Evangelization by Listening

The goal of evangelization is not to win arguments.

If you are a reader of this website, you probably come here sometimes for answers on how best to answer some religious objection you’ve encountered or for some new way to explain the truth of Christianity to someone who is opposed. And to be sure, logic and apologetics has an incredibly important place in this process. We are defenders of truth and we must fight for that truth at all costs.

But the mistake many of us make, including myself, is to try to win the argument. This looks at the encounter with our theological opponent as a joust of words and we use arguments as weapons to disarm and defeat them. In this way, we somehow think our arguments can conquer them for Christ. But that looks at it all wrong.

We don’t want to win the argument.

We want to win the person.

I have found that when entering an argument, instead of reaching the opponent to change their minds or hearts, the opposite occurs. Arguments often impel us to fight back and defend our positions, even if they are on shaky ground. You can see this especially if the debate is public, for example on the internet. There is a lot of pressure to not lose face and admit that you are wrong. So it sometimes occurs that our opponent will dig into a theological position simply to not have to admit defeat for others to see.

Once when I was in class, I had a student who insisted that the unborn child was simply an extension of the mother’s body because they were attached. I dismantled her argument by showing her how absurd her position was by asking her this: “Are conjoined twins the same person if they are attached to each other?” It would be ridiculous for her to hold that these twins are the same person, but it would have to be true if physical attachment meant the fetus was simply a part of the mother. But she answered “Yes” to my question. She could not admit defeat so she had to defend an illogical position.

In moments like these, I sometimes use them as an opportunity to give light to the others who are listening. They can see before them the light of reason shines brighter. But even in those cases, there has been a failure to reach the arguer. I know that not everyone’s heart is open and I know that I am not the greatest apologist for the faith. But the question remains: how do we reach those who have their mental defenses up?

I think we can look to St. Dominic for inspiration.

In the High Middle Ages, a heresy arose that began to sweep through Europe called Albigensianism. These heretics believed that all material things, including the human body, were evil. As a result, they embraced lives of poverty, criticized the worldliness of the Church, and condemned marriage. Obviously, their central thesis about matter being bad must be refuted. God made all things, including the material world. And all things made by God are good.

But one of the reasons that the Albegensians had such power was that they tapped into some truths that were evident at the time. Particularly, the Church was in much need of renewal because of its exceeding worldliness in that era. St. Dominic could have simply engaged in apologetic jousting to defeat his opponents. The danger here is that it might cause those sympathetic to these heretics to dig into their position. Instead, St. Dominic did something quite radical.

St. Dominic listened to them.

When I say he simply listened to them, I don’t mean that he heard their arguments, analyzed them, and then figured out a way to defeat them. Instead, he sought to truly and fully understand their beliefs. And then he did something even more radical:

St. Dominic agreed and defended his opponents’ beliefs when he could.

He was able to find the truth of their beliefs that was mixed with the error and then he was able to stand with them to defend the truth they held in common. St. Dominic understood that they were correct that the Church had become too worldly. So he started one of the first mendicant or “begging” religious orders. He and his followers voluntarily embraced poverty so as to be more detached from worldly desires. They also took vows of chastity and remained celibate. In outward appearance, they seemed to be the same as the Albegensians. But they took these radical vows not as a condemnation of the material world as evil, but as a sign one can live in this material world while keeping your heart in the next world.

As a result, the Dominicans won over many Albegensians until the heresy essentially became no more. St. Dominic never compromised essential truth, but he was humble enough to reach out to the truth held by his opponents.

Could you imagine if this method was taken at the start of Protestant Reformation? If in response to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the immediate response of the Catholic Church was to abandon the corrupt practice of selling indulgences while standing firm on the doctrine of Purgatory? I know I am oversimplifying, but I cannot help to wonder.

Today, we are so completely polarized across hard and fast battle lines of ideology. But can we reach out and really listen to the other side to defend what truth they have?

This is not an easy thing and in many ways it is a dangerous endeavor. By opening yourself up to them in this way, you lay yourself open to judgment. You may find some of your own unnoticed prejudices exposed. But this is part of a dialogue of real relationship. In pure argument, words are hurled at each other like rocks. But in a relationship, our words are taken to heart and affect each other.

Can we reach out to someone with same-sex attractions and truly understand the alienation they feel from the faith? And in that alienation, vocally stand by them and their intrinsic dignity while at the same time standing true to the Christian sexual morality? Can we hear the hear the words of the pro-abortion advocate and understand how they see abortion as a key to women’s equality? Can we then stand by them to defend the equal dignity of women while standing firm in the defense of life?

I do not say that all of our opponents hold their positions from good motives or that all of them are open to the truth. But there are those that can be reached if we truly listen to them.

In listening, we affirm in them the dignity of their personhood and acknowledge any truth that resides in them. And if we can do this, then God can use this as an opportunity to let Himself, who is Truth, flourish in them.

Copyright WL Grayson, 2020

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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