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Obstacles to Evangelization: No. 2

I suggested in my last post that Christianity not only offers an answer to a question, but it proposes a particular question as the right one to ask: What must I do to be saved--and being saved means participating in eternal life, life beyond death. Different religious traditions don't only propose different answers, they propose different questions. For Buddhism, the key is to free oneself of attachments, for example, in order to escape the cycle of death and rebirth.

For Christianity, the central problem is sin--actions that are in violation of God's law. We hold the idea of a personalized judgment, in which each person is assessed according to his or her deeds, and sent to heaven, a state of everlasting blessedness, or hell, a state of everlasting torment. I am well aware that there has been theological work done on the nature or meaning of hell. Nonetheless, I do think the traditional view creates a second problem for evangelization--because it creates a problem about God's nature.

I think it is very hard for people to believe that any thing they do on this earth could merit eternal damnation. This is even more the case when we take into account the fact that we don't know where the line is between actions for which people are morally responsible and those for which we are not. Some of the most heinous acts, objectively speaking, may have been committed by seriously mentaly disturbed people. In any case, the kind of torture we find, say, in Dante's Inferno seems more fitting for a petty dictator than for God. Ironically enough, I think the movement toward human rights--toward the dignity of each human being--has pressed against the notion of hell as a situation of everlasting torment. If it is wrong for human beings to treat one another in this way, isn't it wrong for God to do so as well?Can the imago dei--the dignity of the person--be so erased after death that everlasting punishment of the sort that is contemplated in some Christian texs really something that we can reconcile with the goodness and justice of God.

Another problem, of course, is grace. The very idea of predestination--some people predestined to salvation and others to damnation -- doesn't sit well with contemporary notions of the dignity of all persons. Even the Catholic tradition' s notion of grace can be problematic. Yes, Catholics believe that all morally upright persons can be with God in paradise. But we know now how much being morally upright is a function of nature (genetics) and nurture (family). So the arbitrary factor is there in the background too.

So, either the concepts of final judgment and hell need to be reconfigured to meet our deepest ideas of justice (and the mere assertion, which Calvin makes, that you can't question God's justice just wont do), or they need to be muted. And if they're muted, a major reason that people have clung to Christianity in general (to be saved from hell) won't be as powerful.

About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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Karl Marx famously observed that religion is the opiate of the people. As a result of his insight, the challenge facing the new evangelization is, What aspects of Christianity, if any, work as an opiate for people today?

The whole idea of life as some kind of test that you pass and go to eternal reward, or fail and go to eternal punishment, is very difficult to accept. As I have argued before, if unbaptized infants are saved, one's best bet is to die very early. The lucky ones are the early embryos that never implant, or the unborn who die due to spontaneous or induced abortion. We have something akin to Pascal's Wager. Is it better to die before the age of reason and be guaranteed salvation, or live to adulthood and risk eternal damnation? It seems to me the only answer is that it is better to die early. Even if the risk of damnation is extraordinarily smallsay on person in the entire history and future of humanitysince that risk is infinite, it is clearly preferable to avoid it. (This would not justify abortion or any other killing. But it would mean the aborted were more fortunate than those who survived and reached adulthood.)The whole system seems fundamentally unfair, which has led Catholicism (to its credit) to invent ways around what seems to be an absolute requirement for baptism. I remember having a discussion with a Protestant friend who insisted that since Jesus was the only want to salvation, all of the Native Americans who lived in the Americas before word of Jesus made its way here in the 15th century were inevitably damned. Jesus said nothing about baptism of blood and baptism of desire. They are very necessary concepts if you don't want to think of God as someone who created the human race largely to populate hell, but it seems to me they have been invented out of whole cloth. And of course even if we do accept baptism of desire for those who never had a chance to hear about Jesus, we still have all the inequities that doom some people to be born into broken homes and crime-ridden neighborhoods, whereas others are born into affluent, law-abiding, religious families. Even with the idea of baptism of blood and baptism of desire, the playing field is far from level.

I do not know anyone who clings to Christianity to be saved from hell.

In seminary, I remember being captivated by C S Lewis' "The Great Divorce," featuring the busride from hell/purgatory to heaven and the notion that heaven involved giving up one's "most intimate souvenir" of hell... I'll have to revisit that and see if much of it rings true forty years later...but I recommend it with the proviso that one accept Lewis' take- at least for argument- which is very tradiional in many ways...

As to unfairness, justice, grace, arbitrariness, etc., isn't it all related to the parable of the workers in the vineyard?

Just curious: How many more obstacles might be in store?

Ha! I think one or two--if you want fewer obstacles, pray that my essay on Catherine MacKillop goes better!(If I'm not blogging, it's a good sign my that my summer writing project is going well!)

I found the discussion in No. 1 very stimulating. I have nothing bright to say except that if we could get images of great Italian (especially) painting out of our heads this whole discussion might become easier.

I suggested in my last post that Christianity not only offers an answer to a question, but it proposes a particular question as the right one to ask: What must I do to be savedand being saved means participating in eternal life, life beyond death. . . . For Christianity, the central problem is sinactions that are in violation of Gods law. . . . I think it is very hard for people to believe that any thing they do on this earth could merit eternal damnation_________________I know I'm pretty much wasting my time saying this here, what with so much fundamental and foundational misunderstanding here -- but, just as that isn't the question, that isn't the central problem, and it is neither merit nor demerit that causes damnation.Of course, if you can't (or won't) get the question right, and can't or won't recognize what the central problem is, and can't or won't understand how "damnation" happens, effective Catholic evangelization is going to be quite a problem.

Oh Bender, you are so good and brilliant, and I thank you, most humbly, for your taking so much of your precious time to enlighten us with your most learned and precious opinions.

