CONVERSION BY THE WORD
March 31, 2008
There recently was a story about a German Jewish leader, Charlotte Knobloch, who criticized Pope Benedict XVI for allowing a traditional Easter prayer that calls for the conversion of the Jewish people. Her reaction raises an interesting issue, as praying for conversion isn’t unique to Catholics any more than taking offense to it is unique to Jews. And to start this topic off, I’d like to pose a question: Who do you think would be more likely to take umbrage at being the object of such a supplication, a person of deep belief or one of the superficial variety?
Well, here is a little anecdote. I’m a man who takes his faith very seriously; I believe it is the Truth and that God should be at the center of one’s life. I also know a man who is Jewish and believes just the same. He is orthodox, praying at the appointed times every day – regardless of the situation – and abiding by every one of the 613 Judaic laws that pertain to his life. He is a very saintly, gentle man. And he also has expressed that his faith – not mine, needless to say – is the true one. Now, if I found out that he had prayed for my conversion to what he considers a superior faith, should I be offended?
In fact, neither his perspective nor such a desire would bother me a whit. While this may strike a Richard Dawkins type as strange, understand my position vis-à-vis his attitude: I’d expect nothing less. And anything else would truly be less, as the only thing a belief in the equality of all faiths would tell me is that his faith was lacking.
Let us examine this logically. Why would I sacrifice for my faith, tolerate its demands to tame the flesh and govern my life with its teachings if I didn’t believe it was the Truth (with a capital “T”)? If I subscribed to the fiction of religious equivalence (a relativistic idea) – if I, in other words, believed it was just a matter of taste as with ice cream – why would I choose a cross? I’d be a hedonist.
Now we move to the next step. If I believed something was the Truth – that divine quantity that frees souls, dispels falsehoods, thwarts evil designs and brings happiness – why would I not want my fellow man to benefit from it? Thus, why would it surprise anyone if I prayed for his conversion?
So understand that when others pray for our conversion it is often an outgrowth of love, a function of that common human desire to have others enjoy what we believe is beneficial. In fact, what should give us pause for thought is when such people would not thus pray. After all, what do we usually think of those who possess something they consider great and don’t want to share it?
Such a desire also is not usual. Imagine you knew of a health regimen that yielded weight loss without hunger pangs, vibrancy and longer life. Wouldn’t you want to spread the word? Might you not passionately say, “Hey, you just have to try this; it’ll make you a new man!”?
In reality, whether religious or not, most people seek converts all the time. Political parties and groups spend time and treasure trying to convert us to their ideology; self-help gurus and instructors of all stripes peddle their techniques, theories or methods; and businesses try to sell us on the superiority of what they offer. Whatever the case, the message is the same: Believe what we say, follow our prescription, because what we provide is the best and will improve your life. It is proselytization.
Thus, if people would feel zealous about sharing a health regimen, why would we expect any less with respect to what they believe heals not just the body, but the soul? Sure, we may demand they not beat us over the head; we may demand they be civil. But it’s unreasonable to expect that their natural desire to share will be left at the door of the worldly realm.
I, of course, have had experiences with those who tried to convert me. I’ve sometimes registered a Mona Lisa smile, or thought, “They don’t know me very well,” but I’ve never gotten upset. Would I be offended if I learned they had prayed for such a change? Of course not. Truth be known, unless we’ve raised someone’s ire and he is relishing some fantasy involving our demise, most people don’t pay us much mind at all. Thus, if I knew someone had actually taken the time to pray that I should receive what he views as the greatest gift in the Universe, I’d be touched that he cared. That is love.
I would be remiss if I didn’t treat an important related matter. In our secular age, many have been conditioned to fear talk of religious conversion; it conjures up images of invading hordes or the Islamists’ sword. In fact, if we believe the Christopher Hitchenses of the world, such religious ambitions are responsible for most of the evil throughout history (of course, what eludes them is that if there is no God, there can be no “evil,” only personal or collective dislikes). This is nonsense.
