What This Means: Christian Witness in the Modern World
In classical apologetics, arguments proceed step by step toward something which at least approaches a proof. The arguments are important, but they cannot logically force someone to believe. If that were possible, then Faith would not be Faith. Rather, what classical apologetics is best at is clearing away mental obstacles to belief. The arguments demonstrate either that it is not unreasonable to believe this or that point of Christian doctrine, or that the ideas, perceptions and arguments we’ve used to buttress our non-belief will not pass close scrutiny.
Typically a strong argument makes people feel vulnerable, and so it puts them on the defensive. While their defensive posture may change in private, in the silence of their hearts, classical apologetics is essentially an adversarial enterprise. By its very nature it tends to buttress the confidence of the believer while minimizing any possible sympathy on the part of the non-believer. (Explanations in response to sincere questions, of course, may amount to the same thing but be exceedingly well-received.) Another problem with this sort of argumentative approach is that, in an age of pervasive media, we are so surrounded by constant argument that we have long since learned to discount it. Part of us fears that if we take arguments too seriously, we’ll never be able to affirm anything.
People often confuse argument with assertion, but the problem remains. Nobody likes to be talked at, and most of us are very good at filtering out what we don’t particularly want to hear. Even more to the point, few people find when they are not seeking. So there has to be a better way.
The Meaning of What’s Missing
Our Lord became incarnate in order to share our weakened human condition, to experience with His creatures not only all that they had but all that they lacked, the better to show the way to fill in the gaps. Catholics are called to do the same, not by living immorally certainly, but by recognizing and in some sense sympathizing with what is lacking in the lives of those to whom we wish to offer the greatest imaginable gift. Postmodern men and women have been trained to believe Faith is a myth, but they also have a long and weary experience of the endless cacophony of what passes for reason. In consequence, they are left pretty much with feeling, and with the movements of the will which are stimulated by feeling. What they invariably most miss, therefore, is meaning. To this we must become supremely sensitive.
A lack of meaning, of course, is not always recognized. In affluent societies, with endless gadgets and stimulants of every kind, it is as easy as it is instinctive to substitute stimulation for meaning. This invariably leads to binges of stimulation, whether stimulation by new things, by entertainment media, by sex or by drugs. This tendency even reveals itself in its absence—obvious discomfort with silence or stillness, shakiness in the absence of drugs or alcohol, self-loathing following excesses of every kind, depression, psychoses, or just a general discontent that there is not somehow more to life.
Insofar as we are human, and insofar as we also sin, Christians experience all of these things in a more or less muted form, and we are no strangers to the sense that there ought to be something more. But we understand this sense as a kind of practical demonstration that we do not yet fully possess God. The point is that Christians can identify with these feelings—this emptiness, and the various tricks one learns to keep it at bay. But the Christian also knows a trick that others do not: He knows prayer, and all the means of grace.
Life Is Not Satisfying
Every morning I wake up with a sense of futility, which usually fades throughout the day. Others may experience this on a different schedule. But we all have those moments when the constant effort of living and working seems futile. We’re often too close to the things that matter most, and we may not discern our own progress. Worse, if we don’t keep a proper spiritual perspective, we may not have any progress to discern. Moods come and go, of course, but our less elastic moods also put us in touch with a reality which underlies all of human life: Life just isn’t good enough to completely satisfy our deepest yearning, a yearning we find it naturally impossible to name.
We soon learn to put the zing back into life in countless little ways: getting together with friends, buying new clothes, celebrating special occasions, taking a day off work or going on a trip, perhaps even drinking too much or slipping into other stupid habits. As Christians we know that insofar as we do these things to feel more satisfied, they are all simply distractions—though not all necessarily unhealthy ones—and we recognize that to keep the need for distraction within legitimate bounds, we must also frequent the sacraments and grow in prayer. We find, within limits, that prayer and works of mercy both strengthen us and bring a deeper satisfaction. Yet we remain natural creatures who also need natural changes of pace, and natural forms of recreation and delight.
Now, if even we who are Christian experience and deal with life in this way, how much more must those without Faith struggle to balance the stresses and uncertainties of life with their thirst for meaning and fulfillment! This ought to be a great point in common between Christians and all others. But Christians, who understand suffering and trust God, respond to the human experience not frenetically or through excess, but with integrity, balance, discrimination, purity and purpose. Though buffeted like others in a thousand ways each day, we remain fundamentally at peace. When we are living rightly, we appear to others to be fixed points, even beacons, in the rough seas of life. Thus will others wonder at us, turn to look, and ask us questions.
For this reason, we must avoid standing off, acting superior, passing judgment. We must instead live as if we thirst for those questions. “We also are men, of like nature with you,” cried St. Paul, and so we are. But we “bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God” (Acts 14:15).
And Death Comes at the End
I have said that the mere prospect of living is daunting enough, but the prospect of dying is more formidable still. We Christians do well to ask, “O death, where is thy sting?” (1 Cor 15:55), and to ask frequently. The question is a good reminder that we are not to fear death. But even so, being still so far from perfection, we do fear it just a little. What then of the unbeliever?
The modern world excels at postponing death, at hiding it, and at maximizing the comfort of life. But death remains all around us. Those who cannot look forward to life with God may convince themselves that death will one day be conquered for the human race as a whole, but only madmen believe they will not be among those who must die before this conquest is achieved. This is a source of great sadness—this natural understanding that we can never hold life closely enough to cheat death. And this sadness can also drive those who feel it to the various methods of forgetfulness, to all the stimulations which enable them to forget, at least for a little while, the mortality they so abhor.
Here too the Christian is no different. He understands the clutch of death; like others, he has felt it at his throat. But the Christian quickly awakens from his momentary fear as from a bad dream, reaffirming his confidence in God. And so again, he avoids hysteria. He lives in secure peace; he faces death in exactly the same way as he faces life, full of quiet strength and deep integrity. Not for him the wild excesses. Not for him the leaden despair. Yet one day he will die, and so he remains the unbeliever’s brother, and he must show his brother the way. He must show—he will show, if he is truly Christian—that he possesses something others must inevitably want for themselves. The Christian is noticed in his joyful calm. Again the great question is raised. Again the great answer must be given.
My Peace I Give to You
Here we have non-classical apologetics, if you like, the apologetics not so much of argument as of life itself. As the world grows more militantly secular, there can be a tendency for the Christian and the unbeliever to separate. But this separation must not be of the Christian’s doing. It must not be of the Christian’s choice. The Father “sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (Jn 3:17). And did not the Son say to you and me, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (Jn 20:21).
But before He said this, He said: “Peace be with you.” This peace is His gift. “Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27). This is what I have been saying. We are “under the same sentence” (Lk 23:40), to live and to die, but we are not afraid. Indeed, we are something seldom seen in this world; we are happy. That is arresting. It is even stupendous. We must never forget that the non-believer yearns to know what this means.
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Posted by: bnewman -
Feb. 28, 2011 10:25 PM ET USA
Very interesting analysis. It must be right that every person is different, and that some point of common feeling in a dialogue is needed for real comunication.In the last analysis shouldn't we remember that only God can convince at the level of the heart? Was it St Augustine who made this observation? We must make sure we do not get in His way.
Posted by: labicolette -
Feb. 25, 2011 9:50 PM ET USA
Well spoken, written Dr Mirus! You highlight a possible path. Thank you.