Oh Bender, you are so good and brilliant, and I thank you, most humbly, for your taking so much of your precious time to enlighten us with your most learned and precious opinions.Now, Cathy, let me just step in to defend Bender. Like him, I write messages on a blog (First Things) where almost everyone but me is cluelessly, hopelessly, infuriatingly wrong. For people like Bender and me, this situation, far from being a blessing, constitutes a trial. We must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in our regard should be avoided.

David Pasinski: My most vivid recollection of The Great Divorce was the conception of hell as a vast, sprawling city where everyone wished to live as far away from everyone else as possible, a place less of imposed torment than of chosen alienation. And heretical or not, the idea that even the damned might free themselves if only they chose to let go of their various obsessions is a possible point of connection between Christianity and Buddhism, as well as good counsel here and now.

Since I am not as self-regarding as Bender I won't be nearly as disdainful, but I also seem to be missing something, and that is, isn't the "central question" separating the saved from the damned whether one had sufficient faith during one's lifetime, that is, was "justified by faith"? On the one hand, one can certainly assure those who are afraid of hell that there is, in fact, nothing they do on earth that will "merit" eternal damnation. Unfortunately, the flipside is true too: nothing they do on earth will "merit" eternal salvation. It's all about what you believe, and your good works are a manifestation of belief, not a cause for celebrating your own goodness. Have I missed something?

David: Not all trials are compulsory.

and it is neither merit nor demerit that causes damnation.The idea that, by our own merits, we can't attain salvation seems to get God off the hook for sending people to (or, I suppose Bender would say, allowing people to choose) eternal damnation, but what does it say about a God who creates a race of people who don't deserve eternal reward and whose default destination, it would seem, is hell? If you do something bad, you deserve to go to hell. But if you do something good, you really still deserve to go to hell. God is just beneficent enough to allow some of the people who deserve hell to go to heaven. It does seem to me that the idea of not meriting, but getting to choose, our eternal fates is another clever invention (like baptism of blood and baptism of desire) to get around the common idea that God rewards the good and punishes the evil.

This discussion reminds me of a conversation long ago with a fellow student at seminary. I was bright and as liberal as all get out but he was much brighter having overcome a difficult childhood in a Mexican barrio in South Texas. I was prattling on about how there couldn't possibly be a hell if God is truly good and loving until I noticed he was looking angry. He snapped at me, " there damn well better be a hell for those bastards that made life so miserable for me and my people". While I don't know much about the parameters or geography of hell, I don't find it unreasonable to believe there are people who consciously choose the path of evil to such a degree they would be totally miserable in heaven. Just saying.

The question of how grace operates with respect to salvation is a thorny one in Christianity. As a gross generalization, Protestants believe that salvation comes through grace, and that once one is saved, one is able to do good works. In some traditions, e.g., (Lutheran) justification appears to be mainly forensic, e.g., God looks at you and sees Christ. There is not a whole lot of room, at least theoretically, for growth in holiness or sanctification.Protestants accused Catholics of "work righteousness," that is, thinking we are going to be redeemed by our own merits rather than by God's grace. While some Catholics think and speak that way, it is not and has not been Catholic teaching. Catholics believe we are saved by grace no less than Protestants On the other hand, there is more room for the notion of growth in sanctity through grace. It is only because of grace thaat we can accept and work with grace, because, grace, actually, is a share in God's own nature (see Aquinas).See the joint Lutheran and Roman Catholic declaration on justification.

My only point is that your "central question" as framed seems to have missed this "thorny debate" entirely. So it seems like your last post has provided at least the beginning of the framework for an answer to the question that you posed in your original post.

I don't think so. I think there are distinct although related issues.I think the central question that Christianity deals with is salvation--eternal life. It says the question we should ask is how to obtain eternal life. (My q. 1). Buddhism says the central question is something different: how to deal with the attachments that cause suffering.The answers are different because the questions are different. And the fundmamental difference between the two traditions lies in the questions.So, my point one is that credalChristianity says the point is to find salvation (eternal life). Many people aren't just don't think that's a plausible or attrative goal. .My q. 2 is that, assuming you ARE interested in eternal life, the framework for deciding whether you can gain or lose it doesn't seem very ethical to a lot of people. Damning people to eternity for things they did in the termporal realm makes God look like a heartless dictator, not a source of all love. And the whole ecology of grace can seem too arbitrary to the contemporary ear with its focus on equality. It was arbitrary to Calvin--but he said, who are you to question God, so shut up. People are not willing to take that answer anymore.

