‘To Be or Not To Be’: Martin Heidegger and Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Mystery of Being

by jhl

[Spring 2011 Paper; Note: I am aware that my critique of Heidegger in this paper is far too simplistic and perhaps even unfair--so please forgive me in advance...]

. . . although he lost his mother in his fourth year, he remembered her afterwards all his life, her face, her caresses, ‘as if she were standing alive before me.’ Such memories can be remembered (everyone knows this) even from an earlier age, even from the age of two, but they only emerge throughout one’s life as specks of light, as it were, against the darkness, as a corner torn from a huge picture, which has all faded and disappeared except for that little corner.[1]

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamzov

I. Introduction

Ever since Nietzsche’s madman proclaimed the death of God, philosophers and theologians alike have had their hands full attempting either to defend or destroy God on this basis.[2] Many who accept Nietzsche’s assessment read his criticism as being one against a strictly metaphysical concept of God rather than against Christianity itself.[3] Along this trajectory, and perhaps most famous among philosophers to appropriate Nietzsche, is Martin Heidegger, who has done more than anyone else to ensure the death of ‘the God of philosophers.’[4]

When asked whether it is “proper to posit Being and God as identical,” Heidegger famously responded:

Being and God are not identical and I would never attempt to think the essence of God by means of Being. . . . If I were yet to write a theology—to which I sometimes feel inclined—then the word Being would not occur in it. Faith does not need the thought of Being. When faith has recourse to this thought, it is no longer faith.[5]

For Heidegger being (philosophy) and God (theology) cannot and should not be spoken in the same breath (unless, of course, one is declaiming their propinquity); thought that seeks to reach to God through being(s) is not theology but is rather onto-theology.[6]

Among the many following Heidegger, Eastern Orthodox theologian Christos Yannaras accuses the Western metaphysical tradition, “from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas” of conceptualizing God as simply “the logically necessary first cause of all beings.”[7] According to Yannaras, because “both the ontology and epistemology of the West were built on this logical necessity as a starting point,” Western theology is, therefore, “revealed, not as the interpretation of biblical revelation, but as rationalist (natural) interpretation of biblical teaching about God as the first cause of beings . . .”[8] In Yanarras’ mind, then, not only Western metaphysics, but much of the Western theological tradition as a whole is guilty of onto-theologizing. Such post-Heideggerian attempts to distance oneself from the Western tradition (epitomized by figures such as Augustine, Aquinas, and Bonaventure, et al.) have become commonplace for many theologians (in the West and the East) who attempt to separate themselves from the ‘all-too-philosophical God’ of Augustine and Thomas as distinguished from the ‘God of Scripture.’[9]

In this context, Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose philosophy is described by his cousin, Peter Henrici, as “expressly and with insistent emphasis . . . a philosophy of being,” appears especially strange.[10] For Balthasar it was not Thomas’ alleged onto-theological guilt that is responsible for both theology’s and philosophy’s (post)modern malaise, but, on the contrary, Scotus’ and Eckhart’s inability to maintain Thomas’ distinctio realis between esse and essentia.[11] Far from being the root of the ontotheological problem, then, Thomas offered the best solution to it.

From this one might assume that Balthasar, as philosophical of a theologian as he was, would have been diametrically opposed to Heidegger given the latter’s disdain for any sort of connection between being and faith; this, however, was not so. “Heidegger’s project,” wrote Balthasar, “is the most fertile one from the point of view of a potential philosophy of glory.”[12] Interestingly enough, Balthasar saw that, “more than anyone else, Thomas Aquinas is in harmony with Heidegger, with whom he shares the insight into the transcendence of Being.”[13] Thus, contrary to Heidegger’s assumption of the necessary contradiction between faith and being, I argue that it was precisely because of Balthasar’s theologically (i.e., Thomistically) informed philosophical emphasis on being that he was able to bypass any sort of ontotheology as well as the ‘forgetfulness of being’—a forgetfulness which ultimately undermined Heidegger’s own project. Balthasar, therefore, was able to retain the ‘sense of wonder’ (θαυμάζειν) before being because he understood, unlike Heidegger, that the ontological difference cannot be reduced in a monistic fashion to das Nichts, but can only be received as a gift from a genuinely transcendent Other.

II. The Parting of the Ways

            To understand why it is that Balthasar’s philosophy is fundamentally considered to be a ‘philosophy of being,’ it is important to grasp his understanding of the history of metaphysics after Aquinas. According to Balthasar, Aquinas, following Pseudo-Dionysius, established “The elevation of God over being,” which prevented pantheism and secured “at the same time for the concept of glory a place in metaphysics.”[14] Though Platonism had also placed the One beyond the Nous, “the sublimity of God was not revealed as absolute freedom, the Godhead was therefore dragged into an unfree dialectic of in-itself and out-of-itself, hidden and revealed, resting and moved.”[15] It was only with Aquinas that being was recognized as something other than God while remaining completely dependent on him. Aidan Nichols comments, “The beauty of finite, dependent being, in Thomas’ thought, reflects the glory of the infinite, subsistent being, from whom it receives all.”[16] To think being for Thomas, therefore, meant simultaneously to think its subsistent source. It was with Thomas’ synthesis in mind that Balthasar could remark, “Without philosophy, there can be no theology,” since the former is inseparable from the latter.[17]

Thomas’ understanding of being, however, could not long be maintained; after only a few decades, philosophy departed from Thomas’ distinctio realis only to adopt an understanding of being which was antithetical to faith. It is this dreary path—beauty’s disconnect from glory, being’s disconnect from God—that Balthasar saw as being responsible for philosophy’s gradual loss at the wonder of being.[18]

