Third Session of Robert Barron's Catholicism Project

Dear friends

This week we watched the third lesson in Fr. Robert Barron's Catholicism Project THE INEFFABLE MYSTERY OF GOD: THAT THAN WHICH NOTHING GREATER CAN BE THOUGHT. (That felt strangely appropriate in capitals!).

I think we all agreed it was a tough session. Most people I have spoken to agree that there is a lot to take in in every session of the Project, but this week's subject matter made it especially challenging. You may find this overview of the topics covered useful in aiding you to digest the abundant material presented in the programme.

The Name of God

Our journey begins with the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-14). YHWH is an incomprehensible Hebrew word, however we can trace its root back to the root hayah = to be. This is accompanied by the clarification of verse 15 that YHWH is the God of Israel's fathers. This constituted a radical break from the norm: in a world swarming with gods, locally defined and limited deities perceptible to man at holy places; a spring, a huge tree, a mysterious stone or even by an unusual happening that occurred at some spot or other, the "God of our fathers" expresses a completely different approach. He is not the God of a place but the god of men: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is present and powerful wherever man is. The Chief Rabbi, Johnathan Sacks explains that this is the point when people stopped seeing people as objects and began to see each individual as unique, sacrosanct, the image of God. In giving His name in this way to Moses, Sacks explains how God is defining himself as the Lord of history who is about to intervene in an unprecedented way to liberate a group of slaves from the mightiest empire of the ancient world and lead them on a journey towards liberty.

The Catholic theological tradition, in keeping with this revelation to Moses refuses to refer to God as a being, for He is not one thing among many other things. Instead it recognises God as ipsum esse—"being itself"—but in the sense of the reality of God's active, dynamic Presence. Proverbs teaches us that the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord, tabin Adonai in Hebrew. But this is not terror so much as an awareness that we cling to existence by God's will alone. It is God's thought concentrated on our being that holds us in existence. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that the Christian understanding of creation (that is, that all non-divine reality comes into being without any non-divine preconditions: God is the author of everything other than Himself) has a number of significant implications. One of these is that since God is Being, He upholds and sustains all of creation and all creatures in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end (CCC 301).

Five Ways

From here, Father Barron went on to consider the arguments for God's existence. He drew on St. Thomas Aquinas' Quinque viæ; Five Ways, or Five Proofs are five arguments for the existence of God outlined in article 1, question 2 of his Summa Theologica. The Five Ways can be summarised thus:

1. The argument of the unmoved mover, or ex motu, tries to explain that God must be the cause of motion in the universe. It is therefore a form of the cosmological argument. It employs Aristotle's dichotomy of potentiality and actuality. It goes like this:
  • Some things are in motion.
  • A thing cannot, in the same respect and in the same way, move itself: it requires a mover.
  • An infinite regress of movers is impossible.
  • Therefore, there is an unmoved mover from whom all motion proceeds.
  • This mover is what we call God.
2. The argument of the first cause (ex causa), tries, unlike the argument of the Unmoved Mover, to prove that God must have been the cause, or the creator of the universe. It is therefore another form of the cosmological argument. It goes thus:
  • Some things are caused.
  • Everything that is caused is caused by something else.
  • An infinite regress of causation is impossible.
  • Therefore, there must be an uncaused cause of all that is caused.
  • This causer is what we call God.
NB: it is important to remember that throughout the thought of Aquinas and Aristotle, 'motion' has a much wider meaning than the modern sense of the word: it is a very wide synonym for 'change', it does not only refer to change of position in space as the modern term does.

