How to Reach People? Christopher West on filling hearts.
We fail so often to “get through” to others with the love and joy of our Faith that we all have to wonder if there is a better way. I discussed several different approaches recently in Models of Apologetics. That title may seem to blur the question, because it implies argument, when what we are really trying to do is offer a gift. But it is a gift that cannot be received without accepting certain deep realities, and so our quandary remains.
One popular contemporary solution is to focus on John Paul II’s theology of the body. The point here is to help men and women recognize that there is a fundamentally nuptial meaning built into human nature, a meaning which is expressed in many of our aspirations, in the way our bodies are designed, and in our yearning for fulfillment through our sexuality. Nobody has done more work on the theology of the body and how it illuminates human aspirations than Christopher West, who has made it his life’s work to extend Pope John Paul II’s insights into a strong component of the New Evangelization. In my earlier essay, this would fall mostly under the “common sense” model. We naturally intuit certain things about ourselves which point us to each other and to God. West’s latest book continues this exploration in terms of the deep aspiration for wholeness and completion that all persons experience.
The title of this new book is Fill These Hearts. Its subtitle is “God, Sex and the Universal Longing”. The publisher is Random House. West is hitting the mainstream market.
In many ways, this is an affective approach to evangelization, but Fill These Hearts is also firmly on the path followed by the Second Vatican Council. As a pastoral approach, the Council fathers suggested that the best way forward for an increasingly marginalized Catholicism was to recognize the importance and basic goodness of human aspirations, and then to show non-Christians and half-Christians that these aspirations are fulfilled by Jesus Christ. This involves a shift, but it is a shift which is too often exaggerated, and exaggerated even in West’s book. That shift is perhaps best expressed as follows: We must beware of a tendency to insist on Christian doctrinal principles and moral behavior as rules imposed by authority and instead make a greater effort to present them as the beautiful fulfillment of our deepest human desires, which of course they are.
Now when I say that this shift is exaggerated by many thinkers, including Christopher West, I am referring to the common allegation that a great many people reject Christianity because it has never been presented to them as more than a series of rules. That can be true; it is certainly true when our knowledge of Christianity comes primarily from those who have already rejected it; and I suppose it is often true in nominally Christian homes where there is no serious effort to cultivate a spiritual life. But we must remember how hard it is to “get through”. Often parents, pastors and friends can present a far more complete picture of the Faith which children, parishioners and other friends are strongly tempted to dismiss as “mere rules”, especially if they are being influenced elsewhere. The breakdown here may be in the presenter. But if we reflect on our own temptations, we should realize that the seed is often too good for the soil.
It is at best naïve for evangelists to blame the other messengers. But this does not mean we ought to present Christ as a burden, ignoring the need to paint the big picture, the picture in which He fulfills our wildest dreams. And Christopher West is very good at painting this big picture. In Fill These Hearts he portrays the longing we all feel and the different ways in which we attempt to satisfy it. Using a culinary analogy, he identifies three different ways: the starvation diet, fast food, and the banquet. In the second part of the book, he explores how we are designed, and what that design signifies; and in the third part, he indicates how our true destiny fulfills that design.
For the mystic, the true pleasures of the world are a welcome but only dim foreshadowing of the ecstasy that awaits him in the life to come. He can live within that “ache” (what the mystical tradition calls “the wound of love”) because of his living hope that his “soul shall be satisfied as with a banquet” (Ps. 63:5), a banquet that lasts forever and will fulfill every desire beyond all earthly imaginings. The truth is, we’re all called to be “mystics”. And that means we’re all called to enter into the “great mystery” of Christ and his mad love affair with us. (p. 34)
West is an effective writer, but he is also a quintessentially popular writer, and very deliberately so. He lays out his truths in small steps and with many examples, including examples from pop culture. This is not the mind of John Paul II at work, but fortunately it is the mind of someone who reveres that great pope’s insights and is capable of expressing them for the large number of persons who do not aspire to intellectual density.
This means, I suppose, that many CatholicCulture.org readers may find West somewhat breezy and inefficient. Such readers may well skim the book at light speed, but they will recognize its worth and almost certainly think of someone for whom it is likely to be perfect. For a great many—including later teens, younger adults, and even older souls who have not yet immersed themselves in the Catholic spiritual masters—West’s approach will be spot on.
West has been criticized in the past for presenting human sexuality too brashly, in a way that insufficiently values modesty. This is a danger in attempting to “get through” to those who do not yet “get it”. But in Fill These Hearts, he appears to be very conscious of this danger, even to the point of repeatedly emphasizing that if a reader tries to take his arguments in a cruder sense, he is missing the point.
A relevant example would be his portrayal of heaven as “a party like we’ve never known, a universal throwdown lovefest the joys of which we can only dimly imagine.” Such imagery does not work for me, but West goes on immediately to caution that he is not talking, as one of his students suggested, about a drunken orgy. And why? Because “a drunken orgy is a diabolic mockery of the communion of saints. The devil is not creative…. All he can do is take the good things that God made and twist them….” It is in fact West’s whole purpose to untwist the Devil’s work, enabling us to recognize, and aspire to, our true good.
I must admit that I could not have written this book. The popular approach is beyond me; there are layers of abstraction I cannot forsake; and so there are whole audiences I can never reach. In Fill These Hearts, West proves that he does know how to reach them. Still, we must remember that a positive and holistic presentation is only half the battle. Christopher West will no more get through to everybody than anyone else. But he will get through to some.
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