Prof. Kaveny -- As a high school Theology teacher, might I suggest bad high school Theology textbooks as one obstacle to evangelization, although a comparatively minor one? For many units, I actually eschew the textbook altogether, and use packets that I write myself. (I hope the following post isn't too long, but I thought I'd get it all out at once.)High school Theology textbooks tend to be bad for all sorts of reasons -- often it has nothing to do with their being either conservative or liberal, or with any of the reasons usually bandied about on Catholic blogs. A few of the many problems with them:1) Lack of attention to "the footnotes" -- Some of the above comments have mentioned baptism of desire. However, many high school Theology textbooks don't even mention it, or don't mention that the desire can be implicit. I.e., they don't sufficiently emphasize or clarify that it it possible for people not baptized with water to be saved, or they don't do it when talking about baptism -- and so of course it can become very difficult for a student to believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, if he/she thinks that for Catholicism, this means those not baptized with water are going to hell. The same problem applies to texts dealing with the necessity of faith, or the necessity of the Church, etc.2) Lack of "Critical Distance" -- This is the only phrase I've ever been able to think of to describe what I'm talking about: it's the difference between couching things in terms of "stealing is wrong" vs. "the Church teaches that stealing is wrong." (Or abortion, or adultery, or whatever.) I think it's important for textbooks, and for teachers, to allow a distinction between UNDERSTANDING Church teaching, vs. BELIEVING Church teaching. Critical distance enabls that distinction: it removes the mental barrier of "but I don't believe that." If the book (or teacher) is telling a student, "XYZ is true," it can create a resistance within the student -- they may actually agree with the book (or teacher), but anything asserted like that always turns it into a matter of belief, rather than a matter of understanding. In contrast, if the book (or teacher) says, "The Church teaches that XYZ is true," that's an objective fact -- a student can accept that, without the mental block of whether he/she believes it coming into play.Of course, my ultimate hope is that my students will not only understand Catholicism, but believe and embrace it as well -- but I think that the best way to accomplish that is to allow that criticial distance, which creates a less threatening atmosphere.Obviously not every sentence in the book needs to start, "The Church teaches..." but the overall tone is important. Too often, books talk down to students -- and it happens both in books that lean liberal and in books that lean conservative. For example, in a liberal-leaning book ("Jesus of History, Christ of Faith" by Thomas Zanzig from St. Mary's Press, from the late '90s), the book says that Jesus probably didn't know He would be resurrected with any kind of certainty -- I'm paraphrasing, but the point is that the book just says that, without acknowledging that this is a point of controversy. I definitely DO want my students to be informed that that position exists, but I don't want them to think that's the only position that DOES exist -- just as I would not want them to hear "Jesus knew He would be resurrected" and not hear other opinions.In a way, it doesn't even matter if the book picks a side -- if you think about it, that's what the old theological manuals and books in that vein used to do: you learn the Church's teaching, or the preferred opinion of theologians, and then you learn what all the opposing errors are! The important thing is to be told about the different opinions so you can evaluate them, etc. High school textbooks today don't do that, and so they come off with a tone that's insulting to one's intelligence.3) Handling of Difficult Topics -- This is especially an issue in textbooks dealing with the Old Testament. Confronted with things like, say, the story of Noah and the Flood, or the Binding of Isaac, or the killing of Egypt's firstborn, or divinely-ordered violence elsewhere in the Old Testament, books will do one of three things: a) offer facile and unsatisfying answers to the complex questions involved, b) gloss over the problem with happy-sounding words, sometimes even distorting the actual biblical story, or c) the bombshell approach, which is to simply baldly state the story and then move on, leaving the teacher to handle the fall-out. An example of the bombshell approach comes in how one textbook deals with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah -- actually, there are two bombshells in one paragraph here. This is page 43 of "Written on Our Hearts: The Old Testament Story of God's Love" by Mary Reed Newland from St. Mary's Press (3rd ed., 2009):In Sodom the wicked inhabitants propose the rape of some young men (or angels) to whom Lot has given shelter. Rape is evil at any time but doubly heinous considering the life-giving hospitality required by guests. Lot offers his own daughters in order to protect his guests -- to no avail. So the cities will be destroyed, except for Lot and his family, the only just people remaining in those wicked places. The angels rescue Lot and his family. In the well-known ending to the story, Lot's wife, curious about the fate of the cities, looks back to check out the destruction and turns into a pillar of salt -- a famous but unimportant biblical detail.Notice how the book just drops the bombshell of Lot OFFERING HIS OWN DAUGHTERS TO BE RAPED -- and then moves on, as if there were nothing troubling about that that would need to be addressed. And then, it just drops the bombshell of God turning Lot's wife into a pillar of salt (actually, it avoids stating directly that God does it), and then says, "oh, that's not important."Is it any wonder that intelligent young Catholic teens can have trouble embracing the faith, when this how it's presented?4) Inaccuracy -- The worst case of this I ever encountered was actually not in a textbook itself, but in a Power Point offered for download on the website of Ave Maria Press. I wrote them an email about it in December 2010; I don't think I ever received a reply. Here was the text of the Power Point that sent me through the roof -- the parentheses and brackets were in the Power Point itself; they're not my own:"What do we know? ... When speaking of the Trinity, the Church teaches... One divine substance (hypostasis) [What you are] ... Three Divine Persons (prosopon) [Who you are] ... This is called the Hypostatic Union."As most people reading and writing this blog probably know, there are two egregious mistakes here. To start with the lesser one first: the Latin-derived term "substance" does not match up with the Greek-derived "hypostasis." The Greek equivalent of "substance" would be "ousia" -- "hypostasis" goes with "person." Second and most obvious: this Power Point has just called the Trinity the Hypostatic Union -- words cannot begin to express the magnitude of this error. The hypostatic union refers to the union of a human nature and a divine nature in the one divine Person of Christ, NOT to the Trinity. This error would be the equivalent of a biology textbook saying that our brain is the organ that digests our food.I could go on, but I'll end it here.

Aren't the first two obstacles to evangelization examples of misunderstood or mis-represented Catholic teaching? None of the problems raised seem to me to be distinctive to the modern era. Haven't they all been raised before? And if that's the case, isn't the problem better preaching, catechesis, and instruction in the faith. In that sense I agree with Brendan McGrath's post. Do we need to specify who are meant by phrases like "the contemporary ear," or "people today"? When ICEL began its very first translations, they made "intelligible to modern man" a criterion, or so I was told. "Modern man" was said not to understand some biblical and traditional images and so they could be safely dropped. It was never made clear who "modern man" was, although one suspected that he was not represented by English-speakers in Papua-New Guinea. Similarly, Gaudium et spes spoke of "the Church in the World of Our Time," but, as was pointed out at the time, there was not a single "world of our time"; there were at least three: the developed world; the underdeveloped world; and the world under Communist domination. Guess which one was meant.Perhaps after a discussion of obstacles we may present in the way of successful evangelization, we might investigate what obstacles there are in the common culture of "people today" that make the "contemporary ear" deaf to the Gospel. Jesus himself encountered that problem more than once.

