A True Missionary Spirit

The first time the Tao Te Ching, the central text of Taoism, was translated into Western language was by a Catholic priest and missionary. A historical scholar I know showed me in his library an old edition of that translation, each page with three columns: Chinese, Latin and French. That’s how I read it, knowing of course no Classical Chinese, but going back and forth between French and Latin to try to grasp nuances (which were almost certainly invented by me).

This is something we see over and over in the history of the missionary endeavors of the Church. Most of the earliest Western scholarship we have of non-Western civilization comes from missionaries. A friend of mine who is a scholar of African history and sociology tells me he relies all the time on sources written by Catholic missionaries. There is a dark side to the missionary history of the Church, of course–oppression, or just cultural imperialism masquerading as the Kingship of Christ–but at their best the Franciscans, the Jesuits, the Dominicans and others, they had this combination of Catholic intellectualism, and Christian brotherly love, and generally the easy curiosity about new ideas that comes from solid belief.

They knew, or I want to say simply assumed, that missionary spirit starts with brotherly love, and that to love someone is to want to know them, and to get inside their head so you can have true empathy. Love is kind, love does not boast, but love is also curious. That’s not in Paul’s litany, but I’m sure he would agree. And solid faith is too confident to feel threatened by other ideas and worldviews. Aquinas’ reverence for Aristotle, Maimonides and Averroes is famous. And it goes all the way back to Paul and his sermon on the Areopagus.

Thus we get to the Church’s relationship with the post-Christian secular West. We keep talking about evangelization–and, within the Church, the buzzword of the New Evangelization–but this relationship seems to me to be too often marked by fear, incomprehension, knee-jerk reactions, grievance, and more fear. We talk about how to reach out, how to fine-tune our message, how to explain this better, and this is all fine and important. But I think it seems to me this needs to come after the step of recovering this true missionary spirit. I have an almost unbounded admiration for Pope Benedict XVI, but it seems obvious to me that he is just wrong that the problem of the West is that it is in thrall to a “dictatorship of relativism.” (I will expand on this in a later post.) Relativism would recognize (to pick one example at random) same-sex marriage, but it wouldn’t seek to punish those who don’t. The ideology of the post-Christian West is anything but relativistic; if anything, it is fervently religious. Famously, Pope Benedict thinks this is the greatest challenge facing the Church today (and the vast majority of cardinals agreed, it seems). That one of the smartest men of Christendom (and, I believe, a saint) could so misread the signs of the times suggests to me that we have a problem.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not asking for doctrinal changes. What I am asking for is a recovery of the true missionary spirit, meaning one that starts with genuine empathy and curiosity about others, about what they think, what they feel, why they feel a certain way, what might be their motive. Again: the joyous, outgoing curiosity that comes from a secure faith. This is what we need.

(A hat tip to my friend B.F. who inspired this post.)

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