April 13, 2010

How are Christians to Engage the Culture?

By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *

Whether it is opposing Obamacare provisions for federally funded abortions, fighting to curb embryo-destructive research, protecting women from biomedical research that would exploit them for their eggs, or struggling to reawaken consciences to the evils of abortion, in vitro fertilization, and contraception: these are touchstone instances in which committed pro-life Catholics engage the "culture of death."

Perhaps we have not thought enough about how we are to engage that culture. A new book can help us on that count. 

I had the opportunity of late to read most of Francis Cardinal George's The Difference God Makes. Its 342 pages are drawn from conferences and lectures given over the past several years, all centered on "a Catholic vision of faith, communion, and culture" as the subtitle has it. [Note to potential reader: while generally accessible to the informed Catholic reader, this tome is not light reading; the Cardinal moves from metaphysics, to the history of Western ideas, to ecclesiology, to Trinitarian theology, to the thought of John Paul II, Hans Urs von Balthazar and more.]

The seminal insight which informs the entire book is that all human beings -- but in a transcendent and singular way the baptized -- are beings-in-relation. And that, in a word, is the 'difference God makes': He creates us profoundly -- metaphysically -- in relation to himself and others.

Consequently, the Cardinal holds that a renewed meditation on this truth can be of great help in overcoming the maladies that befall our culture, especially due to our Enlightenment inspired hyper-individualism.

How do such considerations have a bearing on evangelization, and more importantly, on pre-evangelization? For starters, let's explore just one of the important applications suggested by the Cardinal.  

The world to be evangelized understands itself as a conglomerate of single -- if you will -- Cartesian individuals seeking their own individual pleasures and preferences, expecting government to allow and ensure maximum pursuit of those pleasures, with minimum restraint (except for consensually and legally determined limitations on personal liberty).

Such a conception of self gives rise to a supposed thoroughly secular space in which religious questions and concerns are too often unwelcome and perceived of as antagonistic to individual pursuits. That secular space -- the 'naked public square' as the late Richard John Neuhaus called it -- presupposes this thoroughly modern conception of self in which a "private and interior dimension... can be cleanly distinguished from the public" domain as the Cardinal points out.
 
On such a vision of things, the classical and Christian understanding of freedom becomes transformed into the secular notion of 'autonomy' which drives the pursuit of personal preference and is perceived of as existing above and beyond and isolated from the created world, ungrounded in a given state of truth and meaning. So much so, that it is today considered a veritable "right" of autonomous individuals to "define" their own reality and their own meaning. The self exists apart from the truth of 'how things are' in reality.

Consequently, when attempting to evangelize a world of autonomous selves, and to propose the truths of Christian faith, our efforts are easily perceived of as uncomfortably invasive, if not entirely threatening. As the Cardinal aptly points out, "truth -- once the domain of human flourishing, has become the perceived and arch-obstacle to the exercise of autonomy...Now any and every truth claim puts personal freedom in jeopardy." Indeed, as he further notes, "the culture of death is none other than that 'world' generated by the separation between freedom and truth."

If evangelization of such a culture is to be effective, we must understand that it is incumbent upon us to present a vision of human life and civil order which constitutes an attractive and compelling alternative to the modern ethos that has ruptured freedom (understood as autonomy) from truth, and which has hyper-focused on individualism.

In The Difference God Makes, Cardinal George actually proposes an outline of a plan for evangelization which would seek to accomplish just that. It is based on the core task of helping humanity rediscover the essential related-nesswhich characterizes human existence at its metaphysical roots. I hope to explore that plan in greater detail next week.

Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at www.fatherberg.com.

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