Razing the Bastions

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Razing the Bastions was written in 1952 with a length around 100 pages or so, but even within such a short length the book contains an enormous amount of jewel to digest, even 65 years later in 2017. This book has an incisive description of where the church in the 20th century in the face of secular culture, analyzing the heretofore attitudes of the church as defensive and protective (especially the pre-Vatican II catholic church) as a kind of vision statement. Doing this work successfully necessarily entails some loopholes that need to be filled in, but Balthasar does such work in his subsequent trilogy of 10000 pages from theological aesthetics to dramatics to logic. And that is why I don’t find this rough sketch of the church’s posture toward secular culture problematic. Prior to moving on to a brief summary and some critique, I need to bring up the meaning of the book title, which is Razing the Bastions. Here the bastions are not referring to culture or secularity, but to the overbearingly protective fear of the church against secular culture.  Therefore, this books is more about the church’s and the Christian’s self-reflections on what kind of existence they should have in the 20th century, than it is about strategizing the church’s invading into secular culture. The main message of the book is for the church to tear down its own walls of fear and protection and to go into the world in all its messiness, just as Jesus as a human person did not mind living among the messiness of human life and culture.

The book is composed of four parts: departure-descent-endurance-contact, all through which Balthasar suggests a way forward for the church of God. In the Departure, he suggests his overall orientations to doctrine, tradition, and the Revelation of God as the beginning of what follows. Balthasar’s take on all these important topics are neither conservative nor progressive. For example, while he takes the importance of the tradition seriously, particularly the church fathers, which may make his theology seem conservative, he nonetheless adds a caveat that such classical, traditional theology is no help unless it aids us to encounter the triune God here and now. For this reason, the closure of the Revelation in Jesus Christ should never mean that we possess all God’s truth and there is nothing else to delve into. In chapter two, Descent, Balthasar rings a wake-up call that we are no longer living in the Christendom, and Christianity has become one religion among many others. What struck me in this chapter is his negative assessment of the medieval age. According to Balthasar, the medieval age is a typical, closed Christendom with Christianity as its dominant religion. Balthasar criticizes that such a Christianity-centered society paradoxically weakens the Christian truth to be manifested clearly and without hindrance. Regarding this negative assessment, some scholars cast doubt on his understanding of the medieval ages, with which I agree that his views of the medieval society is perhaps based more on his stereotypical conception than on rigorous research. In the third chapter, Endurance, he emphasizes that the church and the Christian is no longer in the place of doing a bird’s-eye view work for society Furthermore, Balthasar argues that such dethronement of Christianity from the center provides a healthy corrective to its understanding of truth as absolute, unchanging, and idealistic.  For the truth revealed, that is, Jesus Christ, reveals the historicity and contextual nature of what truth is all about, and the absolute, unchanging view of truth comes more from the Platonic, idealistic understanding than from Christianity. In the last chapter, Contact, Balthasar brings to the foreground Mary’s obedience to God, which is typically perceived to be a model of the church in Catholicism, ending the book with a brief reflection on how the church should be obedient as Mary did. The Mary Balthasar sketches here is an icon of holistic embrace and obedience. While as a Protestant I cannot wholly accept this in the sense of promoting the Marian worship, I still see the goodness in it.

One weakness of this book is, as I have already pointed out, Balthasar’s prejudice against the medieval times. Since he pictured the times to be too negative as a byway of making a case for his claims, he has failed to sketch accurately what the medieval church was really like, which is a weakness widespread in Balthasar’s theological corpus. He is very favorable to the church fathers, yet generally stingy toward those in the medieval times. This is not the place to do any critical assessment of Balthasar’s understanding of the medieval times and her church.

At any rate, what I benefited most from this book was about the contextual character of doctrine. Breaking through the current conception that doctrine is unchanging and absolute, Balthasar contends that doctrine is demanded of coping with changing cultural and historical conditions. On thinking again, one notices that between the infinitely inexhaustible mystery of the triune God and the ever-changing cultural, historical conditions of the created world, doctrine cannot but be changing and responding to both God and the changing culture. This call for contextualizing doctrine is not simply that of moving toward progressivism. Instead, he calls the church to break out of such habitual fear of the world in order to meet God who is at its center. Since I am working on a dissertation dealing with doctrine, Balthasar’s insight is very helpful. In general, this book will be helpful for those who would like to find a way out of the fundamentalist cultural understanding, and for those who would like to see the self-reflections of the church, especially in the pre-Vatican II (1962-65) period. Also, it will be helpful for those who are curious about the church-culture relationship and dynamic.