According to Balthasar, the pivotal moment came with the rise Averroism, which “purported to be the sole serious and radical interpretation of the sole ‘scientific’ philosopher, Aristotle” and “understood itself to be the attempt to ascertain how far human reason could go in the inquiry into the ultimate grounds of Being when it excluded and dispensed with all revelatory knowledge.”[19] It was only a matter of time before the Bishop of Paris condemned a number of propositions of ‘Averroistic inspiration’ in 1277 drawing a permanent boundary line between philosophy and Christianity. As the boundaries hardened, theology took second place to philosophy. While Christianity was considered to be based upon myths (fabulae), philosophy

identified reality, rationality and necessity, with the result that God must create the world, which exists from eternity, of course in such a way that he produces only the One Being, which is his own likeness, and which he orders by virtue of subordinate causes in a descending scale from himself to the material plane.[20]

In other words, unlike the God of Thomas, “This is a God without freedom, without knowledge of creatures, or a true otherness with respect to the world.”[21] Conceived in this way, philosophy could no longer maintain Thomas’ real distinction. Being, which for Thomas was “beyond all comprehension, as it, in its emergence from God, attains subsistence and self-possession within the finite entities” split into two equally bad paths: being was either formalized into “the comprehensive concept of reason” (Scotus), or identified with God himself (Eckhart).[22]

With Scotus, being encompassed everything, including God, leading to the univocity of being. Far from being ‘open’ in any way toward a transcendent Other, being was made into an empty concept which, containing all, could only be closed off. Only a few steps had to be taken to go from Scotus to “empiricism (Ockham), and from pure theological voluntarism and ‘positionism’ to a positivism which possesses no values, and from there, quite consistently to materialistic atomism.”[23] Nichols writes, “The ‘being’ of Scotus, a neutral essence pervading all distinctions, was consigned to the philosopher that the theologian may be unencumbered in his exploration of a practical faith.”[24] The philosophical realm, separated from the theological realm, ceased to point to a transcendent God. This path leading from Scotus to Ockham to Suarez paved the way for “modern metaphysics from Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz to Kant and Hegel.”[25] Theology and philosophy, faith and being, could now only be thought in opposition to one another.

In contrast to Scotus, Meister Eckhart simply identified being with God. “The assertion ‘God is being,’” wrote Balthasar, “runs through virtually all his works, and the Thomistic mediation of the non-subsistent actus essendi is lost from sight.”[26] The tension in an actualization of non-subsistent being, no longer dependent upon a subsistent, transcendent other, was solved by Scotus through an identification of being with God. From this followed the simple logic: “If God is Being, Not-God is Non-Being.”[27] Being, no longer other than God, either had to be identical to God or simply not be at all. The result? “God begins where the creature ends.”[28] Inevitably, Eckhart’s theology moved toward “the abolition of created natures and their proper operations, towards, in fact, an Indian kind of doctrine that everything is God”—a foreshadow of Hegel and Heidegger. [29] While Scotus separated theology from philosophy, Eckhart confused the two in a way that did irreparable harm to both—since philosophy now was theology, the former could only point to itself rather than to God.

Stephen Wigley offers a helpful summary:

In both instances the delicate balance which sustained Thomas’ ontology is lost. In the one instance being is reduced to a dull and prosaic rationalism in which all sense of wonder and awe is lost; in the other, the sense of being lost in God becomes so all-embracing that any distinction between God and the world disappears.[30]

Ironically, at the end of the day “both models turn into one another—as two forms of a pan-theism of the spirit or of reason,” and it becomes all-too-apparent how this points ahead to modernity.[31]

III: Heidegger: The Way Back

            Despite the fact that Heidegger separated being from faith (“Faith does not need the thought of Being”), he was concerned with being in a way unlike any philosopher since Thomas.[32]  “On the basis of the Greeks’ initial contribution,” wrote Heidegger, “a dogma has developed which not only declares the question about the meaning of being to be superfluous, but sanctions its complete neglect.”[33] Since Plato and Aristotle, philosophers have simply assumed what being is (or what is is) with the result that “that which the ancient philosophers found continually disturbing as something obscure and hidden has taken on a clarity and self-evidence such that if anyone continues to ask about it he is charged with an error of method.”[34] In other words, in assuming such familiarity with the question of being Western metaphysics has failed to create a proper distance that allows wonder at being.

As a result of this ‘forgetfulness of being,’ both the answer to the question of being, and the question itself are presently “obscure and without direction.”[35] This, however, will not do. Any philosophy that does not inquire first into being itself cannot truly be called philosophy. As Heidegger put it,

Basically, all ontology, no matter how rich and firmly compacted of a system of categories it has at its disposal, remains blind and perverted from its ownmost aim, if it has not first adequately clarified the meaning of Being, and conceived this clarification as its fundamental task.[36] 

Attempting to fulfill this ‘fundamental task’ ultimately led to the question that drove Heidegger’s thought (and which was, in many ways, so close to Balthasar’s own): “Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?”[37]

As soon as one begins to investigate the meaning of being the ‘ontological difference’ (between being and beings) becomes evident. Even in simple predicative statements, (e.g., “That is a dog.”), it is evident that being (i.e., the ‘is’) cannot be thought of as a ‘thing’ among things (whether present-at-hand or ready-to-hand, Zuhanden and Vorhanden, respectively). Despite the almost embarrassing conspicuity of such an observation, this was precisely what had been continually overlooked by philosophy. “Being,” wrote Heidegger, “has been presupposed in all ontology up till now,” it has always been understood “as a concept at one’s disposal.”[38] Philosophy has forgotten being and has concerned itself solely with beings. By making clear the distinction between ontic questions and the ontological question, Heidegger placed himself in direct opposition to Scotus’ formalization of being. But how to recover the sense of wonder?