3. The argument from contingency (ex contingentia):
  • Many things in the universe may either exist or not exist. Such things are called contingent beings.
  • It is impossible for everything in the universe to be contingent, for then there would be a time when nothing existed, and so nothing would exist now, since there would be nothing to bring anything into existence, which is clearly false.
  • Therefore, there must be a necessary being whose existence is not contingent on any other being or beings.
  • This being is whom we call God.
4. The argument from degree or gradation (ex gradu):
  • Varying perfections of varying degrees may be found throughout the universe.
  • These degrees assume the existence of an ultimate standard of perfection.
  • Therefore, perfection must have a pinnacle.
  • This pinnacle is whom we call God.
5. My personal favourite, the teleological argument or argument from "design" (ex fine), which claims that many things in the Universe possess final causes that must be directed by God:
  • All natural bodies in the world act towards ends.
  • These objects are in themselves unintelligent.
  • Acting towards an end is characteristic of intelligence.
  • Therefore, there exists an intelligent being that guides all natural bodies towards their ends.
  • This being is whom we call God.
Alternative interpretation:
  • All natural bodies follow laws of conduct.
  • These objects are themselves unintelligent.
  • Laws of conduct are characteristic of intelligence.
  • Therefore, there exists an intelligent being that created the laws for all natural bodies.
  • This being is whom we call God.
Father Robert concentrated on the argument from contingency and used the analogy of clouds to describe the way in which all things change and perish, thus are contingent. An explanation for their existence must be found outside of them, for they must depend on something else. Fr. Barron argues from St. Thomas, that there must be a foundational explanation for the existence of these contingent things, some reality that grounds and explains both their existence and its own. This necessary reality, which exists through itself and which in turn explains the existence of all contingent things, is what all people call God.

Truth and Freedom

The great providence of our God, intimately involved in the universe and present to all things guiding all His creatures with wisdom and love to their ultimate goal (CCC 321), working, shaping, guiding, and drawing His universe according to His purposes, like an artist moulding clay according to his design, may lead us to question our freedom to make choices. But a correct understanding of freedom is not to do as one wishes regardless of the consequences for others. This is a relative view of moral choices. Pope Benedict XVI teaches us that
"those who understand freedom as the radically arbitrary license to do just what they want and to have their own way are living in a lie, for by his very nature man is part of a shared existence and his freedom is a shared freedom. His very nature contains direction and norm, and becoming inwardly one with this direction and norm is what freedom is all about. A false autonomy thus leads to slavery: In the meantime history has taught us this all too clearly." (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 204).
Pope John Paul II notes how often man, "giving himself over to relativism and skepticism (cf. Jn 18:38),...goes off in search of an illusory freedom apart from the truth itself" (Veritatis Splendor, n.1).

In fact, a proper understanding of the word 'freedom' is not focused on self-determination, but on disciplining our desires in order to achieve good, which could be the ability to play the piano, or to sacrifice for the good of one's family. The key, John Paul II states, is that "there can be no freedom apart from or in opposition to the truth" (Veritatis Splendor, n. 96). In Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II returns time and again to the idea that human freedom is neither antithetical, nor inconsistent to the natural law, rather it is following reason in its pursuit of what is good and true (CCC 1731). The Catholic theological tradition calls this freedom for excellence.

This freedom for excellence is what leads to a productive life; it lends us to fulfilment and makes us happy. This combats the idea that freedom is affronted, indeed limited by law. John Paul II teaches that truth and freedom are anti-totalitarian in nature. His concern is that either truth or freedom might be given full autonomy. In this case either could quickly turn itself into a tyranny, and it would then be a matter only for intellectual connoisseurs whether this was "tyranny through truth" (in the name of an ideology claiming absolute rights for itself), or "tyranny through freedom" (a threat of total anarchy resulting from the collapse of inter-personal bonds, in the name of freedom, requiring a curb to be imposed). The Holy Father insists then that truth and freedom are both anti-totalitarian in character. This deals with the issues we see in the East, where the temptation of fundamentalism is increasingly attractive, adherence to truth being increasingly important. Freedom has become an abstract, difficult to attain and heartily less attractive in the economic and political spheres than the ideal which was envisaged and dreamt of for years.

The opposite has been the case in the West, where not freedom, but truth brings fear. Just acknowledging that absolute truth exists causes numerous difficulties; cries of intolerance and authoritarianism, the fear that individual freedoms will be forced to confirm to rigid doctrinal schema.

