Few people in the world would be better placed to answer that question than the auxiliary
Bishop of Los Angeles. Bishop Robert Barron has been “in the trenches” for more than a decade with his Word on
Fire ministries, especially his YouTube videos, setting forth the beauty and validity of the Faith.
At a lecture given at St Vincent College in Pennsylvania in late May, Bishop Barron admitted that the Church in the US is rapidly losing young people.
“I know from the YouTube videos [feedback and comments] exactly what is blocking a lot of people today, especially young people,” the bishop said.
“And I identify five areas that people really get blocked on.”
Bishop Barron listed deep misunderstandings that give rise to such obstacles.
They are misunderstandings of God, of the Bible, of the relationship between Christianity and science, of the Bible and Christianity’s relationship to violence, and human sexuality.
NZ Catholic summarises below what Bishop Barron had to say for the first two categories. Two more summaries will be in the next issue of NZ Catholic.
1. God and Freedom?
Bishop Barron said atheism is predicated largely on the assumption that God is a great competitor to the human project.
Citing a series of luminaries from Feuerbach through Marx, Sartre, Freud and Nietzsche, right up to Hitchens in modern times, Bishop Barron said the following position is found:
“God is a threatening being that hovers over our freedom and threatens our flourishing.”
He summarised Sartre thus — “if God exists, then I can’t be free, but I am free, therefore God does not exist”.
Countering this position, Bishop Barron went back to Thomas Aquinas.
“Thomas says that God is not an individual. God is not the ens summum, the highest being.
“God is not in the genus of beings.”
Bishop Barron summarised Thomas’s conclusion simply: “God is not a being, but ‘being’ itself.”
This means that God is not competing with us on the same field.
“It is not a zero sum game. As though God gets all the glory and I need to be denigrated.”
“The very nature of God is to be. And that means the closer he gets, the more alive we are.”
Bishop Barron noted the famous saying by St Irenaeus: “Gloria Dei Homo Vivens — the glory of God is a human being fully alive”.
“[God] is not threatening our wellbeing,” Bishop Barron said, “he is the condition for the possibility of our wellbeing.”
The bishop pointed out that in many ancient myths, when the gods burst into human experience, things get incinerated and consumed.
“Now the Bible, look in the third chapter of Exodus. There is a bush that is on fire, but is not consumed. What does that mean?
“It means that when God comes close to creation, he makes it luminous and beautiful and does not consume it.”
2. The Bible?
In YouTube forums, Bishop Barron said, the Bible is constantly made fun of.
Following sceptics like Hitchens and Maher, the Scriptures are seen as pre-scientific and even
In response, Bishop Barron went back to the Greek basis for the word “Bible” — ta biblia, which means “the books”.
“The Bible is not so much a book, the Bible is a library,” he said.
“It is a collection of books, written over a long period of time, by a variety of different authors, to very different audiences, for very different purposes, and using very different genres.
“[I’ve been] watching atheist after atheist, [make] the attempt to make the Bible a univocal text, to be read with one clunky set of interpretive lenses.
“Do you take the Bible literally? Well my answer is – do you take the library literally? Oh, it depends, man, what section are you in [they say].”
Bishop Barron continued: “The Bible, I try to explain to people over and over again, is made up of a wide variety of different genres.
“From saga, legend, yes, quasi-history, yes, theologically interpreted history, very often, poetry, psalms, letters, apocalypse, etc. etc.”
The bishop theorised that one reason so many young people have so much difficulty appreciating this is the collapse of the “humanities” in the education system.
“ . . . [A]n awful lot of especially young people don’t know how texts mean any more.
“There is such a dominance of science, of the scientific model, that the binary option emerges of science or nonsense.”
“But how, subtly, texts mean, across a variety of genres, is largely lost on people,” the bishop complained.
“But until you get that, you won’t get the Bible right.”
Bishop Barron referred to a useful distinction made by the great Protestant biblical scholar William Placher — between “what is in the Bible” and “what the Bible teaches”.
The latter depends, Placher said, on patterns, themes and trajectories within and across the genres of the Bible.
“That will tell you much more accurately what the Bible teaches,” the bishop said.
“Don’t take up any passage and tell me ‘that’s what the Bible teaches’,” Bishop Barron added.
“That will never tell you the truth of it.”
Finally, Bishop Barron noted the importance of reading the Bible “in the Church”.
When he tells people about about patterns, themes and trajectories in the Bible, he is sometimes asked how determinations about right teaching are made.
“I’ll say that is why you need to read the Bible in this grand and long and complex interpretive condition we call the Church.
“I use the example of Shakespeare. Would you ever think it is wise to pick up Hamlet and hand it to a 17-year-old and say, just read it — you’ll be fine?
“Or pick up Moby Dick, or the Wasteland of T.S.Eliot — and say, just read it — you’ll be fine?
“No, there is a whole family of interpretation around Hamlet and Shakespeare. There is a universe of interpretation around T.S. Eliot.
“And it is within that matrix that we understand these texts.”
The same, but much more so, “with the complex collection of texts in the Bible, to read it in and with the interpretive tradition of the Church, I urge people all the time”.
— based on a YouTube video of Bishop Barron’s speech.