“This Being can be covered up so extensively that it becomes forgotten and no question arises about it or about its meaning”; however, we are not thereby left utterly hopeless.[39] “What we seek when we inquire into Being,” Heidegger suggested, “is not something entirely unfamiliar, even if at first we cannot grasp it at all.”[40] The very fact that philosophers have assumed being, even in their forgetfulness, shows how primordial it is. Yet, if being is not a thing, how does one approach it? If Heidegger was to avoid the great temptation of treating being as a mere ontic entity, then his investigation would have to endure at least initial, if not perpetual, ambiguity. The question and the answer would be reformulated and pressed again and again—not only in Being and Time but also throughout the rest of Heidegger’s life and writings.[41]

Since there is no direct route to being (such a route would simply lead to another ontic ‘thing’), it is necessary to begin with an ontic entity while continually keeping the ontological difference in mind. Even if he did not finally reach a solution, Heidegger at least began on a path—namely, understanding being through Dasein (‘being there’). This was not an arbitrary choice since Dasein is an entity for which “Understanding of Being is itself a definite characteristic”; “Dasein is ontically distinctive in that it is ontological.” [42] But in order to properly understand Dasein, one must not approach it abstractly or treat it as a substance (i.e., as present-at-hand—something Heidegger considered Descartes to be especially guilty of).[43] Dasein does not find itself in a timeless, spaceless place, but ‘in-the-world,’ determined by its past and projected into its future. In order to understand Dasein, one can neither separate it from the ‘world’ it finds itself in, nor its own history.

As Heidegger investigated Dasein’s ‘being-in-the-world,’ it became evident that, “It is essential to the basic constitution of Dasein that there is constantly something still to be settled.”[44] This “lack of totality,” or “not-yet” (what we might simply call finitude or openness to the future) is fundamental to Dasein’s makeup.[45] This signals something that is impending, namely, death; “Dasein cannot outstrip the possibility of Death”; it is “a possibility-of-Being which Dasein itself has to take over in every case.”[46] In existing, Dasein is “already thrown into this possibility” which is the source of the moment of anxiety (Angst).[47] In this moment, Dasein can either evade its ownmost possibility (what Heidegger termed ‘falling’), or can, in an ek-static manner, anticipate its ownmost possibility—this latter way of ‘being-in-the-world’ Heidegger called ‘authentic existence.’[48] It is precisely as Dasein authentically faces “the extreme perplexity, the anxiety in which all existence slips away,” that “the question of Being” is finally opened up.[49]

The fact that this “ownmost possibility,” concerns each Dasein’s own death means that here, Dasein “is non-relational”; “all Being-alongside the things with which we concern ourselves, and all Being-with Others, will fail us when our ownmost potentiality-for-Being is the issue.”[50] As Heidegger remarked, “No one can take the Other’s dying away from him. . . . By its very essence, death is in every case mine, in so far as it ‘is’ at all.”[51] It is here, isolated from others (the ‘they’), that “Dasein finds itself face to face with the “nothing” of the possible impossibility of existence.”[52] Put simply, “Anxiety reveals the nothing.”[53] It is this ‘nothing’ that “is manifest in the ground of Dasein,” that allows the “total strangeness of being to overwhelm us . . . and evoke wonder.”[54] But what is the nothing if it is anything at all? “How is it with the nothing?”[55]

IV: Being and Nothingness

When one is confronted with anxiety, beings as a whole slip away, which “implies that we ourselves slip away . . . it is not as though ‘you’ or ‘I’ feel ill at ease; rather, it is this way for some ‘one’”; “pure Da-sein is all that is still there.”[56] That ‘beings as a whole’ slip away is significant since “real difference between Being and beings can come to light only if ‘beings’ are experienced as totality.”[57] Only in this precise moment does the nothing come into play. “This wholly repelling gesture towards beings that are in retreat as a whole . . . is the essence of the nothing: nihilation.”[58]

Nihilation “is neither an annihilation of beings nor does it spring from negation”; rather, it “discloses these beings in their full but heretofore concealed strangeness as what is radically other—with respect to the nothing.”[59] Without the nothing, beings cannot be revealed to Dasein; the wonder that beings are, can only appear in the face of the nothing, since it is only as suspended over the nothing that one realizes the utter contingency of beings.

Paradoxically, then, the nothing, which is not something, is fundamental to being. As Heidegger concluded: “Da-sein means: being held out into the nothing.”[60] As ‘held out into the nothing,’ Dasein is already “beyond beings as a whole,” which means that Dasein is already transcendent (‘finite transcendence’).[61] The act of nihilation that presupposes the nothing (das Nichts nichtet), however, is primal not just to beings, but to the being of beings—it is the source of difference between the two; “In the Being of beings the nihilation of nothing occurs.”[62] What does this mean? It means that the nothing is not the opposite of beings, “but reveals itself as belonging to the Being of beings.”[63] The difference arising from the act of nihilation indicates a primal nothingness—which turns out to be being itself.

It is precisely at this juncture that Heidegger seems to have lost sight of the mystery of being. Despite the promise of his philosophy in his challenge to Scotus’ notion of being, because he assumed a fundamental disjunction between faith and being, Heidegger ended up with an ontology not too different from Eckhart’s (i.e., ‘God as being’). The ontological difference between being and beings was lost on account of the nothing, “which both generates the distinction and embraces it at the same time.”[64] Here Heidegger’s affirmation of Hegel is notable: “Pure Being and pure Nothing are therefore the same.”[65] Being itself is ultimately identified with pure nothing—a univocity of non-being, as Connor Cunningham calls it.[66] What is Heidegger’s notion of the nothing but an obverse onto-theology? Instead of identifying being with an absolute something, it is identified with the absolute nothing; the ontological difference is thereby reduced to a final monism.

