created
distinctions are founded.

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

The power to assent to the clarity and radiance of such forms, of course,
comes only from God, and the frame for experiencing the divine which
we might expect worldly data to give us is blurred and compromised by
this dependence. The emphasis in the doctrine of analogy, therefore, is
on a human receptivity made possible by the movement towards it (in
active freedom) of the divine revelation. Admittedly, says von Balthasar,
the capacity for seeing any object is given along with the object (whose
‘objective’ status is therefore revealed as far more complicated then we initially realize). But when the ‘object’ of our experience is nothing less than
God’s loving freedom itself, then the frame for our seeing which is given
along with it is complicated exponentially. Humans experience a dynamic
engrossing in the trinitarian movement of free out-pouring.
Von Balthasar describes this as ‘the positive aspect of the analogia entis’
which ‘makes of the finite the shadow, trace, likeness and image of the Infinite’. The finite ‘constitutes itself as such through the letting-be of Being
by virtue of an ekstasis out of its own closed self, and therefore through
dispossession and poverty becomes capable of salvaging in recognition
and affirmation the infinite poverty of the fullness of Being and, within it,
that of the God who does not hold on to Himself ’ (H iii/1, pp. 956–7/GL 5,
p. 627). But at the same time as God approaches, he also perpetually recedes
into the ‘always more’ (for the sake of active freedom in the creature). And
this receding draws creaturely freedom onwards again into the mystery.
As Murphy writes, ‘In order to be freely related to something, one has to
be other from it. . . . Only a God Who is wholly diverse from creatures
can reveal Himself to them, as opposed to mechanically discharging
His effects or pronouncements.’29 This makes the ‘primal’ creaturely experience impossible to fix, and its very ‘non-fixability’, in von Balthasar’s
words, is ‘but the noetic reflection of the ontic indeterminateness of being
in its totality over against God’:
This is why this primal attunement to him is not an intuition in the
epistemological sense, nor is it the result of a purely logical inference
from the finite to the infinite. . . . Being as such . . . directs us to the
inaccessible Fount.30
(H i, p. 236/GL 1, p. 245)

The experience of an invitation forward (a thing that in arriving represents
new departure) is latent in the experience of ‘Being’ itself, and has a frame
that is entirely ‘non-fixable’.
29 Murphy, ‘Analogia Entis’, p. 561.

30 My emphasis.



Theology and the Drama of History

We may summarize von Balthasar’s continuities with Przywara and
with a wider tradition of thought by saying that a dynamic analogy is
potentially that most delicate and disciplined form of analogy which
keeps the frame blurred. It allows God’s approximation to our experience
and understanding to be the approximation of an opportunity; of an enticing divine accord; of a space to become a dramatic agent, to exercise decision and response in a way that ought not to be inimical to the texture and
open-endedness of history. Von Balthasar, to achieve this, must develop his
doctrine of the analogical relationship between divine and human being
‘as precisely no valorised interval, as no fixed gap between the world and
God’.31 The suspicion that a theological aesthetics (like that presented in
Herrlichkeit) relies too heavily on mapping the harmonious proportionality between creatures and their Creator must be allayed by a presentation
of the moving image which is theodrama. This will be a reminder that we
can only think towards the truth ‘from the middle’ of creaturely existence,
and that this necessarily involves a continuous activity of imaginatively
constructive participation, in which we develop our own interpretative
readings of God’s ways in the world alongside the readings of other people. There is no clear sight of the whole pattern, here – this is the danger
of the Gestalt language developed in von Balthasar’s theological aesthetics if the notion of Gestalt is not suitably galvanized. Rather – in dramatically social fashion – one must think with the help (and the discipline) of
I have shown how this depends, first, on an acknowledgement of the
analogical ordering of being, in that God’s being-God and the creature’s
being-created are not identical kinds of being. They do not draw on some
independent repository of being per se. No neutral notion of being is presupposed, of which God and humans are equally exemplifications.
An analogical mode of knowing can be seen to correspond to this analogical ordering of being. Given that God’s being is ‘ever-greater’, and that
every similarity is enveloped in dissimilarity, any way in which one reads
the divine must display not only a passionate commitment to acknowledging God’s intimacy, but also the reverent reserve that is called forth
by a God ‘ever-greater’. Von Balthasar is convinced that the best way to
express this is in terms of comparatives – they foster a more properly
Christian ‘reading’ of God than superlatives ever can. Superlatives are

31 Lucy Gardner and David Moss in Gardner, Moss, Quash and Ward, Balthasar at the End of
Modernity (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1999), p. 115.

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

static abstractions – they become, in Catherine Pickstock’s words, objects
‘to end all objects’, and they represent ‘the once-and-for-all termination
of desire’ rather than its limitless enrichment and play.32 In refusing to
delimit the operation of this comparative principle, one acknowledges the
unclosable character of what we might call the ‘vertical’ analogical relation to the ‘ever-greater’. Von Balthasar makes exactly this point in the last
volume of Theodramatik. The ‘eternal’, he says, ‘is not expressible through
a superlative which represents an upper limit (like “highest good”),
but only through an open comparative into the ever-greater’ (TD iv,
p. 68).
But then there comes another (analogous) kind of analogical expression. There is an analogical relation between the ‘vertical’ analogies that
keep open the space between divine disclosure and creaturely appropriation, and the ‘horizontal’ analogies which emerge from all our myriad
readings of the world and the interchange within it – our interpretations
of the superabundance of the world’s particulars and their ‘wonderful
commerce’. This horizontal movement, too, can say with the Agamemnon’s
chorus ‘the end we do not know’. Here, too, human beings can participate (constructively) in an ecstatic movement which promises truth without closure. Joining, with mind and heart, in the rich ‘horizontal’, which
is to say historical, conception of analogies is our most legitimate way of
involving ourselves in the creation’s movement through time, and it protects us from falsely trying to make the world and our reading of the
world stand still.33
The horizontal ekstasis (set in motion when we recognize analogies in
created being) is not without relation to the vertical, though we do well to
respect analogy’s charge not to finalize the similarities. There is much to
be gained from showing that all acts of knowing – as much the believer’s
knowing of the world as her knowing of God – are more truly seen as part
of an activity of ‘traversal’ than one of ‘appropriation’.34 It may be that
the ‘ever-more’ that is evoked by our pluriform ‘horizontal’ itineraries of
analogical recognition becomes a nearer way than any other of honouring

32 Catherine Pickstock, ‘Necrophilia: The Middle of Modernity’ in Modern Theology 12:4
(1996), p. 405.
33 Pickstock, too, suggests this relationship when she writes of ‘the non-closure of time’ as
in many ways the best finite image of infinite, uncircumscribed permanence (Catherine
Pickstock, ‘Music: Soul, City and Cosmos after Augustine’ in John Milbank, Catherine
Pickstock and Graham Ward (eds.), Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (London and New York:
Routledge, 1999), p. 248).
34 Pickstock, ‘Necrophilia’, p. 421.



Theology and the Drama of History

God’s ‘ever-greater’ relation to us – which is, after all, given in creation as a
‘luminous invitation’.35 The analogies a person conceives can become like
Jacob’s ladder: ‘Unaccountably scaffolding skyward’.36 Of the building of
this ladder the poem at the head of this chapter remarks ‘How long it must
have taken’, and ‘What endless patience’ it must have demanded. Yet, provided they exercise this provisionality and humility, creaturely activities of
knowing are able to orient themselves in faith to an inconceivable richness
of possibility promised by God in the passage of time – most especially the
gift of himself.
The truth of revelation, von Balthasar says, acknowledging all this, is
found in movement; in ‘a continuous forward striving (diastasis)’:
[This diastasis] is the truth of the cor inquietum, of hope and love for what
is absent. It is into this human experience that the divine truth comes
to embed itself. This delicate network of temporal relationships is
strong enough to hold the absolute truth, which is itself a truth of
eternal relations in an eternal life.
(s k i z z e n i, p. 85/ExT 1, p. 80)

Thus von Balthasar himself asserts what I have already supposed his theology to imply: the fittingness of temporality’s motive incompleteness (and
the never-finalized creaturely exploration of truth in time) to the analogical expression of God’s otherness. There is a ‘fit’ between diastasis in time
and the diastasis of God’s otherness. The restless heart’s hoping and loving
through time are not wholly distinguishable from its restlessness in (‘vertical’) relation to God’s ungraspable plenitude. This acknowledgement of
temporality is an important one in von Balthasar’s thought – particularly
in conjunction with the suggestion that ‘unaccountably’ the ‘scaffolding’
of the temporal constructions of human experience may form a ladder by
which heaven draws near. There is a reminder here of what was evident in
chapter 1: that von Balthasar’s task in Theodramatik must be to reconceive
form as more than just pulchritudinous structure. He must demonstrate
something other than the ‘spatialization’ of time. He must communicate
a notion of form which is not architectonic but diachronous.
Lucy Gardner and David Moss are optimistic that von Balthasar’s theology does not entail ‘any riveting of “parts” onto an empty frame, nor . . .
any correlation of God to his creature’.37 And indeed, at first blush, it
seems as though von Balthasar’s turn to drama gives his notion of Gestalt
35 Ibid.
36 Sally Bushell, Night Thoughts (Cambridge, 1997).
37 Gardner, Moss, Quash, Ward, End of Modernity, p. 72.

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

added mobility. But even Gardner and Moss must admit that he manifests
a tendency to ‘encode temporality’ (and they know, moreover, that ‘this
move is not unconnected with a general feature of the logic of modernity’).
Gender is an area in which Balthasar is particularly tempted to attempt
this ‘structuration’ – but the larger question raised is whether all his gestures towards diachronicity do not in the end fall back into an organization of the flux which is ‘strategic and studied’.38 For the terms of a
rather static idea of form can be used to interpret even the relations which
drama displays. Dramatic interchange can succumb to a composite patterning, and because this patterning aspires to the wholeness of Gestalt,
it becomes precisely a pseudo-spatialization. Such form – such composite
patterning – can be almost as architectonic as anything implied by the
aesthetics. It can become a matrix (and therefore an intermediate middle
ground) which regulates the properly unframeable relation of Creator and
creature (as well as the relations between creatures and creatures). To allow
this to happen is to deny dramatic insights with regard to human existence. It shares the deficiencies of modernity’s epic perspective in its ambition to read the ways of God in the world.
The alternative has the potential to be dangerous, too. The ‘flux’ which
is the passage of time can invite the ‘lyrical’ interpretation that it is just
flux – in other words, ‘banally free’. Christian theology which seeks not to
be epic faces the problem of how to interpret the ‘flux’ as not totally random and undefined (which is to say unjudgeable and unredeemable).
A good way of doing this will be one which does reintroduce an element
of dramatic articulation, but does not bring us back in subjection to epic’s
attempts at marshalling command. This will mean working on the basis
that epic need not be the only alternative to lyric. Yes, the successiveness
of time (and our conceiving of analogies in time) calls out to be treated
theologically in a way that allows it a certain integrity and coherence,
because God creates and sustains it through his redemptive faithfulness.
Augustine, and theologians after him, have used an analogy with music to
show how flux can be thus articulated without ceasing to be open-ended.39
But (theology has the resources to say) this is not necessarily an epic perspective. It derives its life from the trinitarian God, whose divine life of love is

38 Pickstock, ‘Necrophilia’, p. 408.
39 I am indebted here to Catherine Pickstock’s work on Augustine’s De Musica in ‘Music:
Soul, City and Cosmos’; see also John Milbank, ‘Postmodern Critical Augustinianism: A
Short Summa in Forty-two Responses to Unasked Questions’ in Graham Ward (ed.), The
Postmodern God: A Theological Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 268, 277.



Theology and the Drama of History

both the absoluteness of love (there is no greater love) and yet never ceases to
overflow itself (it is always greater). Another, more ‘existential’, safeguard
against the epic tendencies of a belief that ‘all . . . limited perspectives . . .
are themselves beautifully integrated into the cosmic poem’ is that it is
belief – it is participatory faith, not epic sight. That is how we relate to the
trinitarian God of love. The flux may be articulated, but it seems we cannot (ever) view the totality of those articulations, because they are intimated
only in the flux. We learn to read ‘from the middle’, and this is necessarily
an activity of faith.
Nicholas Lash takes the idea of ‘metachronics’ from Bishop Christopher Butler to illustrate this. Music for him too provides a reminder that
‘temporality has structures’. He reflects, then, that:
If we take metaphysics to mean our general sense and understanding of
the structure of the world, beyond particular categories and things and
instances, then we might describe as ‘metachronics’ our attempts to
understand the whence and whither of the world, its ‘metatemporal’
structure beyond particular episodes, epochs, stories and occasions.40

Now Christians, because of the fact that they have an ‘unsurpassable particularity of memory’ which furnishes their faith with its ‘defining centre’, are bound to seek a certain ‘metachronic understanding’ around
which their activities of ‘remembrance and expectation’ structure themselves.41 But this is faith seeking metachronic understanding. Metachronics is every bit as vulnerable as metaphysics to ‘quite unwarranted imperialistic claims to theoretical finality’. The restraint a Christian theology
must exercise is governed by the fact that ‘metachronics will remain, as
long as there is time, unfinished!’42
Making the relations that emerge in time ‘accountable’ by forcing
them through a supposed matrix which is pre-emptively exhaustive of all
their possible combinations is an overweeningly epic gesture – it is bad
metachronics, and therefore a false reading of the world. The mere notion
of ‘harmony’ or ‘resolution’ can act as a matrix of this prefiguring kind,
and so occlude the significance of time. And on the basis of all that we have
acknowledged about the dynamic, forward-moving, cultivated, sensitive
and social character of good analogical speech (its ‘time-taking actuality’,
to reiterate Williams’ words), we can say that where time suffers, so does
40 Nicholas Lash, The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1996), p. 30.
41 Ibid., p. 31.
42 Ibid., p. 70.

