McLaren: Does evangelism = proselytizing?By Brian McLaren
A friend of Brian McLaren, who is Hindu, recently sent Brian a question: I find the idea of proselytizing to be, at best, patronizing toward the other. It flies in the face of Vaclav Havel’s dictum to “keep the company of those who seek the Truth, and run from those who have found it.” How do we deal with this in a multi-faith world?
Thanks for this good and important question. Christianity and Islam (unlike Judaism and Hinduism) are often called “missionary religions.” But I think that categorization is problematic. Here’s why.
All religions, I think, have a mission. For some manifestations of each religion, the mission appears to be little more than institutional survival — keeping a clergy class employed, keeping buildings or temples open and so on. For others, the mission focuses on bringing benefits to members only (sometimes “enhanced” with threats toward the other). For others — the best ones, in my opinion — the mission extends to “the other” by focusing on the common good, with special attention to the outsider, outcast, stranger, marginalized, forgotten, disadvantaged and enemy.
In some sense, then, all religions are missionary religions; it’s just that their missions differ.
Many religious communities are also proselytizing religions — meaning they actively recruit people from other religions to defect from those religions and join their own. This, I think, is what you find patronizing. This approach may assume that one’s own religion is purely good while other religions are purely evil. It begins by assuming my primary duty to my neighbor of another religion is to persuade him to convert … or else. This is what Havel’s quote rightly warns about: When we assume we already have the truth and so have nothing more to learn or seek in company with the other.
It’s no accident that this viewpoint has historically gone hand in hand with colonialism. Such an us-vs.-them attitude suits the colonial agenda perfectly.
To avoid this patronization, self-deception, others-deprecation and colonial mindset, many people advocate a kind of religious isolationism … you have your religion, and I’ll have mine; let’s keep religion private so it doesn’t cause conflict and division.
I can see why this approach would seem appealing, and all the more so if one is surrounded by proselytizers. Nobody wants to be colonized, religiously or politically.
I think we need an option better than either proselytism or isolationism. Such an approach would indeed be missional (focusing on mission for the common good), but it wouldn’t fall for the oversimplified dualism that says “us=good/better” and “them=bad/worse.” We might even say such an approach would be “evangelistic” — not in the traditional sense of demanding conversion with the threat of eternal damnation, but in the original sense of good news. In this approach, each religion is encouraged to bring its good news — its message about the common good, its transferable wisdom, its treasures to be shared.
This approach avoids the us-them thinking of conventional proselytism, which is highly problematic.
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