I would say that the biggest obstacle to evangelization, at least in Catholic circles, isn't that people aren't receptive to being evangelized but that Catholics don't bother to do any real evangelizing. Brief aside, since I'm probably bound for hell anyway: Is there some Undesirables list of of subscribers going around the office on Riverside Drive these days? I don't dare say jack about the bleedin' ACA or the folly of its supporters anymore, and now David N. is getting hit for suggesting that we be civil to Bender. Really, I think C'weal will be just fine without my subscription when it's time to re-up.

To Jean-the-straight-shooter: I am always happy to see your name appear in the comments. C'weal gives a voice to US Catholic lay intellectuals. I think that's wonderful. Not perfect, but where else would we go?

So, either the concepts of final judgment and hell need to be reconfigured to meet our deepest ideas of justiceThis just seems to completely miss the point. As the Penn state and Chik-fil-A controversies demonstrate, our human conception and 'deepest ideas of justice' do not seem well-formed, timeless or universal. So perhaps we need to make the message that trust in a loving God is more important.

Christianity deals with is salvation, how do we obtain eternal life. Instead, I would argue that the fundamental question for everyone is: How do I make sense out of my life and the lives of others with whom I live? Our culture, like many others, gives lots of cover to people who want to evade this question. But it's develishly hard for a thoughtful person, and I don't mean highly schooled, to evade it throughout a lifetime. The Christian answer is embodied in the life and teachings of Jesus. We believe that we find the meaning of our lives here on earth in His life. In fact, we believe that He has made us participants in His life PRECISELY BY His passion-death-resurrection. For the Christian, the fundamental question is: Can you really believe this, give assent to it, in Newman's terms, not just notionally but really. His life is a way of life for this world and whatever it is that comes afterwards? In other words, for Christianity, the fundamental question for a Christian is: Who do you say, in the depths of your being, that Jesus is and how will you respond to Him? Perhaps I am initially prompted to raise this fundamental question by a worry about saving my own hide. But the Christian message tells me that that is not the truly fundamental question that life poses. Cryptically, the fundamental Christian message is that, by uniting us to His life, Jesus has not just rescued our lives from futility but has made us participants in His own life. The way you have posed your first two questions strikes me as part of theological polemics. Such polemics surely have their place. But they are, when they are really worthwhile, in service of something much more fundamental.Nothing I have said here should be taken as a failure to recognize how hard it is in today's world to get the fundamental Christian message on the table. It's a huge problem. But things like the good death of Claire's mother that Claire has mentioned earlier are surely helpful. So too are the anguished cries of so many suffering people. So too are organizations like Vanier's L'Arche. And so too is so much of the fine theological work that led into and has flowed from Vatican II.

Somehow my earlier post omitted its beginning. I said that I disagreed with Cathleen when she claimed that the fundamental Christian question is how to obtain eternal life.Sorry for that.

To Brendan McGrath's description of the limitations of high school textbooks, and the problems underlying these limitations: isn't part of Elizabeth Johnson's methodology an effort to rephrase/rethink/address such limitations by opening up the question ofGod by addressing today's (first world) human experience?

Bernard,Many thanks for your moving and insightful reflection. It brought to mind the words of the Lord in John's Gospel: "And this is eternal life: that they know you, the one true God, and him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ" (17:3).

Oops! Post got away from me.Isn't part of Elizabeth Johnson's methodology an effort to rephrase/rethink the limitations which Brendan Mcgrath finds in high school tetbooks, and the problems underlying these limitations? To wit: approaching the idea of God under the conditions of "today's (first world) human experience?"

Previous post got away from me. editor -- please erase above. I'll do it later. Thank you.

"To Jean-the-straight-shooter: I am always happy to see your name appear in the comments."The number of people who agree with you are apparently dwindling moment by moment.I think Cathleen raises good questions, and I don't mean to be flip in asking about the number of obstacles to come. I truly do think the biggest obstacles to evangelization are the evangelizers. It is the lived Christian life, often lived without necessarily thinking about "how can I save some souls" that makes the biggest difference.Most of us who converted to Christianity (and I still consider myself a Christian if not a Catholic), did so for reasons that are very difficult to parse in retrospect and have more to do with Christian example (Claire's mother, Mary's daughter's voice teacher, a neighbor's father in my case, etc.) than with theological appeals.No disrespect intended.

About Hell == I see it as not a literal teaching but a metaphorical one. It is a place of terrible suffering, but suffering which we impose upon ourselves or choose to endure. Think of feelings of terrible anger and desire for revenge. They are extremely painful emotions, but sometimes, just to get back at another person, we choose to persist in them, even wallow in them. I suspect Hell is something like that -- choosing to stew in our own juices, to use another metaphor.

David N. --About baptism -- as I see it God didn't tell us all the things He plans to do. Each human being is different, so even the forms of the sacraments could differ on God's end, anyway. Where is it said in the Bible that there must be only one form a initiation can take on God's part? He can bring about the same results any way He chooses. So I just don't see the unbaptised babies and Indians, etc., etc. as a big theological problem. He'll give everyone what they need and more, and He doesn't always tell us what He's doing.

