Who among us has not had their faith challenged? What are we to tell the person who, for whatever reason, has lost faith in God? Teacher of the Year: The Mystery and Legacy of Edwin Barlow examines how a young boy destined for the clergy became a soldier in WWII. After killing numerous German soldiers, he is overcome by these multiple mortal sins, and feels so unworthy of Godâ€™s love, that he loses faith. And yet, slowly but surely, he rebuilt his faith using what some consider the greatest barrier to faith itself â€“ the intellect.
As a young man, Edwin Barlow had heard the Call. He was destined to become a priest, and had every quality the Church would want in a pastor. The war changed all that. Despite confessing to his pastor, despite his penance, despite the knowledge that he killed men in a just war, despite knowing that he saved the lives of other men while in battle, despite his extraordinary sacrifice to provide money for his mother instead of working as a non-paid C.O. â€“ he could not forgive himself and did not believe God had forgiven him, either.
Edwin Barlow had lost faith. It was as if the entire concept of God had been stripped from his being. Fortunately, he had not lost the desire to have faith.
So he set out to find it again. He wasnâ€™t sure where to begin. What he sensed, however, was that he had to start at the beginning, as if heâ€™d never even heard of God. He needed to re-boot his operating system. He conceived of faith as being akin to a house, which had been destroyed by a virtual tornado called war. He needed a new foundation. He needed something concrete upon which his new home could be built.
He turned to his intellect. He turned to Reason. He knew it wasnâ€™t something to fear. God gave man free will, which couldnâ€™t exist without the intellect. One cannot conceive of God unless one actually understands that God exists, after all. It seemed like a good and honest path to follow.
He enrolled in the College of the Holy Cross. There, along with many other veterans, he absorbed four rigorous years of Scholastic Philosophy. He found refuge in the works of Aristotle and Aquinas, and discovered Aquinasâ€™ Summa Theologica. This text was the blueprint for his new home, for finding faith again. This was something tangible from which he could launch into the intangible.
What is the Summa Theologica? Itâ€™s a scholarly work that is not for the faint of heart. It makes a series of statements about God, which are either proven or disproven using logic and reason. Understanding somethingâ€™s essence is, according to the Summa, the natural desire of the soul and the mind. Stemming from this concept is the idea that the existence of God and His power can be proven by using human reasoning alone. The mind has a natural hunger to understand somethingâ€™s essence, so why not Godâ€™s essence?
The text confirmed to Edwin that Reason could bring him back to God.
What does the Summa specifically reveal? It is best described by this chart:
God –> Creation ———> Man
Sacraments <——– Christ <—– Creation’s return to
God through man
The Summa examines God and his Creation, which climaxes with the creation of Man. Aquinas defines â€œhappinessâ€ as the meaning of life, and discusses how this can be achieved through the living of an ethical life. Of course, man is not perfect and therefore cannot live a perfectly ethical life. But since God is perfect being, the only way to bridge the gap between man and God was to create the Perfect Man in the form of Christ. Finally, the Sacraments were provided so that man could follow the ways as taught by Christ and thus return to God.
This made perfect sense to Edwin. His foundation had been rebuilt. His mind reconfirmed what he really had always known in his heart. Slowly now, faith began to return.
Next, he wanted to understand what path God wanted for him.
The Summa goes on to explain that Godâ€™s essence is Divine Simplicity, or that the characteristics of God (goodness, truth, eternity) are identical to Godâ€™s being, not qualities that compose His being. Thus, by emulating Godâ€™s characteristics, one can hope to approach God.
Edwin was intrigued by this. He even found support for it in fiction. Herman Hesseâ€™s Narcissus and Goldmund revealed that:
To realize oneself. . .for us disciples of Aristotle and Aquinas, it is the highest of all concepts: perfect being. God is perfect being. Everything else that exists is only half, is a part, is becoming, is mixed, is made up of potentialities. But God is not mixed. He is One, he has no potentialities but is the total, the complete reality. Whereas we are transitory, we are becoming, we are potentials, there is no perfection for us, no complete being. But wherever we go, from potential to deed, we become by a degree more similar to the perfect and the divine. That is what it means to realize oneself.
