Catholic renewal in the long defeat: Engaging Conor Sweeney
I’ve just finished a fascinating new book by Conor Sweeney from Angelico Press entitled Abiding the Long Defeat and subtitled “How to Evangelize Like a Hobbit in a Disenchanted Age”. While I do not think every emphasis in this book is directly on target, important insights leap continually off its pages, insights critical to an understanding of the chief obstacle to evangelization today, and how it must be overcome.
The subtitle will alert readers to Sweeney’s passion for J. R. R. Tolkien, but so should the title. Tolkien famously regarded human history as a long defeat, in the sense that without Christ no ultimate victory is possible, and we humans keep trying to win our civilizational victories without Christ. The first, and perhaps the most valuable, insight Sweeney offers is that Christians must recognize that this purely human defeat is inescapable. Indeed, if there is any truth implied in Christ’s question, “when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”, then we Christians need to expect the constant degenerative failure of the world around us and, to a limited extent, even of the Church herself.
This links tightly with the author’s second insight—that the particular degenerative failure of the modern world is its blinkered and superficial myopia, its focus on material reality and material instrumentality for satisfying natural desires in this world. Over time, modern culture has slipped into a purely functional and utilitarian vision of not only the world around us but even our own bodies. Our culture habitually either ignores or denies that transcendence which characterizes both the human person and all of human history. Evangelization in our time does not encompass simply the shift from a less powerful or less congenial god to a more powerful or more congenial God. Rather, it requires the shifting of our horizons from nothing (albeit an ever more comfortable, entertaining and titillating nothing) to Something.
These two fundamental insights are the foundations for Conor Sweeney’s thesis, which is that the only possible effective evangelization must be rooted in lives illuminated by a far more complete vision of the human person, namely the vision exemplified and conferred in Baptism. It is in Baptism that we put off the old man and put on Christ—and so live in constant awareness of the transcendent meaning—no, not just meaning, but the transcendent reality—of being an adopted son or daughter of God. More concretely, Sweeney argues that effective evangelization (not to mention a full Christian life) depends on a renewed awareness of the deeper realities which lie beneath our instrumentalized preoccupation with the surface of things: The realities of love, worship and beauty—the realities which are imprinted on our very being in Baptism.
The Scholar and the Church
I sometimes wonder about the wisdom of writing books, especially in the age of the sound bite. Sweeney himself eschews scholarly documentation because he wants his thesis to remain accessible, but he still draws on a wide range of authors to buttress and flesh out his portrayal of what is essentially a barren modern vision of reality, and the need to replace it with a baptismal vision. It is quite possible that most who are open to his thesis would have been happier to grasp it in a single essay, but the author is, after all, a scholar, widely-read, extraordinarily perceptive, and perfectly capable of addressing his central issues with resources drawn from the many thinkers, good and bad, who have preceded him.
Another of the insights he manages to flesh out quite well is the manner in which the twists and turns of Church history and Catholic intellectual history have contributed to our present myopia. All of us should be capable by now of recognizing both the Divine and human character of the Church, and of understanding how the human effort to counter this or that challenge often results in an over-emphasis on something that will, in its own time, lead people to a less holistic vision of life in Christ than they might otherwise possess. This is the case, for example, in the Counter-Reformation Church’s emphasis on the differences between grace and nature and the subsequent scholastic preoccupation with philosophical systems to explain Catholic doctrine and Catholic morals. There has been a cost in terms of mystery and spiritual depth, a cost in terms of personal experience of the Divine.
In this we also see the seeds of our modern crisis, for we have somehow evolved a Church of systems, in which Catholic leaders, too often bereft of a dynamic baptismal understanding of their own being, have emphasized a long series of accommodations with the world along with endless programs which fall far short of the power and vision of baptismal regeneration. These largely failed efforts are rapidly breaking down throughout Western Catholicism. Many bishops are now struggling to increase dramatically our Catholic depth of vision, but many others are still too busy guiding their dioceses into the final stages of spiritual bankruptcy. Emmanuel—the God Who is with us—may be forced this time to come out of Africa.
When Conor Sweeney puts himself to the test at the end of the book, he both passes and fails. He succeeds in leaving us with a compelling understanding of the kind of Christian vision necessary for effective evangelization, but he largely fails (as he himself admits) in providing any sort of practical blueprint for how we might actually begin engaging in an effective evangelization. He does say that this is beyond the scope of his book, and that is true. But surely it is true not only because he chose to highlight the baptismal vision of Divine adoption without which effective evangelization cannot happen, but also because, when all is said and done, he does not know how to proceed in the practical sense.
I do not mean this as a criticism, and in fact he does take a stab at it here and there. For example, he criticizes what he calls “virtual evangelization”, recognizing that it can lose itself in that bloodless and even spiritless virtualization of just about everything, which is one of the most distressing features of our modern technocratic lifestyle. Virtualization can carry with it a kind of ingrained superficiality and even a personal and social falsity which contributes mightily to our dissociation from the full personhood conferred by Divine filiation. This, after all, should express itself in what goes beyond the surface, what touches the core, that is, in love, worship and beauty. But Sweeney discounts the facts that, for many, “virtual evangelization” is nearly all they have, and even the virtual can be used to point to the real.