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

analogy. Analogy, wrongly understood in terms of ‘valorising intervals’,
represents precisely that kind of grid which interferes with a full, free differentiation between God and humanity in history.
In this section, we have raised the question of whether much of von
Balthasar’s honouring of diachronicity (and, with that, of the poetic
exploration of the world’s truth) does not in the end fall back into an
architectonic act of spatialization, which predetermines all the human
possibilities of participation in this drama. It seems as though von
Balthasar is too ready to take the Hegelian path of allowing history to
empty itself into system, rather than tipping system back into history
again. This – recalling as it does von Balthasar’s Hegelian instinct to associate drama with the notion of harmonious resolution – can only compromise von Balthasar’s attempt to restore to life once again a ‘cor inquietum’
in modernity’s breast. It risks, in turn, playing into an ecclesiology which
attributes a dimension of ‘objective’ holiness to the Church.
Any such notion of the Church, like any over-resolved notion of the
integrating power of dramatic form, seems to represent a theologically
questionable stage or arena for the working out of the truth of the relationship between God and human beings. In order to show how this can
indeed be the case in a theodramatics not true to its own potential, I now
turn to his theology of the Church by way of an object lesson.

‘Crystallized love’: the dehistoricization of
the Church
Von Balthasar’s failure only comes into view when one begins (as we have
begun) to be sensitive to the way in which a dynamic conception of analogy can turn into an act of reification; time’s movement can end up being
construed as bad metachronic architecture; the pluriform nature of creaturely interactions can end up obscured by a matrix which believes that it
contains in itself (in logically prior fashion) all the relevant possibilities for
human relationship. Of course, the material resists it, and that means that
in practical terms the only way of sustaining an impulse to ‘frame’ things
in abstraction from the contingencies and bountiful vagaries of time is
through a forgetfulness of history – what P. J. FitzPatrick in his book on
the eucharist calls ‘selective amnesia’.43 In this section, I want to suggest
that this is what enables von Balthasar in his ecclesiology to structure
43 P. J. FitzPatrick, In Breaking of Bread: The Eucharist and Ritual (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1993), p. 237.



Theology and the Drama of History

atemporally what is a phenomenon that ought to have an irreducibly temporal aspect, namely, the Church itself.
The saints – and centrally the saints of the New Testament – constellate, according to von Balthasar, around the form of Christ, and become
types of the various forms of life that can take shape in the Church in
response to the generative Word. In this way, they participate in the overall event of revelation. They function as typical (emblematic) figures of
ecclesial life, and are ordered to one another accordingly. So, for instance,
John (with Mary) represents ‘love’, Peter ‘office’, and Paul and James alongside them make up a fourfold structure that determines the form of the
Church’s existence (in imitation of its Lord) and the form of its theology
(H iii/2.2, p. 101/GL 7, p. 111). Von Balthasar is scrupulous in inserting at
every point the caveat that the ‘unity’ which reigns between these ‘pillars’ is not primarily a unity ‘on the level of “brotherliness”, but in their
common looking upwards to the one personal centre of all theologies’
(i.e. Jesus Christ). But the unity he intuits in these New Testament types
seems nonetheless like a relatively strong and unreserved claim to perceive
the dimensions of the form of revelation as it takes shape in its specifically ecclesial medium. It is a vision in which the (analogically) unfolding
transposition of Christ’s form into the lives of countless saints in Christian history is ‘contained’ by the placing of something like a grid (or net) of
exemplary relations at its source. Von Balthasar’s treatment of the Church
mutates at times into a masterpiece of spatialization. The missions of the
saints have their analogical relations (interpreted as a ‘variety in unity’)
displayed as ‘a whole spiritual geometry of heaven’ (Skizzen i, p. 242/ExT 1,
p. 225).
Behind all the other saints in their various configurations, there stands
Mary, who manifests for von Balthasar the consummate ecclesial disposition. This was something that became increasingly clear at the end of the
previous chapter, and was already emerging in the work that was done on
von Balthasar’s notion of ‘indifference’ in chapter 2. Because she makes
herself more available in God’s service than any other person in the drama,
Mary’s mission is the most comprehensive of all the missions of the saints –
it has the furthest ‘reach’. Everyone is affected by Mary’s fiat. Mary is so fully
receptive to the will of God for his redeemed people that she becomes the
‘real symbol’ of what the Church perfectly is, so that von Balthasar is happy
to talk at times of ‘Mary-Church’ as of a single entity.
The Marian form of the Church, though – like the ecclesial constellation of saints – is yet another encroachment into the area of the maior

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

dissimilitudo by means of a privileged mediation of the supra-form, and
this was also something that began to be hinted at towards the end of the
previous chapter. Indeed, von Balthasar sees ‘Mary-Church’ as the perfect
Gestalt of that divine form which has been transposed into the creaturely
realm.44 It is thereby the inclusion and completion of the exemplary interrelations of all the other saints. So whereas the notion of transposition
(like the notion of analogy, in whose ambit it is) could be used to describe
an open-ended series of new improvisations on the christological form, it
ends up here (like von Balthasar’s use of analogy in wider respects) slipping
back into an assertion of timelessly harmonious proportion. In this case,
the proportion is between the divine kenosis, and Marian self-surrender
(cast by von Balthasar as Ignatian indiferencia).
This, in turn, demonstrates the historical forgetfulness which FitzPatrick called ‘selective amnesia’. Can any consenting act of availability to
God be abstracted in the way that von Balthasar abstracts Mary’s? Is it right
to forget the particular circumstances and the particular occasion on which
Mary said this particular yes to a particular call?
We should take a moment to trace just what effects this move to generalize Mary’s self-surrender (and thereby make it something like a ‘still centre’ for the divine-human relation, impervious to time) can have. A way to
test it is to see what it does to the theology of the eucharist, which prima
facie ought to be theology particularly sensitive to the role that temporal extension and non-identical repetition play in the ‘scaffolding’ of the
Christian life and its ‘reading’ of God.
The eucharist does indeed play an important part in von Balthasar’s
theology. It appears at a significant moment in his christology (TD ii/2,
cf. especially p. 223/ThD 3, p. 243), and is positively central to his treatment
of soteriology (TD iii, pp. 295–395/ThD 4, pp. 317–423).45 The once-for-all
event of Christ’s eucharistia – or self-offering – meets the sins of the world
at every point; confronting them wherever they arise. This is so not only
in the past but also in this present time (the time of God’s patience) which
precedes Christ’s second coming. Christ’s eucharistia, in other words, has
an eternal aspect, and this means the continual and present operation even
of the human suffering (the ‘wounds’) of Christ in relation to human sin.
It is almost as though (from one perspective) the persistence of human sin
keeps the wounds alive and concrete ‘from below’.
44 Cf. H iii/1, p. 466/GL 5, p. 114.
45 As we have already noted, there are also important considerations of the eucharist in the
final essays of Skizzen ii (pp. 502–524/ExT 2, pp. 491–513).



Theology and the Drama of History

And such ‘distribution’ of Christ’s suffering and death by means of its
eternal aspect seems not to compete with, but rather to enhance, a certain
existential seriousness in terms of the human response. As von Balthasar
puts it, ‘[i]n the transition from the Old to the New Covenant, “night”
has become intensified; at the crucifixion, it covers the whole universe
(Mt 27:45); the sword has become sharper, death more radical . . .’ (TD iii,
p. 335/ThD 4, p. 359). This cannot but affect the Church’s existence, and
the lives of individual believers. The Church can expect, with Mary, to be
taken into ‘utter forsakenness and darkness’ (TD iii, p. 334/ThD 4, p. 358).
Yet von Balthasar, as so often, does not sustain this note. Even at the
heart of his most explicit attempt to show how the Church is inwardly
involved in Christ’s eucharistic sacrifice (TD iii, pp. 368–73/ThD 4, pp. 394–
400), there is placed the perfection of the attitude of Mary, and the
strength of the consequent language of nuptial consummation weakens
the existential register. Consummation is the dominant note:
Insofar as the Woman plays the part allotted to her in [the eucharistic]
drama, she can be drawn in the most intimate way into the Man’s
fruitful activity; she can be fructified by him. Thus (and only thus) can
we say that, in the Eucharist, the community is drawn into Christ’s
sacrifice, offering to God that perfect sacrifice of Head and members of
which Augustine spoke in celebrated terms.

An always-already ‘perfect’ response acts here as the condition for all
true human involvement in the eucharist. Though von Balthasar acknowledges the dimension of Mary’s ‘utter forsakenness and darkness’ at
the cross, he goes on to interpret it as only the beginning of her ‘nuptial relationship’ with Christ: ‘she is the only one able to receive the
seed of God, eucharistically-multiplied – thousands-fold – into her
womb’ (TD iii, p. 334/ThD 4, p. 358). This ‘fruitful motherhood’ of the
Virgin is ‘a fruitfulness that extends to the whole world’ (TD iii, p. 336/
ThD 4, p. 361). Thus Mary’s ability to receive and distribute ‘the seed of
God’ is, for von Balthasar, to be understood in a priori terms, as the condition for all eucharistic encounter and participation. Her perfection sets
a term to the existential register and to the importance we are permitted
to accord it:
She stands, as it were, behind every Holy Communion, as the Ecclesia
Immaculata, bringing to perfection what we accomplish imperfectly.
(m a r i a , p. 39/ET, pp. 39–40; translation amended)

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

It will have become clear that von Balthasar’s treatment of the eucharist
as a theological topos is complex, and that we would be foolish to see in
it a complete evacuation of the area in which human participation comes
to expression. That would be to go too consciously against the grain of
his theological project, which – inasmuch as it is theological dramatics –
seeks to recognize all the scope and wealth that is proper to human freedom. But his treatment of the eucharist nevertheless manifests many
of the tendencies which we have identified as problematic in his theology. The eucharist may not be a theologoumenon which can or should
be dealt with exclusively in terms of its impact on human existence (on
our aspirations, emotions, compulsions, practices and so on). But though
not exclusively existential in significance, it is at least existential. By giving it a Marian still centre which operates, apparently, as the resolved
a priori condition for its human dimension, von Balthasar makes the
eucharist less dramatic than the terms of his theology encourage us to
expect, undercutting its existential significance. This ought to make us
As well as being the Marian Ecclesia Immaculata, animated inwardly by a
subjective holiness like Mary’s, the Church also, of course, has an objective
and institutional ‘casing’. It is, to use von Balthasar’s words, necessarily ‘a
positive institution’. In relation to the Church’s structures and ministry, as
in relation to the eucharist, von Balthasar has an opportunity to admit –
even celebrate – the derivedness and situatedness of the forms they have
taken – forms poetically (which is to say constructively) participated in by
believers in the power of the Spirit and down the ages. But here, too, he
elides time. The Church’s structure, he says, like her basis, ‘cannot grow’
(Skizzen ii, p. 348/ExT 2, p. 331). Her forms of ministry are not to be relativized (whether ‘in a liberal manner or by means of a theology of history (Tertullian, Joachim of Fiore, the Protestant Reformers)’ (Skizzen ii,
p. 336/ExT 2, p. 319)):
the particular form of the ministeriality [of the Church] . . . is no foreign
element that has been added on ab extra. It is crystalized [sic] love, like
water that has taken on the form of ice for a period.

We may ask how long this period is, in which the Church’s structure has
this crystalline stasis. The answer von Balthasar gives is a stern delimitation of the difference time makes. He denies here what elsewhere he tantalizes us with as a remedy for the ills of modernity (that is to say the dramatic reinstatement of time as the medium of our involvement in the true,



Theology and the Drama of History

the good and the beautiful). He states that the time of the crystallization
of love is the whole of time, until the end of time. The time of this crystallization is:
the time of the winter that lasts until the Last Day, the time when ‘we
are on pilgrimage far from the Lord’ and need discipline and
impersonal severity because we are not yet separated from the sinful
(s k i z z e n ii, p. 335/ExT 2, p. 318)

By making this move, he ‘frames’ and reifies time, as if it were a surveyable unit. This is a betrayal of time, and serves an abstracted depiction
of the Church which removes it from its situatedness in a ‘poetic’ history of Christian practice. Von Balthasar conceals the ‘derivedness’ of the
Church in all its contingent, institutional details, and instead instantiates
an ‘imposed mysteriousness’ on its behalf.46 And it is clear that the doctrine of the Church suffers in this way because a debilitated doctrine of
analogy allows it to. A tendency to impose resolution represents a serious undercutting of the effectiveness of von Balthasar’s use of analogy. As
a result, his theodramatic supra-form, in which the saints struggle, and
spiritual powers clash, and in which the life of faith is enacted in the tension between the aeons, is made all too capable of mirroring the clear resolution and definition which characterized the Hegelian dramatic form. Like
Lash’s metachronics, the ‘form’ of the Christian Church – corresponding
to a christological supra-form – ought to be, as yet, unfinalizable.
‘[People] whose concerns are essentially ecclesiastical . . .’, writes FitzPatrick, ‘are likely to be prone to habits of accommodation, so that past
and present may be rendered straightforwardly harmonious in the service
of religion.’47 By ‘habits of accommodation’ he means that ‘blurring and
obscuring of history’48 which facilitates our fabrication of unassailablelooking edifices which we convince ourselves are meant to be as they are
in every respect, now and always. Von Balthasar’s theology of the Church
(and of the lives of individual Christians as subordinated to it) is just such
a fabrication: an intermediate realm in which drama – rather than being
intensified in its implications – is relativized. And here we should perhaps
be ready to acknowledge an element in ‘modernity’ which actually still
serves the dramatic quest for truth. There are in modernity, as FitzPatrick
sees, certain disciplined habits of mind which should be highly prized:
46 Pickstock, ‘Necrophilia’, p. 407.
48 Ibid., p. 262.

