Saturday, March 10, 2007

Evangelization and the Problem of Pluralism

Penni demanded I write something. So here's something.

I should warn you though: It's the kind of thing I write on a long train ride just after having spent two days with my favorite married theologians and their 3 beautiful children. Which, coincidentally, I just did. So read at your own risk.

There are a number of contemporary theologians who share the belief that one of the most pressing issues, if not the most pressing issue in theology is “the problem of pluralism.” Briefly stated, this refers to our awareness, now more than ever, that despite Christianity having been spread with varying degrees of success to most parts of the world, there still exists a significant portion of the world’s population that is not Christian. Can we really believe that so large a portion of the human race, many of whom hold to their own religious beliefs with a degree of faith that might put many of us to shame, should really find itself separated from God for not knowing and believing in Jesus Christ? So, holding to the hope that all might be saved, insist these theologians, we must come up with some solution that allows for this possibility. Karl Rahner famously offered such a solution by proposing the possibility of the “anonymous Christian”—the non-Christian who, without knowing it experiences something of a baptism of desire. Short of understanding Christ as only one of many means of salvation, a position which I find troubling, this still stands as one of the better proposed solutions to this problem. Yet, as compelling and important a problem as this is, I believe it points us in the direction of an even more pressing issue in theology and in the life of the Church—How do we understand and practice evangelization?

A few Easters ago I spent Holy Week in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC. One day I noticed a small group of people going from door to door, inviting people to Holy Week services. I immediately presumed they were Protestants, probably from a local evangelical church. Imagine my surprise when I learned that they were parishioners at one of the local Catholic churches! At a time when in a generation the Church can appear to be lost in places such as Ireland, Quebec (see the heartbreaking scene in the Canadian film The Barbarian Invasions) and several parts of Europe, can we any longer see evangelization as just something they do?

One of the greatest obstacles to evangelization these days, of course, is the question of pluralism. Many in the Church have become accustomed to the notion that to witness to Christ among non-Christians is arrogant and offensive. True, “in your face” “evangelization” of people of other faiths is probably more often than not rude and unlikely to be effective. But when we refuse to pray to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ for fear of offending someone we not only risk losing our self-respect, but their respect as well. What kind of Christian balks at praying to his or her God for fear of offending another? How can we hope that another might be Christian if we are not willing to risk even this simplest act of evangelization? Or is the truth that we no longer hold such hopes? Such a hope, perhaps, militates too much against the spirit of the age, an age where, if we are not careful, a distorted vision of the demands of tolerance will become our God. Allan Bloom warned of this 20 years ago in his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind.

If his solution seems problematic to some, Rahner’s instinct with the “anonymous Christian” was right. His priority even in dealing with the problem of pluralism was to do so without sacrificing the centrality of Christ in our understanding of salvation. It’s telling that many who find his solution inadequate do so because they think it presumptuous and indeed offensive that we might call someone a Christian against their will. How would you feel if someone called you an “anonymous Muslim”? They argue. Frankly, I’m secure enough in my Christian faith that I really wouldn’t be bothered at the thought of being called an anonymous Muslim. Though I admit I can’t speak for the Muslim. This may be the mistake of the argument to begin with. We presume we can know how the other will feel, act, be offended. One of the problems with many efforts to address pluralism is that often it seems as if we Catholics are expected to concede everything in the name of tolerance, while also in the name of tolerance we don’t require the other to concede anything. It amounts to some kind of false humility.

We should take a cue from the fact that often in interreligious dialogue, the representatives of other faiths often do not concede anything. We respect them for that, while we go out of our way to be sure that they are not offended or excluded by indications of our devotion to Christ. And then we blame the erosion of the Church on secularism from without. But are we suffering from a secularism from within?

