Cambridge, MA. I am grateful to John Coleman for his recent “A Code of Conduct for Conversion,” in which he calls to the attention of In All Things readers the recent ecumenical document, “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World.” His excellent piece gives the history of the document and highlights its key points, so all I can add here are three supplementary reflections.
First, it is a welcome document, balanced and sensible. It looks to Christian sources, but also, rather gently but still honestly, admits the abuses that have beset efforts at conversion over the millennia. I am sure that the writers could have said more on the benefits of Christian presence throughout the world over the centuries, but facing the unpleasant side of things was more to the point here. The process of consultation too was a good one, with candid input from members of various religious traditions even as the document was being written. In its end result, it also wisely looks to conduct rather than first principles – the fruits of our faith in actual practice – and on this basis was surely able to gather a greater consensus among the churches.
Second, John notes that there is a call to reject false witness: “Christians are to speak sincerely and respectfully; they are to listen in order to learn about and understand others' beliefs and practices and are encouraged to acknowledge and appreciate what is true and good in them. Any comment or critical approach should be made in a spirit of mutual respect, making sure not to bear false winess concerning other religions.”
This is an important recommendation, yet in my experience difficult to live up to. For example, many people in other faith traditions are dubious, early on, how sincere and respectful a conversation can be, if at least some Christian interlocutors know in advance that these other religions are false in smaller and larger ways. How much does sincere respect demand of us, not simply regarding the individual persons with whom we speak, but also regarding the substance of their traditions? It is hard to respect our own tradition and these other traditions deeply at the same time, without failing to honor the one or the other sufficiently. But the challenge to respect, with all the implications that entails, is a wonderful point.
So too, listening and learning, coming to understand, are wonderful values, but my own experience of studying Hinduism suggests that once we begin to understand, the ground on which we might make the case for the conversion of the other shrinks considerably. Listening and understanding open the door to a more comprehensive respect that leaves little space for peremptory judgments about a religion, its lack or this or that, the errors of its history, the deficiencies in its ethics. Rather, I have found that learning to understand has a reflective dynamic to it, and by attending ot their perspectives, my own perspective on my own tradition gain new depth, but with it a more vulnerable sense of our history, our Church’s flourishings and failures, our more or less essential shortcomings.
And in the end, the challenge that has faced us since Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate faces us still. When the Council said that Buddhism and Hinduism may indeed “reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men,” and when the current document encourages Christians “to acknowledge and appreciate what is true and good” in other religions, there is a lot still to be explained — not only regarding what in particular, in detail, we recognize as radiant with the light of Christ in another tradition, or true and good, but also how it is that such things – perhaps some insight or practice or image or great temple or monumental theological text – came to be within the time and space realities of that tradition in its greater, living fullness.
Such appeals could mean that a ray of light has penetrated a dark place, or that a grain of truth is found among the chaff of falsehood. Think of this Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew 13: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into buckets. What is bad they throw away.” We could mean that.
Or, perhaps it is that a living light of Christ has been radiant in this other tradition in a wholesome way and for a very long time; the grain of truth is there now because for millennia good men and women have striven for that truth, and succeeded in providing it a home: dare the devout follower of Christ say, "The Word became flesh - Jesus, only Jesus - and dwelled among them too"? Or, easier, to refer to this Sunday’s Gospel again, it may be that our Hindu or Buddhist brothers and sisters, like ourselves, have given up everything for “the treasure buried in a field,” put aside all else for the sake of “the pearl of great price.” We could mean that.
Of course, all of this is very abstract until we turn to cases where the Christian actually sees the reflection of the light of Christ, and discerns the true and the good in some particular place in a particular other tradition. Generalities count for little. But my point here is simply to commend the authors of the document for posing to us, in low key terms, a very large challenge.
Third, and finally, I hope that this fresh conversation of Christians with people of other faith traditions will continue even now that the document is public. Indeed, right here: there are some regular readers of In All Things who are Jewish or Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, and I invite them – and others they might direct to John’s entry and now mine – to comment on how “Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World” looks from their perspective. Have we made progress?