In the past decade, Fr. Robert Barron has written four well-received books, including Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (1996) and The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (2002). The Priority of Christ is a magnum opus. Barron, who teaches at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, is a theologian in search of the edge, the way ahead. The subtitle of The Priority of Christ describes Barron as moving “toward a postliberal Catholicism.”
In Christian theology in the United States, the term “postliberal” is usually associated with Lutheran ecumenist George Lindbeck and his colleagues and students in the so-called Yale School. Postliberals refuse to translate Christian theology into seemingly broader philosophical or religious categories. They insist on Christian particularity as embodied in biblical narrative and displayed in the witness of Christian worship, community, and service. Barron’s title means that categories such as reason, religion, freedom, justice, human rights, or human flourishing are not more fundamental than Christ. Christ does not simply exemplify them. Nor can such categories completely explain why Christ is to be worshiped or his path followed. Barron’s Christ transforms the categories in terms of which we might try to explain his significance. Christ’s priority is ontological, epistemological, and ethical.
Some Catholic theologians criticize Yale postliberals as formalists and fideists. Some say they are soft on ontological claims, or that they are sectarians tangled up in their own discourse. Postliberal emphasis on explicit Christian witness over broad cultural engagement on public-policy issues is often criticized as irresponsible withdrawal from a wider non-Christian world. But Barron did not study at Yale; he studied at Catholic University in Washington and at the Institut Catholique de Paris. He draws less on Lindbeck and Hans Frei than on Catholic masters such as Balthasar, Newman, and Lonergan. But his central theological resource is Aquinas. Barron’s Aquinas will surprise readers who think of St. Thomas primarily as someone to be read in a philosophy course. Barron’s Aquinas is not one who first gets philosophy right and then does theology. Rather, he is a mendicant friar whose theological perspectives are built into his approach to philosophical questions. In Barron’s Aquinas, philosophy and theology dwell peacefully together. The peaceful dwelling together of theology and philosophy, God and humanity, is the central concern of this book.
It is a long book with five parts and twenty chapters. It begins with the grandmother and the misfit from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find. The grandmother represents a decadent Christianity with an arbitrary lawgiver God. The misfit represents the modern liberal protest against this God’s random decrees. O’Connor’s story serves Barron as a parable for the sense of competition between God and humanity that he wants to heal. To these exhausted antagonists Barron offers the priority of Christ.
Part 1 clears the way ahead by rejecting two great liberal paths, “Jesus as Symbol” of a universal religious experience (Schleiermacher, Tillich, Rahner) and the “Jesus of History” (Küng, Schillebeeckx). Both paths miss the Gospels’ narrative display of just how “strange,” particular, and potentially transformative Jesus is. But, despite his emphasis on narrative, Barron doesn’t simply want to repeat what the Gospel stories say. In the fifth-century Council of Chalcedon he finds a helpful doctrinal lens through which to read the stories. Chalcedon’s definition speaks of divine and human natures coming together in the person of Christ “without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” Here is the peaceful dwelling together of God and humanity that Barron is looking for. Gospel stories of the Word made flesh reveal a noncompetitive union of divine and human. In John 11, for example, it is the same Jesus who both weeps over his dead friend Lazarus and then raises him from the dead. Divinity dwells in the human individual Jesus of Nazareth without threatening or overwhelming his created autonomy. The daunting phrase Barron uses to capture this peaceful union is “noncompetitive coinherence.” He intends this phrase to get at the idea, basic to Aquinas’s understanding of creation, that we and God are not beings on the same level or under the same metaphysical canopy. The difference between God and us is not like the difference between us and other creatures. Barron calls it a noncontrastive difference. If God is differently other, or noncontrastively different, then God can be intimately present to creation without crowding us out. This is Barron’s central claim. It means, as Barron’s appropriation of O’Connor is meant to suggest, that decadent Christianity and the liberal modern reaction to it need not be locked “in a terrible zero-sum game with God.” God’s divinity does not threaten or diminish our humanity.
Part 2 turns to the biblical stories. Under the three major themes of Gatherer, Warrior, and King or Lord, it presents an “iconic Christology,” the book’s most compelling piece. Barron develops each theme in a series of commentaries on sacred scenes or narrative icons from the Gospels. These commentaries draw from the history of exegesis, historical critical insights, and the author’s own sense of the Christ-formed life. Jesus the Gatherer, for example, appears in Barron’s reading of the wedding feast at Cana, the parable of the prodigal son, and the woman at the well. Doctrine guides his reading, and the stories give body to Barron’s central claim about God’s noninvasive but intimate presence to the world in a cycle of giving and receiving. Barron repeatedly refers to this “loop of grace.” It is revealed and best exemplified in the Incarnation of God, but it is also present in miniature in the exchanges of each of the sacred scenes, or icons, Barron discusses.
