The Catholic Thing
Evangelizing the Self-Satisfied Secularist Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Sunday, 16 October 2011

A high school student told me recently that he does not attend Mass on Sunday. I tried to engage him by asking, first, why he attends school each day. “Because if I don’t come to school,” he answered, “I will get in trouble. If I miss Mass, nothing happens. I have everything I want right now, so why should I bother going to church?”

His view is probably the same as the growing number of Americans who identify themselves as atheist, agnostic, or not religious. They are satisfied with the immanent in the imminent moment. They see no need for God or any transcendent meaning for their existence. They therefore live secular lives, concerned only with this world. This attitude has contributed to forming a culture that is fundamentally agnostic in its consciousness. Like this student, God and religion simply do not appear on the cultural radar for society at large. For such people, there are far more pressing, immediate things to worry about.

How can the new evangelization open up the happy, self-satisfied secularist to God? In the nineteenth century, rational arguments were often advanced to convince doubters of the need for faith. But with morality and religion now confined as prisoners of the dictatorship of relativism, today such arguments are dismissed at best, simply ignored at worst.

In the twentieth century, thinkers such as Maurice Blondel and the Transcendental Thomists made an existential appeal to the depths of human being, inviting us to see God as the answer to the ultimate longings of the human heart. This has been the preferred approach of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI who have repeatedly challenged us to listen for the voice of God within our souls.

This existential appeal has become more difficult today, however, because of our agnostic culture’s discouragement of meaningful reflection. Reality no longer seems to exceed the stomach, the checkbook, or the smart phone, and the constant presence of electronic distractions makes self-introspection as difficult as a journey to the center of the earth. What is tangible and natural is what matters; what is invisible and supernatural is irrelevant.

How, then, can we make the invisible reality of God a reality to the self-satisfied secularist? There is no easy or uniform answer. Faith in its essence is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 1:11), and therefore contrary to the demands of the current age. Faith, since it longs for the transcendent, at first glance may not have much to offer the self-satisfied secularist in the here and now, and efforts to force faith into worldly relevance only make religion appear embarrassingly glib.

        St. Augustine: “our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.”

Liturgical experiments intended to make the Mass more relevant to young people are a particularly unfortunate example of this wrongheaded approach. Faith morphs into what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger called “religious entertainment” whose “attraction fades quickly. It cannot compete in the marketplace of leisure pursuits, a marketplace that increasingly incorporates various forms of “religious titillation.” Faith reduced to worldly concerns and rhythms is no faith at all.

In an address on evangelization to the Roman Ecclesial Conference, Benedict XVI proposed steps for the new evangelization: faith lived by believers sincerely from the heart; the proclamation of God present and near us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ; parents who raise their children in the faith; community support from the Church; creative catechesis that extends sacramental life beyond the walls of the church building; setting aside time for silence and interiority; employing beauty in the form of art and architecture to inspire faith.

At the minimum these initiatives show the self-satisfied secularist that believers too are satisfied – indeed, satisfied is far too weak a term – but with a joy that lies outside of their control and beyond the secularist’s imagining.

It is not a very effective strategy for believers to tell the self-satisfied secularist that he is really unsatisfied, just not aware of it. It is far better to appeal to the unstable nature of human satisfaction, and the consequent human tendency to always yearn for more, even when we feel satisfied. Existential theism of that kind reaches back to St. Augustine: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.

Believers know well the injunction that it profits a man nothing to gain the whole world but lose his soul. This means little to the self-satisfied secularist who acknowledges only the world. But if he can come to see that even the roots of his self-satisfaction lie beyond the visible realm – the satisfactions of love, friendships, esteem of others, security, and even the contentment he feels as he relaxes on the sofa – then he may be able to glimpse the invisible source of these invisible realities.

Introspection is a necessary element of the new evangelization, even if it is a rare commodity these days. Somehow, someway, the secularist’s sights must be set beyond himself to see that there is more to his satisfaction than meets the eye. There is no magic move on our part to lead to that. We do well to start with the initiatives Benedict proposed, but we must also have confidence that, since the desire for God is written in the heart of every human being, at some point the self-satisfied secularist can realize that there is a greater satisfaction transcending this world – and He invites everyone into His company.

