The Anatomy of Misremembering

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The Anatomy of Misremembering

Von Balthasar’s Response to Philosophical Modernity. Vol. 1: Hegel

The most comprehensive account of the relationship between Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hegel. For the author, it is essential to engage and correct Hegel, whose thought is a comprehensive misremembering of the Christian thought, practices, and forms of life.

The most comprehensive and sophisticated account to date of the relationship between Hans Urs von Balthasar, and the philosopher Georg Hegel. While underscoring the depth and breadth of Balthasar’s engagement with Hegel, O’Regan argues that Balthasar is the most concertedly anti-Hegelian theologian of the 20th century. For him, it is essential to engage Hegel because of his corrections of sclerotic forms of premodern Christian thought, but even more importantly to resist and correct his systematic thought, which represents a comprehensive misremembering of the Christian thought, practice, and forms of life.

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With this first installment of a planned two-volume project explicating Balthasar’s struggle against post-Enlightenment amnesia, O’Regan continues his argument against the theological wirkungsgeschichte of Hegel and German Idealism. In The Heterodox Hegel (1994) and Gnostic Return in Modernity (2001), O’Regan claimed Hegel’s philosophy marked the reemergence of a gnostic narrative that orthodox Christianity has fought throughout its history. O’Regan’s latest tome champions Balthasar against Hegel, the preeminent exemplar of the gnostic return. In his preface and introduction, O’Regan characterizes this agon as one between the triumphalism of Enlightenment-sanctioned forgetting and the memory preserved by Christian tradition. With his retrievals of the past, Hegel appears to oppose Enlightenment amnesia, but his philosophies of history are seductive monuments of encyclopedic misremembering that Balthasar’s apocalyptic theology exposes as counterfeit.

In part 1, “The Specter of Hegel and the Haunting of Ancient Discourses,” O’Regan demonstrates how Balthasar counters Hegel’s attack on the alethic capabilities of artistic symbolism and literary narratives. Apocalyptic interruption of the totalizing discourses of German Idealism and Romanticism preserves space for the biblical narrative in which Jesus rather than Hegel’s Geist is the uncircumscribable reality. In modernity this resistance mirrors the earlier heresiological battle Irenaeus waged against genealogies of Valentinian gnostics, aiming to transplant Christianity into foreign narratives. While Balthasar provides a path through this gnostic miasma, O’Regan thinks Balthasar’s historical descriptions need further genealogical determination to increase their explanatory scope. 

Part 2, “Gloriously Awry: Hegel’s Epic Deviation,” charges Hegel with promoting a metaphysics that destroys analogy and consequently justifies life without prayer. Hegel follows the Enlightenment in equating knowledge and salvation in an epical framework obliterating meaningful differences. By contrast, Balthasar emphasizes how saints illustrate that salvation is a function not of knowledge but of obedient acceptance of personal God-given missions erupting into history from outside it. In part 3, “Of Fathers and Sons,” O’Regan weaves a counter Hegelian family tree. Here Franz Staudenmaier’s battle against Hegelianism in the nineteenth century repeats Irenaeus’ against the gnostics in the second century, and foreshadows Balthasar’s own against Hegel in the twentieth. O’Regan searches for theologians whose Christologies and Trinitarian theologies he judges to have fallen captive to Hegel’s spell. His spotlight falls on Moltmann, for Hegel’s influence on Moltmann leads the latter into snares despite claims to Christocentricity. Moltmann’s anthropology unacceptably ingests Hegelian influences in his preference for autonomy rather than heteronomy. 

The fourth part, “Eidetic Apocalyptic and Its Contemporary Rivals,” features O’Regan’s description of Balthasar’s apocalyptic discourse. O’Regan proclaims this species of apocalypse Irenaean based on its ability to circumscribe rival speculative worldviews. A detailed intra Catholic comparison of the apocalyptic theologies of Metz and Balthasar is by itself worth the price of this book. Metz judges that both Moltmann and Balthasar produce kenotic theologies of the Trinity subjecting the cross and God to logical frameworks. Yet O’Regan values Balthasar’s eidetic appeal to Revelation and its theme of judgment more than Metz’s functional grounding in the prophetic books and Mark. O’Regan appreciates Metz’s warning against aestheticizing forms of apocalypse, which follows Benjamin’s less conceptually determined apocalyptic, and judges Metz’s theology worthy of integration into Balthasar’s project. Metz’s social-scientific and foundational apocalyptic thereby complements Balthasar’s Christocentric literary and categorical version of the same. 

