Bishop Barron and the new apologetics
Over at First Things a transcript has appeared of the 2017 Erasmus Lecture given at the end of last year by Bishop Robert Barron on the subject of “reaching the nones”, that is those who self-declare as being of “no religion”. The whole piece is definitely worth reading, although those who are acquainted already with the writings of Bishop Barron will certainly not come across too many deviations or developments from his other writing on similar subjects. Bishop Barron attempts to offer a few strategic points of contact with those who have declared themselves to be ‘unaffiliated’ to any religion. Three of these seem to stick out the most and are argued the most forcefully.
Bishop Barron’s first suggestion, and indeed a suggestion that is largely an echo of much of his catechetical work, is that ‘the nones’ may be more susceptible to encountering ‘the beautiful’ as an avenue for them to somehow arrive at a contemplation of Beauty Himself. The idea seems to be that Millennials are so cynically resistant to truth claims and so hostile towards claims of moral perfection that somehow the arresting power of religious or even purely artistic beauty might be the principle means to, as it were, lower their guard, and enable them to glimpse something of the workings of the creator. Although it can’t be denied that beauty is a transcendental quality of God, this writer has often wondered if too much is put into this line of apologetics. After all it seems to me that Generation Y has, through world travel, through mass education and through sheer amount of leisure time actually faced a greater degree of natural and artistic beauty than any other that has preceded it. Thankfully Bishop Barron also sees a limitation to this approach, especially in the area of catechesis, and he seems well aware that unless truth claims are clearly and coherently offered to the young, and models of the good presented to them through the lives of the saints, no amount of exposure to the beauty of authentic Catholic Culture will maintain them in their faith, especially, as they begin to receive questions and challenges from the agnostic culture around them as to the creedal basis of their faith.
Bishop Barron’s second suggestion is in the realm of catechesis and centres on the importance of presenting Christ within the Old Testament context. Our Lord is the fulfilment of ancient typology, and as a truly divine person. He is not just a figure of first-century Palestine who shows perhaps the perfect way to live, or who fully realises human anthropology, or a man potently orientated to God. These are perspectives which are not without degrees of truth, but are not an adequate reflection of revelation concerning the plan of God. Here Robert Barron certainly overlaps with and touches upon a key element in the Faith Movement’s presentation of Salvation History, seeing the whole sweeping panorama of world history as orientated towards the Incarnation, and of course, in a very particular and guided way, the history of Israel which was to be the custodian for mankind of God’s self-revelation and of the promise of the Messiah, the Lord of creation. Presenting Christ as Divine King entering into His created inheritance is a powerful apologetic which clearly differentiates Christianity from man-made and imperfect religions. Moreover, the evident messianism of the Old Testament fulfilled in Christ has proven in the history of apologetics to be an essential subject to present towards non-believers.
The Bishop’s final suggestion is the one that chimes most strongly with the rationale of the Faith Movement, and he underlines this point quite strongly, namely, the importance of responding to scientism, a cultural standpoint that dismisses all non-positivist truths as a type of superstition. Bishop Barron writes in a passage that could have emerged straight from the first or second chapter of Catholicism: A New Synthesis:
“It is sadly becoming axiomatic among many that religious faith is incompatible with a scientific world view. As philosophy at the university level has degenerated into deconstruction, relativism, and nihilism, and as literary study has devolved into political correctness, trigger warnings, and the uncovering of micro-aggressions, the hard physical sciences remain, in the minds of many, the sole reliable bearers of truth about the world. And many have bought the critique that religion is, at best, a primitive and outmoded version of science.”
Of course, in a short lecture it would have been impossible for Bishop Barron to offer an adequate response to this serious intellectual and catechetical challenge, but he does make three suggestions. The Bishop rightly alerts the listeners to the obvious self-refuting nature of scientism; he emphasises that truth can surely be found in non-scientific forms such as poetry and literature; and then finally, he offers the building blocks for a philosophical argument that the intelligibility of the universe, and thereby the possibility of any science, in some way demonstrates a thinking mind behind the universe. Bishop Barron merely offers this final suggestion as ‘a priority’ area for ‘a new apologetics’. These seeds of Bishop Barron have been developed within Fr Holloway’s philosophical writings and have produced a fruitful crop within the thought and work of Faith. It is certainly encouraging to read a Bishop of the Church raising these areas as of true importance in apologetics and it confirms how vital the Faith vision is as an answer to the present crisis.
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March - April 2018
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