Book Write-Up: Balthasar on the Spiritual Senses, by Mark McInroy

Mark McInroy.  Balthasar on the Spiritual Senses: Perceiving Splendour.  Oxford University Press, 2014.  See here to purchase the book.

Mark McInroy teaches Systematic Theology at the University of St. Thomas.  Hans Urs von Balthasar was a renowned twentieth century Catholic theologian.  This book, Balthasar on the Spiritual Senses, examines Balthasar’s conceptualization of the spiritual senses and engagement with Christian theological thought on the topic.  According to McInroy, the spiritual senses are significant in Balthasar’s thought, but their role in Balthasar’s thought has been underappreciated within scholarship.  The reason is that Balthasar himself supposedly stressed the object of theology rather than the subject’s perception of the divine.

McInroy demonstrates that Balthasar departs from the view that the spiritual senses are a mystical, internal perception of the transcendent God that believers can obtain through contemplation and spiritual discipline.  Balthasar also rejects Christian views that have radically differentiated between the spiritual senses and the corporeal senses.  Such views have either seen the spiritual senses as a repudiation of the corporeal senses (i.e., the sensual world), or they have attempted to explain the spiritual senses through a metaphorical treatment of the corporeal senses: for example, believers can metaphorically, but not literally, “taste” God.

Essentially, McInroy argues that Balthasar has a very this-worldly view of the spiritual senses.  The spiritual senses are not a mystical perception of the transcendent God, but rather they are a perception of God’s activity within this world, which God graciously imparts to all believers, not only the spiritual superstars.  They include seeing the spiritual significance, or form, of the elements of God’s creation, in their beauty.  The spiritual senses partake of the corporeal senses, as believers see things as they are, both physically and in terms of their spiritual significance.  The spiritual senses are also activated within the Christian love for neighbor, and the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ and Christian liturgy are key elements of Balthasar’s conception of the spiritual senses.

McInroy situates Balthasar’s conception of the spiritual senses within Christian thought, while examining Balthasar’s engagement of other Christian views.  McInroy concludes that Balthasar reads his own views into Origen, even as Balthasar departs from Origen.  Balthasar overlaps with Christian thinkers, such as Barth, who stress the role of interpersonal relationships in making people truly human and who posit more of a unity between the soul and the body than a division between them.  (Incidentally, McInroy highlights cases in which Barth appears to depart somewhat, or at least to qualify, Barth’s classic aversion to natural theology.)  Balthasar also was critical of philosophical arguments for the existence of God, believing that they marginalize a life of trusting faith.  McInroy has a chapter on Balthasar’s engagement of patristic thought, including that of Origen, Evagrius of Pontus, Diadochus of Photice, Pseudo-Macarius, Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Gregory of Nyssa, and Pseudo-Dionysius.  His chapter on medieval and early modern thought includes Bonaventure and Ignatius of Loyola.  The chapter about Balthasar’s contemporary theological interlocutors examines Karl Barth, Romano Guardini, Gustav Siewerth, and Paul Claudel.

McInroy contends that Balthasar’s view of the spiritual senses may help to address a division within Catholic thought on the role of divine revelation within the Christian life.  One line of thought, exemplified by Vatican I and its aftermath, emphasizes authority: believers embrace the authority of divine revelation, whether that resonates with them or not.  According to such a view, the authority of divine revelation has been attested by miracles.  The weakness of this view, according to McInroy, is that it draws a wedge between divine revelation and human beings, when divine revelation meets human needs and plays a role in their healing.  Its stress on miracles as signs also tends to marginalize the spiritual richness of the revelation itself.

The other extreme, which McInroy calls “Modernist,” tends to locate divine revelation in the thoughts and feelings of the human subject: one sees God by looking within.  The weakness of this view, according to McInroy, is that it obviates the ability of divine revelation to challenge us, and it marginalizes divine revelation’s role and status as something that is above and beyond us.

For McInroy, Balthasar’s view of the spiritual senses can help to resolve this tension in that it balances the objective with the subjective.  The world is out there, and what is in the world has spiritual significance.  Yet, people need spiritual senses in order to perceive, to appreciate, and even to be transformed by that.

Here are some of my thoughts about the book:

A.  McInroy’s description of Christian views of the spiritual senses is a necessary part of the book, as the book is an academic treatment of Balthasar’s interaction with Christian views.  The book really came alive for me, however, when McInroy described Balthasar’s own conception of the spiritual senses.

B.  While McInroy’s description of Balthasar’s own conception of the spiritual senses is compelling, it was not overly specific about what it practically looks like, how it plays out on a practical level.  What exactly do believers see when they perceive the divine significance of what is in the world?  How do believers spiritually see when they love their neighbors?  Of course, such a discussion would depend on how specific Balthasar himself was about this.

C.  McInroy’s discussion of the polarity in Catholic theology was interesting and resonated with me.  On the one hand, I struggle with the “authority” model, as I feel that it tries to pressure me to be something that I am not and to accept what seems to violate my intellectual or moral sensitivities.  I speak here about what some may conceptualize as commands of the Bible, or aspects of the Bible that violate many people’s intellectual or moral qualms.  The Bible can become a straitjacket as I attempt to apply it, or I can find myself concluding that its requirements and claims are unrealistic in terms of where and how I am, or where and how the world is.  On the other hand, as McInroy points out, the other extreme has its flaws.  I think of a line from Rich Mullins’ song “Creed”: “I didn’t make it, but it is making me.”  Tim Keller and others have asserted that a relationship with a real God means that this God will contradict us, as real beings, outside of our imagination, do.

Whether Balthasar presents a resolution to this dilemma is an open question.  Part of the issue is the question of whether Christianity meets our desires and needs as human beings.  There is also the factor of God’s transforming our wills and our desires by grace.  Christians and others have testified that God can do this.  Some may look at their own lives, however, and wonder if God is doing that for them, or ever will.

I checked this book out from the library.  My review is honest.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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