375 An Apostolic Agenda

Taking seriously Pope Francis’ recent words to the Roman Curia—“Brothers and sisters, Christendom no longer exists!”—some scholars at the University of Mary (a college in Bismarck, North Dakota, that was established in 1987 and now enrolls some 5000 students) worked with James P. Shea to publish From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age (Bismarck, N.D.:  University of Mary Press., c. 2020; Kindle Edition).   This is hardly a novel concern, for in 1974 Archbishop Fulton Sheen said:   “We are at the end of Christendom.  Not of Christianity, not of the Church, but of Christendom.  Now what is meant by Christendom?  Christendom is economic, political, social life as inspired by Christian principles.”  It created a wonderful culture—gothic cathedrals, universities, hospitals, theologians and saints—for which we should give thanks.  But, Sheen insisted:  “That is ending — we’ve seen it die.”  Nevertheless:  “These are great and wonderful days in which to be alive.  . . . .  It is not a gloomy picture — it is a picture of the Church in the midst of increasing opposition from the world. And therefore live your lives in the full consciousness of this hour of testing, and rally close to the heart of Christ.”  Shea and his friends want to do precisely that by recovering an apostolic mindset.

Our formerly Western Christian culture has been slowly but surely disintegrating.  Dealing with it brings challenges not faced by early missionaries proclaiming the Good News to a pagan world.  C.S. Lewis said it is difference between a man wooing a young maiden and a man winning a cynical divorcée back to her previous marriage.  More disquieting:  many non-Christians actually call themselves Christian!  Many things have contributed to this development, including the massive changes wrought by technology.  But the “key battles our culture faces are intellectual ones” (p. 11).  Until we learn to think in truly Christian ways we’ll never evangelize our world.  These challenges will not likely be met by academics, for our institutions of higher learning “are often so decayed in purpose (apart from technical training) that not much wisdom or light is to be hoped from them; for various reasons, they can tend to deform rather than enlighten the minds of those who come under their influence.  Rather, what is needed is the sort of intellectual life that was characteristic of the Church in her early centuries, a life possessed to some degree by every Christian.  It is not simply or primarily a matter of college degrees but of the conversion of the mind to a Christian vision of reality and of readiness to live out the ramifications of that vision.  A compelling Christian narrative is called for, one that provides a counter to the secular vision, that helps Christians understand and fend off false gospels” (p. 12).

We must deal with the “spirit of the age” by casting a fresh vision, rooted in a new way of discerning truth, that offers people something more than this world affords.  As is true of any worldview, it will need to include philosophy, art, science, religion, et al. in setting forth a narrative describing the “cosmic battle for souls between God and the devil” and declaring the way to join the winning side.  In its beginnings, the Christian Church worked in accord with “an apostolic mode, by which is meant that she was making her way against the current of the wider society and needed to articulate and maintain a distinct and contrasting vision” (p. 19).  Different strategies were employed when addressing Jews or Gentiles—early evangelists dealt with the audience at hand, and we must also open our hearts to Christ and follow His way in our world.  We need to recover an apostolic zeal with strategies shaped to reach our generation, with “new movements and religious communities being born or rediscovering their vitality; institutions being founded or reformed; a deepening life of prayer and communal witness being expressed” (p. 38).  As ever, this will come about not by orchestrating mass movements but by heeding creative minorities who deeply believe in and proclaim the “Good News:  “that God in his mercy has come among us to set us free from our sins and from slavery to the devil, and for those who turn to their true allegiance, the nightmare of life apart from God can be transformed into a dawn of eternal hope.  They need to know, from their own experience, that obedience to the Gospel is perfect freedom, that holiness leads to happiness, that a world without God is a desolate wasteland, and that new life in Christ transforms darkness into light” (p. 43).

  The Good News is good for all peoples at all times.  It’s embraced by individuals, one at a time, who find it both true and efficacious.  It’s generally more effectively proclaimed by witnesses than scholars, by missionaries than moralists.   People need to turn around, learn to think differently, to be truly converted, and:  “Every conversion is a marvel of grace, an astonishing work of God.  Saint Augustine once said that it was a greater miracle for God to save one sinner than to have created the whole world. Augustine’s comment points to the attitude appropriate to an apostolic age” (p. 45).  Embracing an Apostolic Agenda, modern missionaries “should assume that the majority of their hearers are unconverted or half-converted in mind and imagination and have embraced to some degree the dominant non-Christian vision” (p. 71).  So the Good News must be set forth “in such a way that the minds of its hearers can be given the opportunity to be transformed, converted from one way of looking at the world to a different way” (p. 70).

