To borrow from J.R.R. Tolkien, in the work of evangelization, there are numerous “paths to tread.”
Some individuals we hope to share the Gospel with might require a scientific explanation of certain phenomena before assenting to something in the Scriptures.
Others might wish to discuss politics and the common good before a discussion of Christian social ethics can even begin.
Still others might have serious training in philosophy or theology and seek out fisticuffs in the arena of epistemology.
To be a good evangelist requires a mental agility that is not limited to one or the other of the intellectual sciences. You can see that nimbleness at play if you watch Bishop Barron in his interviews with several non-Catholic or non-Christian figures. The ability to grasp and discuss characters as wide-ranging as Freud, Newton, Plato, Kant, Adam Smith, Chaucer, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, or Dante requires years of training and studying. However, those years produce a nimble mind that can be placed at the service of the Gospel in many ways.
As evangelists, how can we train ourselves to think philosophically, theologically, anthropologically, poetically, politically, and scientifically?
One essential resource I highly recommend for an evangelist is the Great Books of the Western World. The Great Books are a collection of works that have left a lasting impression on the world. If you look closely, you can see a beautiful set of the collection in the background of Bishop Barron’s latest YouTube videos. Whether in literature, science, philosophy, theology, law, or numerous other areas of thought, these works invite readers to join in the “Great Conversation.” I want to offer five brief reasons these books are essential reading for an evangelist in the modern world.
Partaking in the “Great Conversation” Makes You a Better Conversationalist and Listener
One of my professors, Dr. Robert Woods, gives an excellent example in his book on Mortimer Adler. Think here of the idea of truth. “Within the great books, dozens of authors, from Plato to Freud, wrote about the nature of truth. Philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, poets, social scientists, historians, and theologians joined the great conversation and weighed in on this important idea. When readers join the great conversation, they are able to ‘listen in.’ . . . Readers can also voice their own assent or dissent.” Socratic nimbleness in wrestling alongside an idea from numerous angles can help us think through these life-changing ideas. By reading the Great Books, you can talk about science with the scientist, politics with the politician, history with the historian, and literature with the bookish. A great conversationalist makes for a desired conversation.
To catch the numerous signs and symbols of God’s work in a person’s life, the evangelist needs a keen ear. She needs to be just as strong of a listener as a speaker. The Great Books require moments of prolonged, steady listening to another’s perspective, a key element in framing the Good News in such a way that the other will listen.
You Are Following the Example of Thomas Aquinas
Thomas Aquinas was a master of philosophical and theological argument. His strategy was often to explain the proposed thesis of another as best he can and then provide several routes to explain why he agrees or disagrees. The thinkers he wrestles with were often not always devout Christians, but he knew the arguments of Muslim, Jewish, and pagan philosophers from around the world. The Great Books are going to challenge you to think beyond your comfort zone. You will have to wrestle with ideas you agree wholeheartedly, as well as those with which you will ferociously disagree.
You Can Know the Sources
Any good conversation about culture, religion, politics, or any other subject ought to contain some sense of broad historical understanding. Think here of the modern notion of freedom. Have you ever wondered about the American idea of freedom? How similar or different is it from the Christian perspective? Where are the sources of the progressive ideas of liberty? Have you ever wanted to be able to speak on movies, books, or cultural occurrences in the same vein as Bishop Barron? Reading the Great Books provides the corpus for almost all primary philosophical, literary, and scientific sources of the Western world. To offer a serious reflection on current beliefs and be able to discuss them knowledgeably, I highly recommend reading the sources themselves.
Most of the Works Are Inexpensive
The physical hardback books can be slightly expensive, though I think well worth the investment. However, you can find a majority of the books in your local used bookstore or online. For five dollars, you can buy your own copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, five of the Platonic dialogues, or the complete works of Friedrich Nietzsche. You will get much more out of owning these books than the caffeine kick at Starbucks, as heavenly as that is. Make these books your own. Mark them up. Dog-ear pages. Come to know these thinkers inside and out.
The Books Change You
John of Salisbury makes the case that “the liberal arts are said to have become so efficacious among our ancestors, who studied them diligently, that they enabled them to comprehend everything they read, elevated their understanding to all things, and empowered them to cut through the knots of all problems possible of solution.” The more we read and understand the Great Conversation, the more agile and free we become to answer the Great Commission. Russell Kirk argued that the liberal arts help properly order a person’s soul. As you read the Great Books, both for your own liberation and your evangelical work, you place yourself among the minds of saints, sinners, and everything in between. You learn about humanity. You will learn things about yourself that you may never have known. You will come to a greater appreciation for the life of the mind and the liberating feeling of knowing.
Now, I know some might look at the expansiveness of the canon and be overwhelmed. My advice might be to choose one or two books based on the different areas you are interested in and give them a shot. Don’t worry about mastering the content. The simple acquaintance with the sources provides so much to broaden your mind and perspective. Mortimer Adler also provided a ten-year reading plan that can be found online. Don’t fret about the possibility of ten years! Stretch it to twenty. Take your time. Accompanied and led by the Scriptures, the Great Books will provide the language and intellectual capacity to meet people where they are.