The guiding image for the Conversations journal is a large table in front of a warm fire. Seated together are representatives from the prominent tributaries of Christian spirituality—incarnational, contemplative, evangelical, holiness, charismatic, and social justice. Each is participating in a dialogue, sharing with unusual transparency about authentic transformation and why it seems so difficult actually to become like Jesus.
After reading And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation, we couldn’t wait to pull up a chair for the Reverend Robert Barron, a Catholic priest and professor of systematic theology at Mundelein Seminary, who has crafted this remarkable book. But don’t take our word for the importance of this volume; Andrew M. Greeley has stated, “With this book, Robert Barron enters the front ranks of contemporary American Catholic theologians.” But don’t take his word for it either; listen for yourself as Robert stops by for a brief conversation.
GWM: Robert, I was immediately intrigued by the title of your book, And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation. After cracking the cover, I discovered that your very first sentence was, “Christianity is, above all, a way of seeing.” If your words motivate readers to open their eyes to a new way of seeing, what are a few things—the most important things—that you hope will come into focus?
REB: I will answer that question, but I much prefer that you call me Bob.
GWM: I’ll try, but that’s a pretty short name for a prominent theologian!
REB: What I hope will come into focus is Jesus Christ himself. The Kingdom is not primarily a social program or a spiritual path; it is the very person of Jesus, who involves the reconciliation of divinity and humanity, the marriage of heaven and earth. Christianity is about coming to see him.
GWM: What is the vision you have of Jesus that motivated the title of your book?
REB: It’s the Jesus of the first chapter of John’s Gospel, who invites the two seekers to “come and see” where he stays; it’s the Jesus of the Transfiguration, who allows Peter, James, and John to see his full splendor; it’s the risen Jesus, who tells Thomas to touch his wounds. The Lord wants us to see—even if we find that hard to believe.
GWM: So the image of a Jesus who desires to reveal and to be revealed is part of your re-imaging. On a different matter, Bob, you go so far as to say that fear is the “original sin.” Fear is the number one barrier to our vision. For a theologian, you seem to be keeping things pretty simple. I really like that. But please say more about how you see fear (and the incapacity to trust) as both the root cause and the consequence of sin.
REB: In my experience, the best theology is simple, so I’m pleased, first of all, that you find this claim straightforward. Usually, we hear that pride is the original sin, but I’m convinced that fear precedes pride. Pride is a kind of defensive reaction, a puffing up of the ego when it feels threatened. Paul Tillich said that finitude in awareness is anxiety, meaning that when we become cognizant of our ontological limitations, we tend to turn in on ourselves, to become, in Augustine’s phrase, curvatus in se. This is the original problem from which all the other forms of dysfunction flow, turning in on ourselves, seeing ourselves as being able to provide the solution to our fearful condition, instead of turning to God.
GWM: And in your understanding, that is what Augustine meant by the famous phrase curvatus in se—turning inward to search for a fear tonic, instead of turning outward
to God. Fear followed by the “pride” of an inward solution?
REB: I’m not so concerned about the “inward/outward” distinction, since God, precisely as the sheer act of being itself, is found both “in here” and “out there.” But you’re quite right in suggesting that the turn to the ego will always be an insufficient solution to the problem of fear. We do indeed have to break out of the cocoon of self-preoccupation in order to become great souls.
GWM: I’m a bit of a compulsive summarizer. So, for me, the most thought-provoking thing in your book was your discussion of the first two “sins” of Adam and Eve and how these choices are still our most seductive alternatives to living in trust. They grasped, and then they hid. Unpack the significance of these two enduring patterns.
REB: One way to deal with fear is to grasp at godliness for oneself, to inflate the ego. This is suggested in the symbolism of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The other is to avoid the press of God altogether, to pretend that God doesn’t exist. This is symbolized by Adam and Eve’s hiding in the underbrush of Eden.
Both forms, by the way, are clearly visible throughout the story of revelation and throughout human history. Thus, in the nineteenth century, lots of Christians thought that through economic and political progress, we could build the Kingdom of God on earth. That’s nothing but the worst kind of grasping at God. And in recent times, especially in the West, we find an arid secularism, born of the conviction that we can be joyful without God. That’s the rankest kind of hiding.
