Bishop Barron: How the Church can defeat relativism

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, best known for his Word on Fire Ministry, spoke about the origins of relativism, the challenges it brings to evangelization and the different ways to engage it at the St. John Paul II Lecture Series, he Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Thornton, Colo., Feb. 6.

Bishop Barron called all the faithful to action after explaining the genealogy and challenges of relativism that is embedded in today’s society.

“We Catholics need to be right in the center of the culture, right in the middle of the public conversation, and speaking against this flattened-out, trivializing relativism, in favor of… great objective values,” he said.

To understand the problem of relativism – the view that there is no absolute truth, only particular truths conditioned by culture, space and time – Bishop Barron spoke about its origins in voluntarism and Cartesian subjectivism.

“The coming together of the voluntarist and Cartesian strains provides the breeding ground for much contemporary relativism, namely the subject’s assertion of truth through a sovereign act of the will… In other words, ‘I decide. My freedom decides,’” he said.

Voluntarism is the idea brought about in the Middle Ages that God’s will trumps his intellect, meaning that whatever is true is so because God willed it. This philosophy would lead to see God as a threat and eventually to get rid of him, as Ludwig Feuerbach did, reducing him to a mere invention of the human mind, Bishop Barron explained.

Nietzsche and Sartre built on this idea and considered the human person beyond truth, meaning that freedom came first and the greatest threat to a person’s freedom was God. Nietzsche would then use this premise to proclaim God “dead.”

“[This] is the default position of so many of our young people today,” Bishop Barron said. “[Namely, that] God is a threat to our flourishing, a threat to our freedom, a threat to our humanity.”

Bishop Barron highlighted the role of the Church in the fight against relativism, at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Thornton, Colo. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)


Bishop Barron mentioned some of the many dangers that this voluntarist relativism brings to those who want to announce the Gospel: A frustration of the mind’s desire for truth, its radical individualism and spiritual laziness.

“The minute you say will trumps the intellect, that means the intellect’s desire to know, which is one of the most fundamental drives we have, is… frustrated,” the bishop said. This causes “restlessness of the heart and deep frustration of the mind” in young people because they feel they cannot grasp something solid.

Relativism also produces radical individualism and hence, necessarily, divisiveness, he said. If there are only different wills and freedoms, there’s room for “toleration” but no connection to a common truth, value or purpose: “Objective truth, in fact, is one for the most powerful forces that draws us together.”

Bishop Barron recalled Cardinal John Henry Newman’s metaphor of the river to illustrate how voluntarist relativism produces spiritual laziness. “It is the objectivity of the good and the true that give drive and energy to the human project,” he said. Like a river, if the banks are taken away in the name of freedom, it will turn into a lazy lake.

“[Because of relativism], many young people are floating in a lazy lake without purpose or drive,” he added.

Bishop Barron exhorted the Church to boldly proclaim objective values, which bring about authentic freedom. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

The Church responds

To conclude, Bishop Barron mentioned two key ways to address contemporary relativism, namely the defense of objective values and the proclamation of true freedom.

Drawing on Dietrich von Hildebrand’s distinction between the subjectively satisfying and the objectively valuable, he said that the Church should continue to be the one to unleash the power of objective values that transform the human person.

That which is subjectively satisfying is something that not everyone has to like, such as pizza, he explained. Nonetheless, there are real objective values that in their goodness, truth or beauty, transform the human person and rearrange his subjectivity, such as seeing the Sistine Chapel or listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

“Relativism flattens out life,” he said. “We take the best things and we trivialize them to the level of pizza.”

Finally, he distinguished between freedom of indifference, which reduces to the freedom to personally decide something, and freedom for excellence, which he defined as “the disciplining of the desire to make the achievement of the good, first possible, then effortless.”

The main difference is that freedom of indifference makes an enemy out of law, while freedom for excellence internalizes the law to make it part of who he is, Bishop Barron explained. Internalizing the law helps the person become what he is meant to be, in congruence with God and the deepest purposes of his being.

“It’s the Church above all that speaks these abiding, objective truths that ground true and authentic freedom,” Bishop Barron concluded. “That is the best way to engage relativism… We acknowledge it and then we… redirect it.”

COMING UP: Don’t miss ‘the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century’

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Don’t miss ‘the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century’

Denver’s Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition brings to life Judaism at time of Jesus

Vladimir Mauricio-Perez

“Welcome to Israel, the Biblical land of milk and honey at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and Asia… an archaeologist’s paradise”: These words mark the start of a once-in-a-lifetime immersion into ancient Israel that the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition brings to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science March 16 to Sep. 3.

The exhibition, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Denver, not only displays the authentic Dead Sea Scrolls that have captivated millions of believers and non-believers around the world, but also a timeline back to Biblical times filled with ancient objects that date back to events written about in the Old Testament more than 3,000 years ago.

“We are convinced that the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in the Judean desert are the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century,” said Dr. Uzi Dahari, deputy director of the Israel Antiquities. “These scrolls, written in Hebrew, are the oldest copy of the Bible.”

In fact, some of these manuscripts are almost a thousand years older than the oldest copies of the Bible that had been discovered, providing a great wealth of knowledge about Judaism at the time of Jesus.

“So many things have changed [since this discovery],” said Dr. Michael Barber, professor of Scripture and Theology at the Augustine Institute in Denver. “We now understand first-century Judaism in a way we didn’t in the past and see how the Biblical authors are breathing the same air as other ancient Jews.”

An exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science will be on display until Sept. 3. (Photos by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

The air of first-century Israel was filled with expectations for the coming of the Messiah. The Dead Sea Scrolls, which have been associated with a unique religious Jewish community that lived a structured life, are a witness to this reality, he explained.

“[These communities] were trying to live in such a way as to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. They looked forward to a new covenant and the restoration of the glory of Adam” Dr. Barber said. “We see so many overlaps of how the New Testament is a fulfillment of the Jewish expectations of the time.”

The exhibition immerses guests into the history of the chosen people of God, from artifacts impressed with seals belonging to Biblical kings, such as Hezekiah, to an authentic stone block that fell from Jerusalem’s Western Wall in 70 AD.

“We preferred to select scientifically important items, some very small, some very large… but all of great significance,” Dr. Dahari said.

“Israel’s archaeological sites and artifacts have yielded extraordinary record of human achievement,” added Dr. Risa Levitt Kohn, curator of the exhibit and professor at San Diego State University. “The pots, coins, weapons, jewelry and other artifacts on display in this exhibition constituted a momentous contribution to our cultural legacy. They teach us about the past, but they also teach us about ourselves.”