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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.


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Jeanne --I agree with all you say. Especially about fundamentalism. Fundamentalists reject looking for imperfections in their own beliefs, imperfections found largely by logical, philosophical criticism. Their's is the unexamined life par excellence, and there are Catholic fundamentalists (including many in the Vatican). It seems to me that one of the biggest differences between liberal and conservative Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, is that the liberals are willing to criticize their own beliefs where necessary in order to rid theology of some of its contradictions/irrationality, while the fundamentalist conservatives are not. By turning a blind eye to the contradictions, they immediately lose the young who are steeped in Socratic questioning and Nietzchean individualism. (Have any sociological studies been done of whose children -- those of liberals or those of conservatives -- are more likely to leave Christianity?) ISTM that conservatives are more prone to appeal to that catch all notion, "mystery" (a fundamental and apparently contradictory belief such as the Resurrection and the Trinity). Yes of course there are mysteries, but the problems are in the ways we try to comprehend them, not in the mysteries in themselves. It seems to me that the Catholic fundamentalists don't usually see it like that -- they just accept the theology as it stands. They want nothing to change.

Claire --The metaphysical questions can be dry for most people == until they need answers or simply start to wonder about life. If they never need answers, if life goes along pleasantly the way many American lives have done (until it's time to die), then many Americans will never ask the questions or will avoid them like the plague. But will their lives be truly rich for not being inquisitive? I think not. Often those who are inquisitive but end up skeptics end up thinking that the best life has to offer are those "whooshy" experiences recently extolled by a couple of American philosophers (Dreyfus and Kelly). Those experiences can include a cup of coffee with a friend or a Super Bowl game. As Simone de Beauvoir asked, "Is that all there is?"See the dotCWL discussion of the whooshy here

Claire, thanks very much for telling about your mother's death. That's a story with lots of relevance to evangelization.

Ann, I didn't mean to criticize asking metaphysical questions, sorry! I was trying to be descriptive but it was in no way a value judgment. You write: "The metaphysical questions can be dry for most people, until...": that's all I meant to say.

Claire,I was just commenting on how many Americans feel about hard abstract thinking. We tend to avoid it unless it's laid out by master contemporary teachers, like Nietzsche and Sartre. (Yeah, I think of N as a contemporary. He's still being read widely.) True, we don't mind reading about easy philosophical answers, such as an incompetent like Dawkins presents. But thorough investigations of both sides of fundamental, highly abstract issues? We're not likely to do that unless a college teacher forces us to. Too impatient, I fear, and also fearful of what the answers might end up being.And that's where I think the official Church is failing the unchurched. It doesn't regularly seek *their* questions, and it when it sometimes does (e.g., the question of predestination) it doesn't present *all* sides of the issue and then try to persuaded the inquirer of the truth of Christianity/Catholicism.I also think that Rome doesn't understand that evangelization has to deal with two kinds of prejudice -- against Christianity in the widest sense and against Catholicism specifically. And it's the latter that it the much harder job!

Cathleen wrote, "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?"There are so many good questions. One of my favorites is, "Who do you say that I am?" Another is, "And who is my neighbor?" Still another is, "Were not our hearts burning within us?" Or how about, "Do you love me?" Or, "Master, to whom shall we go?" Could not all of these questions be posed in such a way that they could be relevant to people today?

And let's not forget, "What's for dinner?"

I am having trouble with the angle taken in this thread: There is a basic question that Christianity proposes to answer. If people don't care about that question, it's an obstacle.It seems to me that Christianity is not fundamentally about answering questions. It does propose answers to some questions, but that is probably not the way in which people convert, by asking questions and finding that Christianity has an answer. Christianity may be more about filling a need (a spiritual hunger). The need may be expressed by a question, but the question itself is less important than the need that caused it. Evangelization would address the need rather than the question.Maybe the young rich man really meant: "I seem to have done everything right, by the books, and yet there is still something missing. What is it?"

And I see now that my last comment is a mere echo of Rita's comment.

Claire, No doubt that describes some people, but not all. Consider also the former believers, those who for some reason (often the problem of evil) find what they have been taught to be contradictory, and reject it. Evangelizing them will require what? Surely not an answer to "How can God cause suffering in innocents?" There is no good answer to that.I also wonder about making conversion a matter of simply fulfilling needs that are called "religious". There are all sorts of needs. How can we even be sure that a so-called religious need is indeed directed towards God? I'm thinking of some so-called "mystics" who are not what most would consider religious people -- they're too conceited and selfish. Not to mention the garden variety of "religious" or "faithful" person who delights in pronouncing other people to be damned for no good reason. (OK, so now I'm getting into some purely relative, even subjective sorts of judgments myself.)