A Brief Examination on Balthasar’s Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (1937 – 1939)

A Brief Examination on Balthasar’s Apokalypse der deutschen Seele (1937 – 1939) August 31, 2009

The Apocalypse of the German Soul[1]

Balthasar’s exploration of the modern “German soul,” as he discerned it through its literary heritage, represents his first major eschatological work. While the various studies on the different figures within his text are interesting in their own right, we will have to focus on his overall strategy, so as to discern the theological and philosophical points he wanted to make by his study. To be sure, we must recognize his work was a work of criticism, pointing out the deficiencies of Germanic thought as it emerged in the modern era, showing the problems of Idealism, Romanticism, and other such movements which influence us today. But it is also clear, he wanted it to be an engagement with what has developed, to discern the positive content contained with it, and recognize that some of it is of great importance to Christian thought – we can’t just hide in the past, rather, we must engage the concerns of the present age, which, of course, must include recognizing those concerns as being at least somewhat valid. His criticism in this way can be seen as a kind of purification; what is it that can be said not only good and true, but worthwhile in what has been said since the time of Kant? We can’t summarily dismiss it – instead, we must explore what it is that caused the development of modern thought, discern what valuable inspirations are guiding it, and bring them out in the open. Once this is done, we will be better suited to deal with the problems which plague modern humanity, because we will know their foundations, and the kinds of erroneous answers which have been given to them.[2]

Balthasar’s desire was to show what modern German thought can reveal of itself (“apocalypse” as revelation) in relation to its ultimate (eschatological) standing. “Eschatology can be defined as the teaching of the relationship of the soul to its eternal fate, whose achievement (fulfillment, alignment) is its apocalypse.”[3] Thus, for Balthasar, he wanted to find out where important historical figures and ideas stand in relation to infinite being, using that standing as a means to discern what we can learn about them. Then he could ask, what is it that is lacking in their works, what is it that needs to be perfected? Christianity and its eschatology was used as the point of judgment and criticism, showing the proper kind of relationship which should emerge when finite creation encounters infinite being in God.[4] “Thus, Apokalypse der deutschen Seele signifies the movement toward the final meaning, the flashing up of the eternal destiny of the human person, revelation as the completion and truth of the person.”[5] Balthasar’s analysis, however, should not be seen as final; it was rather his own preliminary examination of modernity and its philosophical and literary core; he realized that while we have been given the works and thoughts of these historical figures, and they do reveal much of the person who produced them, the final revelation can only be had in the light of the judgment of Christ, a judgment which he could not himself give.

Balthasar understood the difficulty of his work; his conclusions would have to be relative in nature, and deal with those elements of the soul which have been revealed by the sources he investigated. The soul, the heart of the person, remains in a way veiled. But we exist in dialogical relations with one another. As he will observe in more detail later, we do reveal things of ourselves, let out elements of that mysterious core in our relationships with each other, and what reveal becomes the means by which we can discuss and examine that core, knowing full well how imperfect and imprecise our evaluation will have to be.[6] Given this caveat, we can discern a great deal, and see that what is revealed does point to and reveal the greater whole – which was all that is required for this work. What is important for us here is that he believes he can and does judge worldviews based upon what Christianity teaches. Similar to the way the soul will be examined by Christ, so worldviews can be, and should be critically analyzed by Christianity, revealing their inner core, showing all that is right with them, but also, and more importantly, what is wrong in them, so we can then avoid the errors they have produced.[7]

