Thursday, January 8, 2015

Evangelizing the Lukewarm?

(An earlier version of this Throwback was first published in May of last year)

 We can never tell when, or from where, we will find a valuable new discovery. I was at a staff retreat the other day, for instance, and I made an unexpected find.  I pulled a book (more or less at random) off the shelf in the retreat house library, a book called The Secularist Heresy: the Erosion of the Gospel in the Twentieth Century.  It was a 1980 reissue of an original first published in the 1950’s, written by an Anglican gentleman named Harry Blamires (a student of C.S.Lewis, it seems). I opened it up at somewhere in the middle and read the following thought-provoking passage:
Harry Blamires

     For the problem peculiar to our time is, not that large numbers of people are asking questions about life’s meaning and trembling uneasily on the brink of Christian self-committal, but that by far the largest section of our population is completely without interest in the religious issue at all.  They have not reached the stage of asking questions which the Christian apologist answers.  They have never truly recognized in themselves that deep discontent which only the peace of God can take away.  They have not arrived at that phase of uneasiness which is so often a fruitful time for the sowing of seeds.

Anyone who has tried to Evangelize in recent years knows that, if this was true sixty years ago, it is much more so today.  I’ve experienced it in teaching ninth grade religion in the Catholic high school in which I work, where I’ve seen first-hand what Blamires means when he says:

It may even be the case that, in our own age, the difference between the interested and the uninterested in the religious issue is more significant than the difference between believer and unbelievers.

Again, this sounds familiar.  I’ve found that I can carry on a discussion with the loud-mouth atheist student, and he will indeed listen to what I have to say.  Yes, it may be only because he wants to refute it, but he wants to refute it because at some level he wants to know the Truth; if he keeps searching, he may find it at some point.  The apathetic student is searching for nothing more than the end of the class period so he can go check his text messages; it’s hard to get any response out of him at all.  One begins to understand what Christ means when he says: "So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth" (Rev. 3:16).
     How to catch the interest of the apathetic, then, is the big challenge.  Blamires warns us against relying on the “relevance” approach to get their attention.  The main theme of his book is what he calls the corruption of the Church by the secular world [N.B., by “The Church” Blamires means institutional Christianity collectively, not a particular church, and certainly not the Catholic Church], and  he argues that an undue emphasis on the relevance of the Christian message (as opposed to the truth of the Christian message) is a large part of the problem,  because in doing so we subordinate the infinite to the finite.   He goes on to say:

If the Christian Church is sapped of its doctrinal virility and institutional sturdiness, Christianity itself may be perverted by some into an instrument of social and civilizational decomposition that has nothing to do with its proper call to self-sacrificial encounter with the world of materialism and unbelief.

     This dismal prophecy first published in the 1950's came to fruition with a swiftness and thoroughness in his own Anglican Church that shocked and saddened Blamires himself, as he admits in his introduction to the 1980 reprinting of his book.  Just a few years after its first publication we saw the same process at work in the Catholic Church: Pope John XXIII, with the best of intentions, “threw open the windows of the Church” to allow the Church to communicate the Gospel more effectively to the world; one does not have to be a Council-basher (which I am not) to notice that an awful lot of “the world” snuck back the other way through the open windows into the Church.  As John’s successor Paul VI famously said, “From some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.”  And of course we have seen that what some of us more prosaically call "dumbing down" the content of faith not only corrupts the Church, but, ironically, makes it even less attractive to both non-believers and believers alike, if church attendance in the Age of Relevance is any indication.
        That leaves us, of course, with the question, what do we do?  I confess I don’t have the answers,  and if I did I’d need more than a blog post to provide them.  I do know, however, that at a minimum we need to lead as faithful a Christian life as possible (and I suspect I’m not the only one who often falls short in this regard).  Christ tells us not to keep our lamp under a bushel (Matthew 5:15), but if we’re not clear and joyful examples of living the Faith our example does more harm than good.  But we need to do more than just be an example, we must “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1Peter 3:15).  Mother Theresa of Calcutta is credited with saying: “God has not called me to be successful; he has called me to be faithful.”  While I’m at it, how about the quote often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach always, and when necessary use words”.  The point is, if we live a life of fidelity to the Gospel, people will notice, and not only because we’re doing something different, but because they’ll see the joy in our lives.  Then they’ll be willing to listen, at which point we need to be ready to speak.
     I had such an opportunity recently when a co-worker contemplating her 4th marriage asked how I managed to stay married to the same woman for 28 years: here was someone who was ready to listen, because she saw in the longevity of my marriage something she really wanted.  Which gave me the opportunity to connect that desired result with the life of faith: "Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain" (Psalm 127:1).

     There are some books that tell you things you never knew; others crystalize and bring into focus things you already knew, but hadn't yet worked out in your mind.  Blamires' book, for me, falls into that second category, and is doubly valuable because we can see the working out of his thesis over the past sixty years.  I can thank the Lord for a fruitful retreat.