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Telling the World Its Own Story
REV. RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS
It is the responsibility and the opportunity of Christians to communicate to the world what is aptly called "the world's own story." The world does not know its own story.
The story of God's creating love; His preparing redemption for the world; His calling a chosen people and from this people raising up a Redeemer, the Messiah; His establishing an Apostolic community of faith, the Church, that would then reach out through all times and all places and all languages and cultures. This story bearing the promise of the telos — of the end — the destiny of the Cosmos itself and God's loving purposes for the world that He so loved that He gave His only begotten Son. This is the story of the world.
It is the story of everybody in the world. Our job is to alert people to their own story and to help them understand that everything that goes on in this world, all the dimensions of human activity — if they are rightfully ordered, if they are rightfully understood — are sacred, for they are all endowed with the presence of the God of creating and redeeming love who continues to be disposed to His creation, of which He once said, "Behold it is very good." So also He invites a return to that goodness and a fulfillment of that goodness in Jesus Christ.
We have to share God's love for the world. To have a Christian world view is to love the world.
Views of the world
In the New Testament and in Christian tradition we find many different ways in which we use the term "world." Sometimes we speak of the world as that which is opposed to the kingship of Jesus Christ, that which Paul calls "the principalities and the powers of the present time." And so sometimes we understand our Lord saying that "We are in the world, but not of the world."
There is also an understanding of the world as the object of God's love: "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son." And so also throughout the New Testament, such as the vision of Saint Paul in Romans 8 of the whole creation that is yearning for its promised fulfillment, of which fulfillment Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the sign that the victory is already won. He is the first fruits. He is the beginning of a cosmic redemption.
This is the world's story: to exercise with energy, imagination, and persuasion the Gospel of Jesus Christ through all the dimensions of life. And in the entirety of the human enterprise — whether in economics, the intellectual life, the artistic life, or the literary life — this must be done with love or it will not be done at all. The world must know that we love them and all that they can be and are called to be.
I have had a variegated career over the years, and one of the great blessings in my life — despite certain ambiguities — was that I worked for several years as liaison with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., between his Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta and various parts of the movement in the northern cities. Dr. King is famed for having said many things, but this phrase is little remarked and never seen in the media. He would frequently say "whom you would change, you must first love, and they must know that you love them."
Whom you would change, you must first love, and they must know that you love them! There is a sense in which that is very elementary. Every good pastor knows that. Every good priest knows that. Every good parent knows that. Every good teacher knows that. People are not going to follow those they view as hostile to their interests or contemptuous of their person.
"Whom you would change, you must first love, and they must know that you love them." They must know that the change to which you call them is for them. It is for them, not for you, not for you to put another notch in your evangelizing gun or to pride yourself on what God is doing through you. That is not the motive. It is for them. It is for love. Only then can it be for God, for God is love as 1 John tells us.
A Christian world view, then, involves the understanding that the Christian Gospel is the story of the world and is the story of God's continuing persistent, relentless, and inexhaustible love for the creation for which He said, "Behold it is very good." And He intends that goodness again. He has made in Jesus Christ and in the power of the Spirit every means available to humankind to actualize the promise that is given to every life in the world.
No cause for despair
There are people who say, "Well, we Christians are basically in a besieged position in the world. We are surrounded by forces that not only are the principalities and powers of biblical hostility but are the growing powers of a monolithic and unstoppable force." And there are days in which we all have that sense. All of us who have contended to be Christian disciples, to be faithful, know times in which we are tempted to despair and to feel that we are a part not only of a minority enterprise but a failing and perhaps definitively failed enterprise.
But we have not the right to despair, for despair is a sin. And finally we have not the reason to despair, quite simply because Christ has risen. And this is the strength of a Christian world view, the strength of the Christian way of telling the story of the world: it has no illusions about it. All the other stories are built upon delusions, vain dreams, and utopias.
Look back at the twentieth century. This century became the bloodiest in human history. More rivers of blood unloosed, more mountains of corpses heaped up by human beings against other human beings in the name of lies, in the name of wrong ideas, wrong world views. And National Socialism, Marxist-Leninism have now for the most part been consigned to the dustbin of history.