An inability to maintain any genuine difference becomes apparent in Heidegger’s presentation of the Christian view of the nothing:

Now the nothing becomes the counterconcept to being proper, the summum ens, God as ens increatum. . . . The questions of Being and of the nothing as such are not posed. Therefore no one is bothered by the difficulty that if God creates out of nothing precisely He must be able to relate Himself to the nothing. But if God is God he cannot know the nothing, assuming that the “Absolute” excludes all nothingness.[67]

In Heidegger’s mind, God (the “Absolute”) must either exclude all nothingness (thereby ignoring any difference and ultimately becoming an ontotheology—what Heidegger accused Christianity of) or be identified with it; Heidegger obviously took the latter route. As Balthasar put it, rather than absolutizing being (the ontotheological error), in Heidegger, “The difference between Being and the existent, which is the primary characteristic of createdness, is thereby raised to the status of the absolute, of God.”[68] As a result, Heidegger failed to properly understand the significance of the ontological difference. Refusing to absolutize creaturely difference, Balthasar wrote, “One’s gaze must seek to penetrate beyond the Ontological Difference . . . to the distinction between God and world, in which God is the sole sufficient ground for both Being and the existent in its possession of form.”[69] In other words, for Balthasar the ontological difference points beyond itself to a greater difference rather than to the difference itself.

Though Heidegger’s philosophy did avoid some of the gross errors of an ontotheology, offering a direct challenge to Scotus’ univocal concept of being, his final grounding of being in das Nichts failed to provide any real solution (or more appropriately, any real tension) to the ontological difference. Ultimately, Heidegger’s philosophy is simply another evasion of the question of being—a meontology (from ‘μὴ ὄν,’ not being), an attempt to be without being. Connor Cunningham writes, “Every meontological strategy of escape, going beyond being, repeats the identical logic—which is to smuggle the same words into different letters: being/das Nicht; something/nothing.”[70] The difference between being and beings ultimately remains unthought; the difference literally is the nothing.

Heidegger initially pointed in the right direction; he indicated, contra Scotus, that philosophers and theologians must cease to think of being simply as an existent, as a thing; however, as Balthasar remarked, “the true wonder at the fact that something exists rather than nothing does not run its full course, for it points to a freedom which [Heidegger] does not wish to perceive.”[71] Here is where Heidegger’s ultimate failure lies. Balthasar continued,

Although he grasps, beyond Aristotle, the Thomist distinction between Being and the Existent as a mystery impenetrable to reason, and can from this position accuse both the Greek and the moderns of forgetting Being itself, yet he does not construe this difference in Thomist terms, viz. in the Christian way as a sign of creatureliness, and therefore falls back from this distinction into a (non-Greek, only apparently Presocratic) identity.[72]

Nichols comments further, “Because Heidegger does not construe the ontological difference . . . in a Thomistic way—as the sign par excellence of our creaturehood—his thought can only fall back into a philosophy of identity (between infinite and finite).”[73]

This evasion of the question of being becomes only more evident in Heidegger’s discussion of conscience as call. Heidegger noted that the ‘call of care’ presents something that “we ourselves have neither planned nor prepared for nor voluntarily performed, nor have we ever done so.”[74] On the one hand, “the call comes from me,” but on the other, it is, “from beyond me and over me.”[75] Who is the one who calls? “If the interpretation continues in this direction,” argued Heidegger, “one supplies a possessor for the power thus posited, or one takes the power itself as a person who makes himself known—namely God.”[76] But such an explanation, according to Heidegger, cannot be since it assumes the “ontologically guiding thesis that what is . . . must be present-at-hand, and that what does not let itself be Objectively demonstrated as present-at-hand, just is not at all.”[77] In other words, even if the call is not “explicitly performed by me,” this “does not justify seeking the caller in some entity with a character other than that of Dasein.”[78] It is not another entity, rather “the caller is definable in a ‘worldly’ way by nothing at all.”[79]

This final move is nothing but a sleight of hand; a cheap trick on Heidegger’s part to avoid seeing where this residual tension inherent in being had to lead. Heidegger rejected identifying the caller as God on grounds that such a view understood God in an onto-theological manner (‘as present-at-hand’); yet, if being itself is dependent on God without being identified with God (as it is according to Thomas’ distinctio realis) then there is no legitimate reason not to see the call as pointing to something (Plotinus) or someone (Christianity) who truly transcends it.

While an undramatic deus ex machina who simply fills the void of the anonymous caller is certainly unacceptable, Heidegger seems to have thought that his das Nichts offered a viable alternative when, in reality, ‘the nothing’ assumed the same role—the only difference being its mask. As David Bentley Hart notes, “In truth, there is no compelling reason given by Heidegger—however confidently he claimed, and his disciples claim, the contrary—for abandoning the traditional theological understanding of the ontological difference.”[80] At this vital point Heidegger failed to deliver. Balthasar explained, “Where the immanent analogy of Being which pertains between the actus essendi and essentia does not deepen to a transcendental analogy of Being between God and the world, it annuls itself by becoming identity and pays the price.”[81] Despite its strengths, Heidegger’s philosophy must ultimately be judged a failure: “A philosophy which will not firmly answer the question of God one way or the other lacks intellectual courage, and a pragmatic and realistic humanity will pass it by and get on with daily living.”[82]

