Six Obstacles to Evangelizing in the Modern Age

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“Indeed, let us continue to go out and teach all nations!”

By Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg, Integrated Catholic, June 20, 2018

As members of the Body of Christ striving for communion with the saints, we are faced with an essential mission contingent upon first picking up our crosses. Our primary duty is to cultivate our interior habits of being by prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Good works follow the cultivation of the well-ordered soul as the day follows the night. In the epistle of St. James 2:24, it is explained that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” This means to say that spiritual and corporal works of mercy flow from the spiritually mature Christian like water flows from its source. If one’s intellect is not subordinated to the will ordered to the will of Christ, then either good works are done in vain or not done at all.

We are given a share in Christ’s priesthood through the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. As members of the Priesthood of the Faithful, our call to good works is to fulfill Christs’ great commission to “go out and teach all nations.” The duty to preach the Gospel message is increasingly difficult in this dark age and in today’s climate, it is likely to yield less than benevolent results. C.S. Lewis explains some reasons for this difficulty in his essay Modern Man and His Categories of Thought first published in 1946.

Lewis begins by explaining that though “we ought to always imitate the procedure of Christ and His saints this pattern has to be adapted to the changing conditions of history.” What follows is an elucidation of the modern categories of thought that have become stumbling blocks for the faithful who wish to convey the Gospel message to a modern audience.

Lewis points out that in the early Church the Apostles were preaching to Jews, Gentiles and Pagans. All three groups held common assumptions no longer held by modern man. For example, “All three classes believed in the supernatural… All were conscious of sin and feared divine judgement…All three believed that the world had once been better than it now was.” There was the Jewish doctrine of the fall, the Greeks had their Golden Age and the Pagans had “reverence for heroes, ancestors, and ancient lawgivers.” This is not the case today.

All these intellectual and moral predispositions were anchors to common intellectual and moral ground upon which meaningful dialogue could take place. Today there is no such common territory and the communication gap widens with each successive untethered generation. Lewis posits six causes to consider if we are going to understand the “radically altered” public mind and how difficult it is for Christians to evangelize the modern citizens of this brave new world.

1. A revolution in education

Lewis laments the modern disdain of the ancient masters like Plato, Aristotle, and Virgil. Educated men of the past could find valuable truths in the ancient books written by great men; “it was natural to them to reverence tradition.” Lewis notes that at the highest levels of education there has been a movement to “isolate the mind in its own age; to give it, in relation to time, that disease which in relation to space, we call Provincialism.” In real educational terms, this is sawing off the branch on which we sit. Lewis simply states that it is the plan of the enemy to divide and conquer. If modern man has no tie to the ancient truths forged by the blood, sweat and tears of our most illustrious ancestors, then he has no defense against the incoherent ideologies that are flooding the marketplace of ideas in the modern university. This has led to a subjectivism making discussions of objective reality nearly impossible.

2. Feminism

Lewis’ ideas on “female emancipation” in 1946 seen anachronistically through the ever darkening lenses of modernity appear dismissible as patriarchal and chauvinistic, but they are not. A sober refection on his words demonstrate that a morally principled man with a well cultivated mind like Lewis is often quite accurate and prescient. He concludes that compared to the revolution in education that cuts us off from the past, feminism “cuts us off from the eternal” by its disdain for metaphysical reality.

Men with men alone do not behave the same way as men and woman together. One of Lewis’ points is that men naturally tend to bravado around women and thus serious discussion on things eternal are put aside, there is “a lowering of metaphysical energy” partly because the metaphysical realities of men and women are denied to make false claims of equality. Feminism grounded in the Marxist material dialectic has wreaked havoc the world over and Lewis’ perceptive commentary almost seventy years ago was a description of the camel’s nose under the tent.

3. Historicism

Lewis rightfully refers to historicism as a “fatal pseudo-philosophy” whose root cause is Darwinism. As a biological theorem and limited to an honest rendering of a sparse fossil record, there need not be much dispute. However, what Lewis calls “developmentalism” has became “the extension of the evolutionary idea far beyond the biological realm” and in fact it has become “the key principle of reality.” This lethal error has conditioned modern man to erroneously assume “that an ordered cosmos should emerge from chaos, that life should come out of the inanimate, reason out of instinct, civilization out of savagery, virtue out of animalism.”

Lewis explains that modern man holds several false analogies that confirm this absurd position of developmentalism such as “the oak coming from the acorn, the man from the spermatozoon, the modern steamship from the primitive coracle.” In an age where we use Occam’s razor to excise important realities, Lewis notes that these false analogies ignore the reality that the acorn was dropped in the first place “by the oak, every spermatozoon derived from a man, and the first boat by something so much more complex than itself, a man of genius.” Lewis continues to debunk historicism and developmentalism by pointing out that “the scanty and haphazard selection of facts we know about history” are taken as “an almost mystical revelation of reality.” This is of course mistaking the leaves of a tree for the forest and in so doing, man arrogates to himself the role of being the arbiter of truth.

