Survey after survey of religion in America demonstrates that atheism, agnosticism, and the “nones” are steadily increasing, with many of the “nones” once identifying as Catholics and other Christians. While some of these profess a “spiritual” perspective, such beliefs often have little to do with Christianity, or even a personal God. Accompanying this trend is the widespread elite narrative supposedly unmasking historical Christian evangelization as a product of cultural imperialism, religious mania, or a kind of quota system imposed on clerics, presenting today’s evangelism an assault on the “target’s” freedom of conscience.
When the reality and certainty of death is presented to “nones”, responses typically fall into four categories: 1) our atoms disperse and we are utterly gone (atheism), 2) we “survive” within a circle of life, 3) we are absorbed into a mysterious universal consciousness, like a drop of water in the ocean, 4) perhaps there is a Creator who keeps human beings at arms length or has something in store for us we cannot hope to fathom—belief systems ancient in origin, dressed up to appeal to modern tastes.
How, then, do we evangelize this lost culture when so many of us are confused or conflicted about the word?
In fact, the narrative unmasking historical Christianity attacks a straw man rather than what history actually reveals. Kateri Tekakwitha and Yáng Tingyún exemplify countless converts to Christianity from around the world: Kateri, a Mohawk maiden inspired by a faith that proclaims “God-with-us”; Yáng, an earnest Chinese philosopher/searcher, finding answers to lifelong questions in Christianity.
We could fill volumes with others who came to Christianity because Jesus answers questions no one else can, because he offers more than other beliefs and theories.
We have a Narrative too, ours based on God’s saving presence in the pre-Christian world; Jesus’s altogether unique life, death, and resurrection; his life giving presence in a storm-tossed Church and the lives of numberless saints. Even modern science testifies to a universe far more majestic and mysterious than human beings ever imagined. Why wouldn’t we want family and friends to partake in such an adventure?
Christian evangelization unmasks atheism, circle of life, universal consciousness, remote Creator belief systems that settle for meager cramped visions of human life—cramped visions of who we are and who we are meant to become. Jesus reveals an unimaginably larger life, an unimaginably bigger image of who we are and who we are meant to become. In contrast to assaulting freedom of conscience, Christianity frees the conscience to consider and contemplate what has not yet been imagined.
Let’s add one more popular narrative about Christian evangelization: if a merciful and good God exists, no one will be consigned to hell, so Christianity is no better than living according to one’s own lights. On the contrary, hell is consistent with human freedom and human choices, whether or not we desire intimate communion with a Creator for whom the purpose of life is personal encounter (Moses on Mt. Sinai), the purpose of encounter friendship, (Jesus: “I have called you friends”), the purpose of friendship unconstrained giving of self (Mary: “May it be done to me according to your word”)—the larger life for which we were created. In the Catholic tradition, Purgatory is the process of fully embracing intimate communion with God, purging all impediments preventing us from unconstrained giving of self, hell the self-elected sundering of those whose informed and willful choices (“one’s own lights”) make communion with God repellent.
The risen Christ tells his apostles: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). A Church without this mission as its first priority is a Church without Jesus. Christian evangelization in the modern world should start by asking a provocative question: “Why settle for so much less?”
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