Returning to the Old Evangelization

“We have seen His star in the East, and we have come to do Him homage.” Matthew 2:2. 

We have heard much these days about the New Evangelization as a concept, and even as a necessity, but it seems few of us have figured out just how we are to do it effectively.

As a concept, it means attempting to convince a post-orthodox Christian society (mainly in the West) that it should again embrace the true Christian faith. We all have heard the scary and disappointing statistics countless times now about numbers of lapsed Catholics, the rise of agnostics, “nones,” and even atheists. The triumph of the secular seems to have occurred in every societal stronghold. All of this has taken place in what were at one time deeply Christian cultures.

Hence the call for the New Evangelization. New in methods, in ardor, and in tone; new in the proposition to reconsider the Faith in places and in hearts where it has been marginalized or even rejected outrightly. This is what the documents on the topic all say, anyway.

Obstacles to the New Evangelization

There are several serious obstacles to this New Evangelization. Often cited would be the obstacles “out there,” ad-extra, in the culture itself. They include the usual list of suspects: individualism, secularism, consumerism, agnosticism, nihilism, insert “ism,” etc, etc, etc.

Less frequently noted would be what I consider to be the more serious challenge of the outlines of the belief in God that is widespread in the Western mindset at-large. We can label it “Christianity Version 2.0” to help make clear its nature.

It’s not so much that vast sectors of the population have rejected Christianity, although for some people that has in fact occurred. Rather, it is the case that a lot of the West has adopted another version of Christianity. A version that has borrowed essential Christian credal concepts and notions, and re-worked them into a syncretic mixture of humanism, ancient paganism, and emotivism.

Chief Obstacle: Christianity Version 2.0

If we asked most people if there is a god, they would say “yes.” If we asked them to describe this god, it would be a strange mix of Star Wars “the force,” combined with “grandpa,” combined with “fishing buddy.” Distant but powerful, real but vague, indescribable and universally present in all cultural expressions. He (most would probably still say “he”) is a god who offers helpful tips for good living (beamed into each person’s brain by way of their own independent conscience). He is loving and tolerant.

If we asked most people if they are going to heaven when they die, they would say “yes.” And it would be equally true that the version of god they believe in would never be so mean as to put anyone in Hell (except for the obvious exceptions on which history has summarily passed judgement: Hitler, Stalin, and any really bad rulers who lived before the 20th Century).

If we asked most people if they felt that formal religious rituals, creedal expressions, and binding moral laws were necessary, they would say “no.” Or, if they are, such things are very abstract and are not expressed in any one culture of the moment.

These are the main outlines of Christianity Version 2.0. There is a loving god and everyone is going to heaven.

So the question needs to be asked: how is anyone supposed to evangelize a group of people who thinks that way? Especially when, if asked, many of the above people would identify themselves as “Christians?”

One glaring difficulty is that Christianity Version 2.0 as I’ve described it here is really not Christian at all. It may look like it on the surface, but upon closer inspection it is a radical departure from the orthodox faith of the Church handed down faithfully through many centuries. And yet, this version of Christianity is what has been taught in the Church for many decades now.

Most of us are Version 2.0 Christians These Days

Which brings us to the other serious obstacle to the New Evangelization, the internal one, the ad-intra one, namely that most of us do not really believe in the necessity of the faith ourselves these days.

Here I am speaking of Catholics and Mainline Protestants for the most part. The Evangelicals do not have this problem because their theology, even if unfortunately too simplistic, does correctly preserve one essential point: that faith in Jesus makes the difference between damnation and salvation.

It is difficult to convince a culture to embrace Christianity if everyone already is convinced that they are going to heaven by just being a nice person. And it’s even more difficult to convince anyone to take Christianity seriously if a large majority of the Christians also think that everyone who is nice is going to heaven.

Here would be the source of the total collapse of the missionary zeal and mandate that drove the Church from the days of the Apostles all the way until Vatican II. Not long ago, it was a matter of life and death (literally) to teach non-believers about Jesus, to baptize them, to give them the Holy Eucharist, and to absolve them on their death bed. This is why we raced across the face of the globe for centuries teaching the faith.

But today there is no need because we have lost the conviction that Christianity makes a substantial difference to persons or to cultures.

The Epiphany is an Evangelical Encounter of the “Old” Variety

Consider the kernel of the coming feast of the Epiphany: the foreign astrologers (pagans) were drawn to follow a star, and chose to worship the newborn Christ. Their journey is symbolic of the fact that every other system of belief in the world yearns and aches to find completion in the truth of Christianity which is the fullness of revelation and salvation.

To replay the encounter with the Magi in today’s mainstream Christian theology books and sermons, we would have to re-imagine the scene so that the Magi and Christ simply dialogued about how each really liked the other one’s religion, before they concluded the visit with some vague, inter religious prayer service, and went back to living just like they did prior to attending the focus group at the stable.

At the risk of returning to an era when so much of our pedagogy and theological thought was driven by fear, would it be too much to suggest that we need to rediscover the importance of our doctrines on judgement and on Hell itself?

Or, how about this: can we at least begin to better articulate the inadequacies inherent in non-Christian thinking and living? In non-Catholic thinking and living?

Because if we cannot think of any, then we should just declare the whole world Catholic now (regardless of what people believe) and get it over with, and then we can be done talking about evangelization. Let’s solemnly define the entire world as “saved.” (saved from what is of course the question).

We can view the coming Feast of the Epiphany as a cause for embarrassment and discomfort because of what it proclaims. Or, we can actually rejoice that God really has given us the truth, a truth that binds all nations everywhere. A truth that can rescue us from Hell and from bondage to sin.

All of that is genuinely good news, but only if those listening to it proclaimed to them have not already decided that their version of Christianity (2.0) has saved them from the old, dark, outmoded Christianity of the 1950’s.

The New Evangelization is in search of reason to evangelize in the first place. That is why it continues to falter. It is in search of good news. Fortunately, we do not have to look far- it’s in the creed for starters. And, as the Magi realized, it is written in the stars themselves. All we have to do is point it out. That would not be the New Evangelization so much as it would be the old one. It worked well for 19 centuries- maybe we should return to it again.

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About Father Nathan Reesman

Father Reesman is a priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. He is the Shared Pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, and also of Saint Frances Cabrini Parish, both in West Bend, Wisconsin.
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