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Sharing the Faith with Those Who Don’t Care

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Listener Geraldine writes from the Netherlands to ask for an episode on “indifferentism.” Just how are we supposed to share the Faith with people who show no interest? We get some helpful answers from Matt Nelson, author of Just Whatever: How to Help the Spiritually Indifferent Find Beliefs That Really Matter.


Cy:
Can we reach those who just don’t care about God? Matt Nelson is next. Hi, Geraldine. Thanks for your email. We always ask at the end of these episodes for people to send us emails and Geraldine took us up on that offer with a great question. Hello and welcome to focus. The Catholic Answers podcast for living, understanding and defending your Catholic faith. I’m Cy Kellett, your host and Geraldine lives in the Netherlands. And she says around her many, many people are not interested in the gospel. They’re not interested in God. It’s one thing to defend the faith when people are attacking it. But how do you share the faith when people are showing no interest in it? We thought that was a really good question.

And we figured we had just the guy to ask. So we did, we asked Matt Nelson, he’s the author of Just Whatever: How to Help the Spiritually Indifferent Find Beliefs that Really Matter. It’s a book for Catholic answers press. He’s also the proprietor of reasonablecatholic.com. That’s his blog. And he’s a fellow at the word on fire Institute. So we said, “Matt, can you help Geraldine?” And he did. Matt Nelson author of Just Whatever: How to Help the Spiritually Indifferent Find Beliefs that Really Matter. Thanks for being with us.

Matt:
Thanks for having me Cy.

Cy:
I got an email from a woman named Geraldine in the Netherlands, and she posed a challenge that we thought you would be the person to talk about. So can I read you some Geraldine said?

Matt:
Okay, sure.

Cy:
What are you scared of people from the Netherlands? Is that…

Matt:
I don’t know. This sounds like a setup but-

Cy:
it’s in English. Don’t worry. Okay. So this is what Geraldine wrote and we’re very grateful, whenever we get emails, Geraldine wrote, just wanted to thank you a million times for the great work you all do on Focus. You are helping me so much to deepen my understanding and love of my Catholic faith. I thought you might want to comment on that. You got nothing on that?

Matt:
What am I doing here? You don’t want to bring the quality down.

Cy:
I just thought I would share that line even though it has nothing to do with what we’re about to talk about. I thought maybe that would be a good one to share. Thanks Geraldine. But this is her question, she says here in the Netherlands, the biggest plague is indifferentism next to theism. Have you already made an episode on that theme? If not, I’d love to hear one. Central question, what would be the steps to engage in a good discussion about faith with an indifferentist? Where should I start?

Matt:
That is such a good question. Are we jumping right in and answering or are we going to…

Cy:
No, no, I’m done goofing around. Yes. Answer Geraldine’s question.

Matt:
Yeah. That’s a question I think on the tip of the tongue of so many people today and I talk about this in the book, but I think everybody needs to just go out and get a real classic of Christian apologetics written in the 17th century called the Paseos by Blaise Pascal, this great 17th century Christian thinker. I take my strategy from him. So this is his way of dealing with things, he lived during the 17th century enlightenment, where he was dealing with all kinds of rebellion against religion. Rebellion in the sense of intellectual rebellion, where people they wanted to… as the saying, would go, follow reason and the belief was to follow reason meant to move away from religion. Well, Blaise Pascal started to notice that indifference was the sort of thing that he was finding around him all the time.

And so when you read his posses, which is just the French word for thoughts, you can see him thinking about this problem of indifference. So I guess my first point is Geraldine’s question is a question that’s been relevant for hundreds of years. Now, here’s what Pascal says we should do. He gives a three-step strategy. He says, first of all, we should show that religion is reasonable. So in a rational sense, we want to show that religion is a viable option. Number two, he says, make Christianity attractive. So show that Christianity, isn’t just a viable option for somebody who wants to follow their reason, but also an attractive option.

And then number three, he says, prove that it’s true. So you see what we think of today as apologetics, really sitting in that number three spot. So this is in a way a sort of psychological progression that moves eventually into rational apologetics. And I think that’s fitting because indifference is more of an attitude than an argument or that a rational stance, it’s an irrational stance. So making people believe that it’s a reasonable position the beliefs that we hold as Christians, but that it’s also an attractive position. I think those are two really important steps.

