Evangelization Part Four: Evangelization in an Apocalyptic Modality: A Balthasarian Analysis
True, the mysterious figure of the Nazarene continues to exercise its fascination. But, for the most part, access to this figure is sought outside the official Christianity of the Church, which fails to reflect his features clearly enough, and, historically, has compromised him too gravely. However, the modes of access to him that claim to be “immediate”, the attempts to be with him “here and now”, will continually prove fruitless; all knowledge of Jesus – as the exegetes show us so graphically – always was, and always will be, mediated in and through the Church. Both paths seem blocked: the path through the Church and that which bypasses the Church. Perhaps, after all, the old God’s last Messenger has lost the game, and world history proceeds on its way without paying any heed.
Hans Urs von Balthasar (Theo-Drama IV, p. 66)
This section of Balthasar’s theological dramatics deals with the vision of history described in the book of Revelation. The leitmotif of the entire text is a playing out of what Balthasar calls “the law of proportionate polarization” (51) And by this he means that the more God enters clearly and definitively into time and history the more it provokes a counter response from the “principles of fallen life” (30) which are animated by the libido dominandi. This is why it is only with the advent of Christ that the provocation, and therefore the conflict, comes into its starkest focus. The fantastical apocalyptic symbolizations in the book of Revelation have this polarization and provocation in view and give us a theology of history wherein the unfolding of the Christ event in time elicits an increasing crescendo of resistance from the worldly forces of power, Mammon, and mendacious deception which are symbolized by the “whore of Babylon”. Babylon stands as the universal principle of the anti-christ and has the power to deceive through its spawning of a simulacrum of Christ’s Kingdom and has an “antipneumatic power to lead men astray, holding them spellbound under totalitarian rule.” (35)
Therefore, Balthasar resolutely rejects any exegetical attempt to reduce the universal nature of Revelation’s view of history to a coded first century diatribe against the specific and proximate power of the Roman Empire alone. The book of Revelation, says Balthasar, affirms instead that no matter the political regime reigning in that moment in time that the words of the seer are intended as a universal affirmation of a clash of kingdoms. And that this clash constitutes the theo-dramatic engagement of Divine and human freedom in all of human history, with a simultaneity of judgement and liberation (reflected in the liturgy ) that forces upon all of us what Balthasar describes elsewhere as our “Ernstfall” (crisis) moment of decisional commitment for or against Christ.
Balthasar further notes, however, that this theo-dramatic and christocentric reading of history in the book of Revelation is by no means a self-evident historical dynamic since the seemingly self-enclosed trajectory of history as the inexorable unfolding of purely intramundane factors gives Babylon’s claims to total authority a prima facie plausibility, and thus gives compelling power to its pragmatic metric of purely utilitarian calculations. This is precisely why the text of Revelation is in the apocalyptic genre which means, after all, the unveiling of what was previously either unknown or partially occluded. Because the images are not simply pointing to contemporary political realities expressed in coded form for the initiated few -- like a riddle from an ancient, Christian Q anon conspiracy wingnut -- but are rather an unveiling of the true theo-dramatic dimensions of all of history – a dimension which was not truly known until the tearing open of the veil by Christ. And the ripping open of that veil exposed polarities that were not only made clear by the advent of Christ, but were in fact created by Christ’s provocation as such, and increased according to the aforementioned law of proportionate polarization. The “Last Things” of time and history are not merely “made clear” by Christ but are in fact christological categories as such. Heaven, Hell, and purgatory are all “located” in the Sacred Heart of Christ (all three implicated in the event of the Cross) and are eschatological markers for differing theo-dramatic responses to the Christ provocation.
Balthasar also rejects the reduction of this clash of kingdoms in Revelation to existentialist and individualistic categories. What Revelation gives us is not the projection onto a vast canvas of what are essentially subjective categories of human spiritual/psychological experience. The images in Revelation are not mere descriptive pictographs of the “apocalypse” in each individual soul. The Ernstfall moment is truly historical in a social and cultural sense and the images in Revelation are not simply descriptions of various spiritual conditions latent within the transcendental structures of human subjectivity. The clash of kingdoms is truly world-historical involving the cultural structures created by the laws that govern, respectively, fallen human life and the economy of redemption.
