By Larry Chapp
“There are those who experience profoundly the mystery of life at the threshold. They live decisively neither here nor there. They live in a no-man’s-land. They experience the restlessness that passes from one side to the other. Melancholy is the restlessness of the man who perceives the closeness of the infinite – – who experiences at the same time blessing and threat. The meaning of man consists in being a living threshold, it consists in taking on this life at the threshold, and living it to the end. In this way he is rooted in reality; he is free from the enchantments of a false intimacy with God. The attitude that is most authentically human is the one influenced by the threshold, the only adequate to reality.”
Romano Guardini. Portrait of Melancholy
Some months ago I had a blog post dealing with Michael Voris’s attack on Bishop Robert Barron. Among other things, he attacked Barron for his comments on who can be saved in an interview Barron took part in with the popular, conservative Jew Ben Shapiro. Shapiro asked Barron if he, a Jew, could be saved given the Church’s teaching that Christ is necessary for salvation. Barron responded, tactfully, that the Church does indeed teach that Christ is necessary for salvation but that the grace of Christ is not limited to the visible confines of the Church and that the Church teaches that those who are sincerely following their well-formed consciences can find salvation outside of the Church. Barron’s answer was indeed perfectly orthodox insofar as he did not in any way downplay the necessity of Christ for salvation and was merely pointing out what it is that the Church teaches on the matter. But that was not good enough for Voris who went on his usual “Vortex” tirade, literally shouting at the camera that Barron was guilty of advocating for a dangerous religious relativism, all because he did not immediately offer Shapiro an invitation to convert to the Catholic faith for the sake of his soul, or tell the viewing audience that converting to Catholicism was the only path to salvation.
This incident has been stewing in my age-addled brain for some time now because it takes me back to my years as a professor of theology where I too was often accused by my more traditionalist students of “pandering” to the non-believers in my classes. Apparently, what they wanted me to do was to cut to the chase and start quoting the catechism in order to “preach the truth” instead of my usual path of non-confrontational give and take. I am sure my experiences in this matter are not unique among professors of theology as we have all had to confront the “catechism thumpers” and their view that evangelization is a simple matter of stringing together a daisy-chain of quotes from magisterial documents. They, like Voris, are the Catholic equivalent of the Evangelical Protestants who can muster scores of Scripture quotes as they shoot them with Gatling gun type efficiency at their hapless targets. The presumption seems to be that since “souls are at stake” one must jump immediately from point A to point Z, without the slightest concern over whether or not the soil has been properly prepared for their targets to “receive” point Z in the first place.
Evangelization is not a monological act wherein the initiative resides purely with the evangelizer while the other person is a merely passive recipient of little factoids of truth. Evangelization is a relational act between persons of equal dignity who are engaged in that most human of activities: a conversation. And a conversation is not the same as an argument, or a debate, wherein the evangelizer is trying to “win” in order to then thump his chest in triumph at having scored another “victory for Christ.” How many people actually come to the faith because they lost an argument with a Michael Voris type “evangelizer”? Contrast that with the numbers of people who come to the faith because they have established an open and honest relationship, even friendship, with a serious person of faith who was willing to engage them in the full depths of their humanity acknowledging the legitimacy of their doubts, their questions, and their reservations, even as they gently, softly-softly, share with them why it is that they believe. This is a process that can sometimes take years – – perhaps even a lifetime – – where true conversion to the faith is the fruit of the inner action of the Spirit working in and through the friendship established, and all in God’s good time. The initiative, in other words, is God’s, not ours, and God’s time is not our time, with the Spirit of God working not just through the words and life of the believer, but also in the mysterious depths of the non-believer’s soul.
A true evangelist, therefore, is one who watches and waits. Someone with the depth of humanity required in order to discern, prudentially, when to speak and when to shut the hell up. Someone who can feel, connaturally, and with a spiritual instinct that is more art than science, when the soil is ready for planting and when it is not. Someone who is not too quick to rush in with ready-made “answers” that are trite and filled with the anodyne bromides of a spiritual ideologue who hasn’t bothered to empathetically enter into the questions of the “other”. Indeed, the triumphalistic and bombastic forms of evangelizing often seem to be solipsistic exercises wherein the so-called believer is trying to justify his own faith to himself, shouting into an echo chamber of doubts. This accounts for why this kind of “evangelizer” is so keen on “winning” the debate, since losing is not an option as it calls into question the very faith of the evangelizer. In such a case the faith has ceased to be an interpersonal “proposal” and has morphed instead into an ideological superstructure of doctrines pressed into service as the identity marker for a rootless, bourgeois, self in search of the kind of rationalistic certitudes that the Enlightenment tells us are the only barometer of truth. Souls are indeed at stake. But whose soul?
By contrast, what true evangelization requires is the meeting of thresholds. In the quote from Guardini above he identifies the essence of what it means to be human as the willingness to live in the no-man’s-land between heaven and earth, to live at the threshold of heaven even as we continue to live in the opaqueness of this life. The true spiritual seeker is one who can live in this tension and who feels both its joys and its melancholic sadness. To live in that threshold is to make one’s entire life a question mark in search of answers – – answers that conceal as much as they reveal since they are grounded in the deep mystery that is the Triune God. The faith does indeed give us answers, even ultimate ones, but never in a modality that precludes darkness – – a fact that the lives of many saints attest to. Even Saint Paul, who witnessed the risen Christ, nevertheless spoke of how in this life we peer into heavenly things as through a darkened glass. To live in that threshold is to share deeply in the full depths of the human condition which is at one and the same time a condition marked for eternity as well as by the limitations of our finitude and our sin.