So where are we at the beginning of the third millennium? This is something to ponder. The truth is that on the world historical stage today there is no other proposal for the human future that is even within reach of being so coherent, comprehensive, and compelling as the Christian story of the world. Now it may be, given the human propensity for sinfulness and sinful utopian dreams, that at this very moment an equivalent of Karl Marx in the British Museum of the nineteenth century is scribbling away (on his word processor, of course) some new great utopian dream in which new thousands and millions will be sacrificed on the altar of human delusion. We don't know. But at the moment, at this beginning of the third millennium, there is only one comprehensive, coherent, compelling, hopeful story of the human project being proposed to the world, and that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is an astonishing thing. This is the first time in at least three hundred years that there have been no large comprehensive and, in the minds of many people, coherent and compelling alternative contradictory stories.
Pope John Paul II talks about the beginning of the third millennium as a "springtime of evangelization." There are many ways in which you can look at world historical change today. Some talked about Christianizing the world in the nineteenth century and others in the twentieth century — even establishing a magazine called Christian Century. And we all ought to be skeptical about people who come along and say that with this or that technique we are finally going to conquer the world for Christ. We all ought to be very skeptical about that. When finally our Lord Jesus comes in glory, he is not going to need any PR agents or press releases. Everyone will know, and every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. He will manage it.
But we in our moment are called to be alert to what is called "reading the signs of the times." And today on the world historical stage is a great movement toward something that is, perhaps, like what John Paul II means when he speaks of a "springtime of evangelization."
When Chuck Colson and I started out "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" back in the early 1990s, the project truly began with a concern for evangelization with specific reference to Latin America. In that region it is not only the case that evangelicals and Catholics are not working together and bearing witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they are sadly also frequently engaged in providing a counter-witness to the Gospel by their bloody hatred, warfare, and competition. It was in this context that we initiated the understanding of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," participating in this springtime of evangelization — if that is, indeed, what God has in mind.
On the world scene there are approximately two billion Christians. Let us not argue who is authentically Christian. We are talking about the people who identify themselves as such and are so identified, of which somewhat more than a billion are Roman Catholic; about 200 million are in the so-called classical mainline Reformation traditions, the historic denominations; and another 200 or 300 million in Orthodoxy in its various parts and divisions. The rest form that big, burgeoning, growing part of evangelical-Pentecostal evangelization, especially in Latin America and Africa.
There are also approximately one billion Muslims. A great challenge of this millennium, of this century, will be whether it will become, as Samuel Huntington of Harvard University says, "a century of the clash of civilizations centered on the bloody borders of Islam" (a terribly bleak outlook), or whether it will be a time in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be able to build bridges of understanding even among those who quite differently understand themselves to be the children of Abraham. Will we find the ways in which through God's mercy and grace all people will come to acknowledge the Lordship of Jesus Christ?
This may very well be a springtime of evangelization. There is certainly an openness today. If we were to have that legendary man or woman from Mars come down and ask, "What is the single most important thing that is happening on Planet Earth at this moment in history?" I know what I would say: "The most important thing, viewed from the consideration of human history and change in the world historical scene today, is what can be called the 'de-secularization of world history.' "
For the last four hundred years, since the militant eighteenth-century Enlightenment, especially in its French form, we have been operating under an assumption, which is still entrenched in all the textbooks of America's public schools and indelibly imprinted on the minds of America's brightest and best. It is the assumption that as people become more educated and thus more "enlightened," they will become less religious, and religion will finally wither away to the margins of life where it will be hermetically sealed off in that sphere that we call "private." It will not be permitted to make a difference in the "real world" of the public square, of real history.
Today, far from seeing religion withering away or being hermetically sealed off in the private sphere of life, we live in a society riddled with evidence of religious revival. Confused, to be sure! But just go through a chain book store and look at the shelves of spirituality. Everything is under the categories of New Age and Channeling, Astrology and Wicca, and on and on. Is this a secular society? It is not: it is a drunkenly, maddeningly, confusedly religious society.
Is this good news or bad news in terms of the Christian Gospel and evangelizing the lordship of Jesus Christ? Maybe both. Some would say that we live in a post-Christian society. I don't think so. Some would say that we live in a pre-Christian society that is really like that of the first or second or third centuries in which we are surrounded by paganism and the Gospel is a new thing. I think there is something to be said for that, except we can't push it very far because one of the difficulties in evangelization in our kind of culture is that most people think they already know the Gospel. And that was not the case in the second century.