The drama of the battle between the Lamb who was slain and the Beast who rises with the smoke from the abyss, between the followers of the Lamb and the followers of the whore of Babylon, is gutted from within by treating it merely as a hyperbolic panoply of grotesque phantasms and reduced to the shallow categories of the thematization of my always already unthematized experience of judgment and grace. Such reductions also inevitably trend in the psychologistic direction since the alleged transcendental horizon implied by all of my acts of knowing and willing could just as easily point to a horizon of nothingness, to the horizon of the void and the abyss of non-meaning. Therefore, what our subjective unthematized experience might actually be pointing toward is the tragic form of human existence as an entelechy without a source or a destination, other than the subterranean forces of nature as such. Perhaps our transcendental orientation toward a transcendent horizon is an epiphenomenal quirk of our psychology as goal driven beings and nothing more. In other words: the pointlessness of reductive materialism remains as an ever-present reality and only an act of faith in Christ can allow us to see our transcendental teleology as more than that. To be fair, the transcendental Thomists understand this and never put forward their analysis as anything more than a “rumor of angels”, but all too often their theologizing proceeds as if the abyss of meaninglessness has been vanquished by their analysis of the trajectories latent within human nature.
There is also an overly individualistic emphasis in such analysis as the focus is on the dynamics of subjectivity as such and not on the theo-dramatics of world history as the interplay of Augustine’s two cities. To be sure, there is an important role to play for individuals and their choices since the rubber meets the road deep in the decisional choosing of each and every soul. However, part of that choosing is the decision of allegiance to one kingdom or the other, since none of us is a blank slate and none of us choose in an ahistorical vacuum. Our choosing, as René Girard so brilliantly described, is mimetic and thus latent in my choices for the objects of my desire is a choice for the kingdom that created the social nexus of those desires in the first place. And the socio-psychological power of mimetic desire resides precisely in its subtle coercive force which acts upon our freedom in often undetected ways. Therefore, the choice to foster desires which run counter to the dominant mimetic framework of Babylon is to throw one’s allegiance to a different mimetic ordo that could place one in conflict with the dominant ethos which dictates what one should most legitimately desire. But this kind of swimming upstream, culturally speaking, is hard for most “ordinary” people to sustain and therefore when leaders of the Church acquiesce to the dominant cultural matrix through a thousand paper cuts of accommodation they are engaging in what is at its root an act of idolatry that leaves the flock amongst the wolves without a shepherd.
For example, the affirmation in the early Church that “Christ is Lord” was not a “safe” prayer of a purely personal piety, but a pointedly public, and therefore dangerous, claim as to which king you had chosen and, by implication, which kingdom. Because they understood in their context that if Christ is Lord, then Caesar is not. The ancients were wiser than we are and they understood that there is no such thing as a privatized zone of “religious freedom” without kingdom allegiances. They further understood that if your “religion” did not entail such allegiances that it was really no religion at all. At least not one worth the slightest attention. These were serious people who had no time for the kind of boutique shop “angel pin” bourgeois religiosity so common in today’s spiritually desiccated world, which is closer in tone and tenor, as David Hart notes, to interior decorating than it is to anything genuinely serious about ultimate things.
Seen in that light it becomes clear that the pagan gods and the various cultic expressions devoted to them were entangled in the nexus of Imperial power and were viewed as critical to the health and well-being of the structured layering of Roman civic institutions. And the Christian affirmation that this constituted a form of religious fornication that was now definitively destroyed by Christ who had broken the chains of these principalities and powers was viewed as a subversive assault on all that was good, holy, and most precious to the elites of Roman society. This is precisely why the first Christians were charged with “atheism” and of being anti-social and anti-human monsters, since in affirming the kingdom of the crucified crackpot from Nazareth one must be by definition opposed to common-sense human goods which we should all desire.
The book of Revelation affirms, as Balthasar notes, that it is the “Lamb who was slain” who constitutes God’s mode of involvement with the world (52). The Beast of Revelation has a mortal wound on one of its heads that is miraculously healed, causing all the world to marvel and to worship the dragon. By contrast, the Lamb retains its wounds even in its glorified state. What could this mean? For Balthasar the wounds of the Lamb are testimony to the lasting effects of the very real drama of the interplay of divine and human freedom in history. God has not simply erased history and human sin, but has taken it on in such a fashion that its transformation now constitutes the very form of God’s commitment to the world. This is no religion of mere magic, as with the Dragon and the Beast whose display of supernatural wonders is oriented toward deceit and domination via the path of superficialities that change nothing, no matter how wondrous they are. The Lamb has conquered the regime of pain and death from within but in a manner that requires the active engagement of human freedom in response. Here we see that freedom is actually constituted in its most genuine form as reception of a transformative gift from above whereas the religion of the Dragon and the worldly power of Babylon destroys freedom as an epiphanic eruption of a hidden depth even as it promises an illusory freedom rooted in the acquisition of material well-being.
