St. Thomas Aquinas teaches art of public debate

By Bishop Robert Baron
Editor’s note: Bishop Joseph Kopacz is traveling. His regular column, Let there be Light, will return later this summer.
There is, in many quarters, increasing concern about the hyper-charged political correctness that has gripped our campuses and other forums of public conversation. Even great works of literature and philosophy — from “Huckleberry Finn” and “Heart of Darkness” to, believe it or not, Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”  — are now regularly accompanied by “trigger warnings” that alert prospective readers to the racism, sexism, homophobia or classism contained therein.
And popping up more and more at our colleges and universities are “safe spaces” where exquisitely sensitive students can retreat in the wake of jarring confrontations with points of view with which they don’t sympathize. My favorite example of this was at Brown University where school administrators provided retreat centers with play-doh, crayons, and videos of frolicking puppies to calm the nerves of their students even before a controversial debate commenced!
Apparently even the prospect of public argument sent these students to an updated version of daycare. Of course a paradoxical concomitant of this exaggerated sensitivity to giving offense is a proclivity to aggressiveness and verbal violence; for once authentic debate has been ruled out of court, the only recourse contesting parties have is to some form of censorship or bullying.
There is obviously much that can and should be mocked in all of this, but I won’t go down that road. Instead, I would like to revisit a time when people knew how to have a public argument about the most hotly-contested matters. Though it might come as a surprise to many, I’m talking about the High Middle Ages, when the university system was born. And to illustrate the medieval method of disciplined conversation there is no better candidate than St. Thomas Aquinas.
The principal means of teaching in the medieval university was not the classroom lecture, which became prominent only in the 19th century German system of education; rather, it was the quaestio disputata (disputed question), which was a lively, sometimes raucous, and very public intellectual exchange. Though the written texts of Aquinas can strike us today as a tad turgid, we have to recall that they are grounded in these disciplined but decidedly energetic conversations.
If we consult Aquinas’s masterpiece, the Summa theologiae, we find that he poses literally thousands of questions and that not even the most sacred issues are off the table, the best evidence of which is article three of question two of the first part of the Summa: “utrum Deus sit?” (whether there is a God). If a Dominican priest is permitted to ask even that question, everything is fair game; nothing is too dangerous to talk about. After stating the issue, Thomas then entertains a series of objections to the position that he will eventually take.
In many cases, these represent a distillation of real counter-claims and queries that Aquinas would have heard during quaestiones disputatae. But for our purposes, the point to emphasize is that Thomas presents these objections in their most convincing form, often stating them better and more pithily than their advocates could.
In proof of this, we note that during the Enlightenment, rationalist philosophes would sometimes take Thomistic objections and use them to bolster their own anti-religious positions.
To give just one example, consider Aquinas’s devastatingly convincing formulation of the argument from evil against the existence of God: “if one of two contraries were infinite, the other would be destroyed…but God is called the infinite good.
Therefore, if God exists, there would be no evil.” Thomas indeed provides a telling response, but, as stated, that is a darn good argument. Might I suggest that it would help our public discourse immensely if all parties would be willing to formulate their opponents positions as respectfully and convincingly as possible.
Having articulated the objections, Thomas then offers his own magisterial resolution of the matter: “Respondeo dicendum quod… (I respond that it must be said…).  One of the more regrettable marks of the postmodern mind is a tendency endlessly to postpone the answer to a question. Take a look at Jacques Derrida’s work for a master class in this technique. And sadly, many today, who want so desperately to avoid offending anyone, find refuge in just this sort of permanent irresolution.
But Thomas knew what Chesterton knew, namely that an open mind is like an open mouth, that is, designed to close finally on something solid and nourishing.  Finally, having offered his Respondeo, Aquinas returns to the objections and, in light of his resolution, answers them.  It is notable that a typical Thomas technique is to find something right in the objector’s position and to use that to correct what he deems to be errant in it.
Throughout this process, in the objections, Respondeos, and answers to objections, Thomas draws on a wide range of sources: the Bible and the Church Fathers of course, but also the classical philosophers Aristotle, Plato and Cicero, the Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides, and the Islamic masters Averroes, Avicenna, and Aviceberon.
And he consistently invokes these figures with supreme respect, characterizing Aristotle, for example, as simply “the Philosopher” and referring to Maimonides as “Rabbi Moyses.” It is fair to say that, in substantial ways, Thomas Aquinas disagrees with all of these figures, and yet he is more than willing to listen to them, to engage them, to take their arguments seriously.
What this Thomistic method produces is, in its own way, a “safe space” for conversation, but it is a safe space for adults and not timorous children. Might I modestly suggest that it wouldn’t be a bad model for our present discussion of serious things.
(Bishop Robert Barron is the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and the host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, award-winning documentary about the Catholic Faith. He was ordained an Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles on September 8, 2015.)

