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Pre-Evangelisation and the Journey towards Transcendence

Updated: Jun 11, 2023


In Singapore, a bustling metropolis of skyscrapers, fast-paced life, and long working hours, it's easy to get caught up in the daily grind. People rush to work, attend meetings, run errands, and return home exhausted, only to start again the next day. It's a routine that can be mundane, draining, and even soul-crushing, as illustrated by a netizen who expressed this poignantly:


“As I grow older, it feels harder to be genuinely happy.


“I count my blessings for not having to worry about daily essentials, but yet every passing day still feels like a mere distraction, toward an end that’s nowhere in sight.


“Weekdays are for meeting deadlines; weekends are for fulfilling social expectations. Payday comes and goes, only to squirrel away whatever balance after expenses.


“… Did anyone else feel this way, and how do you get out of this rut?


This experience is not unique to him/her; the post has received so many ‘karmas’ (read: vain internet points) way beyond what is normally posted on r/AskSingapore, highlighting the resonance with many others who feel the same way. It’s a mood most of us have had before.


It is tempting to blame his/her predicament on burn-out, depression, and mental health issues, ‘cured’ with a prescription of weekend get-aways and other escapades from the city life, meditation, or sport. But then we would simply be treating this issue as if it were merely a psychological issue resulting from a lack of ‘balance’, chemical or otherwise, that we can treat; we can ‘medicate’ [1]. The deeper issue here: a crisis of meaning, of life and of work, remains untouched.


Even to many in a healthy state of mind and body, this sounds familiar [2]; we probably know one or two who are in a similar situation. We ourselves might be one.


The difference between us Christians and the non-religious, however, is that we are surrounded by a greater story than our own, a story that is not primarily about us, but about the God who graciously includes us in His story. And that story has an ending we are looking forward to.


It is this that distinguishes our mentally exhausted, working-class selves from the others who do not believe in anything transcendent. The view towards the transcendent helps us in being aware that despite our corporate cog-like existence, our work, tinged with the love of God and virtuous intentions, really works for our good and others'. This remains true even when we are far from consolations, when God feels far, and our rosaries still lead us no farther from the ‘rut’.


The network of meanings engendered by our faith and constitutes our worldview envelopes us with a sense of meaningfulness in life. Nothing is meaningless when the apparent meaninglessness of Jesus’ cross is pregnant with superabundant meaning!


This is not the case with the non-religious. Life can not merely feel meaningless; even at an optimal mental state, life can truly be meaningless. Pushed to atheism’s logical conclusions, they are forced to contend with the irreconcilable gap between their longing for meaning and the inherent meaninglessness of the world. They are compelled to be happy continuously pushing a stone up the hill, fully aware that it will always roll back [3]. It constitutes their worldview.


This worldview cannot simply be dispelled by introducing the Christ who comes to fulfil their life’s deepest yearning, or the Christ who has exonerated them from their guilt, or the Christ who promised them eternal life. Their deepest yearning can already be fulfilled by what the world offers; they have no consciousness of any guilt; and they have no need for eternal life. The offer of Christianity easily falls flat on their ears.


Unlike the prodigal son who, despite his waywardness, still carried within him the memory of the abundant life he once had with his father (cf. Lk 15:11-32), many secular individuals have lost touch with the experiential understanding of what it feels like to have a deep connection with a transcendent reality. Their longing for fulfilment and purpose is instead satisfied within the confines of the world they know, without any awareness of the void that could be filled by a relationship with Christ. In this sense, the offer of Christianity, with its promises of fulfilment, forgiveness, and eternal life, often fails to resonate with them [4].


They embody the ‘buffered self’, a jargon by Charles Taylor to refer to individuals of the secular age [5] who see themselves as separate from the divine, shielded from any external spiritual forces or ideas. Their worldview is firmly grounded in ‘immanence’, in what is available in the bounded time and space they live in, valuing only what can be perceived through the senses and understood through rationality (read: science). The meaning of life, therefore, is only found in this worldly existence that is immediately visible.


Transcendence


Since none of the assumptions that a typical proclamation of the Gospel consists of is accessible to them (i.e. the concepts of God [6], sin, grace, good and evil in the sense that we understand it), evangelisation in the sense of proclaiming the kerygma—announcing to them the person of Jesus and the redemptive work he has done—will not have any meaning.


The issue is not just receptivity to grace, but real cognitive roadblocks. These roadblocks can be traced to various “-isms” that are part of the spirit of the world: relativism, materialism, individualism, scientism, consequentialism to name a few [7]. And although opening avenues to dialogue and gently challenging them could possibly create a space of genuine encounter, not all of us are primed to engage in this way. We are not all academics.


However, there is another, more universal approach that transcends logical distillation and academic discourse, and that is through a sense of the transcendent. Transcendence speaks to the inherent human longing for something beyond the material, for a deeper meaning and purpose that goes beyond the confines of logical arguments.


Transcendence can be experienced and conveyed through various avenues that resonate with individuals regardless of their cultural or intellectual background. It encompasses the beauty and wonder of the natural world, the awe-inspiring mysteries of the cosmos, the transformative power of love and compassion, and the yearning for connection with something greater than oneself [8].


