The Beauty of the Theological Act: An Illustration of the Harmony between Faith and Reason

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By Daniel Henriquez, University of Dallas

The Glory of the Lord, that is revealed to man by the Light of Christ, shines forth in the Beauty of the Faith. Struck with awe and wonder at this Beauty, Hans Urs von Balthasar formed an aesthetic analogy to portray Faith’s inherent beauty and consequently demonstrated how this Beauty dispels many heresies, including Modernism.[1] The Modernist heresy, as exposed by Pope Pius X, presupposes within it two fundamental principles: agnosticism and vital immanence. The principle of agnosticism posits that “human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena, that is to say, to things perceptible to the senses”.[2] Thus, if there were a spiritual being called God, man cannot know whether he actually exists by reason or by means of visible things; yet, man does experience a phenomenon which Modernists term vital immanence or religious sentiment.[3] Therefore, Modernists claim that, although man cannot know God’s existence by means of any reason or natural theology, the phenomenon of religious sentiment, experienced immanently within him, provides the only grounds for his belief in God. However, the aesthetic analogy, as understood by Balthasar, between the formal acts proper to aesthetics, philosophy, and theology reveals the inconsistency of the Modernist’s principles with the Catholic Faith. Upon examining the basis of the aesthetic analogy between the three disciplines and illustrating the form of the theological act, this essay will conclude after drawing a defense of the Catholic Faith from the aesthetic analogy.    

Beauty is known as a transcendental attribute of Being precisely because it “surpasses the limits of all essences and is coextensive with Being”.[4] But, since beauty is logically distinct from the other transcendentals, namely, unity, goodness, and truth, man apprehends it in a particular way. According to Aquinas, from whom Balthasar draws his language, man apprehends beauty by the cognitive faculty as the formal cause of an object.[5] Moreover, the human subject sees beauty in objects according to the proportion, integrity, and clarity of its formal structure.[6] Although Aquinas stresses the language of proportion when portraying beauty, Balthasar favors the language of form and splendor.[7] Thus, form and splendor provide the necessary objective conditions for man to perceive beauty. Furthermore, as the etymological meaning of aesthetics (αἴσθησις) indicates, man perceives material beauty via sense perception.[8] In the aesthetic act, the human subject sees the form of the object in all its clarity, in all its splendor, and in all its light. Balthasar stresses that, within the act of seeing the form, the form snatches one up into a state of rapture.[9] What lies at the heart of the aesthetic act then is a form of communication between the subject and the object. The beautiful object principally communicates its form in splendor to the subject so as to invite the subject to respond by acknowledging its beauty in wonder. Therefore, since Beauty, which is perceived aesthetically in the material world, transcends all categories, the aesthetic analogy may be applied to other disciplines in which one sees Beauty.   

Before depicting the aesthetic analogy within theology, Balthasar first illustrates it in the discipline of philosophy. In the study of natural aesthetics, any object that has form, insofar as it exists, appears beautiful to the senses. Beauty as such also appears within Being, the formal object of the study of philosophy. For this reason, Balthasar says, “we see form as the splendor, as the glory of Being. We are ‘enraptured’ by our contemplation of [the depths of Being] and are ‘transported’ to them.”[10] The philosophic act of seeing Being thus also involves an aesthetic relation between the subject and object. Being, as an object, moves man, as a subject, to contemplation of Being. Balthasar develops this analogy by unfolding the implications of the splendor of Being: “Being is…the locus where all that is existent can become a luminous object, because in the light of Being everything is seen.”[11] Since the light of Being illumines every object that exists, every object that exists is rendered intelligible. The light of Being, analogously to aesthetic beauty, provides the necessary condition for, or rather, is the first principle of the operation of the intellect within a rational agent, for without Being the intellect can apprehend nothing. It is within this context, for Balthasar, where the Light of the Christian Faith shines forth and reveals itself.

