Proselytizing and the Character of History

El Ick’s blog recently had quite an interesting conversation about differences between proselytizing (a word for which I always need spell check) and conversation, and rather than write long paragraphs  in his comments bar, I figured I’d write this here and then link back.  So now that I’ve linked back, I should write those paragraphs.

The bit that most intrigued me as we proceeded was in El Ick’s 7 December comment:

I think of “proselytizing” as an act of persuasion. In midst of conversation, one participant implies–brazenly or subtly–the superiority of his/her position over that of the other participant(s). In doing so, this changes the interaction from discourse to debate. I prefer not to debate matters of faith, but I’ll discuss them all day.

As you can read in what followed, my initial question was whether anyone holds any position without thinking it’s the best one.  If one thought that another position were better, the honest next move would be to switch one’s position.  And after that, the Icky one conceded that a stance that positions others–situates them in such a way that “I’m not committed to any of them, and I’m content just so” is an intelligible option–itself stands as an option rather than a non-option.  (I’ll resist quoting the Rush song.)

I almost wish that I could have a log of the revisions that this post has gone through, because it might serve as a parable about the difficulties of this situation.  At first, I wanted to say that being not-sure was only an intelligible option in certain metanarratives, but then I realized that the word “sure” is itself freighted with certain assumptions about what’s at stake when two people talk about God.  To say that one is “not sure” or “agnostic” presumes that Christianity’s main aim is to inspire verbal/mental assent, that “to believe” is not the pledge of allegiance that the Greek pisteuein is in Josephus’s and John’s texts but rather something closer to what one does when one does not have “ocular proof.”  (I just had to sneak Shakespeare in there.)  The way that eventually I phrased it is closer, though “commitment” has become such a staple in chick-flick lexica that I’m not sure it does the work I’m looking for either.

The point I’m trying to get to is that, as I said in a comment there, human history (at least that part of history that happened between Japan and Ireland) makes little sense if one does not acknowledge the historical phenomenon of religious conversion: in fact, some of the most interesting and under-studied Christian history happens precisely where Christian missionaries meet up with Buddhist missionaries in Confucian China.  Archaeology has revealed that each tradition’s monasteries held the other in some degree of respect even as they preached very different messages to the people, and the ruins of each tradition’s libraries have copies of the other’s holy writings.  (I was a research assistant to a Church historian interested in those moments, in case anyone wondered.)

The fact is that by means fair and foul, by proclamation and education and intimidation and reorientation and all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly things, people historically have stopped being Zeus-worshippers and become Jewish proselytes, ceased their Arabian polytheism and become Muslims; and renounced the things that Gautama renounced to become Buddhists, and people who convert into one of these can just as easily convert out and into something else.  I tend not to believe in intellectual vacuums, so I tend always to think that there’s something else claiming ultimate allegiance.  If anyone wants to make a contrary case, I’d be glad to read it.

My point in all this is that civility and proselytizing have, historically, lived in some places together, most often when the proselytizing tradition does not control the levers of the state.  And while those who claim (as I do) to be representing traditions that are true ought always to behave civilly when in the civitatis (and one is always in the civitatis), nonetheless a tradition like Christianity or Islam or Capitalism that claims to interpret other traditions in its own terms cannot help but start out assuming that its own story has the capacity to do just that.  The historical fact of conversion should give pause to people who think that such closed systems are impervious to influence, but I tend to think that living inside a tradition and inviting others inside that tradition is not rudness but hospitality.

This is one that I hope gets some comments.  I realize that people ought to be away from their computers this time of year, so perhaps I’ll link back to it at some point.


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