GWM: At a personal level, these two verbs were what I found most helpful in your book and most convicting. I wake up almost every morning to a day of grasping and hiding. In the shame that follows the grasping, I hide from the possibility of a healing relationship, friendship, with God.
You make a strong case for a relational understanding of sin. In fact, you muse, “If only the power of rebellion and sin were ended and the friendship of God and human beings reestablished, peace, shalom, all-pervasive well-being would reign.”
When I read this, I immediately envision images of the Trinity as the ultimate example of friendship and community, and then the picture of Jesus praying for his disciples that they would be one with each other and with God, as close to Jesus himself as branches are to the vine that produced them. Why do you think it is so important for us to have a relational understanding of sin, to see sin first as a breach of friendship with God?
REB: Thomas Aquinas said that the goal of the spiritual life is amicitia Dei (friendship with God), and I’ve always found this description deeply biblical. In the Garden, prior to the Fall, Adam and God walk together as friends in the cool of the evening. One could read the whole of the biblical revelation as the story of God’s passionate quest to reestablish this friendship, culminating in the event of the Incarnation. Sin is not primarily a matter of disobeying laws, but of failing to love, failing to make of one’s life a gift. The ethical prescriptions of the Church are meant to move us in the direction of love and deeper relationality. And you’re quite right in seeing the ground of all of this in the Trinity. One of my complaints about some forms of Christianity is precisely the tendency to formulate ethical systems in a purely philosophical or legalistic way, abstracting from the Trinity.
GWM: Yes, and this vision puts temptation in a very different light, as you suggest the lure of the serpent was an enticement to radical autonomy, to complete self-mastery. At its root is the lie that God and human beings are essentially rivals involved, to use your words “in a desperate zero-sum game of competition and mutual antagonism.”
Why do you think it is more common to hear sermons that focus on the behavioral aspects of “sin” instead of the cognitive and relational aspects?
REB: Because that dimension of life is a bit easier to see and control . . .
GWM: To grasp . . .
REB: Yes, it’s always more interesting (and difficult) to go behind the surface and get to the underlying causes. Mind you, I’m not driving a wedge between Sin and sins (a distinction that got too many of us off the hook too easily!), but I am trying to uncover the deepest source of our behavioral dysfunction. And I do think that it is found in bad theology, a tendency to construe God as a rival to the frightened ego.
GWM: Please underscore that. The deepest source of our behavioral dysfunction is the tendency to see God as a rival . . .
REB: It’s what Thomas Merton called “the Promethean problem,” the tendency to think of the divine life as something that must be seized from a God who is reluctant to share it with us. The central motif of the Bible, from beginning to end, is that God wants to give his life to us; he wants to be gracious. The beginning, middle, and end of the spiritual life are responding to that amazing grace. God is not a rival; he’s a friend.
GWM: Thanks. I think the most important thought I picked up in seminary was the notion that perhaps God actually has my best interests at heart.
In reading your book, I was very impressed by the breadth of your reading. For a theologian from Chicago, you seem to have spent a lot of time reading classic Southern literature. And you are not a stranger to the psychological literature. You referenced Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the University of Chicago social psychology professor, who has written about happiness and how it is that we are most happy when we are in the flow. That is, it is in those moments in which we have forgotten about ourselves that we have a greater sense of pleasure. Tells us about a time when you have felt “in the flow” with God.
REB: I love to preach, and I think that when my preaching is really on, I’m in the flow with God; I’m letting the Holy Spirit move through me. It also happens in the course of spiritual conversation—when some friends and I are seeking out the deep things of God and aren’t trying to impress each other or calculate the effect that we’re having, but are really sailing into the mystery of God. Those are moments of “flow.”
GWM: Robert, you spend a lot of time developing the tension between living in the pusilla anima (the small self) instead of the magna anima (the large self). Are these descriptions another way of talking about the tension between the true self and the false self? And are you, at one level, echoing and amplifying the suggestions of Thomas Merton, that is, defining the goal of the spiritual life as awakening the true “I”?
REB: Yes, exactly. As you can probably guess from reading my writings, I love Thomas Merton. I first read The Seven Storey Mountain (Merton’s spiritual autobiography) when I was sixteen, and I’ve read it probably ten times since. Like the desert fathers and medieval mystics whom he loved, Merton was deeply aware of the terrible tension that exists in all of us between the self that God wants us to be and the self-born of fear. And yes, I’m just elaborating on that distinction.