Risen stays true to scripture, context

Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton star in a scene from the movie “Risen.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. (CNS photo/Columbia Pictures)

Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton star in a scene from the movie “Risen.” The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. (CNS photo/Columbia Pictures)

By Bishop Robert Barron
When I saw the coming attractions for the new film Risen – which deals with a Roman tribune searching for the body of Jesus after reports of the resurrection – I thought that it would leave the audience in suspense, intrigued but unsure whether these reports were justified or not. I was surprised and delighted to discover that the movie is, in fact, robustly Christian and substantially faithful to the Biblical account of what transpired after the death of Jesus.
My favorite scene shows tribune Clavius (played by the always convincing Joseph Fiennes) bursting into the Upper Room, intent upon arresting Jesus’ most intimate followers. As he takes in the people in the room, he spies Jesus, at whose crucifixion he had presided and whose face in death he had closely examined. But was he seeing straight? Was this even possible? He slinks down to the ground, fascinated, incredulous, wondering, anguished.
As I watched the scene unfold, the camera sweeping across the various faces, I was as puzzled as Clavius: was that really Jesus? It must indeed have been like that for the first witnesses of the Risen One, their confusion and disorientation hinted at in the Scriptures themselves: “They worshipped, but some doubted.” Once Thomas enters the room, embraces his Lord and probes Jesus’ wounds, all doubt, both for Clavius and for the viewer, appropriately enough, is removed.
I especially appreciated this scene, not only because of its clever composition, but because it reminded me of debates that were fashionable in theological circles when I was doing my studies in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Scholars who were skeptical of the bodily facticity of Jesus’ resurrection would pose the question, “What would someone outside of the circle of Jesus’ disciples have seen had he been present at the tomb on Easter morning or in the Upper Room on Easter evening?” The implied answer to the query was “well, nothing.”
The academics posing the question were suggesting that what the Bible calls resurrection designated nothing that took place in the real world, nothing that an objective observer would notice or dispassionate historian recount, but rather an event within the subjectivity of those who remembered the Lord and loved him.
For example, the extremely influential and widely-read Belgian theologian Edward Schillebeeckx opined that, after the death of Jesus, his disciples, reeling in guilt from their cowardice and betrayal of their master, nevertheless felt forgiven by the Lord. This convinced them that, in some sense, he was still alive, and to express this intuition they told evocative stories about the empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.
Roger Haight, a Jesuit theologian of considerable influence, speculated in a similar vein that the resurrection is but a symbolic expression of the disciples’ conviction that Jesus continues to live in the sphere of God. Therefore, Haight taught, belief in the empty tomb or the appearances of the risen Lord is inessential to true resurrection faith.
At a more popular level, James Carroll explained the resurrection as follows: after their master’s death, the disciples sat in a kind of “memory circle” and realized how much Jesus meant to them and how powerful his teaching was and decided that his spirit lives on in them.
The great English Biblical scholar N.T. Wright is particularly good at exposing and de-bunking such nonsense. His principal objection to this sort of speculation is that it is profoundly non-Jewish. When a first century Jew spoke of resurrection, he could not have meant some non-bodily state of affairs. Jews simply didn’t think in the dualist categories dear to Greeks and later to Gnostics. The second problem is that this post-conciliar theologizing is dramatically unhistorical.
Wright argues that, simply on historical grounds, it is practically impossible to explain the rise of the early Christian movement apart from a very objective construal of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For a first-century Jew, the clearest possible indication that someone was not the promised Messiah would be his death at the hands of Israel’s enemies, for the unambiguously clear expectation was that the Messiah would conquer and finally deal with the enemies of the nation.
Peter, Paul, James, Andrew, and the rest could have coherently proclaimed – and gone to their deaths defending – a crucified Messiah if and only if he had risen from the dead. Can we really imagine Paul tearing into Athens or Corinth or Ephesus with the breathless message that he found a dead man deeply inspiring or that he and the other Apostles had felt forgiven by a crucified criminal? In the context of that time and place, no one would have taken him seriously.
Risen’s far more reasonable and theologically compelling answer is that, yes indeed, if an outsider and unbeliever burst into the Upper Room when the disciples were experiencing the resurrected Jesus, he would have seen something along with them. Would he have fully grasped what he was seeing? Obviously not. But would the experience have had no objective referent?  Just as obviously not. There is just something tidy, bland, and unthreatening about the subjectivizing interpretations I rehearsed above.
What you sense on every page of the New Testament is that something happened to the first Christians, something so strange and unexpected and compelling that they wanted to tell the whole world about it. Frankly, Risen conveys the edgy novelty, the unnerving reality of the resurrection, better than much contemporary theologizing.
(Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.)