Importantly, getting converted means replacing a mechanistic with a sacramental worldview.  There are invisible as well as visible realities in our world, “and the invisible world is incomparably more real, more lasting, more beautiful, and larger than the visible.  Our blindness to that world represents much of our predicament.  We are caught by the illusion of the merely seen and need to have our blindness cured.  This drama involves us not only with the awful and marvelous and incomprehensible being of God, who created us with a decisive purpose in mind, but also with a cosmic struggle among creatures of spirit more powerful than we are, who influence human life for both good and evil.  We have been born into a battle, and we are given the fearful and dignifying burden of choice: we need to take a side.”  We are designed and destined for eternity.  Our lives make a difference because we’ve been created for a reason.  “Not only are we meant to know good things, happiness, strength, length of existence, but we have been created to experience the unthinkable:  to share in the very nature of God, to become — in the language so beloved by Eastern Christians — ‘divinized.’  Created from the passing stuff of the material world fused with an invisible and immortal soul, we are each of us meant to be what we would be tempted to call gods: creatures of dazzling light and strength, beauty and goodness, sharing in and reflecting the power and beauty of the Infinite God” (p. 76).  Now that’s Good News!

Each of us has an assignment if we’re to live as apostles.  We have only one life to live and need to live it well.  We must both take the world lightly and earnestly work to make it better.  If we’re honest we realize we’ll not much matter, as the world calculates things.  But Christians need to remember “that in dealing with even the smallest details of life, they are working out an eternal destiny.  They fight the darkness within themselves and embrace the life of love laid out for them by Christ, delighting in conforming their wills to his, knowing that obedience to him does not limit them or impede their self-development but rather brings them to their true selves, to freedom and fulfillment.  They live as exiles, in hope and hard fighting, waiting for the final triumph of God, full of gratitude for what they have been given, full of hope for all they have been promised, full of love originating in Christ toward others who need to hear the good news of a merciful and forgiving and gift-giving God” (p. 79).

This is a book written by Catholics for Catholics.  But it provides an analysis and agenda for all believers.  Given the collapse of Christendom, we need not fear, for God is with us.  And empowered by His Spirit we can do what the apostles did long ago:  proclaim and live out the Good News.

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In a sequel to From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age, Jonathan Reyes and someprofessors from the University of Mary have set forth The Religion of the Day (Bismarck, N.D.:  University of Mary Press, c. 2023; Kindle Edition), attempting, as the title specifies, to analyze today’s dominant religion and propose ways for Christians to counter it—searching for clues in the first century when “God in Christ came among us to wage a spiritual battle and, in every age since the time of its founding by Christ, the Church has been engaged in a kind of three-front war.  On one front, Christians fight an external battle against the unbelief of a fallen world; a second front is an internal battle against disloyalty and corruption among Church members; and most importantly, the third front is a fight against the darkness and unbelief of one particular member of the Church:  namely, ourselves.  Much of the nature of that battle is the same in every age: Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8), and human nature, despite what many current philosophies want to suggest, is fundamentally constant” (p. 10).  

Inasmuch as man is by nature incurably religious the basic question in every era is what form religion takes.  The book’s authors think we the religion of our age is Progressivism, which is basically Neo-Gnosticism (more definitively described as a “Modern Neo-Gnostic Progressive Utopian Revolutionary Religion”—a revival of perhaps the most persistent heresy in Church history. It was St Thomas Aquinas’s  main adversary, and it has been clearly propounded by a series of thinkers since the Enlightenment.  Thus John Dewey, the American philosopher still influencing this nation’s educational and political classes (who helped draft the “Humanist Manifesto”) called for a “humanistic religion” focused on Man rather than God.  Progressives like Dewey think we can save ourselves, following a variety of self-help schemes, because all the evils in the world result from flawed material and social arrangements.  Remaking the world in accord with our needs and desires will enable us to become (as Eleanor Roosevelt famously said) “better and better” persons living with another in perfect accord.  It is, as the authors perceptively declare, essentially “an expression of human pride” (p. 21).