4. Proletarianism

Since the advent of Marxism, there has been a growing emphasis on the rights and grandeur of the proletariat as a victimized class of repressed nobles. Generations of blaming the aristocracy has conditioned the proletariat to be “self-satisfied to a degree perhaps beyond the self-satisfaction of any recorded aristocracy. They are convinced that whatever may be wrong with the word it cannot be themselves. Someone else must be to blame from every evil.” In this new movement, such power and importance is appropriated to the self that even in discussions where God is brought up, there is no recognition that God judges them, “on the contrary, they are His judges.” The proletariat no longer has “feelings of fear, guilt, or awe.” They think of what God and neighbor owe them, not what they owe to God and neighbor. All religious concerns are reduced to material efficacy, which leads to Lewis’ next causal point of practicality.

5. Practicality

“Man is becoming as narrowly ‘practical’ as the irrational animals.” Lewis notes that when he lectures to young people that they are no longer interested in whether or not things are objectively true or false “they simply want to know if they are comforting, inspiring, or socially useful.” Lewis further notes that to “believe in” something has also been reduced to practical considerations and no longer refers to binding belief, but something like “I approve of it.”

Lewis asserts that “closely connected with this unhuman Practicality is an indifference to, and contempt of, dogma.” The false conclusion from the above is the adoption of a syncretic notion that “all religions really mean the same thing.” Man reduced to purely practical considerations ignores his intellectual and moral duties to seek truth goodness and beauty and lowers himself to equality with the animals. If we concede this lowly position focused exclusively on practicality then evangelization will be of no avail.

6. Skepticism about Reason

Lewis explains that “practicality combined with vague notions of what Freud, or Einstein, said, has produced a general, and quite unalarmed, belief that reasoning proves nothing and all thought is conditioned by irrational processes.” Most people hold propositions today that contradict one another or invalidate their primary positions. Call to mind the academic who says “I am so open minded that I am even open to falsehood.” One of the modern marks of erudition is to sit comfortably with cognitive dissonance. Modern man is apt to accept “without dismay the conclusion that all our thoughts are invalid.” The skepticism to which Lewis alludes 70 years ago has proliferated abundantly and well-ordered reason is even less likely today to make an impression on the modern mind than when Lewis penned this essay.

Still, Go Out and Teach All Nations!

The above six considerations are some of the more important intellectual issues that we must confront if we are going to teach all nations. These are stumbling blocks not faced as such by evangelists in earlier ages. There had always been common ground concerning the supernatural, divine judgement, the doctrine of the fall, and a reverence for the past. There was a consensus concerning an understanding of human learning grounded in virtue according to the objective standard of truth. Men and women were always aware of their complementary inequality and the metaphysical realities of their sex. There had been a respect for the true nature of history as that record to present the habits of character of the great souls who navigated the stormy seas of times and events more tumultuous than our own. Man had not considered himself the measure of all things in times past and knew that he was to be judged in the end by God, not the other way around. Life had never been assumed to be purely material and the right use of intellect was always valued, even to a degree by the untutored.

Although Lewis’ observations are spot on concerning some of the intellectual roadblocks we face today, he is also quick to warn us that this is not the whole picture. We are responsible for ordering our intellects to objective truth, but our intellects are intended to be merely the handmaidens of the will ordered to Christ. Of much greater magnitude and importance is the realm of the soul and theological truth imparted at its highest levels by revelation as gifts from the Holy Spirit. This is our trump card even though modern man cut himself off from this realm long before he cut himself of from the above described intellectual stumbling blocks.

Lewis explains that “where God gives the gift, the ‘foolishness of preaching’ is still mighty.” Mighty indeed and it is for us to remember that it is not by our agency that hearts will be converted, but by our instrumentality working in concert with the will of God. Although the realm of the intellect is extremely important to cultivate properly, let us not take it out of its rightful context as integrated with and working in harmony with the righteous will.

Lewis leaves us with this greater truth that “best of all is a team of two, one to deliver the preliminary intellectual barrage, and the other to follow up with a direct attack on the heart.” As we pick up our crosses, let us keep in mind that we are mail carriers for Christ. We are to adapt only our delivery methods of the Gospel message, not the message itself. As we redouble our efforts to colonize heaven, we need not worry how the recipients receive it, but that we continue to deliver it with fidelity, humility and charity. Indeed, let us continue to go out and teach all nations!