Listening to ‘Waze’ of Providence helps on life’s journey

Word on Fire
Bishop Robert Barron
Just after I was named auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, Archbishop Gomez, my new boss, told me to get the Waze app for my iPhone. He explained that it was a splendid way to navigate the often impossible LA traffic. I followed his instructions and have indeed used the app on practically a daily basis since my arrival on the West Coast. Waze not only gives you directions, but it also provides very accurate information regarding time to your destination, obstacles on the road, the presence of police, etc. Most importantly, it routes you around traffic jams, which positively abound in the City of Angels.
Especially in my first days and weeks on the new job, I basically had no idea where I was going — and my duties required that I be all over the place: LAX, Pasadena, Inglewood, Granada Hills, Ventura, Oxnard, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, etc., etc. And often I was required to journey after dark.
So I would program an address into the Waze app and then listen to the mechanical female voice as she guided me to my destination. It was often the case that her instructions were counter-intuitive, which was not surprising, given the fact of my disorientation in a new environment. But I gradually learned to trust her as, again and again, she got me where I needed to be.
I’ll confess that my faith in her was sorely tested a few weeks ago. I had left my home in Santa Barbara very early in order to attend a ten o’clock meeting in Los Angeles and was making pretty good time on the 101 expressway. Suddenly, the Waze lady instructed me to get off the highway a good 25 miles from LA. Though skeptical, I followed her advice. She subsequently sent me on a lengthy, circuitous, and rather slow journey through city streets until finally guiding me back to the 101!
I was so frustrated that I pounded my fist on the dashboard and expressed (aloud) my dismay. When I got to the meeting, I laid all of this out to one of my episcopal colleagues and explained that I thought there was a glitch in the system. “Oh no,” he quickly responded, “there was a tanker spill this morning on the 101, not far from where she made you exit the road. She probably saved you an hour or two of frustration.”
At that point I saw clearly something that had been forming itself inchoately in my mind, namely, that the Waze app is a particularly powerful spiritual metaphor. As Thomas Merton put it in the opening line of his most famous prayer: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I’m going.” Spiritually speaking, most of us are as I was when I arrived in Los Angeles: lost, disoriented, off-kilter.
But we have been provided a Voice and instructed to follow it. The Voice echoes in the Scriptures, of course, but also in the depth of the conscience, in the authoritative teaching of the Church, in the wise counsel of spiritual directors, and in the example of the saints. Does it often, indeed typically, seem counter-intuitive to us?
Absolutely. Do we as a matter of course ignore it, presuming that we know better? Sadly, yes. Are there some among us who, in time, learn to trust it, to guide their lives by it, even when it asks them to go by what seem circuitous routes? Happily enough, yes.
There is another feature of the Waze app worth considering in this spiritual context. When you get lost or perhaps decide that you know better than the navigator, she doesn’t upbraid you or compel you to return to the route she had originally chosen.
She calmly recalculates and determines the best way to get to your goal, given the choice you have made. God indeed has a plan for each of us. He has determined, in his wisdom and love, the best way for us to get to our goal, which is full union with him. But like Israel of old, we all wander from the path, convinced that we are brighter than the Lord of the universe, or perhaps just enamored of asserting our own freedom. But God never gives up on us; rather, he re-shuffles the deck, recalculates, and sets a new course for us.
Watch this process, by the way, as the Scriptural narrative unfolds. And watch it happening, again and again, in your own life: what looks like a complete dead-end turns into a way forward; the wrong path turns, strangely, into the right path.
No matter where you go, Waze can track you and set you on the right road, and this “all-seeing” quality has given us confidence in its direction. As we have learned to trust the mechanical voices of our GPS systems in regard to the relatively trivial matter of finding our way past traffic jams, so may we learn to trust the Voice of the one who, as the Psalmist puts it, “searches us and knows us and discerns our purpose from afar.”
(Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.)