V: The Miracle of Being

            “If the finite is not the infinite, where does this cleavage originate?” or, more pointedly, “Why are we not God?”[83] This question, in varying forms, is central, not only to Heidegger, but also to philosophy as a whole. Attempts to answer such a question outside of Christian theology, however, leads, time and again, to some form of identity between the finite and infinite.[84] With the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo a new question arises: “if God has no need of this world—yet again, Why does the world exist?”[85] According to Angelo Scola, “For Balthasar this is the most mysterious question touching the whole mystery of being.”[86] At the heart of this question is “That division, the ‘real distinction’ of St. Thomas,” which, according to Balthasar, “is the source of all the religious and philosophical thought of humanity”; all philosophies pose “the problem of the Absolute Being, whether one attributes to it a personal character or not.” [87] Therefore, an explication of Balthasar’s understanding of the ontological difference (or Thomas’ version, the distinctio realis) is in order.[88]

For Balthasar, Heidegger’s key question, “Why are there beings rather than nothing?” ultimately fell short in view of the more fundamental question: “Why is there being at all?”[89] While Heidegger was astonished “that an existent being can wonder at Being in its own distinction from Being,” Balthasar went beyond Heidegger and was amazed by fact that “Being as such by itself to the very end ‘causes wonder’, behaving as something to be wondered at, something striking and worthy of wonder.”[90] As Schindler puts it, for Heidegger, “The fundamental difference . . . lies therefore in a certain sense between Being and beings,” rather than “within Being itself,” as was the case with Balthasar.[91]  This latter difference within being implies that “creation cannot close itself in its finiteness,” the very fact of its non-subsistence and non-necessity means that a solution cannot be deduced from being or even the totality of beings; creation must wait, “in the wonder of its being, another who founds it.”[92] The creature cannot resolve this tension by herself because her very nature exists by an act that ‘always already’ precedes her. This is the direction that Heidegger, though perhaps against his own intentions, was initially headed before he so undramatically identified being with the nothing.[93]

While being, for Heidegger, is revealed in the moment of Angst, in the revelation of the nothing, Balthasar saw the horizon of being most fundamentally in an infant’s being “brought to consciousness of himself only by love, by the smile of his mother.”[94] Like Heidegger, Balthasar did not seek access to being in the abstract, but began with Dasein.[95] Unlike Heidegger, however, Balthasar did not conceive Dasein’s being as primordially constituted by the nothing over which it is suspended (away from beings as a whole, i.e., the ontic); this ‘ultimate solitude’ that results from “absolutizing one’s own death,” as occurs in Heidegger, “means that authentic transcendence, understood as relationship to the other as other, is in the end an illusion.”[96] Such a conclusion is inevitably the result of beginning with the moment of Angst, which, in terms of phenomenological method, is not appropriate. Balthasar understood being “with what is both historical and a genuine beginning, namely, the fundamental experience of the child.”[97]

Balthasar begins, therefore, with the difference “between a child’s ‘I’ and the ‘other,’ who is initially the mother but implicitly everything else that will be an other to the child.”[98] Balthasar described this moment:

Its ‘I’ awakens in the experience of a ‘Thou’: in its mother’s smile through which it learns that it is contained, affirmed and loved in a relationship which is incomprehensively encompassing, already actual, sheltering and nourishing.[99]

It is not a withdrawal of beings, but “the experience of being admitted” that constitutes “the very first thing which [the infant] knows in the realm of Being.”[100] Experience of being depends on experience of beings.

The fact that being is revealed in this a priori (‘always already’) difference (i.e., relation) that can only be received as a gift, means that being cannot be sought apart from the ontic; it is precisely here that “the horizon of all unlimited being opens.”[101] The experience of “another entity” is simultaneous with the experience of that other “as part of the whole.”[102] The child awakens “into his own self-consciousness (difference in unity) within the comprehending grace of the mother’s love (unity in difference), which is expressed in her smiling on him.”[103] That an infant encounters being in this relationship means that “difference occurs primordially as positivity; the different is a ‘more’ that is affirmed, rather than a product of loss or a fall (negation).”[104] And since being cannot be known apart from beings, it becomes clear that “Being depends upon the existence of particulars”; “Sein is dependent on Dasein—and so is non-existent in itself.”[105] Thus it is not enough to simply say that “all beings depend on Being since they have or are nothing other than Being,” one must also say that being, “does not itself subsist, and so it needs particular beings ‘in’ which to become actual.”[106] But this also means, “The meaning of difference cannot be determined from within the difference itself . . . all that comes into view at this level is the fact of the difference.”[107] Heidegger stopped at the difference—an inevitable result of closing off being from God. “If the creature . . . looks at itself instead of looking up to God,” wrote Balthasar, “it can consider itself only as having been ejected from being, it interprets its ek-sistence as a being in nothingness, from nothingness, and to nothingness.[108] Because of his understanding of being as dependent on God, Balthasar was able to look beyond the ontological difference in order to understand the difference.

Far from a deus ex machina who comes to provide a quick and easy solution, “almost against our will,” God is brought into the picture

beyond the still conditioned, mutually dependent freedom of the existent with regard to Being and the freedom of Being to shine unconstrainedly as a light within the existent: an unconditioned freedom, or one which is at most one which is conditioned through itself, and which is untouched by nothingness, an actus purus, which is posited in the first instance only in order to preserve the light of openness between Being and the existent as a free and unconstrained light so that the individual entity is not submerged within the exigencies of a process of explication and Being does not lose its freedom in the same ‘Odyssey’ of its cosmic evolution towards itself.[109]

God alone, unaffected by time and nothingness, whom Thomas described as actus purus, is able to safeguard the difference. At the root of this difference, then, there lies a more fundamental difference. “Balthasar does not see the difference merely as a difference between ‘factual’ and ‘self-evident’, between beings and being, between essence and being, but at root as the difference between universal being and God.”[110]

VI: Conclusion: Trinitarian Difference

The polarities and tensions inherent in the ontological difference cannot be ‘resolved’ from within the difference itself; any attempt to do so will inevitably result in identity without difference. What is necessary is an understanding of being that is not closed off to genuine transcendence. Such a philosophy, though insecure in itself, will be “more fruitful, philosophically, than the clean complacency of finished neoscholastic distinctions, which run the danger of hacking off the living sprouts of being.”[111] In the same way that Thomas’ distinctio realis indicates the need of a genuinely transcendent Other without actually identifying that other, so to Heidegger’s ontological difference cannot but remain in tension—and this tension is good since it points beyond being, beings, as well as the difference between the two to an Other who affirms the difference as a positive, as a gift.