Cy:
Okay. So let’s take Geraldine in the Netherlands there. And Europe, maybe particularly Northern Europe is famous for having lost its faith and now proceeding as a very secular society. How might… it won’t even come up in conversation probably Jesus or the church or that kind of thing. So how might Geraldine dealing with a Euro secular person? I imagine they look great, because they do. But they don’t have this. So how does she start with that first step of, this is reasonable?

Matt:
Yeah. Well, we might be tempted to think that the ball is in our court to say the right things in this first step. And of course that’s going to be at some point maybe sooner than later is going to be the right thing to do, that is to speak, to proclaim the message that we want to proclaim. The truth that we want to defend, but I think it’s important to understand that this first step, I think more than anything for a lot of people it’s more of a passive step for us to hear people out. Here’s the thing, if people feel threatened, when it comes to us wanting to talk about our faith with other people, they’ll go immediately into a defensive stance. And there’s not going to be anything rational about that conversation. But if we show people number one, that we’re willing to hear them out and that the second we hear something that we disagree with, that we’re not jumping in right away.

Then we open the flood gates for us to speak then reasonably about our faith. And I would just add one second element to what I’ve said already. And that is for Pascal. What really makes religion reasonable is religion in practice. I think what Pascal wanted to emphasize is something similar to what we’ve heard, Jordan Peterson, the university of Toronto psychology professor, who obviously has made waves in the secular world as much as he has in the religious world, talking about how life is suffering, that we can’t escape it.

Well, what Pascal says is, when it comes to religions like Christianity, only an irrational person would want to say that life isn’t suffering, that suffering is avoidable, but Christianity doesn’t just state that truth. It also says there’s a way to be saved, that there’s actually this hope in Jesus Christ that we offer that secular philosophies, for example, don’t offer. So in that sense, Christianity is reasonable because those things we feel deepest about ourselves and about the world. Christianity can meet those desires that we have and those concerns that we have at our most basic human level.

Cy:
Yeah. So, but it’s pretty impressive how the psychology of human life is that we can really put off, especially say if we’re doing well. And again, let’s just go back to thinking about Northern Europe, where Geraldine lives. Economically a powerhouse, people have a lot of… they get vacation days. They have a high quality of life, I suppose. So when we are in that situation, it’s really easy for us to put off any thought of death or suffering, unless it impinges on us. So do you see what I’m saying? So I feel like it’s a trap in a way. Well, I’ll think about that when it happens later.

Matt:
Yeah. I think so, a way that we may want to approach this first step, just to make sure that when Geraldine and others listen to this, that they’re hearing some grassroots, practical suggestions. Is amidst the listening that we’re doing is we’re letting somebody open up to why they’re indifferent. Because again, this is something Pascal points out. It’s an emotional stance. It’s an attitude, to break through that attitude we have to disarm them by not being threatening as much as we hate, we want to… especially if we have that desire to be the apologist, we want to just get into the arguments. But if we really care about evangelizing the indifferent, number one, we have to make them feel like they’re in a dialogue. And that they’re not just on the receiving end of a whole bunch of information we want to give them.

So amidst the listening and showing them that we’re interested in the things they have to say, even though we don’t agree with them, we need to ask the right questions. So, one question we might want to ask in this first step is, “Well, okay. If life is full of suffering and if death is inevitable, if it was true that a God did exist, who offered you an eternal cure to these problems, to these unavoidable problems, would you be interested in that?” And I think that’s an interesting conversation that I think beneath the surface, everybody wants to discuss and talk about, but if they’re going to discuss it and talk about it honestly, they need to feel as though they can talk openly about it without us jumping in right away and trying to push back. Does that make sense?

Cy:
Wow that makes great sense. Yes. And it’s a great… I can imagine the person who would say, “No, I’m not that interested in it.” But I don’t think that would be the majority. I think most people would have… but you can see what you’re doing is you’re not closing off the conversation. You’re opening up a door, here’s a chance, what’s it like?

