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A Conversation with a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative Evangelical Catholic Priest | Interview with
Fr. Robert Barron | Carl E. Olson | October 15, 2007
Fr. Robert Barron is Chair of the Department of Systematic Theology at the University of
St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary. He was
ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1986, and has a Masters
degree in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America and a Doctorate in
Sacred Theology from the Institute Catholique de Paris. Fr. Barron is the
author of several books books, including Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master,
And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation, Heaven in Stone and Glass:
Experiencing the Spirituality of the Great Cathedrals, and Bridging the
Great Divide: Musings of a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative Evangelical Catholic. His most recent book
is The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism
(Brazos Press, 2007). In the foreword, Francis Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago, writes that The
Priority of Christ "is
a hopeful work, designed to help the Church today work through many sterile
debates and express the truths of the apostolic faith clearly and persuasively."
Fr. Barron gives frequent talks, retreats and workshops; he can be visited on
online at the "Word on Fire" website.
Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently interviewed Fr. Barron
and spoke with him about his most recent book, his theological work, and his
views on misleading labels, great theologians, Pope Benedict XVI, and the state
of Catholic theology today.
The subtitle to The Priority of Christ is "Toward a
Postliberal Catholicism", and Bridging the Great Divide is subtitled
"Musings of a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative Evangelical Catholic."
What is misleading or hindering about the descriptives "liberal" and
"conservative" when used to describe Catholicism? How might you
define a "post-liberal, post-conservative evangelical Catholic"?
The terms "liberal" and "conservative" are misleading in regard to the Catholic
faith because they are primarily political categories borrowed from the era of
the French revolution. During that time, if you supported the ancien régime, you were a conservateur,
and if you favored
political reform, you were a liberal. But this applies, only very awkwardly, to the
context of Catholicism, for the church is not a political form towards which we
are either positively or negatively disposed. It is, rather, a body of which
we are members. As the subtitle to my book Bridging the Great Divide suggests, I would
recommend that we leave these misleading designations behind and embrace the
title "evangelical." By this, I mean that we should be Christ-centered, eager
to proclaim the faith, and deeply desirous of bringing people into the mystical
body in which we have found such abundant life.
What are some of the primary issues and arguments that you address in The
Priority of Christ? What do you think are the most serious challenges (or
errors) facing Catholics in the realm of Christology?
The primary issue that I address in The Priority of Christ is the need to
transcend the theological style that has dominated Christian thought since the
time of Schleiermacher, viz. experiential-expressivism. By this I mean the
view that dogma, doctrine, practice, and ritual are but expressions of
universal spiritual experiences. I propose a reversal according to which
interpretive primacy is given to the densely textured world opened up by the
Biblical revelation, so that that world shapes experience and not vice versa.
This shift is of special importance in regard to Christology, for in the
dominant Christologies of the post-conciliar period—Küng's
Schillebeeckx's, Rahner's, Haight's, to name just a few—interpretive
primacy is clearly given to anthropology and subjective experience. This has
led to a serious atenuating of the content of the New Testament revelation.
In reading The Priority of Christ, three names stood out to me: Chalcedon,
Aquinas, and von Balthasar. Why and how are they so important to your
Chalcedon is absolutely central to my theological work, for I'm convinced that
the correct understanding of the relationship between divinity and humanity in
Jesus is the hermeneutical key to the rest of theology. I hold that
Chalcedon's teaching that the natures come together in Jesus in a hypostatic
union but without "mixing, mingling, or confusion" provides the matrix for
understanding the nature/grace relationship, the rapport between divine
providence and human freedom, the nature of the sacraments, and so much else.
Thomas Aquinas, who has always been my principal guide in theology, articulated
with such clarity the doctrine of God as ipsum esse subsistens (the sheer act of to-be
itself). In so doing, he provides a means to battle the erroneous and
extremely influential modern construal of God as a competitive supreme being.
And Hans Urs von Balthasar was the contemporary theologian who, more than any
other, helped me to think past the bankrupt categories of theological
liberalism and to discover, in all its richness, the Biblical world, centered
around Jesus Christ.
You discuss the impact of nominalism and the modern understanding of a
"nominalist God" who, according to Kant and others, threatens human
free will. What has been in the impact of nominalism on modern thought and how
is its influence still being realized today?
A most important shift in the understanding of God occurred in the late middle
ages, through the influence of Duns Scotus and William of Occam, both of whom
proposed a univocal conception of being. On this reading, God became one being
among many, the supreme instance of the category of "being," and this set God,
and his freedom, over and against human beings and their freedom. The atheist
reaction of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries
was to this threatening supreme reality. The corrective, as I've suggested, is
a creative return to Aquinas's notion of God as ipsum esse.
