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Religious unity, evangelization and the salvation crisis

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 08, 2016

Having examined the fundamental difference between the quest for religious unity and evangelization, it seems sensible to ask what, in the modern period, has caused evangelization (with its supernatural end) to so often be subordinated to religious unity (with its natural end). If we can understand how this came about, we will be one step closer to restoring effective evangelization to our world.

The Impact of Pluralism

One of the two main causes is very simple and at least partially legitimate. We might call this cause the “impact of pluralism”. In many periods of Christian history, evangelization was largely a process of cultural assimilation. What I mean by this is that a generally superior Christian culture encountered a generally inferior pagan culture, and the effort to convert the pagans to Christianity was part of a larger process of encouraging (or sometimes, sadly, forcing) the pagans to recognize and take advantage of what was perceived as a higher form of civilization across the board.

While this was not true in the first two or three hundred years of Christian history, it was very frequently true for some thirteen hundred years after that. The conversion of the barbarian tribes throughout Europe was a part of their cultural assimilation into the substantially superior culture of Christian Rome, which was preserved and extended primarily through the Church. Some may object to the classification of one culture as “superior” to another (though I have no such qualms), but it is enough for this argument that, in point of fact, this culture was broadly recognized by all concerned as offering superior benefits.

Although such Christian assimilation was not successful in Islamic territories (or later in the Far East), its power was demonstrated again in the New World, as European culture displaced what we now call native American cultures, for many reasons. The reasons included superior military and administrative capacities, loftier religious conceptions with a moral foundation in natural law, and a perceived stronger alliance with Divine power (as manifested seemingly by European might and more truly by the appearances of Our Lady of Guadalupe to Juan Diego). But at the same time as Catholicism was taking hold in the Americas, Christianity was becoming hopelessly divided in Europe by the worldliness in the Church, the rise of Protestantism, and political opportunism with respect to religious disagreements.

This is where we begin to see the impact of pluralism. The dominant Western or European culture now experienced a divided Christianity. Over the next few centuries, two characteristics of this division became increasingly obvious. First, the division appeared to be depressingly permanent. No matter how long the split endured, there was no indication that Europe was likely to recover its old commitment to the Church. Moreover, Western culture gradually became accustomed to religious pluralism through the simple expedient of conceiving the public order in secular ways.

Over time, then, the hostility of the two religious factions gave way before a more common experience of tolerance and even cooperation for the common good. In addition, a pressing socio-political need for inter-religious collaboration grew ever more apparent as the larger culture grew more secular. This cultural shift—inconceivable just a few centuries earlier—was a major pragmatic cause of the displacement of evangelization by the quest for at least a broad and generalized religious unity.

Evangelization still remained a priority in world regions being assimilated by European culture (such as Africa), not without a certain rivalry among Christian groups. But this “impact of pluralism” was one of the two most important reasons for the displacement of evangelization by “religious unity” among Westerners themselves.

The Crisis of Salvation

This experience of pluralism, which had largely been absent since the fourth century, also stimulated substantial developments in the Catholic theology of salvation. European Catholics had to think very hard about the operations of Divine grace outside the visible borders of the Church. Although such questions were addressed by St. Paul, and were probably somewhat familiar to early Christians, throughout the medieval and early modern period Catholic theologians tended to associate salvation with what we might call juridical membership in the Church.

But now theologians were forced to confront the obvious goodness of many non-Catholic Christians, as well as the salvific power of those salvific goods which were quite clearly operative outside the visible borders of the Catholic Church: such things as Baptism, Scripture, the preaching of the Gospel, Christian spiritual direction, personal and communal prayer through Jesus Christ. At the same time, the experience of missionaries with non-Christian cultures led to a significant appreciation of the elements of natural goodness in such cultures, as well as the attractiveness of these elements in the lives of those who took them seriously and committed themselves, in various incomplete ways, to the Good.

By the mid-twentieth century there was a far greater emphasis on the ability of the Holy Spirit to act everywhere, and of the importance of each person’s response to whatever good the Holy Spirit has enabled him to know in his heart. Much more attention was being paid to the Church, not as the boundary of grace but as the operative principle and vital conduit of the ongoing action of Christ in the world. The Church, in other words, was viewed not so much as a closed repository of grace as the visible presence of Christ’s body in history, without which there would be no continuing operations of grace at all. At the same time, there was much less emphasis on juridical membership in the Church as the key to salvation and much greater emphasis on the ways in which people can be joined to Christ and the Church without being visible, juridical members.

St. Paul, of course, had touched on all these concerns in his Letter to the Romans. Again, one can imagine that the early Church had at least some rudimentary inkling of these issues. For Paul, being joined to Christ and being joined to the Church were the same thing, and this was less about formal bonds and more about the operations of grace. The post-medieval experience of the Church, particularly as the emphases of the Counter Reformation faded, led to a more thorough appreciation of the impossibility of separating the sheep from the goats along publicly visible denominational lines.

The Second Vatican Council gave voice to this more subtle (and more thorough) understanding of the question. At the same time, moving forward, both the Council and the Church placed a higher priority on building good relationships with other Christian bodies, other religions, and all men of good will. But this too was a nearly inescapable cause of the decline of evangelization. A mistaken perception arose that our beliefs are essentially irrelevant to our salvation. Against the looming challenge of a Godless secularism, Catholics became distrustful of evangelization at the same moment as the need grew to have all men and women of good will on deck to face the challenge of common enemies.

I am referring to this second cause as “the crisis of salvation”. By this I mean a growing distrust of our knowledge of how people are saved, and a growing emphasis on the kind of natural unity in pursuit of the common good that, right now at least, we can more easily understand.

Where we go from here

If I am correct that the impact of pluralism and the crisis of salvation are the main reasons our contemporary emphasis on the quest for religious unity too often eclipses our concern for evangelization, then the solution clearly lies in understanding more perfectly how, in the midst of the pluralistic emphases of the modern period, we can still articulate an optimum response to the salvific will of God. What we will see is that Catholics have been influenced far too much by Protestantism’s extrinsic and functional understanding of salvation—the idea that salvation comes through embracing a formula and/or establishing a social affiliation.

This is the other side of the same coin which has led so many Catholics to live the Faith prescriptively, as in “just tell me what I have to do to get to purgatory.” But the Christian goal is not “salvation” in such a relatively selfish sense, so clearly designed to reduce our anxiety. The Christian prize, the true understanding of salvation, is a transformative love affair which leads to perfect union with God. As we continue our discussion of evangelization and the quest for religious unity, we will see that this fundamental recognition dispels the shadows cast by the quest for religious unity—shadows which too often leave both evangelization and our supernatural destiny in the dark.

Previous in series: The quest for religious unity: The natural must not eclipse the supernatural.
Next in series: The essential posture of evangelization: We are all adopted.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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