Thus, insofar as pagan religiosity was tied to the maintenance of the power structures of worldly empire it had to be opposed and deposed as the enemy of true freedom. History seems to teach us that the torturers have the last word and that, as Mao once said, power flows from the barrel of a gun. The sheer weight of this claim overwhelms us with its seductive rationality and even when our better angels construct forms of Liberal government that seek to ameliorate the world’s shop of horrors it is not long before the crudities of blunt force are merely replaced with the more sophisticated and seemingly less onerous constructions of bourgeois culture which, nevertheless, have issued forth into the greatest genocidal catastrophes the world has ever seen. And insofar as the Church has accommodated itself to this order of intramundane fulfillment as our truest home it has also just so far endorsed, however implicitly, the strong gods of the principalities and powers. This is what Balthasar means in the epigraphic quote above when he says that the Church “fails to reflect his [Christ’s] features clearly enough, and, historically, has compromised him too gravely.”
It is indeed true that much of non-Christian religiosity in pagan antiquity was entangled in the world of myth as underwriter of the libido dominandi. However, Judaism had already acknowledged the presence of Gentile “God fearers” who sought after an elevated moral order rooted in a more monistic view of a single divinity. And Saint Paul at the Areopagus spoke of the “unknown god” of the pagans which he viewed as a genuine anticipation of Christ. The early Church, likewise, spoke of the “logoi spermatikoi” of the Revelation of the true God which were like scattered seeds of truth which, though often opaque and confused, represented a movement in history of God’s preparatory grace. Thus did many early Church fathers speak of appropriating these “spoils of Egypt” for use in the service of the Gospel since they pointed to Christ and as such represented the inchoate self-transcendence of paganism beyond the kingdom logic of Babylon.
Balthasar acknowledges these more positive elements in natural religion and points to the Stoics and the Neoplatonists as embracing a “vast , all reconciling, divine horizon” (64). And he affirms the teaching of the Church that there is indeed such a thing as a “natural knowledge of God”(65). Nevertheless, what the book of Revelation shows is that since the advent of Christ this natural religion is problematized since its diffused and confused concept of God has been confronted by Christ who, through his “I am” statements, “relentlessly centered this God on himself.” (64) There is a sense therefore that after the advent of Christ everything has changed and even the better elements of natural religion now face a crossroads where they are either elevated into Christ’s kingdom logic or they will descend into the apotheosis of the strong gods of Blut und Erde. And that is because in a world forever changed by the Christian evangel a mere stasis of natural religion is no longer possible and we either trend upwards towards the true God revealed in Christ or downwards towards our gut or our crotch or our veins.
Balthasar notes that the problem is exacerbated in modernity where the ordo of Babylon is so immersed in the nullification of the question of God that even our natural religious sense has been effaced and suppressed to the point of near extinction. This means that the era where the Church could rely on the natural religiosity of most people is over. What scholars refer to as the “religious a priori” of our nature has been so attenuated and occluded in modern technocratic, bourgeois culture that it can no longer be relied upon as a mainstay of our evangelization. Balthasar puts it as follows:
“The borrowed substance of antiquity lasted a long time, bolstering up man’s shrinking ‘natural piety’ behind the figure of Christ or instead of him. These borrowings were entirely natural in the Fathers and in Scholasticism, … but eventually they became more and more problematical, particularly since they were increasingly replaced by a metaphysics of spirit and freedom that moved from theism to pantheism to atheism. The vast, all-reconciling divine horizon … is rolled up and set to one side.” (64)
Modernity in Balthasar’s appraisal is thus characterized by what Pope Benedict called the “eclipse of God”. This “eclipse” is not a denial of the reality of a natural knowledge of God as such but is rather a simple statement of the sociological reality of a deep and constitutive disbelief that characterizes the modern ethos. And it is a disbelief that is more than the statistical presence of a large number of nonbelievers and constitutes instead a systemic repudiation at a deep cultural and intellectual level of the religious sense as something that is at the core of what it means to be human. Balthasar states, “In saying this, we are not denying the possibility of a ‘natural knowledge of God’ …. [However] Whenever modern technological civilization penetrates areas that are still religious, it also infuses a post-Christian, secular, atheistic consciousness as well.” (65) And in a shocking conclusion Balthasar makes the claim that, “This step into secularity is irreversible; not even the greatest atomic catastrophes would bring people back to the former religious naïveté.”
