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Four More Trends that Challenge the Modern Evangelizer

October 18, 2016

081814It is critical for us who would preach the Gospel to ponder what sorts of presuppositions our listeners bring to the conversation. Today, sadly, there are many trends that have poisoned the culture and thus make our task much more difficult.

Yesterday we explored six problem areas. Today we’ll look at four more. It helps to describe modern mindsets, not to despair of them, but rather to look at them with some insight rather than being only vaguely aware of them. If we are more clear on the presuppositions that people bring to the table, we can better direct our message to them and ask them to consider whether or not these notions are helpful or even right. For indeed, most people carry their preconceptions subconsciously. Bringing them to light can act as a kind of medicine or solvent, which will assist us in clearing the thorns so that the seeds of truth can be sown.

So, here are four more problematic presuppositions.

I. Reductionism – This is a philosophical position that holds that a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts and that an account of it can be reduced to accounts of its individual constituents. Today, reductionism is most commonly found in the explanation of complex human phenomena in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry.

Reductionism tends, therefore, to reduce the human person to the merely biological. Thus every thought, emotion, passion, desire, memory, or wish is just a bunch of chemicals in the brain, the firing of synapses, etc. Even clearly metaphysical concepts such as justice, mercy, beauty, infinity, and so forth must somehow be explained in terms of brain cells and physical processes. The human person is thus reduced to a sort of brain on a stick or a collection of chemicals and atoms.

Yet from the standpoint of causation (in particular formal and final causality), it is hard to say how something merely physical can generate that which is metaphysical. The term metaphysical means, literally, “that which is beyond the physical.” Hence things such as beauty, goodness, justice, moral uprightness, the infinite, etc. are not “physical” things that can be weighed on a scale or spotted out for a walk together. One does not expect to walk into a restaurant and see justice sitting down to dinner with morality. These things are real—in fact so real that many of them have inspired marriages and launched wars; but they are not physical. But since nothing can give what it does not have, one may reasonably wonder how a merely physical entity such as the brain can “produce” metaphysical concepts. How can we, who (physically) only know closed and limited time, “imagine” infinity?

Some say that such things are merely emanations of the physical mind, conceptualizations of the bicameral intellect, or abstractions of the brain. But pardon me for pointing out that “conceptualizations” and “abstractions” are metaphysical concepts, and you’re not allowed to use metaphysics to say that there is no such thing as metaphysics!

Never mind,” say the reductionists, “science will one day be able to explain it.” But again I object that such an answer is a kind of “God of the gaps” argument; I would like an answer today, please, since you are rejecting metaphysics today.

The traditional answer still makes the most sense: the human capacity to grasp the metaphysical—the spiritual, if you will—points to a metaphysical or spiritual dimension to the human person. Our spiritual capacity points to a spiritual cause that can give what it has: a spiritual sense, an openness to things beyond the physical. Clearly the brain is an essential avenue through which the soul exercises many of its faculties, but we are not simply to be reduced to a brain.

Reductionism is a common view today and produces a culture that is hostile to those of us who point to the importance of the soul. While faith surely regards our body, it most surely also summons us to attend to our soul. But in a reductionist world, concerns for the soul are set aside as irrelevant. The local gym is full; the Church is empty. Obsessions about physical health abound, but there is little concern for the soul. Stop smoking; it could kill you. But there is little similar concern for sinning, which could permanently land you in a “smoky” place.

Thus one form of reductionism reduces me to my body. But in a strange twist, many reductionists also play the other side of the fence simultaneously. And thus many also see their body as a mere appendage. My body is merely something I have, a kind of tool, if you will. In this reductionism, the “I” seems to be some soulful agent who can use my body without reference or effect on myself. And thus absurd statements can be made such as that “I” am really a female trapped in a male body. The self in this case is thus reduced to the “soul” and the body is a mere suit of sorts, a machine, or something akin to that.

“This is crazy,” you might say. “Which is it going to be? Am I reduced to my body or to my soul?” Well, your first mistake is to seek consistency in these dark days. But, to answer your question more directly, the form of reductionism you choose is whatever form benefits you in the moment to justify whatever you want to do. And don’t worry about maintaining consistency because too many people are just too dazed to notice anyway; you’ll likely get away with almost any crazy inconsistency you want to hold.

