Having just completed about thirty hours of oral examinations with approximately sixty students, I am tired. Yet, the process is always rewarding. What a joy to see how students are growing intellectually, emotionally and in every other way. And today, I also learn from an unexpected source that these examinations were also missional. “Huh,” you ask. Well, today the Vatican made public its “Doctrinal Note on some aspects of evangelization” prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. One doesn’t need to be Roman Catholic to appreciate parts of this document. It’s spot on in several important ways. First, it dismisses the weak argument “that any attempt to convince others on religious matters is a limitation of their freedom” and “that it is enough to invite people ‘to act according to their consciences,’ or to ‘become more human or more faithful to their own religion,’ or ‘to build communities which strive for justice, freedom, peace and solidarity,’ without aiming at their conversion to Christ….” Second, it rejects the false reasoning which says that “conversion to Christ should not be promoted because it is possible for people to be saved without explicit faith in Christ or formal incorporation in the Church.” This is good, solid theological stuff.
The document goes on to observe that “while some forms of agnosticism and relativism deny the human capacity for truth, in fact human freedom cannot be separated from its reference to truth.” Therefore, the “search for truth cannot be accomplished entirely on one’s own, but inevitably involves help from others and trust in knowledge that one receives from others. Thus, teaching and entering into dialogue to lead someone in freedom to know and to love Christ is not inappropriate encroachment on human freedom, ‘but rather a legitimate endeavor and a service capable of making human relationships more fruitful.'” Given that I have just spent many hours with students helping them come to truth, I have to agree whole-heartedly with this statement. Truth is powerful and transformative and should be handled rightly. As well, greater truth is always reached in community than on one’s own. This is certainly true of the Church’s creedal tradition–pastor/theologians meeting together produced the great creeds of Nicea, Constantinople and Chalcedon. Does that mean that truth can only be found in community? No, of course not. Individuals also come to truth. But working with others in community to come to truth is more difficult since it involves humility, patience and open-mindedness. These are the very qualities that I try to bring into my oral exams here in the Torrey Honors Institute and it is certainly the attitude that I expect (and demand) of my students.
So, instead of my exams being a mere requirement of my job, I should also see them as missional in as much as my students and I come to greater truth by talking together about great texts, especially the Bible. Further, every Christian has a role to play in the evangelization of the world–work with others to discern truth and then talk with others. Perhaps Francis of Assisi was slightly wrong when he said, “Preach the gospel always and, when necessary, use words.” I suggest that we preach the gospel always and, because of their power, use words that express truth.