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is Adjunct Professor of Theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Beth, October 16, 2011
Thank you, Professor Bonagura, for this essay.
written by Nishant, October 16, 2011
Wonderful article. People are so enamored with even the fleeting things of creation. If they but paused to consider it, they would realize how much greater its Creator must be, and how indescribably enraptured in Him and in His love they were created to be. Above all, the example of Christians is vital. If they see that we too appear to live only for this world, participate in its rat races, anxieties, and even sins, then they probably won't take us too seriously when we preach the Gospel. The New Evangelization must begin with each of us, first in our own lives, which need to be converted to Christ, and transformed into the likeness of the Son of God.
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
written by Frank, October 16, 2011
In our catechesis today, there is a strong temptation toward making it mostly entertainment or to reduce Christ to someone "cool to hang out with" in order to appeal to a self-indulgent and nonchalant culture. These approaches reduce the faith rather that elevate the catechumens. There is much to contemplate here. Thank you.
written by TeaPot562, October 16, 2011
Two problems exist within the young people (including my grandkids) in today's culture: 1) They have electronic linkages to others, on at most times that they are not otherwise in class. They do NOT take the time to think in any depth; 2) Except when they are asleep, they are virtually never in silence.
I'm still struggling with trying to get some of them to take the time to ponder (can I use that word) any spiritual/mental concepts.
Default to prayer. Maybe someone else will be able to reach them.
written by Ben, October 17, 2011
When I speak with Atheists I've noticed that although they are willing to lie to win an arguement, whether it be how happy they are or anything else about their life or beliefs; Entertain these arguements, and since they are untrue you're going to come across a stupid statement beneath all of the intellectual ones, or eventually come across the conclusion of it all: That their beliefs amout to a Great Dictatorship of Meaninglessness.
For some reason, they have issues with seeing the great ego that believes this amounts to nothing... Must be the pride, eh?
If there was no God, then there would be no ultimate meaning to their lives and thus no meaning to the very reasoning they utilize to say "there is no God", but alas;

Is the love in their life meaningless?... Oh no, of course not. They have great and wonderful reason to have faith in the fidelity of their spouse but think faith in a God is just plain stupid...

I talked to one once about beauty, getting the standard "it all amounts to sex" response but when she commented on the "natural beauty" of the landscape I asked what part she wanted to have sex with.

All of these arguements lead to nowhere, take them there and show them that...

written by Ben, October 17, 2011
Look at John 6:53, you can only get that at Mass...

53 Then Jesus said to them: "Amen, amen, I say unto you: unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.
written by Tony Esolen, October 17, 2011
The best testimony to the faith is the joy of the faithful, in good times and in bad. It is a joy I have never seen anywhere else, and I've spent my whole adult life among secularists -- I'm a college professor. Oh, there can be some contentment, some natural good spirits, but there is no abiding joy; that glow, that warmth, that makes one want to say, "Whatever they are having, I want to have some of that too." Which is not to say that believing Christians always live up to their faith. But if you visit a genuinely Christian school (as I have, many times), and speak to the young people, you will notice a kind of peaceful joy, a simple mirth, that is not to be found anywhere else. I'm not saying you will always find it; Christians remain sinners, and life is hard. But there is nowhere else where you will find it. So when I meet a secularist, even the ones who are blessed with good temperaments, I see someone half-scorched, half-soured, sharp-edged ... and often desperate to hang onto the doctrine of meaninglessness.

You preach to such people by example. "See this over here? This is where genuine life is to be found, and that in abundance."
written by JotheHousewife, October 20, 2011
I noticed the young man's reply seemed to be predicated on reward, no reward... But like you said, on the moment's reward. Maybe he missed geometry and did not form any logic... or never heard Aesop's fables about hard work. Or he totally missed out on the real education: religious education! If we fail math, we repeat it. If we fail life,? All us "sowers" have so much work to do...
written by maria, October 20, 2011
The truth .. the devil has done a great job in dumbing down souls..-- the master of trickery and evil has used every good device man/woman has invented and turned it around.. People if they are not grounded in God in each moment in this broken world are simply fodder for the evil spirits..they become, weak, listless, thoughtless and the other adjectives described above.. but God is above all.. and the Rosary is all powerful. We all must pray more and pray constantly. -- Not all will come,many will not but Jesus never said He would save everyone. He has given us free will. At the end each man and woman will make their choice.-- we pray it is the right one..

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