47 FitzPatrick, Breaking of Bread, p. 237.

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

willingness to question and to doubt, perseverance in absorbing and
often expensive enquiries, openness in free and irreverent debate, and
refusal to grant privileged exceptions to what has custom on its side.49

Von Balthasar’s tendency to betray time, in the construction of a doctrine of the Church that sells his theodramatics short, needs to develop
these important disciplines. This will make him more and not less true to
his own recognition that our life in the Church is not ‘a given’, but that
(in every particular and at every moment) the historical Church is the
medium of God’s active self-bestowal, as well as the medium of our call to

Von Balthasar’s double indemnity against drama
The preceding critique of von Balthasar has emerged from careful attention to his characteristic modes of thought and ways of managing his
material, and shows how the best possibilities of a theological ‘dramatics’ are in practice insulated against on two different fronts by this pioneer of theodramatics, as well as by his precursor Hegel in similar ways.
The two different fronts are those we have identified as important all the
way through the book as a whole: the treatment of ‘subjects’ and the treatment of ‘structures’ in relation to the ‘stage’, the ‘cast’ and the ‘action’ of
the theodrama.
So in fact, the critique developed so far will be even better described
as a twofold critique – or a critique with two prongs. The first – which
pinpointed the area in which von Balthasar most typically fails to honour the full, ‘poetic’ capacity of saintly subjects – was a critique of his advocacy of ‘indifference’ as occupying a supreme position among Christian
virtues. The excavation of this notion was largely undertaken in chapter 2,
and it became focused as a critique in chapter 4. The second investigation – which signalled the area in which von Balthasar most typically
fails to accept the role that time and its contingencies play in producing
the structure of the theodrama – demonstrated his compromise of an otherwise sensitive theological discussion of history, an otherwise eloquent
resistance to premature ‘clarifications’ of the eschatological mystery, and
an otherwise vigorous theological defence of the sovereign glory of God
in his relation to the world of creatures (all of which are recognized in
chapter 3), by embedding, in the pathway of the dramatic unfolding of
49 Ibid., p. 236.



Theology and the Drama of History

each, a precise, inflexible and historically forgetful ecclesiology. This not
infrequently seems to operate in his theology as a kind of insurance policy
against all the risk of the dramatic. This second part of our critique began
to emerge in chapter 4 (alongside the critique of indifference) and was
established in this chapter as being the most characteristic symptom of a
flaw in von Balthasar’s analogical mode of doing theology. Set against the
background of a Christian tradition of analogical usage, it can be seen all
the more clearly how von Balthasar bends his own use of it to aid an artificial and undramatic structuring of the stage of Christian existence. It can
be seen, in turn, how disturbingly this counteracts his dramatic instincts
elsewhere, and appears as the attempt to delineate (in the midst of history)
an acting area which is to all intents and purposes untouched by history.
History itself, in this respect, is subordinated to a timeless structure.
The two ways in which von Balthasar holds drama at bay are ways we
can characterize – with Rowan Williams – as forms of ‘freezing’. Indifference becomes a means of achieving the freezing of subjects, and von
Balthasar’s ecclesiology – backed up by his distinctive use of analogy –
becomes a means of achieving the freezing of structure. The two kinds of
freezing, of course, reinforce one another: indifferent subjects are what an
‘epic’ Church requires. Both kinds of freezing undercut the drama.
The whole of this two-pronged critique found a powerful confirmation in the way that von Balthasar reads literary and scriptural texts. Here,
where a sensitivity both to subjects and to structures is required, he frequently shows neither.
In conclusion to this chapter, I want to show how all these faults evidence themselves in his treatment of Christ’s descent into hell. This is a
part of his theology for which he is famous, and which gives the superficial impression of being consummately dramatic. But considered closely
it is disappointingly undramatic. Even in this most innovative area of his
theology von Balthasar tries to control the dazzling darkness with strategies that mitigate the drama.
The hell of von Balthasar’s theology is outside and beyond our own time.
It is narrated in ‘epic’ time, which is to say (as Gary Morson and Caryl
Emerson put it in their discussion of Mikhail Bakhtin), it is ‘fundamentally different and totally remote’.50 The irony of von Balthasar’s theology
is that at the moment when it aims most concretely to concern itself with

50 Gary Morson and Caryl Emerson, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics (Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1990), p. 420.

Analogy’s unaccountable scaffolding

struggle, suffering and death, it also becomes most mythological. The hell
of von Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday is, in effect, ‘totally remote’.
And it is this hell which is emphasized as the realm in which the trinitarian relations are acted out for us and for our salvation. Here again, I
think, we see the recurrent epic tendency in von Balthasar’s thought that
is prepared to sacrifice some of the dialogical seriousness of human existence. Gerard O’Hanlon remarks in this vein how critical von Balthasar
can be of ‘a position which ascribes relevance to the future, “horizontal” history of the world after the Christ-event as an object of theological hope’.51 Von Balthasar, he goes on to suggest, risks ‘downgrading the
reality of temporality’, reducing it to ‘a twinkle in the eye of eternity’.52 In
the account of the descensus, instead of a real attention to the great ‘time of
God’s patience’ in which the world lives and strives, we find von Balthasar
concentrating on intuiting the wholeness and integrity (the resolved dramatic shape) of the Christ-form – a form which is now confidently seen to
stretch to include even that which is utterly contrary to God.53
The task facing us now is to see whether there might be a way of making theodramatics work better, in a way that does not have all the fault
lines of the Balthasarian model (nor, where it approximates to them, of
the Hegelian attempt at dramatic historical thought) precisely because it
does not ‘downgrade the reality of temporality’, but which retains all the
remarkable strengths that close conversation with von Balthasar, Hegel,
Barth, Przywara and others has made available to us. This is the task that
the final chapter sets itself to achieve.
51 O’Hanlon, Immutability of God, p. 66.
52 Ibid., pp. 102, 103.
53 I am indebted here to the insights of Craig Arnold Phillips in his dissertation ‘From
aesthetics to redemptive politics: A political reading of the theological aesthetics of Hans Urs
von Balthasar and the materialist aesthetics of Walter Benjamin’ (Duke University, 1993).



Theodramatics, history and the Holy Spirit

Over again I feel thy finger and find thee.
(g e r a r d m a n l e y h o p k i n s )

This final chapter begins with a line from a dramatic poem: Gerard Manley
Hopkins’s The Wreck of the Deutschland. With the help of this poem, and
of some of Rowan Williams’ reflections on tragedy, time and the Trinity,
it will supplement the theodramatics that arises from Hegel’s and von
Balthasar’s thought (and that finds analogies and correctives in Barth’s
work) – the theodramatics traced and critiqued in the book so far. The supplementation is intended to meet some of the deficiencies I have identified
in the theodramatic model bequeathed by its main proponent, Hans Urs
von Balthasar (and latent in his sources), whilst continuing to affirm the
value of a theodramatic approach overall; it aims not to deny what the idea
of theodramatics owes to those who have been my main conversation partners in this book, but rather to take the idea further and make it even more
fruitful for the way theology thinks about history.
The problems bequeathed by the Balthasarian model have the power
utterly to disable a theodramatics’ value as a heuristic for theological
thought about history. It is worth summarising those problems here. They
include (i) the evacuation of time of much of its significance as the carrier
of divine revelation and as the medium for human encounter with lifegiving and death-dealing questions – therefore of time as an ethical and
what I have called an existential space. They also include (ii) the habitual
neglect of awkward or resistant material, and especially of particulars that
do not seem assimilable to a unified vision of history and theology in their
interrelation. More specifically (iii) there is the subjugation of one class
of ‘particulars’, namely persons, to institutions or what are identified as


Theodramatics, history and the Holy Spirit

historical movements (the subjugation of subjects to structures) and ultimately to what is thought to be the will of God in such institutions and
movements. This indicates the final problem (iv), the presumption to have
a God’s eye view of what is and is not significant in the world. The task of
correcting these tendencies in the main attempt to date at commending
theodramatics to theology (von Balthasar’s) will lead me in this chapter
to show how an approach with different emphases, a different style and
a different tone can function to restore to time, particularity, irreducible
personhood and finite knowledge their integrity in a theological vision.
This in turn restores to theology a responsible way of speaking about historical events and process. It is, moreover, a certain sort of pneumatology
that enables theology, with Gerard Manley Hopkins, to find God’s finger
‘over again’1 – not simply frozen in a particular moment or configuration
of people, events or texts and then generalized, but rather alive in an ongoing series of transcriptions (MacKinnon) or transpositions (von Balthasar)
which are the demonstrations of God’s unfolding of the truth of the inner
divine life through the Spirit’s work in time – this unfolding corresponding analogically to God’s ‘moreness’.
That this is not straightforwardly a departure from von Balthasar’s
theodramatics should be clear from the fact that such ideas of divine
surplus – of God as the ever-greater – play a structuring role in von
Balthasar’s thought on the relation between God and the world. As we
have seen, they lead him to affirm that something like the theological
virtues of faith and hope (and not just of love, which would be less surprising) exist in the eternal relations between the persons of the Trinity.
The ‘dynamic comparative’ is a central feature of von Balthasar’s doctrine
of God. Likewise, the idea of ongoing transpositions of the Christ-form is
an intrinsic feature of his theology of the saints, as we saw in chapter 2.
But we also saw there how this can rapidly become in his hands a sort of
geometry, and the dynamic comparative a formal principle of analogical
relation. We saw how strong the pull is in von Balthasar towards the assertion of a ‘harmony-in-principle’ between historical agents, their environments, and the shape of the ‘plot’ they find themselves part of – between,
in other words, the cast, the stage and the action. This highlights the risk
that dogs a theodramatics at every turn – the capitulation to what (recalling Hardy’s twofold typology outlined in the introduction to this book)
1 Not by any means ignored by von Balthasar, but not made central to his project either;
pneumatology is only given any sort of extended room to unfold in the final volume of his



Theology and the Drama of History

is a ‘systemic’ form of narration. In attempting to lead theodramatics in a
slightly different direction, and bring it towards a better conception of the
relationship between cast, stage and action, this concluding chapter will
reinforce its argument that ‘harmony’, if it is to be shown at all, will be
hard-won when history is looked at responsibly. Hopkins’ poem will give
an example of such ‘hard-winning’. That said, the present chapter will
continue to maintain, as I think a really Christian theodramatics must in
recognition of revelation, the legibility of God looked-for and findable in
historical events, even the grimmest ones. This is what the previous chapter called ‘the fittingness of temporality’s motive incompleteness’ to the
expression of God.2 With this category of legibility to the fore – and the
recognition that the search for legibility is a task for a theodramatics that
hopes to have anything to offer the theology of history – we now turn to
The Wreck of the Deutschland to see what can be learned from its approach.

Gerard Manley Hopkins and the wreck of
the ‘Deutschland’
I have chosen The Wreck of the Deutschland as the focus of this section for
a number of reasons. It is not, of course, a play; but it is dramatic, for
the precise reasons set out in chapter 1. It sets in tension with one another
the world of interior associations characteristic of a lyric standpoint,
and the fully mastered narration of all complexities characteristic of an
epic standpoint. The poetry’s voice is a voice attempting to speak ‘from
the middle’ of the events concerned, in a way that does not simply make
them a vehicle for the expression of some private state of consciousness,
but is impacted upon and changed by the events. Moreover, the poet’s reaction to those events is far from resolved; it is in process, and it invites the
reader into the heart of that process. A second reason for concentrating
on this poem is that it is theological. Hopkins, like von Balthasar, writes
as a Roman Catholic priest with a faith in God’s providential activity and
self-disclosure. He believes in the continuing presence in the midst of the
material and human world of the God who became incarnate in Jesus
Christ. As both dramatic and theological at once, the poem is thus a sort
of theodramatics, though in a literary medium. A third reason for concentrating on the poem is that it is historical in its concerns. That is to say,
the events surrounding the wreck of the ship, the ‘Deutschland’, in early
December 1875 are not chosen because they easily serve ‘mythological’
or parabolic purposes; they are chosen precisely because they actually
2 See above, p. 184.

