Oakes on Balthasar; Balthasar on Barth; Barth on Mozart

Reading Edward T. Oakes Pattern of Redemption is a very enlightening look at the work of von Balthasar as well as a host of other figures — the Jesuit philosopher Erich Przywara, the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, T.S. Eliot, Goethe, Nietzsche. For all of you currently studying or interested in philosophy, I heartily recommend it. Fr. Oakes is very widely read and — much like the subject of his work — is gifted at weaving the thought of others in a rich tapestry, elucidating the point of each chapter. For example, the following is taken from p. 134-135, discussing Balthasar’s appreciation of his Lutheran contemporary Karl Barth, their mutual appreciation of Mozart and their valuing of aesthetics contra Kierkegaard.

. . . music was no doubt a large part of what drew Balthasar to befriend Karl Barth and what made their friendship so mutually enriching. For here was a Protestant thinker who also instinctively rejected Kierkegaard’s harsh disjunction between the aesthetic and religious sphere, and did so precisely because of music, or more specifically Mozart’s music. As Balthasar explains in his own appreciation of Barth’s musical sensibility:

This refutation of Kierkegaard, already evident and fully formed in the early Barth, is attributable to a final contrast: for Kierkegaard Christianity is unworldly, ascetic, polemic; for Barth it is the immense revelation of the eternal light that radiates over all of nature and fulfills every promise; it is God’s Yes and Amen to himself and his creation. Nothing is more characteristic of the two men than the way they stand in relation to Mozart. For Kierkegaard Mozart is the very quintessence of the aesthetic sphere and therefore the very contrast to a religious existence. He had no choice but to interpret him demonically, from the perspective of Don Juan. Quite different is that view of Mozart by one of his greatest devotees, Karl Barth? [The Theology of Karl Barth: Exposition and Interpretation, p. 26]

Fr. Oakes supplements this with a moving passage from Barth’s Dogmatics:

Why is it that this man [Mozart] is so incomparable? Why is it that, for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which ‘beautiful’ is not a fitting epithet; music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment, edification, but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; usic which is never a slave to its techniques nor sentimental but always ‘moving,’ free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign? Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation, but also in eschatology, although he was not a Father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparenlty leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied with his work? . . . [Becuse] he had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even today, what we shall not see until the end of time — the whole context of Providence.[Church Dogmatics III/3, 297-298]

Pattern of Redemption is divided into four parts, the first charting the various “tributaries of influence” (Pryzwara, Barth, Goethe, Nietzsche and German Idealism, and the Church Fathers) and the remaining three covering his multi-volume works (Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics; Theodrama: Theological Dramtic Theory and Theo-Logik). I’m presently on the second part, discussing Balthasar’s thought on aesthetics, in which Oakes writes:

. . . the disengagement of aesthetics from Christian thought has been
a most fateful step for theology, and Balthasar devotes the entirety of the next two volumes [of the Dramatics] to analyzing how this came about . . . it is no secret to anyone, he says, that “the word ‘aesthetic’ automatically flows from the pens of both Protestant and Catholic writers when they want to describe an attitude which, in the last analysis, they find to be frivolous, merely curious or self-indulgent.

Count me among the latter. As one who was taken by Kierkegaard as a philosophy major in college, and especially with Kierkegaard’s description of the “three stages” of spiritual development (the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious), Balthasar’s thought has made for some suprising and engrossing reading. Oakes continues:

It would be easy to verify this insight almost at random today, but I think it much more important to show how the denigration of aesthetics in contemporary theology constitutes the hidden presupposition governing theology across the board, from liberation theology (which might be regarded as that school of theology that is governed by an overemphasis on the Good, as a theology that recommends a praxis disengaged from the gratuity of sheer worship for its own sake, which only beauty can elicit) to the remarkable obsession which historical studies that has gripped theology since the rise of historicism in 19th-century Germany (a positivism which must surely have its roots in a hypertrophied emphasis on the True disengaged from the directness of perception that comes from a contemplative gaze on the beautiful).

So, I’ll leave you with that food for thought. As you can expect, I’ll probably be posting and commenting more as I read further . . .

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