Some good points Cathleen !Veritatis Splendor 80 teaches, quoting Vatican II, that torture is intrinsically evil, so Catholic doctrine puts paid to the ridiculous notion that God tortures sinners in Hell.Faith needs to be built around the spiritual benefits, the sacraments, the teaching, the scriptures, the liturgy, the social justice and peace which the Church has to offer. The bread of life we all hunger for. Rather than a simply negative fear of hell.God Bless

The way I was taught it by the Sisters of St. Joseph and priests trained by the Marists, people are saved because 1) God gives us the grace to overcome Original Sin, and 2) most of us choose to cooperate with it most of the time. There's no either/or problem -- it's both. Having free will, we can choose not to cooperate, and then we go to Hell, that place of horrors. But we go there only if we know that out choices will result in going there. In other words, we choose not to go to Heaven and to go to Hell by the same act of choice. So I can understand Fr. Feehily's student who had be done terrible injustice. Assuming that we can choose to do really terrible injustices, it makes sense to think that the unrepentant won't see God face to face. But there is a tradition in Catholicism, is there not?, that God remains our loving Father and does not want those who are damned to continue damned, and they will have the opportunity even after death to accept His grace. I'm a firm believer that we just don't know all that God is up to. The Bible itself says that Jesus said some things of importance that were not recorded. Knowing that, we speculate about these matters and hope we're right.

These discussions are confirming my initial reaction -- people are so different from each other that they have different fundamental questions and different people in the Church need to be prepared to answer them. But Mr. McGrath is right. The least the official Church can do is to see to it that the teaching materials don't make gigantic errors. Though sometimes I wonder about some of the oficial teachers, Not too long ago a certain cardinal was quoted as saying that a marriage is forever. Sigh

"Then Peter approaching asked him, Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus answered, I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times" (Mt 18:21-22). If Jesus instructed Peter (and, by extension, us) to forgive without limit, should we not expect God to do at least as much?The three parables in Luke 15 demonstrate God taking the initiative to find the "lost", e.g., folks "choosing to stew in [their] own juices".If a Jewish Jesus has been quoted accurately in substance, I don't see Christianity per se having any bearing on the matter. God is instructing us to be generous, and God is generous to the "Nth degree".

"I think it is very hard for people to believe that any thing they do on this earth could merit eternal damnation. "I agree with this observation, and my own view is that this is because people no longer have a sense that they are fallen and in need of salvation. There are many powerful currents in modern life that train us to assume that all is well unless/until we do something to screw it up. And in this age of information, there are powerful tendencies to explain everything. This is why acts of notable evil, like what happened in Aurora a few days ago, or 9/11, flummox large sectors of the intelligentsia. If we bracket evil, there is no way to understand such things. There is no explanation from behavioral science that satisfies.In this regard, one of the more pernicious trends of post-Vatican II Catholic practice is the de-emphasis of the sacrament of reconciliation. (I do not blame this on the Council; I'm just noting that for whatever it coincides with the post-Conciliar era). It's not just the neglect of the sacrament itself that I deplore, although that is not good; it is also the loss of the habits that accompany the sacrament: examination, reflection, regret, reconciliation, reparation.

Nobody seems to dwell on Jesus' answer to give all to the poor and follow Jesus the Light of the world. By far the most common illness is depression which is mainly being unhappy for what one does not have. OTOH eternal happiness begins here for those who follow the pearl of great price. Hell is thinking you are better because you have more than others. Also. What Bernard wrote.

I thought hell was other people. ;) "If anyone shall deny, that hell properly understood is other people, as Sartre says, or that other people are hell, anathema sit."

Evangelism: A Play in 1 Actby Abe RosenzweigCast of characters: Mormon Missionary 1, Mormon Missionary 2 (silent), Abe RosenzweigThe setting: The doorway to Abe Rosenzweig's apartmentMormon Missionary 1: Excuse us, sir, for the interruption.Abe Rosenzweig: Don't you guys, like, live in the apartment right next door?Mormon Missionary 1: Um, yeah, actually we do.We're neighbors. Abe Rosenzweig: Haven't you guys ever heard the saying 'don't shit where you eat?'Mormon Missionary 1: Uhhhhh...Abe Rosenzweig: Think about it.

"In other words, for Christianity, the fundamental question for a Christian is: Who do you say, in the depths of your being, that Jesus is and how will you respond to Him?Perhaps I am initially prompted to raise this fundamental question by a worry about saving my own hide. But the Christian message tells me that that is not the truly fundamental question that life poses. Cryptically, the fundamental Christian message is that, by uniting us to His life, Jesus has not just rescued our lives from futility but has made us participants in His own life."Bernard -- I like this. You've helped to clarify for me a subtext here that seemed uncomfortably out of synch with the gospel, namely that worry about myself and my salvation seemed to form the parameters of the whole question. That doesn't seem right. What you have said here makes better sense to me. Thanks.

"Most of us who converted to Christianity ... did so for reasons that are very difficult to parse in retrospect and have more to do with Christian example (Claires mother, Marys daughters voice teacher, a neighbors father in my case, etc.) than with theological appeals."Well said, Jean.

Yes, in our bright, clear guilt-free world, anything like eternal punishment is to be deplored. If hell is real (as a local highway billboard declares), Christianity must be outlawed, in the name of fairness, justice, and universal mental health.I'm beginning to think that as a necessary accompaniment to Vatican II (or, better, Vatican III), the Church needs a Redemption II and a new set of Commandments. The present models are hopelessly outdated.I'm afraid this second obstacle to evangelization is, indeed, a deal breaker.

"This is even more the case when we take into account the fact that we dont know where the line is between actions for which people are morally responsible and those for which we are not. Some of the most heinous acts, objectively speaking, may have been committed by seriously mentaly disturbed people."Which should give us pause before we assume any particular person is in hell, but that's not an issue for the final judgment. God does not see through a glass darkly. Then we shall know even as we are known. I do not see the belief that an omniscient God is uniquely positioned to judge us fairly as an obstacle to evangelization. Quite the contrary. "Ironically enough, I think the movement toward human rightstoward the dignity of each human beinghas pressed against the notion of hell as a situation of everlasting torment. If it is wrong for human beings to treat one another in this way, isnt it wrong for God to do so as well? "I think what this misses is the teaching that, tragically, the damned choose hell. We can fault God for giving us that choice, I suppose, but I find it hard to see that as an obstacle to evangelization. Quite the contrary.