And while we’re on the reductionist kick, why don’t we reduce marriage—a lifelong loving union of a man and a woman bearing the sweet fruit of love in their children—to just two (or more) adults being happy together for as long as they feel like it? Yes, let’s just take the one thing and lose the rest. And how about sex? Let’s reduce it from being about love, pleasure, and procreation, to just being about pleasure. Yeah, let’s lose that necessary connection to procreation and pretend that the sperm and ovum aren’t ever there, or kill them and thwart their purpose. Who invited them anyway? And let’s also play the other side of the fence and reduce having children to an experiment in a petri dish and lose all that messy, unpredictable, marital embrace stuff, which is so unfair to “gay” people and to people who want children but can’t find a spouse or don’t want one.

Yeah, that’s it. Let’s just reduce everything down to its parts, take what we like, and leave the rest.

Pardon me, dear reader, for my tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the increasingly dark world of reductionism. But as evangelizers, we need to know some of the twists and turns of the reductionism that dominates our age. The Catholic and biblical world strives to speak to the rich tapestry and beauty of what God has done and the connections He has intended. Increasingly, we are living in a world that separates what God has joined. We are going to have to work long and hard to get people beyond the consumerist thinking that wants (some of) the parts without the whole. We must work hard to show that a reductionist approach is ultimately foolhardy and has many very bad consequences.

I will strive to be briefer with the next three presuppositions!

II. Scientism – This is itself a form of reductionism. Scientism is the position that emphatically states “The physical sciences explain all reality.” The only problem is that the statement itself is not a scientific statement; it is a (flawed) metaphysical statement. There is no way that the claim can be verified scientifically. Thus, while defending (boastfully) the physical sciences as being the only necessary explanation for everything, the boaster must step outside of science—set aside science, in fact—in order to make the claim. It’s usually not a good idea to break the very rule you are announcing in the very act of announcing it.

Clearly the physical sciences are a great boon to our modern age. But the physical sciences can only attend to the physical world. The physical sciences are good at addressing material and efficient causality but are not able to speak to formal and final causality. The physical sciences are good at explaining how things physically come about but are not equipped to answer the deeper questions related to “Why?” Why does anything exist at all? What is the final purpose to which all things tend? These are not questions science is equipped to answer.

Clearly we live in times in which many practically idolize the physical sciences and are dismissive of anything that cannot be weighed on a scale or seen under a microscope. Evangelization is now much more difficult. We must spend a lot of time showing how many very real things (justice, loyalty, etc.)—things that effect very real changes—are not physical but are nevertheless real. We must re-invite many to discover the necessity and the beauty of the metaphysical realities of art, ethics, philosophy, and theology.

III. “Designer” Religion – Even within the realm of believers are legions of Catholics and Protestants who feel utterly entitled to design their own religion and their own God. We used to call this heresy and idolatry.

In the past, the heretics and idolaters at least had the decency to commit formal schism and go off and found their own religion. But in lazy times like these, many prefer to stay within their religion—one they reject at fundamental levels—and live off the money, off the resources, and in the buildings of the very faith they disrespect so boldly. It’s just so much trouble to have to build your own buildings and find your own followers, you know. So the lazy, modern form of this is to say, “I am a faithful Catholic, but …” And then out comes the list of things picked and chosen from Catholicism or Christianity.

The word heresy comes from a Greek word meaning “choose.” Many of the truths of our faith are held in some tension. Are we free or is God sovereign? Orthodoxy says that both are true, and holds that the tension is acceptable because there are mysteries and limits to our knowledge that prevent us from simply resolving every tension. But heresy will not abide the tension and thus chooses one and discards the other. Is God loving and merciful? Yes! But then why is there judgment and Hell? Both must be held, says orthodoxy, and while there are mysteries, clearly God will not compel our yes. To this, heresy says, “No way!” and so rids itself of the tension by redesigning God or by discarding the clear revelation of judgment and Hell.

Many today feel utterly free to call themselves Christians, to call themselves Catholics, and then go on to pick and choose what they like. They see this as a kind of God-given right and are supported in this by new-age spirituality and the “God-within” movements of Oprah and company. Yes, “I gotta be me. I gotta be true to myself.” So the real Jesus has to go.

