With regard to current events, the perennial temptation of Christianity is to become either too vertical or too horizontal. That is, we end up either so obsessed with otherworldly contemplation as to be completely detached from what’s happening just outside the doors of the chapel, or so invested in a social or political program as to all but ignore the spiritual dimension of human existence and destiny. The more subtle form of the same temptation, probably, is to think the solution is a neat mathematical 50/50 split, with half one’s time devoted to the here and now and the other half to the life beyond.
Naturally, the proper Catholic answer is something different entirely—it’s “both/and.” The aim is a life utterly tied up in the hurly and burly of the day, and, at the same time, totally permeated by the transcendent. Put simply, the trick is to be completely horizontal and completely vertical at the same time.
In recent Catholic life, the best example was St. John Paul II, the would-be Carmelite mystic whose entire life radiated spiritual depth, but who was also at least as well-informed and engaged in the nitty-gritty of geopolitics and the movements of history as most secular politicians and diplomats of his era. In today’s America, the best public example we have of that capacity to fully incarnate the horizontal and the vertical is probably Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire, as this collection of essays abundantly illustrates.
Certainly no one could accuse Barron of paying short shrift to the spiritual. His best-known works aren’t commentaries on current affairs but artful expositions of the perennial faith of the Catholic Church, crafted by someone who’s clearly drenched in belief. While Catholicism has many fine evangelists, however, Barron’s particular gift is to make the Church’s timeless tradition nevertheless seem timely by addressing it to the peculiar zigs and zags of the postmodern era, from our quasi-Jansenist fundamentalism about science to our toxic addiction to snark.
At one point Barron evokes St. John Henry Newman to the effect that the Church moves through a culture like a foraging animal in a forest, taking advantage of what it can and fighting off what it must. This book captures Barron at both his foraging and his fighting best.