Matthew A. ROTHAUS MOSER. Love Itself Is Understanding: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Theology of the Saints.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016.  pp. xxxi+319.  $79.00 hb.  ISBN 9781451499599.  Reviewed by Christopher DENNY, St. John’s University, Queens, NY  11439.


Moser describes his two goals in this book as an explanation of Balthasar’s “Ignatian theological vision” (xvi) and an illustration of how Balthasar’s prayerful contemplative form of theology can help redefine the relationship between philosophy and theology.  He hopes that pursuing these goals enable readers to grasp a thread that connects academic and pastoral concerns in Balthasar’s quest to find God in all things. Moser selects Balthasar’s theology of the saints as the means by which to accomplish his task.

Experienced readers of Balthasar are aware of his complicated relationship to the Jesuits, whom he left to found a secular institute with Adrienne von Speyr.  Moser’s intriguing approach uses Balthasar’s Ignatian vocation as a leitmotif without casting aspersions on other approaches to Balthasar’s theology.   Rather than using categories such as beauty, goodness, and truth—which undergirded Balthasar’s trilogy—as organizing principles for his study, Moser makes a distinctive choice.  He finds that the receptivity present in Loyola’s Contemplation to Attain Divine Love instilled in Balthasar a metaphysics of obedience and discipleship separating Balthasar’s theology from any philosophical idealism.  The opening chapters of Love Itself Is Understanding argue that this Ignatian-Balthasarian theology empowers the Church to be in solidarity with the world.  Moser appreciates Balthasar’s counter-Hegelian method of integrating metaphysics and theological anthropology into what Moser describes as an evangelistic outreach.

In his next three chapters Moser argues that Balthasar’s theology of sainthood incorporates both saintly subjectivity and the objective reality of the church.  Those who have read the work of D. C. Schindler on Balthasar’s dramatic approach to truth will recognize similar themes in Schindler’s work and in Moser’s.  With a close reading of the first volume of Balthasar’s Theo-Logic, Moser demonstrates how Balthasar employed Heidegger’s explanation of truth as unveiling in order to define reality in fundamentally relational terms, as opposed to merely propositional or empiricist theories of truth.  For Balthasar, truth is experienced by the freely receptive mutual participation of subject and object in the mystery of Being.  This type of participation comes about through loving surrender that the saints embody in lives that radiate outward into others’ experiences.  A kenotic understanding of the relations among the persons of the trinitarian God provides the eternal archetype of saintly loving; this becomes most manifest in Christ’s consent to die and descend to hell, out of obedience to his Father, to heal a creation scarred by lies—falsity defined as the unwillingness to participate in Being.

The book’s final chapters begin by contrasting Balthasar’s pneumatology with Hegel’s philosophy of absolute Spirit (Geist).  With no distinction between God and world, Hegel’s philosophy leaves no receptive room for mission or divinization, as history remains closed in upon itself rather than opening outwards to a creator God.  Whereas Hegel relies upon knowledge to extend Geist’s working in history, Moser holds that Balthasar’s theology of those made holy by the Spirit provides the true illustration of how Christ’s love is universalized in history.  Saints are the preeminent theologians because their witness indicates how God’s theo-Logosis not abstract logic but rather living truth manifest in the world.  Love Itself Is Understanding concludes by responding to Karen Kilby’s recent critical book on Balthasar with a critical response of its own, in which Moser agrees with Kilby that Balthasar’s use of saints sometimes remains overly theoretical.  To rectify this, Moser uses Speyr as a test case for Balthasar’s theology of sainthood, seeing her as a model of prayerful receptivity in which her obedience—rather than specific content from her mystical experiences—endows Speyr with the saintly authority that Kilby challenged.

Love Itself Is Understanding ambitiously tries to broaden the definition of theology beyond “‘theo-log-ology’: words about words about God” (293).  Moser’s attempt to enlist Balthasar to heal the schism between intellectual and pastoral foci in theology is well argued.  He displays good comprehension of a broad swath of Balthasar’s oeuvre.  The book’s primary value is its use of Balthasar’s theo-logic to undergird a foundational Ignatian theology of sainthood that has great promise for Catholic ecclesiology: a saint is one who consents to the divine love that undergirds the community of Being, not an otherworldly specter checking boxes on an ascetic or moral to-do list.  There are weaknesses in the book’s historical coverage, as its exegetical focus on Balthasar sometimes leads the author to summary characterizations of other authors (e.g. Karl Rahner, Eckhart) that are debatable.  More inclusion of additional sources besides those of Balthasar would have made the historical claims about Balthasar more compelling, and some coverage of Balthasar’s Theo-Logic could have been condensed to leave space for more case studies of the book’s central thesis, in response to Kilby’s concerns about Balthasar’s lack of historicity.

This book is strongly recommended for readers interested in Balthasar’s theology, the theology of sainthood, and foundational Christian ontology.