A True Missionary Spirit

A True Missionary Spirit April 30, 2014

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.)


The Best Defense Is A Good ..."
"The point that leapt out at me from this post is the complaint that atheists ..."

The Amazing Incuriosity Of The New ..."
"I'm glad to see the atheist reaction against New Atheism becoming more widespread. Although it's ..."

David Hume Against The New Atheism
"Which may indicate you don't actually know the Gospel. Tell me: if you died and ..."


Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • mochalite

    You’ve described this well … for Protestants as well as for Catholics. The twin impulses of real love and real curiosity are almost antithetical to the modern missional impulse. Duh … if what I believe is right, then how can I really love someone until he believes it too? The only real emotions I can have for him are pity for his blindness and fear that he’ll never pass from death to life. And why on earth would I want to sincerely investigate what he does believe? Real danger there, because maybe he’ll convince me instead of me convincing him!

    Thus, we had the recent tv spectacle of Franklin Graham totally ignoring Martha Raddatz’s question and launching into the sermon he had come to preach. I’d lay a bet that some evangelicals are saying that when she shut him down for not answering her question, she was persecuting him for the faith.

    As you said in a Twitter post, “Protestantism errs, in the final analysis, because …it looks at Revelation through a legal-juridical lens … salvation by faith is a
    contract which one signs on the dotted line.” (Perhaps some Catholics as well; I’m not one, so I don’t know.) But the soul-winning concept of missions means that we have a quite specific goal, and all acts of love and service operate toward that end. Sadly, most people see through us and know that we really don’t love them and really aren’t curious about their thoughts, and so our missional efforts are seen for the sad “notches on the belt” thing that they are, and generally fail.

    • You’re absolutely right.

      And legalism is certainly a recurring sin of Catholicism, and I don’t want to exculpate us from that. As you know, in my original tweets I ascribed this Protestant legalism as coming from Catholicism.

      • mochalite

        It’s a problem of the human heart, so we’re all in that one together. But you also described the joyful approach to missions, which is actual interest, actual joy, rooted in “solid belief,” which I read as being so organic that it doesn’t need to be defensive or confrontational. In this, I can relax. Just live, just be curious and relational, just be open to talking about faith, and let God arrange the conversions!

  • Joe

    Im interested to hear more about why you think B16 is wrong about the “Dictatorship of Relativism”. I think the SSM debate is a good example of the dictatorship of relativism because the modern world can’t stand any kind of civil or epestimological restraint. They say “There is no “Truth” about marriage that everyone ought to recognize therefore SSM should be legalized so that each individual can determine for themselves what the truth about marriage is.” All ideas are true relative to the individuals that hold them and anyone that claims to know the “Truth” binding for all consciences is a bigot and must be squashed.

    • Except that that’s not true. SSM advocates don’t say “there is no ‘Truth’ about marriage”, they say it is objectively true that same-sex relationships are on an equal moral footing with heterosexual relationships. In fact, it’s striking that the “let’s get the government out of the marriage business altogether” wing of the gay rights movement basically hasn’t had any traction. As Eve Tushnet has pointed out, if there was a civil union that had all the same legal prerogatives as marriage, except the name, the SSM movement would view that as a disgrace; what they want isn’t “live and let live”, it is for society to honor their relationship as of equal worth as heterosexual relationships. It’s a positive claim about the nature of morality.

      • Joe

        Yes they have an agenda (dictatorship) but the method they lean on to achieve their goal is alway relativistic. For instance they argue this way “How does SSM effect your marriage?”, “If you don’t like gay marriage then don’t get gay married”. Think of how happy they would be if more people took the position “Well Im personally opposed to SSM but I would never impose my beliefs on anyone else.” Relativism is their most effective tool.
        The people who want the government to get out of the marriage business have gained a huge amount of ground it comes up a lot in the SSM debate and it will only get more popular as polyamory and polygamy become more socially acceptable.

  • Frank McManus

    Another wonderful post.

    Regarding the “dictatorship of relativism,” I wonder if the truth isn’t a bit different from what you say. Certainly it’s true that the dominant cultural worldview in the USA and Europe today is not relativistic in the sense cultural and religious conservatives use the word. “Relativism” has become essentially a term of opprobrium for conservatives who want to sneer at people who think we should all make up our own minds about our morals, values, and religious convictions — i.e., the dreaded “liberals.” Somewhere recently (probably here on Patheos, but I can’t remember exactly where) I read that that isn’t quite what B16 meant by “dictatorship of relativism”; he meant something more precise and deeper. And if I could remember what he meant, I’d tell you!

    In any case, of course it’s true liberals (for lack of a better term) have values, and those values can be named. Therefore they are not true relativists. So the supposed liberal intolerance for those who, e.g., don’t recognize gay marriage isn’t the real reason liberals aren’t relativists. I don’t think they’re as intolerant as you do, either, but then, I also hold the heretical view that gay marriage is okay.

    The real reason liberals use the language of seeming relativism isn’t metaphysical or epistemological, it’s political and moral. They are saying essentially that the integrity of the human person, including conscience, cannot be violated — and they are claiming that the way Christians have traditionally deployed the “objective truth” of their faith is as a weapon to bludgeon the consciences, if not the bodies, of their targets. This leads to certain absurdities, of course, but surely they are no worse than the absurdities of Christians who have hated and killed one another, or non-Christians, in the name of Jesus.

    Your saying that having a secure faith allows one to be curious and empathetic towards others is very true and important. And this is also why those who hold the secure liberal faith are as capable of empathy and curiosity as orthodox Catholics.

  • Steve

    “The ideology of the post-Christian West is anything but relativistic; if anything, it is fervently religious.”

    Humanism is basically just a religion without the supernatural. I mean, it certainly requires faith to believe that human rights and morality can have objective existence, especially existence without a defining Creator.

    • Yup.

    • You need to understand relativism. It is actually a self-contradictory system. So anyone who lives it lives it inconsistently. It does not follow that it has no power as an ideology. It is used to destroy some truths but not all. Just like the reformation destroyed tradition and the magisterium and not scripture. Relativism destroys sexual morality but not economic morality.

  • MichaelNewsham

    I think one reason for the early Catholic missionaries zeal in learning was the Catholic belief in Natural Law. Missionaries like Mateo Ricci were very keen to study Chinese beliefs because they thought that they would find some understanding of the true nature of God and the world in any well thought-out system based on human reasoning.