Discussing the Church in Evangelization – Part III

In part II, we looked at why sales pitch and publicity might cause evangelists to be reluctant to discuss the Church in evangelization. In the present article, we look at a fourth, and final reason for this reluctance.

Image courtesy of iankelsall1 (Pixabay)

Popular Ideologies

There are quite a few popular ideologies out there today. A notable one is “spiritual, not religious.” This ideology basically separates spirituality from religion due to a prevailing belief that “religion” is bad but “spirituality” is good. Secularism is behind this thought, but there is a difference.

Under a strict secularist viewpoint, there is no real room for anything spiritual. Human nature, however, is hardwired to be spiritual because we are, in part, spiritual beings. Denying this aspect of our nature brings disaster, as we have seen historically with Communism and its reduction of man to economics and rejection of his spiritual nature.

As contemporary Western civilization continued to go the way of secularism in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a conflict between the strict ideology and human nature has been evident. The conflict is simple human experience vs. a materialistic vision of man and the world that is inconsistent with reality. Human experience across the centuries is quite unanimous: there is something bigger than us, we must acknowledge it, and we have the capacity within us to respond. We could use different terms to describe these realities, but terms like “God,” “religion,” and “spiritual” are high on the list.

In our day, religion has been at a disadvantage within the larger culture. Religion is said to be “man-made,” the implication being that as an invention of man, religion has no real significance, no real binding force upon a person. Additionally, religion is accused of causing many wars and deaths, the Crusades and Inquisition often being cheap, standard go-tos.

For many people, such historical events, though often mischaracterized and misunderstood, form “religious baggage” that they don’t want. Some people choose to identify as merely “spiritual” in order to avoid this perceived “religious baggage” while still giving some acknowledgment to man’s spiritual nature. Regretfully, it is a misguided effort.

The acknowledgment of spirituality and rejection of religion has a certain resemblance to wisdom, but is actually a product of intellectual laziness, as it fails to make proper distinctions. It is true that spirituality and religion are distinct.  But there is a difference between “distinct from” and “divorced from.”

Religion has, at its fundamental essence, a deep connection with the spiritual that cannot be broken. The Roman orator Cicero connected religion with the Latin word relegere, meaning, in this context, to be diligent in one’s duties to the gods.[1] In later Latin usage, religion was said to come from the Latin word religare, meaning “to bind fast,” and, in this sense, means God binding man to Himself.[2]

Between these two definitions, it can be said that “religion” has, at its core, the matter of the relationship between the divine and man.[3] That relationship pertains not just to the subjective reality of the human person (wherein we can talk about things like mortal and venial sin), but also to the objective reality of the very structure of the world and man’s relation to it (i.e., Natural Law). In either case, the fact remains that religion and the spiritual cannot be divorced.

Catholic theology cemented this unbreakable relationship by describing religion as a virtue, referring to one’s duties to God in justice (See CCC 1807). This description imposes a question: how do we know what our duties are to God? For Catholics, the answer is simple: Apostolic Tradition and Sacred Scripture, along with the authority of the Magisterium of the Church. Other religions answer the question in other ways.

Ah, but therein lies the rub: you need a specific religion to make this work and that’s precisely what adherents to the “spiritual, not religious” ideology don’t want. Thus, what we have in the ideology, is the rejection (willingly or not) of the justice owed to God, which is to worship Him as He expects. For us Catholics, that worship is bound up within the framework of the sacramental worldview, such as, for instance, the Eucharist at Mass.[4] Moreover, if we believe that the Eternal Son of God came incarnate into the world, it is unreasonable to expect that He has no expectations or demands of us.

God has “bound” Himself to man in several ways and this divine act demands a response from man. The “spiritual, not religious” ideology is a twisted attempt to escape the expected response so as to respond on our own terms. We see this even in how the term “spiritual” is used within the ideology itself, i.e., a vague, undefined sense of being free from constraints and to do as one sees fit. In this understanding, “rules” and “dogmas” become undue burdens that impose themselves upon one’s liberty and this is anathema to our age of unbridled pride and passion.

Everything that we have thus far said is a lot to take in. It is unlikely that a street evangelist will need to go into the philosophical background of ideologies with someone he or she meets on the streets. Conversely, knowing that background still serves the evangelist with perspective, and, very importantly, provides important points that might be useful in conversation.

The first point is to acknowledge for yourself the sophistry of the “spiritual, not religious” ideology. It has a lot of appeal to people at present, and for many different reasons. Fortunately, it is only a fad, a part of the spirit of the age; and fads are fleeting. The street evangelist can take hope in this fact in the long run.

For immediate matters, it is good to remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. If a street evangelist comes across a person who believes in “spiritual, not religious,” you will likely not disavow them of it on the street (barring an authentic movement of grace). It is a good idea to gauge the person first. Are they in a hurry? Do they seem interested in further conversation? “Spiritual, not religious” is not something that can be uprooted in the often-fleeting moments of an encounter on the streets.

A general good way to engage the person on the street, presuming they have time, would be to find common ground. Here is one possible example through a mock dialogue with “Tammy” and “Bill.” In the scene, Tammy engages Bill and finds out that he was brought up Lutheran. The common ground is having a religious background from which Tammy can draw to show why spiritual, not religious is not as good as it sounds.

Tammy: Hey, would you like a Rosary?

Bill: Oh, um, sure. Thank you.

Tammy: You’re welcome! My name is Tammy. What’s yours?

Bill: Bill.

Tammy: Hi, Bill! I’m happy to meet you! So, are you from around here?

Bill: No, I’m just here for vacation. I live in California, near Los Angeles.

Tammy: Wow! That’s exciting! I’ve never been to Los Angeles before. I’ll bet it must be nice to see the sites and stuff in your everyday life! Ever run into any movie stars?

