Why Evangelism is so hard.


Peter Sellick


It is apparent that evangelism as expressed in the bringing of people without a church background into the church is, in the main stream churches, almost completely ineffective. Experience in Parish ministry confirms that new members are rarely new to the faith but are most often transfers from another congregation. If people have had no formation in the faith earlier in their life then there is little likelihood of them joining the church. This paper seeks to examine the reasons for this and will use understandings about the nature of modernity gleaned from the writings of Alasdair  MacIntyre in his two books "After Virtue: a study in moral theory" and "Whose Justice? Which Rationality?" The thesis of "After Virtue" is that Enlightenment thought as represented by Kant and Descartes produced an erasure of our understanding of virtue and their replacement with rules for living whose purpose is simply to protect competing individuals from each other. Thus ethics became the ethics of action that purported to tell us what we should do. This replaced the ethics of being that told us what characteristics in ourselves should be nourished, and saw action as springing from that which the person had become. The project of Enlightenment thinking was to produce a rational philosophy that was universal to all rational beings. In the realm of ethics, Kant attempted to derive a rational system of ethics that owed nothing to a tradition of enquiry and  was independent of any context. Thus it was thought that such a system could be accepted by any rational being independently of the tradition that that being was a part of. MacIntyre makes the point via a detailed examination of traditions of enquiry from Plato to Hume that each tradition of enquiry has its own particular rationality and hence its own particular account of justice. Indeed there are no concepts of rationality or of justice that do not exist within a tradition of enquiry. Ideas do not exist independently of their context and may be understood only from within that context. This also applies to those constructions of Enlightenment thought that deny that this is so. These considerations draw MacIntyre to considerations as to how various traditions of enquiry progress within themselves and how they may converse with each other. Thus any attempt to understand a tradition of thought other than ones own requires one to acquire  the language of that other tradition as a second first language. This acquisition must take into account the world view, the rationality, the anthropology of that tradition in a similar way that anthropologists do when they live with the people they study. This is very different from learning a language from a phrase book. Simple equivalents of speech do not carry the culture of the speakers.

Thus the ethics of Aristotle cannot be studied in the abstract without the understanding that Aristotle had of what the good life was for  human beings or of what it means to be a member of a polis. Similarly, although the philosophy of Kant may proclaim itself to be free from the influences of a tradition of enquiry, a little thought will prove this not to be the case. By assuming the internationalizing of language and the abstraction of philosophical ideas from their contexts, we in the modern age do damage to traditions that are richly endowed with ways of dealing with the world and with the experience of life.


In both of his books MacIntyre gives an account of the formation of the modern age by tracing its philosophical origins. His conclusion is that liberalism has become the all pervading philosophy of Western culture. It is the result of the failure of analytical philosophy to produce a rational account of human being and action in the world and the loss of understanding of the virtues described in pre-modern culture as well as the disparagement of all that is traditional. It is into this vacuum that a common philosophy whose only ideal is utilitarianism has made its home. McIntyre makes the following observations about the character of liberalism. Firstly, it assumes that it is universal and exclusive. It denies any contribution from any other tradition of thought while maintaining that it itself is neutral and tradition free. For liberalism there is no idea of an over-riding good for human beings. Rather, each individual must make up her own mind as to what her particular good is. This process need not be logical and need not take into account the goods of others except when the rights of others are intruded upon. Thus individual good amounts to nothing more that preference. It is the right and indeed the duty for each individual to produce these sets of preferences without regard to traditions that would form desire or teach virtue. Indeed it is deemed illegitimate for one to be formed by a tradition, modern men and women must create themselves out of their own desires. Once these preferences have been identified then they are beyond criticism since it is seen to be the right of each person to have whatever preferences they like. Ethics is reduced to subjectivism, the subject is at the centre. Thus any debate about, for example, the preservation of a forest, must be made in terms of the long term good of the subject. Any discussion about justice for third world countries in regard to resources will also be reduced to whether is will be good for the subject in the long run, ie. whether distributive justice will prevent political radicalism that will impinge on the subject. This is the most glaring evidence that any concept of virtue has been lost. In the modern age qualitative judgments are absent. It is deemed just as authentic to proclaim preferences for a luxurious and indolent lifestyle as it is to spend oneself in a labour of love. The role of society in this is simply to adjudicate between individuals who compete for resources to satisfy their preferences. The lawyer is the cleric in this religion. This is how the peace is kept, especially peace between different religious traditions.  Political debate is entirely about distributive justice, management is about producing goods from material and human resources as efficiently as possible. Liberalism produces economic rationalism, it ignores the formation of community and its only aims are pragmatic.