Idealism, by going inward in its explorations of the self, has created a false sense of the absolute, mixing it with that very self. Ever since the turn to the subject in modern philosophy, there has been a disposition to raise the value of the subject so that it becomes an independent self with authoritarian control over all that was around itself; the end product, of course, was an attempted deification which ignored the distance between the creature and the creator.[8] The problem was the absolute identification of creature with creator, which can be said to be the Luciferian core of the Promethean principle.[9] Although in this work Balthasar traced its sway over modern philosophy, it was something he would also see as having influence throughout history. Thus, he would, for example, see it in Platonism, later in Gnosticism, and both would continue to have a kind of influence over philosophical history, popping up throughout history in new forms, but each with the same basic problems.[10] Indeed, one might say that Gnosticism gained prominence in the modern world because of this modern tendency to absolutize the subject; once the subject was made absolute, the world ended up becoming illusory, allowing for Gnostic docetism to be taken seriously. The material world, therefore, was relativized into meaninglessness. The attempt to become more than one can be, to confuse participation in infinite being as being essentially merged with that infinite being causes its own fall; since finite being cannot be infinite, even though its grounding in the infinite, any attempt to be such will fail. However, this is not to say everything in this trend is erroneous. One must also recognize that there is an aspect of truth here, however perverted it has become. Christianity acknowledges that humanity has been created to participate in the boundless infinity of God; we are, in a way, to “rise” up as we ground ourselves in that infinite being – but we must see it as an issue of participation in that infinite being. As a result, our personal distinction is preserved, and is not overcome or annihilated by its placement in infinite being. So, there is, to be sure, an expectation which is being expressed, and Christ shows us the fulfillment of this expectation: we are made for theosis, a participation in the divine life, one which nonetheless, like in Christ, preserve humanity intact.

An important aspect of the Promethean principle is that it attempts to establish its absolute-monism through a closed-system, that is, it is systematic in its presentation of the absolute. Paradox is weeded out; dialectic was, to be sure, the way this was done for many, such as Hegel. While there were many reasons why this development occurred (many of which Balthasar would agree were good, even if confused), when the system was attempted to be lived out, what it produced was not what was promised, and this caused the so-called Dionysian reaction the Prometheans. Aidan Nichols explains Balthasar’s transition from Prometheus to Dionysius well:  “In Hegel’s wake – and above all with Nietzsche – we hear a ‘No’ to Idealism and a corresponding ‘Yes’ to the heroic situation of live lived in conscious contradiction. Ultimacy is now located on, or at any rate, through the battlefield of contraries.”[11] Nietzsche and Kierkegaard represent two important reactions to the Prometheans, showing us two different directions which Germanic thought diverged. Of the two, Balthasar finds more affinity with Kierkegaard, although he respects much of what Nietzsche brought into the picture, because he was able to demolish the prideful absolutism of Idealism.[12] What they both had in common was their critical no to the systematic absolutism of Prometheus; their difference, obviously, was in their approach to one’s place in reality once Idealism no longer holds sway. For them, and for other Dionysians, ontology was no longer involved with the “Ideas” of idealism, but with real, concrete life and how one was to exist in the world at large. “As for formal ontology, the catchword of this [Dionysian] principle must obviously be that of ‘Life’ in emphatic contrast to the ‘Idea’ of the Promethean principle.”[13] From this, however, emerged its own crisis. What exactly was one to think of infinite being, of the absolute? Here, the answers of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard represent for Balthasar two of the most important responses, and the answers which Balthasar will time and time again look for: one says either no (Nietzsche) or yes (Kierkegaard) to the infinite being, but instead of Idealism with its attempt to possess the absolute, here, if one says yes, one is then to open themselves up, and encounter the absolute, without making any claim upon it.[14] Interestingly enough, Balthasar notes that both require us to sacrifice the self, one for the creation of the super-man of the future, the other for the encounter with the absolute to dialogue with it. Both, therefore represent, in their own way, two kinds of self-giving, and therefore, of “Dionysius crucified.”[15]

These two principles (Prometheus and Dionysius) held sway and influence early 20th century thought, and the fruit of their labor is shown, in part, in the degradation, war and death which emerged. Both provided insight into the human condition, but both failed to offer what is necessary to actually represent humanity and sufficiently provide for its needs. The two, then, come together as two different, contradictory, motions of modernity, and in a way, merge, the positive with the negative, but in doing so, they also represent two different trends in world history, as Alois Haas explains:

The fact that the result was largely negative did not throw the young Jesuit off-course. The demonstration of a fundamental contradiction in modernity’s interpretation of meaning between ‘complete transfiguration of the world, the divinizing of the earth’, on the one hand, and ‘pure falling, the path into nothingness and judgment,’ on the other, signals a fundamental contradictoriness of ‘dimensions of world history’ whose ‘negativity’ is ‘positivity.’[16]

