The Divine Imagination in the “Thisness” of Things


Recently, my friend Rabbi Joshua Boettiger (Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland, Oregon) asked me what I understood by Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s notion of “glory.” (Rabbi Joshua is reading von Balthasar’s The Glory of the Lord, volume 1: Seeing the Form.)

The Glory of the Lord, volume, by Hans Urs von Balthasar. Available from

This book is available from Click on the image.

I described glory, from my limited vantage point, in “Hopkinsian” terms:

the inscape (essential form) and

instress (energy that animates and emanates from the form–its particular “splendor”)

I’ve used the words “form” and “force” to capture the intrinsic and extrinsic dimensions of the “thisness” of a person and other things in nature–the very “thing” (form) and its spirit in radiation, emanation (force).

To the contemplative observer, a person or thing “reveals” itself–its thisness (Duns Scotus) is conveyed. This observation is far more reception that active perception.  It’s more in the realm of gift than task.

Because I’m not trained in philosophy or theology formally, I am definitely in over my head when I read von Balthasar. But, I know that he wrote for all, not just the scholars. So, I trudge on! I find other points of entry into von Balthasar’s rich, dense, and ultimately rewarding work.

I found an essay in one of my electronic folders by an English theologian, which includes (in the excerpt below) a connection between Goethe’s concepts and von Balthasar’s.

More schooled in literature, with a special affinity for dramatic and poetic expression, I find this “graspable.”

“According to Goethe, a form is experienced when one is enraptured by nature, which is the expression of divine imagination. Here, `form’ is no longer a concept that can be further qualified with aesthetical judgments, such as a beautiful form, a perfect form, etc. Instead, `form’ has become an aesthetic category in itself, a quality of nature referring to the totality of divine imagination, of which creation is the outcome, right down to its smallest parts.

“However, Goethe does not understand it as a platonic form that is transcendent to the world but as something that is most immanent to a being in the world. A form pertains to that which lives and as such carries in it the totality of life. In his later work, Goethe amends this concept of form. Form then becomes the expression of the essence of beings.

“Consequently, `perceiving the form’ should be understood as the experience of the essential meaning of beings. Goethe’s first conception of `form’ emphasizes the appearance of totality in nature. In his later conception the emphasis has shifted to the intellectual contemplation of the essence of things.

“Like Goethe, Balthasar’s use of the concept of form resists every type of dualism. According to him, no metaphysical truth claim can break away from its original sensory perceptions. The totality of being only appears in separate, fragmented beings. In order to be able to perceive beings as fragments or `contractions’ of totality or absoluteness, they should be regarded as forms of being.

“To him, `form’ is the contemplated, independently existing totality of fragments and elements which cannot only be conceived of or understood contextually but also contains the totality of being and as such is a contracted representation or image of the Absolute (H III,1 30).

” Given the fact that every individual being can be contemplated as form, so that even the most minimal or most contracted being can be seen as an appearance of the Absolute, it is now apparent that one can never have an exhaustive conception of any form. Balthasar quotes a passage of Goethe that shows how the perception of a form, and therefore of the totality in a fragment—no matter how minute—is an experience of glory: ‘When the soul becomes aware of a relation in a bud, whose harmony it would not even be able to survey and experience when in full bloom, we say this impression is exalted, and it is the most glorious impression a human soul can partake in’ (H III,1 31-32).”




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