Evangelizing the Secular Mind

Recently, a colleague inquired about how I successfully teach philosophy at a professional-minded college. As my colleague recognized, it is difficult to teach the liberal arts at a school where students embrace monetary practical values and goals. Through his query, I was reminded about how Catholics can evangelize with rhetorical mindfulness. Specifically, Catholics can begin their messages with a material-based secular message—that is, utility-driven practicality—and move toward transcendental faith-driven principles. To this end, we can persuade people away from the dancing shadows on the wall and lovingly escort them toward the sunlight of the Truth.

In the arena of contemporary college education, a popular maxim is that professors should “meet students where they are.” According to this maxim, teachers should be the “visiting team” whereas students should be the “home team” equipped with a home team advantage. Acknowledging a home team advantage offers a practical way for college educators to manage incoming populations of students—especially fragile or resistant learners. Ultimately, it evokes the role of rhetoric in the college classroom—that is, recognizing an audience’s differences in order to establish common ground so as to maximize persuasiveness. In this sense, teachers introduce new material dressed up in familiar clothes—perhaps using social media in an innovative way, relying on personal narratives, or bringing popular culture into the classroom—which can make learning easier for students.

What is the drawback? This teaching method can take more time. Rather than jogging on an inclined treadmill, students slowly meander on a declined treadmill. In this analogy, exercise still occurs; however, the exercise does not burn as many calories. Walking downhill is an easier exercise; consequently, it compromises the quality of the results. Furthermore, intellectual fitness can take more time to attain when figuratively strolling on a non-resistant platform. Is this frustrating? You bet. But it is the reality of the educational landscape of America in 2018. However, all is not lost. We can still teach philosophical/theological arguments in relation to where our audiences “are.”

Catholic ministries, such as Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire, offer effectively rhetorical approaches specifically focused on diversified multimedia. Word on Fire uses a variety of online vehicles such as podcasts, YouTube clips, and flashy websites, to engage people in what Bishop Robert Barron and John Allen label “affirmative orthodoxy.” This communicative media meets non-Catholics, lapsed Catholics, and even counter-Catholics “where they are.” But what about the apathetic “nones” who see no value in any religion at all? What about secular populations who are not interested in listening to intellectual or inspirational material, including discussions about religion? Clearly, these “nones” are not religious but, additionally, they are not particularly intellectually motivated to stand against religion either. Consequently, apologists are left befuddled with no counterarguments to rebut or unpack. Introducing apathetic populations to theological or philosophical reasoning would require out-of-shape people to run on an inclined treadmill: a difficult means of motivation. Therefore, we can direct our attention toward persuading apathetic “nones” more effectively by having them first walk on a downhill treadmill before gradually running on an incline. In other words, we need to meet them “where they are” and strengthen them subtly and patiently.

Content with living in Plato’s cave, American secular populations often enjoy the dancing shadows on the wall. Subsequently, they often value the material world as an end in itself: a world of facts, sensory data, impermanent pleasures, and circumstantial issues about pragmatic skillsets, which includes ways to professionalize and make money. In his Ideas Have Consequences and Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver, a twentieth century conservative rhetorician and card-carrying Platonist, explains this simple stage of knowledge as the first of three orders. He argues that the first stage is the easiest stage to negotiate because it is based on sensory data. The second, more complex stage of knowledge arranges the previous sensory data to construct theories and generalizations. Consequently, this second stage is more complex. The third stage of knowledge, as the most complex tier, involves value judgments about the theories; this stage uses universals and first principles as criteria of assessment. Sadly, “nones” can dwell exclusively in the first stage of knowledge, walking downhill on a treadmill, entranced by corporeal stimuli and promises of material wealth. Many times, they are not motivated to ascend to the second and third stages.

This is where the evangelizer can make a difference. Instead of seeing the secular attitude as a frustration, we can see it as an opportunity. Weaver’s first stage of knowledge offers a place to meet them “where they are.” In doing so, we give ourselves a rhetorical advantage to maximize our communication—and, therefore, provide a chance to adapt and maximize the evangelical outreach toward such audiences. Rather than shunning the worldly, circumstantial, and practical, we can know and use these elements as a way to establish common ground and forward the conversation toward more transcendental philosophical and religious reasoning. In short, the job of the liberal arts teacher—as well as the everyday evangelizer—is to lubricate the movement between the first two tiers of the Weaver’s orders of knowledge.

Some people may call this stealth evangelization. I merely call it strategic education that meets people “where they are.” Let me explain. Communication in general can be understood as educative outreach. For those of us who are not formal teachers, we are surely communicators and, therefore, educators by extension. As persuasive educators, we can begin with content that the audience knows and gradually work up to unfamiliar content. Situating the approach evangelically, the evangelizer can begin with secularly practical material and ending with philosophical principles. For example, my book on persuasive reasoning begins by appealing to utilitarianism communication strategies (the pragmatic) and ends by lauding Aristotelian virtue ethics (principles). Before readers know it, a book about micro-level practical communication skills evolves into a discussion about macro-level philosophical principles. The book’s progression uses a deliberate rhetorical arrangement.

Similarly, in my writing classes, even though I have no background in business whatsoever, I integrate articles from the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company Magazine, and Inc. Magazine: articles about business, marketing, and entrepreneurship—ultimately, articles that illustrate ways to make money. These articles command my class’s attention because the writers discuss the world as an end in itself. However, within these discussions of practical topics, I progress the discussion toward theoretical ends. Again, this is deliberate rhetorical arrangement. I transform a discussion of material phenomena into a discussion of philosophical ideas. The strategy aims not to immediately convert people into philosophers or even Christians. The goal is much humbler than that. By subtly inclining the treadmill while exercise is underway, learners begin to understand that, as Thomas Aquinas states in the Summa Theologica, human knowledge can be true, but it can also be knowledge of the Truth (I.16.2). And from such an epistemological insight, their minds become more equipped for the logic of the faith. The soul becomes more prepared to receive the Holy Spirit: an important first step in evangelization.

Whether in mixed company at the office or teaching at secular institutions, as Catholics we may feel like our hands are tied. We may be discouraged to discuss religious arguments, religious perspectives, or religious histories. Much like teachers who meet students “where they are” regarding abilities and perspectives, we can sometimes evangelize others by not immediately overwhelming them with Aquinas’s Natural Law or Anselm of Canterbury’s proof for the existence of God. That can come later. Rather, modeling how theoretical knowledge reaches beyond practical information can provide a crucial, albeit understated, dimension of the evangelization process. It opens up everyday secular audiences to the value of philosophical and religious principles.

Gavin F. Hurley

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Gavin F. Hurley, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English at University of Providence in Great Falls, Montana (USA) where he teaches writing and rhetoric courses. He is the author of The Playbook of Persuasive Reasoning (2018) and his essays have appeared in the Journal of Communication and Religion, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Journal of Catholic Higher Education, Listening: Journal of Communication, Ethics, Religion, and Culture, Catholic Educator Magazine, America Magazine, and On Religion Magazine.

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