On the way back from Manhattan tonight, I was talking on the phone about a class that this church I sometimes attend (St. Paul the Apostle near Columbus Circle, NYC). The class looks to be about the Catholic faith but for people who are more interested in discussing and understanding a bit better, but also with wrestling whether they believe those things or not. Not a conversion or catechism class. Kind of like the Protestant course Alpha. That's how I read it, in any event; I may be dead wrong. So I was on the phone, basically saying I found Catholicism interesting but had no real interest in converting.
That's true. I do want to understand the RCC better. There are parts that I find very attractive, like purgatory and the balancing of faith and reason you find in the philosophy. There's a reason I study medieval Catholic philosophy, after all. I can't blame her for not knowing that I'm happily a different stripe of Christianity (Methodism), and if you're one of those Christians that believe in street evangelism, I guess that statement made me a pretty juicy garget: someone interested in religion and Christianity, who respected it, who maybe just needed a little push.
What I can blame her for is her method. She didn't testify to me or talk to me but just pointed me to a website, amazingfacts.org. At first I thought it was health-related since I'd also been talking about adrenal fatigue but when I got home, i saw it's not just evangelism... it's really fringe. We're talking end-days predicting, focused on baptisms over all else, New World Order fantasists. The covers of their publications actually freaked me out a bit.
But besides that, it was also just a website. Words on a page, presented just like any other words. It's all about "facts" and not about wisdom or virtue or all the other things that I believe are at the heart of my religion (the striving for those things if not their actual attainment). I guess I've never bought this whole idea that religious was about memorizing facts. Is anything worthwhile really working at that level, once we move past junior high? I know in my class being able to mimic Descartes and Plato is really on the first step (though a crucial one, to be sure).
The Great Commission - that verse that Christians take as their inspiration to wake you with tracts in hand on Saturday morning - says we are to go and make disciples. The Latin word is discipuler, from the verb discere - linguistically related to both discernment and discussion, if I'm not mistaken. It does mean learning, but a very specific kind of learning. Being a philosopher, I tend to think of Plato's and Aristotle's relationship. Aristotle learned at Plato's feet but that learning went beyond being able to recite the four types of knowledge or the three parts of the soul. It's not encyclopedic knowledge we're after but something deeper. Aristotle studied what Plato said and reflected on it, tried to reconcile what he learned and believed to be true through his senses and through general reasoning. He made it his own, rejected the bits he disagreed with and perfected the rest. It is this devotion to a certain kind of wisdom that marks true discipleship; not a verbal agreement to things you don't have the slightest clue what the words mean.
And you can't become a disciple through a website. It's too impersonal, and there is no community that's necessary to spur character. You can't get it through a Chick tract either, or even through streetcorner evangelism of the best sort. (If there is such a thing.) For me, Christianity is about a struggle with myself and my tradition. Anselm puts it so well:
Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you in love, and love you in finding. Lord, I acknowledge and I thank you that you has created me in this your image, in order that I may be mindful of you, may conceive of you, and love you; but that image has been so consumed and wasted away by vices, and obscured by the smoke of wrong-doing, that it cannot achieve that for which it was made, except you renew it, and create it anew. I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.
I'm sure some of you reading this will think this hope is foolish, that it's at best a wasted effort and at worse a temptation to substitute mysticism for knowledge. Really, the only thing you have to do to answer Anselm is to show you don't have that "image" of God within you. (That's not as easy as you'd think if you understood how language works for Anselm, but I'll leave that topic for another day.) But here's my point: even if Christianity is foolishness and false, the religion I struggle to live out isn't encyclopedic knowledge. And if that's what this girl thought she was leading me to, I pity her that that's the best Good News she thinks she has to offer.
Speaking for myself, I never really bought into this kind of evangelism. It's not Jesus' approach; he seemed to make the most progress when he posed thought puzzles or dialogued with individuals who were ready to really listen and think. That requires a relationship. I like to think I live out the Great Commission as best I can, but the way I understand it is radically different. You can't get there through cold facts.
In other news: my happy place today involved this song playing through my head nonstop. From humming it to myself in the stairwell tonight and playing with the harmonies, to doing a kind of half-dance on a Manhattan sidestreet, it's actually been loverly to have this as my soundtrack.