Our lives don’t belong to us

| Bishop Robert Barron | September 24, 2015 | 2 Comments

It was [recently] revealed that, for the first time in its history, Harvard University, which had been founded for religious purposes and named for a minister of the Gospel, has admitted a freshman class in which atheists and agnostics outnumber professed Christians and Jews. Also . . . the House and the Senate of California passed a provision that allows for physician assisted suicide in the Golden State. As I write these words, the governor of California is deliberating whether to sign the bill into law. Though it might seem strange to suggest as much, I believe that the make-up of the Harvard freshman class and the passing of the suicide law are really related.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that non-believers have come to outnumber believers among the rising cohort of the American aristocracy. For the whole of their lives, these young people have been immersed in the corrosive acids of relativism, scientism and materialism. Though they have benefited from every advantage that money can afford, they have been largely denied what the human heart most longs for: contact with the transcendent, with the good, true and beautiful in their properly unconditioned form. But as Paul Tillich, echoing the Hebrew prophets, reminded us, we are built for worship, and therefore in the absence of God, we will make some other value our ultimate concern. Wealth, power, pleasure and honor have all played the role of false gods over the course of the human drama, but today especially, freedom itself has emerged as the ultimate good, as the object of worship. And what this looks like on the ground is that our lives come to belong utterly to us, that we become great projects of self-creation and self-determination.

As the Bible tells it, the human project went off the rails precisely at the moment when Adam arrogated to himself the prerogative of determining the meaning of his life, when he, in the agelessly beautiful poetry of the book of Genesis, ate of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. Read the chapters that immediately follow the account of the Fall, and you will discover the consequences of this deified freedom: jealousy, hatred, fratricide, imperialism and the war of all against all. The rest of the biblical narrative can be interpreted as God’s attempt to convince human beings that their lives, in point of fact, do not belong to them. He did this precisely by choosing a people whom he would form after his own mind and heart, teaching them how to think, how to behave, and above all, how to worship. This holy people Israel — a word that means, marvelously, “the one who wrestles with God” — would then, by the splendor of their way of life, attract the rest of the world. On the Christian reading, this project reached its climax in the person of Jesus Christ, a first-century Israelite from the town of Nazareth who was also the Incarnation of the living God. The coming-together of divinity and humanity, the meeting of infinite and finite freedom, Jesus embodies what God intended for us from the beginning.

And this is precisely why Paul, one of Jesus’ first missionaries, announced him as Kyrios (Lord) to all the nations, and why he characterized himself as “doulos Christou Iesou” (a slave of Christ Jesus). Paul exulted in the fact that his life did not belong to him, but rather to Christ. In his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote, “there is a power already at work in you that can do infinitely more than you can ask or imagine.” He was referencing the Holy Spirit, which orders our freedom and which opens up possibilities utterly beyond our capacities. To follow the promptings of this Spirit is, for Paul and for all the Biblical authors, the source of life, joy, and true creativity.

All of which brings me back to Harvard and legalized suicide. The denial of God — or the blithe bracketing of the question of God — is not a harmless parlor game. Rather, it carries with it the gravest implications. If there is no God, then our lives do indeed belong to us, and we can do with them what we want. If there is no God, our lives have no ultimate meaning or transcendent purpose and they become simply artifacts of our own designing. Accordingly, when they become too painful or too shallow or just too boring, we ought to have the prerogative to end them. We can argue the legalities and even the morality of assisted suicide until the cows come home, but the real issue that has to be engaged is that of God’s existence.

The incoming freshman class at Harvard is a disturbing omen indeed, for the more our society drifts into atheism, the more human life is under threat. The less we are willing even to wrestle with God, the more de-humanized we become.

Bishop Barron is an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

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Category: This Catholic Life

  • WeAre TheCheese

    I enjoyed the writing style in this post, unfortunately all premises within are entirely baseless. You haven’t made any connection between atheism and assisted suicide. Nothing would suggest atheism leads to a loss of meaning in ones life or the devaluation of life.

    In fact, as this world gets more secular Steven Pinker calculates that the world is getting more peaceful, and he uses real data. Scandinavia is overly secular and extremely peaceful and those countries are ranked among the best countries in the world (for a variety of reasons).

    You forget that a “false god” could also be altruism and self-actualization, as the large majority of secular, non-religious or atheistic people are good people with these supplying purpose in their lives. God doesn’t make one good. No study would support this.

    I’m not sure why “scientism” is a bad thing, but then again the Church is resistant to knowledge and learning for obvious reasons. The more we eat of the tree of knowledge the more ridiculous these ancients books and scriptures appear. For example: Your belief in Adam and Eve is entirely impossible according to the extremely well tested theory of Evolution. Removing Adam and Eve is, of course, a big blow to Christianity.

    I’ve always found it ironic that Christians point fingers at abortion and assisted suicide decrying murder, when in fact the very pinnacle of their religion rests on the needless torture and murder of God’s only son…or God himself. An omnipotent and omniscient God could easily choose a more peaceful and convincing method of accomplishing whatever it is God was accomplishing by killing Jesus and/or himself on the cross (Fulfilling old testament prophecies? Absolving sins? Opening the gates to heaven? – Why is murder necessary for this?), especially since this was the most pivotal action in history.

    Masochism is inherent in the religion and murder is confusingly promoted in the texts alongside peace. God tells Moses that murder is a sin, yet this duo goes on to massacre thousands of Israelites directly after the Mount Sinai event. If the war lord Moses lorded over the US, he and God would kill off millions of people simply for uttering the blasphemous phrase OMG.

  • me

    I pray that every human being could come to the love of God.