Evangelizing Our Reality-Denying Nonculture

How does the Church evangelize men and women of the West, who don't even recognize basic reality?

As our readers no doubt are aware, Cardinal Cupich has restricted Eucharistic adoration in the archdiocese of Chicago. It is rather like making sure that a weak and spindly child will spend as little time as possible outdoors exercising the muscles that he hardly has so that they might grow strong.

In this regard, the cardinal is conforming the Church to the pattern of the world about him, a non-pattern, actually, without meaning, without cultural memory and devotion, and without hope. As Talleyrand quipped, when Napoleon had the Duke of Enghien murdered: “It is worse than a crime. It is a blunder.”

It has been a long time since I suggested that the condition of contemporary secular man is to be of the world but not in the world. The Church has never had to treat of such people because it has never before been possible for such people to exist, or, granting the occasional freaks of nature or history, to survive a single generation. You had to be in the world to make your way, getting things done: loading a ship with merchandise, repairing the gears on your mill by the river, erecting a bell tower that would not sink and tilt with the next hard rain.  

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But we in the West are wealthy enough to indulge fantasies, political or sexual or solipsistic, and we no longer dwell in a culture. There is no telling what your neighbor believes, not about God or man merely, but about reality itself. When Jesus gave His final command, to go forth and make disciples of all nations, the men who heard Him could understand what He meant: Rome, Greece, Persia, and so forth. I fear that we now require a propaedeutic command, to go forth and make nations of disunited and half-made men, so that there may be a Rome, a Greece, or a Persia to baptize.

Suppose your job is to evangelize someone like Lorenzo de’ Medici, the worldly and sharp-eyed strongman of Florence when Michelangelo was a young man. You will have his sins to deal with, no doubt, and they will be many and grave. You will have to get beyond his wistful Epicureanism, as he expressed it in his most famous poem:

Chi vuol esser lieto, sia!
Di doman non c’e certezza.

Who would be happy, let him be!
Tomorrow brings no certainty.

You will have to remind him that his wealth is held as on loan from God, to be employed for the common good. You will have less work to do on that score than you perhaps suppose, since the Medici family pride themselves on public works and beautifying the city. You will have to remind him that it is not enough to be as wise as a serpent, but he must be as innocent as a dove besides. If he reads Cicero, he can go on and read Augustine. If he reads Virgil, he can read Dante to better effect.

But think of the many things you do not have to do. You do not have to persuade Lorenzo that reality exists, independent of what we think about it. You do not, then, have to persuade him that some things are objectively more beautiful than others, in nature, in the arts, and in human actions. You may have to persuade Lorenzo to want to become like Louis IX, the saintly king of France, but you will not have to persuade him that Louis was saintly; and you will not have to teach him that there was such a man to begin with. You and he will share a common language, a way of making sense of the world. 

He may not want to believe in the Gospels, because he knows they will require him to give over his mistress, or to treat his enemies with honesty, but you will not have to persuade him of the high and noble morality that the Gospels present. Lorenzo hated Savonarola, the fiery preacher who for a short time wrested from him the control of Florence; you can stand in the Piazza della Signoria and look at the spot on the stone pavement, memorialized with an inscription, where Lorenzo had Savonarola burned at the stake. So, you cannot use any leverage that way. But you might call upon the beautiful soul of his ever-youthful friend, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, the Christian Platonist who admired Savonarola, and who was probably the most broadly-read man in Europe at the time.

But how can the Church begin to evangelize men and women of the West, right now? It is like trying to gain leverage on an amorphous lump. “Porn is great,” someone recently flung at me, on anti-social media, backing up his claim with a few obscenities. When I called him out on the foul mouth and the narrow mind —because he would not begin to consider any of the moral directives and guardrails that are meant to promote and to protect marriage and family life—he laughed and said that I was “afraid of the flesh.” It did not occur to him that porn is an offense against the flesh: disembodied, impersonal, detached from place, time, and community. But how can the Church begin to evangelize men and women of the West, right now? It is like trying to gain leverage on an amorphous lump.Tweet This

Or I happen upon people who scoff at belief in God, calling it belief in a “Sky-Daddy.” They show by their scoffing that they have only the vaguest idea of what Christians and Jews believe—and not the least curiosity to learn about it. You can’t then ask them to read Augustine’s Confessions, and there are several reasons why not, reasons that would not have applied a hundred years ago. 

The first is that they take for granted that there is no point to it, since “science”—wherewith they usually have but a slender acquaintance—is our only means to ascertaining the truth; science which they will conveniently ignore when it comes to their personal habits or inclinations. So it is that “science” is invoked not to pursue knowledge but to rule out its pursuit from the beginning.

The second is that they may never have heard of Augustine, nor will they care to hear. Now, if you are evangelizing pagan German warriors in the time of Boniface, you cannot ask them to read Augustine because they do not read at all. But they will also not be disposed to dismiss your learning; they will not have learned to consider themselves educated. 

Some years ago, Ta-Nehisi Coates, the celebrated atheist author about racial matters, defended himself with some pettishness when it came out that he had never even heard of Augustine. He said that every writer has his pantheon of influential predecessors, and Augustine happened not to be in his own. The problem, of course, is that to be ignorant of Augustine’s existence, when you are a well-remunerated and world-renowned scholar who writes about the cultural history of the West, is like being a writer about science who has never heard of Galileo, or a writer about art who has never heard of Rembrandt.

Coates could read Augustine if he wanted to, but most people in the “know” about Christianity cannot do so. They lack the general knowledge of history and philosophy, the specific knowledge of Scripture, and the linguistic sophistication for it. They have been schooled into believing themselves beyond the need for education: schooled into an ignorance far more stubborn and intractable than illiteracy ever has been.

But the third reason is the most dreadful. Solipsism destroys in the soul any desire to learn, along with any gratitude for the cultural gifts one might appropriate from the past. If you love the landscapes of John Constable, you may easily come to love the nature paintings of Hokusai. But when you have no culture, you seek no culture; what you call “culture” from other lands will be superficial, a taste in cookery or fancy dress; it does not occur to you that a genuine culture demands an ordering of reality, and it exacts claims upon its members, not just as to their behavior on parade days, but as to what they take for granted about what exists, what is true, honorable, wise, well-done, beautiful, good.

Paul went to that ancient nerve center of Greek culture, the Areopagus in Athens, to tell the Athenians that he had come to reveal to them the “unknown God” whom they had commemorated, even citing a Greek poet to say that in the one God we “live and move and have our being.” There is no such place now. There are no such people as the Athenians. There is no nation. 

God wants sons, not slaves; he wants the fullness of humanity. Satan will gladly settle for the stunted and abortive, half-men, slaves to the mass phenomena. And those include many of the leaders of our Church—I speak as to their noncultural condition here and not as to the state of their souls. Meanwhile, the fundamental human task remains: to build a culture among people who have none, who do not know what it would be like to have one, and who have no obvious desire for it.


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