Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Theology of Robert Barron

It's been a while since I examined contemporary representations of Scotus, so today lets look at Fr. Robert Barron's book:

bridging the Great Divide: Musings of a Post-Liberal, Post-Conservative Evangelical Catholic. Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.

Fr. Robert Barron is a professor of systematic theology at Mundelein seminary. He is a widely read author and commentator on catholic issues, reaching the educated and not so educated. That is why I feel he requires a response. When it comes to Scotus, he is just following in the steps of Milbank ("Milbank the mountebank" a professor of mine calls him) and his phantastical cohorts, and he really only has about 2 facts on Scotus and a few alleged consequences. It is really rather dull. Anyways, the book, which we shall examine below, embodies all that really irritates me about modern theology. In a word, lack of focus. The book is barely 272 pages, yet we meet Goethe, Dante, lots of Aquinas, Paul Tillich, Luther, Calvin, the Nouvelle theologie theologians, Rahner, von Balthasar, Plato, Aristotle, Schleiermacher, Jean-Luc Marion, the Communio crowd, basically everyone in the history of theology and philosophy. And yet who from among this august company is the only one to be excluded from the post-modern table of dialogue? John Duns Scotus.

Now for some quotes:

p. 62: "..creaturely being, though really distinct from God, is in an analogical relationship to the divine reality. But this means, in turn, that creaturely being is, by nature, ecstatic and not autonomous. It furthermore implies that every creature is connected through the center of its being to every other creature, so that Francis's statement about brother sun and sister moon could be not only a charming bit of poetry but a rather exact metaphysical remark. Now when this conception began to unravel, first through Duns Scotus's introduction of a univocal sense of being and then through the Reformer's distantiation of God, a properly secular realm emerged, that is to say, an arena of finite being that could ground itself. The breakdown of an analogical conception of being led also to a fundamentally antagonistic social ontology, the link between creatures having been eliminated... What makes the modern successors of Descartes and Hobbes incapable of the liturgical act? The disciple of Aquinas might respond: the loss of participation/creation metaphysics and hence the attenuation of any sense of an ecstatic and communitarian self."

fr. Barron claims:
1. Duns Scotus introduced a univocal sense of being.
2. A properly secular realm emerged = finite being could ground itself.
3. Rise of antagonistic social ontology because link between creatures eliminated

Lee Faber rebuts:
(1.) is true, if by 'sense' he means 'sense of the term' being.
(2.) Scotus never says finite being could ground itself or anything similar. In Scotus' view this would have to amount to creatures being self-caused. Other than that, it's not clear how univocity leads to the reformation or even how the reformation leads to secularism.
(3.) I don't see how analogy connects us all to each other. Analogy is a theory of how terms used by creatures are predicated of God. Nor do we participate in each other, we participate in God. Also, participation does not enjoy magisterial authority. Also, what was the world like before Aquinas expounded his theory of analogy? If fr. Barron is correct, wouldn't the analogical/participatory world view only have come into being with Aquinas? Then society should have been in terrible shambles before Aquinas came along, and the years between Aquinas' death and Scotus' birth must have been a veritable golden age of human flourishing. Also, what is the connection between univocity and an 'anagonistic social ontology'?

p.111: "Correllative to the doctrine of creation from nothing is the doctrine of the analogia entis. For Thomas, God cannot be construed, as we have seen, as one being among many; rather, he must be conceived as the act of being that is otherly other than the realm of beings. God and creatures are not--as in Duns Scotus--beings categorized as varying types in the genus 'existence'. Rather created things are participants in the primordial act of existence..."

Fr. Barron:
1. according to Scotus, Existence is a genus.
2. according to scotus, God and creatures are both in this genus.

Lee Faber rebuts:
First of all, there is a fundamental misunderstanding here; analogy of being is not the correllate of creation ex nihilo. Analogy pertains to natural knowledge of God, while creation to divine revelation.
contra (1.) Nobody in the middle ages thought this, certainly not about existence. All the scholastics agree that Aristotle proved that being is not a genus.
(2.) Cf. Duns Scotus, Ordinatio I d.8 pt. q.3 (ed. Vat. IV p. 169ff.): whether it stands with divine simplicity that God or something formally said of God is in a genus?

