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How to live a meaningful life

The “wisdom tradition,” which classically presented and defended these truths, has been largely occluded in the culture today, and this occlusion has contributed mightily to the crisis of meaning.

(Andrew Dong @apdong/Unsplash.com)

Last week, I had the great good fortune to sit down for a Zoom interview with Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Pageau, and John Vervaeke. As I’m sure you know, Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, is one of the most influential figures in the culture today. Pageau is an artist and iconographer working in the Orthodox Christian tradition, and Vervaeke is a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. All three of these gentlemen have a powerful presence on social media.

The topic of our conversation was a theme that preoccupies all four of us—namely, the crisis of meaning in our culture, especially among the young. To kick things off, Peterson asked each of us to give our definition of meaning and, more specifically, of religious meaning. When my time came, I offered this: to live a meaningful life is to be in purposive relationship to value, and to live a religiously meaningful life is to be in purposive relationship to the summum bonum, or the supreme value.

Following the prompts of Dietrich von Hildebrand, I argued that certain values—epistemic, moral, and aesthetic—appear in the world, and they draw us out of ourselves, calling us to honor them and to integrate them into our lives. So, mathematical and philosophical truths beguile the mind and set it on a journey of discovery; moral truths, on display in the saints and heroes of the tradition, stir the will into imitative action; and artistic beauty—a Cézanne still-life, a Beethoven sonata, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—stops us in our tracks and compels us to wonder and, in turn, to create. To order one’s life in such a way that one consistently seeks such values is to have a properly meaningful life.

Now, I continued, the perceptive soul intuits that there is a transcendent source of these values: a supreme or unconditioned goodness, truth, and beauty. The fully meaningful life is one that is dedicated, finally, to that reality. Thus, Plato said that the culminating point of the philosophical enterprise is discovering, beyond all particular goods, the “form of the good”; Aristotle said that the highest life consists in contemplating the prime mover; and the Bible speaks of loving the Lord our God with our whole soul, our whole mind, our whole strength.

Jordan Peterson, echoing Thomas Aquinas, put it as follows: Every particular act of the will is predicated upon some value, some concrete good. But that value nests in a higher value or set of values, which in turn nests in a still higher one. We come, he said, eventually, to some supreme good that determines and orders all of the subordinate goods that we seek.

Though we articulated the theme in different ways and according to our various areas of expertise, all four of us said that the “wisdom tradition,” which classically presented and defended these truths, has been largely occluded in the culture today, and this occlusion has contributed mightily to the crisis of meaning. Much has contributed to this problem, but we put emphasis especially on two causes: scientism and the postmodern suspicion of the very language of value.

Scientism, the reduction of all legitimate knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge, effectively renders claims of value unserious, merely subjective, expressive of feeling but not of objective truth. Combined with this reductionism is the conviction, baked into the brains of so many young people today, that claims truth and value are simply disguised attempts to prop up the power of those who are making them or to sustain a corrupt institutional superstructure. Accordingly, these assertions have to be demythologized, dismantled, and deconstructed.

And along with this cultural assault on the realm of values, we have witnessed the failure of many of the great institutions of the culture, including and especially the religious institutions, to present this realm in a convincing and compelling manner. Far too often, contemporary religion has turned into superficial political advocacy or a pandering echo of the prejudices of the environing culture.

So, what do we need for a meaningful life? From my perspective, I said, we need great Catholic scholars, who understand our intellectual tradition thoroughly and who believe in it, are not ashamed of it—and who are ready to enter into respectful but critical conversation with secularity. We need great Catholic artists, who reverence Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart, Hopkins, and Chesterton, and who are also on point to produce fresh works of art, imbued with the Catholic sensibility.

And we need, above all, great Catholic saints, who show concretely what it looks like to live one’s life in purposive relation to the summum bonum. We can and should blame the culture of modernity for producing the desert of meaninglessness in which so many today wander, but we keepers of the religious flame ought to take responsibility too, acknowledging our failures and resolving to pick up our game.

For people today will not enter into relationship with values and with the supreme value unless they can find mentors and masters to show them how.


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About Bishop Robert Barron 199 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. He is the creator of the award winning documentary series, "Catholicism" and "Catholicism:The New Evangelization." Learn more at www.WordonFire.org.

21 Comments

  1. I would have the archbishop sit down with God and keep private his opinions and experience with secular authorities. Everything but Christ is dust, vanity, and fools’ gold.

    I grow old, I grow old, and do wish the coffee weren’t so cold. Forgive me, Lord, and please set fire to my lack of charity.

    • Meiron, have you read the Bible? Do you think Cornelius’ life was “dust, vanity, and fools’ gold” before he was saved? How about Pauls statement in Romans 2 Romans 2:6-7 (ESV) 6 “He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;”
      I understand this life only comes thru Christ but the honest response to the call of God thru the very things listed in the article is EXACTLY what Paul is talking about here. IMO the “dust, vanity, and fools gold” is the wooden piety asserted by uninformed statements like yours. THIS was an OUTSTANDING ARTICLE.

      • Dear Mr. Gregory,
        Have I read the Bible? Are you serious? I am asking for the archbishop to put Scripture FIRST and to teach us the first priorities, the first cause. I care nothing for his reference to Hildebrand (I’ve read most all his books too). To equate scripture to Walt WHITMAN? To equate Aquinas to Peterson? You must be as uninformed as you presume me to be. Perhaps I wrote too tired, too late, too discouraged last night. That is my only apology to GOD. I already wrote that I needed help with charity, thank you very much for reading that.

        Have you read the Bible? How much, then, and what have you learned???

