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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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"?
Fr. Barron: 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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?
Fr. Barron: 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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 theological work?
Fr. Barron: 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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?
Fr. Barron: 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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?
Fr. Barron: 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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.
IgnatiusInsight.com: 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?
Fr. Barron: 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 Christ 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 of Will 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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