Matt:
Right. And so let’s say we run into somebody who says, “No, I wouldn’t be interested in a cure for suffering or in eternal life as Christians define it,” say, okay, well, let’s just put it in different terms then. Would you be interested in eternal happiness? Maybe we need to move outside of what they might see as religious terms. And I think anybody who says, “No, I wouldn’t be interested in eternal happiness.” I think at that point, if they’re going to take that stance and they’re going to stand by it, there’s not a whole lot, probably that we can say in this conversation. They need more than a conversation at this point. They certainly need prayer, but so just ask good questions and get them thinking. And then they realize, “Okay, we’re in a dialogue now.” And if you’re asking the right questions, everybody’s interested deep down in life’s big questions. That’s why their life’s big questions.

Cy:
Oh, by the way, I just want people to know your book, Just Whatever: How to Help the Spiritually Indifferent Find Beliefs that Really Matter, covers a good deal of this. And especially if maybe you’re a parent and you’re like, “What happened to my twenty-something,” which I’ve said about all three of my twenty-somethings, I can tell you. A great book for you to get, but here’s a… I want to pose a little challenge to you as well, because the part about making the faith attractive, I’m going to say, I don’t think we’re doing a very good job at that. And I think we’re… Bishop Barron series on Catholicism, I feel like people were like, “Wow, it’s actually a beautiful faith. And there’s a great deal of beauty in it.”

And that’s one thing, the beauty door. But if you go back to the Roman times, the primary way that people found out about the goodness and the appeal is because Christians took in a sick relative of theirs or Christians… we were the people who were there feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. We were the people doing these crazy things. I wonder, sometimes we let our institutions do that. And so we don’t do it ourselves and people can’t really… when they see mercy hospital here in San Diego, they don’t necessarily go, “Oh, that’s Catholics caring for the sick.” They just go, “That’s another hospital.” So you see what I’m saying? I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of making the faith attractive.

Matt:
Yeah, no, I agree with you. I think that we can do a lot better job than we’re doing, and there’s three things that human beings are unequivocally attracted to, truth, goodness and beauty, okay. Bishop Barron obviously has been a real advocate for leading with the beautiful, and that’s certainly one way, and his Catholicism series is one way of doing it. But as you’ve pointed out, goodness is another way of leading and there’s… if you get really philosophical about it, these three things, philosophers will call transcendentals. There’s a little bit of each one in the other. So when you see somebody making this heroic act of charity, it doesn’t have to be heroic, but let’s just say it is. You also see truth incarnated in what they’re doing and there’s something beautiful in this great act of love.

The greatest paradox of all is Christ on the cross. There’s something beautiful about it. We might not be able to put our finger on why we can say that’s beautiful, but it is. So I think that what you’re saying is dead on. We need to perhaps show people that this Christian charity that’s supposed to be the mark of Christianity is really alive in our hearts. And so this is going to happen. I think more than anything, not through a Catholicism series on public television, not necessarily through a social media platform, it’s going to happen in our day-to-day lives, maybe within our own families, in our own homes. People are going to watch us and if we’re living the Christian life, as we really ought to, preaching the gospel boldly as Saint Paul commands us to do, people will know we’re Christians.

And when they see that our life exemplifies what they know Christianity to be all about, that’s going to be attractive. I think that is… you can’t argue with that. Authentic Christianity lived out is attractive, it’s more attractive. I would argue good arguments. So that’s why It’s more important than St. Thomas Aquinas was a Saint then that he wrote the Summa and the Summa Contra Gentiles and the other… all of that matters, but ultimately the greatest thing that St. Thomas Aquinas did in his life was, he was a Saint. So we all need to try to do that.

Cy:
Right. And I… we’re taught this… you’re supposed to don’t let the right hand now with the left… I can’t remember which hand goes first in that one, but all that. But there is a way in which we do have to show that our faith makes a difference in this world. And I’m going to give you an example. And I have used this example before on the air, but I’m going to share it with you. So there’s… in the 7, 11, right? And there’s a guy in line clearly homeless, who doesn’t have the money to cover what he needs to have. And so what do you do? You give the guy a few bucks, right? This woman behind me in line says something about karma and how that will come back around.