Of course Balthasar does not mean by this that the Gospel has no hope of ever again gaining the cultural upper hand. What he is affirming rather is that the logic of Babylon takes the form today of a radical shift in human consciousness in a manner that precludes a simple return to the pattern of the past in some kind of a restorationist fever dream of the retrieval of the lost glories of Christendom. In other words, we cannot plug our ears, close our eyes, and stomp our feet in protest, as if an ecclesial temper tantrum of Constantinian fury will restore things and right the ship. Because the crisis is a deeply cultural and spiritual one, involving a uniquely post-Christian repudiation of any notion of a sacral society, the move beyond classical understandings of throne and altar is irreversible. And even if we someday have a post-secular society and once again form a Christian civilization it will take the form of a post-secular and post-Constantinian social form the outlines of which we can only guess at now.
But then what can we say of today? What are the spoils of Egypt that one can take from a culture with a deeply occluded and attenuated religious sense? What does one do with a culture that no longer believes in “truth” as something compelling and binding? Some semblance of recognizing the importance of truth remains, of course, but the truth has lost its relationship with the good and the beautiful and therefore has lost its claim upon our moral wills. Balthasar puts it as follows:
“In such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and rather not its opposite, evil. For this too is a possibility, and even more the exciting one: Why not investigate Satan’s depths? In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of truth have lost their cogency. In other words, syllogisms may still dutifully clatter away like rotary presses or computers which infallibly spew out an exact number of answers by the minute. But the logic of these answers is itself a mechanism which no longer captivates anyone. The very conclusions are no longer conclusive.” (The Glory of the Lord: Volume One: Seeing the Form, 19)”
Returning then to our beginning where we invoked Balthasar’s law of proportionate polarization, we can see that the theology of history developed in the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation has come into stark relief in modernity. The rejection of the crucified Lamb as the primary metric for the truth of our existence is now fully exposed as the rejection of the binding nature of truth as such. And this is so because after Christ there is no returning to the religious constructions of paganism and all such attempts to do so take on the air of an ersatz kitsch devoid of any true inner moment of veracity. It comes across now as contrived as we see for example in many so-called “Satanic” religious groups which are largely populated by atheists whose so-called rituals are a kabuki theatre of the absurd designed only to mock the Lamb who was slain.
Mockery thus becomes the tell-tale and iconic signature of the modern spirit. Because in its flight from truth, goodness, and beauty, “naked matter remains as an indigestible symbol of fear and anguish.” Therefore, Balthasar concludes:
“Since nothing else remains, and yet something must be embraced, … [modern] man is urged to enter this impossible marriage with matter, a union which finally spoils all man’s taste for love. But man cannot bear to live with the object of his impotence, that which remains permanently unmastered. He must either deny it or conceal it in the silence of death.” (Glory, 19)
What this points to is the essentially apocalyptic nature of the choice we face in the sense of apocalyptic as a final unveiling of that which has remained hidden or latent. And it is an unveiling which only now reveals to us, in the stark polarization of modernity, that a complacent stasis where the Church attempts to tread water and maintain the status quo through a “don’t rock the boat” approach to pastoral energy, is doomed to failure. And it is doomed for failure since the generalized religious indifferentism of the past century or two, which was content to leave the churches be so long as they remained safely sequestered in their dog kennels, has now become an intolerant ideological and cultural superstructure of institutionalized atheism which will no longer allow such safe spaces since the mere presence of the Christ provocation is considered to be a triggering offense against human decency. Romano Guardini saw this process in action in the modern world as well, as we move from indifference to Christianity, to a return to paganism, and finally into a raw nihilism:
