“Reading Balthasar (Very) Critically” by Karen Kilby

Karen Kilby is associate professor of systematic theology at the University of Nottingham, England, and author of the newest book in the Interventions series, Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction.

Karen Kilby
Karen Kilby

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Sometimes it takes a long time for an idea to work itself out. I’ve just published a book on Hans Urs von Balthasar with Eerdmans, Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction, which has been in the making for more than half my life.

I came across Balthasar, who is at the moment probably the most influential of modern Catholic theologians, in the first serious theology course I ever took, which was called something like “Studies in Contemporary Roman Catholic Theology.” The class was taught by Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck for the graduate students at Yale Divinity School, but it was cross-listed for undergraduates. It was my third year at Yale, and my major was mathematics, but as a Catholic I thought I should at least see a bit of what Catholic theology was like.

We studied Balthasar and Karl Rahner, and while both were very frustrating, they were frustrating in different ways. Rahner was technical and nearly impenetrable, and it was a long struggle for me to grasp what he was up to. Balthasar wasn’t so bad on the technical side, but still I struggled: though the sentences and paragraphs were easy, it was somehow very hard to get a sense of what he was doing as a whole, to get an orientation to his thought. And beyond that, something made me distinctly uncomfortable with Balthasar, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it might be. Was it just his view on women that bothered me? Or was it something else?

Eventually mathematics gave way to theology as a career, and eventually I found myself writing not one but two books on Rahner. But over the years I kept having reason to go back to Balthasar, and I kept running into the same obstacles: he was hard to get an overall grasp of, and there was something elusively troubling in his thought. I kept doubting myself — was I just reading him the wrong way? Was it my fault that I was uneasy? After all, lots of impressive people (my own teacher, Rowan Williams, John Paul II, and many, many others) seemed extraordinarily enthusiastic about his work.


In the end, I have finally written the book that I would have liked to have read as a twenty year old after my first couple of weeks reading Balthasar in Lindbeck’s class. It is intended on the one hand to help readers find their orientation — to give them, not a summary of the whole of his thought, but an aide in finding their way around it. There is a real richness to Balthasar’s thought, and presenting it in a way that made it more accessible to non-specialists seemed a worthwhile endeavor.

But the book is also an attempt to put my finger, finally, on what it is that has always disturbed me. For in the end, after a delay of over 20 years, I have concluded that I was right to be uneasy, that there really is something problematic in Balthasar’s work: not a particular theological decision, nor a specific philosophical commitment, but something more pervasive.

So what is it that troubles me, and why has it been so hard to pin down? The issue is not so much what Balthasar says, I have come to think, but rather the position from which he seems to be saying it. For Balthasar consistently tends to assume a God’s eye view, a stance above Scripture, tradition, history, and his readers. Whatever one thinks of his individual proposals, there is something fundamentally overreaching about the theology as a whole.

But what does this mean? How do I decide what is overreaching? How can I possibly establish that he presumes such a God’s eye view? And if he does, how is he any worse than any other theologian? It’s not been an easy book to write, but in the end I think I may have written something that would have satisfied my younger self.

Click to order Karen Kilby’s Balthasar: A (Very) Critical Introduction.