Of course, “a human reason which makes itself absolute,” will never receive such a solution.[112] And philosophy in itself can never reach this Other by its own will. The radical contingency of being means that the one upon whom being depends is not bound by necessity to reveal himself. Philosophy’s fundamental stance apart from God, therefore, can only be openness. Yet it is in the revelation of the Triune God in Christ, that the ontological difference finally finds justification. As Henrici explains,

In the trinitarian dogma God is one, good, true, and beautiful because he is essentially Love, and Love supposes the one, the other, and their unity. And if it is necessary to suppose the Other, the Word, the Son, in God, then the otherness of the creation is not a fall, a disgrace, but an image of God, even as it is not God.[113]

The basis for the ontological difference between being and beings rests in an eternal difference between the persons of the Godhead revealed in the loving kenosis of the Son; this difference between the persons is not characterized by violence and suspicion, as it is so often in modern and postmodern philosophy, but rather, it is characterized by love.[114]

It is therefore not in Angst but in love that the meaning of being is revealed. Thus as Scola explains, “In God, the other is allowed to be. There is a being-other which does not eliminate the unity of the divine Being.”[115] Yet since this ultimate justification of difference cannot be deduced from within being, but, just as the gift of being itself, must be given from without, it is entirely God’s prerogative to reveal this. “Everything is decided by the question of whether God has spoken to men . . . or whether the Absolute remains the silence beyond all worldly words.”[116] In light of the nature of being as gift, it is left to the creature to receive in wonder at the gift; yet this wonder at being points analogically (or, since it can only be received, catalogically) to the greater wonder of God’s glory in Christ. In light of Balthasar’s appreciation and emphasis on the wonder of being it is fitting to conclude with a quotation that displays even greater wonder at the revelation of God’s love—of being found:

Being Found stands so much higher over Seeking (revelation over myth, theology over philosophy), it has so overtaken Seeking with its light and overshadowed it into insignificance and triviality . . . , that the stage of Seeking seems dispensable to those who have been found.[117]


[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), p.18.

[2] Cf., Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), pp. 181-82.

[3] Pascal’s well-known saying is typically cited here: “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of philosophers and scholars . . .” Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings trans. Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 172, 178. Most prominent among those who argue for the death of the strictly metaphysical concept of God is Jean-Luc Marion. Cf., Jean-Luc Marion, Idol and the Distance: Five Studies trans. Thomas A. Carlson (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001) and God Without Being: Hors-Texte trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

[4] Far from a being a critic of God, according to Heidegger, Nietzsche is “the last German philosopher who sought God with a passion and pain,” Discours du Rectorat, p. 12, quoted in Jean-Luc Marion, Idol and the Distance, 36. Also cf. Heidegger’s four-volume work, Nietzsche trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991, 1984, 1987, 1982, respectively). Though it does not affect the content of this paper, it should be noted that most scholars consider Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche to be innacurate; Nietzsche’s will to power, for instance, “is not primarily a metaphysical principle, as Heidegger supposes,” Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 4th ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 420. Balthasar also notes that, “Löwith has correctly shown that Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche is questionable and, if one looks to the final form taken by Nietzsche as a whole, mistaken,” The Glory of the Lord: V: The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age ed. Brian McNeil C. R. V., John Riches trans. Oliver Davies, Andrew Louth, Brian McNeil C. R. V., John Sayward, Rowan Williams (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991) p. 433 n.28.

[5] Quoted in Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being trans. Thomas A. Carlson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 61.

[6] The term ‘onto-theology,’ coined by Immanuel Kant, was made popular by Heidegger. Cf. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason ed. and trans. Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 584). Merold Westphal, pointing out the ambiguity of the term, highlights what exactly is at stake: the problem of an onto-theology is more the “how rather than the what of our God-talk,” the attempt, “to imprison theological discourse within a primacy of theoretical reason under the rule of the principle of sufficient reason.” in Overcoming Onto-Theology: Toward a Postmodern Christian Faith (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001), pp. 22-23. Joeri Schrijvers defines it a bit differently: “In general, the ontotheological endeavour seeks an ultimate reason that can account for the totality of beings. Its point of departure – beings – forbids that ontotheology encounters anything other, at the end of the chain of beings, than a being. Proceeding from the finite to the infinite, ontotheology’s obsession with objects decides in advance how God will enter philosophical discourse.” In “On Doing Theology ‘After’ Ontotheology: Notes on a French Debate,” New Blackfriars 87 (2006), pp. 302-303. Both understandings of ontotheology are relevant to this paper.

[7] Christ Yannaras, On the Absence and Unknowability of God: Heidegger and the Areopagite ed. Andrew Louth, trans. Haralambos Ventis (London, New York: T&T Clark International, 2005), p. 43.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Though not directly influenced by Heidegger, such an attitude marks Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God trans. R. A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 211. Moltmann, in a typically dismissive attitude towards classical theology, writes that for Thomas, “God is then not thought for his own sake but for the sake of something else, for the sake of finite being.”

