Book Review: Credo
The day crept in dim and low and misty this morning. I took a long walk and found cobwebs draped merrily over every available leaf, each strand starred with dew. Today is a reading day, and I have hours to go before I sleep. I'm hoping for a writing day soon, but these past weeks have been wild, and I haven't yet managed to cull the thoughts waiting for this space. There's so much I want to share: to be here is to be feasted, daily, and I keep wanting to pass on the delight. So, though I don't have time today for much contemplation, here's a book review I wrote for a formative assignment. I share it mainly because I am deeply intrigued by the author, a theologian who focused strongly on the beautiful, and I think perhaps many who read here would find delight in his work. I'm captivated by his fervor to describe the beauty of God, by his view of the Creed as an outworking of Love. So, read the review, but I hope it leads you to the book, and on to other excellent explorations. And may your day, misty like mine, or bright in the waning of autumn, be blessed. Credo: A Review
Reflecting on the line in the Apostle’s Creed affirming belief in the “communion of the saints, “ Hans Urs von Balthasar described the saints as “open treasure-houses accessible to all, like flowing fountains at which everyone can drink.” In Credo, a slim book of pithy reflections on the lines of the Apostles’ Creed, von Balthasar embodied the generosity he described. Written near the end of his life, Credo is a series of brief meditations offering an invitation to the treasure house of insight gathered over the author’s lifelong study of Scripture, theology, and doctrine.
An eminent theologian, described by his mentor Henri de Lubac as perhaps “the most cultivated man of his time,”von Balthasar was one of the most influential Catholic intellectuals and theologians of the twentieth century. Author of over a hundred books, founder of a lay community, friend and interlocutor of the influential Karl Barth, von Balthasar is perhaps most famous for his sixteen-volume treatise of systematic theology. He was a theologian concerned to engage redemptively with the questions of modernity while simultaneously casting a new vision of theology centered on the transcendent ideas of truth, goodness, and beauty.
In light of these momentous and verbose achievements, Credo first strikes the reader with its brief simplicity. While much of von Balthasar’s work could certainly be described as an open treasure house of theological knowledge, Credo is more intimate; the invitation to an inmost room where the real treasure is kept. This simple volume of reflective, vivid, often lyrical prose reads as a collection of the author’s key thoughts, gem-like insights culled from decades of theological study. In presenting them near the end of his life, in words accessible to a wide readership, one feels that von Balthasar is returning to essentials, affirming and presenting the seeded truth from which his great theologies grew.
In content, Credo is a collection of meditations upon each article of the Apostle’s Creed. At times an imperfect work, with sections of varied pace, length, and tone, Credo can strike the reader as a collection of random and somewhat disconnected observations tacked on to the articles of the Creed. But as von Balthasar writes in his opening line, “everything manifold stems from something simple,” and this is profoundly true of his own thought, something an attentive reader perceives and appreciates by the close of the book.
Stratford Caldecott, a recent Catholic writer, observed that to von Balthasar, “theology is supposed to be the study of the fire and light that burn at the centre of the world.” This holds true in Credo, for in his opening lines, von Balthasar makes it clear that the light at center of the universe is love. The “manifold” contemplations in Credo all stem directly from “the fact that the one God is, in his essence, love and surrender.” This early statement of his central idea sets the theme and tone for the rest of Credo’s meditations, each exploring exactly how that love is worked out in various aspects of creedal truth and human experience.
Several key themes may be identified within the text, ideas to which the author often returns. These include the concept of self-giving, the true nature of freedom, the way that love transforms death, and the way that love gives meaning to suffering. Each theme ultimately reflects how these various truths and experiences lead the human heart back to its divine source.
At times, the theologian is evident as von Balthasar argues for a particular interpretation of the Virgin birth (“Born of the Virgin Mary… here we have a great theater of war…”) or explains creation as gift from God to God (“From the viewpoint of the Father, in order to glorify the beloved Son; from the viewpoint of the loving Son, in order to lay everything at the Father’s feet.”). From lyrical statements regarding the Trinity’s self-giving love (“Herein lies the most unfathomable aspect of the Mystery of God: that what is absolutely primal is no statically self-contained and comprehensible reality, but one that exists solely in dispensing itself…”) he easily transitions to informative, directive comments on his incarnation (“…but at Christmas, the Old Covenant and its expectations pass over into the quite different fulfillment of the New…). He is personal and informal, both teacher and pastor, and often, father to his reader.
His parental tone is strongest in his passages on suffering. Cognizant of the era in which he writes, he references recent events, aware that the beauty of Love so central to his theology might be obscured for his reader by pain. Henri de Lubac says of him that, “sensitive to man's Angst, he emerges from it in faith.” Aware of how doubt unravels faith, von Balthasar ties creed to culture by describing the way in which “suffering… remains in God’s keeping, and is, in God, in a mysterious way, fruitful…”
Passages like the above illustrate the deeply pastoral tone of Credo, one reminiscent of that used by the Beloved Disciple in 1 John, addressing his readers as “little children.” The meditations, while certainly instructive, are not primarily apologetic or doctrinal arguments. Rather, they are explanations, clarifications, and expositions that untangle the complications of theology for any reader intent upon living the creed. Credo is also similar to 1 John in its aim to reveal a God whose essence is love. To read it is to glimpse that love through von Balthasar’s eyes, and even in some way, to inhabit it.
For the essence of Credo is something that both eludes and transcends a catalogue of its theological content.
In his essay Meditation In a Toolshed, the writer C.S. Lewis described two different ways of knowing reality by picturing a man standing in a darkened tool shed with a beam of light coming in over the door. The view to be had by looking at the beam describes the scientist’s insight gained by standing apart from the thing observed. The other view, and its corresponding knowledge, is that of the man who steps into the sunlight, looking along the beam into the green, bright world outside. This is the knowledge of lovers, children, and mystics, a knowing communicated by experience.
In Credo, von Balthasar writes from within the light.
The poignancy of Credo lies in the fact that its author has not only studied, but lived the creed. He knows its truth in bone and breath as well as mind. His insights are those gained by a lifetime of, not merely observing Love with the scientific eye of theology, but stepping into its light, allowing its glory to suffuse his inner being. In an early essay titled “Theology and Sanctity,” Von Balthasar wrote of the importance of “kneeling theology,” his concept for a life of study rooted in a life of prayer, and that fundamental orientation of self shines through. Credo is, at least in part, contemplative vision that comes to the reader in bold, bright strokes of spiritual vibrancy.
This is where the book is at its best, when Von Balthasar looks along the beam to the green world beyond this one where the sun of a glorious Beloved lights the whole universe. In Credo, von Balthasar invites us into the Creed as into a world, a world whose air will quicken our own dying souls with the oxygen of eternity.
As the author himself states near the end of Credo “for anyone who is permitted to step out of his or her own narrow and finalized life, and into this life of God’s it seems as if vast spaces are opened up before one, taking one’s breath away.” In his many books of theology, von Balthasar strove to outline and describe the vast and beautiful life of God. In Credo, he evokes it, inviting his reader to join him in the light, to walk in the way of the creed, enter its world, and discover the “adventures of creative, imaginative love.”
His promise if we do?
“Life in God becomes an absolute miracle.”
(All the quotes taken from: Hans Urs von Balthasar, Credo, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990))