The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 4:28:59

Evangelizing the Complacent

Devra Torres, Dec 22, 2013

Scarcely had I waded past the first paragraph of Evangelii Gaudium when I came across a very odd sentence.

It wasn’t about trickle-down economics, and it wasn’t about the salvation of atheists (although I just heard a good line about that: the question is not so much whether those who reject the Gospel can be saved, but whether we can be saved if we don’t preach it). 

No, this was not about the usual bones of contention.  The odd sentence was this:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.

Wait, what?  How can you be complacent and full of desolation and anguish?  What was he talking about?

I think it’s the flip side of a very familiar coin.  Just as deep joy can coexist with transient suffering, chronic anguish can coexist with outward complacency.

We distinguish between two kinds of happiness: On the one hand, authentic joy, its roots sunk deep in reality, which arises from being in harmony with the truth about the person and his Creator.  On the other, something more superficial: “physiological good spirits—the happiness of a healthy animal,” in St. Josemaria Escriva’s phrase.

The deeper joy is perfectly compatible with suffering and hardship.  The surface cheer, on the other hand, is at the mercy of circumstances, ebbing and flowing with the vicissitudes of finances, hormones, weather, digestion, and the decisions of other people.

Christians have been trying to get the message of real joy across for a long time.  Many remain unconvinced.  What’s so attractive about a happiness that doesn’t feel good?  What’s so terrible about physiological wellbeing?

Joy that coexists with suffering and hardship has proven to be a hard sell with people who would just as soon take a pass on the arduous adventure of seeking their telos.  In C. S. Lewis’ famous words,

We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum 

 because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.

It’s true, the complacent don’t sense a need for forgiveness.  Janet Smith pointed this out in “Are We Obsessed?” her response to Pope Francis’ cautions against an out-of-context emphasis on sexual teachings.  Fr. Dwight Longenecker made a similar point the other day in “Mercy? Who needs it?”

How does one communicate the joy of the gospel to those who, sated by their materialistic pleasures, do not perceive sadness in their lives? How does one offer forgiveness to one who does not believe they have done anything wrong? How does one offer healing to one who does not believe they are sick? How does one offer mercy to those who have no idea that they need mercy?

He’s right: lots of us don’t appreciate the good news because we’ve never really absorbed the bad news—the part about being fallen, helpless, and headed for hell.

But look at what Pope Francis might be suggesting here. Maybe even the most (outwardly) complacent sense that something is very wrong.  How many people do you know who suffer from depression?  From anxiety?  From addictions to food, drugs, pornography, smartphones?  There are many who, granted, don’t see themselves as sinners but who are not truly “sated by their materialistic pleasures.”  If they were really so self-satisfied, why would they fall for the offerings of Oprah, or scientology? Why would they treat environmentalism, or nutrition, or politicians like little gods? 

Maybe complacency isn’t the word.  Maybe it’s inertia, or a kind of chronic, low-grade despair—despondency at our own inability to be convinced that anything will ever change for the better.

Here’s Francis’ diagnosis:

Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.

If this is true--if, at least sometimes, the "complacency" is a surface phenomenon--then maybe there is an opening after all.  We don't need to choose between a 1970's-style accomodation to vacuity, glossing over the "hard sayings," or else wandering aimlessly around in the futile attempt to peddle truth and morality to an audience who sees them as unnecessary inventions.

What do you think?  Have you tried different approaches with the complacent?  How deep did their complacency run?  Has anyone ever shaken you out of your complacency?  How did they do it?  What didn't work?  What backfired?

And maybe next time we'll get to economics and salvation.