“As unbelievers deny [the Christian] Revelation more decisively, as they put their denial into more consistent practice, it will become the more evident what it really means to be a Christian. At the same time, the unbeliever will emerge from the fogs of secularism. He will cease to reap benefit from the values and forces developed by the very Revelation he denies. He must learn to exist honestly without Christ and without the God revealed through him; he will have to learn to experience what this honesty means. Nietzsche has already warned us that the non-Christian of the modern world had no realization of what it truly meant to be without Christ. The last decades [the 1930s and 1940s] have suggested what life without Christ really is. The last decades were only the beginning.” (The End of the Modern World, Sheed and Ward, 1956, 124)
The phenomenologist Max Scheler also saw this clearly and noted that at one time religious indifference was not a huge threat to the Church but that it now is. He states:
“It was skeptic indifference and unbelief that enabled the Churches to live such an easy life before the war and to be so content with ‘maintaining’ their position. But the time will come when unbelief’s sterile negation and the apparent tolerance of religion by lazy indifference will have come to an end. Then religion will once again be recognized and attacked from all sides for what it is – the highest concern of man.” (On the Eternal in Man, 121)
And with regard to evangelization today as needing to confront the apocalyptic choice of a clear “yes” or “no” to Christ under the law of proportionate polarization, he states:
“… one must also be prepared to find that this catalytic conviction also penetrates one’s own ranks, and that the mere policy of ‘holding fast’ … brings on the destruction of the very things one wished to preserve. Any positive religion which today fails in the above sense to carry out its spiritual mission, to bear new and living witness to its cause in every way, is most certainly doomed to defeat and decline in the spiritual struggles which we have before us. … He who has nothing to give in this crisis of the world will lose what he possesses.” (122)
But what are the implications of all of this for evangelization? Scheler’s deeper point is that a pure religious indifference rooted in a genuine disinterest in the things of God is not a big threat to the Church and never has been. Indeed, such benign neglect allowed the Church for a time, even after the French Revolution, to carve out a safe space for itself. However, at some point in the past 150 or so years that original indifference has morphed into a counter-creed to that of Christianity and a new religion in its own right, complete with its own dogmas. This also seems to be Guardini’s point where he predicts that the horrors of World War II were just the beginning of what it will look like in a world finally devoid of Christ and resolutely opposed to any revivification of his memory.
And therein lies the deep paradox of modernity. Religious indifference has evolved into its own religion and of a very intolerant sort. It is a religion of deconstruction and destruction whose essence revolves around the ritualization of transgression, especially sexual transgression. And make no mistake about it, what is being consciously transgressed is Christianity and the normativity of its view of human nature. Here we see that the rainbow flag is no mere identity marker signaling support for oppressed sexual minorities. It is rather the central icon of the new religion, which has replaced the crucifix even in some Catholic churches as the central religious image of our day, with “LGBTQ” replacing “INRI” as its titular identification. When queried about INRI Pilate responded, “Quod scripsi, scripsi” which was the New Testament’s way of being ironic since the words of the pagan butcher were in fact hauntingly true despite the apparent defeat of Jesus via the mechanisms of Roman power. But there is no such irony here. This is simply the replacing of one religion with another, totally foreign to the first, and with deadly consequences.
But the new religion of humanity goes beyond the dogmas of the sexual rainbow and is also to be found, perhaps even more so, in the transgression against allegedly outdated concepts of human specialness and “sacredness”, and of the limitations such concepts impose on our acquisition of power and mastery over nature. Genetic manipulation and cybernetic enhancement promise to bring us into a brave new world of the singularity where man and machine become one. Human nature will be digitized and technocracy, with its religion of scientism, will ensnare us all in a new matrix of inevitable technological enhancements which we will not be able to negate or escape. There will emerge two classes of human beings: those who have been enhanced and integrated, and those who have not. Or as C.S. Lewis puts it in “The Abolition of Man”, there will eventually only be the “conditioners” and the “conditioned”.
