Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Thoughts on Evangelization and Apologetics

As I am soon to head to a big evangelization conference in Ottawa, and as I continue on the work of the Catholic Review of Books (the next issue which focuses on books on this subject, due out soon), my thoughts understandably dwell on this.

When I was a new convert I had big plans on this. Not at very first, though. I didn't consider Catholicism as a religion or ideology or worldview, but as a philosophy, as the philosophy, to be discovered only after a pain-staking intellectual journey, like the one that I myself had been on. Then I began to think more in terms of converting 'commoners,' rather than intellectuals. I have to say now that I am beginning to be tempted back to my initial focus. And not so much on evangelization, but on cultivating Catholic culture as a gift to humanity, as a gift that allows one a glimpse of the truth of Christ.

Why? People have proven themselves altogether unworthy of truth and unresponsive to it. And I don't mean 'my truth.' I mean that people are altogether uninterested in deeper things, and unable to open their minds to the good in a way that can transcend their cultural assumptions, the 'culture' of that proceeds from the means of production.

Next to Jesus, Augustine, Paul, and some other great theologians, my great hero is Plato-Socrates. The hybrid name is for sake of historical accuracy, as we really don't know Socrates other than as he is interpreted by others. My hero is the Socrates of the Phaedo, Crito and Apology, etc. Really, this is Plato, is it not?

Plato or Socrates is my model for the sort of evangelization or culture-work to which my mind and heart are drawn.

I am very much the same person I was when I was twenty - for better or for worse. I feel like I have come full-circle, sans the optimism, sans the idealism.

Although I am now more than ever interested in 'high-culture' as they say, I am not interested in academia per se. I see it as a stumbling block toward evangelization, not an aid to it. This is the first significant admission I make here. Universities are hopeless institutions aimed at nothing more than consolidating the status quo. Not only have they failed to delay the secularization of the world and the death of the Socratic vision, they have positively facilitated its demise. Universities today - all of them - are incapable of anything else. They are institutions, not centers of culture. They are government institutions in the worst sense of the word. Thus, culture is opposed to academics, not to intellectualism, but to academics.

I have always believed that the more intellectually formed a Christian the better. I still believe this, but I once again have to insist that this not be identified with what goes on in a university.

I believe that I can do nothing better for my fellow-man, help him in no way more effectively to draw near to Christ, than with beauty, and not with an intellectual barrage of facts.

For a man, in its fullest flowering, beauty is the intellectual appreciation of the good. It is dwelling upon it and appreciating it and seeking to understand its significance. It is not about proving who is right, it is about seeing the higher thing.

How do we do evangelization this way? I will posit that Flannery O'Connor has done more for the evangelization of the American mind than any bishop has, than has even Cardinal Dulles or Fr. R. J. Neuhaus.

Can you love a poem?

This might strike you as a strange question, but it evokes the essential problem we face today as evangelists.

The greatest pleasures I have enjoyed in recent weeks have included reading Tennyson and Keats. I loved In Memoriam by the former, and Ode to a Nightengale and La Belle Dame Sans Merci by the latter. Also, I have loved some homilies by St. Basil - and it was not necessarily their intellectual content, but the manner in which this fine content was mixed with an unbelievably pleasing style that gave me such joy.

Can you love a poem?

A)Who reads poetry today?

B) Who takes Socrates seriously?

C) If you cannot and do not do these two things, can you love Christ?

If not (A) and (B), then not (C).

Why would I say such a thing? Poems are beautiful, Christ is beautiful. Socrates teaches the utter importance of right reason, Christ's is the life lived fully in accord with right reason. (Right reason is moral truth, life lived in accordance with the principles of nature; the practical intellect, in Kant's terms.)

All who have turned to Christ in the past have loved poems and Socrates. Western Civilization is based on the love of poems and Socrates. It cannot exist otherwise.

Now, there is a principle in evangelization, which roughly translates (after I have removed the offensive dangling preposition), you must take people where they are.

If people do not love poems and Socrates, you must simply accept that if you are to evangelize them.

False! There is something wrong with them if they do not love poems and Socrates. You cannot ask a color-blind man to look at this green thing if he cannot also look at that green thing.

Now, what are the implications of all of this? I will have to write again later.


  1. I feel ya, Colin. I was totally getting at some of the same themes in writing this:

  2. Here is my morsel of poetry for the day:

    Wenn der Blüten Frühlingsregen
    Über alle schwebend sinkt,
    Wenn der Felder grüner Segen
    Allen Erdgebornen blinkt,
    Kleiner Elfen Geistergröße
    Eilet, wo sie helfen kann;
    Ob er heilig, ob er böse,
    Jammert sie der Unglücksmann.

    -Goethe, Faust II

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  4. Did the apostles love poems and Socrates? I mean John did. But what about the others?

  5. I agree with Suzanne. your argument sounds terribly elitist and could easily lead to disdain for those around you.

  6. Thanks for the good questions. I am - obviously - still processing my thoughts here. My initial answer is that there is something wrong with our contemporary culture and education when we cannot see and gravitate to the higher goods out there, but instead gravitate to things like the Kardashians. Good is good and bad is bad, no matter how popular and elitist it might appear. Mozart is better than One Direction, I will not tolerate doubt on this. And, Homer is better than Eminem. Is it elitist that rich people rather than poor people enjoy these higher things? A well-formed poor person would gravitate to Keats more than to Jay-Z. Rich people are 'supposed' to like Mozart, that doesn't mean they really do. I think Ratzinger has made much the same argument I have re. music. But I won't rely on an argument ex auctoritate.
    As for the Apostles, I have no doubt they appreciated the genius of the Old Testament more than I ever will, and I appreciate it. The apostles admired the Temple (Mk 13:1). Even Augustine noticed how many fine literary devices Paul used in his letters (On Christian Doctrine, Book IV).
    I think we have been raised poorly. My proof: we prefer crappy songs to good ones and don't read poetry. I am as poor as dirt, and I looove good literature. I don't qualify for the top 1%, nor the top 90%.

  7. Ahh, you have clarified your argument so that you have actually added to it and moved it out of the elitist camp by adding that people need to be better formed. I cannot argue with that point, but it did seem to be missing from your initial argument. And, I wouldn't be too quick to separate the rich and the poor with such precision. After all, the kardashians are terribly rich and I doubt that they are listening to Mozart. So, the question arises: what are you doing about this in those that you can most easily form - the six young Kerrs. As a parent, the ends of the earth are first and foremost are children, are they not?

  8. Elena, I might suggest that the fact the Kardashians probably don't listen to Mozart would only strengthen Colin's response, not contradict it in any way.

  9. I don't wish to remove my idea out of the elitist camp, but simply redefine it: it is a moral elitism, not monetary one I am after. And yet, all philosophers have recognized that education is an elitist thing - even Aquinas (ST, I.1.1., resp.). That is a fact: only the wealthy can afford the leisure to study. That said, what we educate our children in ought to be worthwhile. I think a lot of the things my kids are taught might not qualify (aside from my seventh-grader, of course!).

    I think we spend more and more time educating in things that are a waste, or not as worthwhile as they should be. I don't think any commentators would argue with this.

    But the fact that we do not and cannot identify good words and good moral example shows that we have missed the mark radically. No amount of math can make up for this, and certainly not learning about sex, recycling and tolerance.