How to live a meaningful life
October 13, 2021
Last month, 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.
Bishop Robert Barron is auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and founder of Word on Fire, a global media ministry. See wordonfire.org.