****[Tangential sidenote and a prediction]: The Anglicans and the progressive “synodal” Catholics will herald this new era of cybernetic enhancement as the truest fulfillment of Christianity since the Spirit speaks through culture and is always “surprising” us with “new things”. Cardinal McElroy will wax eloquent on the role of conscience and indignantly claim that it was not until the late 20th century that the Church decided that there is “no parvity of matter” when it comes to adjudicating the morality of techno-sexual lifestyles where people can marry robots and enjoy techno-coitus. He will decry these “structures of exclusion” and call for full eucharistic integration for the “RLPC” (robot loving people community) who are trapped in such “complex circumstances”. Mike Lewis and the whole “Where Peter Is” galleria of papal gushers will then rush to McElroy’s defense and claim that his critics do not understand him, that all he is talking about is diminished culpability, and that this is all just an “anti-Francis” thing anyway and therefore a deeply uncatholic disrespecting of the papacy. **** [End of sidenote]
This is the Babylon that is upon us today and its stark contours, now coming into focus in ever-sharper ways, means that unlike past eras in the Church’s history, our current era presents us with a black and white choice for or against Christ. There is no longer a middle ground and there is no stasis. And our evangelizing therefore has to take this into account. This is not a “call to arms” or a false “othering” of enemies in order to demonize people. It is a call to love our enemies and to understand them deeply. And what characterizes the modern soul is an exhausted and bankrupt nihilism that has spawned a culture of the deepest spiritual boredom, which has in turned spawned our culture of endless diversionary entertainments and the cult of work/Mammon.
Therefore, as an act of loving charity our service now as evangelizers has to be that of truth-tellers who expose idolatry and all of its various permutations in modernity. And this truth- telling must begin from within our own ranks since, as Augustine pointed out long ago, the libido dominandi is found in the Church in profound and disturbing ways. And since ours is an age of nihilistic unbelief it should not surprise that there is a deep atheism in the Church as well, no matter how implied or latent in may be. Which presents us with the problem of a modern Church riddled with clerical and lay leaders who are in point of fact, atheists, but who continue to use the language, ritual, and trappings of the Church in order to undermine that Church, however unconsciously. I am not invoking a Vigano-style conspiracy theory here and I would claim that this subversive ecclesial atheism is rarely consciously affirmed. Rather, it is an atheism rooted in a spiritual blindness and the loss of a deeper spiritual insight and wisdom which alone can “see” the inherent idolatry and anti-Christian logic imbedded in the metaphysical commitments of modernity. In other words, there are those who “see” the Ernstfall crisis that is upon us and there are those – perhaps in the majority – who do not.
But this re-evangelization of the Church and her consequent re-capacitation for evangelizing the world can only happen if two things are present. First, a true and intellectually deep understanding of our own faith and the theology that undergirds it must be identified, developed, standardized, and then drilled-into every seminarian in the world. And second, a deep existential and intellectual understanding of the ideological distortions of that faith in modernity’s various idolatries has to be pressed to its logical conclusions. Because the logical end of atheism is always nihilism. But our own culture has adopted a “whistling past the graveyard” happy-face nihilism which, through its inherent insouciance toward the question of Being and of God, represses the inner logic of nihilism and sublates it into an eschatological party bus of endless bourgeois fulfillment – a cult of material well-being which is now viewed as our birthright.
This has an illusory effect which masks the inner horror of modernity as an ideology centered on the aboriginal priority of death over life (as the Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas noted). And this illusory quality has seduced millions in the modern Church who lack spiritual senses and who view the world instead through this lens. They fail to see the apocalyptic “yes” or “no” moment that is before us and it is therefore the task of evangelization to help such people to recover their spiritual senses to be able to sense the atheism latent within them. But in order to do that we must also identify empathetically with it in an act of raw honesty and to admit that since we too are moderns, that we too have this abyss of atheism within us as well.
And this dual process of understanding both the faith in its truest depth and modern nihilistic unbelief as the Ur-heresy of the denial of all truth, cannot issue forth into mere ranting and raving. It cannot become shadow boxing with straw man caricatures. It cannot be a rad trad diatribe about the need for more people to be in Hell before we can be motivated enough to take God seriously as our savior. It cannot be a new syllabus of errors that merely condemns “falsehood” from an extrinsic position of authority in the shallowest of ways. It cannot be a message about the need for less religious freedom in order to use the State to coerce people out of their atheism via punitive tax codes for infidels. It cannot be an exercise in the weaponizing of Catholicism against “the errors of our time”, as if those errors are not also within ourselves and as if our own sins and intellectual obtuseness as a Church have not led, and led directly, to most of those errors.
This is evangelization, as I have said before, as a soteriological action wherein we enter into the disbelief and the counter religion of modernity in order to truly understand it, to “get it”, and to thereby engage in an act of vicarious suffering-through of the disbelief for the sake of the other. Then and only then can we engage this most intractable form of disbelief effectively. Christ said there are some sins the casting out of which require and extra amount of “prayer and fasting.” So too here. We are encountering the Babylon of the starkest and purest form of disbelief. This then requires a penitential response of an equally stark and pure form. And in this is charity as well of the starkest and purest form. The cruciform charity of the martyr.