View of Christians as perfect flawed

Word on Fire
By Father Robert Baron
Many atheists and agnostics today insistently argue that it is altogether possible for non-believers to be morally upright.  They resent the implication that the denial of God will lead inevitably to complete ethical relativism or nihilism.  And they are quick to point out examples of non-religious people who are models of kindness, compassion, justice, etc. In point of fact, a recent article has proposed that non-believers are actually, on average, more morally praiseworthy than religious people.
In this context, I recall Christopher Hitchens’ remark that, all things considered, he would be more frightened of a group of people coming from a religious meeting than a group coming from a rock concert or home from a night on the town. God knows (pun intended) that during the last twenty years we’ve seen plenty of evidence from around the world of the godly behaving very badly indeed.
Though I could quarrel with a number of elements within this construal of things, I would actually gladly concede the major point that it is altogether possible for atheists and agnostics to be morally good. The classical Greek and Roman formulators of the theory of the virtues were certainly not believers in the Biblical God, and many of their neo-pagan successors today do indeed exhibit fine moral qualities. What I should like to do, however, is to use this controversy as a springboard to make a larger point, namely that Christianity is not primarily about ethics, about “being a nice person” or, to use Flannery O’Connor’s wry formula, “having a heart of gold.” The moment Christians grant that Christianity’s ultimate purpose is to make us ethically better people, they cannot convincingly defend against the insinuation that, if some other system makes human beings just as good or better, Christianity has lost its raison d’etre.
Much of the confusion on this score can be traced to the influence of Immanuel Kant, especially his seminal text Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. Like so many of his Enlightenment era confreres, Kant was impatient with the claims of the revealed religions. He saw them as unverifiable and finally irrational assertions that could be defended, not through reason, but only through violence. Accordingly, he argued that, at its best, religion is not about dogma or doctrine or liturgy but about ethics. In the measure that the Scriptures, prayer, and belief make one morally good, they are admissible, but in the measure that they lead to moral corruption, they should be dispensed with. As religious people mature, Kant felt, they would naturally let those relatively extrinsic practices and convictions fall to the side and would embrace the ethical core of their belief systems.  Kant’s army of disciples today include such figures as John Shelby Spong, John Dominic Crossan, James Carroll, Bart Ehrman, and the late Marcus Borg, all of whom think that Christianity ought to be de-supernaturalized and re-presented as essentially a program of inclusion and social justice.
The problem with this Kantianism both old and new is that it runs dramatically counter to the witness of the first Christians, who were concerned, above all, not with an ethical program but with the explosive emergence of a new world. The letters of St. Paul, which are the earliest Christian texts we have, are particularly instructive on this score. One can find “ethics” in the writings of Paul, but one would be hard pressed indeed to say that the principal theme of Romans, Galatians, Philippians, or first and second Corinthians is the laying out of a moral vision.
The central motif of all of those letters is in fact Jesus Christ risen from the dead. For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus is the sign that the world as we know it — a world marked by death and the fear of death — is evanescing and that a new order of things is emerging. This is why he tells the Corinthians “the time is running out” and “the world in its present form is passing away;” this is why he tells the Philippians that everything he once held to be of central importance he now considers as so much rubbish; this is why he tells the Romans that they are not justified by their own moral achievements but through the grace of Jesus Christ; and this is why he tells the Galatians that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the “new creation.” The new creation is shorthand for the overturning of the old world and the emergence of a new order through the resurrection of Jesus, the “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”
The inaugural speech of Jesus, as reported in the Gospel of Mark, commences with the announcement of the kingdom of God and then the exhortation to “repent and believe the good news.” We tend automatically to interpret repentance as a summons to moral conversion, but the Greek word that Mark employs is metanoiete, which means literally, “go beyond the mind you have.”
On Mark’s telling, Jesus is urging his listeners to change their way of thinking so as to see the new world that is coming into existence.  It is indeed the case that Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, and agnostics can all be “good people.” In terms of what we privilege today, they can all be tolerant, inclusive, and just.  But only Christians witness to an earthquake that has shaken the foundations of the world and turned every expectation upside down. A key to the new evangelization is the rediscovery of this revolutionary message.
(Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, “Catholicism”  and “Catholicism:The New Evangelization.” Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.)