No, I think we live in an incorrigibly, confusedly, conflictedly Christian society where even those who understand themselves to be opposed to Christ and His Church oppose Christ and His Church in the language and the metaphors and the rituals and the symbols of Christ and His Church. Even to be an atheist in this society you have to be a Christian atheist or maybe a Jewish atheist. You can't just be an atheist. This is a culture riddled through and through with Christian symbols, gestures, language, remnants, and resentments — the detritus of Christendom, if you will.
Imposing nothing, proposing everything
What does the future hold? A re-Christianization of America, something like "Christian America" as it was understood, say, by the founders in Plymouth Plantation, or as it is understood by some today? I don't know. God knows.
But I know it is a circumstance of confusion and perplexity. It is a cultural ambiance of so many parts that we must seek out the crevices, the opportunities, the cracks, and the assumed prejudices and stereotypes by which the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the story of the world, can be lifted up, so that people can have their own "aha!" experience, their own understanding of what it is all about.
There is, of course, a certain resentment with which we are met in this task. That is understood. That has always been the case. When it is not the case, then we really have to worry. But again, the mission is a mission of love, for "whom you would change, you must first love, and they must know that you love them." We are countercultural at times, but we are not countercultural because that is what we set out to be. It is not by our decision; it is simply that at times the culture is so counter to the Gospel of Christ. And if sometimes it seems that we are against the world, it is always because we are against the world for the world. Every "no" of the Christian story is premised upon an immeasurably greater "yes."
There is a marvelous encyclical that Pope John Paul II issued in 1990 called Redemptoris Missio, "the mission of the Redeemer." The title is important. It is Christ's mission before it is our mission. It doesn't really depend upon us. We just have the privilege of being for a short period of time recruited for His purpose into His work. In the encyclical is a marvelous passage talking about the resistance of the world and how people feel put upon and frequently threatened by the Gospel. The Pope says, "We must make clear to all our brothers and sisters that the Church imposes nothing; she only proposes." The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes!
It is surely critical for all Christians to understand the Gospel in that way. We are not coming and dumping on people with our ideas, our prejudices, what we think is our truth. "You've got your truth; I've got my truth" — No! Don't buy all that. It is not my truth. I want to make a proposal to you, as to a possible way of understanding what your life is about, of what the world is about, and what your life in the world is about. I want to tell you the story of the world, which is the story of your life. Let me propose it to you as a lover proposes to a beloved.
The heart of darkness
What a proposal! We Christians, you see, have it, this coherent, compelling, comprehensive story of the world. It is the only one on the world stage today that is filled with promise, for it is the promise of God Himself that the human project ultimately will not fail. Because God Himself in Jesus Christ has invested Himself in the human project and gone all the way with us, all the way to the Cross, there is nothing that can happen in history — absolutely nothing — that can be set against this promise, that can falsify this promise, that can throw this promise into question. The worst that could possibly happen has already happened on a certain Friday afternoon outside the gates of Jerusalem, when it was true, at a certain point in history, to say that God is dead.
The worst that could happen, the eclipse of every human hope, the eclipse of every smallest possibility of finding reason and purpose in life, was all devastated catastrophically on the Cross. But we Christians have looked into the heart of darkness. There is nothing now that could be proposed against it to falsify it — not after the Cross. We have looked into the heart of darkness, and at the heart of darkness there is hope. Because at the heart of darkness there is love. Because at the heart of darkness there is God in Jesus Christ.
Nothing now can threaten this human project, this proposal that is offered to everybody personally and to everybody in our public life. In our public life we are able to say to the world, there is a more excellent way. Remember Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians? What a troublesome bunch of people, absolutely impossible, and Paul is going through all of their arrogant factionalisms. And then at the end of Chapter 12 he says, "but let me show you a more excellent way." Then begins the great hymn of love. This is part of what John Paul II means when he says, "The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes." We are saying to the world, "let us show you a more excellent way" — a way more worthy of you. You are more important, because you are the bearer of a dignity far beyond anything you could ever have imagined for yourself; you are made in the image and likeness of God. It imposes nothing, only proposes.