And I froze, I didn’t… and I see this as a major failure. What I should have said to that woman is Jesus Christ gave me everything. And he said, “Share a little bit with other people.” Something that put Jesus’s name at the center of this and not karma. She was a nice lady, she wasn’t trying to say anything bad, but I feel like we have to do both. We have to be charitable, but we got to make sure that people know that this is connected to Christ in our life.

Matt:
If you go back and read any of the great writers and thinkers about evangelization in the Catholic church. Go to that great encyclical by Saint Pope Paul the sixth evangelic [inaudible 00:16:36]. They emphasize the importance of words, you can’t evangelize without speaking to other people, rational creatures and language is the way that we connect with other rational creatures. But it’s not the only way because we’re also bodies. And so evangelization incorporates words. It incorporates actions, and then it incorporates spiritual acts like prayer. And when you’re put on the spot, like you were. I know I can relate, I’m sure everybody else is watching or listening to this can. It’s so easy after the fact to think, “Oh, I should have said this, or I should have done this.” But it’s one of the reasons why it’s handy to have these three step approaches memorized because sometimes in the moment you actually have a practical strategy to turn to.

Cy:
All right. So the first step being the reasonableness of the faith, the second step being, make the faith attractive, you got to remind me the third step.

Matt:
So third step is, prove that it’s true. So this would be the traditional apologetics stuff.

Cy:
Okay. So how does Geraldine do that?

Matt:
Well, I’ve already brought up St. Thomas Aquinas, who is obviously a favorite amongst most Catholics when it comes to a great and Holy intellectual mentor and model of ‘how do I do apologetics and to argue and defend for the faith’. I like to incorporate a three-step process from St. Thomas Aquinas with the three-step process from Blaise Pascal. So you might want to call this a Pascali into mystic approach or a PT approach.

Cy:
I do want to say that.

Matt:
The three…

Cy:
Yeah. I want to learn how to say that.

Matt:
All right. All right. So yeah, I had to practice many times before I got onto the camera here, but I got it right, thank God. The mystic aspect goes like this. So this is an extension of step number three. Prove that it’s true. Here’s how you do it. This is how St. Thomas Aquinas does it in the Summa theologiae. Step one, define your terms or your question. So if you don’t define your terms or your question that you’re trying to answer together, you’re just going to talk circles around each other. So that’s the first step, make sure you’re talking about the same thing and that if you’re using the same words that you mean the same thing. Number two, describe the opponent’s position or we might say steel man, the opponent’s position. A straw man is a philosophical term for creating an easy to take down argument that the other side is not actually arguing.

So it makes you look good when you take it down, but it’s not actually even what the other side is saying. That’s a straw man, a steel man, this is what St. Thomas Aquinas does. He describes rebuttals against his position. He describes arguments against this position in a really honest and compelling way. So much so that you think to yourself, “How’s he going to get out of this one?” But he does and what he does is then he goes to step three, which is defend your position. So again, it’s define your terms and your questions, describe the opponent’s position and defend your own position. Those are the three steps I would offer Geraldine.

Cy:
I have to say defining the thing sometimes solves the problem just there, because somebody… like here at Caltrans somebody will go, “Well, I just don’t understand why you Catholics reject science.” And then you’re like, “Wait a second back up. Let’s just define our terms here, because we don’t think we’re rejecting science. What are you trying to say by that?” So sometimes you don’t even have to get to step two.

Matt:
Exactly, exactly. And I think like, again, what we’re trying to do with all of these steps is to come up with something that is a dialogue, rather than a monologue or like debate in the confrontational sense of the term you want… and so when you’re defining the terms and you’re getting at, “What’s the question we’re trying to answer together.” Suddenly it becomes something more like a partnership. Many people would be familiar with that line from the prophet Isaiah, come let us reason together. It might be in the Psalms. I can’t remember now, it’s in the old Testament, I know that. But that’s what we’re doing, we’re creating a partnership or we’re making the other person, not our opponent so much. So it was like a fellow journeyer who we disagree with. And then we move into the disagreement part.