John Paul II then, opens a dialectic between truth and freedom in the belief that objectivity humbles tyrants and that the necessity of truth should be the condition of freedom. Totalitarianism is the child of moral scepticism, having cast itself loose from the critical authority that can challenge social structures. The prospect of an alliance between democratic civilisation and moral relativism fills the pope with alarm at its inevitable tyrannous tendency. A freedom to "create" moral values and "invent" right and wrong, has to be resisted in the name of evangelical freedom—which is the only freedom that can prove itself as a liberating social force.

The Problem of Evil

Basically, if God exists, why is there so much evil in the world? I have tackled the problem from a very personal perspective here. If we look to the Catechism, it responds thus:
To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, not quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question: the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by his covenants, the redemptive Incarnation of His Son, His gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and His call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil. (CCC 309; emphasis mine).
The first point to be made is that evil is a privation and not something in itself: it is the lack of some due good; what ought to be; "a nothingness that corrodes being"—Jacques Maritain. It is the absence or destruction of the good, like a cavity in a tooth, or cancer in the lungs, or a despot stealing from the poor. Evil is therefore not a positive force opposing God, so we should never think of God creating evil.

If God doesn't create evil, then why does He allow it? One answer is that God allows evil so as to bring about a greater good. Most of us have experienced this in some way, when an illness, failure, or calamity has eventually brought about, in an unexpected way, something good. As the Chinese say: "one must taste bitter in order to taste sweet". The truth is that emotional and spiritual growth often come from coping with trials, difficulties and the results of evil. As many of you know, I lost my seven year old daughter Ruth in a car crash in 2009. It was only at this point of my life that I came to understand that this is the fundamental truth of Christ’s Passion and death—“the Lord is close to the broken hearted” (Psalm 34). What I mean by this is that only by walking this terrible path could I come to understand that our God is not a God who shies away from the pain and suffering we each endure in our lives. God did not become man in order to remove suffering or even explain it. Rather he became man in order to unite Himself with it.

Why did our Lord choose this path? Why so much pain, so much suffering? I feel that one could say that there is extraordinary comfort to be found through a meditation of Christ’s Via Dolorosa, comfort that can only be properly understood when one suffers an extraordinarily profound tragedy.

Soon after my daughter died, I found myself, late one night, on my knees by my bed, unable to sleep, pouring out my grief to my heavenly Father. The prayer that formed in my heart was the prayer of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane: "take it away Father!" My only daughter, it seemed impossibly ironic that the very gift I had thanked God for the most had now been taken away from me. What had taken place was beyond my understanding, my agony unbearable, not only for myself, but also considering my wife, my mother and all our family; little Ruth touched so many lives. I could not begin to see what God had planned or what He intended to achieve through Ruth’s death, but I began to understand that I could not know. If any one of us understood what would happen in our lives, we would probably never begin the journey.

A recurring question from people in the community over those weeks to both my wife and I centred on our anger with God. “You must be so angry”, “Aren’t you bitter?”, “It really makes you question your faith…”. The honest truth for both of us was that through this impossibly dreadful experience we did not feel alone, bitter or angry, but one in solidarity with our Lord, who is a crucified God. I profoundly know what St. Paul meant when he wrote: “I have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20).

In my suffering I have looked to God in solidarity and listened more closely as He has spoken to me: “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.” (John 13:7)

When we look upon our crucified Lord, if we consider all He suffered at our hands, because of our sin and rejection of the loving God who respects our dignity, will not over-ride our autonomy and so seeks another way to show us His love; we are converted by our compassion. Jesus on the cross is God revealed to us, not an angry God looking down on man, but God pierced and facing angry men. God’s Word recreates us through His Passion and Death. He also cancels death, redeems it and gives it, the final negative, a new and positive meaning as a doorway to what comes after, the fullness of our being, what we were created for; full communion with the Triune God.

I know that He has tasted to the dregs the darkness of every conceivable human tragedy, and so I know that I am never alone in what I am experiencing.


