Evangelization and the Gift of Meaning

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 03, 2015

Ever since Pope Francis said that we don’t need to talk about “these issues” all the time—referring to today’s most contested moral issues—Catholics have thought more deeply about evangelization. Whether we welcomed the comment or were appalled by it (a reaction I believe to be heavily dependent on personality), the only sensible response to this assertion is to reflect more personally on what it means to evangelize.

In our own time the question of evangelization has been heavily dependent on politics. Owing to the long disintegration of a Christian public order in a modern culture prone to reduce everything to politics, I think it is fair to say that many Christians had never before seriously considered modes of evangelization which did not emphasize moral conflict over public laws. On the opposite side of the coin, many others have welcomed the retreat of public Christianity as a kind of proof that they had no further responsibilities as Christians.

In many ways, Pope Francis has challenged us to recognize that the subject of evangelization is more complex than we have been conditioned to believe.

The fundamental proclamation of the Gospel is not the Ten Commandments but the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. St. Paul himself, after having so little success among the Greeks, vowed to “know nothing among you” except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). This is a good first lesson in evangelization. It avoids the fallacy that the Divine wisdom is primarily to be demonstrated through rational debates in the public square.

What it is important to explain about Christ’s death, of course, is that he conquered it. The words of the angel at the empty tomb became the fundamental message of evangelization: “Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said” (Mt 28:5-6). It is this message that was proclaimed tirelessly by Peter and the other apostles, including St. Paul.

Finding a Motive of Credibility

This is the central message, but we would still be wrong to think that it is enough to attract most people. It was not enough in the first century and it is not enough now. Even if someone is willing to entertain the scandalous notion that Christ conquered death, that person may not be particularly concerned about death at the moment, or he may not see what all this has to do with him, or he may not wish to risk a loss of respect and prosperity to embrace it, or he may suspect the preacher of trying to gain some sort of control.

For conversion to occur, there must always be a motive. In apologetics, such motives are called “motives of credibility”. The potential convert sees in Christ, or in the Church, or in particular Christians, some good in which he would like to share—some good beyond the power of men and women to seize on their own. One could be impressed with the remarkable doctrinal unity of the Catholic faith in the midst of controversy, or the incomparable holiness of the saints, or the sublimity of Catholic artistic achievement, or the durability of the Church against all odds, or the love exhibited by Christians toward others, or their joy in every circumstance.

Such points of attraction operate like spiritual magnets. They give each person a different reason to pay attention, to examine the claims of Christ more closely.

Malformed by Political Discourse

Now, the consistent superiority of Catholic moral teaching has often served as such a motive of credibility. It is clearly a teaching which plumbs the human heart, and yet it quickly reveals itself to be impossible to follow under human power alone. Unfortunately, in a culture formed precisely by a long, slow rebellion against Christian moral teaching, an initial emphasis on sin and virtue will often backfire. People will often feel not liberated but judged and condemned by Christianity, or they will view it as an attack on their freedom.

Unfortunately, this reduction of the Gospel to its moral dimension is the very thing that political battles over moral issues in a secular environment tend to produce. Every time we bow to the secularity of the public square and accept its constraints on political discourse, we concede that it is acceptable to argue for a moral position only as long as we do not bring the Gospel into it. For most Christians in the modern West, this reduction—really a reductio ad absurdum—has been long since ingrained in our own spiritual habits.

This alone justifies Pope Francis’ frequent emphasis on the need to share all the manifold beauties of Catholic life and love with others, to avoid reducing Catholicism to a series of moral demands. We need to recognize this danger of playing into the Devil’s hands. We need to see how we have been progressively constrained in ways that make us less able to evangelize.

I submit, in fact, that today’s secular societies cannot by their very nature be evangelized from the top down. This means we must begin at the bottom. And that is why we need to attend to the motives that might attract the men and women with whom we interact non-politically to examine what it means to be a Christian.

The Motive of Meaning

I use the phrase “what it means” deliberately. The love and care manifested by Christians ought to be the most powerful motive, but because love is so easily ignored when things are going well, and so easily misunderstood when they are going badly, I think there is an even more universal motive for taking Christ seriously in our particular culture. I am talking about “meaning”.

Modern Western culture is hung constantly by its own rope when it comes to meaning. However much our culture might impose various politically-correct dogmas, every dogma is undermined by the modern insistence that meaning does not exist, that everything is ultimately the product of random material interactions. This creates a culture-wide yet deeply personal crisis in just about everybody.

Of course, people are rarely consistent. They very frequently act out of love, for example, even though they informally subscribe to a philosophy which denies the very existence of love. They often find meaning in their relationships and in their duties even when their worldview insists that relationships are inescapably transitory and duties are mere conventions. They may make sacrifices for something good despite being carefully taught (and often finding the teaching selfishly useful) that good and evil are at worst imaginary and at best matters of opinion.

Nonetheless, people are frequently troubled by lack of meaning. They give themselves over to extreme pleasures followed by suicidal bouts of sadness as a direct result of the absence of meaning in their lives. At every turn their satisfaction in achievements and accomplishments is reduced to ashes because they suspect it means nothing. They do not know where they came from or where they are going. In pain and increasingly even in pleasure, they cannot imagine “why they should bother”. Their frustration is as palpable to others as it is frightening to themselves.

To address the issue of meaning is to answer the question “Why?”. Note that to say that abortion or same-sex marriage is “wrong” does not answer this question. It provides a rule, not a meaning. But answering the question of why anything should be right or wrong in the first place does provide meaning, and therefore it also imparts purpose.

Our Lord said that our neighbors would know we are His disciples by our love for one another (Jn 13:35). That is true, and without it nothing else will get us very far. But the most obvious difference between Christians and non-Christians in a post-Christian society like ours is that Christians still inhabit an intelligible world.

I believe this is something most non-Christians deeply desire. In the last analysis, meaning is the key to happiness. The first step to evangelization—and the necessary precondition for it—just might be to offer the incomparable gift of meaning.


Next in series: Opening Ourselves to Meaning and Purpose

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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