The memorable lyrics of John Lennon embody the progressive religion:  “Imagine there’s no heaven; It’s easy if you try. / No hell below us; Above us, only sky. / You may say I’m a dreamer; But I’m not the only one. / I hope someday you’ll join us, And the world will be as one.”  Unpacking this more prosaically, the authors provide a helpful analysis of Twelve Aspects of Modern Progressive Religion, beginning with the typical Gnostic sense of alienation from the world, a feeling that something’s deeply wrong with the world as it is.  It’s not us—there’s no original sin in the Gnostic mind—but a world that’s deeply flawed. else. “‘Not my fault!’ is the universal Progressive religious mantra” (p. 28).  Without remorse, without repentance, modern religionists must imagine or dream of  something better attainable through esoteric knowledge of some sort, or remaking what is into what ought to be, even destroying the existing creation to make way for a better one.  If there is a Creator He failed to make tings as they ought to be.  The first great Cristian critique of Gnosticism, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, “wrote that the essence of all Gnostic sects was blasphemy against the Creator,” a trait still evident in Neo-Gnosticism. 

“Voltaire’s famous cry against the Church, ‘Écrasez l’infâme!’ (‘Crush the loathsome thing!’) is the battle cry of Progressive believers against the order of the current world and against the God who is perceived as somehow standing behind it, as they insist on the utter annihilation of the structure of an oppressive system as the necessary prerequisite for the new age of freedom to come” (p. 31).  Man must master his world, technologically transforming what is into what he wants it to be.  Man’s knowledge provides the key.  Not “Jesus saves” but “we will save” sets the agenda.  Drawing upon the Hegelian/Marxist dialectic, progressives seek to ever be on “the right side of history,” and “morally up-to-date,” making the world a better place.  As was true of the French leftists in 1789, today’s progressives champion revolution:  “Revolution – the annihilation of the structures of oppression – is the privileged means by which Progressive belief will bring about the new age of freedom.  . . . .  This is clear in Karl Marx’s famous revolutionary dictum, ‘The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’” (p. 45).  

We see the revolutionary ethos in today’s youthful protesters who cheerfully embrace violence.  To gain their goals they promote the “cancel culture” so evident in American universities.  No dissent is allowed, no gradualism will suffice.  All must be uprooted and replaced.  Oppressive systems must be destroyed.  Consequently, a “program of willful systematic amnesia begins with artifacts – statues, texts, uses of language – but if the requisite power is gained it always moves on to eliminating living humans.  The logic of tearing down statues and erasing words is the same as the impetus behind the French Revolutionary Reign of Terror, the Soviet gulag, the Chinese cultural revolution, and the Nazi death camps. The sources and expressions of evil must be hunted down and eliminated so that the pure society can properly arrive” (p. 47).  As gnostic movements have risen and fallen in the past, so too it’s modern expression will ultimately fail.  But in our day it’s powerful and virulent.  Its power stands exposed in the 2005 treatise by sociologists Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton—Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers—describing what young Americans believe.  “They famously coined the term ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ or ‘MTD’ to describe what those teenagers, including Christian ones, most commonly believed” (p. 65).  They think there’s a God out there somewhere who created the world who mainly wants us to “be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.  The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.  God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.  Good people go to heaven when they die” (p. 66).  

This is of course anything but orthodox, traditional Christianity!  To address it we need not fear the darkness but learn to light candles illuminating it with Christ’s Light, to work with Him in rescuing the perishing.  We must begin by stressing the astounding fact of His Incarnation.  God really did become man.  The Maker of all that is actually lived among us—Immanuel, God with us.  “As C. S. Lewis once observed with the claim of the Incarnation in mind, ‘One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, is of infinite importance.  The one thing it cannot be is moderately important’” (p. 72).  Of all places, we must begin the battle for truth and righteousness within the Church!  The Progressive religion has poisoned too many professing Christians “who have abandoned key doctrines of the faith and have embraced some form of the neo-Gnostic gospel of personal self-creation” (p. 99).  They imagine themselves to be “Christians” but have never “encountered the risen Christ as their Lord and Savior” (p. 100).  They think everyone is basically good rather than sinful and need not so much a redeemer as a cheerleader.  