Why did this not lead Balthasar to entirely dismiss the project of modernity and just retreat to the past? The reason for this is simple – behind each aspect of modernity, Balthasar saw an aspect of the truth, the truth which is found in the Cross, and it is by Christ on the Cross everything is to find its fulfillment. “Christ gives the world its form and its law by his life on the cross, which the cross expresses graphically. Therefore, it is here that ‘Prometheus bound’ and ‘Dionysius crucified’ find their enlightenment.”[17] It is the cross which is to judge the world, for it establishes the grounds in which humanity perceives itself and understands itself in its eschaton.[18] Indeed, the two forms of modern German thought can be shown to represent, in their own ways, the horizontal and vertical bars of the cross, pointing the need to put them together, and find with the cross, Christ, who as the God-man, and not merely the human subject trying to absolutize himself, is capable of obtaining and delivering that which Prometheus and Dionysius both point to, in their own, imperfect ways.[19]


[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Apokalypse der deutschen Seele: Studien zu einer Lehre von letzen Haltunger, 3 vols. 3rd ed. (Einsiedel: Johannes Verlag, 1998). [henceforth will be abbreviated as AdS1-3, respectively).

[2] Indeed, this would be a common theme in Balthasar’s works: we can’t just rely upon the ideas of the past to answer the questions of the present, but rather, we must meet the present situation and deal with what we have, not what has been outgrown. Obviously we can find much in the past which can inspire us as we pursue our goal, but we must also recognize the figures of the past are insufficient in themselves to answer the questions we find around us today. If they could, there would not be the crisis of faith which we see around us today. Balthasar would deal with this problem in different ways, but, in each, he is moderate and cautious, reminding us that adaptation comes with a price, as history has shown. This theme was central to his important and early article (1939), “Patristik, Scholastik, und wir,” published in English as, “The Fathers, the Scholastics, and Ourselves,” Communio 24 (Summer 1997): 347 – 396.

[3] “Eschatologie läßt sich dann als die Lehre vom Verhältnis der Seele zu ihrem ewigen Schicksal definieren, dessen Erreichung (Erfüllung, Angleichung) ihre Apokalypse ist,”  Balthasar, AdS1, 4.

[4] While not a discussion of analogia entis, it is clear that Balthasar’s approach to the analogy of being is the same approach Balthasar wants to use to judge the relationship between the creature and creator: the creature needs to find its root in infinite being, while remaining creature. German Idealism, however, is seen to be absolutist and monist, seeking to remove the distinction between the finite and infinite, creating the modern Prometheus (which could be found, for example, in the philosophy of Hegel); when this absolutist trend was rejected, Balthasar saw the emergence of a Dionysian, biological, anti-absolutist response which ignored or rejected infinite being, while pushing for the freedom of finite being in and of itself (with, of course, a resulting annihilationist tendency as found, for example in Nietzsche). Yet, because the criticism of the absolutism of Prometheus was necessary, the response could still go beyond the self-destruction of Dionysius, and indeed, leave room for the infinite to permeate the finite, such as is found in Kierkegaard. Thus, as Anthony Cirelli put it, “According to Balthasar, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard are the representative (dionysian) pole of the existential movement that Balthasar sets up as a challenge to German Idealism (the ‘prometheans’): Dionysius against Prometheus. […] One must now choose between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche as they are representatives of the final battle lines for Balthasar; the culminating voices not only of German thought but modern man as well,” Anthony Tyrus Gaines Cirelli, “Form and Freedom: Patristic Revival and the Liberating Encounter between God and Man in the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar” (Ph.D. dissertation, The Catholic University of America, 2007), 70.

[5] Alois M. Haas, “Hans Urs von Balthasar’s ‘Apocalypse of the German Soul,’” in Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work, ed. David L. Schindler. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 52-3.

[6] Cf. Hans Urs Balthasar, AdS1, 4.

[7] See Aidan Nicholas, Scattering the Seed: A Guide through Balthasar’s Early Writings on Philosophy and the Arts (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2006),, 35.