You have seen the astonishing World Youth Days that John Paul II initiated — including 1993 in Denver, in Rome during the Jubilee Year of 2000, and all over the world. In Denver, some of you may recall that a lot of American bishops were against it. They said, "American young people are not into this kind of thing. They are not going to come." And the press were looking for a circus, ready to see this old Polish priest try to read the riot act to these young, vibrant, independent-minded American young people. And all the press went out there. But within hours they realized that the whole thing had turned around, that something was happening there.
For ten years now I have been running a seminar in Krakow, Poland for Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox young people from Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and the United States on Catholic social teaching. Krakow is the former See of Karol Wojtyla before he became Pope. He was Archbishop of Krakow. One old man there knew Karol Wojtyla long before he was Pope, even before he was a priest. They called him Lolek, his nickname as a kid. Over lunch one day he told me, "Ya, you know Lolek, he has been saying the same thing all these years, even before he was just a young priest." You see all those World Youth Days and literally millions of kids — five or six million in Manila alone in 1995, the largest gathering in human history! But the old man says, "Look, Lolek has been saying the same thing all along."
I said, "OK, what is this same thing he has been saying for so long?"
"Well, he just finds a thousand different ways of saying to all these young people what he said to us when we were young people: 'Settle for nothing less than moral and spiritual grandeur.'"
You see the same thing in the quote: "Whom you would change, you must first love, and they must know that you love them."
Whom would we change? We would change the world! It must be apparent that we love the world if we would make a difference in the arts, in music, in history and physics and the sciences — and indeed in business, and how to include the poor within the circle of opportunity. If we make a difference in any of these things, we must come to them and to the people involved in them with love, with a vision of a more excellent way, with a proposal — imposing nothing, only proposing.
In doing this in the public square, in doing this in our public life, we can, among other things — although it is not the chief purpose, but it is certainly a great blessing were it to happen — renew the vitality of American democracy. Renew, indeed, the very meaning of politics!
Who are the "we"?
The best short definition of politics that I think we have ever had is Aristotle's, who says "Politics is free persons deliberating about the question, 'how ought we to order our life together?' " The word "ought" in that definition clearly indicates that it is a moral enterprise. Not that, needless to say, all politics or politicians are moral, but the enterprise in itself is in its nature a moral enterprise. Every great question posed in political life is finally a moral question. What is fair, what is unfair, what is right, what is wrong, what serves the common good, what doesn't serve the common good. These are inescapably moral questions. The very language is moral.
We have lived for the last fifty years in the United States under a delusion, perpetrated by those in charge of the commanding heights of culture, that we can divorce morality and religiously grounded conviction from how we ought to deliberate the ordering of our life together. Let no one tell you that you are coming into the public square and imposing morality or imposing your religion — not if you are coming in with love. You are coming in and saying, "Let us engage one another in a deliberation of pursuing a more excellent way, a way more just, a way more fair to everyone."
"Whom you would change, you must first love." This is evident above all in the issue of abortion. The old political question is how ought we to order our life together. The questions of abortion, euthanasia, and our treatment of the radically handicapped, of the looming threats of eugenics, all of these questions touch on who is the "we." Who is the "we"? And how do we, as in the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, set up criteria by which we exclude from the human community those who possess what is — unquestionably and undoubtedly — human life. By what criteria do we exclude some by virtue of age or size or weakness or dependency without by the same criteria and measure excluding others who by virtue of their age or their size or their weakness or their dependency, aspire to the heart of public life?
Some people say, "Oh, that is a personal and a private question; it ought to be kept out of public life." No! It is the most public of all questions. Who belongs to the community for which we accept common responsibility? That is the question in the abortion debate — not when does human life begin. There is no moral debate over that. That is scientifically beyond dispute, the continuum of this unprecedented combination of everything that is necessary for the appearance of what, barring a natural disaster or direct intervention to terminate, everyone will recognize is a human baby — not a goldfish, not a kitty cat, but a human baby.
I was recently at the Capitol. The topic was stem cell research and the creation of embryos in order to use them and destroy them. A senator told me, as he pulled out a piece of paper with a small mark at a hearing and waved it at me: "That is what we are talking about, Father. That doesn't look like a baby to me."
