In my 10th grade history class, we spent a few class periods taking a quick look at some economic terms and principles: supply and demand, market price, Keynesian economics, supply-side economics, etc. One particularly helpful concept to which we were introduced was “inelastic demand.” The basic idea is that certain products are so essential to life that demand varies little to none when price fluctuates. The typical example we were given was that of oil. Regardless of whether oil costs $x/barrel or double that, Americans will not alter their patterns of consumption to the degree that they would were the price of a luxury item to double. Whatever the price, we still need to heat the house and get to and from work. There’s not much that we can do to get around it.
Now, while it is perhaps a bit indelicate to speak of the faith as a commodity subject to the laws of supply and demand, can we speak of demand for the faith, for a loving relationship with the living God, as inelastic and if so, what does this mean for Christian witness?
I propose that in one sense demand for the faith, for a loving relationship with the living God, is inelastic and in another sense it is not, and that by recognizing the difference, our potential for providing an authentic and attractive witness is greater.
So, first, our demand for the faith is inelastic in that it addresses the most fundamental of human needs, namely the need for purpose, for meaning, for truth, for love, for salvation. Faith addresses this need by putting men and women in touch with the source of these perfections. But—and here’s the catch—we know this to be the case by faith itself.
As a result, we find that many do not experience the demand for faith as inelastic. I claimed earlier that the faith and the relationship it mediates addresses the need that is most fundamental, but it’s often the case that we encounter people who simply do not concede this point.
If we were not to buy oil for a year and to suffer the freezing and immobile consequences, the connection between cause (no oil) and effect (no heat and no transportation) would be clear. However, when deprived of purpose, meaning, truth, love, and salvation, the connection between cause and effect is simply not as clear. Such is the dilemma when dealing with an invisible God. The connection between our fundamental need and God must be revealed to us in order for us to connect the dots. And so the demand for faith is experienced by many as elastic. Man may feel that he can do without the faith at most times while perhaps dabbling in it to make for a nice wedding ceremony or a fitting funeral.
What then does this mean for the Christian witness who knows both (1) that everyone does need the faith and (2) that this fact is not immediately apparent unless it’s revealed? I propose that we proceed with the confidence afforded by the first realization (that all need the faith) and a sensitivity to the second (that not everyone realizes it). Without the first, we might be tempted to relativize (“You don’t have Jesus . . . that’s okay so long as yoga gives you some elevated spiritual experience!”), and without the second we might be tempted to be triumphalistic in our witness (I’ve got something that you need to be happy, and you don’t even realize it, silly!”).
To achieve this, here are two practical points:
- As Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P. is wont to say, “The most boring thing is an answer to a question that hasn’t been asked.” The Christian witness cannot degenerate into simply telling people that Christ is the answer to all their problems. The evangelizer must help to lead the evangelized through the process of discovery. As one friar always asked me over the summer, “Are you addressing a felt need?” The Christian witness is far more likely to be efficacious if addressed to a question that has been provoked in the heart of the one to whom it is addressed.
- In whatever way we are called to participate in the New Evangelization, we contribute best by continually seeking conversion. We see in Pope Benedict’s preaching and writing an insistence on witness. Christians are not primarily “heralds of an idea, but witnesses of a person,” and by continual conversion and the consequent close adherence to Christ, our witness is made ever more luminous and attractive. The witness makes visible the fact that the one without God is worse off than the one sitting in a freezing house or stalled out car.
So, objectively, demand for the faith is inelastic, though it is often not experienced as such. As a result, this demand must first be provoked by the living testimony of witnesses transformed by the Lord whom they’ve learned to prefer to every other commodity.
Image: Francesco Ballesio, At the Bazaar