This session finished (wonderfully and appropriately in my opinion) by focusing on the Trinity, which is the central mystery of the Christian faith (CCC 261). Trinity is the litmus test for orthodoxy and the key distinction about Christian revelation as opposed to the understanding of Jews and Muslims. The doctrine of Trinity is a mystery, but in theology, mystery is not something we cannot know, rather something that the mind cannot wholly know, in other words, it is an invitation to the mind. God is in fact revealed as Trinity throughout the Old Testament elucidating God the Father and the work of the Spirit—this becomes the vocabulary of the New Testament.

In Genesis 1:2 God's Spirit hovers over the waters, 2:7 the Spirit that brings to life. Genesis 1:1-3 we see God who's Word alone called all creation into being. This is heightened in Isaiah 40:6-8 The Word of YHWH cannot fail; 40:8 constitutes an important statement about how the Word of God endures forever. Isaiah 55:10 the Word that is effective; not an explicit revelation of Trinity, but rather a laying down of language; the Word that goes forth from the Father but does not return to the Father without carrying out His will "and succeeding in what it was sent to do" (55:11). We see the Wisdom of God in the Old Testament prefiguring the Word and Spirit of God. Proverbs 8:22-31 provides us with an insight into God in Himself. The poetry expresses the in-expressible. Wisdom 7:22-29 provides a tool that helps us understand how the Word of God goes forth.

In the New Testament, God specifically draws all this teaching together and reveals it through Jesus Christ. Jesus' life, teachings and actions set Him apart from the great figures of the Old Testament like Moses, Abraham and Isaiah. While these men talked with God, Jesus spoke and acted in the very person of God. He spoke of God, but also of His own divinity. The Triune nature of God was revealed first at Jesus' Baptism in the Jordan River, then in His teachings when He spoke of the intimate communion between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. "All that the Father has is mine," Jesus told the apostles, "therefore I said that He"—that is, the Holy Spirit—"will take what is mine and declare it to you" (John 16:15). At the conclusion of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus commissions the apostles, saying, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). As I explained in our first session, The earliest professions of faith in the apostolic Church are Christological and expressed in concise formulas: 'Jesus us the Christ' (cf Acts 2:36; 10:36; Col 2:6); 'Jesus us the Lord' (1 Cor 12:3; Rom 10:9; cf Acts 2:36; Phil 2:11); 'Jesus is the Son of God' (cf Acts 9:20; 13:33; Rom 1:4; Heb 4:14). Soon it received a more ample development in which the Christ-event, the central event of salvation history, is progressively elaborated upon (1 Cor 15:3-4; Phil 2:6-11; 1 Tom 3:16). A further development in the life of the apostolic Church is the introduction of a Trinitarian profession of faith. This is a natural evolution, not some orchestrated decision passed at council by means of assassination or coercion of any sort (if one studies the process and development it takes place universally), for the Trinitarian confession was latent in the Christological (cf. Acts 2:33) and implied in the early Kerygma (cf. Acts 2:14-39; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 5:29-32; 10:34-43; 13:16-41). The Trinitarian profession of faith in the New Testament is best witnessed to by Matthew 28:19-20 and 2 Cor 13:13; it corresponds to the Trinitarian teaching of the Apostles (cf. Ephesians 1:3-14). So, to sum up, the Trinitarian expression of faith was implied in the first preaching and is evident throughout the Old Testament.

The essential point for me with regards Trinity however, is how it shows us an essential truth about our lives and our destiny. The God who created us, who sustains us, who will judge us and give us eternal life, is a totally transcendent God, while also being for us a God of absolute proximity, communicated in flesh, in history, and within our human family. He is a God who is present in the spiritual depths of our being and apex of our unfolding history as the source of enlightenment and community. By creating man in His image, God, who is love inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation of love and communion. Love includes the human body, and the body is made a sharer in spiritual love (Familiaris Consortio, n. 57). The Trinity is the exemplar for the inter-personal project helping us to understand that we are in the image of Trinity as a community; human personal inter-relationships participate in the Trinity and form part of the project we are set by God. The Church makes this project explicit, constituted by the missions of the Son and the Spirit, and her unity is a participation in the Trinitarian unity. The Trinity is the transcendent archetype of unity-in-love-without-rivalry, perfect community, and that is heaven!

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