Theodramatics, history and the Holy Spirit

happened, and the interpretative resistances they throw up in the way
of a theological approach are part of the point – part indeed of the very
subject matter of the poem. However limited an access it might actually
have given him to the full horror of what went on in the wreck, Hopkins tried as hard as he could to immerse himself in the detail of the
disaster by reading all the newspaper reports he was able to, asking his
family to send him cuttings from the London papers, and probably following the proceedings of the official Board of Trade enquiry into the disaster. He tried to think and feel his way into its reality – to allow it to have
an objectivity for him to which he, as a Christian and a poet, would be
answerable and by which he would be genuinely challenged and tested.
The sense of strain this imposes on him is manifest in most lines of the
35-stanza poem. The pressure which the poem’s theology allows to work
on it is matched and perhaps expressed by the highly-involved syntax,
which is utterly unlike anything in the ‘Sunday album pieces of sentimental piety’ which passed themselves off as typical religious verse at the
time.3 The Jesuit journal The Month refused the poem as too difficult for its
The shipwreck took place near the mouth of the Thames. The ‘Deutschland’ was a ship that symbolized for Hopkins much of the technological
capability of the industrialized world: part of the ‘mastery’ of the world
which the poem ironises. It was British-built, made of iron, over 300 feet
long with 600-horse-power engines and five bulkheads. Its captain and
crew were experienced men. For nearly twenty years the German company who owned the ship had been running a regular transatlantic service to New York and had not lost a single life. The ‘Deutschland’ was
making this same crossing when it encountered a storm in the North Sea,
and attempted to harness the gale to increase its speed, despite nightfall,
swirling snow, the complex tidal currents in the area and the number of
lethal sandbanks off the mouth of the Thames:
[T]he ship [ran] before the storm with engines at full speed . . . Only
when soundings gave results at variance with their dead reckoning did
the Master order the speed reduced. Too late there was a cry of
‘Breakers ahead!’, but reversing the engines shattered the propellor,
leaving the ship to lurch broadside onto a submerged sandbank. . . .
Huge breakers cascaded over the ship, lifting her and slamming her
down, yard by yard, further onto the bank.4
3 Norman H. MacKenzie, A Reader’s Guide to Gerard Manley Hopkins (London: Thames and
Hudson, 1981), p. 28.
4 Ibid., pp. 30–1.



Theology and the Drama of History

Because the storm did not abate, the ship was beyond help from the mainland for two nights and the intervening day. Only on the morning of the
second day did a tug from Harwich finally manage to reach them. It was
about thirty hours after the ship hit the sandbank. Some sixty of the passengers on board had died – ‘over a quarter of those who had embarked’.5
Forced from the lower decks to the main deck, many had drowned. ‘One
woman hanged herself; and a man committed suicide by cutting a vein’;6
many took to the rigging, from which some fell.
Among those drowned were five Roman Catholic nuns from Westphalia – already victims of Bismarck’s anti-Catholic legislation in
Prussia which confiscated church property, closed religious houses and
withdrew the constitutional rights of the Catholic church. Forced into
exile, the nuns were on their way to Missouri. Reports from survivors of
the wreck recall one of the nuns – the tallest of them – ‘thrusting her head
through [a] skylight’ in the middle of the storm and ‘calling to God to
come quickly’.7 The bodies of four of the nuns were taken to a Franciscan
friary in Essex, and Cardinal Manning preached at their funeral. His
sermon was widely reported; Hopkins would have been familiar with it.
It is an eloquent piece which seeks above all to strike a note of assurance:
He depicted the nuns as unaffected by the confusion about them, so
resigned in the peace, and quiet, and confidence of God, that they
showed not the slightest sign of fear or agitation. When urged to
retreat for safety into the rigging [Manning claimed], the nuns left to
others the vacant places which they might have filled. ‘We have reason
to know that the calm, composed resignation, the Christian faith and
happiness of those holy Sisters, were an example to all those who were
in the like danger.’ The Cardinal expressed his conviction that their
intercession had helped many others to prepare themselves for a
peaceful death, and he ended with a prayer for the salvation of all those
who had been called into God’s presence by the wrecking of their ship.8

Cardinal Manning’s sermon made unreliable claims (possibly not intentionally, but maybe because the pressure to make sense of the events led
him to take a ‘short cut’ to a certain interpretation of what happened). The
sermon is quick to claim that the nuns displayed a form of Christ-like obedience which is instantly recognizable Christian currency – almost stock
imagery (dying to make room for others to live). The sermon does not, on
the other hand, do much to suggest the difficulty of what happened. It falls
5 Ibid., p. 32.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

Theodramatics, history and the Holy Spirit

on a modern ear as though from a great height – from a point where some
sort of acceptable overview of the horrific events of the wreck has been
attained and can now be shared with other faithful listeners.
Of course, Cardinal Manning was a man of his time, and his sermon
bears the marks of Victorian expectations about what a sermon should
be, as well as of theological habits of mind more common in his context
than in that of most twentieth-century theology. But the contrast between
his response to the disaster in sermonic mode, and Hopkins’ response
in poetic mode, is startling, and even though (as we shall see) Hopkins
shares with Manning a desire to ‘see the form of Christ’ in the events of
the wreck, Hopkins emerges as the man with the considerably more complex, ambiguous and hard-won response. Words almost fail Hopkins at
a number of points, whereas there is no danger of this in Manning’s sermon. Whereas Manning’s instinct is to ‘step back’ from the events in their
turmoil and immediacy, and find a place to make sense of them which is
somewhat apart from or above them (this being a common move in many
theodicies), Hopkins decides to go more deeply into them; to risk being
overwhelmed in the hope of finding something at the heart of them which
will not necessarily tidy up all the edges of the picture. To put it in a way
that is now familiar, Manning’s approach has the marks of an epic reading;
Hopkins’ is dramatic.
Furthermore, the decision to go into the events rather than to step back
from them is itself a theological one. It corresponds to the poem’s preoccupation – set up at length in Part I of the poem – with the nature of the incarnation. If God is to be ‘read’ at all then that legibility will be in the midst
of human, material and historical reality, and not in abstraction from it.
This instinct is often expressed in eucharistic imagery: when galvanised
into uncertainty about where to find a standpoint (‘where, where was a,
where was a place?’ (stanza 3)), Hopkins tells us how he plunged inwards
(‘I . . . fled with a fling of the heart to the heart of the Host’). The mystery of
God’s presence in Christ is by no means apparent, as the conditional language of stanza 5 implies (‘For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless
when I understand’). There are times, we realize, when no ‘meeting’ seems
to come, or when understanding eludes the poet, however much he longs
to ‘bless’. Instead, the mystery of God’s presence in Christ is an ‘instress’:
some inner, shaping dynamic. The ‘stress’ is located not in heaven, but is
(through the incarnation) at work at the world’s heart, growing in pressure as though at a dam-head until it will burst forth with enough power
to flush the world clean of all the sins of humanity:



Theology and the Drama of History

Not out of his bliss
Springs the stress felt
Nor first from heaven (and few know this)
Swings the stroke dealt –
Stroke and a stress that stars and storms deliver,
That guilt is hushed by, hearts are flushed by and melt –
But it rides time like riding a river
(And here the faithful waver, the faithless fable and miss).
It dates from day
Of his going in Galilee;
Warm-laid grave of a womb-life grey;
Manger, maiden’s knee;
The dense and the driven Passion, and frightful sweat;
Thence the discharge of it, there its swelling to be,
Though felt before, though in high flood yet –
What none would have known of it, only the heart, being hard
at bay,
Is out with it! Oh,
We lash with the best or worst
Word last! How a lush-kept plush-capped sloe
Will, mouthed to flesh-burst,
Gush! – flush the man . . .

This theology underwrites the attitude of awe and circumspection with
which Hopkins approaches the material details of the shipwreck in Part
II of the poem. His approach gives generous rein to questions at several
points: it is strongly interrogative, and in particular in relation to the question of why so many died, even in its hope that they will be looked upon
mercifully by God:
. . . did the dark side of the bay of thy blessing
Not vault them, the million of rounds of thy mercy not reeve even
them in?
(stanza 12)

And again, in stanza 31 of the poem, what could have been a pious statement remains a question:
. . . is the shipwrack then a harvest,
does tempest carry the grain for thee?

Theodramatics, history and the Holy Spirit

(How interesting, we may note in passing, that von Balthasar’s discussion of this very poem in Herrlichkeit blunts the edge of the question, and
presents it as a statement: ‘The wreck is as a harvest’ (H ii, p. 766/GL 3,
p. 399).)
The interrogations lead ultimately, in the final stanza, to prayer, for
Christ’s presence:
Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us,
Be a crimson-cresseted east
(stanza 35)

In line with this circumspection, it is a remarkable feature of the poem
that it does not seek an explanation of exactly how the three parties in the
drama of the shipwreck can be reconciled in a single overarching vision –
the three parties being God, the elements of nature and the ‘heterogeneous representatives of mankind, varying from the courageous to the
terror-stricken’.9 It acknowledges the role that all three play, but it is not
prepared to claim it has answers to (for example) the question of how an
omnipotent and loving God can allow the apparently amoral destructive
powers of the natural world to wreak havoc on human lives. These are
questions to do with explanatory frameworks. It lets such questions stand,
operating instead under the discipline of faith in the incarnation, looking
only for a sign that the God who was in Christ is discernible somewhere
inside the events. God’s immanence offers not a frame but a presence.
In this respect, Hopkins achieves what Rowan Williams commends in
the essay we are shortly to look at in a little more detail: the essay on
‘Trinity and Ontology’ written in honour of Donald MacKinnon.10 Hopkins refuses to speak of God in a way that amounts to an ‘evasion of the
world’. He refuses to ‘think away particulars into comprehensive explanatory systems’:
There is a way of talking about God that simply projects on to him
what we cannot achieve – a systematic vision of the world as a
necessarily inter-related whole. Trust in such a God is merely deferred
confidence in the possibility of exhaustive explanation and
justification; and deferred confidence of this sort is open to exactly the
same moral and logical objection as any other confidence in systemic
necessity of this kind in the world. A God whose essential function is to
9 Ibid., p. 33.
10 Kenneth Surin (ed.), Christ, Ethics and Tragedy: Essays in Honour of Donald MacKinnon
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).



Theology and the Drama of History

negate the ‘otherness’ and discontinuity of historical experience, and
so to provide for us an ideal locus standi, a perspective transcending or
reconciling discontinuity into system, is clearly an idol . . .11

If Cardinal Manning presumed to have such a standpoint, Hopkins does
not. He jostles and struggles for a viewing point; the poem expresses this
vividly in stanza 28, where it is as though the poet is breathlessly elbowing
his way to the rail of the ship:
But how shall I . . . make me room there:
Reach me a . . . Fancy, come faster –
Strike you the sight of it?

For Hopkins, the ‘shock night’ retains a resistant quality that is simply
‘unshapeable’ (stanza 29).
Nevertheless, as I have already suggested, Hopkins believes that an
appropriately complex form of legibility is attainable for eyes trained to
see Christ at the heart of the world. It is not easily to be won, and it is not
glibly to be articulated, but its attainability is an article of faith. Legibility is one of the poem’s most significant themes. Hopkins casts about for
a way towards it, and in the end it is in the form of the tall nun that he
thinks he has found it. Not, interestingly, in a claim to see it all for himself, but rather a claim to be assured by her apparent reading of the storm
(her faith) that Christ was present there. His entry into the darkest events
in his imagination therefore appears partly to be an attempt to get near the
tall nun and see what she saw; to stand with the one who ‘Was calling “O
Christ, Christ come quickly”’ (stanza 24). Hopkins grasps at the way ‘she
calls Christ to her’, and so ‘christens her wild-worst best’. His attempt to
share her vision is like a devotional identification with the saints who recognized Christ most deeply in faith (and indeed, the tall nun is compared
both to Mary and to Peter):
Sister, a sister calling
A master, her master and mine! –
And the inboard seas run swishing and hawling;
The rash smart sloggering brine
Blinds her; but she that weather sees one thing, one;
Has one fetch in her: she rears herself to divine
Ears, and the call of the tall nun
To the men in the tops and the tackle rode over the storm’s brawling.
(stanza 19)

11 Ibid., pp. 78–9.

Theodramatics, history and the Holy Spirit

‘What did she mean?’, asks Hopkins (stanza 25); and what did her ‘single
eye’ see? After the jostling for a place from which to read what is apparently
‘unshapeable’, legibility seems suddenly possible in the light of the faith
of the nun:
. . . look at it loom there,
Thing that she . . . there then! The Master,
Ipse, the only one, Christ, King, Head . . .
(stanza 28)

The nun seems to have ‘read’ the ‘shock night’, and to have known ‘the
who and the why’:
Wording it how but by him that present and past,
Heaven and earth are word of, worded by.
(stanza 29)

We might say that the nun’s act of witness, divinely enabled, makes possible for others (Hopkins, and then through his poem further people too)
a new way of interpretation – a new ‘reading’ of the storm – that was not
there before. Her witness contributes to the formation of an interpretative environment, or ‘world’, in which certain experiences can be seen and
endured differently from the way they might otherwise have been. She
does this because she too has been the beneficiary of certain interpretative resources in the Christian tradition – especially, perhaps, interpretations of previous situations of suffering – but in having her power to ‘read’
expanded by these resources from the past, she also helps to create further
possibilities for future ‘readers’.
Her discernment of Christ in the events of the shipwreck, it should
again be emphasized, is not neatly transferable to any subsequent event
that resists easy acceptance; the attitude of acceptance even of devout
Christians must expect to be ‘almost unmade’ (stanza 1) by other terrible events still to come; and their readings will have to put themselves at risk and develop accordingly. But the nun’s discernment of
Christ is nonetheless part of a continuing and communicable tradition
of reading – one which is responsible towards what, with Williams, we
may call the ‘unassimilably particular’ and to the reality of unconsoled

