Our living tradition and the ‘nones’


By Patrick Schmadeke
Evangelization in the world today


“Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching.” This is the title of Terry Eagleton’s 2006 book review of Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion.” In the book, Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, attempted to perform an effective take-down of religion. “The God Delusion” sold over 3 million copies and was one of the high points of a new, ardent, militant atheism, of which Dawkins was a central voice. Eagleton’s response was issued as an eviscerating critique, written in staunch, forceful prose. We can look back at this period as a relative flash in the pan, with the awareness that “The God Delusion” was a classic case of misunderstanding what one attempts to critique; hence the title of Eagleton’s review.

More recently, a Jan. 24 Pew Research Center report indicated that 28% of U.S. adults are religiously unaffiliated. Of that group, 17% describe themselves as atheists, 20% as agnostic and 63% as nothing in particular. The term “nones” has been popularized to describe the 28% who are religiously unaffiliated. What remains to be popularized is a shared understanding of the Catholic tradition as a resource for reaching our brother and sister “nones.” To be sure, a cottage industry of Christian religious resources has sprung up, asserting that they have the answer to the questions the “nones” are posing. Yet, where Eagleton drew into focus the faults in Dawkins’ argument, I worry that the cottage industry of Christian responses to the “nones” often misses the mark.

Some of the commentary in response to the Pew report typifies this approach, urging a simplistic doubling down on old approaches. Defaulting to approaches that we are familiar with is very human, but if we expect a different outcome from the same approaches, then we have performed our own Dawkins-esque lunge, flail, mispunch.


It is helpful to remember that our tradition is a source of tremendous creativity. We have in our past figures including Matteo Ricci, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Paul of Tarsus, Josephine Bakhita, and Franz and Franziska Jägerstätter. Such saints and saintly figures are not remembered for rehearsing the past; they are remembered for realizing the Spirit of God in the complexity of the present moment.

Such “tradition-ing” is what evangelization looks like. The concrete situation we face today is unique. This kind of religious disaffiliation is previously unseen in the life of the Church, but supposing that old answers (or at least old formulations) will satisfy today’s questions is akin to putting new wine into old wineskin. Our tradition is a living one and rehearsing the past will not do. With Vatican II, Pope St. John XXIII summoned the Church to “aggiornamento” (bringing up to date) and “ressourcement,” (returning to the source) and not “revanchism” (a retaliation to recover what was lost).

Pope Francis has furthered the call to evangelization by inviting us to live into the ‘“art of accompaniment’ which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other (cf. Ex 3:5). The pace of this accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which also heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian life” (Evangelii Gaudium #169).

Where many resources today offer quick answers, the pope invites us into something modeled after the style of Jesus: “steady and reassuring.”

This brings us back to the “nones.” It is sometimes asserted that the “nones” need to return or conform to the Church as it stands. That perspective probably originates more from Christian cultural, political and economic hegemony than from anything Jesus said or did. God is with and working in the lives of the “nones.” If we are open to it, the Spirit will do what the Spirit has always done: shape the Church to meet the needs of the present moment. For our part, openness is not merely cognitive; it looks like the art of accompaniment. Alternative approaches will not only miss the mark — as did Dawkins — but will miss the Spirit, too.

(Patrick Schmadeke is director of evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)

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