Suppose I walk into a cafe and order coffee. The waiter asks if I’d like it with sugar, cream, or arsenic. “Arsenic”, I reply. The waiter goes off to prepare my drink.
A man sitting at an adjacent table overhears my order and walks over to talk to me. He is polite, friendly, even charming. “I completely respect your choice to order arsenic in your drink”, he says. “I belong to a sect that believes that arsenic is a deadly poison that should never be ingested. However, I certainly don’t hate people who behave in a contrary way, and I would never advocate using force to prevent people from eating or drinking whatever they want. I have simply found poison-aversion to be the more ‘life-affirming’ choice. I hope you don’t mind if I ‘share my joy’ with you. My sect ‘imposes nothing; it only proposes’. Allow me to ‘propose to you a better way’. The world is full of tasty, non-poisonous drinks and sweeteners. Some put milk and sugar in their coffee, which is delightful. Some use these marvelous new sweeteners like Equal or Splenda. I certainly don’t intend to scold you; I know my sect used to emphasize the negative effects of drinking poison, but I prefer to focus on the positive possibilities of non-poinsonous drinks.”
What do I think? While I may find this stranger’s company agreeable, I obviously don’t believe him. If he really thought that what I was ordering would kill me, surely he wouldn’t be so calm and positive. Surely the appropriate reaction would be something more like, “Good God, man, don’t you know that stuff will kill you! I can’t let you do it!” Not only would he not foreswear using force to stop me, he would consider it his duty to prevent me killing myself by any means at his disposal. Whether it’s true or not that my drink is poisoned, I know that the person who’s telling me so doesn’t really believe it.
For at least half a century, Christians of all denominations have been given a similar strategy. Only focus on the positive. Don’t talk about hellfire. Don’t express disapproval for other people’s choices. The thing is, a person who does this is going to seem like the fellow in my story above. A crucial part of the Christian message is that we must all repent and accept Christ, or else we’re going to burn in Hell for all eternity. I know that’s not the whole message, but it’s a rather important detail, don’t you think? Now suppose someone really believed this, and they saw themselves surrounded by people in danger of eternal torment. How would we expect such a person to act? It seems to me that he would act more like one of those crazy street preachers than like our nonjudgemental clergy. The funny-looking guy passing out pamphlets on college campuses is behaving more logically given his stated beliefs. But that sort of thing doesn’t work, you say. Nobody ever gets converted that way. That’s true. Then again, the “everybody goes to heaven” priest isn’t winning any converts either. Neither method works. We need to think of something better. Whatever that turns out to be, though, I’m sure that no evangelization method can be effective unless one can seriously think that the ones spreading the Good (and Bad) News really believe their own message.
Filed under: The Dark and Terrible Springtime of Vatican II