One thing about apologetics and evangelization

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By Patrick Schmadeke
Evangelization in the world today column

In November, I had the pleasure of leading a session on evangelization with the new deacon aspirants and some of their wives, who are beginning a five-year journey of formation. The group’s witness to faith and commitment to vocational discernment was inspiring. One topic we touched on was the relationship between evangelization and apologetics. I was surprised by how long this

Schmadeke

excellent conversation went on, which spurred me on to do more reflecting and digging. I’d like to share the fruits of that in a two-part series.

In part one, I will clarify the centrality of humility in evangelization. In part two, I will juxtapose apologetics in our American Catholic context and its role in Church teaching. I’d like to begin with a story.

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Several weeks ago, we had an interesting experience with our 2-1/2-year-old daughter at Mass. During the elevation of the consecrated bread and wine, a sound came from our pew that filled the momentary silence of the church: “Oooooo.” A happy, “oh, she is paying attention!,” came to mind as I glanced over to see Catherine.

After Mass, a couple sitting nearby approached us and shared how profound they found this witness of reverence from such a young person. I, too, was inspired but what I couldn’t bring myself to tell the couple was what I noticed when I glanced at Catherine: she wasn’t paying attention to Mass at all. Instead, she was looking at a book of animals at a page with a dog on it. I concluded she was “oooooo-ing” at the dog. This made sense to me. After all, she could say the word “dog” before she could say the word “dad.” (We don’t even have a dog. Not that I’m bitter, or anything!)

After we piled into the car, I turned to my wife and shared my sentiment about not wanting to disappoint the couple with what Catherine actually meant. At this point, Rachel said in surprise, “Oh, you thought she was ‘oooooo-ing’ at the dog?” Actually, Catherine repeated the “oooooo” from a Halloween book line they had read several times recently: “Oooooo went the wind, and out went the light. And the five little pumpkins rolled out of sight.” The rhythm of the “oooooo” sound Catherine made during Mass was identical to the “oooooo” sound Rachel makes when reading the Halloween book. At this point I felt like I was living in a metaphor.

Each of us — the couple who approached us after Mass, Rachel and myself — had unique viewpoints and our respective understandings of what happened was entirely coherent. Interpreting Catherine’s sound as an act of reverence or as response to the picture of a dog or as a recitation from the Halloween book are each intelligible in their own right. All the data we each had made sense according to our interpretations but only one of us actually had the whole picture. This is instructive about the nature of human knowing.

The claim to know a thing is a personal judgment that one has grasped things as they really, truly are. Several questions for reflection arise for me: how am I certain that I have grasped things as they are? How do I know that bias isn’t getting in my way of thinking critically? Do I have blind spots of which I am not even aware that prevent me from grasping a fuller picture? The point of such questions is not to dwell in uncertainty but to arrive at clarity about what is actually known or unknown.

Theologian Jeremy Wilkins’ observation about Socrates’ engaging with his interlocutors provides further illustration: “by annoying them he’s (Socrates) really putting to them the question, ‘do you realize what you don’t know, and are you prepared to come clean about it? Are you prepared to take the position that being honest is more important than appearing right?’ And getting things right is more important than winning arguments.”

For me, this raises the centrality of humility in evangelization. Evangelization is mutual, in that God made us for one another. None of us has the whole picture and in conversation with one another, we may come to unpredictable conclusions, which is the nature of genuine dialogue.

The nature of evangelization has important ramifications for how we understand apologetics, especially as apologetics is commonly viewed in our cultural context. I will unpack this further in part two.

(Patrick Schmadeke is Director of Evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)


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