How to live a meaningful life
Bishop Barron spoke to interesting social media stars to discuss this issue.
Last week I was very fortunate to sit down for a Zoom interview with Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Pageau and John Vervaeke. As you are no doubt aware, Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, is one of the most influential figures in culture today. Pageau is an artist and iconographer working in the Orthodox Christian tradition, and Vervaeke is professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto.
These three gentlemen have a strong presence on social networks. The topic of our conversation was a theme that preoccupies all four of us, namely the crisis of meaning in our culture, especially among young people. To kick things off, Peterson asked each of us for their definition of meaning and, more specifically, religious meaning. When my time came, I proposed this: to live a meaningful life is to be in an intentional relationship with value, and to live a religiously meaningful life is to be in an intentional relationship with value. summum bonum, or the supreme value.
Following Dietrich von Hildebrand’s guidance, I have argued that certain values - epistemic, moral and aesthetic – appear in the world and pull us out of ourselves, calling us to honor them and integrate them into our lives. Thus, mathematical and philosophical truths seduce the mind and launch it on a journey of discovery; the moral truths, exposed in the saints and the heroes of tradition, excite the will to imitative action; and artistic beauty: a still life by Cézanne, a sonata by Beethoven, the Blades of grass– stops us dead and forces us to question ourselves and, in our turn, to create. To order one’s life in such a way that one constantly seeks such values is to have a truly meaningful life.
Now, I continued, the discerning soul has a hunch that there is a transcendent source of these values: supreme or unconditioned goodness, truth and beauty. The fully meaningful life is that which is consecrated, finally, to this reality. Thus, Plato said that the culmination of the philosophical enterprise is to discover, beyond all particular goods, the “form of the good”; Aristotle said that the highest life consists in contemplating the first motor; and the Bible speaks of loving the Lord our God with all our soul, with all our mind, with all our strength. Jordan Peterson, echoing Thomas Aquinas, put it this way: Every particular act of the will is based on a value, a concrete good. But that value nests into a higher value or set of values, which in turn nests into an even higher value. We arrive, he says, finally, at some supreme good which determines and controls all the subordinate goods that we seek.
Although we articulated the theme in different ways and according to our various areas of expertise, all four of us said that the “tradition of wisdom”, which classically presented and defended these truths, was largely obscured in the culture of today, and this occlusion has strongly contributed to the crisis of meaning. Much has contributed to this problem, but our main emphasis is on two causes: scientism and the postmodern suspicion of the language of value itself. Scientism, the reduction of all legitimate knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge, effectively makes value claims less serious, simply subjective, expressing feeling but not objective truth. To this reductionism is added the conviction, ingrained in the brains of so many young people today, that claims for truth and value are only disguised attempts to sustain the power of those who make them or to maintain an institutional superstructure. corrupted. As a result, these claims must be demystified, dismantled and deconstructed. And alongside this cultural attack on the realm of values, we have witnessed the failure of many of the major cultural institutions, including and especially religious institutions, to present this area in a compelling and compelling manner. All too often, contemporary religion has turned into superficial political advocacy or a complacent echo of the prejudices of the surrounding culture.
So what do we need for a meaningful life? From my point of view, I said, we need great Catholic scholars, who fully understand our intellectual tradition and who to believe in it, are not ashamed – and who are ready to engage in a respectful but critical dialogue with secularism. We need great Catholic artists, who revere Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart, Hopkins and Chesterton, and who are also about to produce new works of art, imbued with Catholic sensibility. And above all we need great Catholic saints, who show concretely what it is like to live your life in an intentional relationship with the summum bonum. We can and must blame the culture of modernity for producing the desert of nonsense that so many people roam in today, but we, the keepers of the religious flame, must also take our responsibilities, recognize our failures and resolve to resume our game.
Because people today will only relate to values and supreme value if they can find mentors and masters to show them how.