Recently, I was interviewed in Los Angeles by Dave Rubin for his popular program “The Rubin Report.” Dave is a stand-up comedian, political satirist, protégé of Larry King, and spokesman for, I think it’s fair to say, the classically liberal, secularist world view. He has demonstrated a particular interest in the issues raised by the new atheists and by the supposed conflict between religion and the sciences. He is also an advocate of gay marriage. You might be wondering, therefore, why he’d want to talk to a Catholic bishop.
But this reveals one of his most appealing characteristics, namely, a willingness to engage points of view very different from his own. I found during my pleasant, stimulating hour with him that he has studied the methods of his mentor, Larry King, which is to say, he asks good, searching questions, but doesn’t play “gotcha” or try to trip up his interlocutor.
About half-way through the conversation, Dave turned to several hot-button issues, including abortion, pornography and gay marriage. I was more than happy to engage all of these, and I did so in a way that, I hope, struck the right balance between moral demand and mercy. I suppose you could watch the video and decide for yourself. But I will confess that the moment we turned to these matters, something in me tightened, precisely because I knew that, though this part of the interview covered perhaps 10 minutes, it would pretty much obscure everything else that we talked about. And judging from the thousands of comments on the videos, my instinct has proved to be more or less accurate. As I have argued before, this preoccupation with “the pelvic issues” has served to undermine the work of evangelization.
When you read the great evangelizing texts of the New Testament — the Gospels, the epistles of Paul, the book of Revelation, etc. — you don’t get the impression that what their authors wanted you primarily to understand is sexual morality. Rather, they wanted you to know that the great story of Israel had come to its highpoint and that God, in the person of the crucified and risen Messiah, had come to reign as king of the world. God, redemption, the cross, the resurrection, Jesus the Lord, telling the good news — these are the master themes of the New Testament. Again, please don’t misunderstand me: God impinges upon all aspects of life and therefore placing our sex lives under the Lordship of Jesus matters. But I fear that for so many people in the secular world today, religion is reduced to the policing of sexual behavior, and this is massively unfortunate.
I’d like to draw attention to one topic from my conversation with Dave Rubin that I think merits special consideration, since it shows an important link between Biblical religion and the very liberalism that Dave represents. Toward the end of our interview, he asked me about humor in relation to the Bible and referred to a number of famous Jewish comics from Mel Brooks to Jerry Seinfeld to Larry David. I replied that whenever I hear such figures, I do indeed think of the authors of the Scriptures, for the Bible is marked, through and through, by a playful irony and by a profound skepticism regarding power, authority and any claim to human perfectibility. Read Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the author of the book of Jonah, the composer of first and second Samuel — especially in regard to kingship and institutional corruption — if you doubt me on this score. And this is why, I insisted to Dave Rubin, that much of our political sensibility in regard to checks and balances, and much of our healthy skepticism in regard to the accumulation of power by any one person or one group, are born of these Biblical instincts.
Nowhere is this principle on fuller display, I explained, than in the central symbol of the Christian religion. The cross of Jesus, depicting a tortured and humiliated man put to death by a corrupt political power, is held up as a kind of taunt to imperial Rome — and to any of Rome’s successors down through the ages. What Christians say through that sign to all oppressive empires is this: You think you dominate the world through your threats and military power, but God’s authority is greater than yours, and God’s might overwhelms yours. This is why it is a delicious (and typically Jewish) irony that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, places over the cross of Jesus a sign that reads “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” making Pilate the first great evangelist.
Relatedly, there is no text on earth more insistent upon the foibles, follies and wickedness of human beings than the Bible. Whereas many philosophies of the ancient world — Platonism and Gnosticism come readily to mind — teach some form of human perfectibility; and whereas many ideologies of modernity — Nazism and Communism most prominently — hold out utopian fantasies, the Scriptures squint skeptically indeed at such programs. Blaise Pascal, opining that the one who would make himself an angel will in fact make himself a beast, was operating out of a thoroughly Biblical perspective. I would argue that political liberalism at its best — wary of power, critical of political oppression, protective of those likely to be exploited by various forms of imperialism — is deeply rooted in the Jewish/Biblical mindset.
Anyway, I am very grateful to Dave Rubin for the interview and the opportunity to explore a number of issues related to faith and society. I just hope that his viewers can appreciate that there is a lot more to Christianity than the “pelvic issues.”
Bishop Barron is an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.