Posted by Ian Linden on Mon, 02/07/2012 - 4:48pm
Posted on the Tony Blair Foundation Site for interfaithism
Proselytism is one of the neuralgic areas in relations between different faiths. It has certainly become one of the major secular objections to the practice of religion. But the reality is very often different from the assumptions and fears of those wishing to find a stick to beat the faith communities.
To begin with only a tiny proportion of people of faith are engaged in what is normally meant by proselytism: coercive or manipulative attempts to get people to join their faith community and adopt their set of beliefs and practises. The idea that faith communities see health care, education, or work with the poor as instruments of conversation, rather than integral aspects of a compassionate and engaged faith, is more widespread than it should be on the basis of evidence. When faith communities do actively undertake action aimed at increasing their numbers, there are a number of accepted guidelines on an ethical approach that does not intrude on cultural sensitivities, personal liberty or freedom of conscience.
It’s possible to see “Jesus saves” car stickers in 95% Muslim societies - alongiside surprise that this may be considered provocative. “There is no coercion in religion,” the Qur’an says – which does not mean that Muslims never coerce fellow citizens into adopting Islamic practices. But both Islam and Christianity ideally “invite” people to their faith (daw’a) and seek to convert by gentle argument or the witness of good works. “Preach the Gospel with all your heart, all your energy, all your intellect....and sometimes use words”, as St Francis didn’t say; though it speaks volumes that he is thought to have said something like this. And, of course, many faiths, such as Buddhism, are not actively missionary and attract followers by the force of their arguments and witness to the truth.
It is hardly news that each faith believes it is the best and generally the only right path, or at least paradigmatic of what faith should be. It goes without saying that this involves incompatible truth claims that can be troublesome if interpreted in exclusive and excluding ways. So it is not surprising that many faith communities have at the heart of their community life a core activity involved in spreading it or transmitting it to future generations, and that this can cause problems. Daw’a, evangelism, integral mission, evangelisation: the key words differ, but the principle is the same. How it is done is the key question.
It was partly with this question in mind that I attended an international theological conference “Vatican II, 50 years on: The New Evangelisation” at Leeds Trinity University College at the end of last month. How was the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, instructing 1.3 billion followers, intending to go about it? One of the problems that the Vatican faces is to address and direct global Catholicism when the circumstances and the socio-economic cultural and political forces are dramatically different in different parts of the world. The New Evangelisation turns out to be only new in the sense that it was particularly directed to Christians who, in the eyes of the Vatican, had been adversely affected by secularism and modernity. It was about turning “self-secularised” Catholics into better Catholics. This put Europe at the top of the target list.
So the Conference carried an important message to other faith communities that the target of this movement is not directed at converting people of other faiths to Christianity. Its intention is to get Catholics in the “secularised world” to live up to the promise of their faith. This focus carries the authority of Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella who leads the new consistory for the New Evangelisation, Fernando Cardinal Filoni who leads of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples (the old Propaganda Fide) and Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, all of whom spoke on this theme.
This does not mean that the evangelisation of peoples in the traditional sense of Christian missionary activity is eclipsed. Rev. Dr. Richard Baawobr, a Ghanaian Missionary of Africa and first assistant to the Superior General of the White Fathers in Rome, spoke eloquently of the changing role of his religious order in supporting the “young Churches” and in inter-religious dialogue. That the Second Vatican Council shifted the Catholic Church into dialogue mode was a second development frequently alluded to in the course of the Conference. A feature of the new global Catholicism, his is an approach to religious pluralism that I welcome wholeheartedly.
Ian Linden is the Director of Policy at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
It is easy to see how Roman Catholicism is indeed Mystery Babylon-Mother of Harlots!