It is also possible to understand Karl Barth’s allergy to the analogia entis in this regard. See John Betz’ article where he describes the “secret alliance” between Heidegger and Barth. According to Betz, “both were contending . . . against the ‘domestication of transcendence’, i.e., the codification into manageable presence of what was no longer allowed to be absent (or in Barth’s case sovereign), whether at the hands of ex opere operato or ‘onto-theology,’” “Beyond the Sublime: The Aesthetics of the Analogy of Being (Part One),” Modern Theology 21/3 (2005), p. 369.

Kevin L. Hughes defends Bonaventure from similar attacks in his article, “Remember Bonaventure? (Onto)Theology and Ecstasy,” Modern Theology 19/4 (October, 2003): pp. 529-545. Hughes writes, “One would not like to be accused of being an onto-theologian in the presence of one’s peers. However, we seem to feel quite comfortable attributing this unspeakable sin to those who have gone before us—Plato, Aristotle, Philo, Origen, Plotinus, Augustine, Maimonides, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz . . . the list could go on” (p. 529).

[10] Peter Henrici, S. J., “The Philosophy of Hans Urs von Balthasar,” Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work ed. David L. Schindler (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1991), p. 164.

[11] Balthasar, Metaphysics in the Modern Age: pp. 9-48.

[12] Ibid., p. 449. David C. Schindler comments, “Balthasar’s engagement with the mystery of being is in dialogue primarily with Hegel, Heidegger, and Aquinas, although directly behind Aquinas stands the mighty figure of Dionysius the Areopagite.” Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Dramatic Structure of Truth: A Philosophical Investigation (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), p. 28.

[13] Metaphysics in the Modern Age, 434.

[14] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: IV: The Realm of Metaphysics in Antiquity ed. John Riches trans. Brian McNeil C. R. V., Andrew Louth, John Saward, Rowan Williams, Oliver Davies (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989), p. 375.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Aidan Nichols, O. P., The Word Has Been Abroad: A Guide Through Balthasar’s Aesthetics (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998), p. 142.

[17] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Logic: I: The Truth of the World trans. Adrian J. Walker (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000), p. 7.

[18] Cf., Metaphysics in the Modern Age, pp. 9-47.

[19] Ibid., p. 10.

[20] Ibid., pp. 10-11.

[21] Ibid., p. 11.

[22] Ibid., p. 12.

[23] Ibid., p. 21.

[24] The Word Has Been Abroad, p. 147.

[25] Metaphysics in the Modern Age, p. 25. It is only from within this univocal concept of being that Molinism can emerge, “in which the creature attains an ultimate particularity and freedom which is independent of the will of God” (p. 28). Even Heidegger saw that Descartes “is always far behind the Schoolmen” in working out the question of analogical predication. Being and Time trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008), p. 126.

[26] Metaphysics in the Modern Age, p. 31. Balthasar described Eckhart’s case as “an originally very pure Christian piety . . . in an unsuitable garment that ill fits the body.” Against Eckhart’s own intentions, his “most daring conceptions,” lead to “a legacy with consequences beyond measure” (p. 30). Balthasar’s treatment of Meister Eckhart is, like almost everything Balthasar treated, nuanced and complex, but for the sake of the topic I will highlight only aspects that I consider pertinent.

[27] Metaphysics in the Modern Age, p. 42.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., p. 45.

[30] Stephen Wigley, Balthasar’s Trilogy: A Reader’s Guide (London: T & T Clark: 2010), p. 59.

[31] Metaphysics in the Modern Age, p. 13-14.

[32] According to Heidegger’s own history of the concept of Being, he himself did not consider Thomas to have sufficiently grasped the crux of the issue. Heidegger wrote, “In medieval ontology this problem was widely discussed, especially in the Thomist and Scotist schools, without reaching clarity as to principles.” Being and Time, p. 22. However, Heidegger did credit Aquinas with following Aristotle in recognizing Dasein’s ontico-ontological priority (even if this may not have led to a genuine grasping of Dasein’s ontological structure (cf. Being and Time, p. 34). Balthasar argued that Heidegger misunderstands Thomas: Speaking of Thomas’ distinction between the actus essendi and essentiae, he wrote, “This mode of thought does not, as Heidegger says, reduce the difference ‘to a mere distinction, to the potency of our intellects’—that only happens when a pedantic scholasticism turns the mystery into a ‘real distinction’ etc. But for Thomas this structure remains the sign of the indeterminate non-absoluteness, speaking in Christian terms, of creatureliness,” Metaphysics in the Modern Age, p. 446. Heidegger’s misreading of Thomas was due to the former’s inability to think difference, as I hope to make clear.

[33] Being and Time, p. 21.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., p. 24.

[36] Ibid., p. 31.

[37] “What Is Metaphysics?” in Basic Writings ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008), p. 111.

[38] Being and Time, p. 27.

[39] Ibid., p. 59.

[40] Ibid., p. 25.

[41] Cf. Richard Polt, Heidegger: An Introduction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp.113-80. One also finds the ultimate unanswerability to the question of Being, at least in Being and Time, in Heidegger’s constant return to the beginning. “We cannot ever ‘avoid’ a ‘circular’ proof in the existential analytic, because such an analytic does not do any proving at all by the rules of the ‘logic of consistency’” (Being and Time, p. 363).

[42] Being and Time, p. 32.

[43] Cf. Ibid., pp.130-33.

[44] Ibid., p. 279.

[45] Cf. Ibid., p. 286.

[46] Ibid., p. 294.

[47] Ibid., p. 295.

[48] For more on ‘falling’ and ‘authentic existence,’ cf. Ibid., pp. 303-307.

[49] Metaphysics in the Modern Age, p. 432.

[50] Being and Time, p. 308.

[51] Ibid., p. 284.

[52] Ibid., p. 310.

[53] “What Is Metaphysics?,” p. 101.

[54] Ibid., p. 109.