GWM: What do you mean when you say, “An indispensable spiritual exercise for Christians is the sense of agony of the pusilla anima”? I guess what I’m really asking is, do you trust a process of transformation that does not have pain as its genesis—and why or why not?
REB: I would say with John Shea, who was one of my teachers years ago, that the road to healing is always blocked. When the Israelites endeavored to escape from Egypt, they met obstacle after obstacle; when Bartimaeus began to follow Jesus, after the Lord gave him back his sight, he made his way on the path to Calvary. We should expect that the journey from the pusilla anima to the magna anima will be arduous. More to it, as you suggest, the journey can often be prompted by an intense experience of dissatisfaction with the state of one’s life hitting bottom, to use the 12-Step language. Dante’s great Divine Comedy commences with just such a painful awakening. So, yes, if things are a bit too easy in the spiritual life, I am suspicious that some ego-game is actually being played.
GWM: I certainly agree, and I think that so much of this pain—at least, for me this is true—is the ache of letting go instead of grasping; it’s coming to terms with the addictive qualities of willfulness.
Concerning the journey of transformation, what do you think about C. S. Lewis’ notion that the roads to heaven and hell are paved by our tens of thousands of choices, moment-by-moment decisions to live in willing surrender or willful disobedience? And if you agree with him, what are the implications of a crisis/decision versus a relationship/process understanding of salvation?
REB: That’s a penetrating and complex question. I think Lewis is dead right about that—and his view goes back to Aristotle and runs through the philosophical writings of Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II). Wojtyla argued that in each particular ethical choice to do this or that, I’m concomitantly making a transcendental choice to be this or that kind of person. This, I think, is the ordinary way. But that doesn’t mean for a second that God’s grace cannot intervene in a surprising and decisive manner so as to change a person’s path dramatically. Paul comes readily to mind, as does John Newton. So, I guess my answer is both/and. But my Catholicism compels me to say that even the most dramatic intervention of grace must be cooperated with and integrated into one’s life through a whole series of conscious choices.
GWM: To continue with Lewis’ imagery, with each choice, we make a formative mark on our souls.
Bob, you suggest that God is most himself when he lets go of himself in love of another, and the human being is most herself when she abandons fear and rises above the demands of the ego, forgetting self and becoming lost in the other. Do you believe that joy is the emotion of union (and I’m thinking more of the prayer cell than marriage bed)?
REB: Yes, joy is the flag of the Holy Spirit! A joyless saint is a contradiction in terms. Jesus tells us explicitly in the High Priestly discourse in John’s Gospel that he has come to share the joy of God with us.
GWM: The primary purpose of your book is “soul doctoring” (to find the imago Dei). Please say more about the process of finding and nurturing the imago Dei.
REB: The imago Dei is the pearl of great price and the treasure buried in the field. It is our spiritual capacity to imitate God. The Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar says that the imago Dei is found and nurtured precisely in the execution of one’s mission. When we discover what it is that God wants us to do—and do it—we have realized our particular participation in the love that God is.
GWM: Do you make a strong distinction between the universal Christian mission of developing a loving relationship with God, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and actually becoming like Jesus, versus additional, that is, more specific personal mission statements?
REB: I have no particular quarrel with people who formulate personal mission statements, but I would insist that one’s personal mission is an ingredient in the great Mission of Jesus. Finally, our lives are not about us. We find ourselves in the measure that we, as von Balthasar said, disappear into the mission of the Lord. This means that we have discovered our role, not so much in the tedious ego-drama, but in the wonderful and ever-expanding theo-drama.
GWM: We have time for only one final question. What is your fondest hope for someone reading your book?
REB: I would hope that someone who reads my book comes closer to Jesus Christ and thereby finds joy.
FR. ROBERT BARRON is a native of Chicago, Illinois, and was educated at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and the Catholic Institute of Paris. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1986 and is currently serving as professor of Systematic Theology at St. Mary University of the Lake Mundelein Seminary outside Chicago. Robert conducts frequent retreats and workshops about spiritual life and is the author of several books, including Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Crossroad, 1996), And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation (Crossroad, 1998), and The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Orbis Books, 2002).