Vibrant evangelization and an engagement with the problem of pluralism need not be mutually exclusive. Like Rahner, we have to hold fast to the centrality of Christ, and proclaim that in our lives without fear of his name offending others. After all, Jesus promised that this would indeed be the case. If the Gospel is true, then isn’t withholding Jesus for fear of offense a betrayal? In interreligious dialogue, should our interlocutors leave the table saying, “That Jesus Christ must really have been something for them to have such strong faith,” or “Gee, those Christians were really nice”?

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Blogger Garpu the Fork said...

Thanks for this...I was just wondering whether or not to mention the metaphor for my dissertation--a set of 15 pieces on the rosary--in light of the almost-institutionalized hatred of Christianity in some parts of academe.

2:46 AM  
Blogger Steve Bogner said...

I do think there is a problem of 'secularism from within'. Maybe it's due to poor catechesis, or poor preaching, or fewer clergy, or poor parenting, or Vatican 2, or [insert pet peeve]. From my perspective, it's due to failed leadership, competition with secular morals, and an insular Catholic culture that many of us exist in.

On the other hand, my parish's RCIA class gets bigger every year.

A couple years ago our pastor remarked in a homily that we were missing opportunities. We are very much a social-justice sort of parish; and while that is a good thing, how often do we approach evangelization with the same fervor, organization & planning, and resources? We can raise $60,000 and 300 volunteers to build a Habitat for Humanity house, so why don't we do the same for evangelization? The question, and the answer, can make one squirm a bit.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Kiwi Nomad 2006 said...

As an 'on the edges' 'almost not' kind of Catholic, I keep wishing there was more 'evangelisation' for people like me! I have lots of questions but basically stop thinking about them as I can't find answers, or anyone who is interested in discussing what I think I need to discuss. I dunno, I may well not listen to what they have to say anyhow.

11:43 PM  
Blogger ~m2~ said...

i don't know if it was a *demand* so much as it was a *strong suggestion*


If the Gospel is true, then isn’t withholding Jesus for fear of offense a betrayal?

(i believe it to be true)(yes)

i also believe you can bring the Gospel of Christ without saying much at all. it is not so much a matter of denying His existence and Who He Is as much as it is demonstrating love.

(thanks Mark!)

6:17 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

As is my wont, I look at this very simply. Jesus asks us to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth, to baptize all the nations, to proclaim the good news to all Creation.

Not, you will kindly note, to "the relatively far corners of the earth" or most of the nations or most of Creation.

If we are to be rightfully called Christians then we have to do as He asked: keep His commandments, chief among which is the aforesaid commandment to spread the Gospel.



9:10 AM  
Blogger Gashwin said...

Wonderfully put Mark.

These things come into a very sharp focus when I'm in India (as I have been for the past several months, and quite a lot over the past year, as you know). There's a lot of other stuff rolling around here, such as Christianity's history of close ties to colonialism, the brutal natue of the Portuguese occupation in Goa and so on, and the general Hindu toleration of a wide spectrum of belief about divinity, and the idea that asking someone to change their religion is a form of spiritual violence

"Conversion" understood as "changing religion" or even propogating one's own, is also a highly politically charged issue for a whole lot of reasons. (When I wanted to get baptized, the Archdiocese of Bombay required a sworn affidavit that I was doing this of my own free accord!)

Now I've not really studied the history of Christianity in India much (there's this huge leap from St. Thomas to the Synod of Diamper), but one sense I have is that Christianity often operates like an "ethnicity." (to the extent of adopting caste) And, once in this niche, the evangelical impulse vaishes. After all, no one expects anyone to change ethnicities, do they?

At some point I need to think through these thoughts about the tensions between "ethnic" and "evangelical" Christianity and write them down ... but that's how I've come to describe what I've experienced here.

And of course, I think evangelization in he context of pluralism is all that you've said, and then some. We really need to get away from this mentality that somehow we just are lucky enough to belong to the correct club, and how silly or tragic that others just can't see this? "Not everone who says Lord, Lord ... "

3:26 PM  

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