Synod looking at doctrine through lens of development, not revolution

Word on Fire
By Father Robert Barron
The controversies surrounding the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family have often put me in mind of John Henry Cardinal Newman, the greatest Catholic churchman of the 19th century. Newman wrote eloquently on an extraordinary range of topics, including university education, the play between faith and reason, the nature of papal authority and the subtle manner in which we come to assent in matters of religion. But the arguments around the Synod compel us to look at Newman’s work regarding the evolution of doctrine.
When he was at mid-career and in the process of converting from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, Newman penned a masterpiece entitled “On the Development of Christian Doctrine.” In line with the evolutionary theories that were just emerging at that time — Hegel’s work was dominant in most European universities and Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” would appear just a few years later — Newman argued that Christian doctrines are not given once for all and simply passed down unchanged from generation to generation.
Rather, like seeds that unfold into plants or rivers that deepen and broaden over time, they develop, their various aspects and implications emerging in the course of lively rumination. It is assuredly not the case, for example, that the doctrine of the Trinity was delivered fully-grown into the minds of the first disciples of Jesus and then passed on like a football across the ages. On the contrary, it took hundreds of years for the seed of that teaching to grow into the mighty tree of Augustine’s formulations in the “De Trinitate” or Aquinas’s complex treatise in the first part of the “Summa Theologiae.”
Moreover, Newman felt that even those definitive theological achievements in turn develop and unfold as they are mused over, turned around, questioned and argued about. He concludes: “a real idea is equivalent to the sum total of its possible aspects.” And those aspects appear only in the course of time and through the play of the lively minds that consider them. It is precisely in this context that Newman penned the most famous line of “On the Development of Christian Doctrine:” “In a higher world it is otherwise; but here below, to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Ideas change because they are living things.
I realize that many, upon considering this view, will get nervous — as did many in Newman’s day. Does this mean that doctrine is up for grabs? Should we keep our dogmatic statements, as one cynical wag once put it, in loose-leaf binders? To get some clarity on this point, I would recommend that we delve a little further into Newman’s great book and examine the criteria that he laid out to determine the difference between a legitimate development (which makes the doctrine in question more fully itself) and a corruption (which undermines the doctrine). Newman presents seven in total, but I should like to examine just three.
The first is what he calls preservation of type. A valid development preserves the essential form and structure of what came before. If that type is undermined, we are dealing with a corruption. Mind you, type can be maintained even through enormous superficial changes, as, to use Newman’s own example, “a butterfly is a development of the caterpillar but not in any sense its image.”
A second criterion is what Newman refers to as “conservative action upon its past.” An evolution that simply reverses or contradicts what came before it is necessarily a corruption and not a development. In Newman’s own words, an authentic development “is an addition that illustrates, not obscures; corroborates, not corrects the body of thought from which it proceeds.” In accord with this idea, Christianity could be seen as the development of Judaism, since it preserves the essential teachings and practices of that faith, even as it moves beyond them. Cardinal George Pell alluded to this principle when he said, during the recent Synod debates, “the Church does not do back-flips on doctrine.” So, for example, if a proposal were put forth at the Extraordinary Synod that simply contradicted the teaching of John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio or Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, it would certainly reflect a corruption.
A third criterion that Newman puts forward is what he calls “the power of assimilation.” Just as a healthy organism can take in what it can from its environment, even as it resists what it must, so a sane and lively idea can take to itself what is best in the intellectual atmosphere, even as it throws off what is noxious. Both total accommodation to the culture and total resistance to it are usually signs of intellectual sickness.
Now how does all of this apply to the Synod? Well, let’s consider the proposal made by Cardinal Walter Kasper regarding communion for the divorced and re-married. Is it an authentic development or a corruption of Catholic moral teaching and practice? Would Newman be opposed in principle to change in this regard? Not necessarily, for he knew that to live is to change. Would he therefore enthusiastically embrace what Cardinal Kasper has proposed? Not necessarily, for it might represent a corruption. As the conversation continues to unfold over the coming months, I think all sides would benefit from a careful reading of “On the Development of Christian Doctrine.”
(Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, “Catholicism”  and “Catholicism: The New Evangelization.” Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.)