Cy:
Okay. All right. I think Geraldine has got to be happy with this. I think that you’ve done a great job addressing her question. Geraldine, you’ll have to send us an email and let us know, but I want to focus Geraldine’s question in a different direction real quick, because I know that many people… The most common prayer requests we get in Catholic radio everywhere is, “Please pray for my kids who have abandoned the faith or who don’t practice the faith,” so I always want to be as helpful as we can to parents who are in that situation. So let’s say you’re a parent and you have a kid says, “I know that religion stuff is really important to you and I don’t want to offend you, but it’s just not that important to me. And so I’m just letting the whole thing drop.” Okay. So maybe this is a kid college age or post-college age. What do you say to that parent? That strikes me as indifferentism, but how do you address it in that particular situation?

Matt:
Yeah, it’s interesting to reflect on that question and I’ve reflected on a lot because I was one of those kids. I went to college and fell away from the faith and I came back to the faith at 25 years old and I was resistant. Some of those years I was resistant to Christianity, not to mention Catholicism, but I think what I would say to parents is number one, get your spiritual life in order, make sure you’re praying every day. And get to know the Lord on a personal level and talk to him about the problems. Talk to them about… that’s classic command from St. Ambrose to St. Monica, like stop talking to Augustin so much about God and start talking to God more about Augustin. So I think that’s the first thing is, get your spiritual life in order.

Number two, learn the faith so that when the time comes to talk about what you believe that you’re going to be eloquent. You’re going to sound like you know what you’re talking about. I think that’s one of the biggest scandals in the world right now is that often Christians don’t really understand why they believe what they believe. And so when there’s suddenly held to count for the hope that is within them, as Saint Peter says, they find themselves stuck. And so there’s nothing compelling about that, and so we need to know our reasons and Catholic answers is, you guys are the leaders in getting people prepared to do that. So stay close to ministries like Catholic answers. The number three, don’t rush to words, be ready to defend your faith. But we’ve talked about ask good meaningful questions to the ones that have fallen away in your family and be prepared to listen for potentially a very long time before you begin to address where you disagree,

It could be not just one sit down in the living room. It could be not just two visits across the kitchen table. I have a brother right now who is not practicing the faith, and it’s been years of praying for him and looking for opportunities to speak to him about the faith. But I’m still in step one with him of Pascal’s strategies of just making Christianity a viable option to him again. So I can relate, but I think we just need to hear people out and not get defensive ourselves. So I hope that would help her.

Cy:
Well, I think you have been very, very helpful. Thanks, actually, I really appreciate it. Because I… when we got this question from Geraldine, we were like, okay, we know the guy to ask and all this apologetics that we do, if the door’s not opened by someone somewhere, it doesn’t do any good and I really appreciated Geraldine’s question. And I appreciate you, Matt Nelson, author of Just Whatever coming on and talking with us.

Matt:
Thanks for having me on.

Cy:
Thank you, Matt.

Matt:
It’s an important topic.

Cy:
It is indeed. Thanks for the book. Just whatever, Just Whatever: How to Help the Spiritually Indifferent Find Beliefs That Really Matter is Matt Nelson’s book. And he goes into much more detail about the things that we discussed in this episode. It’s especially for parents, I kind of feel, especially for parents. What about that kid who just says, “Ah, it’s not for me, your religion and your interest in religion. It’s just not for me.” Matt helps with that and with anyone else, maybe it’s just a Dutch person and you live in the Netherlands and you’re like, “How am I going to get this Dutch person interested in Jesus?” Well, now you know Geraldine, and now I know what to say to my 27 year old. Thanks to Matt Nelson. Hey, thanks for joining us. Just like Geraldine did. You’re welcome to send us an email, we’d love to get him to send it to [email protected]

Don’t forget wherever you listen to this podcast, whether it’s Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or anything, anywhere else, don’t forget to subscribe that way you get a notice when a new episode is out and please give us that five star review and maybe a little comment about what you get out of it. If you do that, that helps to grow this podcast. If you’re watching on YouTube right now and you like and subscribe somewhere down here, that way, then you’ll have to grow the podcast there on YouTube. I’m Cy your host. We’ll see you next time. God willing right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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