Obstacles to Evangelization: What's an Obstacle?

Thanks to the many helpful commenters on my posts, "Obstacles to Evangelization: 1 and 2." Before moving on to no. 3, I just want to clarify a couple of things.1. By "obstacle" I mean to stick closely to the Latin root of the word--I mean something that stands in the way of evangelization of Christianity (and Catholicism in particular) in the current West. Some commenters, in my view, have responded by evangelizing. Some have said they're not obstacles, because they're not ultimately decisive, or because there is an answer for them somewhere, or because they've always been a challenge to people. That all may be true. But that doesn't mean these aren't key obstacles in our place and time, or are at least more formidable obstacles. Obstacles can be overcome, or avoided. But it helps, I think, to figure out what they are.I think of an obstacle as something that could prevent Christianity (and Catholicism) from gaining a hearing. There are all sorts of obstacles to anyone's evangelization: And it helps to think in terms of what blocks you from being evangelized from another tradition. I am not open to being evangelized by Mormons, despite the fact that there are very nice and good people who are Mormons, because I find the whole story of the Book of Mormon implausible, and the idea of the afterlife not tenable and the treatment of women too unjust. I am not open to being evangelized by Scientology for different reasons. My reasons are not unique, they are probably held by many non-Mormons and non-Scientologists. Doubtless, the Mormons and the Scientologists have answers to my reservations, answers they consider sufficient. But these are obstacles to their evangelization of me and of people like me.

I think in saying that the basic question Christianity asks of individuals is about salvation, and about personal salvation, I'm tracking the creed, the catechism, the major theologians, and most religious studies texts. The very idea of a stable "I"--a moral self, is not something that all religious traditions would hold to be valid--for some traditions, that's an illusion. The idea of a stable self, of a self that is judged on an individual basis, is key to the Christianity. Some commentators have disagreed with me here- they suggest the core meaning of Christianity is just "love." But there are many ways of interpreting that term. The love at stake in Christianity is inseparable from the self-sacraficial love of Jesus on the cross to SAVE us. "On this day you will be with me in paradise."So by saying that traditional accounts of eternal life are an obstacle, I am saying that the idea of eternity, or an afterlife (and yes, I think those are key to credal Christianity) are less credible and attractive to people in the contemporary West, given our specific challenges in our society.Now, some people downplay it. It's about here and now, not the next life; it's about being redeemed in Creation. Those are strategies for dealing with an obstacle. I'm not sure how well they work in the end; you may end up with something very watered-down. And in any case, it's not consistent with the broad sweep of the tradition over two thousand years which put tremendous emphasis on the afterlife (heaven and hell, protestant and Catholic).2) Obstacle 2 is a bit different. I'm not saying that these problems were never problems for anyone ever before, I'm saying that in our era I think they are bigger problems. If you look at the middle ages, the punishments in hell pretty much corresponded to the punishments on earth. Who'd want to be drawn and quartered. In earlier times, the rights of the sovereign to determine his people's fate was much broader. I think the notion of human rights--in its modern form militate against any notion of eternal punishment. Just like I think the notion of women's rights militate against more traditional religions in our context. You can make the arguments defending both. But it's a bigger challenge. than it was when both the notion of hell and the notion of women in religious traditions were continuous with the broader cultural nation. Even the notion of moral responsibility was much simpler and broader. The ida of "mental illness" (versus demonic possession) is of comparatively recent development. We are calling in question in our era to a very new degree the idea of the self that is morally responsible, versus the self that is influenced or shaped by others. It's a new issue--and an important issue for holding people accountable, in this life or the next.At any rate, that's what I'm doing with these obstacles: I'm not looking so much to respond to them, as to identify the things in the air, the broader cultural currents, that make it hard to be a believing Christian.Now back to Mary MacKillop.

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

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