John Boyd was a maverick US fighter pilot in the 1950’s. He challenged the established military orthodoxy in attempting to improve aircraft designs and maneuvering to keep up with the communist planes. At first, he was scoffed by his superiors but eventually his strategies help improve the vision of the US Air Force and produced superior fighter plans. Boyd saw a problem and instead of responding with the same predictable solution, he forced lackadaisical strategists to think differently which, in turn, produced great results.
Our situation today mirrors such a dilemma. The Church has been rapidly losing young adults. Yet, instead of sticking to the routine playbook, an alternative option is now emerging. First, let’s hone in on the problem.
A recent report from Barna research revealed that young people (age 18-29) have been leaving the church in drones for years. Within this age group, young men have been predominantly disappearing from the church. This hemorrhaging of young adults is exacerbated by the covid lockdown as it will likely “push larger numbers of young people to abandon Christianity or churchgoing altogether.” In short, the young people, especially men, in America have become disinterested, detached, and disillusioned about the faith.
The situation in America stands in stark contrast to Africa where the church has been rapidly growing. Far from being disinterested in the faith those in Africa are willing to die for their faith. In Nigeria alone, over 1,400 Christians were slain by Islamic extremists in the last four months yet church attendance in Africa continues to rise. Here, we are presented with a dramatically different picture. In Africa, people are dying for the faith while in America young adults are “dying” to get out of the faith. What explains this drastic contrast in these two places? As Fr. Ripperger alludes, young Americans typically interpret religion as a nuisance that diverts them from their pleasure-seeking aspirations while Africans view religion as embedded into the beating heart of one’s life.
Knowing this dark reality, we must ask, what will light a fire under young men to give them a sense of urgency and zeal? What will give them an identical experience of those in other countries that are willing to stake their entire life for their faith?
In an interview with renowned psychologist, Jordan B. Petersen, Bishop Robert Barron seemingly put the nail on the head. He was reflecting on the fact that young people were flocking to the writings of the contemporary atheists of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Pondering on this Barron commented, “Hitchens and Dawkins were good at evangelizing atheism to young people.” How did they do it? Barron goes on: “They were smart, they didn’t dumb it down, and they were passionately committed to it and young people were drawn to this.”
Over the last fifteen years, Barron routinely debunked atheist’s claims online and mentioned, “Every day when I go on the internet I hear in the comment boxes the phraseology of Hitchens, Dawkins, and Sam Harris.” It’s as almost if young people being enticed to atheism began to recite the atheist arguments verbatim. Then, Barron went on to boldly asses: “They didn’t hug them into atheism, they argued them into atheism. We have to stop trying to hug people back into the faith. We have to argue them back in the faith.”
The Catholic Church being gobbled up in the kumbaya era of the ’60s jettisoned the intelligent precision of the faith and began using the touchy-feely approach ever since. Rather than regurgitate the in-vogue phraseology of the 60’s Barron is asking us to harken back to that intellectual rigor of centuries past. Barron is very much offering a John Boyd vision in which we throw out the typical solution of providing the kids an emotional message, and instead give them the very thing that attracted them to atheists – by challenging them with intellectual argumentation. Now, the arguing Barron is suggesting is not the modern version that invokes a mud-flinging session of name-calling and emotional outbursts akin to a teenage temper tantrum. Rather, Barron is resuscitating the classical form of argument – the art of intellectual debate. Here, one uses reason, logic, and evidence to persuade another of a proposed truth claim.
Those ensconced in teaching boys know that emotional platitudes serve as patronizing triviality to boys. Research reveals boys overwhelming lean more towards rational thinking than emotional thinking. As a brain study on gender asserts, “Women’s greater inter-hemispheric connectivity implied that their thought process was more integrative of emotion, whereas the structural independence of men’s hemispheres produced a compartmentalization of emotional and increased rational thought.” In short, men want to be challenged intellectually to understand a phenomenon whereas woman want an emotional appeal to connect with a phenomenon
Jordan Peterson can attest that young men won’t be persuaded with vague, emotionally charged platitudes. They want concrete logically sound reasons to believe a truth claim. If your persuasion to men is drenched primarily with warm-fuzzy hugs, he’ll instinctively know that you lack any solid reasons for him to believe what you’re telling him. In this sense, he’ll view that the “hugs” serve to cover the fact that there is no good reason to stake his entire life on your faith. Therefore, they’ll treat the faith as benign and of little interest. If you want young men to take your claims seriously, rather than using emotional messages, you need to present sound intellectually challenging principles that will move them to act – and to embrace their responsibility in the faith.