        • This is a straw man argument, if you are familiar with that term. No one here is saying that Scripture is “equated” to or on an equal authority with the Bible. Peterson never asserts that, Barron is not saying that, and you are deliberately making a false accusation in order to sidestep a topic you are not comfortable addressing. That is dishonest and manipulative. The Catholic intellectual tradition has always asserted that there are truths to be learned in and through secular sources. We are called to honor truth wherever we find it, submitting it all ultimately to God’s authority.

        • Yes, I’ve read the Bible through…about 50 times now. But that means little if I am not listening. If I haven’t allowed the Bible to read me to me then no matter how much I quote it…I am uninformed. THAT is what I mean by wooden pity asserted by the uninformed. Only when the Bible reads me AND I LISTEN can I THEN see clearly the issues brothers like you haven’t dealt with in their own hearts. Look again at Cornelius and Romans 2. Look at Acts 13 and Acts 17. Or here Acts 18:10 (ESV) 10 for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” These are all people who have NEVER heard of Jesus or embraced Him yet God describes them as living meaningful lives before Paul arrived.

    • It may be news to Bishop Barron.

      Critics generally agree that Leaves of Grass celebrates themes not only of chaste love between male comrades and friends but also of unchaste ‘love’ which many catholics today consider a blessing from the hand of God.

      Perhaps the good Bishop does not know how the critics have viewed many symbols and themes in Leaves of Grass. Perhaps the good Bishop would revise his example and choose something from T.S. Eliot or Emily Dickinson instead?

  2. Given his own conclusions, I’d suggest that Bishop Barron’s conversation on “values” would best be had between him and his fellow bishops (especially the Vicar of Christ) who all too frequently adopt the positions of the secularists. Just take a look at who gets in to see Bergoglio and ply him with their ideas and who does not.

      • Jeffrey, I did NOT say Barron was incorrect in his conclusions. I simply suggested that his conversation would possibly be better had among his fellow bishops who, far too often, don’t get it.

  3. Let me throw in a few passages of Scripture (RSVCE) to compensate for Bishop Barron’s milquetoast Catholicism…for the answer to where we are as a Church and the continuous decline of society into paganism, hedonism, atheism is clearly more than his lukewarm ornate oration:

    TO THE CHURCH

    Revelation 2:4-5 “But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”

    Revelation 3:1-3 “I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.”

    Matthew 5:13-15 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”

    TO THE WORLD

    Acts 17:29-31 “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead.”

    John 3:36 “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.”

  4. With all due respect to Bishop Barron, perhaps the words of Jesus in His high priestly prayer would be helpful: And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

  5. Thank you too , for caring enough to explore the various means to help bring the needed trust and hope in these times afflicted by the ? ‘ compassion fatigue ‘ – a nation that has often tried in the manner it knew how , to help others , yet often betrayed , esp. by cultures that knew very little about the Mercy and Compassion of God , even as many in the nation itself were going bankrupt in the foundation of compassion , having waded into fowl waters filled with the stench of death .. betrayed by those in authority who invited same ..

    Families too thus caught up in the false idolatrous Facebook culture , betrayed by the hypocrisy in others and oneself , looking to the dry cisterns for the needed waters of compassion ..
    our priest mentioned with much gratitude the role of the tears of our Mother in our times , in the homily ..

    The long standing devotion to same , the devotion to which helped in the healing in Rwanda , to trust that those tears ( as well as of our Lord ) have been shed , to be offered up for every occasion and wound for the compassion we all ought to have given and received ….

    The Holy Mass esp. that do same in the most powerful manner , devotional practices too , to help us to see those around us too as wounded and having become cynical about much , including about The Church , tempted to the violence of contempt and destruction …

    Thank you for the compassion , care , prayer and blessing for the flock , even for those who howl , many a times afflicted by the spirit of the wolves around …

    Love and glory to our Lord , in every tear and wound ..and in all His children ..

  6. I believe that what is missing in the essay and likely ftom the Zoom meeting last week in a person named Jesus.

    It is remarkable that Jesus is not even mentioned in an article searching for the meaning of Life.

    It is doubly remarkable when recalling that just a few months ago, Dr. Peterson was brought to tears about the challenge of Jesus, and the crisis of that encounter, in the question “Is aNesus really the Son of God, The Way and The Truth and The Life?” We can watch the video interviewwherevadr. Peterson breaks down and cries when asking himself this question in the midst of his own very serious illness he was suffering.

    Remarkable…that Jesus is not even mentioned…

  7. I found Bishop Barron’s writing to be well wrought, except that I would have directed the subject more toward these quotes from Scripture:

    “The priests did not ask, ‘Where is God?'” (Jer. 2.8)

    “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.” (Jer. 31.34)

    “‘Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.'” (Acts 2.22)

    “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.” (Acts 2.43)

    How much more peace and order would exist on our planet were the high clerics of the various world religions charged with demonstrating that God is with them.

    The theology of Aquinas was imbued with the metaphysics — the anagogical interpretation of Scripture — that is at the height of theology. The religions of the world are politicized because they dodge this requirement to fully reflect the presence of the Spirit.

  8. Bishop Barron concludes: “We can and should blame the culture of modernity for producing the desert of meaninglessness…” Those who find some commentaries too barren…might consider, today in memory of Saint Robert Bellarmine, these words:

    “[the Commandments] provide [man] with what he needs. They instruct and enlighten him and make him good and blessed. If you are wise, then, know that you have been created for the glory of God (aka summum bonum?) and your own eternal salvation. This is your goal; this is the center of your life; this is the treasure of your heart. If you reach this goal, you will find happiness. If you fail to reach it, you will find misery” (Liturgy of the Hours, Sept. 17).

  9. “The religions of the world are politicized because they dodge this requirement to fully reflect the presence of the Spirit

    Yes! absolutely

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

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