Tuesday, October 18, 2005

OC's own Fr. Hugh Barbour, O. Praem.

Fr. Hugh Barbour, a Norbertine priest at St. Michael's Abbey in Silverado, is one of the more impressive Catholic authors I've encountered. I first saw his formidable intellectual abilities in action dismantling "fundie hick" James White in "Ancient Baptists" and Other Myths, and I've since learned that he has a doctorate in philosophy and has authored an astute defense of St. Thomas's analogia entis against anti-Western polemics. In this defense, Fr. Barbour argues that the priority of being over goodness applies only with respect to predication and not causation. In the order of causation, God is still "remote" and unknowable, exactly as He is in the work of Pseudo-Dionysius, and thus, the anti-Western polemic regarding St. Thomas (and St. Augustine) equating God with being loses its force.

Fr. Barbour summarizes his thesis with regard to the East in this way:

Moving East this distinction can serve to shed light on the Palamite controversy, still in its own way very much alive. The controversy over the so-called "real distinction" between the divine essence and energies can be seen, as Meyendorff following Lossky has rightly pointed out, as essentially regarding the interpretation of Dionysius the Areopagite. Now if the identity of God's essence and act of existing is understood as pertaining to the via remotionis, and the share in the divine life offered by the divine goodness the energies as the foundation of the analogy of the via affirmativa then the difficulty of reconciling the Thomist and Palamite positions is largely overcome.

This seems to fall quite neatly in with the Augustinian mystic tradition of revelation as a six-fold ascent starting from the knowledge of the senses and reason, moving on to revelation in Scripture, and finally to the transcendent experience of the love of God as Trinity. Basically, the notion is that the levels of reason work harmoniously, so that what is knowable reaches toward what is transcendent and knows it in this way without ever knowing the transcendent in its essence (as the Easterns would understand it). Assuming Fr. Barbour's thesis is correct, this would fit St. Thomas squarely within the authentic Western Tradition in his metaphysical thinking, as opposed to being an innovator who overemphasized an Origenist bent in Augustinian/Western theology. Moreover, his theory seems to fit with the two-level structure of interplay between the knowledge of faith and the experience of God, the somatic and the pneumatic, in St. Cyril of Alexandria, as discussed in Daniel Keating's The Appropriation of Divine Life in Cyril of Alexandria. This is particularly illustrated St. Cyril's notions of being fed by Scripture and by Eucharist concurrently, leading to his interpretation of the Bread of Life discourse in John 6 as referring to Scripture. Finally, the notion of Scripture as something that requires a transcendent understanding puts this Tradition even more at odds with the modern Evangelical view of Scripture, which cuts off this interplay between the mystical and the rational.

The reliability of Fr. Barbour's thesis seems to be supplemented by other scholars. First, as Fr. Barbour notes, the noted scholar of St. Maximus Lars Thunberg has observed that the distinctions between St. Maximus's theology and the analogia entis are minimal at best. Second, Fr. Barbour specifically criticized Jean-Luc Marion's assertion that St. Thomas had inverted the order of goodness and being in Pseudo-Dionysius, noting that this inversion is more properly attributable to the anti-Scotistic philosophy of Cajetan and the accompanying notion of the via negativa. It turns out that Marion himself was forced to admit this correction and to accept that the onto-theology attributed to St. Thomas truly originated in the later interpretations of Cajetan and Suarez. Thirdly, it matches better with Fr. Barbour's own observation of the enthusiastic reception of St. Thomas's works within the Orthodox Tradition, something that many Orthodox commentators (including Meyendorff) have been inclined to treat as something of a mystery, perhaps chalking it up to unrecognized Origenism in the East. The conjunction of these factors seems strongly to suggest that Fr. Barbour is right in saying that much of what has been criticized about Western theology originated much later in history, and that only the substantial influence of neo-Thomist scholarship has exaggerated its importance.

I am quite impressed with Fr. Barbour's defense of Western theology against polemical attacks, and as he is the chaplain of the St. Thomas More Society of Orange County, I hope to be able to meet him at some point in the near future (alas, teaching my Confirmation class takes precedence over tomorrow's Red Mass, so it will have to wait a while). Those who share my interest in Fr. Barbour's work on behalf of the Occident may wish to peruse his florigelia on the papacy and Purgatory.