I replied, "Good for you, Senator. Thank you for the opportunity; that is exactly what a one-week-old baby looks like! That is exactly what I looked like when I was a one-week-old baby — exactly what you looked like. And unless we get our heads and our hearts — and consequently our politics and our laws — right about this question, brothers and sisters, we are not going to get anything else right."
Faithfulness, not success
We wish we can move beyond it. Many people have been working on this issue since long before Roe v. Wade, going back to the 1960s when liberalized abortion law was the mantra of the time. We are weary of it. How many letters we have written, and how many calls we have made, how many marches we have done, how many vigils, how many prayers; and we say "Well, when are we going to get this fixed?" We must recognize that if the answer is "never, not until our Lord Jesus returns in glory" — which may be a long time away — we have, in these last forty years of the pro-life movement, simply laid the foundation for the pro-life movement of the twenty-first century. And that in turn, if there is another generation and yet another generation with the faith for it, the courage for it, and the wit for it, will lay the foundation for the next century, for the principalities and powers will always rage.
What John Paul II in that great encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, "The Gospel of Life," speaks of as the culture of death opposed to the culture of life, is one way of understanding this. What the Holy Spirit has done and will do with "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" could not have happened had it not been for what is aptly called the "ecumenism of the trenches," of Catholics and evangelical Protestants finding one another on the marching lines, as individuals, in prayer meetings, and in the organizing for the culture of life.
The culture of life has to continue. We must never ever tire of it. The darkness of the culture of death encroaches on us, but it is our confidence, our strength, and our indomitable hope that the light of the culture of life will never be put out because the light came into the darkness in Jesus Christ, as the Gospel of John tells us, and the darkness has not overcome it. And the darkness will not overcome it. Never, never, ever!
And that is the confidence with which we can approach the tasks of advancing a Christian world view, of turning the entirety of the creation of His goodness and love toward the fulfillment to which He calls the creation, and each one of us as part of it, and to do it together — evangelicals and Catholics and whoever else will join hands with us in bearing witness to the truth of God's love and to the truth of the light in the darkness.
There are people who say, "Well, that is a very hopeful message." People frequently will ask, "How can the Pope be so optimistic?" Here is a man now 83 years old, who has seen the great darkness of the twentieth century, who lived under the Nazis, under Communism, in the culture of the great lie. How can he be so optimistic about the future of people? The answer is that he is not optimistic. Optimism is not a Christian virtue. Optimism is simply a matter of optics, of seeing what you want to see and opting not to see what you don't want to see.
We are hopeful, filled with hope, which is a very different thing. Hope is a virtue of having looked unblinkingly into all the reasons for despair, into all of the reasons that would seem to falsify hope, and to say, "Nonetheless Christ is Lord. Nonetheless this is the story of the world. Nonetheless this is a story to which I will surrender myself day by day." Not simply on one altar call, but as the entirety of one's life, in which every day is a laying of your life on the altar of the Lord Jesus Christ being offered up in perfect sacrifice to the Father.
And will we overcome? Will we prevail? We have overcome and have prevailed ultimately because He has overcome and He has prevailed. There are days in which you and I get discouraged. On those days I tell myself — I suppose almost every day I tell myself, sometimes several times a day — those marvelous lines from T. S. Eliot's "East Coker," where Eliot says, "For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."
For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business. Some people read those lines as lines of resignation, kind of shrugging your shoulders and saying, "What can you do?" But I read them as lines of vibrant hope. The rest is not our business. The rest is God's business.
Thank God, we are not God. Thank God, God is God.
Rev. Richard John Neuhaus. "Telling the World Its Own Story." Wilberforce Forum (July, 2001).
Reprinted by permission of the Wilberforce Forum.
Father Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things. He is the author of many books, including As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, The End of Democracy?: The Celebrated First Things Debate with Arguments Pro and Con and "The Anatomy of a Controversy, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, The End of Democracy?: The Judical Usurpation of Politics, The Best of "The Public Square": Book One, The Best of "The Public Square": Book Two, The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation: Jews and Judaism in America, and The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.
Copyright © 2001 The Wilberforce Forum