For the past two-and-a-half years, I have been reading Light in Darkness by Alyssa Lyra Pitstick, intermittently, picking it up and putting it down, probably forgetting ninety percent of it in the meantime. Anyhow it’s a recommended read for anyone interested in the 20th-century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. I read his Verbum Caro and enjoyed it; he undoubtedly has many good insights and writes beautifully.
Pitstick, however, argues that Balthasar is inconsistent at certain points with himself and with the Catholic tradition. She does so very lucidly; few of her many words are superfluous. With analytical rigour, she indicates where she thinks Balthasar goes too far in his poetical theology. In particular, her critique concentrates itself on his theology of the Descent into Hell, and the implications it has for our understanding of God as Trinity.
Balthasar understands the Descent as the Son’s being forsaken by the Father and thus sharing the destiny of sinners, rather than the glorious proclamation of the Gospel and the liberation of the holy dead. This interpretation (which is at least questionable) seems to be rather central to his theology and introduces divergences everywhere. Pitstick is strict in her evaluation, but probably not unjust.
One of Balthasar’s contentions is that the Persons of the Trinity continue to surprise each other for eternity. Given that the divine life is active and desirable beyond all things, and that one of the most beautiful human experiences is the discovery of a new aspect in a friend’s character or history, this is prima facie plausible. Pitstick, however, offers this razor-sharp and somewhat sarcastic critique:
A real distinction between the divine Persons and the divine nature seems latent when he says they are “identical at every point ‘except where the distinct relationships [between the Persons] require otherwise.’” The distinction of Persons actually requires quite a large area in which they would not be identical, since “the divine hypostases know and interpenetrate each other to the very same degree that each of them opens up to the other in absolute freedom.” Given the unpredictability of what one will reveal to the other, and given that such surprise continues for all eternity, the realm in which the Persons do not “interpenetrate” each other must be quite large.
I look forward to reading the third and last part.