Religious belief is not a prerequisite for a desire to force your ways on others, only belief. Imposition of will doesn’t require that it be God’s, only that it be a will. Mao Tse-tung, who could not be confused with a prelate, was fond of saying that “Power comes from the barrel of a gun.” And he and his fellow travelers practiced what they preached, fomenting unrest, launching military campaigns, instituting “re-education camps” to cure “heretics” and, ultimately, murdering 100 million people during the 20th century. Their devotion to their godless creed was thorough, and they would stop at nothing to make the world thoroughly godless. If it makes you feel any better, however, they never prayed for anyone’s conversion. Communist leaders wanted everyone to pray to them.
Then there is the fear expressed by Charlotte Knobloch, that, to put it in general terms, implying that a group’s characteristic beliefs are lacking could provoke persecution. While it certainly could, a little more philosophical understanding is in order.
First, again note that this danger isn’t unique to the “religious” realm. I mentioned the communists’ re-education camps and their penchant for killing dissenters, but they singled out groups on other bases as well. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia persecuted people with eyeglasses and Joseph Stalin murdered great numbers of Jews. Then there is the Nazi Holocaust. And, on a smaller scale, I recently read a story about a man who killed another during a political argument.
In light of this, would we say that people shouldn’t proclaim or even imply that one ideology, or even idea, is better than another? Not only is this impossible, but it would squelch the search for Truth. You see, this world poses many questions, and many claim to have the answers – thereby imputing superiority to their ideas – and guess what? Some of them must be correct. And we will only find out who they are when they can air their beliefs and we can scrutinize them.
Besides, as age-old ethnic battles prove, an easily identifiable set of beliefs is unnecessary for persecution. Whether it’s the slaughter of the Tutsis in Ruanda, the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, the Armenian genocide or the recent strife in Kenya, man has never needed dogma to justify destruction. But something else is also true: He does need dogma to forestall it.
This brings us back to the kind of people who are offended by religious proselytization. What do you suppose is their nature? Sure, some are callow religionists whose grasp of faith is superficial and who react like children, but, relatively speaking, that isn’t common in the West. No, the typical person of this persuasion is very different. He extols a certain unwritten secular code of decency, one that goes something like this:
“I won’t say my beliefs are superior to yours if you don’t say yours are superior to mine, deal? After all, if we will just agree with the opinion that Truth doesn’t exist and that truth is opinion – that it’s all relative – we will get along. We shall just say that all perspectives are equal and live happily ever after.”
Consequently, while religionists might expect a person of faith to believe that he grasps a Truth they don’t, the secularist in question views such a belief as the most offensive impertinence, a violation of the rules of civilized society.
There is an obvious contradiction here, in that if all ideas are equal, a position of religious equivalence cannot be superior to one of religious chauvinism. Thus, secularists’ call to the former not only renders them guilty of the very arrogance of belief they accuse religionists of, it is also illogical. Even more to the point here, it is dangerous.
If people en masse were to answer this call and descend into the confusion of moral relativism, they certainly would have no perceived divine command to do evil. They also would have no reason not to. Logically, they could not launch wars, persecute infidels, or root out heretics in the name of God, but they also could not logically say that doing those things is wrong, not for that reason, a different one, or no reason. Logically, it wouldn’t be wrong to be illogical.
Of course, there is every reason to fear misconceptions about the Truth. It poses a grave danger when people believe they have been enjoined to spread their beliefs by the sword, for instance. Yet, whatever a religionist’s moral compass, it exists. He may violate his fellow man insofar as he has fallen victim to misconceptions, but he will seldom be as dangerous as one who, at bottom, cannot believe in misconceptions or correct conceptions, but only perception. As serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer told his parents as a teen, “If there’s no God, why can’t I make up my own rules?” Dogma isn’t an impediment to peaceful coexistence, but a prerequisite for it. That is, the correct dogma.
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So we have nothing to fear from those who pray for our conversion. For one thing, I tend to think the people who are praying for you are not those praying against you or who would prey on you. Second, if they are wrong and you know the Truth, God won’t try to change your heart. If your conception Truth is flawed, then their prayers are in order. And if you think them impertinent because you don’t believe in Truth, perhaps you might ponder a pearl of wisdom from G.K. Chesterton:
“They call a man a bigot or a slave of dogma, who is a thinker, and has thought thoroughly and to a definite end.”
© 2008 Selwyn Duke - All Rights Reserve