In his resistance to modernity O’Regan displays remarkable philosophicalbreadth and a knowledge of Hegel few can match. His interpretations of Balthasar’s works are convincing, copiously documented, and sensitive to the proportionate influence various thinkers had on the trilogy. O’Regan’s concern to position Balthasar against Hegel does unto Balthasar what Balthasar himself did to many classic figures throughout his oeuvre. O’Regan offers a balanced articulation of kataphatic and apophatic emphases in Balthasar’s writing; getting this right is key to understanding how Balthasar counters the Hegelian drive toward abstraction. Those convinced by Lindbeck’s postliberalism will likely agree that O’Regan’s call to interpret or be interpreted is the most pressing contemporary theological task. 

Others, however, might have pause. Balthasar structured his trilogy as a deliberate response to Hegel, but O’Regan’s claim that confronting gnosticism in its various guises constitutes the sine qua non of contemporary theology should be a hard sell. Following Kevin Mongrain, O’Regan elevates Irenaeus as a hermeneutical guide unlocking insight into Balthasar’s theological goals.

Irenaeus’ role in articulating a canon for Christianity helped defeat the gnostic challenge, but was also concurrent with the rapid decline of the prophetic office in the churches and consequent narrowing of the Christian understanding of revelation. The witness of Irenaeus’ contemporaries Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria provides a model of engagement with philosophy and Greek understandings of the logos less amenable to, and more irenic than, the dichotomies in Against Heresies. These voices need to be integrated into a theological hermeneutic alongside that of Irenaeus and others defending canonicity. O’Regan’s claim that the Enlightenment and its consequences are nihilistic (113) reflects what is episodically a zero-sum articulation of the church-world relationship. His attempt to provide genealogical enhancement for Balthasar appeals to the category of tradition far more than Balthasar himself did; this underweights the Goethean influence that enabled Balthasar to read tradition in a manner that was Christocentric and yet simultaneously more open-ended than today’s postliberal readings. 

This book is recommended for faculty, graduate students, and librarians specializing in Balthasar or the relationship between Hegel and Christianity. The second volume of The Anatomy of Misremembering will be devoted to Balthasar’s engagement with Heidegger; I predict it will be as expansive and well argued as its predecessor.


"In this exceptional book, Professor Cyril O'Regan unites extraordinary erudition on gnosticism and apocalyptic with contemporary constructive thinking on von Balthasar and Hegel. There is no existing work like this. It will be impossible to read von Balthasar in the future without this profound study on his relation to Hegel and on the book of Revelation. This amazing book is indispensable for understanding four major moments in the Western tradition: apocalyptic, Valentinian gnosticims, Hegel and von Balthasar."
David Tracy, Greely Professor Emeritus at the Divinity School, University of Chicago


“With breath-taking ambition, matched with both erudition and a forensic incisiveness, O’Regan gathers together the premodern tradition and the fragments of it that modernity can never shake off, to prescribe a new basis for a genuinely post-modern theology. What is promised in a future volume on Balthasar and Heidegger, and what is already delivered in this book, is nothing short of amazing. The scholarly commitment it demonstrates provides the Church with a new way of proceeding that is as important as it is significant.”
Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Oxford


“O’Regan casts a new light on Balthasar’s work by interpreting it as an attempt to construct a truly post-modern theology in response to the crisis presented by ‘modernity’s amnesia.’ As O’Regan explains, this project involves not only a recollection of the living Christian tradition, but at the same time a constant resistance to the paradigmatic instances of ‘misremembering’ found in Hegel and (as he promises to show in the subsequent volume) in Heidegger. While he exhibits a real sympathy with Hegel’s own critique of the Enlightenment, O’Regan convincingly demonstrates that Hegel’s philosophy is in fact a Gnostic Doppelgänger of Christianity, and shows how Balthasar’s practice of the specifically Christian ars memoria differs not only from Hegel’s thought but also from that of many of his important heirs and critics. O’Regan’s brilliant study is by far the most in-depth and sophisticated exploration of the complex role that Hegel plays in Balthasar’s thought yet to appear.”
David C. Schindler Jr. Associate Professor of Philosophy, Villanova University