 This philosophy relates to other traditions in a condescending way, it assumes that it can understand these traditions simply by translating its ideas in the manner of word for word equivalence. Thus liberalism will defend the rights of others to belong to other traditions unless those traditions criticise liberalism. The response of liberalism to criticism from another tradition is to simply say "That is only your opinion". Liberalism uses relativism to remove objections to its universal sway. Thus liberalism is less a philosophy than a way to manage conflict between traditions by refusing to acknowledge the truth claims of those other traditions. Thus, in the modern age, ethics is reduced to emotivism, there are no commonly recognised goods or virtues to which people should aspire, there is only ends and means.


This is the milieu that Christianity finds itself in early 21st C. For our arguments sake we have two competing traditions that purpose to provide a framework of meaning and action for human beings, Christianity and liberalism. These two traditions may be likened to two different cultures that speak different languages even though, on the surface, the common language, in our case is English. These two traditions are formed by different presuppositions that may not be justified by rational debate. Thus the presupposition that the telos of human beings is to seek the greatest happiness for themselves is just as closed to rational debate as the presupposition that the telos of human beings is to praise God and enjoy Him forever. This means that any debate that arises between members of the two traditions will have no ground for debate. Once arguments have reached the level of presupposition then the combatants must remain silent. This is the reason that so many debates in our society are interminable and shrill. For example, the debate about abortion or a just war or public versus private schooling or even the level of taxes one should pay are unsolvable. Debate is reduced to personal preference and an attempt to speak about the rights of individuals neither of which are open to argument.


The reason that evangelism is so hard in our time is that liberalism is so seductive and so slippery and so universal that it is very difficult to know how or on what terms to start the debate. The only hope for evangelism in our time is for us to understand how liberalism became the universal tradition, how it confirms itself in this universalism and what arguments it uses to confirm itself. A first step in this process is to understand how liberalism, although it sees itself as neutral and tradition free, is in fact a tradition, albeit a tradition that arose out of loss and failure and a tradition that has made value judgements in favour of the individual and that individual's inalienable rights. This opens the way for the possibility that this tradition is, as are all traditions, the product of culture and as such is likely to be flawed in some of its conceptions. That this is a necessary step bears witness to the hegemony of liberal thought, it is in the air we breath. Indeed it is so pervasive that it infects the other traditions around it, especially that of Christianity. An inspection of the language of the church will demonstrate this. When the church takes up the language of human rights it plays into the hand of liberal philosophy. The concept that individuals have rights is not biblical. What has happened is that the concept of justice as an attribute of God has been subverted to become an understanding of rights that human beings claim for themselves that owes more to enlightenment thought and the American Declaration of Independence than to Christian tradition.


Members of the church are deeply affected by the philosophy of liberalism. Despite the centrality of the sayings in the gospel that tell us that if we would have our life we must lose it and that if we lose our life we will have it, members  commonly live with the self at the centre of their world.  They do not see themselves formed by the church, dying and rising in baptism to become a new creation so much as having the church on their own terms as an aid to personal fulfilment and a hedge against death. This is true especially of the churches that would own the name Liberal Protestant. Sermons about obedience must be fairly rare in liberal Protestant churches. The idea that we might go through quite serious instruction in order to be a member of the church is quite foreign to us, we insist on making up our own minds from our limited experience of life and to ignore the vast wealth and depth that the tradition of the church has accumulated. Perhaps it is because the church has been so infected by liberal thought that liberalism has little trouble with it. The displacement of God by the individual so well described by Gunton is not only a phenomenon of the secular world. Members of the church demand the right to go on their own spiritual journey in whatever way that suits their proclivities. They will shop for a church that suits their taste in music and worship and their intolerance of the authority of what is called institutional religion. In our age each individual is his or her own authority. Membership of a community of faith in which individuals willingly sacrifice themselves for the sake of the community is entirely alien.