A further take-away has to be therefore that you cannot give what you do not have (nemo dat quod non habet). And you certainly, therefore, cannot propose Christ to this world if you do not see or understand the full apocalyptic unveiling of the historical theo-drama between the Lamb who was slain and Babylon. You cannot evangelize if you understand that project as primarily a matter of an “apologetics” of arguments that never really enter the logic of that against which you are arguing. It is instead just a verbal game played between people who hold incommensurate world views who are tidally locked together in unserious and inauthentic forms of discourse.
At this point I want to be clear about something and avoid any misunderstanding. In my call for an evangelization of engagement that knows, understands, and takes seriously modern unbelief by suffering it through “from within” as a soteriological action, I am NOT talking about the currently popular and fashionable notion of “dialogue” since most of what passes for “dialogue” in the progressive circles that most promote it is the worst kind of pablum imaginable. And usually in such dialogue what we are really seeing are the brutal and banal effects of a runaway Rahnerianism gone to seed where grace is so naturalized as “always already everywhere in an ‘unthematized’ way” that we now no longer even view it as unthematized at all, but as actually normative as a true expression of “Revelation”. In this degraded Rahnerianism, which is once again gaining power in the Church, the traditional loci for God’s Revelation – Christ-scripture-tradition – are placed on an equal footing with God’s Revelation “in the world” and this extra-ecclesial Revelation eventually comes to supplant the traditional loci altogether.
This “Aufhebung” of all things traditional into the modern eventuates in Revelation’s sublation to these putative “new truths” which have swallowed up the old ones. The “path of grace in the broader world” eventually comes to be viewed as the ordinary means of salvation whereas inclusion in the Church via sacramental baptism is now viewed as the extraordinary means of salvation in a move that has deadly consequences for the faith as a truth-bearing act. And the final move toward the gutting of the faith in a self-cannibalizing atheism happens when even God’s Revelation in the world is now reduced to the very naturalistic constructions and projections of the human religious imagination – an imagination which has already been dismissed by the secular world and explained away in the categories of evolutionary psychology as the epiphenomenal ghost that emerges from the abstractions of language.
This is why we are currently being treated to the glories of the “synodal listening sessions” where an effluence of random opinions from random people which are then tendentiously and sedulously curated by clerical dung beetles like Cupich, Tobin, and McElroy, are being seriously put forward as ‘the voice of the Holy Spirit.” And yet, the Spirit sounds strangely like the Op Ed page of the New York Times, which is really all the evidence an actual, believing Catholic would have for disallowing such opinions as the regurgitations of the Zeitgeist rather than of the Holy Spirit. We are therefore in the midst of a great ecclesial reversal of Revelation where the Babylonian dog is wagging the christological tail, a fact which utterly negates any chance at real evangelization. Because, once again, nemo dat quod non habet.
Therefore, in our era of unbelief – both inside and outside of the Church – what is needed is the recovery of our spiritual eyesight which alone can discern, prophetically, the inner essence and eidos of ideas and movements in the contemporary world. And in so identifying the inner essence of ideas it can further penetrate into their inherent logic and to thereby engage in a kind of spiritual/metaphysical critique that shows clearly the nihilistic underpinnings of much of modernity’s central claims. In particular, the saint/evangelist of today must aid the unbeliever to understand the full implications of their unbelief, which can only be done if the evangelizer fully understands both the logic of the Christian “idea” and the logic of its co-optation in secular modernity. Therefore, there must also be a resolute opposition to the continuing use of the Christian patrimony of ideas by secular unbelievers in ways that gut them of their inner essence all the while parasitically adopting the residual rhetorical power of their words. And most certainly, the evangelist of today must resolutely oppose those in the Church who adopt this very same transformed Christian patrimony within the atheistic logic of Western culture.
