One of the hazards of a clever book title is that it sometimes promises more than it can deliver. A reader who picks up Robert Barron’s latest work looking for some as-yet-untried way to heal Catholicism’s increasingly bitter divisions is likely to be disappointed. Barron is less interested in finding “common ground” than he is in articulating a vision of Catholic Christianity that can fire the imagination and inspire a renewed effort to evangelize American culture.

Barron is an intriguing theologian who deserves to be more widely known. A professor at Mundelein Seminary, he is more than conversant with the argot of academic theology and philosophy. But his published writings have consciously targeted a broader audience. A constant theme in his work is the power of beauty to reveal God. In works like ...And Now I See and The Strangest Way, he draws on writers like Dante, Flannery O’Connor, and Evelyn Waugh to illustrate the great themes of Christianity. His short book, Heaven in Stone and Glass, takes us on a tour of the great Gothic cathedrals to show us how architecture can capture the truths of Christianity in a beautiful way.

In Bridging the Great Divide, a new collection of Barron’s essays, he argues that Christianity has become far too accommodating to the economic and cultural imperatives of modernity, offering a bland and unthreatening gospel that fails to inspire. This is a complaint often voiced by conservatives, but Barron is equally critical of those who seek to turn back the clock to the years before the Second Vatican Council. The problem was not with the council, Barron argues, but with a theology that was sometimes too eager to accept the premises of modern philosophy.

In one of the book’s first essays, “The Trouble with a Beige Catholicism,” Barron draws on Kierkegaard’s distinction between two types of religious consciousness. The first, termed “Religiousness A,” assumes that all people are implicitly religious and merely require a teacher or guide to bring out their natural potential for faith. The second type, “Religiousness B,” denies that human beings are implicitly religious. What they need, therefore, is not a teacher but a savior who can reveal God to them, without which their religious feelings become a form of idolatry.

Barron himself grew up in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, at a time when, he argues, Religiousness A had come to dominate theology, liturgy, and catechesis: “It seemed to be an overriding concern of the teachers, nuns, and priests who formed my generation to make our Catholicism as nonthreatening, accessible, and culturally appealing as possible.” Rather than revealing God, many of the beliefs and practices of the preconciliar church came to be seen as creating barriers to God. This gave rise to a call for radical simplification of rites, prayers, and church architecture that sometimes edged into iconoclasm.

Barron understands how much of this was an overreaction to the tightly defined Catholicism of the mid-twentieth century. Nevertheless, he argues that Religiousness A has lost any power it may once have had to make Christianity compelling. What people have always responded to in Christianity is not its consonance with some universal ideal, but the challenging, maddening, and intriguing person of Jesus Christ and, to a lesser extent, the persons throughout history-from St. Francis to Dorothy Day-who have tried to conform their lives to his.

In keeping with his preference for Religiousness B, Barron calls for the recovery of an “embodied Christianity,” with an emphasis on practices: diverse forms of liturgy and prayer, pilgrimages, corporal works of mercy, and church architecture that consciously uses beauty to draw us into the mystery of God. Like baseball or painting, Christianity is less a set of rules than a comprehensive way of life. “And like those other worlds,” he writes, “it is first approached because it is perceived as beautiful.”

Although a few years separate us, Barron and I are generational contemporaries. I, too, grew up in the era of “God doesn’t make junk” catechesis. I live in a suburban landscape dotted by Catholic churches that are almost mind-numbing in their banality. I readily concede Barron’s point that a certain form of “Religiousness A” has been ascendant for some time now in parishes, schools, and chancery offices, often imposing its own form of orthodoxy and showing an almost paranoid aversion to anything that can be safely labeled “pre-Vatican II.”

For this reason, I am personally inclined to be sympathetic to Barron’s suggestion that Catholics should rebalance their theological portfolios, drawing more deeply from the wellsprings of Scripture and tradition and relying less on appeals to human experience as articulated by modern philosophy, anthropology, or psychology. But it is hard to see how, as Barron argues, such a move would do much to “bridge the great divide” in the contemporary church. Even if the great shift in religious consciousness that Barron advocates could be achieved, it would certainly not put an end to our intraecclesial arguments. Even among those who are inclined to be skeptical about the anthropocentrism of modern theology, there can often be passionate disagreements about how to interpret the received tradition or how to apply it in new situations. Sometimes it is even the defenders of the tradition who end up resorting to arguments from anthropology.

The chapter in which Barron discusses the priesthood is a case in point. Barron’s desire to highlight what is distinctive and irreplaceable about the Catholic priesthood is certainly defensible. But holding that “transhistorically and transculturally” communities have always designated certain people as “mediators of the Mystery” seems to draw on a generic anthropology of religion that is much closer to Religiousness A than B. By contrast, most of those who question whether all elements of the priesthood are necessarily iure divino ground their arguments in New Testament and early Christian writings rather than making appeals to modern philosophy or anthropology.

Barron might counter that this urge to deconstruct the priesthood reflects a modernist ethos that views all institutions through a hermeneutic of suspicion. But such a hermeneutic is also deeply encoded into the Jewish and Christian traditions. The Jewish priests were continually being subjected to the withering critique of the prophets. Jesus himself tells the Samaritan women that a time is coming “when you shall worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem,” a position arguably more radical than anything offered by the liturgical reformers of the twentieth century.

After so many years of debate about what following Christ in the modern world demands of us, it is tempting to believe that some new way of thinking-postliberalism, postconservatism, post-modernism-can bring peace to Christianity’s culture wars. But the church has always been a community “locked together in argument.” The question is whether we can find ways of arguing together that do not throw up stumbling blocks to those to whom we preach the gospel. Barron’s vision of Christianity is an inspiring and challenging one. Hopefully it will not be strangled by the tares that increasingly wind their way around us all.

J. Peter Nixon, a regular Commonweal contributor, works in the health-care industry and lives in Northern California.

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Published in the 2005-11-18 issue: View Contents
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