Surveys over the past several years have noted a gradual decline in individuals belonging to organized religion and conversely an increase in the numbers of individuals who self-identify as “nones”. Recent surveys have attempted to get at the reasons why “nones” identify themselves as such. The reasons stated suggest a picture of where we need to focus on our attempts to promote the gospel to these groups.
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, Which we have heard and known, And our fathers have told us. We will not conceal them from their children, But tell to tell generation to come the praises of the LORD, And His strength and His wondrous works that He has done (Psalm 78:2-4).
Reasons for Being a “None”
A major conclusion from the surveys is that the “nones” are not monolithic and can be broken down into atheists, agnostics and those who identify as “nothing in particular”. Even though they may have different perspectives, the majority reason given for not belonging to a religion or church is not believing in and/or questioning religious teachings. When the surveys looked specifically at those who left their faith the major reason given was also because they didn’t believe in religious teaching anymore.
The surveys sample people from all kinds of religious and non-religious backgrounds so it doesn’t specifically address Catholic beliefs yet the trend is relevant. The lack of or the loss of belief is the single major reason given for not considering religion or for leaving a faith. In a related manner, Bishop Robert Barron notes that in his communications with skeptical young adults the number one question he gets is about proving God’s existence – a basic question of faith.
The Need for the “Big Picture”
Volumes have been written on various approaches to deal with so-called “nones” but addressing the lack of or loss of belief eventually has to be addressed. In personal conversations as well as the experience of teaching in RCIA and in other parish ministries aimed at existing Church members has also reinforced for me that lack of belief is a core factor that serves as a roadblock to accepting the gospel. While there are many approaches to try and overcome that roadblock, I have found that raising questions about what an individual sees as “the Big Picture” can open the door for discussion. The “Big Picture” is a term I learned from the military. Commanders would give us what they would call “The Big Picture” as the briefing before going on a mission or deployment. It involved giving the details on what was the essence of the mission, why it was an objective and how to go about accomplishing that mission. As a result, everybody would be on the “same page” and hopefully all had a belief in the mission.
In terms of our faith, I have found that many including myself at times struggle to see the Big Picture, Where do all the Bible stories fit in? Where do all the Church doctrines fit in? Why do we believe certain dogmas and tenants of the faith? To answer those kinds of questions requires having a context for understanding it all. I discovered that a historical context that provides what could be called the Christian storyline can offer such a framework. Christianity is a religion based upon history with real people and events with a “storyline”. It’s not a made-up faith with magic or mythical people and events. Consequently, it has a foundation, in reality, to answer such basic questions as “What to believe?” The source of that storyline is Holy Tradition and Sacred Scripture.
The Christian Storyline as the Big Picture
Cardinal John Henry Newman (now a saint) had a famous quote that “to understand history is to cease being Protestant”. History can be a valuable tool to present a context to discuss belief. There are many kinds of history to include natural, political and social histories. From a faith perspective, Jeff Cavens and Scott Hahn put together a Bible study program several years ago called “Our Fathers Plan” that provides a framework for what they called covenant and salvation history. That basic framework can be further conceptualized into a five-phase view of a historical storyline for Christian belief.
The Covenant and Salvation History Storyline
While history can be divided up a number of ways the five-phases reflect the key periods of that covenant and salvation history from the beginning of creation. There is much that can be explored within the five-phases that go way beyond this short essay, consequently, only a short synopsis is provided.
Phase 1 – Creation
God made a perfect world that had order and harmony. We (mankind) were in perfect communion (connection) with God.
Phase 2 – Sin and rupture
Sin entered the world through Adam’s actions and that of his heirs. As a consequence, we (mankind) became disconnected from our perfect relationship with God. That rupture and loss of connection has led to further sin and ruptures.
Phase 3 – The Covenant revealed, broken and renewed
God is a “second chance” God. He revealed and established “covenants” with mankind through the people of Israel. The covenant terms were that his “people” were to love and accept God as the one true God and follow his commandments (the Law, including animal sacrifices to atone for sins). He will, in turn, bless and provide graces to his people with the land and the expectation that he will send a Messiah that will bring his people back to full communion (connection) to God. In essence, this reconnection/communion is one aspect of “salvation”.
Phase 4 – The Old Covenant fulfilled and the New Covenant established
Jesus, through His incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension was the Messiah (Christ) who fulfilled the old covenant promises. Jesus serves as the final and pure sacrifice for the atonement of all of mankind sins. The old covenant sacrifices are no longer needed to atone for sins. Jesus, in turn, created a new covenant between those who believe in him and follow his commandments (love God and neighbor to build the Kingdom of God) and himself as the vehicle for the ultimate reconnection with God.
Phase 5 – The New Covenant applied through the Church
Jesus established the Church as part of the new covenant to provide the vehicle to build the Kingdom of God here on earth during our earthly journey. He charged his Apostles, through the Church, to evangelize and bring the gospel to the whole world. In turn, the Church expanded throughout the world with us humans serving as the “arms and legs” of Christ to do his will as the earthly “Body of Christ”. We are currently living in this fifth phase.
Using the Christian Storyline
In many respects, that historical storyline can be used to discuss a multitude of faith issues to include the nature of God, our relationship to him, salvation etc. In can provide an overlay for exploring the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) and the nature of Church doctrines and dogma – the many things that the “nones” do not accept. Finally, it can help provide the context for the variety of Why? questions that can get asked.
Using this historical framework is certainly no guarantee that “nones” will embrace the faith. All it provides is an aid and process for raising questions and then providing a context for discussion and answering those questions. Hopefully, within this framework “nones” can become more receptive to hearing the gospel, especially within the context of the faith and the Church.
For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4).