A Symposium on Caritas in Veritate

Thinking Love at the Heart of Things The Metaphysics of Being as Love in the Work of Ferdinand Ulrich

Stefan Oster

“Ulrich has developed a philosophy that is perhaps better equipped than any other to mediate between the parties in the strained relation between philosophy and theology, reason and faith.”

Introduction: An unknown master

In a letter written in 1962 to Ferdinand Ulrich, who at the time was just thirty-one years old, Hans Urs von Balthasar expressed a rather astonishing judgment regarding his correspondent’s first and fundamental work, entitled Homo Abyssus. Das Wagnis der Seinsfrage (Einsiedeln, 1961). According to Balthasar, Ulrich’s philosophy, “like every other great creative achievement, moves at its ease in the company of all other great intuitions, precisely as a function of its own inseparable unity: It speaks as immediately with Thomas as it does with Schelling, Hegel, and Heidegger. What is more, it has one great advantage over all the other ontologies with which I amfamiliar: It stands in intimate contact with the mysteries of revelation, offers an access to them, and yet never abandons the strictly philosophical domain. In this sense, it overcomes the baneful dualism between philosophy and theology, and it does so perhaps more successfully than ever before.”1

A statement such as this, in the mouth of a man as well-versed in the whole history of Western thought as Balthasar, cannot fail to capture our attention, especially given the wide-ranging debate about faith and reason that has been underway since Benedict XVI assumed the papal office. For Balthasar’s claim is that Ulrich has developed a philosophy that is perhaps better equipped than any other to mediate between the parties in the strained relation between philosophy and theology, reason and faith. This is no idiosyncratic assessment; Gerd Haeffner, professor of philosophy in Munich, offers substantially the same judgment as Balthasar in a 1976 review of another of Ulrich’s works (Gegenwart der Freiheit). In fact, Haeffner goes so far as to suggest that Ulrich may have even “found the ‘principle’ that modern philosophy and theology, torn between immanentism and extrinsicism, between the ‘mirage’ of a natura pura and the pantheistic identification of God and the finite, have sought in vain. In vain because it has failed to rethink Greek metaphysics (which underlay all the heresies in the ancient Church and, by the same token, the orthodox dogmas defined to counter them) in light of a more original starting point: the question of being, intertwined with the experience of absolute being as love.”2

So who is the man behind this work that, though judged so important by experts such as Balthasar and Haeffner, has so far largely escaped the notice of the broader community of scholars? Let us begin with a few biographical details. Ferdinand Ulrich was born in 1931 in the Moravian village of Odrau, in what is today the Czech Republic. Driven from his homeland after the War, like so many other long-settled ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe, he eventually settled in what was then West Germany. He attended the University of Munich as an undergraduate, and he received his doctorate at the same university in 1956. Two years later he obtained his habilitation from the University of Salzburg. Since 1958, he has resided in the Bavarian city of Regensburg, where he was professor of philosophy until becoming emeritus in 1996.3

Ulrich’s thought is available to the interested reader in a projected edition of his principal works currently being published (in the original German) by Johannes Verlag. Though still unfinished, this edition currently numbers five substantial volumes.4 Johannes Verlag has also published a few smaller books.5 Finally, Ulrich has written around sixty articles, some of which are the size of small books. A considerable portion of the articles, however, has appeared only in collective volumes or journals in Italy.6

At first sight, Ulrich’s philosophy appears difficult to approach. It is speculative, in the classical sense of the word, and it has a certain contemplative quality. Ulrich does not just think; he also “beholds,” exploring the deepest recesses of reality with seeming effortlessness, though in constant inner dialogue with the thinkers of the great philosophical tradition. His seemingly “abstract” reflection includes an innate concern for concrete embodiment, and it never forgets the domain of praxis. Ulrich beholds the world in light of the gift of being, but, since the gift can be found and “touched” as such only in the concreteness of finite entities, Ulrich’s contemplative gaze has a built-in attentiveness to the real world. Ulrich never forgets man, as he actually goes about achieving his life in action, in the context of the actual world and the actual history in which he finds himself.


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