Bishop Barron on Atheist’ Ethical Passion

barron rubin rabbi

Bishop Robert Barron and Rabbi David Wolpe were both invited to come and speak on the Rubin Report on religion, enlightenment, and areas of agreement/disagreement. I did listen to it, and my personal take away was that it was very plain, without entertainment, and I was unhappy that there was not more discussion on their disagreement. In any case, someone brought to my attention a particular segment where Bishop Barron speaks about the unintended conformity to God that exists in even atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, in his own ethical convictions for justice. The background of this section is Rubin’s topic of discussion on whether someone can erect a fresh and new world-view, which doesn’t have anything to do with Christianity, Judaism, or traditional religion, but which accounts for the existence of ethics. Rabbi Wolpe, in sum, conceded that this might be somewhat feasible, but there would be no root or soil to this enterprise, and so he wonders how long it would last without the foundation underneath which supports it. When it came time for the Bishop to answer, this is how it went:

Bishop: “The ground finally is God…so call God what you want, I mean, its the unconditioned, ah, the unconditioned true, good, and beautiful. That’s God…and that’s the ground for these great ethical commitments….I never met Christopher Hitchens, but, ya know, I’ve read him and watched him carefully and I was struck by the intensity of his ethical commitments, which, to me, seem incoherent in light of a completely atheistic view of the world…but there was a Jeremiah-like passion for ethical [commitment], and I would say, ‘Look! That’s it! That’s the door in, if you want’. You can do cosmological-type arguments, but they had little traction with Hitchens, but my way in for him ‘Follow your own ethical passion. Your gonna come to what I mean by God, which is the unconditioned good. You don’t want just any ole’ justice. You want justice all the time! You want justice in every way! You want justice to fill the whole earth! That is a hunger and thirst for God”

Rubin: And what if they don’t get there, in the end? What is that like? 

Bishop: The right answer is that they are already there. See, its not that they are trying to get there. You’ve already been seized by God . If you’ve got that passion for justice, that’s God already working in you. So it not so much the quest for God out there, but God’s already grasped you at the root of your being and filled you with this prophetic passion. So I would say, in a way, he’s already been found, ya know”.

Some people criticized my last article which severely criticized Barron’s statements on whether people who are not Christian can be saved, and so I was even more motivated to write something on this to show that I truly am trying to be fair to the Bishop. Now, with regard to his answers on ethics: Prima facie, one might be distracted by the second answer, which seems to suggest that an atheist, such as Christopher Hitchens, is already “found” and “seized” by God as evidenced by his passion for justice, which itself is another evidence that God was working in him. In addition, it was implied that such a person is already hungering and thirsting for God in someway. Some have taken this to mean that he implies that Hitchens might have been saved, and that here is another tentacle of universalism coming from the Bishop.

While I have no doubt the Bishop would probably be open to the salvation of Hitchens (he has made it clear that he thinks it is reasonable to hope that, in the end, everyone is saved, a point which I have criticized here and here), and I certainly don’t have any doubt that Barron is open to the salvation of atheists (he said so explicitly here), I don’t think anything he said in this segment of the interview implies that he believes Hitchens was or is *necessarily* saved, or even that he was in a redeemed state of being while on earth, albeit his passion for justice. All that Barron is intending to say here is that God is the unconditioned reality of all that is true, good, and beautiful, and He is that so much to the point that even an atheist who exhibits an authentic desire for true justice in the world (let’s assume this is the case, since I’ve not studied Hitchens) would be, in some way, unintentionally aligning and conforming Himself to some share in what God is and wills to be. While Hitchens, being an atheist, would balk at this idea, Barron’s point is that Hitchens does not even have to deliberately be a God-seeking man in order to already exhibit the inevitable God-conformity that is proved by his “passion” for justice. Now, what Barron described here in Hitchens is totally compatible with Hitchens being “dead in sin” (Eph 2:1-2), being “without God or hope” (Eph 2:12), and being one who does not “obey the gospel“, for which, in consequence, he will be “punished with everlasting destruction” (2 Thes 1:8-9).

St. Paul says with regard to matter of final judgment:

Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?  But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who “will render to each one according to his deeds”eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality;  but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil” (Rom 2:4-9)

It is possible that a human person has a hard and impenitent heart, who seeks only for himself, and who does not obey the truth, but nevertheless exhibits some semblance of God’s image and works to do what is right, at least in some way. Not even the Calvinistic doctrine of Total Depravity would say that every man is as bad as he can be. In fact, even Protestants of this sort would say that it is only by God’s gracious restraint that men are not the full-blown devils that they truly are. Moreover, even if one’s acts are still disordered, sinful, and consequently displeasing to God, it is still the case that the objective content of that act might shine a holy truth. For example, any atheist who would strive hard against wicked government which seeks to demolish Christians by burning them as torches to light the night would be exhibiting a somewhat honorable and good motive, even if the Calvinist wants to write a few essays on how its motives are not sufficient to be a truly good deed. There is still, even with the Westminster dogma, a ray of God-likeness involved in there….even if a crumb-size…and even if the person is still destined for eternal wrath. 