However, even before deriving an argument from the beauty of the Faith, the beauty of Being sheds light on the incoherency of the agnostic principle. Just as reason apprehends the beauty of many different phenomena in the aesthetic experience, reason also apprehends the beauty of Being in the philosophic experience. Because reason can perceive the beauty of Being qua Being, which is not perceptible directly to the senses but only after it is abstracted from the senses, reason can know non-sensible phenomena. Moreover, man can apprehend by reason alone both that there exists a real distinction between him and Being and that his existence is radically contingent on Being. Thus, man is able to know God, solely by reason, as the Being that necessarily exists and that is the first efficient cause which holds all other existents in being.[12] However, in order to provide a more complete defense of the Faith against Modernism’s fundamental principles, it is necessary now to examine Faith’s beauty.  

The aesthetic analogy unveils itself within divine revelation, for, since beauty reveals the depths of Being, the revelation of the God who is Being must also be beautiful.[13] The Glory of the Lord, just as the splendor of aesthetic beauty, manifests itself within both the objective evidence of revelation (fides quae) and the subjective evidence of faith (fides qua).[14] Revelation, as the objective content of faith, manifests the Divinity concretely in and through the particular historical form of the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.[15] Furthermore, the subjective experience of the act of faith, by which a Christian believes in Christ, refers to that “total disposition, that total condition wherein man, through the power of grace, responds to God’s revelatory address” in the Divine Word.[16] In this way, the analogy of beauty reveals itself: through the gratuitous light of grace, the Christian sees and believes in Jesus Christ. Since the beauty of the subjective act of faith, which is only made possible through divine grace of the light of faith, is the principle of the theological act, it is now fitting to demonstrate what the beauty of this subjective act entails.   

An understanding of the theological a priori provides the first key to understanding the aesthetic argument against Modernism. The term a priori, which Balthasar borrows from Kant, refers to “the way human understanding is structured in advance as it comes to scan the materials of experience.”[17] Balthasar appropriates this term and uses it to express an important distinction between what he calls the religious a priori and the theological a priori. The religious a priori indicates the “presupposition of the objective vision that we can entertain of the divine reality in, and on, the natural forms of creation.”[18] For this reason, the religious a priori provides the natural condition or natural inclination of man to worship something greater than himself which he calls divine. However, the theological a priori differs since it signifies the “enlightening instruction of the Magister interior,” namely, the Holy Spirit filling us with the light of Faith.[19] In other words, it refers precisely to the “presupposition of our sharing in the inner life of the Trinity on the basis of a connaturality with the divine Persons given by the Mediator.”[20] Thus, although the religious a priori forms within man the tendency to worship something divine, if God were to freely reveal himself, the theological a priori must be provided for man to form within him the disposition by which he can believe those things revealed by God that extend beyond what reason can perfectly explain or comprehend.         

Moreover, an explanation of reason’s operation within the light of Being further illuminates the harmony between reason and faith. Within the light of Being, which extends to all essences, the philosophical act ascertains both that essences participate in existence but are not themselves identical with existence and that, due to this real distinction, there must exist a Being that both exists in itself and is the cause of every essence that does not exist in itself. From this participation, the philosopher realizes that his existence is not necessary, but is radically contingent on Being. This radical contingency proves to be so shocking to man that the philosopher Heidegger, a contemporary of Balthasar’s, explained the two notions of the philosophical act in the word ekstasis: “the dread and fear of the finite spirit that, by thinking, discovers in itself the opening up of infinity [of Being], and the rapture at sighting the fulness of this fountain which bestows itself and gathers men into itself.”[21]

In response to this philosophical dread, Balthasar indicates that God shines forth and reveals himself within the light of Being: “the philosophic act now confronts in the depth of Being the still deeper depth of the divine light” and the very fact that God freely reveals himself “means that it must free the person in whom such radiance appears to participate in the divine freedom.”[22] Thus, the implications of this statement are twofold: in the divine act of revelation, the light of Faith both shines forth from the depths of the light of Being and invites the human subject to freely, rationally, respond with an act of faith. Perceiving this harmony, Balthasar re-evaluates Heidegger’s notion of the philosophic act: “the act of faith, which fulfils and surpasses the philosophic act is no longer dependent on the dialogue of ekstasis, because when Being is confronted as love the threat which infinity poses to finitude vanishes.”[23] Thus, when man encounters the divine light of Jesus Christ as a perceptible and intelligible human form, the splendor of Christ’s love invites his rational response of faith and love.   