"There is another affirmative opinion, in the other extreme, which posits that God is in a genus...[the Vatican editors can identify no one who held this position] Against this [position] the first argument is posited [from earlier in the question]... I hold the middle opinion, that with divine simplicity it stands that some concept is common to himself and a creature, nevertheless not some concept common as a genus, because neither a concept said 'in quid' of God, nor one said of him by whatever kind of formal predication, is per se in some genus." [arguments follow]

So not only is there no agreement between God and creatures in reality, but not even generic agreement in concept!

p.113: "God is placed by Luther in a transcendent realm almost as a gesture of protection, as though any closer contact with the world would compromise him. This distantiation was made possible, furthermore, through the univocal conception of being introduced by Scotus and given fuller expression by Occam and his nominalist successors who in turn helped to shape Luther's philosophical vision."

RB's claims:
(1.) Scotus introduced a univocal conception of being
(2.) Occam gave fuller expression to this univocal conception of being.
(3.) Occam's successors influenced Luther.
(4.) Luther tries to save God from univocity.

LF refutes:
(1.) True, as long as we are clear we are talking about a concept, not a reality.
(2.) True, though Ockham generally rejects as much as he accepts from scotus, and reformulates it beyond all recognition.
(3.) True.
(4.) If this is true, so what. All it does is smear Ockham by association with late medieval nominalists, and Scotus by association with Ockham. To construct a geneology is not to construct an argument; it's a fallacy.

Omitted: p. 127, which contains a discussion of James Joyce 'A portrait of a young man' and how although the quote he offers is closer to Scotist haeceity than thomistic quidditas, it preserves intellectualism, esthetics, and the splendor formae.

p.133: "Umberto Eco carefully traced the evolution of the medieval understanding of the beautiful and noticed that a major shift occurred in the writings of Duns Scotus and William of Occam. Scotus's metaphysics of haecceitas and Occam's explicit nominalism both led to an attenuation of the ontology of beauty that we have been describing. When the individual thing has primacy, the interconnectedness of all creatures, the consonantia of the finite realm, is severely understessed... [quote from Ockham follows] And this cosmic disconnectedness is even more fully established when, as in Scotus, a univocal conception of being holds sway... But when being is taken univocally, God and creatures are instances of a general, overarching principle and hence exist, as it were, side by side, without an essential connection."

(1.) metaphysics of haecceity + nominalism ruined aesthetics.
(2.) emphasis on individual = interconnectedness of all creatures being understressed
(3.) univocity = cosmic disconnectedness
(4.) univocity entails God and creatures being instances of a general principle
(5.) univocity entails God and creatures exist side by side w/o essential connection

LF rebuts:

Almost too much here. But it amounts to the claim that "Scotus said something different than Aquinas" so I wont' delay much here.
(1.) Boo hoo. In the one passage on beauty I've seen in Scotus, he relates it to a proportion between parts. One suspects the analogical worldview is pretty weak to be unable to withstand that observation.
(2.) none of the scholastics talk about the interconnectedness of creatures. We are all related by species and genera, I suppose. But that's not very aesthetic.
(3.) That's why my zen garden looks so bad!
(4.) So there is a principle superior to God? I suppose that would have to be causal principle. This claim is on the level of Brad Gregory's claim that "God is univocal" or Matthew Levering's that the great whore of revelation is cast into the lake of fire for abandoning participation metaphysics. It's just the contemporary form the rivalry between scotism and thomism is taking.
(5.) But I thought univocity also entails God is made too transcendent and distantiated?
Dont' ask me what the essential connection is; I suppose it's because creatures aren't participating in each other or God (allegedly).

"the tired modernity of Merton's youth...was the consequence of the collapse of a participation metaphysics. One of the first causes this collapse was, oddly enough, a Franciscan friar, John Duns Scotus. When Scotus insisted that there is a univocal concept of being, he situated God and creation under the same great ontological canopy, effectively setting God alongside the world, one being (however great) among many. But the juxtaposing of God and creatures amounts to a negation of the participation metaphysics that Aquinas advocated. On the Scotist reading, the world is comparable to God, but it doesn't share in the to-be of God. And when this participation is denied, the essential connectedness of all creatures to one another is also undone. Scotus' univocal conception of being was carried further and deepened by William of Occam and the nominalists inspired by him, and they in turn had a decisive influence on Martin Luther. The Scotist-Occamist strain can be discerned in Luther's embrace of a radical theologia crucis and his effective distantiation of God from the world."