[8] The early stages of German Idealism comes out of Kant’s revolutionary insights, leading to what Balthasar called the Promethean principle, which reigns supreme until challenged by the Dionysians starting in the mid 19th century. The Prometheans include such dignitaries as Fichte, Schelling, Novalis, Hölderlin, Goethe, Hegel, et. al.. Its principle can be said to be the “creative negation as the dynamic middle-point between the ‘one’ and ‘all’” (Prometheus ist schöpferische Negation als dynamische Weltmitte zwischen „Hen“ und „Pan“), Balthasar, AdS1, 147. That is ,it reacts to dualism by creatively rejecting the division and creating its own form of monism.

[9] Lucifer, like Prometheus, promised to be a light-bringer to humanity, promising us deification; that is, he suggested humanity could become its own absolute. What they got for following Lucifer’s “light” was, however, far from what was promised: humanity was wounded by its attempt to merge with the absolute. The connection between the two-lightbringers and their promises to humanity did not go unnoticed, as they both were seen as representatives of the genius behind human creativity in the works of Goethe. See, for example Balthasar, AdS1, 145. Nonetheless, despite Goethe’s “rebellious” streak, Balthasar tended to be favorable to Goethe’s aesthetic outlook, and found him to be, despite his “Luciferean/Promethean” approach, a pivotal figure in his own right because of his concept of “form” which would take on an important part of Balthasar’s theology.

[10] See Cyril O’Reagan, “Balthasar and Gnostic Genealogy,” Modern Theology 22 (October 2006): 615 – 17.

[11] Nichols, Sowing the Seed, 133.

[12] “Balthasar’s final position, of course, will be with Kierkegaard, whose stance towards the infinite is one of abandonment and is grounded in dialogue,” Cirelli, “Form and Freedom: Patristic Revival and the Liberating Encounter between God and Man in the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar”, 71.

[13] “Als formale Ontologie wird das Kennwort dieses Prinzip offenbar “Leben” heißen müssen, im betonten Gegensatz zur “Idee” des Prometheusprinzips,” Balthasar, AdS2, 7.

[14] See Aidan Nichols, Sowing the Seed, 129 -132.

[15] Despite their criticism of Idealism, Balthasar nonetheless saw that the Dionysians remained influenced by it in various was. For example, Nietzsche, in the end, seeks after the unity of “Dionysius” with Apollo, with a new kind of absolute:  “Dionysius, bacchich frenzy, and Apollo,  clean and simple peace, are the one ember of existence,“ (Dionysos, der bacchantische Taumel, und Apollo, die durchsichtige und einfache Ruhe, Flamme und Leuchten, sind die eine Glut des Daseins), Balthasar AdS1, 707. And yet in Kierkegaard, one can discern the influence of dialectic in his thought; what raises his views over the past is that his form if dialectic is open-ended, not closed into one unified system like the dialectic of the past.  In Kierkegaard, therefore, the self-giving makes one open for love in God, where God can take over the self-giving and provide what was given back to the person, while in Nietszche, there is with the death of God, a self-giving which ends with nothing but a kind of self-glory, of AntiChrist. “And for Nietzsche, even the man is killed, sacrificed – to the supermen. For Kierkegaard, however, the individual can vanish ‘in self-extermination before God’ and be raised by God as a new creature,” ( Und für Nietzsche ist auch der Mensch getötet, geopfert – dem Übermenschen. Für Kierkegaard aber kann der Einzelne „ in Selbstvernichtung vor Gott“  untergehen und durch Gott als neu Kreatur auferstehen), Balthasar AdS I, 717.

[16] Alois M. Haas, “Apocalypse of the German Soul,” 53.

[17] “Christus gibt der Welt ihre Gestalt und ihr Gesetz, indem Er im Kreuze das lebt, was das Kreuz bildhaft ausdrückt. Hier finden deshalb auch der „gefesselte Prometheus“ und der   „gekreuzigte Dionysos“ ihre Aufklärung,” Balthasar, AdS3, 434-5.

[18] See Balthasar, AdS3, 435.

[19] See Aidan Nichols, Scattering the Seed, 240 – 1.

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