[55] Ibid., p. 101.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Dramatic Structure of Truth, p. 297.

[58] “What is Metaphysics?,” p. 103.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid., p. 104.

[63] Ibid., p. 108.

[64] Metaphysics in the Modern Age, p. 447.

[65] “What Is Metaphysics?,” p. 108.

[66] Connor Cunningham, “The Difference of Theology and Some Philosophies of Nothing,” Modern Theology 17/3 (2001), p. 302.

[67] “What Is Metaphysics?,” pp. 107-108.

[68] Metaphysics in the Modern Age, p. 447. Emphasis added.

[69] Ibid., p. 624.

[70] “The Difference of Theology,” pp. 306-307.

[71] Metaphysics in the Modern Age, p. 448.

[72] Ibid.

[73] The Word Has Been Abroad, p. 174.

[74] Being and Time, p. 320.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Ibid.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid., pp. 320-21.

[79] Ibid., p. 321.

[80] Beauty of the Infinite, p. 214.

[81] Metaphysics in the Modern Age, p. 449.

[82] Metaphysics in the Modern Age, p. 450.

[83] Angelo Scola, Hans Urs von Balthasar: A Theological Style (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 23.

[84] In fact, David Bentley Hart is perhaps right to argue that Heidegger’s claim “that in discriminating between the spheres of faith and critical reflection he is not placing them in rivalry to one another, or granting one priority over the other . . . is manifestly a lie: the philosopher, for example, is able to see that the theologian’s special language of sin falls under the more original, ontological determination of Dasein’s guilt (Schuld), and thus the analysis of guilt can clarify and correct the concept of sin, but never the reverse; after all, Heidegger assures us, ‘there is no such thing as a Christian philosophy,” The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 216. John R. Betz argues similarly, “Heidegger’s own philosophy is a secularization of it [analogia entis] and, more generally, a secularization of theology—hence the ‘advent’ of Being; hence the poet as the ‘shepherd’ who awaits the advent of Being; hence the kenosis of Being in beings, etc., etc,” in “Beyond the Sublime: The Aesthetics of the Analogy of Being (Part Two),” Modern Theology 22/1 (2006), pp. 16-17.

[85] Theological Style, p. 23.

[86] Ibid.

[87] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “A Résumé of My Thought,” Hans Urs Von Balthasar: His Life and Work ed. David L. Schindler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), p. 1.

[88] As David C. Schindler notes, “though the meaning of ‘difference’ here is clearly indebted in different ways to both Aquinas and Heidegger, it does not line up cleanly with the thought and terminology of either one,” Dramatic Structure of Truth, p. 36.

[89] Cf. Ibid., p. 34.

[90] Metaphysics in the Modern Age, pp. 614-15.

[91] Dramatic Structure of Truth, p. 34.

[92] Wolfgang Treitler, “True Foundations of Authentic Theology,” Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work ed. David L. Schindler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), p. 175.

[93] Cf. Hart, Beauty of the Infinite, p. 132: “The truth of being is the whole of being, in its event, groundless, and so in its every detail revelatory of the light that grants it. Heidegger himself, ever the creature of his early theological teaching, came close to realizing this, in his attempts to deliver the language of truth from the confines of every form of positivism, or analytic mastery, or propositional reductionism; but ultimately he proved too forgetful of the radical question of beauty that Christian thought had raised, and so retreated back again along the tenebrous woodland paths of ontological necessity, in search of the “how it is” of the event rather than the “that it is” of the world, seeking a clearing where it never had been (nor ever could be) found.”

[94] “Résumé,” p. 3. According to David C. Schindler this is Balthasar’s “most fundamental insight . . . that affects everything else,” Dramatic Structure of Truth, p. 37.

[95] “Balthasar . . . makes a case not simply for a metaphysics in the conventional sense, but for a meta-anthropology that takes man in his freedom as the key to understanding being—without, however, slipping into an anthropological reduction,” Martin Bieler, “Future of the Philosophy of Being,” p. 472, quoted in Dramatic Structure of Truth, p. 259.

[96] Dramatic Structure of Truth, p. 302.

[97] Ibid., p. 38.

[98] Ibid., p. 36.

[99] Metaphysics in the Modern Age, p. 616.

[100] Ibid..

[101] “Résumé,” p. 3.

[102] Rowan Williams, “Balthasar and Rahner,” The Analogy of Beauty: The Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar ed. John Riches (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1986), p. 21.

[103] Dramatic Structure of Truth, p. 37.

[104] Ibid., p. 38.

[105] Ibid.

[106] Ibid., pp. 41-42.

[107] Ibid., p. 43.

[108] The Truth of the World, p. 267.

[109] Metaphysics in the Modern Age, p. 636.

[110] Henrici, “The Philosophy of Hans Urs von Balthasar,” p. 165.

[111] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor trans. Brian E. Daley, S. J. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003), p. 65.

[112] “Résumé,” p. 5.

[113] Ibid.

[114] Cf. Being and Time, p. 359. According to Heidegger existential analysis must be characterized by violence in order to uncover Being. “Dasein’s kind of Being thus demands that any ontological Interpretation which sets itself the goal of exhibiting the phenomena in their primordiality, should capture the Being of this entity, in spite of this entity’s own tendency to cover things up. Existential analysis, therefore, constantly has the character of doing violence [Gewaltsamkeit], whether to the claims of the everyday interpretation, or to its complacency and its tranquilized obviousness.”

[115] Theological Style, p. 62.

[116] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Christlich Meditieren, p. 7 quoted in Raymond Gawronski, Word and Silence: Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter between East and West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 221.

[117] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Spiritus Creator. Skizzen zur Theologie III, p. 282, quoted in Raymond Gawronski, Word and Silence, p. 86.