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One of the great sins of the Catholic masses--I include myself among them--and one much in evidence in St. Blogs is the sin of presumption, in the ordinary or prideful sense of this word. I don't mean the presumption of God's grace and the assumption that one is somehow entitled to it, but rather the prideful assumption that one understands what is clearly beyond one's understanding.

I think of this particularly with respect to the "suspect theologians," Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner. von Balthasar is often accused, unwarrantedly in my opinion, of supporting a kind of Universalist heresy. Now, in my reading there is only one type of universalism that has incurred any anathema at all--that is sometimes referred to as "origenist." But I am by no means the authority on this or on all the subtleties surrounding it. However, there are many places around St. Blogs where I've read would-be experts condemning von Balthasar on the count of heresy. This seem presumptuous. It strikes me as odd that as intelligent as much of St. Blog's is, anyone here feels a sufficient depth of knowledge to condemn such a theologian. Perhaps it is so, but then it would be presumptuous of me even to be able to decide that much.

The other much maligned theologian is Karl Rahner who has been accused here and elsewhere of denying the real presence in the Eucharist. I'll be honest, I can't read three consecutive sentences of Rahner's in any form without being lulled into a possibly unending trance-like state. After the first sentence an impermeable membrane forms around the dura mater that threatens brain asphyxiation. But I have seen people arguing back and forth with a seeming understanding of the matter, and others standing by the wayside simply taking sides based their fluctuating opinions of the moment. Any such judgment strikes me as presumptuous--at least coming from those who have not been properly trained to read and understand these theologians.

However, we all sit in the place of armchair theologians from time to time. What I've discovered as I have occupied that coveted seat is that my personal likes and dislikes of either the author or perhaps something the author has penned that has nothing to do with the case in point often colors my perception. I think that may be true in broader circles. For example, I hear a lot of people warning others about the later works of Thomas Merton, and while there is a certain "easternization of thought" in the spirituality of the later books, I don't know that he ever abandoned the centrality of Jesus in faith. Even the Asian Journals strike me as clinging to the faith. But then, it would be presumptuous of me to say what his state of mind was one way or the other. Not everything that is written is indicative of the mindset of an individual as he or she struggles with issues.

So I guess I'm in favor of leaving the glorious high-throne of amateur theologizing and trusting the Vatican and their warnings--explicitly issued in the case of Anthony de Mello (although I truly don't understand the nature of the warning), but so far as I am aware, never even whispered in the case of Thomas Merton. We must, each of us, decide what will nurture us and what will lead us astray. It is possible that reading very orthodox, very reliable, very reputable, Saintly figures could just as easily lead some astray as would reading Meister Eckhart and others of the Devotio Moderna school. For example, reading Thomas Aquinas drives me to the point of despairing whether or not I'll ever become Christian much less Catholic. If being a good Catholic requires acceptance of all that, then I am in a lot of trouble. On the other hand, Thomas Merton, even the later, "questionable" Merton, causes hardly a ripple in the pond.

If one makes the assumption that all that is approved is necessarily good for all people, one has stumbled upon the borderlands of presumption. When one asserts it positively, one occupies the throne of the entire realm--at least for a moment.

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I can't speak to Rahner as I've never opened one of his books, and Aquinas has the same effect on me, but I have a fair number of von Balthasar's books. I think the charge of universalism comes almost exclusively from Dare We Hope; that all men be saved.

I've noticed that most of the people throwing the universalist charge haven't read the book and are reacting to what others have said. He took heat from some top flight theologians for the universalist charge, but he admitted that and did quite a good job of refuting the charge.

From my experience in St. Blogs, I've noticed that there are a great many "experts" that really know nothing of substance. I've fallen into that many times myself.

Dear Mark,

Join the club. I readily admit to being a no-nothing expert from time to time.

Also, I'm glad to see what you say about Aquinas, I thought I was the only one with "Thomistic dropsy." I can't tell you how grateful I am that God anointed someone to help us understand the truths of the faith. But I don't think that they'll ever break through to the level of comprehension.



I love Thomas Merton and am more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt where it comes to "Eastern influence."

I don't know anything much about Rahner, but I think it's reasonable to be highly suspicious of him. Theology is the province of peasants and little old ladies and children, not just experts. Ordinary people are as good at judging heresy as experts: perhaps better. Still, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt where any particular proposition is concerned.

Von Balthasar I love passionately. He is a beautiful mind and a beautiful soul. I do think--only think--that his universalism is probably--only probably--heresy. I would LIKE to believe it, I find it attractive in many ways. And I believe the motivation for it is wonderful. But I think this is how heresy works. Nestorius was not an evil man as far as I can see; he was merely trying to find a solution to a problem in Catholic theology. He found an attractive one that worked in so many ways--but just happened to be wrong and unChristian.

And let me point out that those who opposed Nestorius--small minds and great--did so on the grounds that he was teaching heresy, though it was not yet defined as such. This was not presumption; it was faithfulness. And that remains true though Nestorius was quite a beautiful soul in many ways and St. Cyril strikes us as a narrow-minded, self-righteous crabapple.

I think we have to be allowed to challenge von Balthasar's attractive and popular thesis. We have to be able at least to ARGUE that it MAY be heresy. I think we have to be able to answer the question he poses--"Dare we hope that all men be saved?"--with, "No, sadly we dare not. Because it would not be Christian. Many, perhaps more than we have dared hope in previous ages. Perhaps fewer than we would wish. But not all."

And I note that more and more Catholics are "daring" to argue that von Balthasar is unwittingly and with the best and most generous motivation in the world teaching heresy here and that the consequences are bitter fruit for Catholics. Three cheers for the marvellous Balthasar--but a raspberry for this one unfortunate idea.

Dear Jeff,

I will respectfully disagree with you on both the matter of Balthasar and on the question of who is "qualified" to pronounce on theology. Little old ladies, peasants, and shopkeepers are not qualified to pronounce on ideas they cannot comprehend. Period. To say otherwise is one of the chief errors of democracy.

I am not qualified to determine whether or not someone has committed heresy, merely whether or not I will follow the idea--and if the Church has not pronounced on it officially, it is presumptuous of me to do so.

As I said, we will remain diamtrically opposed on this issue. I simply don't and can't agree. Otherwise there is no purpose to the psalm,

"I will not trouble myself with things that are beyond me,"

because by what you say there is literally nothing beyond me. And biblical evidence suggests otherwise. To voice an opinion on matters you do not understand thoroughly is presumptuous. I am presumputous in defending Balthasar because I have not read in sufficient detail what it was that he did say; however, I will judge the question--dare we hope it? Absolutely. Can we assert it as a known entity? Absolutely not. Christian hope allows us to hope for this in the absence of concrete evidence that it is certainly untrue.

However, we have argued this point before and neither will cause the least shadow of turning in the other; so let us let it rest.





My only contention is that Balthasar poses a question about "daring." You seem to assert that the only permissible way to answer the question is "Yes, we dare." I think that it is permissible to answer Balthasar's question, "No, we don't dare."

I don't know why one assertion is more presumptuous than the other. To insist that one can only answer Balthasar's question one way without being presumptuous is begging the question.

With that, I let the matter rest.

Merry Christmas!



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on December 20, 2006 2:01 PM.

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