To Cathy K: Your two posts on obstacles to evangelization, especially the first one, have provoked a great many profound and moving comments, like Joseph K's and Bernard's on this one. So thank you. But I have the impression that your second post did not take into account many of the very powerful things said in the comments on the first one, in particular about what the fundamental question of Christianity really is and how it should be formulated, apart from how well or badly it has been formulated or understood or misunderstood in the past. I hope that any further obstacles will not ignore the discussion so far but take it into account. Hell and how to understand it in relation to a good and loving and all-powerful God have been grave problems in church teaching. They played a major role in the decline in belief among thinking Protestant Christians in the 19th century, although in that case the teaching was (and sometimes still is) burdened by narrow views of predestination and salvation. Catholicism has done a great deal to reconfigure its belief in hell or damnation and to reconfigure their place in an overall pattern of theology. My impression is that church structures are still assuming a leverage because of beliefs in hell and damnation that are simply no longer there. But given the reconfiguration, much of it indicated by these discussions, I am not sure that hell/damnation really constitutes a major obstacle to evangelization, at least to those who are not looking for a polemic against Christianity but who have actually been drawn close enough to the church, usually through the kind of personal experience mentioned by Jean Raber and others, to want to pursue the matter further. To Jean Raber: Have I missed something? Your comments are invariably wise, witty, and welcome. And the George Herbert poem overwhemed me. I report that a recent national poll conducted by the Pew Trusts shows a 95 percent approval rating for Raber comments. She is even favorably rated by the 20 percent who believe that she is a Muslim.

I think what this misses is the teaching that, tragically, the damned choose hell. We can fault God for giving us that choice, I suppose, but I find it hard to see that as an obstacle to evangelization. Quite the contrary.Mark,Assuming there actually is a hell, can people who have never heard of it, or who quite honestly and sincerely don't believe in it, actually choose choose it? Or suppose one actually believes in hell. Two of the three criteria for committing a mortal sin are full knowledge and full consent. Can we actually imagine a human being who, with full knowledge and full consent, chooses eternal torment instead of eternal bliss?

"I agree with this observation, and my own view is that this is because people no longer have a sense that they are fallen and in need of salvation. "I hear several people on here bemoaning the fact that "most people" think they're just fine as they are. Perhaps I uncharitably infer a certain smugness: "I know how awful I am, so I'm going to heaven, unlike those dim bulbs who don't even have a clue about how bad they are." (In hopes of not being deleted again, I hasten to add that I am not attacking people here, just this notion that seems to be coming through.)However, I must defer to Jim P., who is a deacon and comes in contact with the inner workings of many more souls than me and is trained to see these things.Rather than write people off with a "they just won't listen because secular society blinds them to their own perdition," could this conversation be a little less glib?Does the sense of the need for salvation, perhaps, change as people get older? When I was 27, I could see a certain trajectory my life might take, and I got myself to a priest (Anglican, but, still ...). And Unitarians, at least the ones amongst whom I was brought up, have a very strong sense of injustice and pass on to their kids the notion that the world is full of awful things, and it is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to fix them.Also, I know of no experience that makes one aware of one's shortcomings, faults, failures,and sins so much as having a child. When they're born, you realize how deficient you are to be entrusted with this little soul. When they're teenagers, of course, they point it out to you just about every day.

Yes, in our bright, clear guilt-free world, anything like eternal punishment is to be deplored.David Smith,It seems to me that disbelief in the idea that God presides over the eternal torment of human beings is an advance in human thought, not a flaw.

Rather than write people off with a they just wont listen because secular society blinds them to their own perdition, could this conversation be a little less glib?Jean,I second the motion. I won't name names, but certain people spend a lot of time, in my humble opinion, either looking down their noses at those who don't agree with them.

I guess what I'm saying is that I agree there are societal factors that work against the virtue of humility. But our former priest did a good job trying to inculcate this sense in a very constructive way. Often, if you confessed something, he'd say, "That's great! Now you know and you can try to be better!" Isn't that a kind of continuing evangelization of the converted? Is there some way in which that kind of positive instilling of humility could work on the unconverted?

Catholicism has done a great deal to reconfigure its belief in hell or damnation and to reconfigure their place in an overall pattern of theology.Peter Steinfels,Please explain. Looking at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about hell, it appears close to identical to what I learned from the Baltimore Catechism in the early 1950s.

Can we actually imagine a human being who, with full knowledge and full consent, chooses eternal torment instead of eternal bliss?Milton had few problems describing such a person:"Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."It probably could be applied to a human being as well as an angel.Love respects and reinforces our choices, even while recognizing how bad it might be for us. So what is God to do when we choose the torment of ruling an unruly world?Those who choose to serve, choose Christ. Even if they have never heard of Jesus, they have chosen him. "When did we see you hungry or naked?" Those who choose to feed or clothe a child have chosen Christ. Those who live happily with a spouse have learned that serving someone can be a joy, even heavenly, while forcing people to do your will can be hellish. But we all know people who choose the hellish route of forcing others to do what we want. Most of us have probably even gone down that route ourselves at one time or another. God, in his love for us, supports our freedom even while seeing the error of our choices.