Simultaneously we must do battle within our own souls.  “God’s kingdom is established on earth mainly by personal conversion and holiness:  the saints are the true movers and shakers of history” (p. 98).  Rather than agitating for social justice we need to focus on being justified, made right, by God.  We need less to march in the streets than stand patiently with Christ.  We fight for the Faith with spiritual weapons, resisting the devil and boldly declaring the Word of the Lord.  It’s better to be a martyr than an emperor.  Facing an increasingly non-Christian world we must nevertheless believe God providentially brought us into it.  Now is our time.   This is our time.  ‘We will neither be lost in nostalgia for a distant time in the past, nor will we fall into the trap of thinking that Christianity is now ‘outmoded’ and needing a fundamental change of belief or morality. Instead, we will seek wisdom to understand how Christ is responding to our times, as the Gospel of the One who is ‘ever ancient and ever new continues to reach out to save the lost” (p. 131).

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Eric Metaxas, the author of the highly-acclaimed Bonhoeffer:  Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, recently published Letter to the American Church (Washington, D.C.:  Salem Publishing, c. 2022; Kindle Edition), applying insights gained from writing it.  He wrote “this book because I am convinced the American Church is at an impossibly—and almost unbearably—important inflection point.  The parallels to where the German Church was in the 1930s are unavoidable and grim” (p. ix).  We may fail to realize that we are as immersed in evil as were the Germans under Hitler’s control, but we are in fact facing anti-God ideologies such as “Critical Race Theory,” LGBTQ+ rationales,  and pro-abortion rhetoric.  Rather than identify and oppose them, too many churchmen have set aside the Gospel in order to please cultural elites championing such perversions.  Few German pastors in 1932 understood that one must act when there’s still time to do so and that small steps determine the course of one’s future.  

Too often the Church fears to appear judgmental, to condemn evil, to oppose persons and organizations promoting it.  But Metaxas wonders:  “Where did we get the idea that we shouldn’t be at the forefront in criticizing the great evil of Communist countries like China that brutally persecute religious minorities in ways that bring to mind the Nazis themselves?” (p. 5).  What we should learn from Bonhoeffer is the importance of resisting evil, discerning its presence and speaking out at its manifestations.  Pastors and theologians are especially responsible for doing so.  Unfortunately, in 1954 Senator Lyndon Johnson orchestrated legislation that forbade churches from endorsing political figures, threatening the churches’ tax exempt status!  Inasmuch as they remained silent at this move to quiet them, “they behaved rather like many of the submissive pastors in Germany two decades earlier” (p. 8).  Still fearful of the taxman, all too many American churchmen still refuse to publicly hold politicians responsible for their behavior.  They’ve lost the courage to enter the public square and fight for justice.  Though few of us know much about the “Johnson Amendment” and the government’s capacity to quash religious freedom, churches saw it vanish during the recent COVID-19 shutdowns.  Churches were actually deemed “non-essential” and ordered to close their doors.  Virtually all of them did!  Marijuana dispensaries and strip clubs stayed open but churches closed and pastors said nothing.   “When questionable medical procedures were being forced on their parishioners . . .  they meekly adopted the stance that it was the ‘Christ-like’ thing to submit and not to fight, nor even to mention such tremendously serious issues.  This was a deeply disgraceful moment for the American Church” (p. 12).

That moment came for Bonhoeffer when, on Reformation Sunday in 1932, he  preached a message in an historic Berlin church.   “Rather than stroke the egos of those German elites slumbering in the pews, Bonhoeffer’s sermon was calculated to wake them up, if they were still able to be awakened” (p. 25).  Midway through his message, the authorities shut down the broadcast.  “To put it in our own modern parlance,” Metaxas says, he “had just been ‘cancelled.’”  Thenceforth he sought ways to resist the Nazis, helping lead the “Confessing Church” in opposition to the pro-Nazi, state-subsidized “Deutsche Christen” (Christian Church).  In time, only 3,000 of Germany’s 18,000 pastors stood with Bonhoeffer.  Many of them would be arrested and killed.  The majority failed to discern what was actually happening.  “They could not believe that the Nazis were devotedly anti-Christian—and that they were essentially atheist and pagan tribalists working to eventually obliterate the Christian Church” (p. 48).  Somewhat the same is now taking place—witness the rainbow banners and BLM flags on churches.  Such acts compromise the Faith and  churchmen must be resisted.   People need courageous leaders, and “God expects those who have a voice to speak out for those who do not—who most of all tend to be the poorest among us” (p. 13).  The COVID pandemic has receded and the church doors have opened, but today we’re besieged by Critical Race Theorists who want to indoctrinate our children and by homosexual and transgender ideologists who work to undermine the Christian Way.  It’s time, Metaxas thinks, for some new Bonhoeffers!