Balthasar on Eros
Raymond Gawronski, SJ


The following is a brief extract from Fr Gawronski, Word and Silence: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West (T&T Clark, 1995).  The book as a whole examines the contribution of Balthasar’s theology to the dialogue of world religions.  This extract is taken from a section which examines Balthasar’s (highly controversial) theology of gender.

Balthasar sees Christianity taking three great themes over from antiquity: 1. the egress and regress of the creature out of God; 2. "eros as the basic drive of the transcending limited creature to God as the primordial One, primordial Beauty"; and 3. "the theme of soulish-spiritual beauty ... as reflection and sensual image of a deeper, indestructible beauty."[i]  In the linking of agape and eros which occurred in Christian theology he sees the linking of the pagan doctrine of the beauty of virtue in the soul with the Christian doctrine of the justification of the soul.  All will hinge for him on the concept of transfiguration (Verklärung):

The Biblical eros-motif, interpreted in terms of Christ and the Bride (Church-Mary-Soul) led at the same time into the heart of the uniquely Christian mysteries ... and to the profoundest justification of the 'spoliatio Aegyptiorum', (or by extension) 'Platonicorum'.  Put differently: the glowing innermost part of the mystery of Christ is pure beauty, if it is true that all revela­tion, all faith, all suffering and death issues forth and takes place for the sake of the Marriage of the Lamb, where creature­ly and Christian truth and goodness are trans­figured into eschatological beauty (Herrlichkeit).[ii]

Thus, all the riches of the "Egyptians," all the treasure of earthly wisdom and beauty can be taken over into the Christian view if "transfigured."  This is seen perhaps most clearly in Augustine, who was led to "the highest beauty, God" by an enthusiasm that was Platonic as well as Christian.[iii]  Whereas the philosophers are left to pine in their unsatisfied eros, the Christian has an agape at the end of His journey, and this promised love of God is "the organ note that sounds steadily under the whole dizzying music of world time."[iv]  We note that it is not an organ note that obliter­ates the rest of the music, but a perfection that sounds under (or over) all.  Rather than seeking to separate eros and agape, Balthasar seems to rejoice in their marriage, though, we hasten to recall, without being ignorant of the dangers of eros.  He sees this throughout the writers of the Catholic tradition, where the ascent and the descent tend to meet harmoniously.

Gregory the Great, along with Augustine, speaks of the "seeking in finding" of the Bride for the Bridegroom which  "remains charac­teristic of the blessedness for men and angels."[v]  For the Victorines, "amor" represents "the vital-subjective side of the world harmony grounded in God"[vi] (Balthasar's organ note will be here recalled).  For Bernard, as well as for the Victorines, "enthusiasm and inspiration flow into each other" and so they "used the language of eros for agape ...."[vii]  In Dionysius, the "ecstasy of creaturely eros is itself an emulation of the ecstatic divine eros, which because of love stepped out of itself into the multi­plicity of the world...."[viii]  Moreover, if one strikes out the Neo-Platonic parts, one finds in Dionysius a substance that is "truly Biblical, a true Old and New Testament theology of covenant, in which the eager and consuming love of the divine bridegroom does his work in the bride, to lift her into the same answering love."[ix]

In St. John of the Cross, the human eros which allows itself to be overcome by the divine eros is itself already the "response" to  "God's work of grace."[x]  Furthermore, in the Carmelite mystic, the Holy Spirit between Bride and Bridegroom is the secret of the "common spirit of the Father and Son" and represents the "awakening of Christ in the middle of the soul," where the Bridegroom is addressed as "Word-Bridegroom" (Wort-Bräutigam).[xi]  Hence the divine Word itself in the middle of the human soul represents the lifting of human eros into the divine eros, something which would clearly be blasphemous for Nygren.

Recalling Nygren's harsh criticism of Ficino for equating eros and agape in a Platonic friendship in which eros would overcome and destroy agape, Balthasar observes that "it was already obvious to Plato and Plotinus that eros in its highest development was seen as selfless, for it loved the good for the sake of the good"[xii] and he portrays Ficino as teaching that "all true love means essential­ly to die oneself (sich selber sterben), in order to live only in the Beloved."[xiii]  Poles apart from Nygren, Soloviev maintains that eros and agape are not essentially different, for "Christian love is the stage of fulfill­ment of natural eros."[xiv]  Eros cooperates with agape, for it draws the man to the woman: under the power of eros, one glimpses the divine in the other, one sees "the beloved as God sees him" and can work for the realization of this vision.[xv]  ­

