The National Catholic Review
Philosophical thinking for the new evangelization
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Because of the recent synod on the new evangelization, and because I study Catholic religious education, the question of how best to converse with the wider world about faith is often on my mind. This is especially true when I am on Facebook. I have a variety of friends: some believers, some unbelievers, some agnostic, some well versed theologically, some not so well versed and some downright hostile to anything religious. So when I post anything that is overtly religious, I am always mindful of how such a post will be received. Recently, I wrote the following on my Facebook wall:

 

 

Reminded that absolutely nothing is mine, not even my very being. It is all gift that is given and sustained by God. In truth I possess nothing, but am graciously allowed to participate in all. I need to remember to never take this for granted or to be resentful that things don’t always go the way I want them.

 

After a few positive comments and some “likes,” an old friend of mine, with whom I attended Catholic elementary school and a Catholic youth group up until college, wrote, “Can my being still be mine? Please?” I sympathize with the sentiment. I had to be “reminded” that I am utterly dependent on God because I often forget that is the case. I forget because, like all human beings, I have a tendency to equate my existence with something I own, with something that is mine and to which I have a right. It is thoroughly disconcerting to be told that, actually, you do not own your existence, that, in fact, it is a gift that you have been given to hold, a graciously conferred participation in the infinite source and sustainer of existence that we refer to as God. Indeed, from a certain kind of extreme anthropocentrism, the idea that your very being is bestowed upon you and is not simply your private property can sound somehow degrading, as if you are stripping all agency and dignity from the human person by locating their source in God.

This, in fact, was how my original post came across to my friend. Located within the unbelieving-and-downright-hostile-to-religion segment of my Facebook friends, she responded that she is already told by our sexist and capitalist society that her body is not hers and that her time and her thoughts are not hers; she certainly does not need religion telling her that her being is not hers. At this point I decided to try the philosophical route. Drawing from the Catholic tradition’s insistence that there is a natural knowledge of God that can in principle be agreed upon by all reasonable people of good will, I turned the conversation to the philosophy of being, that is, to metaphysics.

Origins of Existence

Through a series of questions about where her existence came from and how it is that she remains existentially present instead of dropping away into nothingness, I had hoped that we could at the least agree that neither of us originated or sustains our own existence. In other words, I had hoped we could at least agree that our existence is dependent on something outside of ourselves. Keeping in mind that this friend was not only raised Catholic and received Catholic schooling at both the elementary and high-school levels, and that she possesses a master’s degree and an upper-level position in a publishing company, I was a little surprised that her first answer to the question of where her existence came from was, “my mother.”

I pointed out that she did not get her existence from her mother, but rather that through her mother she was included in a chain of existence that did not originate from any one of those on the chain before her but from an original act of creation. I was even more surprised when she then accused me of being a creationist, a term more aptly applied to those who hold the creation stories in Genesis to be equivalent to a scientific account. The exchange ended several posts later with her declaration that being dependent on a “man-god-idea” was out of the question, while being dependent on a community or “things” was fine.

Now, none of this is meant to cast aspersions on my friend. In fact, I take this whole incident as symptomatic of the need for something that receives little if any attention in talk about the new evangelization—that is, the role of what I have heard the theologian Thomas Groome refer to as a new apologetics, and the importance of philosophical theology as a part of that. Not to be confused with an older neo-scholastic apologetics, which was rife with a rationalism that eschews mystery and incomprehensibility, a new apologetics is necessary in order to address the very real intellectual stumbling blocks to faith that are encountered in our contemporary world. Without the hubris of thinking that someone can be argued into faith, or that logic alone will lead someone to a consciously realized and loving relationship with God, it is nevertheless true that faulty conceptions, illogical twists and turns and downright misunderstandings not only of what we mean when we utter the word God, but even of such generally agreed upon terms as creationism, undoubtedly hinder any openness to the possibility that Christian belief in the divine is not entirely unreasonable.