In conclusion, I don’t think what the Bishop says here implies a universalism, and the basic meaning of his words could even be consistent with the most ardent adherent of the massa damnata view found in St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas. When Rubin asked “What if they do not get there, in the end”, I take Barron as understanding Rubin to have asked what if they do not come to the conclusion of theism, after considering what Barron said.  In fact, it is the philosophy of Aquinas which mandates the truth of what Barron is saying. Now, with that said, I would like to take this opportunity to say that there has been a very imbalanced obsession with how unbelievers, atheists, pagans, and non-Christians are, in some way, conformed to that unconditioned true, good, and beautiful. After all, even a drug-lord who runs a very successful business in a ghetto might conduct an extremely fair and just wage distribution to his workers. But who in their right mind would say that this drug-lord is a worshiper of the true God given that he is responsible for much violence and death, not just to bodies, but to eternal souls? Would anyone want to circumscribe the faint God-conformity of the drug-lord in his fair wage system as a motive to believe he is a Christian, unbeknownst to himself? Or how about the Islamic terrorist who is appointed to kidnap 40 Christians in the middle-east, but then, in the middle of the night, allows the pregnant mother with her 2 children to leave free. He keeps the father, but lets the mother and children go. Surely, he did so because he had some measure of pity in his heart. Would anyone, however, in their right mind try to measure out this bit of God-conformity that *may* have been struck in his heart to have compassion on this poor mother as a measure of God-conformity from which it is possible that he might be a redeemed God-seeker? Or how about the Jewish Rabbi, like David Wolpe himself on this very show, when he openly endorses gay-marriage as holy and sanctified by God the Creator? Can such a one who, not only has knowledgeable and articulated rejections to the Lord Jesus as the true Messiah of Israel, but also breaks with the divine revelation as given in the Torah of Moses, be what Fr. Karl Rahner called an “anonymous Christian“, in light of his measured conformity to what is true, good, and beautiful? After all, Barron couldn’t make it anymore clear that he agreed with much of what this heretical Rabbi believed in some sense. Heck, if we want to stretch our imaginations to everything that is true, good, and beautiful, than all human beings in some measure conformed to it. When an Engineer performs Calculus..he is conforming to something true, perhaps good, and probably beautiful. When a bus driver stops to allow people to cross the street, instead of mowing them down like blades of grass, there is a measure, however small, to something good, and perhaps beautiful.  Satan himself is a being, and therefore has some measure of goodness, and is a “child of God” in the Acts 17 sense of coming from God as creator. But what does all of that indicate for us? In light of what else is going in the world of fallen humanity, how reasonable is it to even take a moment to speculate on the possibility of salvation for those who do not know Christ and are not living in obedience as His disciple? All pressure is on the world being saved from its darkness through the light of God in Jesus Christ alone. That has always been the premonition of men of God throughout the ages up until the Liberal revolution which entered into Christian thought. In fact, even the 2nd Vatican Council, with all its stretchy speculations and inclusive language, warns that even with granting the supposed God-conformity which might exist in non-Christians, we must never make this a means to put the fire out on evangelization. It writes: 

But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, ‘Preach the Gospel to every creature’, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.” (16)

So much of the talk on Balthasar’s “reasonable hope “that all men are saved, but I wonder what people would think is implied by this – “But often men..have become vain…exchanged the truth of God for a lie…serve the creature…living and dying in this world without God…are exposed to final despair” . Does that not speak against universalism? 


3 thoughts on “Bishop Barron on Atheist’ Ethical Passion

  1. There is some debate over whether Explicitism or Implicitism is the true doctrine of the church. Explicitism is the belief that explicit faith in the Trinity and the Incarnation is needed to be saved, whereas Implicitism is the belief that one only needs belief that God is, and that He is a rewarder of those that seek him diligently (Heb 11:6). Of course, both require the conditions of invincible ignorance and no mortal sin.

    Monsignor Fenton and Fr Brian Harrision argue for explicitism, whereas Pohle-Pruess, Cardinal Journet, and Archbishiop Lefebvre hold to impliciitsm.

    You can read more here:

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