Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Robert Imbelli S.J. on Barron's "Exploring Catholic Theology"

Exploring Catholic Theology: Essays on God, Liturgy, and Evangelization. By Robert Barron. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015. Pp. xv + 250. $24.99.
            Robert Barron, newly appointed auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, is probably best known for his acclaimed series of DVDs, Catholicism, with its accompanying book. The series has been successfully used in RCIA programs, in parish continuing education programs, and in undergraduate classes devoted to Catholic theology. I, along with many others, can attest both to the aesthetic attractiveness of the series and its pedagogical effectiveness.
            It soon becomes apparent that the accessibility of B.’s work does not come at the expense of theological substance. A coherent and compelling theological and philosophical vision animates the Catholicism series, as well as his other multi-media offerings. B. is not only a first-rate evangelist and communicator, he is a most impressive systematic theologian.
            That comprehensive vision has been articulated in such fine works as And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation (1998), The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (2002), and most fully in The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism (2007). Each of these displays B.’s ability to join seamlessly theology and spirituality, the intellectual and affective, as he draws richly from the classics of Christianity’s theological, literary, and artistic traditions. These qualities are abundantly present in this new collection: Exploring Catholic Theology: Essays on God, Liturgy, and Evangelization.
            The range and depth of B.’s theological ancestry, revealed in these essays, is noteworthy. Irenaeus and Augustine, Aquinas and Newman, Balthasar and Ratzinger, Lonergan and Dulles do not receive only passing mention. They are vital conversation partners from whom B. continues to learn and cogently incorporate into his own theological synthesis. For him, as for them, ressourcement and aggiornamento are inseparable and perennial dimensions of the theological task at the service of the Church’s liturgy and life.
            The present essays develop a number of the key insights and sensibilities that structure B.’s previous writings. The book’s four sections display his primary concerns and commitments: the Doctrine of God, Theology and Philosophy, Liturgy and Eucharist, A New Evangelization.
            B. draws upon Thomas Aquinas in his insistence that “Deus non est in genere:” God is not a member of a class, albeit the highest. God is “ipsum esse subsistens,” the personal Power that brings into existence and undergirds all finite reality. In addressing the “new atheists,” B. assumes a mystagogic stance, seeking to lead beyond a truncated concept of God, towards the Mystery in whom creation lives and moves and has its being.
            But the uniqueness and originality of the Christian revelation is that this God of Infinite Mystery interacts intimately and personally with our human world. In Jesus Christ God has drawn near and assumed our human nature, not to overwhelm, much less annihilate, but to consecrate and transform.
            B., however, goes beyond merely affirming that the Incarnation is the distinctive “Idea” (in Newman’s sense) of Christianity. He probes that claim to maintain “the epistemic primacy” of Jesus. Such an affirmation bears both methodological and missionary implications. Jesus is not the supreme instance of a generic type: one of a class of savior figures. The salvation he brings in his Person is not constricted, but catholic.
            B. contends that the liberal tradition in theology, beginning in nineteenth century Protestantism and embraced by many Catholic theologians in the aftermath of Vatican II, promotes a reductive understanding of the Christian tradition.  Revelation tends to be absorbed by human experience, Christology by anthropology, the mystical by the moral. Thus B. advocates a “postliberal” or “postcritical” approach to the craft of theology, one in which Jesus Christ is the measure and not that which is to be measured. For this reason B. is wary of appeals to a “method of correlation” in pursuing the theological task. He recommends, instead, what he calls (following Newman) a “method of assimilation,” wherein the Catholic theologian appropriates “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure” (Phil 4:8) in a given culture. But such critical discernment always transpires in the light of the Gospel and is normed by Jesus Christ who alone is Lumen gentium.
            Moreover, without a firm sense of the absolute novum of the paschal mystery of Christ and of the surpassing joy of his Gospel, missionary activity becomes anemic. As Pope Francis insisted, in the very first homily after his election as Bishop of Rome: “without Christ and his cross at the center, the Church becomes only a charitable NGO!” B. concurs completely. Only the conviction that Christ is, in truth, lumen gentium can spur and sustain a mission ad gentes.
            Tutored by Aquinas, Newman, and Lonergan (as well as by Robert Sokolowski to whom the book is dedicated), B. opts for both theology and philosophy, both the biblical narrative and speculative metaphysics. In this regard I would single out his essay, “The Metaphysics of Coinherence: A Meditation on the Essence of the Christian Message.”  In typical fashion, B. introduces his subject by evoking a work of art: here the intertwined and inter-connected patterns of the Book of Kells. The “coinherence,” the multi-faceted unity and participatory sensitivity so graphically displayed in the manuscript, finds its ultimate ground in the union of God and man in the Incarnation and the extension of that saving communion to all creation through the Eucharist.
            The essays in this collection were composed prior to the appearance of Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato si’. Yet reading the two works concurrently reveals a striking complementarity. A key theme of the encyclical, of course, is that “everything is interconnected,” “interrelated” (#138); that there is an urgent need for “a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity” (#240); and that “the Eucharist embraces and penetrates all creation” (#236). At the same time the Pope realizes that these insights require fuller theoretical grounding. Hence his repeated call for “a new synthesis” (#s 112 and 121).
            I suggest that B.’s work offers rich resources for such a synthesis.
                                                                                                            Robert Imbelli
Boston College

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