Understanding New Realities

While philosophical theology is open to a broad range of approaches, it has become increasingly clear to me in my encounters with students, friends and fellow believers that a lack of familiarity or facility with metaphysical thinking leaves one at a grave disadvantage when it comes to explaining or really understanding references to those realities that are not physical (even as they may be mediated in and through the physical—an idea that itself requires some understanding of the difference between the two). I am not arguing for a wholesale return to the metaphysical thought of Thomas Aquinas exactly as he articulated it in the 13th century—an impossibility, given the advances in our understanding of nature, psychology, physics, evolution and so on. Rather, I am arguing for what the late metaphysician W. Norris Clarke, S.J., called “a creative retrieval” of Aquinas’s thought.

Not to be confused with discussion of static essences and a stoically distant and uninspiring “god of the philosophers,” or with the claim to a completely comprehensive and universal knowledge, a contemporary Thomistic metaphysics recognizes the dynamism and uniqueness of all being, the passionate action at the heart of existence and the wonder at our differently shared participation in the very life of the infinite source of all that is. Pierre-Marie Emonet, O.P., another contemporary metaphysician and a student of the late Jacques Maritain, wrote, “The metaphysician and the poet are siblings in the intuitions that open up to the mind and spirit the domain of an erstwhile primordial darkness!” Far from its associations with a stodgy and conservative worldview, a neo-Thomistic metaphysics can release and give creative, poetic and artistic voice to the experience of awe at the very fact of existence. It can provide resources for an environmentally aware theology of creation. It can give a reasonable defense of social justice based on the truth that we are a community of existents, that, as Father Clarke once put it, “to be is to be together, actively present to each other.”

Perhaps most important from the vantage point of the new evangelization, metaphysics equips one to think through the intellectual challenges to belief—that is, to speak of God in ways that are not unreasonable even while humbly acknowledging God’s ultimate mystery and ineffability. Not an end in itself when used for the purposes of evangelizing, metaphysics enters instead at the phase of what we call pre-evangelization—that is, the preparation that opens and disposes one to hear the word of revelation. It is, in this sense, a form of apologetics. Addressed to the intellectual aspect of the human person, it forms one part of that new evangelization that must ultimately reach not just the head, but the affective, the practical and the spiritual as well.

In the end, and a little too late, my Facebook friend confessed that she really did not want to get into a philosophical discussion. But had she been metaphysically (and holistically) pre-evangelized, she would not have immediately associated the source of her existence with her mother, or creationism with the very different supposition that the world is the result of God’s creative activity. Likewise, her term “man-god-idea” would have been pulled apart to reveal how little relationship it bears to the creative mystery we name God. And perhaps her natural quest for knowledge, love, goodness, truth, beauty, justice and so on would have been given free reign, so that such a discussion would not seem burdensome or meaningless.

In an age of seekers after meaning, I can think of no better approach to evangelization than to begin with those ultimate questions addressed by metaphysics in particular and philosophical theology in general: Why is there something rather than nothing? What is the purpose of my existence? If we can get somewhere by reasonable answers to these questions, we will have gone a long way toward clearing the brambles that often choke the potential for belief and, by extension, the reception of the gift of faith in freedom.

 

Brad Rothrock is a doctoral candidate in theology and education at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

Comments

FRANK DEVITO | 12/15/2012 - 11:05am
<p>This article outlines a well-intentioned but misguided approach to a New Evangelization.  There is an underlying assumption that if we can clean up people's thinking through metaphysics or philosophical inquiry, people will be more open to embracing the faith. What this approach fails to recognize is that our beliefs and practices evolve from how we make sense of our experiences.  We don't do this within a vacuum but within a particular context or mosaic where culture and history intersect.  The young woman in the facebook exchange was expressing her sense of powerlessness in a world that is constantly trying to define her.  What she needs at this moment is not a well-formulated metaphysical argument but a compassionate heart and mind who will acknowledge her pain.  This was the approach of Jesus in the gospels. For the New Evangelization to have any impact in our world, love and compassion have to serve as our primary strategy.</p>
Chris NUNEZ | 12/7/2012 - 12:11am
So, you describe that "...later with her declaration that being dependent on a “man-god-idea” was out of the question, while being dependent on a community or “things” was fine."

