Thursday, June 12, 2008

Evangelization Through Cultural Change

Book Review: A Civilization of Love by Carl Anderson (HarperOne, 2008)

Carl Anderson is dean of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America and has written a challenging book based on the teaching of Pope John Paul II. In short, Anderson wants to evangelize the world by changing its culture. Anderson's book is a testimony to the fertile legacy of John Paul II who through a series of brilliant encyclicals encouraged Christians to live out the fundamental Christian principles of charity and solidarity and in so doing to create a "culture of life" that would replace the "culture of death". John Paul II, largely misunderstood by the media, called for radical discipleship as the best form of evangelization.
Being Roman Catholic, Anderson has an acute awareness of global Christianity and his whole program is framed by one fact: Two-thirds of the world's Christians now live outside North America and Europe which means that the vast majority of Christians live in poverty. For Anderson, this fact raises serious questions about the commitment of Western Christians to solidarity in the Body of Christ and to the Christian practice of self-sacrificial love (classically referred to as charity). Anderson has the radical notion that the chronic problems of corruption, international debt, poverty and lack of education and health care can be most effectively addressed by Christians acting in solidarity with their brothers and sisters who live in poverty.
The core of this book is Anderson's explication and application of John Paul II's Christian anthropology, what his biographer George Weigel has termed a radical Christian humanism. The basis of this anthropology is the doctrine of the Trinity. The fact that the very being of God is constituted by a communion of persons indicates something profound and essential about human persons: Human life rightly lived and ordered is a life in communion with other people and the basic element of this communion is love. Love is, of course, a rather overworked word and has suffered from being sentimentalized and trivialized to the point where it now is used as a synonym for "tolerance". John Paul II understands love in its radical sense: The three persons of the Trinity share a common life and exist in a relationship of complete self-giving. God himself is the perfect embodiment of solidarity and charity. If human life properly lived is life in communion, this has important implications for our understanding of freedom. Freedom is not merely the freedom to left alone or the liberty to satisfy my own wishes but the freedom to love. Here John Paul II especially draws upon St. Thomas Aquinas to say that real freedom is precisely the freedom to love others self-sacrificially.
Anderson is clear in pointing out the bankruptcy of much contemporary thinking about human nature which is largely naturalistic. Against this he sides with John Paul II in thinking that "only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light" (p. 24). Only in the light of Christ is real human self-knowledge possible. The Church is that community in which God's order of life marked by solidarity, charity and responsibility are embodied. For Anderson, the truth of this view of human life is demonstrated in its being lived out. The whole of Christian discipleship is contained in this anthropology. An anthropology which sees people as essentially individualized centers of will who create themselves by their own actions and consumer choices will largely make discipleship impossible and will subvert the Church's witness. (This is an aspect of John Paul II's teaching that many Protestant churches desperately need to hear.)
Anderson lays out a rather comprehensive program for the changing culture. In this space I can not provide a full outline of his agenda. What I can do is to highlight three chapters of the book which I think are especially important.
Anderson devotes a chapter to an exposition of John Paul II's "Christian personalism," a Christian philosophy which animates his important book The Theology of the Body. Christian personalism holds that the proper dynamic of life is to move beyond the narrow confines of our own self to acknowledge the absolute value and worth of each individual. (The media had a hard time with John Paul II because this view led him to a determined opposition to abortion and to determined efforts to defend human rights.) The cornerstone of Christian personalism is "that it is neither we ourselves nor society that has established [human] worth. Rather it is God who has done so, and he has done so through love" (p. 39). In the Incarnation God establishes the dignity and value of the human person. This becomes the central principle in the Catholic commitment to family life, peace, human rights and social justice.
Anderson also devotes a chapter to the ministry of lay Christians. Here he makes it clear that while lay Christians may have "secular jobs" their vocation is very much religious. In their work and family life lay Christians are called to re-order the world as a witness to the kingdom of God and this means they have a central role in the work of evangelization. Key in this discussion is the notion of the gift of self: "Gift of self means everything we are given--every talent--is given as a gift. Every moment is a chance and opportunity for conveying love" (p. 56). This is not just a matter of "doing good" but a matter of reflecting and projecting the love of Christ. The fundamental way in which this is done is through the practice of charity: "Our service of love is what enables Christ to speak to us--not only in how it physically brings us in contact with the poor but also and especially because it conditions us to receive and welcome his words. It takes humility and love on our part to listen to Christ" (p. 61). For Anderson, what should animate the witness of the laity is the huge privilege of believing in Christ.
Anderson also devotes a chapter to the family, referred to in Roman Catholic social teaching as the "domestic church". This involves more than "family values". The family is the school of charity. It begins with the covenanted love of man and woman who step out of the confines of the self to form a common life, one in which affection is deepened into charity--self-sacrificial love. Marriage involves the vocation of bearing and raising children and this must be seen as a religious vocation, a vocation as serious as the ordained priesthood: "In bearing and raising children, a married couple reflects the creative power of God himself. In this way the family is its own culture of life and culture of love and becomes the essential building block of the civilization of love" (p. 74). Quoting John Paul II, Anderson notes that "family life becomes an itinerary of faith and in some way a Christian initiation and a school of following Christ" (p. 74). Anderson recognizes a crucial truth: The family can be the greatest bulwark against a selfish materialism or one of its principal supports--it all depends upon the vocation of the parents.
Anderson has much more to say about work and globalization, about reclaiming business as a Christian calling and about the anti-life assumptions underlying abortion and euthanasia. He has done the Church a great service by applying the profoundly Christian philosophy of John Paul the Great to some of our most pressing problems. And he has also reminded us who live in a confusing and challenging time of the central message of John Paul II: "Be not afraid!"

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