Obstacles to Evangelization: No. 1
We have spoken a lot about evangelization and the fate of the Church here. We have explored Ross Douthat’s critique of liberal Protestant churches, investigated Campbell and Putnam’s charge that the problem is that Christianity is seen as too politically conservative, and lamented the Pew report that the third largest religious group in the country is ex-Catholics.
All of these sociological studies are important and worthy of our consideration. But I want to suggest that Christians interested in evangelization have more fundamental problems in this society. Here is one that I see. I will try to identify a couple of more over the next few days.
1. Do people care about the question that Christianity proposes to answer?
Do people in the developed world frame the fundmental existential problem in the way that Christianity does? As I understand it, the fundamental question that Christianity tries to answer is that posed by the rich young man in the Gospel: What must I do to obtain eternal life? That, of course, is not the question that Buddhism asks, as Archbishop Joseph DiNoia pointed out in his book. I wonder whether Christian theologians need to think more about how to make this question relevant in our time or place. I think the idea of eternal life was extremely and intuitively and self-evidently attractive in a time when people died young or violently. In our era, however, where many people live longer and the second half of their lives is a long, slow, diminishment, I think that the idea of eternity and eternal life is not as intuitively attractive. It needs a different type of attention from theologians in our era. We tend to think of eternity as a never-ending span of time. But as Augustine helped us see in the Confessions, eternity is far more than that — it is possessing the fulness of one’s being at once. Apart from great tragedies and unusual horrors, Americans see acedia and boredom as a problem, not a fundamental threat to existence. Christians need to put more time and effort into thinking about eternity, I think, so that it isn’t pictured as more of the same.
What about Aquinas’s idea of the beatific vision? I think it strikes many people as an endless church service.
What about the idea of a heavenly banquet? Better, but even so, not helpful enough. I think of a long wedding reception at a Hyatt.
Unless we can do a better job of connecting Christian life in this world with Christian life in the next, in today’s context, I think evangelization is going to be hampered.