Faith and Encounter
I've been on an almost two-month hiatus from the series on "Inviting the Act of Faith" that I started back in December. Now that I am returning to it, this seems like an appropriate time to turn away from the more speculative angles and start driving towards practical application. In the time since my last post in this series, the theme of "encounter" has been popping up in my reading and in my life. I recently discussed a quotation from Pope Benedict's Deus Caritas Est which states, "Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction."
This same line was quoted by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium, wherein he states that "these words of Benedict XVI...take us to the very heart of the Gospel" (7). To rephrase then, the very heart of the Gospel involves an encounter, an encounter which gives life a decisive direction.
This act of faith that I have been discussing, then, must be related somehow to the encounter that Benedict and Francis are describing.
FAITH IS A RESPONSE TO AN ENCOUNTER
The act of faith we are talking about is a personal adherence to Jesus Christ. It is an explicit decision to base one's hope of salvation in the grace merited by Jesus's death and resurrection. Faith receives the gift of salvation, the gift of justification.
How does one come to the point of a personal adherence to Jesus Christ? Pope John Paul II defined the kerygmatic component of evangelization as "the initial ardent proclamation by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith" (Catechesi Tradendae 25). Notice what JPII is saying here - to do kerygma right means that "the decision to entrust [oneself] to Jesus Christ by faith" follows upon an experience, an encounter.
This encounter-leading-to-faith dynamic is everywhere in Scripture. It is the miraculous haul of fish that leads Peter to exclaim, "Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man." The woman at the well says, "Come and see this man who told me everything about myself!" It is Paul's encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus that gives his life "a new horizon and decisive direction."
ENCOUNTER IN THE THRESHOLDS OF CONVERSION
Encounter, then, needs to be carefully considered in the process of evangelization. Benedict says that encounter is indispensable to "being Christian." If we are inviting someone to make an act of faith, then, we must first ask whether they have encountered Christ. And if not, then we ought to consider how we can provide opportunities for this encounter to occur.
I'd like to suggest that there are different kinds of encounters and that there are different responses appropriate to each, culminating, so to speak, in the encounter "by which a person is one day overwhelmed and brought to the decision to entrust himself to Jesus Christ by faith." Let's take a look at what the role of encounter might look like in the various thresholds of conversion described in Sherry Weddell's Forming Intentional Disciples.
- Trust - Here, encounter often looks like the leaven described by Jesus in Matthew 13: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened." When the kingdom is active in a Christian's life and producing its intended fruits - most notably joy - this will "leaven" the environment a Christian inhabits. The non-believer encounters Christ hidden in you, and will perhaps not identify much more than, "I like being around this person."
- Curiosity - As curiosity grows, "I like being around this person," starts turning into, "Why do I like being around this person?" They will wonder what makes you different, what is the secret to the way you live. This is an opportunity to "pull back the veil" just a little bit on your own experience of encounter, to give them a glimpse of the inner workings of your spiritual life. This helps to introduce the notion of encounter as a mental category to those who often have thoroughly secular worldviews.
- Openness - In this stage, an encounter with God often looks like gentle nudges and proddings. Thus, you may invite someone in the openness stage to consider their experience through the lens of encounter. For instance, you might ask, "Have you ever considered that this desire you have for 'something more' might be God trying to get your attention?" Non-confrontational questions like this help to further open them up to the possibility of Christian faith.
- Seeking - Once someone reaches the seeking phase, it can be tempting to usher them too quickly into embracing faith. But the reality is that to reach authentic faith, an encounter like the ones that JPII, Benedict, and Francis describe is still necessary. While encouraging them to use natural means like learning more about Christian teachings and beliefs, it's also important to explain to them that faith comes via encounter in some form. God will provide the interior conviction needed for them to take the plunge, but they can invite God to do that work of grace in them.
- Intentional Discipleship - Even those who have been "overwhelmed" by an encounter with Christ normally need to have the call to intentional discipleship explained to them. They need to know what that Christ is calling them to a "decisive direction" in life that necessarily means leaving behind the old ways of the "old self" (Eph 4:22).
These are but examples of what encounter may look like within the various thresholds, but of course the particular means of encounter that God uses will vary significantly from person to person. The more we learn to identify and interpret authentic encounters with God in people's lives, even in small ways, the better we will be able to invite them to take the next step towards faith and an intentional commitment to Christian discipleship.
A final example of the interplay between faith and encounter can be seen in the story of Jacob. Leading up to Genesis 28:10, Jacob had just cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and literally had to flee for his life as a result. In other words, Jacob had just made a mess of things and was probably thinking that having to run for his life was his deserved punishment from God.
Instead, God spoke to him in a dream with encouragement and promised to be with him wherever he went. In response, Jacob says, “If God will be with me and protect me on this journey I am making and give me food to eat and clothes to wear, and I come back safely to my father’s house, the LORD will be my God." Jacob's encounter with God raised in him the possibility that he would make God - the God of Abraham and Isaac - his God, that he would commit the entirety of his life to this God who has spoken to him in such a personal way.
This post is the fourth in a series on “Inviting the Act of Faith.” The full series can be accessed below:
- Part One: Inviting the Act of Faith: Introduction
- Part Two: Faith, the Pledge of Salvation
- Part Three: Once Saved, Always Saved?
- Part Four: Faith and Encounter
- Part Five: Going “All In” with God
- Part Six: What Does Rescue Look Like?
- Part Seven: A Major Lacuna in Catholic Ministry
- Part Eight: Practical Ways to Invite Faith