Victory of Christian narrative worth telling, re-telling

By Father Robert Barron
On the first day of my vacation last week, I perused N.T. Wright’s latest book, a collection of essays on contemporary issues in light of the Bible. A point that Wright makes in a number of the articles is that modernity and Christianity propose fundamentally different meta-narratives in regard to the meaning and trajectory of history. Modernity — at least in its Western form — is predicated on the assumption that history came to its climax in the mid- to late-eighteenth century, with the definitive victory of empirical science in the epistemological arena and liberal democracy in the political arena.
Basic to this telling of the story is that modernity emerged victorious only after a long twilight struggle against the forces of obscurantism and tyranny and that the matrix for both of these negative states of affairs was none other than the Christian religion, which enforced a blind dogmatism on the one hand and an oppressive political arrangement on the other. For an extreme but very clear expression of this point of view, consider Diderot’s famous remark: “Men will not be free until the last king is strangled on the entrails of the last priest.”
For a more benign expression of the modern myth of origins, Wright suggests, take a dollar bill out of your wallet and turn it over. You will see a pyramid topped by a single human eye, and at the base of that structure, you will notice the motto novus ordo seclorum (the new order of the ages). This represents the founders’ extraordinary conviction that they were launching, not simply a new political arrangement, but an entirely new way of seeing the world.
Now Christianity proposes a completely different account of how history comes to a climax and what precisely constitutes the new order of the ages — which helps to explain why so many of modernity’s avatars, from Diderot to Christopher Hitchens, have specially targeted Christianity.
On the Christian reading, history reached its highpoint when a young first century Jewish rabbi, having been put to death on a brutal Roman instrument of torture, was raised from the dead through the power of the God of Israel.
The state-sponsored murder of Jesus, who had dared to speak and act in the name of Israel’s God, represented the world’s resistance to the Creator. It was the moment when cruelty, hatred, violence, and corruption — symbolized in the Bible as the watery chaos — spent itself on Jesus. The resurrection, therefore, showed forth the victory of the divine love over those dark powers. St. Paul can say, “I am certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, nor any other creature can separate us from the love of God,” precisely because he lived on the far side of the resurrection.
This is also why Paul and so many of his Christian colleagues can speak of “new creation” and “a new heavens and a new earth.” For all of Paul’s spiritual descendants, therefore, the eighteenth century might indeed signify a leap forward in science and political arrangements, but it can be by no stretch of the imagination construed as the climax of history. I believe that N.T. Wright is correct when he maintains that this “battle of narratives” is far more crucial for the Church today than any of our particular arguments about sex and authority, but that’s an article for another day.
All of this was swimming in my mind when, on the evening of the first day of my vacation, I went to see the new cinematic iteration of the Hercules story, starring Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock). Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t think this summer popcorn entertainment is trading in grand ideas. However, it does represent in its own surprising way a telling of the modern metanarrative.
In classical mythology, of course, Hercules is the son of Zeus, and his grand exploits are a function of his supernatural status. But in the current film, Hercules is an ordinary man around whom a legend has been cynically built, and his “mythic” opponents are frauds and deceptions. Hence Cerberus the three-headed dog is just three rather fierce wolves that have been leashed together; the many-headed Hydra is just a group of soldiers with a clever disguise; the centaurs are ordinary mounted warriors who have been misperceived, etc.
At the climax of the film, a “seer” tells Hercules that, though he is not divine, he will find sufficient strength to save the day if only he “believes in himself.” Moreover, as he utters his last “prediction,” the seer mutters with a shrug, “but what do I know?”
In a word, everything has been flattened out, rendered mundane, any reference to the properly supernatural expunged or explained away. And the political part of the modern myth is not forgotten, for the kings over whom Hercules triumphs are tyrants, who have been using religion to cover up their own criminal machinations.
Again, I don’t think the makers of “Hercules” have particularly high intellectual ambitions, but their film joins a long line of recent movies—“300,” “Agora,” the various reboots of “Star Trek” and “Clash of the Titans”—which tell the story of the triumph of “reason” over “mysticism” and the natural over the supernatural. If N.T. Wright is correct about the battle of narratives, we Christians should be sensitive to the many and very effective ways that the popular culture tends to out-narrate us.
(Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.)