Those who choose to feed or clothe a child have chosen Christ. Jim McK,The New American Bible does not agree with your reading of Matthew:

[Mt 25:3146] The conclusion of the discourse, which is peculiar to Matthew, portrays the final judgment that will accompany the parousia. Although often called a parable, it is not really such, for the only parabolic elements are the depiction of the Son of Man as a shepherd and of the righteous and the wicked as sheep and goats respectively (Mt 25:3233). The criterion of judgment will be the deeds of mercy that have been done for the least of Jesus brothers (Mt 25:40). A difficult and important question is the identification of these least brothers. Are they all people who have suffered hunger, thirst, etc. (Mt 25:35, 36) or a particular group of such sufferers? Scholars are divided in their response and arguments can be made for either side. But leaving aside the problem of what the traditional material that Matthew edited may have meant, it seems that a stronger case can be made for the view that in the evangelists sense the sufferers are Christians, probably Christian missionaries whose sufferings were brought upon them by their preaching of the gospel. The criterion of judgment for all the nations is their treatment of those who have borne to the world the message of Jesus, and this means ultimately their acceptance or rejection of Jesus himself; cf. Mt 10:40, Whoever receives you, receives me.

So based on this frequently cited passage from the Gospel, charitable treatment of other people does not amount to acceptance of Jesus. It is not any person in need who is a stand-in for Jesus. It is Christians bringing word of Jesus. Milton had few problems describing such a person:Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.Milton was one of the most creative individuals in Western civilization, and Satan is an extraordinary figure in Milton's work. Accepting the figure of Satan as in some sense real, he was one of the very few individuals in an actual position to make an "informed choice" between heaven and hell. It make no sense to compare the ordinary experience of human beings with the experience of Satan as depicted in Paradise Lost.

David Nichol, I too studied the Baltimore Catechism, actually beginning in the 1940s. I would have to do more research than I am willing to do right now to compare the text with the Catechism of the Catholic Church's treatment. I am convinced that in the actual life of the church, in intellectual articulation by homilists, higher authorities, and theologians, the literal emphasis on a place of unending torment comparable to being burnt alive (but not dying) is seriously muted, to say the least, and the place of avoiding such torment in the whole economy of choosing and following Christ has been vastly lessened. Mortal sin and the avoidance of that torment were pivotal in Catholic life in a way that they just are not now. Some people regret this. I guess Thorin is one. Some people think that it was a necessary, although still not completely resolved, "reconfiguration" to understand God in a way that is consistent, valid, and credible. (Here is where Cathy's concern about an obstacle to evangelization comes in.) When I attended Jesuit retreats in high school (late 1950s), if there was a session dealing with hell, it was already but a pale version of the one in James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. And I haven't met a young Catholic who was exposed to anything even like that, let alone like the Joyce version. Of course, one can assume that all the people, including several popes, who have restated both the nature of damnation and just made it less central are merely slackers or guilty of accommodating teaching to the times rather than people with good, faith-based reasons. I don't think so. I believe that they have been engaged, some more successfully than others, in the unavoidable task of rethinking our faith.

David,I stand by the vision expressed by the Vatican Council: All [] are called to be part of this catholic unity of the people of God which in promoting universal peace presages it. And there belong to or are related to it in various ways, the Catholic faithful, all who believe in Christ, and indeed the whole of mankind, for all [] are called by the grace of God to salvation. Any reading that limits this universal call to just those who explicitly believe in Christ falls short of this vision. Every human is a brother or sister of Jesus, and a child of our Father. That catholicity is part of Mt's portrayal of the Last Judgment IMO, at least until someone could explain why Mt would use the narrower vision of the note you cite. The "stronger case" seems pretty weak to me.If you are unable to imagine people who would choose the wrong path for themselves, despite the help provided by Milton and others, you are lucky. I wish I could share that innocence, but I have made enough bad decisions to know that it would be easy for others to make similar decisions, and even worse.

DavidI like Jim McKs/Milton response to your question. The Church teaches, and I accept, that the ability to understand right from wrong is written into every human heart. Whether we believe in hell or not, we know when we choose to do wrong. If those choices land us in hell, its cold comfort to cry foul because we didnt think hell would be the consequence of our choices.BTW, did you every think of changing your last name to Nichol. It seems a number of want to call you that.

Any reading that limits this universal call to just those who explicitly believe in Christ falls short of this visionJim McK,I am disagreeing with your interpretation of a specific passage in Matthew. And if you take a look at Matthew 10, we have:

Jesus sent out these twelve* after instructing them thus, Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town. Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. . . . Whoever will not receive you or listen to your wordsgo outside that house or town and shake the dust from your feet. Amen, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

If Jesus is limiting missionary activity to Jews, and saying people who don't accept "Christian" missionaries are in serious trouble, it certainly doesn't seem implausible that "the least of my brethren" were followers of Jesus. In this context, pagans and Samaritans aren't even in the picture as intended objects of charitable acts.

Of course, one can assume that all the people, including several popes, who have restated both the nature of damnation and just made it less central are merely slackers or guilty of accommodating teaching to the times rather than people with good, faith-based reasons. I dont think so. I believe that they have been engaged, some more successfully than others, in the unavoidable task of rethinking our faith.Peter Steinfels,The problem, it seems to me, is that there is a distinction between "the official teachings of the Church" and "what people are talking about." The rather recent shift on the idea of Limbo, accompanied by the statement that the idea that unbaptized babies went to Limbo was never an official teaching of the Church no doubt caused many people to say, "You could-a fooled me!" It seems to me that there definitely have been attempts to deemphasize and "prettify" the teachings on hell, but then periodically there will be a clarification that hell is real and that people do go there.Plus, it seems to me it is not necessarily something that would draw people to Catholicism when a Church that claims infallibility rather dramatically shifts a position (for example, the relationship between the Church and the Jews) and maintains that there is really no change, just a "development" of doctrine. The Church can be a little bit like a politician, who claims to always have held the same position even when he makes a 180-degree turn. So although the way many in the Church talk about hell recently may make it seem a less troubling doctrine, I am not at all sure that makes the "official teachings" any more appealing.