Edwin realized that he could remain close to God by emulating His characteristics. Furthermore, if he found some way to convert potential into deed on a regular basis, it would continue to move him closer and closer to God. But what path would allow him to do that? How could he realize himself on a daily basis?
He discovered that the concept of realizing oneself in this context means â€œself-transcendence.â€ We should seek to continually improve, or transcend, ourselves through the vehicle of education. As our circles of experience widen, we hope them to fill the universeâ€”in other words, approach the infinite, or God.
Education. This resonated for him. He loved learning but, even more, he felt an unexplicable desire to teach others, to help them achieve everything they were capable o, to assist them in meeting their potential, to help them approach God. Now he had a blueprint for his home â€“ a vision of his house. It had been there all along. It came to him in a rush of exhiliration. Of course God forgave him. Of course he could find solace in Him. Of course God had a plan for him.
And of course, he had found faith again. He rebuilt his home and it was sturdier than it had ever been.
Edwin Barlow became a teacher â€“ and not just any teacher, but the most effective teacher he could be. This would permit him to widen his circles of experience and, of even greater importance, help young people do the same. He would encourage students to achieve the highest possible goals, to use 110% of their minds, and to achieve perfection. He therefore chose a field he always loved, where there was no moral ambiguity, where there would be only one single correct answer to any problem: mathematics! Physics, of course, was a close second because it also had concrete rules of how the universe worked.
This would not be enough for Edwin, though. He wanted to live a life according to Aquinasâ€™ theological and cardinal virtues â€“ all things which would bring him that much closer to God. He lived a life of faith, naturally, but also of hope and charity (he gave away so much money that he was frequently audited by the IRS).
As for the cardinal virtues, there were Prudence (judging between virtuous and vicious actions), Temperence (the practice of moderation), Justice (the proper allocation of things), and Fortitude (courage). Certainly these virtues played a daily role for Edwin Barlow. He was under enormous temptation to give in to alcohol, a habit heâ€™d picked up during the war, yet was able to never permit it to affect his teaching.
As for Fortitude, he instilled that every day in his students. His love for them was endless. It was tough love, to be sure. His classes became legendary not merely for the rigorousness of instruction, but for his insistence on perfection. Should a student show intellectual laziness; disrespect the subject, intellect, or their instructor; let their attention wander; leave behind a piece of paper; drop something on the floor; or just exhibit plain old bad manners, they would find themselves on the receiving end of a world-class tongue-lashing. It might occasionally be lightened with some wry humor, but for the most part, everyone feared his verbal disembowelments.
Edwin Barlow was not being cruel in these moments. He was delivering the lesson of Fortitude. None of the behavior he despised would be acceptable in the real world. What if a studentâ€™s own purpose in life were put in jeopardy by their behavior? It would rob them of the ability to realize themselves and, therefore, to approach God. In addition, the fear the students had of their imperious instructor would be nothing compared to what they would face in the real world, or worse, should they ever become soldiers on the battlefield.
Based on the hardships of his early life (growing up in the Depression), he knew the kids would be facing a dangerous world and they absolutely needed to be prepared. Unlike kids who grew up in the inner-city (where one might have expected him to teach), his students were growing up in the soft underbelly of upper-class, white America. They of all people needed toughening up, because they would likely be the ones to lead the nation into the next millenium, and for all he knew they might find their faith challenged some day as well.
And so Edwin Barlow, who had lost faith, found it again through the intellect. Of course, God had granted him the mind in the first place, so he was never that far away from Him. He transcended his struggle and became a man of unending generosity, with a desire to help kids use their minds so that they might also begin to see Godâ€™s essence.
It is fascinating to note that nothing in the Summa Theologica is inconsistent with the Churchâ€™s teachings, but nor is it a substitute for Scripture. In fact, the circle back to God cannot be completed without the Church. Edwin had no squabble with the latter half of the circle anyway. Despite his struggles, he still attended services regularly. He struggled with everything in between, however, until he found the Summa. Now the circle was complete again.
Teacher of the Year: The Mystery and Legacy of Edwin Barlow ultimately contains many lessons. At its core, however, is a story of how one man transcended a struggle with faith and returned to God because He had granted Edwin (and the rest of us) our intellects.