Concluding our brief survey, the poet Claudel anticipates what we shall see shortly in Dante:  his glory it is to have presented "the painful transformation of eros into pure agape" where, as in Dante, it is a woman who "drags an unwillingly following man to the final blessed humiliations."[xvi]  In Claudel the transforming dynamic is seen in his play Der seidene Schuh in which the hero "is purified by night by a guardian angel in a burning purgatory from longing eros to an abnegating agape that wants nothing other than what God wills."[xvii] 


As always it is the love of man and woman that remains focal for Balthasar.  In light of our concern for "uniqueness", he finds that the exclusiveness of human relations - this man, this woman -"incarnationally represents the eternal uniqueness (je-Einmalig­keit) of personal encounter."[xviii]  The interpersonal, which as we have seen is at the heart of his theology, comes from the "dialo­gical a priori" within man himself: it is best described in erotic terms, although it is superior to physical eros, even as the human comes out of but transcends the animal.[xix]  He goes so far as to maintain that sexual union is perhaps the only image of the intimacy of divine truth, "the act of the union of two persons into one flesh and the result of this union: the child" - though of course one must view this transcending the duration of time.[xx]

It is marriage that supplies form to this union in a way which resists the tendencies of the individuals to break away, which "resolutely confronts the tendencies of existence towards dissolu­tion" and it is the forge that forces the persons "to grow above and out of themselves into real love."[xxi]  In the world of sexuali­ty, there is always present the possibility of what Balthasar calls the "bad infinity": it is a compulsive drive common to both sexes which is this "moment of bad infinity."[xxii]  In the Christian world, the form of marriage, the discipline of it, is seen as the con­tribution of the laity in making eros/sex trans­lucent for agape.  Of course, this is only possible in light of the Incarnation and the redemption of all flesh on the Cross.[xxiii]  However elevated its goal, marriage, for Balthasar, is nothing special: rather, it is legitimate as the normal will of God for humanity.[xxiv]

Aquinas writes of marital love as "maxima amicitia."  He writes of the high value the Church places on marriage as a sacrament in which the Holy Spirit "can transform the natural eros into an agape that comes from God," an agape that is the "primary sacrament of love between Christ and His Church."[xxv]  Although there is a "spiritual fruitfulness" of those who renounce marriage and serve the "spirit­ual body" of the Lord in virginity, and although the Church in the Council of Trent spoke of the "supe­riority" of vir­ginity to marriage, still the Church "takes marriage under its wing" by "insisting on its sacramentality" as over against the Reformers (i.e. Luther) for whom marriage was a "'worldly thing.'"[xxvi]­  Marriage as a sacrament redeems eros from the melan­choly to which it is condemned outside of Christianity (in a pre-, non- or post-Christian world)[xxvii] and shows that "as the entire man, so also his eros is capable of salvation," that the very "covenant of God with man in Christ (and in the Church) bears an erotic form, that the Platonic-Plotinian longing for God as the eternal beautiful must and indeed can be justified in a Christian scheme."[xxviii]

After this intoxicating view of eros harmoniously cooperating with agape, we enter now into the needed reflection on the difference between eros and agape.  There was always the danger, Balthasar concedes, that "metaphysical eros" would remain dominant in any of the syntheses of the Catholic tradition and that "the distinguish­ing caritas of Christ will be robbed of its power and its salt."[xxix]  Indeed, he sees this as the ongoing danger in the history of Christian spirituality. 


Eros and the Cross

As we have seen, Claudel and Dante insist that Christian eros must pass through a death "in order to become an agape than can stand before the judgment of the eternal light."[xxx]  This purification means the Cross.  Even Goethe recognized that "to love means to suffer." [xxxi]  Balthasar puts the right balance this way: all eros is love this side of what is revealed on the Cross, which is agape, and which is the measure of all other loves.[xxxii]  Because this is so, eros must be "totally transformed through agape."[xxxiii]  Man is by no means limited to eros: there is also a capacity for agape in man implanted by the Holy Spirit as response to the descending agape of God.[xxxiv]  Yet eros is not something evil, something hostile to God.  Balthasar observes that with Luther, the whole world falls into Dante's hell except those for whom Christ died on the Cross: for Protestantism and Jansenism, "the sinful world as a whole moves back out of the light of the divine eros and falls into general damnation ...."[xxxv]  It is not a question of eros or agape: but of a correct, harmonious relation of the two.