The Priority of Christ, it seems to me, is quite timely in several
ways, especially two: its evaluation of the historical-critical method,
something that has been discussed quite often recently because of Pope Benedict
XVI's book on Jesus, and its critique of the theological notion of Jesus as
"symbol," a topic that has been much discussed in relation to the
works of various contemporary Catholic theologians. What do you think of
Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth, especially his evaluation of the
historical-critical method? What do you think is the appeal of Jesus as
"symbol"? How is it problematic?
I would subscribe very much to Pope Benedict's nuanced evaluation of the
historical-critical method. Its great virtue is its interest in the concrete
historicity of Biblical events. Christianity is not a gnosticism grounded in
ahistorical myths, but rather a revelation religion based upon certain very key
historical events wherein God disclosed himself to us. At its best, historical
criticism orients us to this truth. The principal vice of the
historical-critical method is its epistemological imperialism, by which I mean
its tendency to do its work in abstraction from the dogmatic and doctrinal
tradition of the church. Both Küng and Schillebeeckx—to give only two
examples among many—bracket the Chalcedonian and Nicene doctrinal
statements and attempt to articulate the meaning of Jesus afresh, on the basis
of their historical-critical retrieval. This is a grave problem. The
attraction of the "Jesus as symbol" approach—practiced by Schleiermacher,
Tillich, and Rahner among many others—is that it presents a Jesus who is
easy to believe in, for he functions only as a cipher for a pre-existing
spiritual experience. But such a Christ is, as Kierkegaard noted long ago, not
really worth believing.
You conclude The Priority of Christ with sketches about the four cardinal
virtues as lived by four women: Edith Stein, Thérèse of Lisieux, Katharine Drexel,
and Mother Teresa. What do you make of the recent media furor over the contents
of some of Mother Teresa's recently published letters? How did she embody an
authentic, dynamic love of Jesus?
Fr. Barron: Mother Teresa shared this darkness with her namesake and spiritual model
Therese of Lisieux. Both of these women were journeyers on a specifically
Christian spiritual path, which means, necessarily, one that leads to the
cross. I believe that both of them experienced something of the pain of a peculiarly
modern atheism, an atheism born of the skepticism and violence of the last
couple of centuries. Their belief in the face of doubt, and their hope in the
face of hopelessness, make them powerful witnesses to our time. That said, I
would reiterate too a basic Aristotelian principle, viz. don't so much listen
to what people say; rather, watch what they do. Mother Teresa exhibited her
love for the Lord in the most dramatic way through her heroic love of the poor.
I would attend to her action even more than to her words.
In your estimation, what is the state of Catholic theology today, especially in
the English-speaking world? What are some significant issues that are or need
to be addressed on both a scholarly and more popular, pastoral level?
The state of most academic theology in the Catholic world is, in my judgment,
parlous. I think that far too many theologians have submitted their work to
the canons of reasonableness that hold sway in the secular academy and have
played primarily to their colleagues within the world of secular academe. The
result is that revelation, the Bible, Christ, and the church are positioned by
intellectual systems extraneous to them. I have argued in The Priority of
that Jesus and the doctrines and narratives surrounding him must have epistemic
primacy, that is to say, they cannot be interpreted or positioned by anything
outside of themselves. There are, however, signs of vitality within Catholic
theology. Some scholars are pushing, for example, the link between Biblical
exegesis and systematic theology and others are insisting that the magisterium
of the church is not a threat to good theology, just the contrary.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Excerpts:
IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page for Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
Selections from Jesus, The Apostles, and the
Early Church | Pope Benedict XVI
What in Fact Is Theology? | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
God, The Author of Scripture | Preface to
God and His Image: An Outline of Biblical Theology | Fr. Dominique Barthélemy, O.P.
Going Deeper Into the Old Testament | An Interview
with Aidan Nichols, O.P.
The Pattern of Revelation: A Contentious Issue |
From Lovely Like Jerusalem | Aidan Nichols, O.P.
Origen and Allegory | Introduction to History and Spirit:
The Understanding of Scripture According to Origen | Henri de Lubac
How To Read The Bible | Peter Kreeft
God Made Visible: On the Foreword to Benedict XVI's Jesus of
Nazareth | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
A Shepherd Like No Other |
Excerpt from Behold, God's Son! | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Encountering Christ in the Gospel |
Excerpt from My Jesus | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Seeing Jesus in the Gospel of John |
Excerpts from On The Way to Jesus Christ | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Divinity of Christ | Peter Kreeft
Jesus Is Catholic | Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion
| From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest
The Bible Gap: Spanning the Distance Between Scripture and Theology
| Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The
Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author
Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He has written for numerous
Cathlic periodicals and is a regular contributor to National Catholic
Register and Our Sunday Visitor newspapers. He has a Masters in Theological Studies from the University of Dallas.
He resides in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland,
Oregon and Sacramento, California with his wife, Heather, their two children, their two cats, and far too many books and CDs.
Visit his (badly outdated) personal web site at www.carl-olson.com.
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