And because most of these moderns cannot abide the Jesus of Scripture, they rework Him and tame Him. They take some qualities they like—His love and His ministry of healing—and discard His less-than-pleasant warnings about judgment, or His summons to carry the cross, or His demand for a chastity so thorough that it even prohibits lustful thoughts.

Never mind quoting scripture to them. They are essentially “post-scriptural” and cannot be bothered with the details of the actual revelation. God has spoken to them personally. God is love and would never do or say anything that might upset anyone. One line trumps every other in Scripture: God is love.

This is heresy: picking one thing and discarding the rest. This is a “designer” Jesus, one who coincidentally agrees with everything the dissenters wish to do or think. And don’t even think about quoting St. Paul!

Here, too, we who would evangelize are going to have to keep chipping away at this. But have confidence! There are many who have come out of this fog; we need to keep working.

VI. Arrested Development – A final factor I would like to cover is not so much a presupposition or mindset as it is a simple lack of maturity.

We live in a culture here in the West that I would argue is best described as developmentally fixated on teenage issues. Collectively, we behave like the classic teenager: hating authority, demanding all the rights yet rejecting any responsibilities, titillated by and imprudent about sex, obsessed with “fairness” (but only in an egocentric way), constantly pushing boundaries just to assert ourselves, insisting we  know a few things and being  resistant to being taught (“too cool for school”), behaving recklessly (dismissing any consequences), obsessed with trends and fitting in, always asserting our independence but insisting others pay our way. I could go on, but you get the point. I have written more on this problem here: Stuck on Teenage.

But as evangelizers we must be sober and aware of our need to summon people to maturity and to get there ourselves. Someone has to be the adult in the room. We must be careful not to try to appeal to the world around us by asking “Mother Church” to don jeans and adopt teenage foolishness. The Church must be kind, but clear, in insisting that everyone come to full maturity in Christ.

Other trends surely exist, but I have sought in these past two posts to speak to those which fold into other issues such as sexual confusion and many aspects of the culture of death. Tomorrow I’ll have some more to say about the culture of death.

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Comments (5)

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  1. Tony P. says:

    Msgr., the “cafeteria” Catholics (including, it seems, some/many? clergy) are the biggest threat to our faith right now. In a different recent post, another priest put it pretty succinctly: most Sunday Masses have become weekly meetings for a charity group. The church’s social justice message is the ONLY thing that is preached. Maybe it’s just part of this “Jubilee Year of Mercy?” I’ll be honest, I can’t wait until November or whenever this “year” is over. Can anyone point to another recent single year that has left the Church in such a state of confusion?

    To be honest, I go to Mass basically for the Eucharist. I learn much more about the actual catechism on my own or from reading posts written by you and some of the other excellent traditional priests. I can’t remember the last time I heard a homily that even had a hint of a sense of the cross. I can say the Our Father and read the Bible on my own. The only thing I can’t do is change bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord, so that’s why I still go to Mass. All homilies are the same: “be nice to everybody.” That’s essentially what each message boils down to. The most powerful image on the face of this earth hangs behind the priest every Sunday, but there is no hint of it at all.

    We can go anywhere to hear and see the message of “being nice.” The world is leading the Church these days; isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

    Your post and a previous one deal with evangelizing. I would love to be doing this but really wonder if what we teach today will remain true tomorrow.

  2. Nick says:

    “Never mind,” say the reductionists, “science will one day be able to explain it.”

    This is a fallacy: evasion of evidence.

    “God of the gaps” is more akin to when people claim a miracle isn’t miraculous because science has figured out how the event took place.

  3. Peter says:

    Speaking as a scientist, most of the people I’ve seen indulge in scientism know next to nothing about science and are, in reality, accepting scientific conclusions on faith. They aren’t generally reading a physics journal and checking the math.

  4. Bee Bee says:

    Msgr., I LOVE your “tongue-in-cheek” portrayal of reductionism, because it clearly and humorously illustrates just how the pretense of logic and argument is merely a self-serving use of reductionism to legitimize hedonism.