Peterson teaches how the most profound thing in life is the truth. The truth acts as a springboard that beckons man into a response of action. As Jesus alludes to in the parable of the sower – emotional appeals while flashy, tend to fall short of authentic understanding. Moreover, psychology has shown that emotions cloud human reasoning. Because of human fallenness, living off unchecked emotions one becomes drunk on his erratic passions while logic offers intellectual sobriety for one to ascend to the truth.
Therefore, no matter how much you hype it up – hugs and an emotional sentimentality will not convince a young man of a truth claim. However, a rational encounter will prompt them closer to the truth and, in turn, incite them into taking the faith more seriously. So, let’s use the same manner to get back our young people.
One such great thinker that challenges the modern status quo on evangelization is Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas’s writings far-from being drenched in a flurry of emotive responses were logical and straight-to-the-point much like Mark’s Gospel. Even secular sources praise Aquinas as an “immensely influential philosopher.” Aquinas offers us smart, candid reasons to believe in the existence of God. Aquinas famously penned his “Five Ways” for God’s existence. These reasons serve as an arrow that upends the atheist argument while simultaneously provoking the person to plunge into the faith.
Aquinas first defined God as the ultimate truth, ultimate goodness, and beauty. Here, Aquinas asserted that God is not the greatest good in the universe. Rather, God is goodness itself. Aquinas articulates that God is not one cause among many other causes. God is not one being in the universe. God is not simply the highest being, rather God is the sheer act to be itself. Aquinas’s notion is drawing off God’s announcement to Moses of “I am Who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Notice God is communicating that he is not a being within the structure of the universe, but that God is being itself when he identifies his essence as “I am.”
Once we begin to grasp the attributes of God, then Aquinas’s arguments become clear. One such argument is called the Contingency Argument. The word “contingency” means that something is not self-explanatory. That is, they don’t contain within themselves the reason for the existence.
By identifying as “I am” we get a glimpse into the logic of God. With the “I am” pronouncement, God is communicating that his existence is not dependent on other realities. This fact reveals Aquinas’s insight in that because there are contingent beings, there must be a non-contingent being, namely God. Aquinas’s case for contingency goes as follows:
We are contingent beings. Why? Because we are breathing, eating, and drinking. In other words, our being is not self-explanatory. It comes from other causes. If this is the case we have to look to an extrinsic cause that explains our existence. This outside cause would inevitably be our ancestors. Now suppose the extrinsic causes are themselves contingent – they too come from other causes. Then, we have to look further back as our ancestors were conditioned by things outside of themselves. This process of appealing to contingent causes cannot go on indefinitely. The buck needs to stop somewhere. Why? Because if it does not explain ultimate cause, I’ve explained nothing at all. I’ve simply infinitely postponed the explanation. This process must end in some reality that is not contingent – whose very nature is “to be.” Here, is Aquinas’s point on God as “being itself.” Therefore, God is not some cause among many causes as this or that element in a large mechanism of science. God is the answer to why science works to explain reality. God is the answer to those pressing questions such as why is there something rather than nothing? Why should there be a universe at all? What finally explains contingent reality?
Skeptics typically attempt to insert some materialistic explanation for reality. They’ll say that the ultimate cause is a sub-atomic energy field or particle. But, this response falls into a contingent trap because matter is contingent. Matter is in one state rather than the other state by its very nature. Matter can be here or there, but not there, it can be this color, not that color. In other words, matter can be in one condition rather than another condition. Matter and energy are characterized by the fact that it can be in a different state. If it can be in a different state, it is contingent on something else and it does not explain itself.
If matter has the potential (potency) it is contingent on outside things. It is in one particular material configuration. For example, a book can be on my shelf or on my desk. If it is on my shelf it has the potency to be on my desk. But to go from my shelf to my desk I have to move it with my hand. Therefore, the book is contingent on me (and many other things) to be in different places and to cover space. The book can also be in different forms – it can be electronic, hard copy, it can be torn apart, or exist in ashes. The point is we have to use outside things to explain why the book is in certain places and in certain configurations. What is true of a book is also true of energy. Energy is in some state of configuration as it could be in another. So, I have to invoke an extrinsic cause to explain its current state. With all of space, time, matter, and energy I have to appeal to extrinsic causes to explain its current state.
Being presented as “I am” Aquinas articulates that God has no limits on a particular configuration. In defining God as being itself Aquinas illuminates how God isn’t bound by space, therefore he is everywhere. In short, God’s “I am” announcement shows that God contains within his nature the reason for his existence – no other causes for his nature is needed.
Desperate to show that God is contingent to something, the skeptic interjects at this point to object: “But God can go from potency to action.” So, there…says the atheist.
