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Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 4.1 (2001) 34-53

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Seeing the Glory: Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory through the Lens of Hans Urs von Balthasar's Theological Aesthetics

Mark Bosco, S.J.

What is a person without the form that shapes him, the form that surrounds him inexorably like a coat of armour and which nonetheless is the very thing that bestows suppleness on him and which makes him free of all uncertainty and all paralyzing fears, free for himself and his highest possibilities? What is a person without this?1

Hans Urs von Balthasar

Wherever aesthetics has been separated from the religious imagination, scholars have gone to great pains to describe the relationship between art and religion. In terms of literature, theologians and literary critics alike continue to look at literary texts in order to point to the presence of the sacred--whether it be muted or prominent--or take notice of its absence, in whatever mode that absence has been rendered. Such is the case with the literary work of Graham Greene, one of the great British novelists of the twentieth century. Greene had the ability to blend an acute, modernist realism in his writing with an array of characters who typify the struggle with the [End Page 34] religious dimensions of human life. By being faithful to the totality of human experience, the presence of God emerges as a major thematic thread in his novels. Greene's religious imagination is nowhere more evident than in his critically acclaimed novel, The Power and the Glory. The novel offers the reader a look into the life and death of a Mexican "whiskey priest," probing how the form of Christ shapes his sense of self, his relationship to his world, and his ultimate destiny. Throughout the novel Greene posits the question of how form shapes a human being's heart and mind. 2

It is precisely in terms of "form" that the work of the theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, intersects with Graham Greene. No theologian of this century has done more to highlight the correlation between the literary arts and theology. 3 In his seven volumes of The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics (translated from his three volume Herrlichkeit in German), von Balthasar traces the development of a theological aesthetic at work in the unfolding of literary and dramatic texts of western civilization. He understands the theologian's task as one who "leads others to 'see' the balance, proportion and tension with the form of Christ and then to be enraptured by its splendor." 4 Von Balthasar grounds his theological aesthetics not in modern philosophical criticism, but in the great classical tradition of Greek tragedy, Patristic philosophy and theology, and the work of medieval writers such as Anselm, Bonaventure, and Dante. He sees this aesthetic style still very much alive in such twentieth century authors as Charles Péguy and Georges Bernanos. 5 Yet von Balthasar's examination of modern literary texts has a decidedly continental emphasis, particularly from Germany and France; with few exceptions (some commentary on Shakespeare's tragedies and an analysis of the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins), von Balthasar did not examine the wealth of English literature.

This paper, then, attempts to further that examination, hoping to demonstrate that Graham Greene has a place at von Balthasar's twentieth century literary table--of those authors who possess a theological [End Page 35] aesthetic at work in their artistry. By first considering von Balthasar's methodological understanding of theological aesthetics, one can see that his vision of "seeing the Form" as a meditation on Beauty is at the heart of the matter in Greene's novel, The Power and the Glory. Indeed, Greene's novel is an embodiment of von Balthasar's aesthetic.

Seeing the Form of Beauty

The seven-volume series of The Glory of the Lord outlines and explicates a theology that takes seriously the metaphysical notion...


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