Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism. By Robert Barron, Word On Fire, 2016.
Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Robert Barron has spent much of the last several years using new media to reach out to the faithful and evangelize Catholicism, much in the way that Archbishop Fulton Sheen did decades earlier. Bishop Barron has produced many short YouTube videos, as well as a number of short essays that explain Church teachings, inform readers of historical events, or comment on the culture, among other topics.
Vibrant Paradoxes: The Both/And of Catholicism is an anthology of some of Bishop Barron’s short essays, most of which are only a few pages long. Bishop Barron uses clear, informal language to get his points across, which makes for far easier reading than many apologetics. This is commentary that all laypeople, including non-Catholics, can study and digest, and Bishop Barron manages to allow his essays to create the sense that is he is talking with his audience, rather than talking down towards others.
Most of these essays have been released over the last several years, though some may have been edited or otherwise revised for this volume. They are arranged by general subject: “Sin and Mercy,” “Reason and Faith,” “Matter and Spirit,” “Freedom and Discipline,” and “Suffering and Joy.” Of course, there is a good deal of overlap amongst the topics of these essays, and often it seems like one piece might fit just as well in multiple sections.
Throughout these essays, Bishop Barron consistently argues that Catholicism is more complex, nuanced, inspiring, and interesting than is generally presented in the mass media, popular culture, and even in circles of other believers. Often, behaving well is equated as “being nice,” which is not necessarily the same as “behaving virtuously.” In “Why Having a Heart of Gold is Not What Christianity Is About,” Bishop Barron writes,
“Many atheists and agnostics today insistently argue that it is altogether possible for non-believers in God 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.”
Bishop Barron always writes clearly and confidently. Each essay gets straight to the point, and always gives the impression that the truth of the Church can be made understandable to everybody. The brevity of the essays has already been noted, but they say a lot in a short space. Short pieces make for easy reading, though I believe that Bishop Barron is trying to subvert what I call the “memefication” of discourse even while he works within the system. Increasingly, detailed arguments with solid evidence are abandoned in favor of emotional appeals and Facebook memes– a catchy one-liner with a picture, so a point is digested quickly, though the accuracy of the meme is not necessarily wholly truthful.
Bishop Barron’s use of social media and the Internet illustrates his realization that in order to reach the laity, one must use the current forms of mass communication. His essay “The Joy of Evangelizing” illustrates the necessity of using every means necessary to be witnesses for the Faith.
“An emergency tends to focus one’s mind and energies and to clarify one’s priorities. If a dangerous fire breaks out in a home, the inhabitants thereof will lay aside their quarrels, postpone their other activities, and together get to the task of putting out the flames. If a nation is invaded by an aggressor, politicians will quickly forget their internal squabbling and put off their legislative programs in order to work together for the shared purpose of repulsing the enemy.
Christianity is grounded in what its earliest proponents called “good news,” euangelion. There is, therefore, something permanently fresh, startling, and urgent about the Christian faith. It is not a bland spirituality or generic philosophy; it is news about something amazing and unprecedented, namely, that a carpenter from Nazareth, who declared himself the Son of God, has been raised from the dead. This is why there is a “grab you by the lapels” quality about the early Christian witness: the authors of the New Testament are not trading in generalities and abstract principles; they are telling the world about a revolution, an earthquake, an emergency. Jesus is risen from the dead, and therefore he is the king. And because he is the king, your whole life has to be rearranged around him.”
Numerous essays address popular culture, ranging from viral YouTube videos to larger cultural phenomena. The essay “Woody Allen’s Bleak Vision” addresses an interview with Allen, where the famous director, actor, and screenwriter expounds upon the perceived meaninglessness of life and art. Bishop Barron makes it clear that while one may enjoy watching Allen’s films, one does not need to embrace the filmmaker’s worldview.
I was chagrined, but not entirely surprised, when I read Woody Allen’s recent ruminations on ultimate things. To state it bluntly, Woody could not be any bleaker in regard to the issue of meaning in the universe. We live, he said, in a godless and purposeless world. The earth came into existence through mere chance and one day it, along with every work of art and cultural accomplishment, will be incinerated. The universe as a whole will expand and cool until there is nothing left but the void. Every hundred years or so, he continued, a coterie of human beings will be “flushed away” and another will replace it until it is similarly eliminated. So why does he bother making films—roughly one every year? Well, he explained, in order to distract us from the awful truth about the meaninglessness of everything, we need diversions, and this is the service that artists provide. In some ways, low level entertainers are probably more socially useful than high-brow artistes, since the former manage to distract more people than the latter. After delivering himself of this sunny appraisal, he quipped, “I hope everyone has a nice afternoon!”
Woody Allen’s perspective represents a limit-case of what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the buffered self,” which is to say, an identity totally cut off from any connection to the transcendent. On this reading, this world is all we’ve got, and any window to another more permanent mode of existence remains tightly shut. Prior to the modern period, Taylor observes, the contrary idea of the “porous self” was in the ascendency. This means a self that is, in various ways and under various circumstances, open to a dimension of existence that goes beyond ordinary experience. If you consult the philosophers of antiquity and the Middle Ages, you would find a very frank acknowledgement that what Woody Allen observed about the physical world is largely true. Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas all knew that material objects come and go, that human beings inevitably pass away, that all of our great works of art will eventually cease to exist. But those great thinkers wouldn’t have succumbed to Allen’s desperate nihilism. Why? Because they also believed that there were real links to a higher world available within ordinary experience, that certain clues within the world tip us off to the truth that there is more to reality than meets the eye.
A few of the later essays address how many prominent atheists use sneering and condescension as means of evangelizing– by making religion appear “uncool” and an object of mockery, they expect to drive people away from the Church. It is to Bishop Barron’s credit that he never stoops to their level. Bishop Barron always attacks ideas and not people. The high road may be harder to walk, but in the long run, it’s worth it.