Hell is paved with good intentions, they say. Proselytism is a good illustration of this popular saying. It starts from highly laudable intentions made of the will to share our faith as one shares a treasure, to seek the salvation of our interlocutors, to also respond to the universalist injunction of our monotheisms. There is a fine line between the announcement of a faith that keeps us alive and that we legitimately want to share, and the indiscretion of proselytism, all religions combined. This boundary is expressed in terms of respect for others in their inviolable freedom of conscience.
Proselytism can find its roots in our sacred texts, or at least in our reading of them. These are its theological roots. It can find roots in a political project of conquest. It calls for a political response. We often forget that it also has anthropological roots. It is these anthropological roots that I will strive to bring to light in this reflection, before trying to give some ideas for overcoming the proselytizing temptation.
Uncovering the anthropological roots of proselytism
All aspects of our lives are psychologically scrutinized. Our family, friendly and professional relationships rightly nourish reflections and comments on the character of each other, a key to understanding our actions and our reactions to each one. Ourselves, we spend our time trying to know each other more each day, it is the work of a lifetime.
Only theology seems chemically pure of any trace of psychology. As soon as it is a question of God, our reflections, our positions seem exempt from all psychological considerations, it is only a question of pure theology. That the subject of reflection is outside the field of psychology is understood, even if the biblical texts speak of a God who is sometimes jealous, hurt, angry. Even if we Christians too confess a God made man in the fullness of his humanity. But what about us, seekers of God? Can we reasonably imagine that our quest is free from what makes our humanity? Personally, I have no doubt that my representation of God, my spiritual life, my outlook on the Church, on the societal issues that challenge the believer that I am, are influenced by my psychological profile, my history, the situation of the Church in which I exercise my ministry.
I have long dreamed of one day being able to carry out a vast psychological study, blindly, with a panel of Jewish, Christian and Muslim believers, established according to their religious sensitivity, from the most progressive to the most conservative, to use categories way too coarse. It’s a safe bet that common psychological characteristics would be found in people of similar theological sensitivities within each of the three monotheisms.
It is in any case my empirical experience to find concordances between psychological profile and religious sensitivity among believers of the three monotheisms. I am not fooled by the fact that my religious sensibility is of course not unrelated to the man that I am, in all its dimensions. This is undoubtedly the reason why it is possible for me to enter into friendship in a particular way with Muslim believers who, in the religion which is theirs, find themselves on the same sensibility as me in the religion which is mine. Becoming aware of this obvious link does not explain everything and should not lead to sterile relativism. However, it allows us to place differences in theological positions in their proper place without too quickly accusing ourselves of anathema.
These considerations are not as far removed from our subject as it seems, since proselytism is not a chemically pure theological reality either. There are many feelings involved, including the very human desire to be right, to hold the truth about God, and therefore also the key to Salvation. The desire also to be reassured.
Overcome our fears and rivalries
Fear indeed has its place in monotheistic proselytism. Fear of the different other who nevertheless professes faith in the same unique God. Since there cannot be two truths about God, the other is obviously wrong, and I must show him, for his good and “the salvation of his soul.” Basically, the proselytizing temptation is strongly motivated by the desire to be right about God, to be right about the other.
This probably explains why the temptation to proselytize is less strong when we are faced with believers from a non-monotheistic tradition? Immediately, the proselytizing zeal decreases in intensity, the other believer is no longer our “best enemy”, because his belief belongs to other shores than ours. He is no longer, literally, our rival. This experience that we all have highlights that the good of the other, his salvation, is not primary in the proselytizing temptation which is not exempt from the mimetic dialectic dear to René Girard.
Keeping Our Scriptures
In support of the proselytizing temptation, there are of course our own scriptures sacred to each other, or at least the reading that we can make of them. For us Christians, however, it is important to keep in mind that the interreligious dimension is absent from the universe of the Gospels, which only knows Israel (in its different “confessions”) and the nations. The use of the Gospel as an argument of authority can therefore only be done at the cost of an interpretation and the valorization of one passage to the detriment of another. Why not, but it is important to be aware of it.
The other support is the negative view cast on the tradition and the Scriptures of the other which seem so easily devoid of reason to the believer of another religion. It is a fact that only a faithful reading is able to perceive the part of truth that they convey. This derogatory understanding, as painful as it is stupid, of the Scriptures and traditions of the other is once again a matter of a process of defense… from which we must defend ourselves!