The Church teaches, and I accept, that the ability to understand right from wrong is written into every human heart. Whether we believe in hell or not, we know when we choose to do wrong. If those choices land us in hell, its cold comfort to cry foul because we didnt think hell would be the consequence of our choices.Mark Proska,How can you claim that people choose hell and then acknowledge that they actually didn't know that hell would be the consequence of their choices. As I said before, the Church emphasizes that to commit a mortal sin, one must have full knowledge and give full consent. Certainly the criteria for choosing eternal torment as opposed to eternal bliss would be no less than full knowledge and full consent?BTW, did you every think of changing your last name to Nichol. It seems a number of want to call you that.A good thought, except that people also misspell it Nichols and Nickols! In my mailbox in my apartment building, the people who sort the mail have put cards right inside the boxes with our last names to help them sort correctly, and the card they put in my mailbox says NIKOL.

Nichols, Nichols, Nikol, etc. Beats O'Liver.

ISTM we have to distinguish *choose*, *intend*, *consent*, *permit*, *abet* and *ignore*.When we choose grievous sin, we do not choose its evil, but its pleasure. We also consent thereby to go to Hell, or at least we ignore the fact (?) that Hell will also be a result. (When I smash my fist in your face because I intend to make you suffer, I also thereby either intend/choose/abet/consent to/... your broken nose and am responsible for it.) Unfortunately, these matters are extremely complex and are thoroughly abstract (of a spiritual nature) but nevertheless real.

Ann,I suppose someone might say that the people who are sent to prison choose to go there, but I doubt that many people in prison would say it was their choice! I was in a double room in the hospital once and the guy in the other bed was an alcoholic who was being treated for liver damage. The doctors spoke to him very bluntly and said things like, "If you keep drinking, you might as well drink poison, because it will kill you." I overheard a visitor asked him if he was going to stop drinking, and he said very quietly and matter-of-factly, "I don't know." I suppose, if he continued to drink himself to death, some might say he chose to die, or even that he committed suicide, but I wouldn't say that. I think it is terribly misleading to think that anyone making a fully informed choice would choose eternal suffering over eternal bliss. It's preposterous. And of course you can't make a fully informed choice between two alternatives if you don't know what they are. Jean was saying we needed fewer glib answers, and I think claiming that God doesn't send people to hell, people chose hell and God allows the choice, is basically a glib answer. It may make you pause a moment to reflect, but after you do, there are as many problems as there were before, and the issue still remains.

Henceforth, I will strive to be less glib.

"It make no sense to compare the ordinary experience of human beings with the experience of Satan as depicted in Paradise Lost."I will concede that that's not glib. It sounds like a most heartfelt plea.

David N. --You raise some important questions, but I don't think contemporary ethics is yet capable of answering them all very clearly, if at all. I don't think *any* ethical systme is capable of doing so.It seems to me that a lot of talk of "choosing" and "morality" by Catholics is limited by the classic moral theology and terminology of Aquinas who was splendid when analysing out relationships between different sorts of knowledge acts. They include sensory knowledges of various sorts, internal sensory acts like memory and imagination, etc., and the various acts of the intellect, including formation of concepts, inference, and judgment). He also did a lot with specific sorts of affective acts (sensory inclinations/desires/avoidances) as well as spiritual will acts such as spiritual desire, intention, choice of means, love of various sorts, causing the body to act for an end(s). But I don't think Thomas ever put it all together in one phenomenological frame including definitions and possible relationships between cognitions and affective acts and the varied sorts of sequences which are possible among them. Yes, he does consider some of the sequences, but I think there are more than he considers. And he can be murky. He says we "choose" a means to an end, but I'm not sure he ever talks about choosing among different ends -- and that, I think, is what a lot of what we've been trying to get at and understand -- the process of choosing among ends. The subject is vastly complex, and, after all, by profession he was neither a philosopher nor psychologist. But we're stuck with his limitations, and unfortunately too many Catholic philosophers think he's said the last word about everything.The Franciscans (Scotus, Ockham, etc.) were much more interested in will acts, but I don't think they completed the job that needs to be done. We need another first rate inventor of philosophical terms to invent some needed words, and we need some clear definitions that go with them. Anscombe did a classic short work on "Intention", but I think it's really just a beginning of the wider ethics we need. Even she doesn't fully see all the distinctions that Aquinas himself made.Anscombe's work is highly admired outside of scholastic circles and has even prompted a reconsideration of parts of Aristotle's ethics. These days they call it "virtue ethics". it's been very good for ethics, but as I see it it is only a start. Virtue ethics isn't even the whole of Aristotle's ethics. Sartre did some very good phenomenological work about will acts, but he too seems baffled by the subject sometimes. We really do need a new Aquinas.

"To Jean Raber: Have I missed something? Your comments are invariably wise, witty, and welcome. And the George Herbert poem overwhemed me. I report that a recent national poll conducted by the Pew Trusts shows a 95 percent approval rating for Raber comments. She is even favorably rated by the 20 percent who believe that she is a Muslim."But have we seen her birth certificate?Hey, Jean, please don't defer to me because I happen to be a deacon. I'd much rather have you just kick my ass when I'm wrong or rude.My apologies if my comment came across as too glib. My point of view on this is one of anxiety that so many people don't go to church anymore, don't get their children baptized or further initiated into sacramental life. So many are spiritual but no longer religious. Why don't people feel the need to work out their salvation with fear and trembling anymore?

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