A Journey to the Heart of the Faith
Fr. Robert Barron
Fr. Robert Barron is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago who is fairly well-known on account of several interesting projects with which he is involved. He has a popular YouTube channel to which he posts short videos addressing topics of contemporary interest (from Bob Dylan to Christopher Hitchens). These videos show Fr. Barron to be a man of many gifts: he is intelligent, engaging, temperate, and winsome. He is able to present ideas in an accessible manner without being condescending. I would be willing to bet that he is a terrific preacher.
More recently, Fr. Barron has completed a major media project: Catholicism is a ten-part documentary about the faith. I have not seen it, but I hear that it is excellent. He travelled around the world, filming on location at important Catholic sites like Rome, Jerusalem (where, by a happy coincidence, my wife and I encountered him), Lourdes, Calcutta, and so forth. And while it would not be quite true to say that the book under discussion here is a “companion volume” to the film — it includes no references, so far as I recall, to marketing material for the film, and is sold separately — I expect it is fair to say that the two are cousins. Fr. Barron remarks that he wrote the book while planning the documentary, and I would not be at all surprised if there were a certain kinship of structure and content between them. Having finished the book, I’d like to see the films.
What Fr. Barron gives us in this book is an overview of the shape of Catholic theology and devotional life. Very briefly: he begins where all of Christian faith begins, with revelation; he presents Jesus, principally through the brief but potent text of the Sermon on the Mount; he explores the mystery of God, with a brief excursus on the problem of evil; then he turns to the Blessed Virgin, the Apostles, the Church itself, and the Sacraments. And then, because the purpose of the Church is to make saints, he gives us portraits of four saintly women: Katharine Drexel, Therese de Lisieux, Edith Stein, and Mother Teresa. The final chapters of the book are about Catholic prayer and devotions, and the Last Things. It is a well-structured plan that covers most of the main topics one would expect from a book of this sort.
Sprinkled throughout the book are photographs of Catholic churches and sacred art from around the world. These images are rarely referenced in the text, and are intended, I believe, to serve as a kind of parallel “text”, turning the reader’s mind, again and again, to the beauty of the faith. This is an approach I applaud, but regrettably the somewhat grainy, greyscale reproductions rarely do justice to their objects. I expect that this aspect of Catholicism — the sheer joyous heavenly beauty of it — comes through better on film.
As a basic introduction to and overview of Catholicism, I cannot think, off the top of my head, of a book I would prefer to this one. It compares well with Ronald Knox’s The Belief of Catholics and Josef Pieper’s What Catholics Believe. For the serious inquirer I would obviously recommend the Catechism, but a book like this could be a gateway to greater things. The book would obviously be of interest to Catholics wanting to broaden or refresh their understanding of the faith, but the book is not polemical and could likely be read for pleasure and profit by non-Catholic Christians or by non-believers who want to know more about the true religion.
[Et in terra pax]
The Incarnation tells central truths concerning both God and us. If God became human without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature that he became, God must not be a competitor with his creation. In many of the ancient myths and legends, divine figures such as Zeus or Dionysus enter into human affairs only through aggression, destroying or wounding that which they invade. And in many of the philosophies of modernity God is construed as a threat to human well-being. In their own ways, Marx, Freud, Feuerbach, and Sartre all maintain that God must be eliminated if humans are to be fully themselves. But there is none of this in the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. The Word does indeed become human, but nothing of the human is destroyed in the process; God does indeed enter into his creation, but the world is thereby enhanced and elevated. The God capable of incarnation is not a competitive supreme being but rather, in the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the sheer act of being itself, that which grounds and sustains all of creation, the way a singer sustains a song.
[God and creatures]
Creatures do not so much have a relationship to God; they are a relationship to God. Nothing in a creature exists independently of, or prior to, God’s creative act, and hence no creature stands, as it were, over and against God, simply in a relationship to God. Instead every aspect of a creature’s being is already constituted by God’s creative will. This is why Meister Eckhart, the great medieval mystic, could say that the best metaphor for the spiritual life is not so much the climbing of a holy mountain in order to get to a distant God, but rather the “sinking into” God.