“This is the book on Balthasar that we have been waiting for. O'Regan shows both the tremendous overlap between Balthasar and Hegel, and the way in which Balthasar in every case mounts a profound and intricate critique of Hegel. Balthasar rejects Hegel from the inside, benefitting from many of his tropes but aiming to turn them utterly inside out. O'Regan's mastery of nineteenth-century German philosophy and its varied (not least Gnostic) sources combines with his sure grasp of Balthasar's manifold sources and contemporaries. The concluding exposition of Metz and Benjamin serves O’Regan’s purpose of exhibiting Balthasar as a giant of Christian apocalyptic. This landmark book will endure as a brilliant unfolding and contextualization of Balthasar's project in its German context.”
Matt Levering, Professor of Theology, University of Dayton


"In this projected two-volume study of von Balthasar’s theology, Cyril O’Regan advances his reputation as one of our most insightful interpreters of modernity. Here, in the first volume of Anatomy of Misremembering, he constructs a genealogical plot in which the main storyline is Balthasar’s defense of Christianity against the assaults of Hegel’s revisionist philosophy, particularly in what O’Regan describes as Hegel’s intentional efforts to “misremember” Christian tradition according to what proves to be a Gnostic template. O’Regan is a most erudite narrator of Balthasar’s project of Christian remembering, guiding the reader persuasively through the voluminous writings of Hegel and von Balthasar. And like von Balthasar, with whom he tacitly takes sides, O’Regan’s narrative enlists a host of minor characters – Valentinus, Irenaeus, Augustine, Joachim, Hamann, Bulgakov, Moltmann, Metz, Bloch, and Benjamin – who are lined up on either side of the agon in order to display the nuance and complexity of this battle for authentic tradition. O’Regan’s telling of this theological story is nothing less than a tour de force!"
John Thiel, Professor of Religious Studies, Fairfield University


“The Anatomy of Misremembering not only offers the best discussion of von Balthasar’s relationship to Hegel to date (showing their deep discontinuity), it also narrates how and why the ‘specter’ of Hegel haunts much of modern theology. O’Regan makes a convincing argument that Gnosticism returns through Hegel and that von Balthasar’s work can be an antidote. He does this without denying von Balthasar needs supplements, which he provides by tracing the ‘fathers and sons’ of Hegel and von Balthasar. This is a generous, thoughtful work that nonetheless refuses to shy away from advancing doctrinal and moral truths in all their beauty. If Gnosticism causes us to misremember, O’Regan’s work summons us to the difficult but essential task of remembering well. Anyone concerned with the shape of modern theology must look to this fascinating ‘anatomy’ of its present condition.”
Steve Long, Professor of Systematic Theology, Marquette University


“In O’Regan’s telling, Balthasar plays the role of Irenaeus to the redoubtable giant of modern Gnosticism, Hegel. But O’Regan does more than offer an exposition here; he strengthens Balthasar’s case by offering indispensable genealogical detail and nuance to the original charge. It is hard to imagine a work approaching even one of these thinkers with the sort of mastery that this book brings to both. My only complaint is that I now have to wait for the volume on Heidegger!”
Rodney Howsare, Professor of Theology at DeSales University


“Wearied of nihilism and its circumambulations, O’Regan wagers a decisive step. He constructs a bridge between his penetrating diagnosis of Hegelian Gnostic return and an equally bold promise to analyze further von Balthasar’s ‘unwelcoming’ of Heidegger’s dismissal of metaphysics. A new space for theological reflection thus appears between the two German mountains. The traversing of this barely trodden footpath begets intellectual sobriety while circumcising nostalgia. O’Regan plumbs von Balthasar’s enduring vitality as a theologian of culture and pinpoints in a surprising array of sources the remaining watermarks of Hegelian heterodoxy. As a result, the pilgrimage through over two centuries of art, religion, and philosophy is brisk but reaps rich rewards, above all as regards the still vibrant battle over apocalyptic styles in E. Bloch, W. Benjamin, J.B. Metz, and von Balthasar. Anyone interested in the fate of Christian thought after postmodernism’s stillbirth has got to read this book.”
Peter Casarella, Associate Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

Paperback / 688 pages
Dimensions: 6 x 9