Novel provides insight into suffering, love

Word On Fire
By Father Robert Barron
John Green’s novel “The Fault in Our Stars” has proven to be wildly popular among young adults. A one-time divinity school student and Christian minister, Green is not reluctant to explore the “big” questions, though he doesn’t claim to provide anything like definitive answers. In this, he both reflects and helps to shape the inchoate, eclectic spirituality that holds sway in the teen and 20-something set today.
The story is narrated by Hazel Grace Lancaster, a teenager suffering from a most likely terminal form of cancer. At her mother’s prompting, Hazel attends a support group for young cancer patients that takes place at the local Episcopal Church. The group is presided over by a well-meaning but nerdy youth minister who commences each meeting by rolling out a tapestry of Jesus displaying his Sacred Heart. “We are gathering, literally, in the heart of Jesus,” he eagerly tells the skeptical and desultory gaggle of teens. At one of these sessions, Hazel rises to share her utterly bleak, even nihilistic philosophy of life: “There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. […] There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.”
At one of these meetings, Hazel meets a handsome, charming cancer-survivor named Augustus Waters, and the two fall almost immediately in love. Though they both consider the support group fairly lame, there is no denying that they were brought together over the heart of Christ. Kind, encouraging, funny, and utterly devoted, Augustus (Gus) draws Hazel out of herself and lures her into a more active engagement with life. They both love a novel called “An Imperial Affliction,” written by a reclusive author named Peter Van Houten. After establishing e-mail contact with Van Houten, they arrange to fly to Amsterdam to commune with their literary hero. Just before the encounter, Gus says that he believes in God and in some sort of life after death; otherwise, he argues, “What is the point?” Still clinging to her bleak materialism, Hazel retorts, “What if there is no point?”
The next day, the young couple, filled with enthusiasm, comes to Van Houten’s home only to find that their hero is a depressed alcoholic who has no interest in talking to them. When they press him for answers about mysteries in his novel, he comments on the meaninglessness of life, effectively mirroring Hazel’s nihilism back to her. Just after this awful conversation, the two teenagers make their way to the attic where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis. In that room, evocative of both horrific, meaningless violence and real spiritual hope, Hazel and Gus passionately kiss for the first time. It is as though their love, which began in the heart of Jesus, asserted itself strongly even in the face of darkness.
But we are not allowed to dwell on this hopeful moment, for Gus reveals, just before they return home, that his cancer has reasserted itself and that his condition is terminal. Not long after they return, Gus dies, at the age of eighteen, and Hazel sinks into profound sadness: “Each minute,” she says, “is worse than the previous one.” Hazel just goes through the motions, pretending to find comfort, precisely for the sake of her family and friends. But some days after the funeral, she discovers that Augustus had written a note to her just before his death. It closes with the words, “Okay, Hazel Grace?”  To which the young woman responds, while gazing up into the sky, “Okay.”  With that word, the film ends.
The question that haunts the entire movie is how can there be meaning in the universe when two wonderful young kids are dying of cancer? A kind of answer can be found precisely where Hazel and Gus met, that is to say, in the sacred heart of Jesus. The central claim of Christianity is that God became one of us and that he shared our condition utterly, accepting even death, death on a cross. God entered into our suffering and thereby transformed it into a place of springs, a place of grace. I don’t think it is the least bit accidental that Waters (Gus’s last name) and Grace (Hazel’s middle name) met in the sacred heart of Christ and thereby, despite their shared suffering, managed to give life to one another. And is this why I think Hazel effectively repudiates her nihilism and materialism as she responds across the barrier of death to Gus’s “Okay.” I’m convinced that Hazel senses, by the end of the story, the central truth of Christian faith that real love is more powerful than death.
Is this film a satisfying presentation of Christianity? Hardly. But for those who are struggling to find their way to meaning and faith, it’s not an entirely bad place to start.
(Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, “Catholicism”  and “Catholicism:The New Evangelization.” Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.)