Aquinas anticipates the objection. God’s “I am” statement reveals that God is not in a state of potency or transition. Rather, “I am” expresses that God is in a state of sheer act. Aquinas unpacks this notion in his argument from motion. The word motion comes from the Latin word “motus” which means to change. Things grow from young to old. One goes from no knowledge to more knowledge. Motion or change means the transition from potential reality to actual reality. Nothing can move itself. My book needs someone to move it from the shelf to the desk. Think also of someone learning math. He doesn’t know math, yet has the potential and is undergoing the transition from no knowledge to more knowledge. The cause of motion is an act. The one who is teaching math must know it and then move the student to actualization. What follows is no one can be mover and move at the same time. You can’t strictly speaking teach yourself math. If you read a book on math, the person that wrote the book is teaching you math. There is no self-moved reality. For example, a book is moved by me. I’m being moved by muscles in my arms, simulating nerves which are grounded in the brain. If that which is causing the motion is itself coming into motion by something outside itself, that other thing must come to be from motion. The process of motion from one state to the next can’t go on indefinitely because if I suppress the first element in that chain there is no subsequent chain of movers. If there is no unmoved mover, there is no motion of movers. But, the motion can be seen, therefore, there has to be some first element – a first unmoved mover, a first unenergized energizer that exists without change or potency.
How does God fit this category of an unmoved mover? An unmoved mover has no restrictions on movement or change in him. Throughout the Biblical narrative, the prophets expressed how God doesn’t change yet exist in a “steadfast” manner. As the prophet Malachi asserted, “For I am the LORD, I change not” (Malachi 3:6) and Isaiah announced, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God shall stand forever” (Isaiah 40:8, see also Isiah 40:28, Hebrews 13:8, Psalm 90:2, 102:25-27, 119:89). Here, the Biblical authors express how God as the unchanged mover sets in motion all movement in creation.
Therefore, God as the unchanged being explains the change taking place in the universe. In logic, the sufficient explanation for this unchanged change is pure act itself. The unmoved mover must exist as the act to move itself.
In the words of St. Thomas, God is the primary cause of all that exists, and his creation is full of secondary causes that are at work every day — much like gravity. God as the first cause and gravity as a secondary cause do not compete with each other in creation much like Henry Ford didn’t compete with the law of internal combustion in creating the motor vehicle. What transpires is that in the law of gravity we get a small glimpse into God’s mind for the secondary cause leads us to the primary cause. In fact, the laws embedded in nature provoke us to ask, why does the math in our minds match-up with and express itself within the universe? This question was not lost on scientists like Albert Einstein, who once remarked: “The most incomprehensible thing about the world to me is the fact that it is comprehensible.” Again, St. Thomas comes to our help here. God best explains why the universe follows mathematical laws and rationality because the laws serve as a reflection into God’s rational mind. All things were made by God through the principle of order and rationality. In his Gospel, St. John emphasized this point when he used the Greek term “logos” to personalize the Greek view of the logic, and rationality of the universe. Our English translations say, “In the beginning was the Word [Logos]” (John 1:1) yet John insinuates that God as the “Word” is the highest wisdom and logic.
These instances of intellectual nuggets that Aquinas offers us serve as a challenge to young men to take a deeper look into the faith. Yes, the intellect is not the only part of the faith, yet it offers boys the entry point they need to connect all three facets together. As Jesus taught, “Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul” (Matthew 22:37). For boys, start with the mind, then the heart and soul will follow.
As Bishop Barron suggests, we don’t need to sugar-coat the faith with ambiguous, expressively enticed cliches. Let us by-pass the animated sales pitch of the youth minister, “You like sports bro, why not get on Jesus’s team then?” Such a cheesy line will not resonate with your average young man. Peterson and Barron agree that a robust intellectual appeal will confront men in a way that calls them to action and responsibility.
Men like transparency. Give it to them straight. Challenge them with Aquinas’s arguments and the many other reasons on God’s existence. Challenge them with the evidence that Jesus is God in human form. He rose from the dead. Let them know that history attests that the Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ. The Catholic faith has the complete truth. She has the best reasons to believe for she is steeped in the sacraments, the saints, and a rich history of intellectual rigor from some of the greatest thinkers in the world. Give them the evidence of the Marian apparitions at Fatima, Lourdes, Gaudalupe, the Eucharistic miracles, the Shroud of Turin, etc. Let them know it’s all legit – that it all checks out. Once we present the faith to them this way, they’ll take it seriously.
Jesus emphasized that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). The road to the truth is paved with an intellectual joisting of ideas that one has to inevitably engage in. Young men are built for this arena. They are likely leaving the faith because it hasn’t challenged their rational nature. Let us return to the classical approach to get them back.