Christians, Barron claims, have a distinct way of knowing, shaped by these stories of Christ. Part 3, on “The Epistemic Priority of Christ,” offers “an abashedly Christo-form epistemology.” As expressed in the opening lines of John’s Gospel, Christ’s “absolute ontological priority” means that he “cannot be measured by a criterion outside of himself or viewed from a perspective higher than himself.” If Christ is indeed the Logos made flesh, then, rather than encompassing him in our notions of reason or religious experience, we ought to allow our reasoning to be challenged and shaped by him. Barron delineates seven epistemic implications of the Incarnation that describe the nature of the “Christ mind.” Among these: The Incarnation teaches us that the form of what we know is basically relational; it also teaches us that our knowing includes bodily participation in what we know. To this claim for Christ’s “epistemic priority,” modern foundationalism, as represented by Descartes, and scholastic natural theology, which uses—and sometimes misuses—Aquinas, offer serious counterproposals. Barron places Aquinas’s Summa alongside his commentary on John to argue that Aquinas’s philosophy is never separable from his theology. The source and end of philosophy and culture is ultimately the Word. As the example of Aquinas’s engagement with Aristotle and his influence on Dante suggest, the fact of Christ’s epistemic priority for Christians doesn’t separate Aquinas—nor need it separate us—from philosophy and culture. Rather it leads to them.
Part 4 is the book’s theological heart. Drawing on Anselm’s Proslogion, Aquinas on God’s simplicity, and Aquinas and Augustine on the Trinity, Barron offers an exposition of his central claim that God and creatures do not fight for space under the same metaphysical sky. That is, he tries to explain in some depth what he means by the “noncompetitively transcendent and coinherent God.” His theological speculation rarely strays from the sacred scenes of Christ’s life. His reading of the masters is text-based and rigorous but always driven by stories of Jesus rather than by prior philosophical questions and categories. His discussion of Aquinas on the simplicity of God, for example, reaches back to the parable of the prodigal son. “Thomas Aquinas’s doctrine of the simple God who creates the entire universe ex nihilo,” Barron claims, “is the technically theological description of the father in Jesus’ parable.” Like the father in the parable, God has no needs. And like that father in his relationship to both his sons, God draws his creatures into the loop of grace out of a sheer generosity that O’Connor’s misfit would find incomprehensible.
Part 5 moves to ethics and finds the “Display of the Christian Form” in the lives of the saints. In the way that Christ commandeered Peter’s boat or Zacchaeus’s house, he can bring a naturally good person into the loop of grace and transform him or her into a friend of God. Barron concludes with four sketches of Christ-formed lives that exemplify what Aquinas might call the infused moral virtues: Edith Stein (elevated courage), Thérèse of Lisieux (elevated prudence), Katharine Drexel (elevated justice), and Teresa of Calcutta (elevated temperance).
Barron’s use of technical language such as “noncompetitive coinherence” or “epistemic priority” might lead some readers to suspect that his expression betrays his postliberal intent. Such language is, after all, nonbiblical and there is nothing necessarily theological about it. To such objections Barron could fairly reply that he has not brought this language to his sources and imposed it on them in an a priori way. Rather, in the manner of Aquinas, such language comes only after, and in light of, the author’s encounter with the Christ of the Gospels. In this sense, Christ is indeed prior, and Barron can fairly call his book postliberal.
Barron’s book usually manages to combine scholarly precision with an inviting and pastoral tone, but he does sidestep two problems that touch directly on his project. First, in his discussion of the Trinity, his treatment of the scriptural terms “Father” and “Son” does not even gesture toward a coherent theory about what it means for both men and women to be created in God’s image—a theory that would lead somewhere between bland androgyny and overdetermined difference. Second, in a church where the universal call to holiness might appear to work against the call to religious life and priestly celibacy, Barron could have shone his “noncompetitive” light more profitably in the direction of vocation. The saints he selects to represent the Christ-formed life are indeed exemplary women. But they are all vowed religious.
Barron’s argument for God’s noncompetitive coinherence in the world implicates him unnecessarily in an idealist view of history, one that suggests that ideas are always history’s primary drivers. Barron blames Scotus and Ockham for situating God and creatures under the same “metaphysical canopy.” He thinks Scotus and Ockham created the space where O’Connor’s misfit must fight it out with the grandmother, the space where human freedom must pit itself against divine freedom. This precipitated the fall of Aquinas’s participatory metaphysics and changed the course of European history. It’s hard to believe that two unfortunate Franciscans carry all this responsibility. Barron does not make reference to contextual factors such as, in the case of Ockham, the Great Western Schism, the Bubonic Plague, and the Hundred Years War.
Finally, many readers will be put off needlessly by Barron’s treatment of Karl Rahner in chapter 2. The way ahead is not likely to lie in anthropological dialogue with German idealism, but Karl Rahner is no fish in a barrel. He needs to be distinguished from some of his American interpreters for whom the “world of grace” is just a starting point rather than the hard-won conclusion of a life spent thinking with the church. The wind and the tide of theology, as I read them, are with Barron and his project. He could afford a bit more largesse, and a bit more care, in dealing with a great Catholic doctor.
Still, Barron has made a signal contribution to contemporary Catholic theology. Something like his postliberal Catholicism marks the way ahead. Many will disagree, but anyone whose life and work involve trying to talk seriously to and about God will profit from reading The Priority of Christ.
Related: J. Peter Nixon's review of Robert Barron's Bridging the Great Divide