Hans Urs von Balthasar is probably the most alarming of the false teachers who have brought such ruin to the Church over the last fifty years. This is because of his deceitfulness. He constantly veils his meaning and systematically misquotes authorities. He frequently begins some passage in which he intends to promote some dreadful falsehood with a strong denial of the doctrine he is about to introduce. The evil is usually veiled enough that one could easily think he was just carried away by error into a disingenuous style but there is one short piece in which the true nature of his loyalties and mission is revealed. This is the introduction he wrote to a book called Meditations on the Tarot by an Estonian occultist and ‘convert’ to Catholicism Valentin Tomberg (1900-1973). It serves as a key to the understanding of Balthasar’s other writings. When I first heard of it I contacted someone who had passed through a significant phase of enthusiasm for Balthasar (but subsequently recovered) to ask if he had heard of it. He had. In fact, it had been his discovery of this text which had broken the spell of the Swiss heresiarch.

As usual Balthasar begins by denying the claim he is about to make,

“By way of the Major Arcana the author [Tomberg] seeks to lead meditatively into the deeper, all-embracing wisdom of the Catholic Mystery. Firstly, it may be recalled that such an attempt is to be found nowhere in the history of philosophical, theological and Catholic thought.”

Balthasar then proceeds to argue that this is indeed a legitimate and precedented element of Catholic tradition. The wisdom afforded by Tarot cards is  “the ‘wisdom of the rulers of this world’ (I Cor.ii,6)”. Balthasar even gives us the reference to 1 Corinthians 2:6 where we discover that these helpful fellows are “doomed to pass away” and “crucified the Lord of glory”. That is, they are the demons. Balthasar’s authority for engaging in this exercise is the heresiarch Origen, (who despite the fact that he has been anathematised by name by four ecumenical councils suddenly became respectable in the twentieth century). Origen, he reassures us, traced these demonic doctrines to “the ‘secret wisdom of the Egyptians’ (especially the Hermetic writings supposedly written by ‘hermes Trismegistus,’ the Egyptian god Thoth.)” Oh, the Egyptian god Thoth, how reassuring I thought we were getting into something shady here but if someone as respectable as the Egyptian god Thoth is behind it all then carry on. Touchingly, Balthasar informs us Origen “believed it possible that the cosmic powers (‘rulers of this world’) do not bring their wisdom to human beings in order to harm them, but because they themselves hold these things to be true.” How wonderful. Perhaps we will not die but become like God knowing good and evil? Sure enough the cosmic powers are not, Balthasar tells us, straightforwardly created but are “conceived of partly as thoughts of God, partly as Angels”. This is presumably why Lucifer quite reasonably decided to insist “I will make myself like the Most High”. Because, as Balthasar has clarified for us, he already was partly divine.

The Cabbala is also a helpful source of this secret wisdom for Balthasar and we need not worry about that because “the secret, oral tradition of the Cabbala is likewise dated back to the time of Moses.” Right. We are told that various figures in the Renaissance insisted they were Christians while indulging in this sort of thing. Given they were probably guilty of a capital offences this is not terribly surprising. Various modern non-believers have also shown enthusiasm, but fear not “The mystical, magical, occult tributaries which flow into the stream of his mediations are much more encompassing; yet the confluence of their waters within him, full of movement, becomes inwardly a unity of Christian contemplation.”

Tomberg isn’t scared of the word ‘magic’. He isn’t using the cards to tell the future just to get in touch with the “principles of the objective cosmos; and here we touch upon the sphere of the ‘powers and mights,’ as they are called in the Bible.” That, I presume, is the sphere they call Hell. There is a paragraph in which Balthasar grudgingly admits the Tarot is probably the invention of fortune tellers rather than a survival from ancient Egypt, he then enthuses about other modern promoters of the cards before lamenting “There have also been other spiritual streams such as the ‘Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’ which have been worked partly to hinder the realization of the Christian aspect of the Tarot symbols.” The ‘spiritual stream’ in question was a Satanist group. They should be at least given marks for honesty unlike Hans Urs.

Then Balthasar tries to convince us Tomberg is a good guy because he often refers to a host of more mainstream writers, philosophers and saints. Interesting Balthasar should say that when one considers the style of his own writings. After rhapsodising a little more about Tomberg’s virtues he makes the following remarks,

For him this “magical” capacity has nothing to do with the human being’s despotic nature the commonplace, magical will-to-power, which seeks by way of world forces to gain dominion in the realm of knowledge and in the sphere of destiny. Rather, it is something very different. One can only call it the “magic of grace,” the magic of which issues forth from the very heart of the mysteries of the Catholic faith. Since this faith itself neither is nor aspires to be magical, the magic amounts to the content of faith: that all cosmic “mights and powers” are subject to the sole rulership of Christ. The New Testament depicts this subjugation of the cosmic powers to Christ as a process which although achieved in principle will continue until the end of the world. Thereby a dangerous possibility emerges: the temptation through curiosity or the desire for power to prematurely give oneself up to the cosmic powers instead of approaching them by way of the triumphant victory of Christ.

This passage is key. The ‘subjugation of the cosmic powers to Christ’ is not for Balthasar the defeat and expulsion from this world of the demons but rather their conversion. One may communicate with (indeed ‘give oneself up’ to) these former demons through the Tarot so long as one doesn’t jump the gun by giving oneself up ‘prematurely’ to a not-yet-converted demon. He admits that many will find these idea ‘confusing’. Personally I find them very revealing although perhaps not in the way intended by Tomberg and Balthasar. The pantheistic consequences of the De Lubac thesis on the natural desire for the vision of God are displaid in their full horror. After declaring that “the incarnation of divine love, becoming human, is the ultimate aim of cosmic evolution” Balthasar goes on, using Charles Williams,  to expound a vision of the demons as “Platonic ideas”. Tolkein called Williams “that witch-doctor” with good reason. Balthasar explains how various characters react to their encounter with the ‘Platonic ideas’ in Williams’ novel The Place of the Lion until finally “the last one finds the only truly appropriate attitude: facing up to the superior strength of the cosmic powers, he devotes himself in freedom towards the grace intrinsic to their inner being.” One can only presume that Balthasar himself devoted himself in freedom to the cosmic powers and the ‘grace’ they told him was ‘intrinsic to their inner being’. For a theologian whose writings are, by his own admission, heavily dependant upon private revelations given to him through a medium, the consequences hardly need spelling out. Balthasar cautions that there is no room for “the sorcerer’s apprentice” one needs to be an expert. There are many dangers. No doubt. The fathers he claims only really objected to this sort of thing when it was done the wrong way. He concludes “To analyse in detail as to how far a Christian synthesis for these in-between realms is possible or communicable would exceed the scope and competence of this introduction”. For that perhaps we have to look to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s other writings.