It is on the Cross that eros and agape are seen in their right relation:

Thus the mysteries of the Song of Songs here shimmer through the mysteries of the humiliation and the ser­vitude unto the Cross, and the mysteries of the divine eros shimmer through the mysteries of the divine agape.  The metamorphosis of Jesus before His disciples on the Mountain is the unveiling of the Bridegrom, as He is, before the eyes of the Church .... yet the Bridegroom reveals Himself physically naked only in the form of misery (Elendsgestalt) on the Cross ....  And only a glance like that of the virginal John would be capable here of contemplating the two unveilings as one: the unveiling of the Song of Songs, the physically becoming visible in the glow of eros - and the unveiling of the equally physically suffering love of the triune God.[xxxvi]

It is not the case that eros is only earthly and agape is only divine: what Balthasar is here saying is that the divine eros - that love between the persons of the Blessed  Trinity - in pouring itself out to the human eros for God takes the form of what humanity calls agape.  Put differently, for the human eros (ascen­ding) to correspond to, and to encounter the divine eros (descen­ding), what is needed is the love of God which as self-emptying is called kenosis, as selfless is called agape.

This love of God is a fire which purifies human eros.  He questions the facile presumption of Christians that earthly relations/ friendships will just continue on the other side.  Using the image of the "purifying fire" he notes that what is "wood, hay and straw must be burned (1 Cor. 3, 12) and what man can maintain with confidence that his love is 'gold, silver and precious stones­?"[xxxvii]  It is worthy of note that in heaven the form of male and female remain even as sexual relations will not - there will be fruitful­ness, and this is a form of "interpersonal fruitfulness" but it is virginity that is the true anticipatory form of the "supersexual bridalness."  What remains in heaven of earthly love "is that of heaven which has incarnated itself in it."[xxxviii]  If the soul is bound for an es­chatological marriage, then the purifying fire is the narrow passage of virginity, mediating the earthly sacrament of marriage and purifying it, transforming it.  It will be recalled that Balthasar holds that the important discernment for the Christian is not between the good and evil spirits, as the natural man can do this; the Christian must discern between what is of God and what is of man: the key, and sign, to this discernment between eros and agape is virginity, "virginity, which means the exclusive fixing of all the human powers of love to the love of God becoming man."[xxxix]  We turn to the poet Dante to see how Balthasar evaluated the efforts of this Christian bard of "the human powers of love."

Dante: Classical Eros Baptized

Balthasar's treatment of Dante is rich, and includes points of great admiration as well as some considerable criticism.  Here, we want to touch some main points as Dante figures so considerably in the subject we are addressing.

At his best, Dante took the Platonic-Scholastic world view and in the middle of it placed the love of man and woman, the eros which, purified by agape, will lead through all the depths of hell to the throne of God.[xl]  For him, eros is the "divine kernel" in man, implanted by God.  The "love that moves the sun and the other stars" is hardly a matter of "principles of being" but rather of "an existing being."[xli]  In his setting the "concrete, personal existant over the Scholastic essentialist world-contemplation" Dante led the way in establishing the primacy of the ethical over the metaphysical.[xlii]  His eros is in harmony with ethics: "no ethics without eros and so without beauty, but so much the less a beauty without ethics."[xliii]

The personal finds its center in Beatrice who initiates Dante into the Christian.  Tempted to treat her as an idea, Dante overcomes this for the contemplation of divine beauty is "in the nobility of the form, in the eye, the mouth and speech, that reveal the 'cor gentile.'"[xliv]  His relation to Beatrice is hardly one of "aesthetic libertinism": the ethical is so much to the fore that Balthasar calls the Comedia a "penitential sermon" (Bußpredigt).[xlv]

Dante's Beatrice overcomes the classical Neo-Platonic divisions of positive, negative and eminent theology.  Noting "as Charles Williams has rightly seen," the principle here appears "that the Christian does not have to give up a limited love for the sake of unlimited love, much rather he can positively introduce the limited love in the unlimited."[xlvi]  It is this principle we have seen all along, where Balthasar refuses an emptiness which is mere void, refuses to sacrifice the individual for the sake of the Absolute.  Here, the limited love of man and woman is introduced into the divine love, which fills the cosmos.  For Dante, the "radiating Good is love in all without the all having to be denied for the sake of the One."[xlvii]

Through Beatrice, the whole comedy is about the overcoming of the limits of Dante's earthly personality, his narrow "I' in order to be open to the "Thous" and to the "Other."[xlviii]  Beatrice has a "purifying and saving power," "only she leads from eros to agape, or else it is that eros that purifies itself into agape."[xlix]  She is that "'anima ecclesiastica', that soul, whose experience and feelings, thought and will have been taken up into the universality of the Bride of Christ, the Bride of the Lamb, of the Heavenly Jerusalem, the community of all the loving and the saints."[l]