This will almost by definition therefore be a project undertaken by only a few. And most likely, those few will be ignored if not openly vilified by many, including criticism from those in authority within the Church herself. They will be labeled as “backwardists” or “rigid pharisees” or “legalist/fundamentalists” or as “opponents of the Holy Spirit’s dynamism”. And this invocation of the movement of the Holy Spirit will be especially insidious. To hear a lot of folks speaking these days – and even some Cardinals – one would surmise that what we are witnessing is the apotheosis of a rather deranged Heraclitus wherein “change” is no longer envisioned as even having a single strand of Ariadne’s thread linking it to what comes before or after. What the Holy Spirit said to the Church a century ago can be flatly contradicted by the Holy Spirit of today because rational consistency is also part of the Church of yesterday. As Father Spodaro, S.J. (a confidant of Pope Francis) has put it, “today in theology it is possible to affirm that 2+2=5”. And in so affirming such a notion what the Church of the progressives is really affirming is the destruction of truth and reason inherent in the modern nihilistic project. Or course, what the progressives really want are women priests and the baptizing of the sexual revolution, but in order to do this you first have to gut the standard notions of magisterial ecclesial normativity. And what better way to do this than to turn the Holy Spirit into a capricious and inconsistent Hellenistic deity which does as she pleases, which really amounts to nothing more than a cynical, projecting, mythologizing of what it is we are pleased to do.
Therefore, given our current milieu of systemic and structured disbelief, evangelization can only proceed as a subspecies of the universal call to holiness. Because only those who have “put on the mind of Christ” will also have the “eyes” of Christ. But where do I find the “mind of Christ”? In Scripture, Tradition, Sacraments and the reading of theology that is deeply imbedded in those realities. Therefore, it is also true that the saint is the best evangelizer since only the saint really has the eyes to see the principle of proportionate polarization at work in the world today. The late David L. Schindler put it as follows:
“Curious men attend closely to the passing of events all about them. But such men merely drift along on the currents of past and future, remaining on their surfaces. It is the saint who truly penetrates the events of history. And the sense of the saint’s doing so is paradoxical: by apprehending time’s intersection with the timeless. That is, only through awareness of the eternal dimension in time does the moment of time become truly attended. And how is this awareness achieved? Only by ‘a lifetime’s death in love, ardour and selflessness and self-surrender. Thus we find … eternity enters into time only by virtue of a suffering passion unto death.” (“Heart of the World, Center of the Church” 228-229)
What Schindler is invoking here is the idea that sanctity, and by implication, evangelization in a sanctified register, will always be cruciform since only as such does it both emulate and make present the full form and image of the Christ-form. The saint does not cherry-pick bits and pieces of Christ, tailored to his tastes, from the desiccated remains of the dissected Christ of modernity. The saint seeks after the full form of Christ. Thus does Balthasar affirm that “Our first principle must be the indissolubility of form.” (Glory, Volume I, 26). And in so attending to the full form of the crucified Lamb who was slain the saint can act as a counter witness to the logic of Babylon.
Finally, this means that our evangelizing should not shy away from embracing a certain Christian esotericism. It should not shy away from being a bit eccentric and weird. To be concentric to the crucified Christ is to be eccentric to the world. Indeed, in our current milieu there is no way for the genuine evangelizer to avoid being esoteric, eccentric, and weird. If it did not make for an awkward acronym suitable for a baseball cap I would say “MCWA” which stands for “Make Christ Weird Again”. Instead I will quote Balthasar again on the necessity of a certain esotericism:
“The decisive factor, our ‘first word’, states that only the few who (as often before) bear the weight of the whole on their shoulders, will receive eyes to behold the primal form of man-in-existence, and that their courage to embrace this primal form will raise everything else into the light along with itself: the true, the good, and the beautiful.” (Glory, I, 26)
Which leads Balthasar to conclude:
“For at this point one must have seen the same thing as they [the saints] if one is to understand them, and this, therefore, is the point where a certain esotericism is unavoidable. … Even so truly a ‘church of the people’ as the Catholic Church does not abolish genuine esotericism. The secret path of the saints is never denied to one who is really willing to follow it. But who in the crowd troubles himself over such a path?” (Glory, I, 34)
Therefore, as in all of my writings I circle back to where I began. The christocentric anthropology of Gaudium et Spes 22 and the universal call to holiness interpreted within that anthropology, is one of the greatest theological achievements of our time. And our concept of evangelization, as I have labored to show, is a soteriological action carried forward as part of that call to holiness in a christocentric tonality. It must therefore be an evangelization that combines a profound empathy for the constitutive unbelief of modernity, a “suffering with” the unbeliever that seeks to transform unbelief from within its existential horrors into something cruciform and redeemed, and a prophetic jeweler’s eye for idolatrous bullshit.
“Man’s existence is now nearing an absolute decision.” (Romano Guardini)
Dorothy Day, pray for us