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Making Disciples of “All Nations” (Part 4)

by Jeremy Hiers, OSA

What is evangelization, who is called to be part of it, and what wisdom does Saint Augustine offer us? This series reflects on the New Evangelization and Augustinian Spirituality.

In Part I we discussed how there are multiple modern “boundaries” we must cross to make disciples of “all nations” today. The first of these boundaries is cultural the and second was psychological. The third boundary I propose is spiritual.

The Second Vatican Council affirmed a rise in secularism and plurality of religions and philosophies (not unlike that of today) which impact how the Church evangelizes. Karl Rahner posits that in such a secularized world, we cannot simply assume that people will understand or accept anything with a Christian foundation.[1] The traditional theological starting point of identifying and defending abstract claims about God will no longer suffice in our modern world. As the world continues to experience the spread of universal education and a pluralism of intellectual philosophies and religions, faith has to be grounded in the real life of its practitioners prior to attempting any rational explanation for God. Thus, the Christian of the future will be a “mystic or not a Christian at all.”[2]

This obviously involves crossing the aforementioned cultural and psychological boundaries.  Yet, within each of these boundaries is a spiritual boundary.  How does the Church evangelize populations of people who have grown up in secular families and societies that lack even a basic recognition of a need for God?  How does the Church evangelize populations of people who are “spiritual but not religious,” who perhaps have grown up with a deep relationship with God but not with any particular religion?  How might this become even further differentiated as we consider how the spiritual boundary for someone raised in poverty and is focused more on survival might differ from someone raised in wealth and focused more on social connection?  How might this spiritual boundary differ for someone who is a sensate and will likely be largely attracted to the sights, sounds, and smells of a liturgy than someone who would be more attracted to abstract concepts and metaphor in the homily?

Rahner posits that up until the Second Vatican Council the Church had been largely reactionary on this front.[3]  Rahner asserts that in such a world, the ultimate decision of faith will come not from a “pedagogical indoctrination” as in the past, but from one’s own experience of God (which I posit is completely tied to the particular cultural, psychological and spiritual starting point the person finds themselves in).  We must therefore evangelize from the perspective of where people are at today.  

What are the simple ways we can help people understand the tenets of our faith, the Sacraments, and the teachings of the Magisterium in a language that they can not only understand, but relate to according to their cultural, psychological, and spiritual starting point?  Further, along the lines of the spirit of the “new chapter” Pope Francis calls for, how do we communicate in a meaningful way the joy our faith brings to our lives in a way that is relatable to theirs?

As Edward Foley observes in Theological Reflection Across Religious Traditions, 32% of adults under thirty years of age identify as “religiously” unaffiliated. Yet, many still believe in God and also in the fact that religious institutions help society, especially in their work with the poor. This can become a new door to invite the unaffiliated to experience God and to experience our religious traditions in a way that is relevant to their lives.[4].

“If Catholic priests and Christian ministers are going to engage seriously in building a just, tolerant, and peaceful society, we are necessarily going to have to collaborate with believers, the unaffiliated, and non-believers as well.”

Edward Foley in Theological Investigations Across Religious Traditions

Correspondingly, jhustice is one of the five paths proposed by Bishop Robert Barron in 2019 to encounter people who are no longer affiliated with the Church by meeting them where they are at today.

[1] Rahner, Karl. Concern for the Church. Theological Investigations, volume 20. Trans. Edward Quinn. NY: Crossroad, 1981, 110.

[2] Rahner, Concern for the Church, 149.

[3] Rahner, Concern for the Church, 151.

[4] Edward Foley, Theological Reflection Across Religious Traditions:  The Turn to Reflective Believing (Lanham, MD:  Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 16.

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