Bill Maher not understanding faith or Bible

Word on Fire
By Father Robert Barron
I don’t know what possesses me to watch “Real Time With Bill Maher,” for Maher is, without a doubt, the most annoying anti-religionist on the scene today. Though his show is purportedly about politics, it almost invariably includes some attack on religion, especially Christianity. Just last week, his program included a brief conversation with Ralph Reed, the articulate gentleman who used to run the Christian Coalition and who is now a lobbyist and activist on behalf of faith-related causes.
For the first three or four minutes, Reed and Maher discussed the social science concerning children raised in stable vs. unstable families, and Reed was scoring quite a few points in favor of the traditional understanding of marriage. Sensing that he was making little headway, Maher decided to pull the religion card, and from that point on things went from bad to worse.
Maher said, “Now you’re a man of faith, which means someone who consciously suspends all critical thinking and accepts things on the basis of no evidence.” Astonishingly, Reed said, “yes,” at which point, I shouted at the TV screen: “No!” Then Maher said, “And I believe that you take everything in the Bible literally,” and Reed replied, “yes,” at which point I said, “Oh God, here we go again.”
Maher then did what I knew he would do: he pulled out a sheet of paper which included references to several of the more morally outrageous practices that the God of the Bible seems to approve of, including slavery. Pathetically, Reed tried to clear things up by distinguishing the chattel slavery of the American south from the slavery practiced in the classical world, which amounted to a kind of indentured servitude. “Oh I get it,” Maher responded, “God approves of the good kind of slavery.” The audience roared with laughter; Reed lowered his head; Maher smirked; and the cause of religion took still another step backward.
I would like, in very brief compass, to say something simple about each of the issues that Maher raised. Faith, rightly understood, does not involve any surrender of one’s critical intellectual powers, nor is it tantamount to the acceptance of things on the basis of no evidence. What Bill Maher characterizes as “faith” is nothing but superstition or credulity or intellectual irresponsibility. It is an ersatz “knowing” that falls short of the legitimate standards of reason. Real faith is not infra-rational but rather supra-rational, that is to say, not below reason but above reason and inclusive of it.
It is beyond reason precisely because it is a response to the God who has revealed himself, and God is, by definition, beyond our capacity to grasp, to see, fully to understand. It involves darkness to be sure, but the darkness that comes, not from an insufficiency of light, but from a surplus of light.
If you are ever tempted to agree with Bill Maher on the nature of faith, I would invite you to read any page of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton and honestly ask yourself the question, “Does this sound like someone who has suspended his critical faculties?”
As for the Bible, the moment you say, as Ralph Reed did, that you take the entirety of the Scriptures literally, you are hopelessly vulnerable to the kind of critique that Bill Maher raises. In its marvelous statement on Biblical interpretation, Dei Verbum, Vatican II says that the Bible is the Word of God in the words of men. That laconic statement packs a punch, for it clarifies why the fundamentalist strategy of Scriptural interpretation is always dysfunctional.
God did not dictate the Scriptures word for word to people who received the message dumbly and automatically; rather, God spoke subtly and indirectly, precisely through human agents who employed distinctive literary techniques and who were conditioned by the cultures in which they found themselves and by the audiences they addressed.
Thus one of the most basic moves in Scriptural exegesis is the determination of the genre in which a given Biblical author was operating. Are we dealing with a song, a psalm, a history, a legend, a letter, a Gospel, a tall tale, an apocalypse? Therefore, to ask, “Do you take the Bible literally?” is about as helpful as asking, “Do you take the library literally?”
A further implication of Dei Verbum’s statement is that there is a distinction between, as William Placher put it, “what is in the Bible and what the Bible teaches.” There are lots of things that are indeed in the pages of the Scriptures but that are not essential to the overarching message of the Scriptures, things that were in the cultural milieu of the human authors but that are not ingredient in the revelation that God intends to offer.
A good example of this would be the references to slavery that Maher cited. The institution of slavery was taken for granted in most ancient cultures and therefore it is not surprising that Biblical authors would refer to it or even praise it, but attention to the great patterns and trajectories of the Bible as a whole reveals that the justification of slavery is not something that “the Bible teaches,” which is precisely why the fight against slavery in the western culture was led by people deeply shaped by the Scriptures.
Suffice it to say the kind of conversation that Bill Maher and Ralph Reed had is decidedly not the best way forward.
(Father Robert Barron is the founder of the global ministry, Word on Fire, and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, “Catholicism”  and the recently released documentary, “Catholicism:The New Evangelization.” Learn more at www.WordonFire.org))