The implications of this for our view of what constitutes evangelization are far reaching. For starters it means that the interpersonal act of evangelizing is first and foremost an empathetic action wherein you attempt to understand how your interlocutor experiences life in the threshold Guardini describes. This is not an easy thing to do and not just because it is impossible to fully empathize with someone else’s subjectivity. It is also difficult because the temptation is always in the direction of understanding someone else’s experience of the threshold through the lens of your own. This is the trap so many “preachers” fall into as they set up caricatures of “non-believers” and create straw men to attack, all of which amounts to a monumental exercise in self-assertion and projection rather than a sincere effort at authentic communication with the world of non-believers.
Therefore, (and here is where folks might strongly disagree with me) it is necessary for the evangelist to be so deeply immersed in his or her own faith, so deeply convicted of its truth, so deeply formed by those truths, and so deeply educated in its spiritual pedagogy, that it then becomes possible to “bracket” that faith in order to doubt it all anew, and to rethink it all again in the respristinating light of all that one has learned in life. In so doing we can begin to see deeply into the full depth of human despair and doubt and thus are able to “stretch out” into solidarity with all doubters. Indeed, to be able to name their doubt for them better than they can name it themselves. There is tremendous power in being able to articulate the “dark night of the soul” for those who are lost in it but who are still seeking the light. Thus is all true evangelization the path of empathy, the path of entering into the internal logic of doubt and darkness, and to suffer it through to the end. This is a tremendously difficult thing to do and sometimes requires a lifetime of preparation, which is why “evangelization” in the full register of a robust encounter with the “other” is so very rare. It is precisely why the saints and their lives are the best evangelizers and also why the arrogant, “us vs them,” pile-driving pugilism of a Michael Voris is so damnably silly.
I am most certainly no saint. But, to toot my own horn a bit, I was a really good teacher. I am not good at many things in life, but there is one thing I was good at and it was teaching theology. And as I reflect back on those years in the classroom I now realize what it was that made me effective and what it was that most rankled my hyper traditionalist students. It is a skill that is also possessed by my dear friend and former colleague, Dr. Rodney Howsare. And that skill is this: that when a doubting, non-believing student raises an objection in the form of a question you first begin by taking it very, very seriously. You then proceed to reformulate the question for the student and in so doing actually make their point even sharper and more cogent. In so doing you validate the student’s doubts and help them to own that doubt even better. Then and only then are you ready to propose an answer, and the answer will be all the more cogent since it will be an answer that has gone through the crucible of the doubt. But this is only possible if the teacher has also doubted and doubted deeply, to its very depth and to the ends of its inner logic, all the while maintaining the faith in a kind of bracketed suspension that is possible only if one lives in Guardini’s threshold.
This, it seems to me, is the path followed by Bishop Robert Barron which is why his videos are so effective and why he is so hated by those on the rad trad fringes of the Church. He seeks to preach the Gospel in a manner that truly reflects its radical spiritual and human depth – – a depth that can often be occluded by the very doctrinal apparatus of the Church which, though true in itself, has become very “in-house” in its language and which, therefore, does not speak to a modern soul formed in the witch’s brew of our technocratic, digital, secularity. I am not here to defend Bishop Barron per se – – he is a big boy and he can defend himself – – but rather to defend a method of preaching in today’s world that follows the path of empathetic solidarity with every sincere seeker who lives in the threshold.
Finally, there is a need to ground this method theologically in order to go beyond its mere pedagogical soundness as an “effective” tool. The method I am describing is cruciform in its inner spiritual logic insofar as the attempt to enter empathetically into the dark night of doubt is an act of sacrificial “substitution” for the sake of the “other.” The true evangelizer must be a person of deep prayer and penance who seeks to take into his or her own soul the existential fractures of the “other” that cloud the mind and lead to doubt. The empathy I speak of then is more than a mere “feeling with” but also a true “taking on” as one adopts the doubt of the world, suffers through it, and thereby contributes to its conquest, its redemption. Evangelization therefore is more than a pedagogical act, but is also, and most profoundly, a penitential and soteriological act.
We are told by Saint Paul that in our sufferings we make up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. (Colossians 1:24) This a deeply mysterious statement because what can possibly be lacking in the sufferings of Christ? A key can be found in Paul’s statement that his afflictions make up for what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings insofar as they are for the sake of the Church. In other words, we need to remember that the essence of Christ’s sufferings went far beyond his physical pain and reside even more deeply in his taking on the full weight of the implications of sin. But for the sake of our own entering into that salvation the Father also wills that we participate in its inner dynamic. This is what Christ means when he says that we too must take up our cross. He doesn’t just mean something trite like “you too will have bad things happen to you”. He means something far deeper and much more challenging. He is asking us to understand that “to whom much is given, much is expected” which means that “salvation” is not something I “possess” in an acquisitive manner, nor something I “grasp at” in order to “own”. Rather, it is a gift in the form of an offer to participate in his own redemptive act for the sake of all others. To be a Christian, therefore, is to give a name to our threshold. And that name is “love as substitutionary sacrifice”.
We live today in a Western culture that faithless. It is a world marked by doubt and is deeply fractured and on the brink of cultural collapse. All that remains, all that holds us together, is our wealth and our digital technocracy. It is a challenge unique and without parallel in the history of the Church. And so we face a choice. We can either gin-up apocalyptic tales of an emerging “soft totalitarianism” and a coming “persecution” and become modern day Essenes fleeing into our version of Qumran until the storm passes, or we can follow the path of Christ which is the path of the loving empathy that leads to the cross. For if we truly love our neighbor and our enemies then “flight” is not an option. It is a sin.
Dorothy Day pray for us.