How a young atheist and a priest who lost his faith made me a better evangelizer
It is a familiar interaction for anyone who has given a parish talk. After my lecture someone, usually a parent, speaks to me sadly about someone else, usually a daughter or son, who no longer has any interest in the Catholic faith. Each time, I am left to grapple with their questions: How do you bring someone back to the faith? How do you evangelize those who see no value in a relationship with a loving God?
How do you evangelize those who see no value in a relationship with a loving God?
Recently two unlikely people helped me to sharpen and, I hope, deepen my answers. One was a complete stranger; the other my friend, a resigned priest. Both rejected the Christian faith.
“I don’t believe in God,” a young man proclaimed during the question-and-answer period of a talk on personalist philosophy I gave at the Catholic Worker house in the Bowery in New York City a couple of years ago. “I don’t believe in life beyond the grave. I don’t spend any time thinking about these topics. I don’t feel inclined to think about them, and I don’t feel guilty. I just live my life.”
He was with a small group of students from a Catholic university attending the lecture, and I thought he exhibited some courage expressing his views among a largely Catholic audience. I almost immediately thought of the novelist Walker Percy—his preoccupation with what he called “the malaise” and his affection for the father of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55).
What Percy called the malaise, Kierkegaard described as a kind of despair: being lost in everydayness, unable or unwilling to confront ultimate questions. Kierkegaard thought that every person lived in one of three spheres of existence: 1) the aesthetic, which was immersion in the sensory pleasures of this world with no awareness of transcendence; 2) the ethical, a kind of Stoicism, which stressed duty, commitment and fidelity to law; and 3) the religious, which was an interpersonal relationship with God that was achieved not through reason or argument or proof but through a leap of faith. A person who makes this leap should live in such a way as to bear witness to the loving presence of God. That witness could be both a sign and an invitation to others.
For much of Percy’s first novel, The Moviegoer, the narrator and main character, Binx Bolling, lives in the aesthetic sphere, but he is on a search. He notes: “To become aware of the possibility of a search is to be on to something. Not to be on to something is to be in despair.” Eventually, through a love relationship with a very needy young lady, Binx makes a leap to God.
Kierkegaard got it right: The key is bearing witness with your life.
I was hoping to speak with the student after my lecture at the Worker, but he left before I could catch his attention. If I had, I probably would have confronted him with some questions touching on metaphysics that I propose to students in my philosophy classes: What do you think is the meaning of life? What are the implications for living if there is no God? If there is no God, isn’t human existence absurd? What is your experience of loving and being loved, and what is the meaning of a love relationship if life is absurd?
I do not think there is anything wrong with these questions, but I now suspect that in posing them I would have been more of a proselytizer than an evangelizer to the young man. Perhaps I suspected that I could argue him into belief. After reflecting on my experience with the student I realized that evangelization requires more than verbally presenting questions. Kierkegaard got it right: The key is bearing witness with your life. No one can convert anyone. A genuine conversion must be free. In respecting the freedom of the other, we are imitating God, who created human freedom and respects that freedom.
In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis wrote of evangelizers: “Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty, and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction.’”
Could it be that the first step in an evangelizing relationship is that the evangelizer be evangelized?
I should have kept those words in mind when I sat down for lunch to catch up with an old friend, a resigned priest. In tracing his journey away from the faith, my friend argued that Christian belief makes no concrete difference in a person’s life. He said: “You believe in a personal God, and I believe in existential energy. It does not make any difference in the way we live.” I quickly responded: “Of course it does. I can relate to a personal God. I can’t relate to existential energy.”
I felt good that my comment silenced him. I’d had the last word, won the debate. But looking back at the conversation, I wonder if my friend was inadvertently challenging me to be more of an evangelizer, a witness, rather than a proselytizer. Could it be that the first step in an evangelizing relationship is that the evangelizer be evangelized?
Pope Francis has stressed again and again that God is a part of everyone’s life—even those who never think of God or who claim to have lost all faith in God. In the interview published in America in September 2013, Francis said:
I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.
Looking back on my two interactions with this “dogmatic certainty,” I no longer find them discouraging. For the evangelizer, discouragement is not an option. No, I did not change anyone’s mind. But perhaps, though the young student and the retired priest did not intend it, they were indirectly evangelizers to me. Why not? The Holy Spirit breathes where he will.