The harmony that exists between believing (pistis) and knowing (gnosis) within form of the act of faith illuminates the harmony that takes place between faith and reason in theological act. As the Beloved Disciple writes, “we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69). Balthasar’s primary concern with presenting this harmony is to illustrate that if the believing and knowing are not united under the aspect of faith, then the Christian faith, and consequently theology, dissolves into a kind of fideism or a kind of rationalism.[24] The gist of the harmony is this: by the light of grace, “the believer comes to grasp what the historic revelation has always aimed at portraying.”[25] Through the act of believing, the subject in some way knows the object. In light of this, Balthasar reformulates St. Anselm’s notion of theological act which he termed ‘faith seeking understanding’. On the one hand, the believer seeks understanding “because faith interiorly strives away from the believer into the light of God and to the evidence to be found in God alone;” but on the other hand, the believer also finds understanding, because the knowledge “needs no further instruction so long as it remains faithful to the principle which enlightens it.”[26] Thus, the knowledge which takes place in faith is of a twofold order: the knowledge given in faith and the knowledge found by reason’s participation in faith.[27] Within the rational act of faith, the believer knows in faith with certainty those mysteries which are “incomprehensible to human reason and must be accepted only out of obedience to authority,” namely, the authority of the light of Faith which radiates from Christ.[28] For this reason, the knowledge of mysteries given in faith cannot be understood principally by the light of natural reason, which can in no way replace faith or superimpose itself onto faith; however, human reason, enlightened by faith, may develop to a certain extent man’s knowledge and understanding of divine mysteries.[29]     

With this understanding of the beauty of the Faith in mind, it is now possible to form a more complete argument against Modernism from the aesthetic analogy. Although all men possess within themselves the religious a priori that is the basis of all religious experience, man needs the light of faith to be infused within him to know God beyond the basis of his natural reason. The light of Faith which shines forth from God supplies the necessary condition that enables man to see the synthesis of all the signs of God’s supernatural revelation. Furthermore, because the gracious light of Faith, in an analogous way to the light of Being, “bestows vision and makes the eye proportionate to what is being shown,” the act of faith is “rational precisely at the moment that is made truly as an act of faith.”[30] Therefore, just as man perceives beauty in the splendor of sensible forms, so also man perceives the glory of the Lord who reveals himself in the gracious light of the theological a priori.

But the principles of Modernism seem to suggest this as well because they suppose that there is no evidence of God outside of subjective experience of faith. However, the believer’s own subjective experience of faith provides evidence against this: “the light of faith cannot for a moment be thought of or even experienced as a merely immanent reality in our soul,” that is, as some sort of immanent religious a priori; rather, the theological a priori of the light of faith must be understood “solely as the radiance resulting from the presence of a lumen increatum, a gratia increata.”[31] Furthermore, because the light of faith infused in the believer is of supernatural origin and order, natural reason alone can neither comprehend nor explain the mysteries revealed in faith, as Modernism seems to imply. Contrary to Modernist thought, the believer develops his understanding of revealed mysteries only through the ‘engraced’ form of theological reasoning.[32] For these reasons, the awesome beauty of the Catholic Faith dispels the Modernist heresy.

Therefore, as illustrated by the argument from the aesthetic analogy, the beauty of the theological act illuminates Modernism’s inconsistency and incompatibility with the Faith. But, the beauty of the Catholic Faith extends far beyond the theological act. Whereas “the light of being envelops both subject and object, and, in the act of cognition, becomes the overarching identity between the two,” the light of faith “stems from the object, which, revealing itself to the subject, draws it out beyond itself…into the sphere of the object.”[33] Thus, the light of Christ truly communicates the Lord’s Glory in a form perceptible to human reason. Moreover, this free communication of Christ’s light invites man’s free response by an act of faith. If man freely believes in the objective evidence contained in revelation, God’s light, in his triune intimacy, becomes luminous in man, thus allowing him to participate in the divine life.[34] In this life, man participates in the divine life by faith and not by sight. However, the participation in the divine life by means of the Divine Indwelling takes place only through sanctifying grace.[35] Thus, through faith, the Divine Indwelling sanctifies man in such a way that, should he in life remain faithful to this light, after his death, he will be beatified and transported to the Beatific Vision where he will behold the wondrous Glory of the Lord.                         