How, then is the church to communicate with a tradition that so radically denies God and which so strongly repels all boarders? This question is complicated by the way liberalism has eaten away at the backbone of the tradition of the church in such a way that most of us are not aware of its progress.  Traditions change only when they are forced because there are many people who have an investment in their continuity. They are forced to change when they arrive at an epistemological crisis. This occurs when the tradition cannot cope with new things in its environment or when an alien tradition, because it is more powerful in perceiving the situation of human beings, overcomes it, or it is seen that the tradition ceases to produce that which it professes. Such a situation occurred for the medieval church at the reformation and for Ptolemaic astronomy with the discoveries of Copernicus. What are the circumstances which will produce an epistemological crisis for liberalism?


Firstly, in the realm of the self, liberalism, by insisting that we must be self made, produces selves that profess to be individual and diverse but which are actually shallow and homogenous. When adolescents attempt to create themselves they are at the mercy of a popular culture that is economically driven and will produce cultural products not because of any truth content but only because it sells. Because liberalism has dispensed with truth claims or the attainment of personal virtue, the only basis that one has to form the self is personal experience that is interpreted by popular culture. This is the new barbarism. It is no wonder that adolescents have such a hard time finding a personal identity that will guide them in their actions. The dilemma for adolescents is highlighted because of the intensity of their crisis, but it is obvious that the crisis is also part of adult life.  The problems that liberalism causes for the self are obvious in the rise of narcissistic personality disorder and the experience of anomie.  These are becoming the dominant complaint of the soul that modern psychology and psychiatry are ill equipped to treat.  This is in contrast to the formation of the self in pre-modern culture and in religious traditions that have not fallen prey to liberalism. In those cases the individual has a place and a role in the community that helps define who that person is and what is expected of him. For example, in Homeric society as illustrated in the Iliad and the Odyssey, a discussion of ethics would have been impossible. There was no disconnection between what place a person had in society, what he did and who he was. Of course we have become more reflective since then, we have seen the invention of an historically unique phenomenon, the individualistic self, however the task of self creation that our young people face in our society is fraught indeed.


Secondly, at the level of community and relatedness, liberalism, with its emphasis on the individual produces anti-community, a mass of people competing for the right to satisfy their own preferences. The inability to give oneself to another and to sacrifice ones own desires for a community is causing the breakdown of family life and turning our suburbs into a battleground. In particular, the fear of becoming one flesh and losing self in a marriage limits intimacy and provides a shaky foundation for family life. Political life can only reflect the moral vacuum in society and is reduced to utilitarianism.


 Thirdly, the struggle to attain the lifestyle that we prefer endangers the environment. In liberalism there are no limits to the aspirations of the individual and since materialism is such a short term solution to our emptiness our perceived need is never satisfied.


Overarching the above is the arrogance of the liberal mind in regard to the traditions it encounters that are different from its own. By its universalising of traditional thought it trivializes and produces caricatures. Thus the God of Christianity is portrayed in a way that true Christians may not recognise and Jesus is reduced to the ultimate liberal who got into trouble with the authorities. Because translation from one tradition to another is deemed to be easy, all of the depth and complex richness of a tradition is flattened out into a form that is inoffensive. It may be that liberalism will die out of blandness.


The recent federal elections is Australia have highlighted the thin nature of liberal thinking. Even though the leaders of both major political parties profess to be church goers, neither hinted at the existence of a determinative narrative other than the narrative of economic and political utilitarianism. None of the parties talked about values other than those professed by individuals out of self interest. Throughout the campaign the perceived need of the individual was paramount. The crisis that confronts political debate in Australia is that politicians have no vision of a common good or of a community that could share that vision and work together in a sacrificial way to achieve that good. We can only wonder whether Australia can produce a statesman who has been formed by a strong religious tradition and who has also the powers of analysis and communication skills to lead the nation with a real vision of healthfulness. It is unfortunate that our understanding of religious pluralism appears to make this impossible.


