Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism, by Robert Barron

352 pages, Brazos Press.

The Priority of Christ discusses a whole swath of issues unearthed by post-Enlightenment philosophy's rejection of God, which culminated in Friedrich Nietzsche's Death of God and Jean Paul Sartre's Hell is Other People. It would be an understatement, then, to suggest that Robert Barron is ambitious.

He begins at the beginning - the source of the modern mentality. As with so much else in contemporary society, we find these roots in the High Middle Ages, between 1100-1450. The discussion is necessarily academic and presupposes a high degree of knowledge about the relevant movers and shakers, but readers who know these players are in for a treat.

His Thomistic-inspired discussion parallels Pope John Paul II's concept of freedom. This is important, because leading secularists in France and America, who always seem so influential in universities and therefore among society's leaders, assert that freedom, their most cherished value, is threatened by God or by any belief in God. They have concluded, and have caused countless millions to conclude, that freedom can only exist in a theological vacuum. Freedom and God cannot co-exist.

For Robert Barron, Thomas Aquinas' idea of freedom, based on his famous analogical theology, allows Catholic theologians great grounds for rejecting secularist philosophers. Aquinas said that God's being is primary and our being secondary. We can therefore understand God's being by analogy (An analogy is a kind of comparison: Although I cannot know something directly, in this case God, I can know something indirectly by comparing it to things that I do know and that share some qualities with this unknowable entity. From my mother's love, I can get a good sense of God's love, even though divine love is of course of an entirely different level than that of any human's):

“Aquinas maintained consistently throughout his career that God is inescapably mysterious to the human intellect, since our frame of reference remains the creaturely mode of existence, which bears only an analogical resemblance to the divine mode of being. We may say that God exists, but we're not quite sure what we mean when we say it; the 'cash-value' of the claim that God exists is that there is a finally mysterious source of the to-be of finite things.”

Briefly put, thinking about God in this analogical way means that God is of a different being than we are and that we do not have to fear God encroaching on our freedom. Since God's being is primary, his being sustains us and therefore gives us greater and greater life.

Barron locates the modern, zero-sum way of thinking in Duns Scotus: “In an effort to make the to-be of God more immediately intelligible, Duns Scotus proposed a univocal conception of existence, according to which God and creatures belong to the same basic metaphysical category, the genus of being. Though God is infinite and therefore quantitatively superior to any creature or collectivity of creatures, there is nevertheless no qualitative difference, in the metaphysical sense, between the supreme being, God, and finite beings.”

Barron makes the point that Scotus's model unhinges humans from our metaphysical anchor to God: “[N]o longer grounded in a common source, creatures lose their essential connectedness to one another. Isolated and self-contained individuals (God the supreme being and the many creatures) are now what is most basically real.”

Barron is faithful to the Catholic tradition, and so The Priority of Christ represents an important step forward in the new-evangelization.

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