Aquinas, St. Thomas. Summa Theologica Volume I – Part I. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2001.

Bychkov, Oleg. Aesthetic Revelation : Reading Ancient and Medieval Texts After Hans Urs Von Balthasar. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2010.

Chapp, Larry. “Revelation.” In The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs Von Balthasar, edited by Edward T. Oakes, S. J. and David Moss, 11–23. Cambridge Companions to Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Nichols, Aidan. A Key to Balthasar: Hans Urs von Balthasar on Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011.

Nichols, Aidan. Redeeming Beauty: Soundings in Sacral Aesthetics. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007. 

Nichols, Aidan. The Word Has Been Abroad: A Guide through Balthasar’s Aesthetics. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1998.

Pope Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1907.

The Didache Bible: Ignatius Bible Edition, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015)

Vatican I. Dei Filius. Sheed & Ward, 1990.

von Balthasar, Hans Urs. “A Résumé of My Thought.” In Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work, edited by David L. Schindler. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991. 

von Balthasar, Hans Urs. The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics Volume I: Seeing the Form. Translated by T & T Clark. San Francisco: Ignatius, 1982.

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics Volume I: Seeing the Form, trans. T &T Clark (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1982), 117, 177-182.

[2] Pope Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1907), paragraph 6.

[3] Pope Pius X, paragraph 7.

[4] Hans Urs von Balthasar, “A Résumé of My Thought,” in Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work, ed. David L. Schindler (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 3. 

[5] St. Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica Volume I – Part I, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2001), q. 5, a. 4, ad. 1.

[6] Aidan Nichols, Redeeming Beauty: Soundings in Sacral Aesthetics, (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007), 13. 

[7] Balthasar, GL I, 19-29.

[8] Oleg Bychkov, Aesthetic Revelation : Reading Ancient and Medieval Texts After Hans Urs Von Balthasar, (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 62.


[9] Balthasar, GL I, 32.

[10] Balthasar, GL I, 118.

[11] Balthasar, GL I, 158.

[12] Aquinas, S Th I, q. 2, a. 3, c.

[13] Bychkov, 67-68.


[14] Balthasar, GL I, 131.

[15] Larry Chapp, “Revelation,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hans Urs Von Balthasar, edited by Edward T. Oakes, S. J. and David Moss, 11–23. Cambridge Companions to Religion. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 14.

[16] Balthasar, GL I, 131.

[17] Aidan Nichols, A Key to Balthasar: Hans Urs von Balthasar on Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 33.

[18] Nichols, A Key to Balthasar, 33.

[19] Balthasar, GL I, 163.

[20] Nichols, A Key to Balthasar, 34.

[21] Balthasar, GL I, 158.

[22] Balthasar, GL I, 158-159.


[23] Balthasar, GL I, 159.

[24] Balthasar, GL I, 142-143.

[25] Aidan Nichols, The Word Has Been Abroad: A Guide through Balthasar’s Aesthetics, (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1998), 30.

[26] Balthasar, GL I, 136; cf. Nichols, The Word Has Been Abroad, 30.

[27] Vatican I, Dei Filius, (Sheed & Ward, 1990), 808, c. 4.

[28] Balthasar, GL I, 140.

[29] Vatican I, Dei Filius, (Sheed & Ward, 1990), 809, c. 4.

[30] Balthasar, GL I, 176.

[31] Balthasar, GL I, 215.

[32] Chapp, 13.

[33] Balthasar, GL I, 181.

[34] Balthasar, GL I, 156.


[35] Aquinas, S Th I, q. 43, a. 3, c.

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