These are some of the factors that will eventually precipitate an epistemological crisis for liberalism. It has been said that we are now in a similar situation to that of the eve of the reformation. The philosophical synthesis of the Enlightenment is in crisis and we now exist in a post-modern age. The rationality of the tradition of Enlightenment has been found to have produced a new barbarism alongside of all the benefits of science and technology. The question for the church is how to speak into this situation the gospel of God? Firstly, it is essential that the church come to an awareness of how it has been seduced by the philosophy of the time and that it discover anew the substance of faith that enabled the martyrs to give their lives. This will produce the opposite movement to that which attempts to speak to our society on its terms. Instead of emphasising similarities with the pagan culture that surrounds us we need to emphasise the differences. It must be plain that we stand over and against the spirit of our time. Thus any attempt to have a conversation on the terms of Enlightenment rationality as proposed by Tracy will be a dead end. The lesson that MacIntyre teaches us in “Whose Justice? Which Rationality” that traditions of enquiry rely on their own rationality must be heeded. By accepting the rationality of Enlightenment, if there is such a thing, we forsake the rationality of faith and end up at cross purposes. It is time for the church to repent of its desire to prove faith at the bar of reason of a tradition that does not know God. The tradition of faith is not irrational, it has its own rationality. Thus we must emphasise that we do not create ourselves but have life only by the spirit of God, that the reasons for living is not to achieve personal happiness but to worship God and to enjoy him forever, that we do not exist but by our relatedness to others and to God. While our society emphasises the avoidance of suffering, the church sees suffering as inevitable and as a path to God. While liberalism sees humanity as essentially story less, the church ponders and is formed by an ancient story. While liberalism sees art in terms of immediate pleasure and distraction, the church sees art as having a moral force that informs us of the deeper things of humanity and God. Art is revelation as opposed to entertainment. It is interesting to note the production of the novels of Jane Austen and Eliot and Trollop into film and television. These works are about the exercise of virtue in the face of the forces of economic and social power. In a time in which most have lost sight of the virtues of courage, patience, forbearance and faith, these works are a revelation. They bring us to wonder about our loss and about the barbarity of our time. The church has a similar role when it is faithful to its tradition, to provide a people who will live their lives in contrast the shallow spirit of the times that is wearing so thin. In so doing it must resist wherever possible the caricatures that are foisted upon it. Rather, the church must endeavour to provide the "thick" account of humanity that comes from the fertile narratives of scripture.


The central problem for evangelism in the present age is how to communicate with the modern or postmodern construction of the self. This is a self that has been told that it bears equal worth with all persons on earth, that it possesses an expanding panoply of rights, that it must hold itself in high esteem, that it must be courageous in the face of the meaninglessness that surrounds it, that it must be independent of the thought of others, that it must be creative and self creative, that the highest goal for itself is self satisfaction however that is defined, that it is worthy of success and of love, that its opinion is equal to all other opinions, that it must be competitive and not display weakness, that it must die alone and uncomforted. This is the hero we see portrayed in so many novels and films; it is Rabbit playing out the final scene in Updike's "Rabbit at Rest". This is also the Sartrian hero who clings only to the notion that existence is an awful state and that hell is other people. It is also the self of the deconstructionists who deny that any text may act as a guide to the meaning and depth of life. In short, this is a new creation that owes nothing to tribe or role or community or commitment or God. It is a self that does not see the need for confession because it does not recognise its own brokenness. It does not see the need to give thanks or to praise. This is the human result of Nietzsche's death of God. In the face of this, evangelism seems to be an impossible task, for we are alienated from all frameworks of meaning that claim more than our eyes can see. It produces a being devoid of transcendence. So defended is this castle of the self that it seems that there is no access to the inner world of longing.


It seems that we are able to say why evangelism is so hard in our time but have difficulty delineating a way forward except that of keeping the faith strong in the time that it takes for the spirit of the present age to loosen its grip on the souls of men and women. That it will be forced to do so is apparent in the ever increasing evil that is abroad in its name. This does add up to a strategy for the church. That strategy would be to nurture an understanding and practice of the faith that is open to but refuses to be diluted or seduced by the spirit of the age. In order to face the hard times ahead the church must nurture its faithfulness and find again its roots in tradition as well as being actively engaging, in its own terms, with the pagan world that surrounds it. We can only be a part of the debate if we have somewhere solid to debate from in an unapologetic fashion. The church must trust that it has received a truthful story that will nurture life. That is a story that constructs a different self from that of modernity and which proceeds towards a different end. Indeed it is so different that it may be characterised in terms of the polar opposites to the modern self.  The moral force that constitutes the Christian self is the view of the kingdom of God