Winter 2010

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

1. This passage is found in a letter (currently in my possession) that Balthasar wrote to Ulrich on 28 May 1962. It is partially reproduced on the back cover of the new edition of Ulrich’s main systematic work, Homo Abyssus. Das Wagnis der Seinsfrage, 2nd ed. (Einsiedeln/Freiburg, 1998).

2. Gerd Haeffner, review of Ulrich’s Gegenwart der Freiheit, in Theologie und Philosophie 51 (1976): 118–22; the citation is found on page 122.

3. He began his career at the Institute for Education, which was later integrated into the newly established University of Regensburg. In addition, he has also taught at the University of Salzburg as well as (from 1964–1991) at the Jesuit Philosophical Institute, first in Pullach, later in Munich.