We can never tell when, or from where, we will find a valuable new discovery. I wrote an earlier version of the post below seven years ago. It started when I was picking absent-mindedly through some neglected looking books on the shelves of a retreat house. There among the forgotten tomes I found a refreshingly clear and forthright description of our current predicament, particularly as it relates to evangelizing in today’s world. The essay sparked by that book provides an interesting angle to the ongoing discussion on this blog about the encounter of Christian Faith with the post-Christian world. So, today being Throwback Thursday (and what Thursday isn’t?) here, with a little updating, is the tale of “What I Learned on the Faculty Retreat”:
Up until a few years ago I taught at a (more or less) Catholic school. Once a year the school administration let the students stay home, and packed the faculty off to a local retreat house for our staff retreat. I particularly liked those retreats where we were given unscheduled time for “silent contemplation”, during which I actually did contemplate silently (would it surprise you to know that not everyone did?). During one such retreat I pulled a book (more or less at random) off a shelf in the retreat house library, a book called The Secularist Heresy: the Erosion of the Gospel in the Twentieth Century. It was a 1980 reissue of an original first published in the 1950’s, written by an Anglican gentleman named Harry Blamires (a student of C.S.Lewis, it seems). Flipping it open somewhere in the middle, I found the following thought-provoking passage:
For the problem peculiar to our time is, not that large numbers of people are asking questions about life’s meaning and trembling uneasily on the brink of Christian self-committal, but that by far the largest section of our population is completely without interest in the religious issue at all. They have not reached the stage of asking questions which the Christian apologist answers. They have never truly recognized in themselves that deep discontent which only the peace of God can take away. They have not arrived at that phase of uneasiness which is so often a fruitful time for the sowing of seeds.
“So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16).
Anyone who has tried to Evangelize in recent years knows that, if this wall of disinterest was a serious obstacle to the Gospel seventy years ago, it is much more so today. I experienced it when I was teaching ninth grade religion. On a regular basis, I experienced first-hand what Blamires means when he says:
It may even be the case that, in our own age, the difference between the interested and the uninterested in the religious issue is more significant than the difference between believer and unbelievers.
This rings true. I always found that I could carry on a discussion with the loud-mouth atheist student, and he would indeed listen to what I had to say. True, it may only have been because he wanted to refute it, but he wanted to refute it because at some level he wanted to know the Truth; someone who is searching for the Truth is much more likely to find it in the end than someone who just doesn’t care. The apathetic student is searching for nothing more than the end of the class period so he can go check his text messages; it’s hard to get any response out of him at all. One begins to understand what Christ means when he says: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:16).
The Church of Relevance
How to catch the interest of the apathetic, then, is the big challenge. Blamires warns us against relying on the “relevance” approach to get their attention. The main theme of his book is what he calls the corruption of the Church by the secular world [N.B., by “The Church” Blamires means institutional Christianity collectively, not a particular church, and certainly not the Catholic Church itself], and he argues that an undue emphasis on the relevance of the Christian message (as opposed to the truth of the Christian message) is a large part of the problem, because in doing so we subordinate the infinite to the finite. He goes on to say:
If the Christian Church is sapped of its doctrinal virility and institutional sturdiness, Christianity itself may be perverted by some into an instrument of social and civilizational decomposition that has nothing to do with its proper call to self-sacrificial encounter with the world of materialism and unbelief.
This dismal prophecy first published in the 1950’s came to fruition with a swiftness and thoroughness in his own Anglican Church that shocked and saddened Blamires himself, as he admits in his introduction to the 1980 reprinting of his book. Just a few years after its first publication we saw the same process at work in the Catholic Church: Pope John XXIII, with the best of intentions, “threw open the windows of the Church” to allow the Church to communicate the Gospel more effectively to the world; one does not have to be a VII-basher (which I am not . . . for the most part) to notice that an awful lot of “the world” snuck through those open windows into the Church. As John’s successor Paul VI famously said, “From some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.” And of course we have seen that what some of us more prosaically call “dumbing down” the content of faith not only corrupts the Church, but, ironically, makes it even less attractive to both non-believers and believers alike, if church attendance in the Age of Relevance is any indication.
Fidelity, Fidelity, Fidelity
That leaves us, of course, with the question, what do we do? I confess I don’t have the answers, at least if you’re looking for specifics, and if I did I’d need more than a blog post to provide them. It seems clear, however, that pandering or downplaying the Truth of the Gospel isn’t the way. Mother Theresa of Calcutta is credited with saying: “God has not called me to be successful; he has called me to be faithful.” Christ tells us not to keep our lamp under a bushel (Matthew 5:15), but we truly need to be that lamp: if we’re not clear and joyful examples of living the Faith, our example does more harm than good. Easier said than done, of course – and I confess that I’ve often fallen short.
At the same time, just being an example isn’t enough. St. Peter tells us: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1Peter 3:15). If we first soften peoples’ hearts with our example, their minds will be open to our testimony. If we live a life of fidelity to the Gospel, people will notice, and not only because we’re doing something different, but because they’ll see the joy in our lives. Then they’ll be willing to listen, at which point we need to be ready to speak.
I had such an opportunity, about the time I first wrote this post. I had a co-worker who was contemplating her 4th marriage. She very much wanted to know how I managed to stay married to the same woman for 28 years; here was someone who was ready to listen, because she saw in the longevity of my marriage something she really wanted for herself. I had the presence of mind (or, thank the Lord, the willingness to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit) to share with her my favorite psalm: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). While I can’t say for sure whether it influenced her behavior afterwards (she left the job shortly after that), she seemed really to appreciate the idea that God, and only God, can preserve our marriages.
So, that’s where my retreat house experience led me. I have to say that I didn’t so much choose Harry Blamires’s nearly forgotten book, as it found me. Funny how that happens. It seems that there are some books that tell you things you never knew; others crystalize and bring into focus things you already knew, but hadn’t yet worked out clearly in your mind. Blamires’ book, for me, falls into that second category: it helped me to put the big picture of where our society is going in the light of my own experience. Sometimes we do learn something on faculty retreats.