After the Ascension

Thinking this week of the Feast of the Ascension, my mind goes back to the scene itself as described in Matthew. After declaring that “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth,” Christ continues: “Go forth, make disciples of all nations, and baptize them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Here, we find something to do, something to teach or know, someone to know it, and some place to direct our efforts, namely, to everywhere.

We know, however, that a nation as such cannot be “baptized,” only individual persons in a nation. A nation is not a person. It may last for some centuries, but it is not itself a substance capable of eternal life, as persons are.

This command-mission, puts something new in the world. Previously, though knowledge was universal, most nations did not “convert” others. They wiped them out or subjected them.

This “going forth” mission (sending) has been imitated in a secularized form by Islam, Communism, Eastern religions, and even recently by modern atheists. Every man’s “truth” should be that of everyone else. What was new in the Ascension is a charge combining action and knowledge. Something exists that, in whatever age or place, everyone should know about and add to his way of life to know his own real good.

Yet, people are to be “taught,” not coerced or hounded. This “going forth” presupposes a willingness to listen, itself a virtue. It also presupposes a natural law operative in every person that incites him to want to know the truth of things.

The Ascension message meets a natural desire in each human heart to know the highest things of truth about how to live. As Plato and Aristotle often intimated, perhaps the proper way to know and worship God might be revealed to them through what they “prayed for,” though they could not imagine how. The “how” was what was “new.”

Scripture and experience, no doubt, are quite realistic here. They warn us that opposition will greet these efforts to make the truths of Christ known to the nations. This is the historical record. Political force will prevent the change represented by the words. The modern language of “rights” and “dignity,” moreover, develops a rhetoric of being free from such unwanted hounding. We will not listen except on our own terms, to our own “truths.”

Under the rubric of multiculturalism or relativism, laws and customs are now in place, even in democratic societies, that restrain this “evangelization.” It is “proselytism.” It is as dangerous to civil peace as the Athenian fathers saw Socrates to be to its existing public order. I do not want to be talked to except with my permission and on my grounds. My “right to exclude” is just waiting for some arbitrary judge to formalize it. We will be sued for “evangelizing,” that is, for stating what is revealed as true. Law schools will teach this opinion as settled doctrine.

Socrates rightly did not want the carousing of the gods to corrupt the youth. We protect children, even from their parents. Nor do we allow much adult “debate” except among equally qualified representatives on both sides. We reach a final dead end wherein no one is allowed to talk about anything serious on the grounds that it will “offend” someone. We can talk of anything but what is the meaning of life? Or, did Christ ascend into heaven?

Articles of civil peace, as Hobbes taught, require the force of law and opinion to protect us from such unseemly notions as Christianity proposes to be believed. China and the Muslim states are already masters of this closing off their society from anything untoward that does not correspond to what is legally allowed to be heard. Europe and America are not that far behind.

The Holy Father has recently spoken of the possibilities of by-passing these obstacles through the digital world. Yet we hear every day of things like Google and other systems being subject to pressure not to allow certain critiques onto the Internet. We know that China has made this interference a major industry.

Moreover, we have the whole pornographic use of Internet that is hardly what we mean when we talk of freedom of expression. So no one has an “openness” of mind so large that he does not see that some things ought not to be seen or heard, even when they are easily available.

And yet, a very Aristotelian position can say that we ought to know the worst. Without such latter knowledge, we will not really know the whole truth.

As to the Ascension, whatever else we know pales in comparison with what the Apostles were sent to teach about what we need to know.

Most persons in most nations still do not know it.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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