12 Ibid., p. 88.



Theology and the Drama of History

Divine legibility
‘All explanation of suffering is an attempt to forget it as suffering’, writes
Rowan Williams. How have we been able to evaluate Hopkins’ treatment
of the wreck in the face of this deeply moral challenge to those who speak
about suffering? Well, as should have emerged, Hopkins’ poem is not an
explanation in Williams’ terms. Rather, in its ‘halts and paradoxes’, its
‘shifts and self-corrections’,13 it displays a sort of realism about the resistance of its material, seeing the wreck as an almost overwhelming cause of
‘dread’ (stanza 1).
Williams continues his challenge: ‘Human disaster does not submit
itself to a calculus of perceivable necessities in this or any imaginable
world.’ Again, Hopkins has fared well in the face of this. His poem in no
way argues that the shipwreck is necessary in the sense that it demonstrably yields a greater good in this world – or indeed in any world he is prepared to conjure for us in any detail. He offers us no such justification. He
is interested in the ‘unassimilably particular’ – that is to say, the real and
distinctive aspects of this event. Hence the strong desire we have already
noted to find out as much about it as he could. He is not ‘thinking away
particulars into a comprehensive explanatory system’. His idea of God
is not functioning to resolve all discontinuity into system. In Williams’
words, this would be to make an idol of God. He is trying instead to think
the particularity of this event with absolute seriousness and thoroughness
in relation to Christ.
He is pursuing, therefore, an extraordinarily significant theological
trajectory here. As elsewhere in his poetry, he is not beginning with a
notion of the divine life – its unity, its relations, its action – and then trying to impose it on some particular human material, some particular area
of human experience. He begins by paying attention to the particularities
and contingencies of an actual event, asking in this process what divine life
makes this possible.
This is analogous to that sort of treatment of the life of Christ which, as
Williams shows in his essay, does not just read into that life a preconceived
understanding of trinitarian relationships, divine unity, immutability, or
whatever, but which dwells first on the particularities and contingencies
of the story: a story of risk, of forsakennesss and death, as well as of blessing, preservation and new life (of resurrection). The ordo cognoscendi here,

13 Surin, p. 76.

Theodramatics, history and the Holy Spirit

too, is to ask what account of God’s life can we give such that events like
this can be possible:
We do not begin with the trinitarian God and ask how he can be such,
but with the world of particulars, Cross, empty tomb, forgiven and
believing apostles, asking ‘How can this be?’. Hence MacKinnon’s
image of ‘transcription’: what we first know is the reality we
subsequently come to know as derivative, transposed from what is

Just so, for Hopkins, Christ in his relationship to the Father and the Spirit
is to be thought in and through the very difficult, resistant particulars of
the wreck: this immensely painful story. Hopkins does not allow a preformed Christian explanatory framework to be set up as a sort of platform
above the event, from which he can peer down at it (he is not, in that sense,
doing a Cardinal Manning). On the contrary, he enters into the event as
much as he can, in what we might see as a sort of risk: to see if he can
think this event and think Christ together in some way. This is an example, I believe, of what Williams calls in his essay ‘commitment without evasion’.15
So, then, there are important analogies between the way that the
particular – or the ‘narratively specific’16 – functions to discipline a tooeasy theoretical explanation of suffering (or, indeed, of any historical event
or series of events) and the way that the ‘narratively specific’ functions to
discipline the language and concepts used of the Trinity. But the Christian
conviction is that something genuinely true of the inner divine life is made
‘legible’ in this way, as the ground of what Christ’s life displays in the
twists and turns of its narratable specifics. A transcription has been accomplished in Christ: ‘trinitarian reflection begins in the recognition that the
encounter of Jesus with the God of Israel “transcribes” the encounter that
is intrinsic to the life of God’.17
Left like this, however, there remains the profound risk we have consistently noted, of freezing a particular narrative configuration, along with
a single interpretation of that configuration (or restricted set of interpretations of it), and claiming to ‘have’ the secret of the divine life. There are
parallels here to the story Michel de Certeau traces in his book The Mystic Fable, following de Lubac’s lead, whereby the Church’s authenticity is
made dependent upon a supposed possession of (the meaning of) Christ in a
fixed form: for Protestants, in the form of the corpus of Scripture, ‘rightly’
14 Ibid., p. 84.

15 Ibid., p. 87.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., p. 88.



Theology and the Drama of History

interpreted; for Roman Catholics, in the form of the true sacraments and
the right (and power) to administer them.18 The greatest danger in handling the central Christian stories of the Gospels is that these too become
handled as fixed narrative configurations with final meanings – and that
this is a danger with a Hegelian aspect needs little argument:
what is wrong with an Hegelian view of the Trinity is that it projects
the ‘achieved’ character of Christ’s union with the Father as enacted in
history on to eternity (and so destroys the proper contingency and
unresolved or tragic limitedness of that and every history).19

To recall the points made in chapter 3, this ‘generalizes’ Good Friday into
a ‘necessary moment in the universal dialectic’ – for all that is admirable
in Hegel’s ‘desire to take history seriously, to bridge the gap between a
remote eternity and the concrete temporal world’.20 It gives the past a special kind of power (as what is ‘achieved’, and therefore not provisional or
revisable) and restricts the openness of the present and the future to new
arrivals of meaning which transform the way the past itself looks and the
way it continues to have effects through time. This is where, as suggested
above, the importance of pneumatology comes to light (the Spirit being
the one who continues to lead us into truth), grounded in wider trinitarian reflection.
But before turning to pneumatological matters, a brief acknowledgement of von Balthasar’s own discussion of Hopkins seems appropriate at
the close of this section, in the context of a chapter which has in many
ways contrasted the two men – presenting Hopkins as having the power
to spring Balthasarian theology from a number of its sticking points.
Hopkins’ poetry (and not least what von Balthasar himself recognizes
as the ‘great shipwreck poem’ (H ii, p. 725/GL 3, p. 359)) is far from
unknown to von Balthasar. Indeed, Hopkins’ work is held up as exemplary by von Balthasar in his selection of ‘Lay Styles’ of theology in volume ii of Herrlichkeit. The similarities between the two men are multiple:
the way that Ignatian spirituality informs their thought and their attitudes to devotion; their desire to restore the role of images (and of imagination) in Christian thought alongside the use of concepts; the presence
in their thought of a strong belief in the value of self-denial; and perhaps most importantly their passionate view that Christ is written into all
18 Michel de Certeau, The Mystic Fable: the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1992).
19 Ibid., p. 84.
20 Ibid.

Theodramatics, history and the Holy Spirit

being – that the creation must be understood via the incarnation, which
is its eternal presupposition, and that the sacrifice of Christ is ‘imprinted
upon nature’ like a sort of watermark through everything that is, underpinning its relationship to God, whatever may befall it.21
Von Balthasar is, moreover, inspired by Hopkins’s development of the
theme of legibility, which we have ourselves been exploring with particular reference to the role played by the tall nun in the Wreck. He likes the
way that Hopkins’s poetry advocates a ‘learning to read’ (H ii, p. 759/GL 3,
p. 391). It is on the face of it only a short step away from his own great theme
of ‘seeing the form’, and perhaps we should not be in the least surprised
to find von Balthasar greeting Hopkins as a kindred spirit with regard to
this theme, as here:
[For Hopkins] the cosmos as a whole possesses, either manifestly or
secretly, a christological form. And it . . . follows that through all the
raging of the elements, all the wildernesses of matter, all shipwrecks
and ruins, Christ can be coming and truly is.
(H ii, p. 751/GL 3, p. 383)

The question that demands to be asked, though, is whether Hopkins and
von Balthasar invite their readers to look at (or ‘read’) quite the same sorts
of things, and with quite the same emphasis. As the chapter so far has
endeavoured to show, Hopkins is in large measure presenting a model
of reading to which time is crucial (in the Wreck, for example, the limits
and specificities of temporal situatedness hugely affect the reading of the
storm, and are themselves acknowledged as part of what, with difficulty,
needs to be read). Hopkins presents a reading unique to its own context
which will not be shareable or transferable to new contexts without undergoing significant alteration. Meanwhile von Balthasar’s discussion of the
poem, and of Hopkins more widely, characteristically focuses a great deal
more on spatial aspects of what is to be seen (or ‘read’). He wants to show
how Christ brings scattered pieces into a pattern. We witness him stressing the more integrative and ‘achieved’ aspects of the Wreck’s portrayal of
Christ – and, indeed, generalizing its message a little more readily than
Hopkins does, in the same sort of way as I have been claiming the Christ
stories in the Gospels can too readily be generalized as part of a formal
21 These similarities are well discussed in John Riches, ‘Balthasar’s Sacramental Spirituality
and Hopkins’ Poetry of Nature: The Sacrifice imprinted upon Nature’ in David Brown and
Ann Loades (eds.), Christ: The Sacramental Word: Incarnation, Sacrament and Poetry (London: SPCK,
1996), pp. 168–80.



Theology and the Drama of History

system of world-explanation. Von Balthasar writes of what he calls this
‘sacramental’ poetry (and we recall the problems with his conception of
sacraments in their historical dimension – especially of the eucharist) that:
The Christian, who is able to read this picture of the manifestation of
the glory of God knows that here all truth and therefore all beauty lies,
that he owes it to himself to surrender in love to this archetype . . .
[Christ standing, as he puts it, ‘in the place of the eternal idea’]
(H ii, p. 758/GL 3, pp. 391, 390)

He makes Hopkins’s vision of what he calls ‘the whole world order’ in
the poem dependent on just the immaculate paradigmatic form of Mary’s
relationship to Christ that we have seen to underwrite his own ecclesiology
and much of his theological anthropology:
The whole world order – and within it the whole of aesthetics –
depends on the inextricable linkage of Christ and Mary: on the
interweaving, by grace, of the human act of assent into the redeemer’s
own act of assent, which is one with the assent of the love of the Trinity.
(H ii, p. 757/GL 3, p. 390)

And in a curious, but by now not unexpected, invocation of ultimacy or
finality, he talks of how in The Wreck of the Deutschland ‘the foundering and
shattering of all worldly images and symbols yields a final picture of the
sacrament of the world’ (H ii, p. 766/GL 3, pp. 398–99).
This preference for space over time, and for form as something once
given and now applicable everywhere in the service of ‘integration’, rather
than even now and variously emerging through new insights, new readings, highlights again von Balthasar’s need for a more fully integrated
pneumatology at the core of his theodramatics.
We look now at how such a pneumatology might function, showing
(with the continued help of Rowan Williams) that Hopkins has modelled
quite effectively some of the things which we have identified as still lacking in the approaches of both the Hegelian and Balthasarian models of
thought. This will enable us to propose a new pneumatology as a key to
the renewal and continued promise of a theodramatics – especially as a
resource for theological thought about history.

We have followed Rowan Williams in developing the idea that trinitarian
reflection begins in the recognition that the encounter of Jesus with the

Theodramatics, history and the Holy Spirit

God of Israel ‘transcribes’ the encounter that is intrinsic to the life of God.
God is constitutive of the identity of Jesus. But it does not finish there. God
is also constitutive, in a different sense, of the process by which in entirely
new, specific, unique and particular sets of circumstances (like those of the
wreck of the ‘Deutschland’) we come to new judgement about the Son,
Jesus Christ, in his relationship with the Father and his meaning for the
As Williams writes:
God is ‘other to himself’ or ‘himself in the other’ not only in the
difference of Father and Son, but in that ‘second difference’ . . . that
enables the communication of the Gestalt of Jesus’ life . . .22

The tall nun in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem represented just this sort
of ‘second differentiation’ – a further transcription of the form of Christ,
for Hopkins, in a quite unique set of new circumstances whose particularity is not ‘reduced’ or ‘assimilated’ just because of what happened on the
cross, but is the arrival of a new reading of the suffering and significance
of Christ. The wreck, despite its horror, becomes part of a new reading of
the movement of God. It did not all just happen ‘then’. As Hopkins might
argue (though the words are Williams’), ‘[n]ot only Jesus’ distance from the
Father but our distance, our critical “absence”, from Jesus, is included in
the eternal movement of God in and to himself ’.23
The poem is therefore one in which a serious doctrine of the Spirit is
implicit, as the divine condition for truthful ‘coming to judgment’. The
poem allows an insistent attention to historical events (including their
costliness), and an acknowledgement of historical pain. It allows a morally
truthful vision alongside and integrated with trinitarian language.
The task of thinking Christ in and with singularly new sets of historical circumstances is a task the Holy Spirit makes possible. That this task
is taken seriously does not imply that the truth that was in Christ has
changed, or that it was in some way only ‘partial’ truth. At the same time, it
indicates that new sorts of Christian thought become possible – and should
become possible – in history. And when new sorts of thought become possible, so do new forms of action, relationship and institution: new alignments of people, place and time. These can be just as much related to
Christ as earlier alignments were, through the work of the Spirit.
22 Ibid., p. 88; the idea of God’s ‘second difference’ is most fully worked out by John Milbank
in The Word Made Strange, pp. 171–93.
23 Ibid., p. 88.