Bubba, Not only did she, but each of the three respondents really got your 'man' thing. I'd never cared for Augustine until I read de trinitas and came to appreciate his 'psychological/community' understanding of the Trinity.

It's about relationship Bubba, and that's why your friend said 'community or 'things' was fine. It's that Kohlberg-Gilligan split in how men 'think about things', and how women 'think about things.'

And as someone who's not left brained, I cringe at the thought of going to apologetics and metaphisics - seriously? The whole of Scriptures is about our relationship with the divine essense, and with each other. So this 'New Evangelization' should not expect to succeed if it goes back to metaphysics and apologetics. It's the narrative, the story's the thing... the story about our relationships with the divine essense and each other. And sin is simply that which separates us from each other. It's not more complicated than that. Why do you guys make it complicated? Dude, chill... He said "Do this in memory of me." And that's all we have to remember. Dude Don't drive more people away from a great life story that has the potential to save us! Why was He a parable telling teacher and not a philosopher? Cause only stories get to the heart of the matter!
CAROL STANTON | 11/30/2012 - 4:05pm
Two things strike me after reading your thought-provoking article.

One is that the language of metaphysics, traditional or "creatively retrieved", may not be the best first step in your effort to provide a pre-evangelization "ground", even though it may be an excellent step somewhere along the way. Pastoral listening to another's actual concerns and questions may be a wider and more sustained entryway to continuing conversation. Thomas himself began with questions.

Second, I am reminded of the absolutely inescapable impact of one's experience when asked to consider a relationship with God, especially in terms of agency and dependency. Your friend responded right away out of her less than liberating experience of those two realities. It reminds me of all the spiritualities which emphasize "loss of self" and how dangerous these become when those who embrace them have so little self to lose.

Virginia Edman | 11/30/2012 - 2:04pm
"The exchange ended several posts later with her declaration that being dependent on a “man-god-idea” was out of the question, while being dependent on a community or “things” was fine."

I just read a post in the NCR about Maryknoll's move against Fr. Roy Bourgeois to dismiss him from his religious order where he was member for 45 years.  There were also several articles about the objections of his lawyer to that dismissal.  I can well understand the separation that friends may feel toward the church.  It is hard to deal with the silencing of people who are seek understanding of some of the problems in our society and in the 'church, like the attitude toward women priests, and the negative attitiude toward homosexuals. 

Another reason for women to feel threatened is the investigation of women religious and the fear that they felt.  This examination of women's lives with the threat of a Profession of Faith that they may not be able to sign was a real affront to all Catholics, who immediately grouped around the sisters to support them.  Looking to kill freedom of speech along with posably freedom of thought is a frightening thought to all.

Sr. Jeaninne Gramick was disiiplined because she had a ministry to the homosexual, which was the New Ways Ministry.  Her friend and co-founder of New Ways Ministry, Fr. Robert Nugent SDS, was silenced after refusing to sign a Vatican-written Profession of Faith.  This is strong stuff, and requires a lot of forgiveness toward the Holy Father and his advisors. 

If the church wants to evangelize the people who have left the church I would suggest a full examination of why they left, and then make some changes.  It sounds easy, but it is not easy.  It appears that some church teaching is in error, and if it is then it will be exposed in time and will change.  In the meantime, don't say it is a man-god-thing and you might have better luck.

Clint HYER | 11/30/2012 - 1:17pm
"I can think of no better approach to evangelization than to begin with those ultimate questions addressed by metaphysics in particular and philosophical theology in general."

Where and how does a layman or laywoman start?