Appealing to the transcendent aspects of life can serve as a bridge between individuals entrenched in cognitive or existential roadblocks and the spiritual truths of the Gospel. By engaging in conversations about the profound experiences of awe, beauty, and moments of deep connection, they are invited to explore the possibility that their selves can be porous to the transcendent and are no longer ‘buffered’.


This can mean being exposed to art, music, and literature that evoke a sense of wonder and beauty; getting immersed in the grandeur of nature, discovering the depths of compassion and selflessness that cast light on our call to love as the meaning of our existence; or even a slow realisation of the dignity of human life after an encounter with suffering and loss.


Pre-evangelisation


Nudging others towards an encounter with the transcendent such as in these experiences does not constitute the whole of evangelisation. It is, however, an important part of evangelisation, and is aptly called “pre-evangelisation” [9]. Today, pre-evangelisation—that is, a preparation of the hearts and minds to receive proclamation of the Gospel—is all the more needed due to the above reasons.


I personally believe that the majority of work we are supposed to do vis-a-vis the unbelieving world is the work of pre-evangelisation, and more specifically, in nudging people towards realisation of the transcendent. This is especially so considering the animosity towards Christianity in various parts of the world, where religion is considered either irrelevant or threatening, and a little mention of religion creates an air of discomfort.


To be sure, pre-evangelisation is “already evangelization in a true sense, although at its initial and still incomplete stage”. And it can include “an almost indefinite range of means … explicit preaching … also art, the scientific approach, philosophical research and legitimate recourse to the sentiments of the human heart [10].”


Like the disciples travelling to Emmaus who had lost their enthusiasm as they walked and conversed, speaking about Jesus in the past tense, someone needs to provide a gentle push (cf. Luke 24:13-35). Just as Jesus guided them slowly, without explicitly revealing the complete answer that was right in front of them, we can nudge and steer those around us without immediately giving them the full answer. It is only when they realised that there was something that exceeded their prior understanding, that their hearts were burning, that Jesus revealed himself. Likewise, when those we guide recognize the existence of the transcendent, can we then present the kerygma.


The netizen above actually received an excellent reply:


“To me Singapore feels almost like a closed bubble. People say it's like Disneyland (for the rich), but for the working class, the demand of work and societal expectation to 'succeed in life' make Singapore feel like a bubble of 'work'.


“Whenever discussions on meaning come up, it comes down mostly to the family, and the spectre of chasing material success—for the sake of the family ironically—again comes up. We cannot run away from chasing material success. The whole project of life is defined in its term.


“We live to work. We work to live.


“It does not help that the physical space of Singapore almost feels like a bubble, an island with urban architecture. The lack of rurality leads to a lack of space for contemplation: of life, of nature, of relationships, since the urban speed at which we enjoy relationships and external environs make us unable to breathe slowly and look inward deeply, discovering meaning.


“Do this day in and day out, every day of our adult life, and our senses for the transcendent atrophy. We become insensitive to meaning, to wonder and awe of existence and life.


“Which is why my advice is actually to travel. Not to other urban spaces like Hong Kong, Seoul, etc. where you will end up breathing the same spirit, but to rural places where traditions are alive and people are connected to each other and to nature. See how other societies live and imbibe their worldviews. There are many ways we can draw meaning that we are not used to, far beyond the spiritual boredom we are used to cultivating inadvertently.


“Maybe we can feel wonder in life again!


This post resonated with a lot of netizens as well. And with this, he actually pointed the readers towards the transcendent. Someone needs to continue this pre-evangelisation process.


Until next time,


Chandra Nugraha



Footnote


1. Victor Frankl, in “Man’s Search for Meaning”, argues against an obsession with ‘medicalizing’ spiritual issues.


2. At least the karma points of the post show that it resonates with people. 'Karmas' are gamification points used by the online forum website Reddit to indicate popularity of posts or comments.


3. A classic imagery by Albert Camus’ in “the Myth of Sissyphus”


4. By this I am not saying that none of them is touched by grace or shares some level of communion with God. Many might be; only God knows this (and Our Lady and their guardian angels perhaps). My point is in the lack of awareness of concepts that articulate that communion, that enables them to deepen it (if they are already justified) or to come to that understanding (if they aren’t).


5. See “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor. Charles Taylor is a prominent Catholic philosopher and social theorist known for his work on modernity, secularism, and the nature of the self.


6. The conception of God becomes another being bounded in time and space like other beings, a.k.a. The Old Man in the Sky. The caricature has also become more satirical, like the Flying Spaghetti Monster in pastafarianism


7. CTN has an infographics on these, written by Nick Chui and designed by me :)


8. I am using a broader account of transcendence that does not necessarily reach the level of the ‘numinous’ as in Rudolf Otto’s account.


9. The term was formalised in the third International Catechetical Study Week in Bangkok, 1962, and was popularised by Pope Paul VI in the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi in 1975. It is also explicitly written in the National Directory of Catechesis in the US.


10. Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi 51



© Presented by the Catholic Theology Network (writers / contributors / sound): Dominic Chan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Nick Chui (MTS, JPII Institute for Marriage and Family, AU), Keenan Tan (M.A., Theology, Augustine Institute), Debra Dass (Diploma in Theology, CTIS), Marcia Vanderstraaten (Diploma in Theology, CTIS); publicity & design: Chandra Nugraha.

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