(1.) Scotus had a univocal concept being
(2.) Scotus placed God and creatures in the same genus
(3.) this denies participation metaphysics, which destroys essential connectedness of creatures to each other.
(4.) Scotus' doctrine of univocity was 'deepened' by Ockham and the nominalists
(5.) the nominalists influenced Luther
(6.) Luther distantiated God from the world.

LF rebuts:
The usual. (1.), (4.) and (5.) are true, although fr. Barron cites no literature, and it's not clear how this works as there is no scholarship that i know of on the topic of univocity in late medieval nominalism. (2.) as we saw above is false, therefore (3.) is not a result of Scotus' conception of univocity. Again, aside from sharing in genus and species, no scholastic talks about essential connectedness of creatures; participation is in God, not other creatures. As for (6.), again, this is just guilt by association.

"So many of the great Reformers were trained in the philosophical school of nominalism, with its roots in the speculations of the late medieval Franciscan William of Occam. Like his Franciscan predecessor Duns Scotus, Occam held to a univocal conception of being, according to which both the infinite existence of God and the finite existence of creatures are instances of a general, overarching category of being that contains them both... This denial of participation metaphysics conduced, as in Scotus and Occam, to a stress on the isolated individual--which can be seen in the theologies of both luther and John Calvin."

(1.) the reformation has roots in late medieval nominalism
(2.) Scotus and Ockham held to a univocal concept of being
(3.) Both God and creatures are in the genus 'being'.
(4.) this constitutes a denial of participation metaphysics, and leads to stress on isolated individuals.

(1.) and (2.) we've seen to be true, (3.) false from scotus' own writings, (4.) is another alleged consequence of (3.). But is true, Scotus does lay a lot of emphasis on the individual. And he doesn't mention in these contexts how the individual participates in God, or other creatures. Stupid Scotus, wasting all that time trying to figure out individuation!


Brandon said...

I too was rather amused by the fact that he thinks Scotus simultaneously puts God and creatures in one genus and holds that they are not connected.

Michael Sullivan said...

I'm tempted to immediately dismiss anything at all that includes the term "Scotist-Occamist strain" as rubbish from the get-go. I wish everyone who writes about this stuff would be forced at least to spend one week reading Scotus, then one week reading Occam, before talking about how similar they are.

I don't understand the rabid anti-individualism, which seems difficult to reconcile with key Christian doctrines. I've always thought that Scotus' theories of individuality were one of his most obvious strengths vis-a-vis Aquinas.

Anyhoo, really good post.

Michael Sullivan said...

An interesting project would be to read over St Bonaventure's Itinerarium with Scotistic metaphysics in mind and ask, how much of it would Scotus have to reject? I think this would be a good test of some of these crazy claims. I suspect he would not have to reject that much.

Michael Sullivan said...

I remember, quite a few years ago now, the great Dr Noone speculating on what St Bonaventure would make of the De primo principio. He thought that the Seraphic Doctor's reaction to the Subtle Doctor would be "Has it come to this? Is all this really necessary?", not that he would actually disagree with any of it.

X-Cathedra said...

You guys are my Scotist conscience. I'm predisposed to eat that kind of genealogy up, but you keep me on the wagon.

Though the one problem I see with forcing people to read Scotus and Ockham for a week respectively is that this would entail ACTUALLY reading Ockham....for a week....

.....have you no mercy???

Pax Christi,

Michael Sullivan said...

X, the option, of course, is not to say anything about him!

Henry Karlson said...


You know what is worse than reading Ockham? Reading Ukrainian Catholics talking about Ockham (Ockham Perspectives).

Of course, I think there is good which comes from reading him. What I do find as a problem is all those who think Scotus and Ockham are one and the same. That really annoys me. It is like saying Cicero is like Plato!

Anonymous said...

Does this guy know about Gabriel Biel?

James Chastek

Lee Faber said...

Nope. But he has another book, that has more citations, called fire of the word or something like that.

Anonymous said...

I suppose that was asking a bit much.

James C