At the risk of stressing a minor point, he also tries to exempt the writing of books from the same criticism (anticipating my own obvious rejoinder), arguing that we have never seen books suck people away from real life the way social media does. First, a question: How much is virtual preoccupation fueled by empty personal relationships, including our relationship with Christ, and how much does it cause them? Second, the answer to his somewhat defensive question may well be both yes and no. Petrarch famously insisted that he preferred to spend his time among the dead [the ancient authors] rather than among the living. And many a scholar has taken refuge in his library—perhaps even Tolkien at times!
Still, Sweeney is full of insights even on the problem of virtualization, and he also sees clearly that for most of us, when it comes to evangelization, the greatest hope is the domestic Church. Here at CatholicCulture.org, we have been (virtually!) harping on that from the first. Families which are fully alive to the baptismal identity of each member, and therefore the ecclesial identity of the family itself, will not only evangelize generationally—the importance of which cannot be over-emphasized—but also always have some opportunities to draw others in, to give others a glimpse of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “the dearest freshness deep down things” (read Hopkins’ brilliant poem “God’s Grandeur”).
Sweeney also offers interesting observations on the dangers of attempting to make progress in the public square by adopting the methods and limitations imposed by secularity—an important point which is too often forgotten even by our own bishops. Such methods and limitations tend to shape all our thoughts and stifle our imaginations. But in the end, he does not really have a great answer to the question of “How to evangelize like a hobbit in a disenchanted age.”
The Renewal Requirement
And that’s okay. In the culture as a whole, while despair is growing on every side, that despair has not yet grown deep and pervasive enough for a total collapse. It is held at bay in some ways through wealth and technology. If things continue as they are, ever more widespread human disasters will force us to make at least some things new. But what of the Church herself?
There is no shortage of fine new evangelization efforts, at least if we assume the term “evangelization” can legitimately apply to igniting and deepening the Faith of those who are already at least nominally Catholic. We see even major efforts like FOCUS in the universities and the Augustine Institute in its outstanding parish programs. But for all that, we remain at present very much like the boy with his finger in the dike; we are all somewhat at a loss when it comes to identifying the one key to evangelization, the benificent storm that will blow in the new Spring. In terms of a common renewal, it has been very difficult to move much beyond individual families (and groups of families organized around special independent schools which most Catholics will not touch with a barge pole).
The reason is simple: The next stage of community formation beyond the family is supposed to be the parish. It is the parish which should be animated by that baptismal vision which attracts and captivates others, by giving a glimpse of life in Christ through many forms of outreach, both to less active Catholics and to the world beyond.
But Catholic parishes throughout the West are, by and large, still shrinking, drained of their compelling native vision by both enormous dead weight and the condition of the larger Church, which remains in serious need of renewal and reform. Ours is a Church of accommodation, and of programs characterized, in Sweeney’s terms, by a serious lack of clarity when it comes to baptismal vision. Things are changing slowly, but it seems likely that the Church in the West will have to shrink even more substantially before it can effectively foster the baptismal vision, or the consequent baptismal motivation Conor Sweeney so rightly demands.
All we need to do is think of Catholic universities today to see how far away from root-and-branch renewal the Church in the West remains—the universities, which have sold their souls to the secular mainstream, proving the utter bankruptcy of reason when divorced from that baptismal vision through which alone the human person can apprehend all of reality.
The long and painful renewal of the Church in the West has certainly begun, at least in comparison with the situation fifty years ago. Moreover, the baptismally-vibrant churches, especially in Africa, are growing rapidly even while those in the West continue to decline. It remains to be seen whether the pontificate of Francis will prove to be a key step in this process, a step which, through either horror or joy, shakes many out of their complacency. But no matter how the Holy Spirit gets our attention, the effective renewal of the Church herself is essential for evangelization to move beyond its current embryonic stage.
Conor Sweeney’s book would have been even better had he rushed in here, where apparently even angels fear to tread. The continued and even studied mediocrity of the institutional Church in the West is, as Tolkien’s Samwise Gamgee would say, the oliphaunt in the room. But in the end, reforming the Church is not exactly the work of hobbits, though they do appear to excel in their appreciation of the dearest freshness deep down things, and so they offer a non-technocratic vision of ultimate reality which at least transcends our own. Tolkien did not share C. S. Lewis’ love of allegory, especially obvious allegory, and it is not clear that his hobbits, for all their simple and surely admirable groundedness, have much of a religious horizon.
They are not, in the last analysis, men and women. We can say, though, that they love giving and receiving gifts, and even passing them around again with a sort of unassuming and even humorous pleasure—all without the least hint of staleness or boredom—in which practice there is no small lesson.
Outside of fiction, it is only saints who can truly abide the long defeat, and only saints who can renew the Church. Sweeney does not say this, but there can be no doubt of its centrality to his emphasis on the baptismal vision of being. Reading his book is almost like having a conversation with Gandalf, a wizard of amazing breadth and depth of insight who, in another universe, might just have been a saint-maker. I have given you my portion of one conversation here. I recommend that you knock at Conor Sweeney’s literary door, without fear of virtualization, and strike up your own.
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