Bill: Once. I bumped into Arnold Schwarzenegger at a donut shop.

Tammy: Oh, well, that’s just awesome! Did you get his autograph?

Bill: I thought of asking, but, you know, he’s just a guy like the rest of us and it looked like he just wanted a donut. So, I acknowledged him with a friendly “man-nod” of the head as we went about our business. He nodded back, and that was it.

Tammy: Well, it was cool that you saw him.

Bill: Yeah, it was. So, what’s this thing that you gave me, a rose-something?

Tammy: A Rosary. It’s a set of beads to help keep one focused on prayer and meditation on the lives of Jesus and Mary.

Bill: Oh, I see. I was brought up Lutheran and went to church as a kid.

Tammy: That’s cool. Do you still go now?

Bill: No. I got tired of all the rules and stuff. I grew up and started blazing my own trail, you know? Oh, I believe in Jesus and the Bible. I just think that religion can get all cramped-like. I’m basically a spiritual, not religious kind of person.

Tammy: Yes, I’ve heard people describe themselves that way before. Seems like a popular thing nowadays.

Bill: Well, it just makes sense, don’t you think? After all, we can all go to Jesus ourselves. We don’t really need a church and all that.

Tammy: It is true that we can go to Jesus in prayer and meditation. I’m just not so sure that leaving out His Church is a good idea.

Bill: His Church? What do you mean?

Tammy: Well, would you say that you are a follower of Jesus, a Christian?

Bill: I guess so, yes.

Tammy: As a follower of Jesus then, if He founded a Church and wanted everyone to be a part of it, why wouldn’t you want to be in it?

Bill: I hadn’t thought about it that way, but with all due respect, there’re so many corrupt people in the Church. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

Tammy: Yes, there are some people who give others a bad name. Would you say that destroys the Church?

Bill: No, can’t say that would necessarily be the way of it, but at the same time, bad people don’t help the situation.

Tammy: Indeed they don’t, but the way I see it, if we are in those kinds of situations, it might be Jesus calling us to do something for Him and grow in greater love with Him.

Bill [a little exasperated]: How in the world can that be?

Tammy: Hmmm [pauses to think for a second]. Are you married, Bill?

Bill: Yeah, my wife’s over there actually, at the restaurant.

Tammy: Ok, then I’ll be quick. Has your wife ever done anything that really upset or annoyed you?

Bill: Yeah, plenty of times!

Tammy: And have you done the same to her?

Bill: She tells me so, and she’s always right!

Tammy [laughs]: Ok, so why didn’t you leave her?

Bill [surprised]: Come again?!

Tammy: If she annoyed or upset you, why didn’t you leave her?

Bill: I wouldn’t think of leaving my wife! I love her!

Tammy: Exactly the point. The Church is Jesus’ bride. He died for her and loves her. He wants all of us to be part of her in order to bring us closer to Himself in love.

Bill [pensive]: Hmmm, I never thought of it that way. You know, I hate to end this conversation, but my wife’s over there and I have to go.

Tammy: I understand, and hey, we’re here again tomorrow if you’ll be around. Stop by and maybe we can continue talking! In the meantime, I’ll pray for you.

Bill: I’d like that and a little prayer can’t hurt. Let’s see what happens tomorrow. Have a good day and thank you!

Tammy: God bless you!

The above dialogue presents a fairly light view of the matter. Tammy initiates the conversation with the Rosary and then gets to know Bill a little bit. She is establishing respect with him through listening and befriending. Through these, she learns enough from Bill’s background to find their common ground. She then does a proclamation of the Gospel about the Church in order to correct Bill’s mistaken understanding of it.

Notice how Tammy begins the proclamation. She refers to the Church as “His Church,” thereby making the Church personal to Jesus. The focus turns from some vague notion of “church” into something more profound. This turn is not lost on Bill who asks Tammy what she means. This question creates the opening for Tammy to show Bill the necessity of the Church in relation to his “spiritual, not religious” self-description. After some back and forth, Bill starts to see her point and is invited to further conversation.

A conversation on the street could go in several different directions, the above example being only one way. Conversations generally depend upon the disposition of the passer-by. For this reason, the evangelist should be prepared for anything.

So, taking all of these pointers, let’s get on out there and bring people to the Lord and His holy Church!

Click here for Part I

Click here for Part II

[1] Cicero, De Natura Deorum, Book 2, chapter 28. English translation here.

[2] Cf. St. Augustine, The Retractations (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1968), 56.

[3] At stake here between the two origins is a fundamental point: the relationship between the divine and man. Cicero’s etymology indicates the practicing, doing, or going over of one’s duties to the gods. It does not answer the question from whence those duties derive. That answer is provided in the later Christian revelation, enshrined in the etymological preference for religare. This word addresses the question by indicating that one’s duties are founded upon God having “bound” man to Himself by virtue of giving man a spiritual nature. This understanding ultimately finds its origin in Genesis 1:27 when God makes man in His image and likeness. If man is created as such, then there is a relationship between God and man that expects reciprocity and which must be based upon divine love. An effect of this relationship is that there are limits to human freedom, which plays directly into our present subject.

[4] A simple proof comes to mind here: Jesus’ own words regarding the holy Eucharist, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19).

Author: Kevin Symonds

Kevin Symonds was born and raised in Massachusetts. In 2003, he received his B.A. in Theological Studies from Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio with an emphasis on the Classical Languages. Three years later, he obtained his M.A. degree in Theological Studies also from Franciscan University. Kevin lives in North Dakota. He specializes in the Catholic Church’s theology of private revelation and has written books and numerous articles (print and Internet). He is a member of the Mariological Society of America.

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