In the end, Balthasar is critical of Dante.  First of all, he feels that Dante's apatheia in his treatment of the souls in hell goes even beyond that of Buddhists who have a compassion which cannot bear to see any creature suffering and being finally lost.[li]  This can be related to the other main criticism, that is, that Dante has an underdeveloped Christology and Trinitarian understanding. Simply put, Dante baptized classical eros, but in spite of his developed inter-personal sense, through Beatrice, he did not attain to what Balthasar understands as Trinitarian love. Both eros and agape are, in the end, subsumed under eros: all reality is indeed flooded with a divine eros, but in the end, all he offers is "the eros of antiquity vastly intensified in a Christian way."[lii]  It is perhaps the whole issue of selflessness which suggests itself as that which is missing here.  If Dante encountered that other self who revealed to him his own self, and so was saved, he did not attain to that vision of selflessness which is at the heart of the Trinity and which, in Christ, poured itself out in abandonment on the Cross and descended into the depths of hell, leaving no door unopened in His loving search for the lost other. 



In selflessness, the divine original and the human image meet.  In God, selflessness is not a negation of the person but a part of "the order of the processions" that "constitutes the essence of God as absolute Love."[liii]  It is selflessness that is at issue in the dialogue of East and West today, as we have noticed before: selflessness in order to be rid of being an ego or selflessness in order to love.[liv]  Selflessness, for the Christian, is a love through death and resurrection in that mission that creates him as a person: selflessness is that dying and rising with the self-emptying God with whom one is in loving - obedient - union.[lv] 

Everything about man is invited into this transfiguration.  That includes the erotic which is lifted up in Christ, taken into His incarnation, where it is purified.  To be "one flesh with the Lord" does not mean "virginity as contrasted with Christian marriage, but the expropriation and impressing into service of the body with all its powers - even eros - in the context of selfless Christian love."[lvi]  

[i]  HRMA, pp. 289-90.

[ii]  Ibid., p. 290.

[iii]  HFSK, p. 97.

[iv]  GIMF, p. 36.

[v]  HRMA, p. 307.

[vi]  Ibid., p. 320.

[vii]  Ibid., p. 324.

[viii]  HFSK, p. 208.

[ix]  HSG, p. 115.

[x]  HFSL, p. 489.

[xi]  Ibid., p. 502.

[xii]  HRMN, pp. 598-9.

[xiii]  Ibid., p. 601.

[xiv]  HFSL, p. 710.

[xv]  Ibid., pp. 712-3.

[xvi]  UA, p. 37.

[xvii]  HRMN, p. 628.

[xviii]  S4, p. 210.

[xix]  Ibid., p. 207.

[xx]  BG, p. 69.

[xxi]  HSG, p. 24.

[xxii]  S4, p. 341.

[xxiii]  CS, p. 286.

[xxiv]  Ibid., p. 343.

[xxv]  TLGW, pp. 317-8.

[xxvi]  Ibid., p. 318.

[xxvii]  HRMN, pp. 612-3.

[xxviii]  Ibid., pp. 612-3.

[xxix]  HRMA, p. 26.

[xxx]  TDHA, p. 105.

[xxxi]  HRMN, p. 704.

[xxxii]  S3, p. 157.

[xxxiii]  TDES, p. 461.

[xxxiv]  S5, p. 28.

[xxxv]  HFSL, p. 449.

[xxxvi]  HSG, p. 648.

[xxxvii]  TDHA, p. 105.

[xxxviii]  TDES, pp. 462-3.

[xxxix]  S3, p. 164.

[xl]  HFSK, p. 16. 

[xli]  HFSL, p. 389.

[xlii]  Ibid., p. 390.

[xliii]  Ibid., p. 461.

[xliv]  Ibid., p. 398.

[xlv]  Ibid., p. 461.

[xlvi]  Ibid., p. 387.

[xlvii]  Ibid., p. 425.

[xlviii]  Ibid., p. 440.

[xlix]  Ibid., p. 392.

[l]  Ibid., p. 409.

[li]  Ibid., p. 447.

[lii]  Ibid., p. 459.

[liii]  S5, p. 101.

[liv]  CUDW, p. 3.

[lv]  S5, p. 107.

[lvi]  S4, p. 212.