“The Evangelization Of The World In This Generation”

This was my column for September in The Meta Arts, an online magazine, which is to be found at http://www.themetaarts.com/pages/frankdemarco.html

“The Evangelization Of The World In This Generation”

I got involved in one of those arguments. You know the kind, where the two sides start from so far apart, believing “facts” that are diametrically opposite, that there is no real way to come to agreement. What’s more, she was a friend of a friend, and I wanted to be careful not to let an argument become a heated dispute.

But the “facts” she was quoting with such certainty were just not so. Missionaries, she said, were merely agents of imperialism, using their religion as a weapon to destroy native institutions. Like so many people – political liberals, mostly — she assumed that religious institutions are automatically corrupt, that missionaries are automatically bigots, and that efforts to convert natives of other cultures were mere manifestations of racism.

But in this she, as most people in our generation, was the victim of ignorance fostered by leftist ideology and propagated by lack of historical memory. For instance, she had never heard of the slogan “the evangelization of the world in this generation,” and when I quoted it, had no idea what it meant or why it was adopted.

For that matter, I expect that few people reading this column will have heard of it. And yet, if you haven’t heard of the slogan, I don’t see how you can understand the people who were fired by it, and I don’t see how you can appreciate the very real sacrifices that two generations of missionaries made in an attempt — as they saw it — to follow Jesus’ directives and extend the opportunity of salvation to people who would otherwise never receive it.

Now the point is not whether we see things as those missionaries saw them. (We don’t.) The point, in my view, is that if you want to understand the missionaries, you have to be able to see their point of view, if only temporarily. If you cannot do that, your condemnation is based only in prejudice.

In the late 1800s, looking at the unprecedented opportunities of communication and physical movement that technology had opened, some Christians in Europe and America asked themselves why they should not attempt to preach the gospel in all lands, as they believed Jesus had directed, both for the sake of those whom they would convert and for the sake of perhaps bringing the return of Jesus and the end of the wicked world so much the sooner. There is nothing sordid or selfish or disreputable about such an ideal.

We in this post-Christian era can see the damage often done to native societies by the coming of the missionaries and the Western imperial trappings that accompanied them. It is easy, however, for us sometimes to forget that the missionaries brought with them education, medicine, and boundless goodwill. (For that matter, imperialism brought technology, infrastructure, public sanitation, and the suppression of independent tribal warfare. It wasn’t all bad.)

But — you might say — this is ancient history. What does it have to do with us?

This. Those who cannot remember the past may or may not be condemned to repeat it, but they are certainly incapable of profiting from its lessons. We in the early years of the age of Aquarius have much to learn from the dominant mystic tradition of the age of Pisces. The 2,000 years of Christianity demonstrate what it is like when a new way of understanding deals with the perennial spiritual realities underlying the world. We are going to have to do just what the Christians had to do, and it will be the easier for us if we learn from their experiences. But to do this we will need to learn the history, absorb the lessons, and not let our own prejudices overwhelm our understanding of these people in their own terms.

In the age of Aries, as in the age of Taurus before it, mankind perceived nonphysical reality in certain characteristic ways, which changed as the underlying energy of each age changed. When the age of Pisces rolled around, the old Roman gods died, in the same sense that the pre-Roman gods had died. It isn’t that the spiritual reality had changed, but that mankind’s conceptual limitations and abilities had changed. But the effect was the same.

Carl Jung said somewhere that the gods never return to temples that they have abandoned. It very much appears that Christianity is one of those temples. Our task, therefore, becomes one of discovering and assisting whatever new modes of spiritual life will come into being. The Nazis, in their muddled form of racial mysticism, sensed that Christianity had lost the vitalizing energy that had created and sustained western civilization. They tried to replace it with archaic forms of connection — Wotan and all that – but of course a throwback cannot be a bridge to a future. Science-worship, similarly, has thought to replace Christianity (and indeed any form of recognition of spiritual reality), but it has nothing to replace it with but a vacuum, and it has made a terrible mess that may yet kill us all.

Our task — mine, yours, each of us — is to follow our instincts and guidance, and try to be the clearest possible vessels to bring into this world whatever the next stage of spiritual life is going to look like. This is a much more important task than any form of economic or political or ideological tinkering. It is, in its own way, our modern equivalent of that noble aspiration of the late 1800s, the evangelization of the world.

It’s just as well to be clear at the beginning. This task won’t be finished – or even well begun – in our generation. If the age of Aquarius lasts twenty centuries, we will no more see the birth or flowering of that civilization than the contemporaries of the apostles witnessed the birth or flowering of Western civilization. We’re only at the very beginning.

Nonetheless, our task is before us.

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