Christian faith is not a system… it is a path, and it is characteristic of a path that it only becomes recognizable if you enter on it and start following it.
Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance
Reflection – In the task of the new evangelization, one of the genuine pitfalls—a most understandable one, but still a pitfall—is to mistake catechesis for evangelization, confound ‘teaching the truths of the faith’ and ‘bearing witness to the faith’. Obviously these two are not in opposition to one another in any way (the faith we teach is the faith we strive to live), but they are two different tasks that occur at different points with different results. And to simply confine oneself to the work of apologetics—making known and offering a credible defense to the doctrines of the faith—is not going to have a huge evangelical impact, I would suggest.
This is because of what Ratzinger is saying here in this short passage. Christian faith is not a system, but a path. It is not a series of propositions that can be diagrammed out, but a relationship to be lived. Or, to the extent that our faith is a series of propositions, these serve as a sort of map guiding us along the path. And it is only by being on the path that we can know what the path really is like.
A map is a useful thing—perhaps a necessary thing, even. But let us not confuse the map with the city it is a map of. I can stare at a map of Ottawa, say, all the day long and not come one kilometer closer to the actual city or really know very much of what it is to walk on its streets.
Christian doctrine is like that. We can have the catechism memorized, and know every answer to every possible theological conundrum. But if there is little or no implementation, we cannot really say we know the path of Christ. And we have all beheld the sorry sight of the apologist who knows all the answers, who has it all wrapped up in a nice tidy package, can explaine it all with absolute logical coherence and ringing certainty… and is so abrasive and obnoxious in his presentation that he does more damage to the cause of evangelization and mission than Richard Dawkins, Planned Parenthood, and Jack Chick combined.
When the first disciples asked Jesus “Master, where do you live?”, he did not hand them a theological tome or a helpful summarizing pamphlet. He said to them, rather, “Come and see.” (John 1: 38-39). It seems to me that in our own desire to share the Good News of Christ with the world we have to do a fair bit more ‘come and see’ and only later come to the pamphlets and tomes.
Probably I am hopelessly biased, since this is in fact the Madonna House patented method of approaching the matter. On the other hand, we do seem to have helped an awful lot of people come to the faith over the years. Of course this way of doing things implies that there is something for the person to come to and look at. In other words, that we’re living something, and that the manner of our life is itself a proclamation of Christ and of the Gospel.
That being said, my firm belief is that hospitality of the home and the heart is one of the most powerful means of ordinary evangelization a Christian can engage in. There is so much loneliness in the world, and so much locking of doors, pulling up of drawbridges, shutting out of the world and its mess, withdrawal into safe little enclaves. To invite another person, one who may not be ‘in the club’ yet, faith-wise, to share a meal, go for a coffee together, to be a warm and friendly presence to those in our immediate environment who are not of our faith—this is a powerful, hidden and very beautiful way of radiating Christ to the world.
It is, in other words, to invite people to take just one or two steps along the path with us, to even see that it is a path, a real way of life, and not just a bunch of incomprehensible teachings and harsh rules (which is the picture of Christianity many people have).
They may venture one or two steps on that path and then retreat, and that’s OK – we all have to be free in this matter. But the path is there, then, and our simple invitation means that they know where to find it, how to get onto it, and later on, if they wish, they can unfold the map and see just where it came from, where it leads and what the whole thing is about.
Evangelization—and the way of doing it is so available, I believe, to just about anyone, as long as we ourselves make sure that we’re on the path, that we’re living life in such a way that our lives do bear that witness to the way of the Gospel.