Theology and the Drama of History

The Spirit makes history a medium of revelation, and not just an interval, or gap, between revelation and its recipients. In fact, it might be said
that true history (which is to say history in its God-given character, understood as the place in which human beings are intended to discover and
be united to Christ) is nothing less than the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit
releases human beings by opening them up to historical movement, and
confirms history for human beings as the place where they ought to be
if they are to know and respond to God. This means that the Holy Spirit
is appropriately described as the ‘God who sets us free’, to use Barth’s
words24 – more specifically, the ‘God who sets us free in history’, which
is perhaps a tautology (for in what other medium could we be free?), but
guards against the rush to locate freedom in some other, transcendent
realm. Barth writes:
In the Holy Spirit the history manifested to all human beings in the
resurrection of Jesus Christ is manifest and present to a specific human
being as his own salvation history.25

Eugene F. Rogers has written a deeply illuminating critique of Barth’s
neglect of the Spirit – a curious neglect given the rich promise of the
passing remarks just quoted, with their hints at the crucial relationship
between Spirit and history.26 Rogers shows just a little of what might be
extrapolated from these hints, in a way that magnificently ties together
the immanent life of the Trinity and the historical reality of human life –
safeguarding at once the fully co-equal divine role of the Spirit in the
former, and the intrinsically existential character of the latter. The Holy
Spirit is not just the by-product of the love between Father and Son, ‘waiting upon’ them, so to speak. The Father and the Son ‘wait upon’ the Spirit
too. The Spirit delivers something to both, which is intrinsic to the divine
fullness. As Rogers points out, we see hints of this in Jesus’s conception,
his baptism, his being driven into the wilderness, his transfiguration, and
so on. The Spirit emerges in the New Testament as one who clothes, glorifies, crowns and consummates the work of Father and Son (and therefore
Father and Son themselves). We see a Spirit who does not just give gifts to
creatures, but, in a sense, bestows gifts within the life of God – above all,
according to Rogers, the gift of gladness. The effective working of the Spirit
is not a ‘grinding mechanism’ in the Trinity; to the contrary there is on the
24 Barth, Church Dogmatics i/1, pp. 448, 456.
25 Barth, Church Dogmatics iv/4, p. 27.
26 Eugene F. Rogers, Jr, ‘The Eclipse of the Spirit in Karl Barth’, in Mike Higton and John
McDowell (eds.), Conversing with Barth (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 173–90.

Theodramatics, history and the Holy Spirit

part of Father and Son a ‘joyful waiting in trust and thanksgiving upon the
Spirit to work’.27
It is this ‘antecedent’ (to echo Barth), inner-trinitarian ‘interval’
between Spirit and the other persons of the Trinity that becomes the condition for the movement of creaturely witness to what the Son has done
in obedience to the Father. The difference of the Spirit from the difference between Father and Son (the ‘second difference’) is the condition
for a second response with and in addition to the response of the Son – one
which incorporates the myriad further responses of creation. These are the
‘over again’ responses of history, which Hopkins’ ‘over again’ response
to Christ in the face of new suffering and new Christian faithfulness has
been allowed to exemplify for us in this chapter. In Rogers’ words, the
‘interval’ which makes the Spirit’s consent different from the Son’s or the
makes room for the operation of human gladness and witness at the
advent of the Son, over long periods of history, stretches of geography,
and varieties of experience. The interval of the Spirit makes the
history to which Barth refers, and guarantees its contingency,
unpredictability, novelty and surprise: the Spirit makes all things new,
crowning the Father’s initiatives with a surplus of gladness in the
Trinity as in the economy. The guarantee of the Spirit in the economy,
that history will continue to surprise, and geography will continue to
vary, and personality will continue to delight, does not have to
undermine the infallibility of election, but allows the Spirit time and
space and psychology to overcome the resistance that we so richly if
vainly afford it.28

Human response – human witness – is part of the fullness of the divine
gladness that the Spirit delivers in the life of God. New human ‘readings’,
new human acts of faith and love, new human praise: all are gifts of the
Spirit, not only to us, but from us to God. The human glorification of God
in creation, and the multiplication of varied, praising witnesses – all of
which are the work of the Spirit – are geared to the ‘good pleasure of the
Father’,29 and indeed of the Son. In this work of the Spirit the fundamental
integrity of history is grounded and disclosed. In fact, as Barth puts it, ‘the
execution of this activity . . . is history’.30 Endorsing Barth’s view, Rogers
27 Ibid., p. 184.
28 Ibid., pp. 180–1.
29 Ibid., p. 185.
30 Barth, Church Dogmatics iii/1, p. 59; cited in McDowell and Higton, Conversing, p. 186; my



Theology and the Drama of History

The Spirit in Genesis hovers over the face of the waters; it moves in
creation, and it moves over a creation perceived as fluid. Its movement
and the movement of creation in response to its blowing is historical.
The prophets proclaim in the Spirit the Lord’s response to the concrete
history of Israel. The Spirit in Luke inaugurates the birth of Jesus Christ
in history. The Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness for a history
of temptation. At Pentecost the Spirit initiates the history of the
church – and so on. It is appropriate to the Spirit to arrange concrete,
particular circumstances and states of affairs, the messy details of
history, to suit the divine purpose. It is appropriate to the Spirit to
apply (‘applicator’) the work of the Son to concrete, particular people. If
it is appropriate to the Spirit to empower (‘liberator’) the human
response to the Word, then it is appropriate to the Spirit to do so

The doctrine of the Spirit outlined here – of the Spirit as the guarantor of
historical integrity and the animator of authentic historical life – meets
the demand of a theodramatics that the ‘unframeability’ of human existence in time be respected. It meets this demand by endorsing (more convincingly than either the Hegelian or Balthasarian attempts at historical
dramatization managed to) what this study has also established as essential to a theodramatics: the connection between the ‘unframeability’ of
human existence in time, and the ‘surplus’ of the divine life. The Spirit
brings the ‘more’ of the creation’s response to God into its own movement of glorification within the divine life, and this bursts the bounds
of the human capacity exhaustively to map and explain the full significance of its own actions, and their ends. Hence the previous chapter’s
emphasis that the only valuable sort of analogical approach to the divinehuman relationship was the dynamic sort that would allow God’s approximation to our experience and understanding to be the approximation
of an opportunity; of an enticing divine accord; of a space to become a
dramatic historical agent.32 Hence too, in this pursuit of a historically
sensitive theodramatics, the previous chapter’s resolute conviction about
what we have called the ‘fittingness of temporality’s motive incompleteness’ (and the always-unfolding creaturely exploration of truth in time) to
the analogical expression of God’s otherness.33
In preparing to bring this chapter to a close, we might ask whether
the pneumatological theodramatics outlined here – taking inspiration
as it does from the example of Hopkins’s poem – can be political and
31 Ibid.

32 See above, p. 182.

33 See above, p. 184.

Theodramatics, history and the Holy Spirit

institutional enough to be really adequate to historical description and
narration. The discipline of history in its usual contemporary academic
forms aims to do more than describe shipwrecks – or events of an equivalent scale. It aims to address large social movements and organizations in
their manifold interactions. Saying that Hopkins (or Barth, for that matter) in their Spirit-led reading of actual stories or events are in fact pointing
to ultimate truths about the way the world is ordered towards its destiny
may not be enough to convince the sceptic that theodramatics is actually
capable of operating in the same territory as conventional historiography.
It is either too small-scale and personal, or too cosmically ambitious.
But this would be to undervalue the tremendous range of reference that
is actually opened up by the theodramatic location of human freedom in
the context of a radical trinitarian love. In principle, the delicacy of insight
into the mutual dependence and effect of cast, stage and action that has
been outlined by this book’s critically developed theodramatics, by way
of its extended conversations with major thinkers, is as applicable to the
political and social realm, to economics and anthropological study, as it is
to the more immediate circumstances of individual or local experience. It
may of course partly work as a corrective to larger-scale historical narration
precisely by a better introduction of the individual and local into description of ‘big’ movements and ideas – but that certainly does not mean it can
only ever handle small-scale meaning. And at the other end of the spectrum, in going ‘bigger’ even than ambitious historiography by its eschatological field of vision, it consistently shows itself to have high-octane
political implications. (The Book of Revelation is one of the most political books of the Bible.) In each case, it is attention to the Christian God
that makes the appropriate insights possible, and the appropriate balance
sustainable: God the Trinity, who is all-embracing and yet personal, who
creates both freedom and the context for freedom, who has not foreclosed
the world’s possibilities in history (forbidding us therefore to foreclose our
own world-descriptions), but abides with them. The fact that theodramatics is theological (that the revelation of the triune God is at its heart) assists
its very right emphasis – in tune with Hegel – on human freedom’s dependence on its context (and, therefore, on other human freedoms) while not
allowing a historical patterning of relations in which selves and others
(at any level of interaction) are thought to have their relations mediated
exhaustively by predetermined structures. Neither the ‘Thou’ and ‘I’ nor
the ‘We’ of historical interaction are sublated in this theodramatics, and
the difficulties of historical narration are not allowed to be bypassed.



Theology and the Drama of History

It is not quite the case that this theodramatic potential to display
historical activity in its larger shapes is realized in Balthasarian theodramatics. We have already pointed out in referring to von Balthasar’s
treatment of the descent into hell the disappointing way in which – at the
moment when human suffering and evil are at their most intense for von
Balthasar – his theology is at its most ‘mythological’. Attention is diverted
from the struggles and suffering that characterize the social and material aspects of human history, and the structural and political aspects of
sin are not considered. O’Hanlon is better than many other theologians
at highlighting this failing in von Balthasar’s work. ‘From one who is so
conscious of the reality of evil’, he says, ‘there is a curious lack of engagement with the great modern structural evils.’34 And we must agree that
von Balthasar misses his opportunity to conceive the search for justice as a
project, ‘something with respect to which each of us has obligations in the
immediate future of our lives’.35 What needs to be emphasized on the basis
of this criticism is that theodramatics could have the capacity to do a great
deal more than von Balthasar allows – especially given the fact that good
drama is a corporate endeavour in which the participants seek in practical and concrete ways to be tempered into a kind of ‘solidarity’ with one
another. Drama (as was said in chapter 2)36 is pre-eminently the genre of
such rehearsed ‘solidarity’ or ‘solidness’; a genre which, to use Nicholas
Lash’s words, harnesses the ‘creative energies and efforts of our strenuous
patience’.37 This suits it to the expression of theology’s political and (so to
speak) ‘history-descriptive’ concerns.
Because the activity von Balthasar commends to contemporary ‘saints’
in the Church is controlled by a call for obedience which is too uniformly
issued, he makes something of a cipher of the ‘other’ (the many ‘others’,
in fact) in radical orientation to whom the Christian is to enact his or her
vocation. And because he is not explicit about the politics of his theology
of the Church (as Francesca Murphy has shown, he avoids using ‘political’
language at all when describing the Christian communion)38 he makes it
difficult ever to allow a proper critique of its structures, its use of power
and by implication its actual place in history.39
34 Gerard O’Hanlon, ‘Theological Dramatics’, in Bede McGregor and Thomas Norris (eds.),
Beauty of Christ, p. 109.
35 Morson and Emerson, Creation of a Prosaics, p. 398.
36 Cf. p. 101.
37 Cf. Lash, ‘Friday, Saturday, Sunday’, p. 115.
38 Francesca Murphy, ‘Inclusion and Exclusion in the Ethos of von Balthasar’s Theodrama’
in New Blackfriars 79:923 (1998), p. 61.
39 Oliver Davies touches on both these points in his essay ‘Von Balthasar and the Problem of
Being’ in New Blackfriars 79:923 (1998), pp. 15–17.

Theodramatics, history and the Holy Spirit

If on the other hand we recall some of the reflections of our first chapter,
which dwelt on the way that the truth of our social existence must necessarily be part of a process of imaginative, interpretative and collective
construction, we may begin to see how a theodramatic description of history
might take shape: a theodramatic description of history with all the requisite sensitivity to time, to politics, to institutions and to contingency as
elements which a responsible attitude to history demands be recognized
and articulated.
So far as Hopkins’ poem is concerned, the final stanza scotches any
suggestion that his own ‘reading’ of Christ stops short of larger social concerns. A poem that has shown itself acutely conscious of its modern, industrialized setting, and that acknowledges the play of political, economic
and religious forces in putting the nuns where they are on the night of
their death, ends with a vivid sense that the historical event of the wreck,
and of the nun’s Christian witness in this new historical setting, has the
potential to contribute to the transformation of a society and its relations.
He does not think the effect of her witness (and that of his own poem) is
just a matter of ‘reading’ – transformed Christian reading bringing about
a new legibility. Transformed reading cannot be separated from transformed action, transformed relationship. Cast onto the sandbanks at the
mouth of the Thames, the tall nun is a ‘Dame, at our door’ (stanza 35) –
the door of a national consciousness – knocking and asking for a kind of
admittance for ‘her master and mine’. Such admittance will not leave a
‘rare-dear Britain’, with its complacency, its elegant agnosticism, its pursuit of wealth and empire, unchanged.
Rowan Williams writes:
as Marx understood, interpretation is not enough. The Christian
commitment is to a world of reconstructed relationships, not to a
venture merely of ‘reading’ or ‘rereading’ the world.40

The concern in this book with how theodramatics makes possible new
ways of seeing or reading – and especially in this chapter with how the
Spirit is intrinsic to such new readings – should not give the false impression that these new readings are not fully historically engaged, or that they
are without historical import. Theodramatics is as much concerned with
‘reconstructed relationships’ and how they conduct people into God’s
truth in Christ as it is with seeing things a certain way. In fact, when properly understood, the two necessarily appear as linked:
40 Surin, Christ, Ethics and Tragedy, p. 85.



Theology and the Drama of History

if we see the Cross [and to Williams I would add, not only the cross, but
Christ’s whole incarnate life] as the identification of God with the
limits of time, and learn from this a different reading of the temporal
world, this ‘seeing’ of the Cross, and through it of the world, is
concretely made possible through the existence of ‘reconstructed
relationships’ – not an internal shift of attitudes but the coming into
being of a community with distinctive forms of self-definition.41

Such historical embodiments of complex truth within the Church are
themselves part of a theodramatic hermeneutic – disclosive of what needs
to be recognized if the dynamism and subtle potential of historical life
before God (both inside the Church and outside it) are ever to be done justice to. As Christians have always known, these embodiments too are the
work of the Spirit. For as Williams says, the Spirit does not only form and
sustain the ‘new world of perception’ that unfolds in historical relation to
Christ; the Spirit makes it possible to relate this world of perception to ‘historical, public transformation’.42 It is only by the Spirit that truth can find
expression, as John Milbank puts it, in a ‘genuinely public’, ‘traditioned’,
‘collective’ but ‘embodied’ voice.43 And this is another way of saying:
41 Ibid., p. 87.