Don’t fear the truth
Contrary to received ideas, we have to face the fact that what frightens us in the religion of the other is not necessarily what obviously seems false to us, but rather this part of the truth that we perceive, and over which our words and our concepts have no hold. What we perceive as a gross error of the other does not really make us insecure. It’s more complicated for that part of the religion of the other, to which we don’t have access through reason, and which we feel makes him live and makes him live just. Subtly and unconsciously, much of the proselytizing temptation is motivated by the need to attack the truth of the other more than his “error”. This is not the least of the paradoxes of the proselyte temptation. This awareness is also the opening to a possible overcoming of the proselytizing temptation. What, indeed, to fear from the truth, even from that which escapes us?
Making room for a non-knowledge about God
This excess was perfectly put into words by Pierre Claverie, Bishop of Oran, assassinated on 1er August 1996 and beatified on December 8, 2018:
“I am a believer, I believe there is a God, but I do not claim to possess that God, neither through Jesus who reveals him to me, nor through the dogmas of my faith. No one owns God, no one owns the truth, and I need the other’s truth. To fully grasp the subversive force of these words in Christianity, it would be necessary, for example, to be able to imagine an echo of a Muslim religious authority saying: I believe that there is a God, but I do not claim to possess that God. neither by the Prophet who reveals it to me, nor by the Koran. Pure madness or great wisdom? In any case, a formidable antidote to the proselytizing temptation. I can rightly believe that my religious tradition designates God to me in a certain way as one indicates a direction, but no religion can claim to enclose God in a dogmatic definition, however correct it may be. It necessarily overflows on all sides. As a Christian, I profess a Christ, true God and true man, bearer of a plan of Salvation for all humanity. But I cannot have the mad claim to have the last word on this Christ and his project of Salvation, as he infinitely exceeds the knowledge and awareness that I can humanly have of it”.
These words of Blessed Pierre Claverie carry two consequences essential.
The first one, it is the possibility of placing a part of non-knowledge on God and therefore also on the mystery of the plurality of religions. Fundamentalisms feed on certainties about God, they have in common the mad claim to possess God. As long as there is not this confession of not knowing about God, there is no real respect for the freedom of conscience of the other. He is granted only the freedom to be in error and to persevere in it. At least, the temptation to proselytize claims to want to draw its neighbor out of the error instead of washing its hands of it under cover of a noble respect for freedom of conscience.
Without this recognition of a share of truth which is both shared and which at the same time escapes both, there is no fruitful interreligious dialogue either. We remain at best in a civilized dialogue between people who respect the part of error of the other, instead of looking in the faith of the other for a chance to glimpse a greater God. Always bigger. As soon as proselytes are convinced that they have the last word on God, that they have nothing to learn from the faith of the other, we can understand that they consider contemptible, or at the very least avoidable, dialogue interreligious. It’s consistent.
The second consequence is that we do not have to be afraid of our differences of creed, that is to say of the formulation of our respective faiths. In other words, between believers of different religions, the question is not first of all that of orthodoxy, believing it right, but that of orthopraxy, acting right. If our differences of faith come up against an unsurpassable mystery of which none argument theological will not come to an end, we can on the other hand question ourselves very concretely about our action. And, there is plenty to do, as our action is conditioned by our faith. Show me how you live, I’ll see how you believe. The wonder is to be able to work together, believers of different religions, in the name of the faith that inhabits us, to build a fairer society in which everyone is respected in their dignity. Believers of different religions doing good together speak to the highest of this God whom they will never be able to put into words.
This is a strong spiritual experience that we are given to live, Christians in the Muslim world, not without difficulty. It reduces the proselytizing temptation to very little. It is not without words, quite the contrary. These words, placed on the base of a friendship born of proven trust, may not have the luster of theological jousts, but they have a taste of eternity. Jesus says in the Gospel that when two or three are gathered together in his name, he is in their midst. I never feel this divine presence as much as when I am involved in a project, in the name of my faith, with Muslim partners. We do not name this presence by the same name, but we live the same spiritual experience. I find it hard to think that I am unfaithful, at this moment, to God’s plan.