Evangelizing the 'nones': three challenges and three opportunities
ORLANDO (CNA/EWTN News)—The way we evangelize should grab the world by the shoulders and shake it out of its apathy, Bishop Robert Barron told a crowd of Catholic leaders Tuesday.
Evangelization is especially urgent as the 'nones' - the number of the population who do not identify with a religion, continues to grow, he said.
Bishop Barron, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and well-known evangelizer for Word on Fire, addressed the crowd of Catholic bishops and leaders gathered at the Catholic Convocation in Orlando, Florida through a live video feed on July 4, the last day of the gathering.
“We do have a fight on our hands, but the great saints of our church have always loved a good fight, and we should too.”
In a talk entitled “Equipping Evangelizers”, the bishop with more than 15 years of evangelizing experience said that there are three main challenges and three main opportunities that Catholic evangelists face today.
1. The first challenge: Scientism
The culture’s embrace of “scientism”, or the philosophical belief that the only valuable knowledge is scientific knowledge, is one of the great challenges that evangelists face today, Bishop Barron said.
“Let me be clear: the Catholic Church has nothing against the sciences, the church stands with the sciences at their best,” he said. “What the Church opposes is scientism, or the reduction of all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge.”
Actually, scientism as a philosophy is self-refuting, he noted.
“Scientism is not discoverable through the scientific method. Where did you empirically verify and test through experimentation that only scientific knowledge is valuable? Scientism is a philosophical position and therefore self-refuting,” he said.
But it can be challenge for evangelizers, who are speaking to the world about God.
“When we (as a culture) isolate ourselves from all references to the transcendent, we do damage to the human heart, we do damage to the human spirit,” he said.
2. The second challenge: The culture of “meh”
There’s a rampant apathy in today’s society, especially among young people, who have been formed not to embrace anything as objectively true, Bishop Barron said.
“If there is no objective truth, no objective value, what that produces is a culture of ‘meh’, or as the kids say, ‘whatever’” Bishop Barron said.
But objective truths and values form a firm foundation that sends us on mission, he said, pointing to an example used by St. John Henry Newman, who said a river gets its energy and verve from its firm foundation.
“Knock down the banks, and what’s going to happen? That river is going to open up into a big, lazy lake. Placid, with no energy, no purpose,” Bishop Barron said.
“Our society today is like a big lazy lake, all of us floating individually, tolerating each other, not getting in each other’s way, but without energy, without purpose.”
But evangelization, the declaration of the good news of Jesus, is the antithesis of this apathy, he said.
“Once you’ve been grasped by the power of God...you know where to go and you do it with energy.”
3. The third challenge: The culture of self-determination
What was once a fringe philosophical idea known as voluntarism, which stemmed from philosophers like Nietzsche and other recent existentialists, is now mainstream thought among the millennial generation in the United States, Bishop Barron said.
The core belief of this philosophy, embraced widely by young people, is that freedom defines identity, he noted.
“My freedom comes first, and then I determine essence, who I am, the meaning of my life. It’s all based on my freedom - my sexualtiy, my gender, purpose of my life is all up to me,” he explained.
But to evangelize is to say that “your life is not about you, your life is not up to you,” Bishop Barron said. “Remember the ecstatic expression of St. Paul: it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in mean. When you’ve been seized by the power of Jesus Christ, your little ego-drama becomes pretty unimportant,” he said.
The Bishop then presented three opportunities for evangelization based on the three transcendentals: truth, goodness and beauty.
1. The first opportunity: An intelligent truth
“I hate dumbed-down Catholicism,” Bishop Barron emphatically told the audience.
“What do I mean by that? It puts a huge stress on the superficial, the ‘banners and balloons Catholicism’ as I call it. We are a smart religion. When we don’t express Catholicism in a smart way, people fall away,” he said.
In particular, the Bishop urged catechists, apologists and evangelists to equip themselves with a good grasp on one of the great arguments for the existence of God. Young people often don’t have a robust understanding of God beyond a vague and irrelevant deity, he noted.
His favorite argument is based on contingency - that existence flows from God, and everything on the world gets its existence from him, because nothing created itself.
“The God that I’m talking about sustains the whole universe moment to moment the way a singer sustains a song. Continual creation - that’s the God the great Church talks about, that we must convey to our young people,” he said.
2. The second opportunity: The goodness of radical Christians
When the Christian life is embraced fully and radically, it’s goodness stands out to the world, Bishop Barron said.
The best example of this in the 20th century was Mother Teresa, who evangelized the world by her radical witness of goodness - caring for others indiscriminately, he said.
Throughout the history of the Church, he said, it was the “goodness and radicality of the Christian life that got the attention of the world,” through great saints like Benedict, Dominic and Francis.
“We need to recover what all these great figures found - this splendidly radical form of the Christian life. When it’s lived publicly, it evangelizes,” he said.
3. The third opportunity: Authentic beauty
Perhaps the best opportunity from which to start evangelization is with the authentic, objective beauty of the faith, Bishop Barron said.
And he’s not just talking about something subjectively satisfying like, say, deep-dish Chicago pizza, he said.
“The objectively valuable and beautiful is not like that, it’s something so intrinsically good and beautiful that it seizes us, it stops us in our tracks - something called aesthetic arrest,” he said.
It’s an easy place to start evangelizing because it’s as simple as “show, don’t tell.”
“Just show people the beauty of Catholicism - show them Cathedrals, show them the Sistine Chapel, show them Mother Teresa’s sisters at work. Don’t tell them what to think and how to behave, show the beauty of Catholicism, and that has an evangelical power,” he said.
“There’s nothing more beautiful than the dying and rising of Jesus Christ,” he said, and the apostles in the New Testament communicate this with a “grab-you-by-the-shoulders” urgency.
“These are people who have been seized by something so powerful and so overwhelming that they want to grab the world by the shoulders and tell them about it,” he said. “We need to be filled with the same ‘grab-you-by-the-shoulders’ enthusiasm” about the beauty of our faith, he added.
“Yes we face obstacles, but the saints always loved a good fight, and we should love a good fight too, because we go forth with this great truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus Christ.”