42 Ibid.

43 Milbank, ‘Magisterial . . . and Shoddy?’, p. 34.


I dreamt our world lost careful hold of time
Instead of March the daffodils became
A Yellow-while when smell is in the air,
When green explodes and warmth upon the back
Is neither too much nor a dream denied.
Only the old believe in metal tongues
Communal hours secure and understood,
The rest of us must do the best we can
Each pocketing his own continuum.
Though Jacob on the sand had little need
Of face of watch (to him the angel spoke)
Yet we have luminosity controlled,
Each wink asserts possession of the scythe.
Fear not, for when the church bells cease to ring
In darkest night we’ll be sure of the hour.
(s a l ly b u s h e l l )

Theodramatics needs time. More than that, it relishes time, instead of
trying to mitigate its effects. While ‘lyric’ tries to find a medium for the
operation of subjective self-consciousness which is not timeable, and ‘epic’
narrates time under closure and in that way seeks to manage it, drama
blurs the frame. A good theodramatics will regard this as one of drama’s
virtues. As we said in chapter 1, drama is the art form truest to life and
the manifestation of complex, pluriform, multiply interpreted truth in
changing circumstances.



Theology and the Drama of History

The way drama achieves its ends, as we saw right at the beginning in
attending to the dramatic wealth and intensity of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon,
is to explode the fantasy that one can have ‘careful hold of time’. Drama
shows that the self-assertion involved in the modern quest to measure time
has a dark irony: it may be that the only possession it will achieve is possession of deadness. The ‘sureness of the hour’ so obsessively sought can
be a hollow gesture against a lost ability to know what (and whose) ‘hour’
it is. Modernity has taught us to ‘pocket our own continuum’ – epically
to commodify time, lyrically to privatize it. To modernity, it often seems,
the ‘angel does not speak’, and there is no ‘unaccountable scaffolding’ to
convey the divine light’s appearance.
However one quantifies and specifies time (calling this moment, for
example, ‘March’), one cannot, without recovering a more real investment
in it, articulate its quality, in which all the senses participate, and ‘green
explodes’ and there is ‘warmth upon the back’. Only then, dramatically,
does ‘March’ become ‘a yellow-while’.
And ‘while’ is a concept that cannot be pocketed: it is a blurring of the
boundaries of experience; more an invitation than a concept, in fact. It is
something one is ‘in the middle of’. It is not a word that modernity celebrates. Yet, as Jesus Christ told his closest disciples (his first constructive
interpreters), it is just this sort of time that is the time in which Christian
life must be lived:
A little while and you will see me no more; again a little while, and you
will see me.
(j o h n 16:16)

With these words he initiates the time of the Church, which is a time
dynamic in every way; a time where the disciples must learn new ways of
asking and new ways of receiving (vv. 23–4), in a historically transformative process (v. 20) which leads towards fullness of joy.1
Theology has long had the resources to school Christ’s disciples in citizenship of this ‘while’ – in all the existential, unfinalizable, dialogical seriousness of human self-determination in history. Theology has known the
importance of time’s passing, of history, in manifesting Christ’s presence.
Christ is given to the Church never as an object of manipulation or something ‘under the command of our gaze’; never ‘in the mode of a punctual
moment’, but as a continual gift (eucharistically), through the movement
1 I have developed this idea at greater length in my article ‘Making the Most of the Time:
Liturgy, Ethics and Time’ in Studies in Christian Ethics 15:1 (2002).


of rituals made new time after time, and displaying many of the quirks and
accidents of our poetic reception of that gift.
That is why it was so disappointing that the Balthasarian theodramatic
project at key points kept alive the destructive polarization of epic and
lyric. One of the tasks of this book has been to assess how von Balthasar in
giving articulation to the idea of a theodramatics (and thus making possible a subsequent enquiry like our own) dealt with strains both of epic and
lyric in his inheritance. The conclusion we seemed bound to draw was that
while his instincts about the importance of drama were good – and are in
great measure realized (for example in his essays on the eucharist, which
stress how the commanding activity of ‘seeing’ must be complicated by
the more receptive and uncertain function of ‘hearing’ and the highly participatory activity of ‘eating’)2 – nevertheless he sought at other times to
‘have luminosity controlled’. He would not accept the full implications
of his own choice of drama – particularly in the area of ecclesial life –
and so he would not allow that hope to open up which theological dramatics might yet offer: the reconstitution of life in which Christians learn
to speak and to ‘read’ with authenticity because their memories, understandings, passions and wills are permitted to interact in ways that are not
predetermined, while still embedded and sustained in social and institutional forms.
But this cannot, and should not, be allowed to occlude the good
reasons why theology might make a potentially vitalizing move to
drama – the fact that good theology (including von Balthasar’s theology at its best) is bound to acknowledge the ever-greater dimensions of that drama which includes every other: the drama between
God and human beings in and beyond history. Such theology speaks,
acknowledging that in every approach to truth a person operates from
within the drama, before the end of the play. Because the drama (made
present most compellingly in the eucharist) is indeed a drama wider
than any other conceivable drama – the drama of God’s action –
then it cannot completely be ‘framed’. It is a wonderful and profoundly
dramatic insight. This book has tried go a little further in realizing some
of its potential.
2 ‘Seeing, Hearing and Reading within the Church’ and ‘Seeing, Believing, Eating’, in
Skizzen ii, pp. 484–513/ExT 2, pp. 473–502.


Select bibliography

This bibliography gives a list of works consulted. A comprehensive
bibliography of von Balthasar’s works up to the point of its publication
may be found in C. Capol, Hans Urs von Balthasar: Bibliographie, 1925–1980
(Einsiedeln: Johannes, 1981). The Archiv Hans Urs von Balthasar in Basel
maintains an up-to-date record of secondary literature on von
Balthasar’s works, including articles and unpublished dissertations. I
have listed both the original versions and the English translations of
von Balthasar’s publications in this bibliography.
Works by Hans Urs von Balthasar
Das Herz der Welt (Zurich,
Heart of the World (San Francisco, 1979)
Th ´er `ese von Lisieux: Geschichte einer Sendung (Cologne/Olten, 1951)
Th ´er `ese of Lisieux: A Story of a Mission (London, 1953)
Karl Barth: Darstellung und Deutung seiner Theologie (Einsiedeln, 1976; first published 1951)
The Theology of Karl Barth (San Francisco, 1992)
Elisabeth von Dijon und ihre geistliche Sendung (Cologne/Olten, 1952)
Elisabeth of Dijon (London, 1956)
Das betrachtende Gebet (Einsiedeln, 1955)
Prayer (London, 1961)
Parole et Myst `ere chez Orig `ene (Paris, 1957)
Theologie der Geschichte (Einsiedeln, 1959)
A Theology of History (New York and London, 1963)
Verbum Caro: Skizzen zur Theologie I (Einsiedeln, 1960)
The Word Made Flesh: Explorations in Theology I (San Francisco, 1989)
Sponsa Verbi: Skizzen zur Theologie II (Einsiedeln, 1960)
Spouse of the Word: Explorations in Theology II (San Francisco, 1991)


Select bibliography
Herrlichkeit: Eine theologische Asthetik
I: Schau der Gestalt (Einsiedeln, 1961)
The Glory of the Lord I: Seeing the Form (Edinburgh, 1982)
Herrlichkeit: Eine theologische Asthetik
II: F ¨acher der Stile (Einsiedeln, 1962)
The Glory of the Lord II: Studies in Theological Style: Clerical Styles (Edinburgh, 1984)
The Glory of the Lord III: Studies in Theological Style: Lay Styles (Edinburgh, 1986)
Das Ganze im Fragment (Einsiedeln, 1963)
Man in History (London and Sydney, 1967)
Glaubhaft ist nur Liebe (Einsiedeln, 1963)
Love Alone: The Way of Revelation (London, 1968)
Der Kreuzweg der St.-Hedwigs-Kathedrale in Berlin (Mainz, 1964)
The Way of the Cross (New York and London, 1969)
Herrlichkeit: Eine theologische Asthetik
III/1: Im Raum der Metaphysik (Einsiedeln, 1965)
The Glory of the Lord IV: The Realm of Metaphysics in Antiquity (Edinburgh, 1989)
The Glory of the Lord V: The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age (Einsiedeln, 1991)
Rechenschaft 1965 (Einsiedeln, 1965)
‘In Retrospect’ in John Riches (ed.), The Analogy of Beauty: The Theology of Hans Urs von
Balthasar (Edinburgh, 1986)
Cordula oder der Ernstfall (Einsiedeln, 1966)
The Moment of Christian Witness (New York, 1968)
Herrlichkeit: Eine theologische Asthetik
III/2.1: Alter Bund (Einsiedeln, 1967)
The Glory of the Lord VI: Theology: The Old Covenant (Edinburgh, 1991)
Spiritus Creator: Skizzen zur Theologie III (Einsiedeln, 1967)
Creator Spirit: Explorations in Theology III (San Francisco: 1993)
Erster Blick auf Adrienne von Speyr (Einsiedeln, 1967)
First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr (San Francisco, 1981)
‘Mysterium Paschale’ in J. Feiner and M. Lohrer
(eds.), Mysterium Salutis III/2 (Einsiedeln/
Cologne, 1970)
Mysterium Paschale (Edinburgh, 1990)
Herrlichkeit: Eine theologische Asthetik
III/2.2: Neuer Bund (Einsiedeln, 1969)
The Glory of the Lord VII: Theology: The New Covenant (Edinburgh, 1989)
Klarstellungen: Zur Prufung
der Geister (Freiburg, 1971)
Elucidations (London, 1975)
Der Wahrheit ist symphonisch: Aspekte des christlichen Pluralismus (Einsiedeln, 1973)
Theodramatik I: Prolegomena (Einsiedeln, 1973)
Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory I: Prolegomena (San Francisco, 1988)
Der antir ¨omische Affekt (Freiburg, 1974)
The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church (San Francisco, 1986)
Pneuma und Institution: Skizzen zur Theologie IV (Einsiedeln, 1974)
Spirit and Institution: Explorations in Theology IV (San Francisco, 1995)



Select bibliography
Theodramatik II/1: Die Personen des Spiels: Der Mensch in Gott (Einsiedeln, 1977)
Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory II: Dramatis Personae: Man in God (San Francisco,
Christlicher Stand (Einsiedeln, 1977)
The Christian State of Life (San Francisco, 1983)
Theodramatik II/2: Die Personen des Spiels: Die Personen in Christus (Einsiedeln, 1978)
Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory III: Dramatis Personae: Persons in Christ (San Francisco,
Neue Klarstellungen (Einsiedeln, 1979)
New Elucidations (San Francisco, 1986)
Fibel fur
¨ verunsicherte Laien (Einsiedeln, 1980)
A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen (San Francisco, 1985)
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‘Masters in Israel iii: Hans Urs von Balthasar’ in The Clergy Review 54:11 (1969)
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‘Magisterial . . . and Shoddy?’ in Studies in Christian Ethics 7:2 (1994)
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(unpublished paper, 1994)
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Williams, R. D., ‘Balthasar and Rahner’ in Riches, J., The Analogy of Beauty: The Theology of
Hans Urs von Balthasar (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1986)
Teresa of Avila (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1991)
‘Trinity and Ontology’ in Surin, K. (ed.), Christ, Ethics and Tragedy: Essays in Honour of
Donald MacKinnon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)
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‘Logic and Spirit in Hegel’ in Blond, P. (ed.), Post-Secular Philosophy: between philosophy
and theology (London: Routledge, 1998)
Yeago, D. S., ‘The Drama of Nature and Grace: A Study in the Theology of Hans Urs von
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Barton and Graham Stanton (eds.) (London: SPCK, 1993)


Aeschylus 30, 85, 102
aesthetics 39
Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art 68, 88, 97, 111
Agamemnon, The 30–2, 42, 94, 169, 220
analogy, doctrine of 111, 173 n.11
in von Balthasar’s theology 24, 118, 148,
in Barth’s theology 140–3, 171–9
see also Fourth Lateran Council
Anglicanism 8
apostolic witness 68, 180
Aquinas, see Thomas Aquinas
Aristotle 3 n.2
artistic genius 75, 75 n.62
Ayres, Lewis 60 n.27
Bakhtin, Mikhail 194
Balthasar, Hans Urs von
analogy in the thought of – see analogy,
doctrine of
choice of dramatic field of metaphor 10, 11,
12–14, 15, 17–18
christocentrism 121, 154
comparison with Barth on Church 161
comparison with Barth on freedom
157–62, 164 n.69
comparison with Barth on sin 156–62
critique of Hegel 14 n.23, 20, 22, 24, 87–8,
92–3, 105, 107, 108–18
discussion of faith, hope and love 130–1
discussion of Hopkins 208–10
doctrine of the Church 17, 19, 24, 187–93
doctrine of the Trinity – see Trinity,
doctrine of
as ‘epic’ 131–64, 187, 193–5, 203
on the eucharist 189–91
on glory 21, 109–18, 132, 138

Hegelian legacy in his thought 11 n.18,
12 n.20, 12–13 n.21, 14, 17–18, 19, 20, 40,
45, 70
on hell 194–5
on time 190–3
on tragedy 107
reading of literary texts 136–46
reading of Scripture 23, 42, 45, 146–55
similarities between his theology and
Barth’s 120–2
Barth, Karl 14, 22, 119–28, 150–4
his christocentrism 15, 16, 121
comparison with von Balthasar on Church
161 n.68
comparison with von Balthasar on
freedom 157–62, 164 n.69
conception of faith as risk 148
denial that there is Christian tragedy 124
as an ‘epic’ thinker 22, 123
on Job 150–4
neglect of the Holy Spirit 212
on sin 156–62
similarities between his theology and von
Balthasar’s 120–2
suspicion of analogy 140–3
Von Balthasar’s interpretation of 23 n.32,
119, 133
Benedict, St 77
Berkouwer, G. C. 123
Bible, see Scripture
Bildung 59, 72, 75, 76, 79, 108
Blond, Phillip 106
Bouillard, Henri 174
Brito, Emilio 14 n.23
Buckley, Michael J. 47, 48, 49, 50
Bultmann, Rudolf 124
Bushell, Sally 165, 219
Butler, Bishop Christopher 186



´ de la Barca 12 n.21
Caraman, Philip 79
Certeau, Michel de 207
Christ, see Jesus Christ
de Certeau’s treatment of 207
doctrine of 4
relation to time 220
setting for missions 70–5
von Balthasar’s doctrine of 17, 19, 24,
60–6, 149, 160, 187–94
Church Dogmatics 150, 176
Clement of Alexandria 128
Cloud of Unknowing, The 78
Collins, James 123 n.6, 175
comedy 21, 98, 141
Cunningham, David 137
Dante Alighieri 26
description 7
diachrony 7, 25, 103 n.43, 184, 187
Hegelian 102
Dickey, Laurence 55, 75
dramatic character of Hopkins’ poetry 201
emotionally engaging character of 31–2
as highest form of art 11 n.18, 13, 18, 40
need for horizon of meaning 37, 113
role of performance in 36, 80
social dimensions of 35–6
Eckhart, Meister 110
Emerson, Caryl 194
epic 7, 30, 32, 39–42, 44, 79, 80, 94, 168
Barth’s thought as 22, 123
Cardinal Manning as 201
as distinct from comedy 21
epic aspects of modernity 47–50, 185
epic minstrel 81–3, 86, 99
Hegel’s thought as 21, 114–18
in Hopkins 198
Ignatius’ thought as 135
as illegitimate anticipation 128–31
Job’s comforters as 152
Von Balthasar’s thought as 23, 24, 131–64,
187, 193–5, 203
Erster Blick auf Adrienne von Speyr 72, 149
eschatological over-confidence 22, 123–31,
relationship to history 2–3
ethical life, see Sittlichkeit
Eucharist 41, 43, 189–90, 201, 221
Euripides 30, 33, 138–40
evil 8
existential register 17, 22, 35, 124, 125–35, 152

faith 130–1, 186
Findlay, J. N. 111 n.60
finitude 7
FitzPatrick, P. J. 187, 189, 192
Ford, David F. 149 n.43
Foucault, Michel 26–7, 169
Fourth Lateran Council 172, 176, 179
Francis, St 77
freedom and Spirit in Hegel’s thought
53–4, 82
freedom to sacrifice oneself in Greek
tragedy 139
God’s freedom 5, 14 n.23, 15, 105, 110–18,
121, 151, 164, 181
human freedom in relation to God 4, 5,
22, 23, 71–9, 112, 122–35, 151, 181, 215
human freedom in relation to social
existence 4, 18, 32, 55–60, 82
human freedom contrasted in Barth and
von Balthasar 157–62
see also existential register
Funkenstein, Amos 46, 47
Gardner, Lucy 184
Geist, see Hegel, G. W. F., Phenomenology of
genius, see artistic genius
genres see epic, lyric, prosaic
Gelassenheit 77, 157
see also obedience; indifference;
of Jesus Christ see Jesus Christ
in Greek tragedy 139
in von Balthasar’s thought 21, 109–18, 132,
Glory of the Lord, The, see Herrlichkeit
as beyond comprehension 106, 170, 175
critically realist doctrine of in Barth and
von Balthasar 121
divine purpose in history 3; see also
as dramatic 38–9, 110–18, 131, 133, 151,
as having something like time in himself
as personal 5, 92
sovereignty of 105, 110–18, 121, 151
see also Trinity, doctrine of; glory
and nature 178–9
Hardy, Daniel W. 1, 5, 6, 7
Harris, H. S. 58

Harrison, Tony 86
Hegel, G. W. F. 11, 18
critique by von Balthasar 14 n.23, 20, 22,
24, 87–8, 92–3, 105, 107, 108–18
Hegelian dialectic 102
importance of political writings 18–19
influence on von Balthasar 11 n.18, 12 n.20,
12–13 n.21, 14, 17–18, 19, 20, 40, 45, 187
on drama 12–13, 89, 91, 114–18
on genre 30, 33
on ‘picture-thinking’ 89
on reconciliation 97, 98, 105, 106, 111
spirit as having subjective and objective
dimensions 62–4, 70–1, 73–9
spirit in Hegel’s thought 53–84
as teleological thinker 82, 99, 100
view of Christianity as heralding demise of
drama 91
view of historiography 88, 89–92
view of the Trinity, problems with 208
see also phenomenology of spirit; epic;
hell 147, 194–5
Herder, Johann Gottfried von 98
Herrlichkeit 64, 77, 112, 138, 144, 182, 203, 208
English view of 6, 8
historiography, Hegel’s view of 88, 89–92,
historiography and politics 214–18
importance of provisionality when
interpreting 7, 124, 128–31, 150, 169
as medium of revelation 212
as a subject in the university 2
as theo-drama 87, 93, 110
see also providence
Friedrich 144–6
Holy Saturday, see hell
Holy Spirit 24–5
parallels with Hegel’s notion of Spirit
62–4, 70–1
relation to Jesus Christ in history 211–14
subjective and objective aspects 62–4,
70–1, 73–9
see also pneumatology
Hopkins, Gerard Manley 24, 195 n.53,
discussion by von Balthasar 208–10
idealism, German 21, 110, 123, 145
Ignatian Exercises, see Spiritual Exercises
Ignatius of Loyola, St 174
Ignatian spirituality shared by von
Balthasar and Hopkins 208
see also Spiritual Exercises
Immortal Longings 156
Incarnation, see Jesus Christ

indifference 151, 155, 156
as idea shared by von Balthasar and Hegel
19, 19 n.29
as Ignatian idea 76–9, 135, 189
in Hegel’s thought 57–9, 68–84, 132
in von Balthasar’s thought 23, 131–5, 140
see also obedience; self-sacrifice; Gelassenheit
Irenaeus, St 128
Jesuits, see Society of Jesus
Jesus Christ
as active in the world’s drama 92, 109
Christocentrism in Barth and von
Balthasar 121
concrete particularity of 16, 61, 75, 121
Gestalt Christi (form of Christ) 15, 146, 147,
148, 180, 188, 195; see also revelation
his ‘hour’ 128
Incarnation as centre of history 15, 75,
109–10, 154, 208–10
Incarnation in Hopkins’ poetry 201–3,
Incarnation interpreted by Hegel 91
relation to the Holy Spirit in history
total availability for his ‘mission’ 128,
witnessed to in the saints 60, 65, 75, 188
John, St 149, 188
Judas 125
Kenosis 72 n.52
Kerr, Fergus 156
Kevern, John 138
King Lear 96
Kingdom of God 9, 109
language 28, 28 n.4, 36, 70 n.49
Lash, Nicholas 46, 67, 74 n.58, 186, 216
Leahy, Brendan 22 n.31
Lectures on the Philosophy of World History 57, 61,
68, 88
Von Balthasar’s readings of 136–46
Werner 29
divine love in history 2, 5, 14 n.23, 112,
117–18, 180
Lubac, Henri de 160
lyric 7, 30, 31–2, 39–44, 79, 80, 168
in Hopkins 198
lyric aspects of modernity 47–50, 185
lyric individualism kept at bay by
Christianity 117
McCormack, Bruce 119 n.1, 173, 178 n.23
McGregor, Bede 22 n.31



MacKinnon, Donald 10, 126, 168
on tragedy 10, 86
maior dissimilitudo, see Fourth Lateran
Council; analogy, doctrine of
Manning, Henry Edward Cardinal 200
Mary 188–9, 204, 210
as obedient 64, 72, 75, 157, 160, 190
Marian Church 63, 157, 160, 188–9
Marsyas 94, 106
Measure for Measure 141–3
Medea, The 33–4, 42
Metahistory 88, 98
Metamorphoses 94
see also Marsyas
Milbank, John 27 n.2, 34, 170 n.6, 218
mission 64–8, 70–84, 102
modernity 46–51, 185, 192
Mongrain, Kevin 12 n.20
Morson, Gary 194
Moss, David 184
Murphy, Francesca 29, 40, 154, 181, 216
music 13, 13 n.22, 185
Mystic Fable, The 207
and grace 178–9
Neue Klarstellungen 63
Nichols, Aidan 22 n.31, 174, 175
Nietzsche, Friedrich 11 n.18, 12 n.21, 13
Norris, Thomas 22 n.31
obedience 14 n.23, 23, 64, 71, 72 n.52, 122–3,
130, 135, 161 n.67, 158–62
see also Mary; self-sacrifice; indifference;
O’Donoghue, Noel 122
O’Hanlon, Gerard 148, 195, 216
Oresteia 85
see also Agamemnon, The
Ovid 94
as sacramental 5, 118, 132
as being ‘a someone for God’ 64 n.31
in relation to society 6, 7, 27 n.2, 27–8
see also drama, social dimension of
Peter, St 149, 188, 204
Petrine Church 63, 161
Phenomenology of Spirit 18, 54, 102, 103 n.43, 115
Phillips, Craig Arnold 195 n.53
Philosophy of Right 59, 104
Pickstock, Catherine 183, 183 n.33
picture-thinking, see Hegel, G. W. F.
Pippin, Robert 103 n.43
pneumatology 197, 210–18
poi ¯esis 102, 114, 131

polis, Greek 58
politics 214–18
Poole, Adrian 27 n.1
prosaic 87–93
providence 150
in Hopkins’ poetry 198
in Measure for Measure 141
see also teleology; God; history
importance of in interpretation of history
7, 169, 184, 198
see also time
Przywara, Erich 121, 123, 167, 171–9, 182
Rahner, Hugo 172
in Hegel’s thought 97, 98, 105, 106, 111
revelation 2, 15, 16, 38, 121, 124, 147, 181, 188
as legibility 198, 204–18
history as medium of 212
Ricoeur, Paul 4, 178 n.22
Rogers, Eugene F. 212
role 64, 68
romanticism 50, 90
Rose, Gillian 20, 54 n.2, 100–2, 108
Rossiter, A. P. 142
Saints 4, 19, 29, 50, 60–6, 149, 161, 164 n.69
as like a nobility 69
as constellation around the Christ-form
in Hegel’s thought 60
see also world-historical individuals
Sanders, J. W. 96 n.19
Saward, John 22 n.31, 135
Schelling, Friedrich 11 n.18, 12 n.21, 13 n.22,
75 n.62, 75–6
Schiller, Friedrich 75–6, 78
Schner, George 79
Schopenhauer, Arthur 11 n.18, 13, 13 n.22
Scola, Angelo 22 n.31
Scott, William Bell 8 n.13
in Barth’s theology 15
in de Certeau’s thought 207
in von Balthasar’s theology 23, 42, 45,
146–55, 188
self-sacrifice 57, 139, 140
see also Gelassenheit; obedience; indifference
Shakespeare, William 12 n.21, 96, 140–3
Simon, Martin 144–6
sin 23, 112, 128, 156–62
Sittlichkeit 14, 56–60, 63, 68, 79, 89–91
Skizzen zur Theologie 127, 160
Society of Jesus 76
Sophocles 102

Speyr, Adrienne von 64
Spiritual Exercises 76, 77, 79, 135, 172
see also indifference
Hegel’s view of 19, 56–60, 68–75, 81–3,
System of Ethical Life 57, 68, 72, 108
see also Sittlichkeit
Steiner, George 125
Szondi, Peter 116
teleology 80, 94, 169
Hegelian form of 82, 99, 100
theodicy 201
history by another name 87, 93
see also Balthasar, Hans Urs von
Theologie der Geschichte 61, 127
Thomas Aquinas 171, 171 n.8, 174, 178 n.22,
time 219–21
as articulated flux 185–7
crystallized by von Balthasar 190
as divine creation 3
fullness of time in Hegel’s thought 92
human temporality 3–4
as intrinsic to drama 35, 219–21
as resistant to ‘epic’ overview 128–31
in Ricoeur’s thought 4 n.4
something like time in God 130
see also diachrony; history; provisionality
Toulmin, Stephen 47

as analogous to encounter with God 107,
Barth’s denial of 125
Greek 86; see also Aeschylus, Euripides,
human history as tragic 94, 106
inexhaustibility of 106
in MacKinnon’s thought 10, 86
as unifying form of emplotment 98, 114
in von Balthasar’s thought 72 n.52, 117–18
Trench, Richard Chenevix 144 n.30
Trinity, doctrine of 21, 164, 170, 186, 215
in Eugene Rogers’ theology 212–14
problem with Hegelian view of 208
Trinity as known through historical
particularity 206–7
universities 2
Vatican II 65 n.33
Volk 58
Wallington Hall 8 n.13
Webster, John 23 n.32
White, Hayden 88, 98
Williams, Rowan 4, 28, 54 n.2, 102, 103 n.43,
103–8, 133, 168, 194, 217
Women of Troy 139
world-historical individuals 66, 67–71
Wreck of the Deutschland, The 196–218