Conversions and the Pearl of Great Price

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?



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Anne Chapman
7 years 6 months ago
David, what any individual believes to be ''the truth'' is just that - belief.  So ''If we think we know the truth, are we obliged to pass it on?'' presesnts a dilemma - ''think'' equates to ''believe'' here, not to ''know'', at least not to knowing with 100% certainty.  I imagine if you had been born in Calcutta, you might be just as staunch a defender of Hinduism as you are a defender of Roman Catholicism.  Saying that other religions also possess ''rays of truth'' is OK, but saying specifically that the 'light of Christ'' having reached into corners of ''darkness'' is not so good - it would be offensive to me, if I were a Hindu or Buddhist or Taoist because there is more than a bit of implied judgment going on there. The author refers to the light of Christ whereas Nostra Aetate refers to a ''ray of that Truth which enlightens all'' humanityThis is an interesting distinction - Christians believe that the truth was physically embodied in a human being who embodies ''the truth'' because he also had a divine nature - the Christ. They believe - but cannot ''know'' - it is faith, not science.  If one wants go dialogue instead of impose one's beliefs on the other, using ''Truth'' instead of ''Christ'' might be the better way to express these ideas.

Those who follow Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism follow a path to Truth that is older than that of Christianity - those truths were embodied in their scriptures and taught by their teachers long before Christ was born. So the wording of Vatican II is probably a better representation of the reality that God does not limit Truth to one favored people than is using specifically Christo-centric terms. Truth is not exclusive to a country club to whom only a select few belong.  I have done only a very shallow and surface study of the world's other great religions - but have found that there are themes, common ideas shared by all - perhaps these common ideas come closest to expressing ''the truth'' than do any of the particulars of each religion.  Some noted Christians, such as Bede Griffiths, almost despaired that Christians would ever recapture aspects of ''truth'' that the eastern religions have never lost.  You might find this Web site of interest

Dialogue involves two parties - both listening, not just speaking.

7 years 6 months ago
Truth is a major mantra in "distinctive" Catholicism today =we've got and you don't.
Whatever denomination one is in IMO conversion is a lifelong process of searching deeper into the complewxities that faith leads us to and through.
We talk about evengelization a lot, but it is lived witness that draws people to our faith.
Unfortunately there are still signs of proselytizing  that demeans others. 
7 years 6 months ago
The issue here is two fold.

On the one hand, the Church *and Jews before us, believe that all of humanity come from 1 couple, Adam and Eve and that as such, we are all equal - all of the same nature.

Ergo, we all have the same innate capacity to know reality - our reasoning faculty if properly functioning can come to know natural realities to more or less the same degree and insight.

So philosophic metaphysics and natural theology ( a belief in the reality of spiritual souls, spiritual beings and God) are equally possible for all peoples on earth, from all time.

But Judaeism and Christianity also believe in divine revelation as being categorically different than human reason alone... input from above not deduction from below. And that is the origin of our belief in having truth as a gift that was not given to other great societies and civilizations before us AS WELL AS OUR OBLIGATION TO MISSIONARY ACTIVITY SO AS TO SHARE THIS GIFT WITH OTHERS IN THE HUMAN RACE.

We don't believe faith in these revelations to be some intrisic superiority somehow only given to our tribe or ethnicity! It's not from us! It's from God to us for the good of all peoples on earth.

Now another point worth mentioning is our belief in what constitutes revelation - and in both Judaeism and Catholicism, revelation came publicly - via THEOPHANIES. Moses didn't just come down from the mountain and CLAIM he saw an angel or God and then command his tribe to obey him....nor did he just write a book about some fantastic god who promised this and that and inspire people to believe it on the basis of his popularity.

The people saw the plagues, saw the miracle at the red sea, saw the mountain tremble, and the other theophanies and so placed their trust in Moses.

Likewise the apostles saw Jesus raise the dead, multiply fish and loaves, walk on water, and rise from the dead himself.

And subsequent to those days, others saw the apostles and their co-workers the bishops perform miracles of healing and exorcism and other phenomenon that defied rational explanation or mere human explanation, which bolstered their truth claims.

So our faith is not merely a tribal bias on par with other human tribes, all equal spokes on some great wheel.... our faith is from revelation via theophanies and miracles which we are witnesses to, not creators and owners of.

If Catholicism was just a system of our own making then of course we'd be no more right than the Hindus and the historical age and extension of a given faith tradition would matter. But as it is, Catholicism (like Judaeism) is the marriage of God and man and hence not "just" natural philosophy and natural theology but supernatural revelation which simply surpasses anything that's merely human.
Frank Gibbons
7 years 6 months ago
One of the great tragedies of our world today is the forced conversions of Christians and members of other religions to Islam. Here is just one example -

The U.S. Helsinki Commission gathered on July 22 to discuss the increase in violence against Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt, specifically young women.
Reports of kidnapping and forced marriage and conversion began cropping up in 2007, but remained “unsubstantiated,” said Michele Clark, an adjunct professor of international affairs at George Washington University.
“I am here to confirm these allegations,” Clark said. “These are not isolated incidences.”
Jean Maher, president of the France-based Egyptian Union for Human Rights Organization, said that nearly 800 Coptic Christian women have been kidnapped, raped and forced to convert to Islam since 2009. 
That number has only increased since the revolution in February, Maher said.
He said that before the revolution, Muslim kidnappers would have to “seduce” their victims. Now, they “just put them in a taxi and go away with them.”

Anne Chapman
7 years 6 months ago

Forced conversions are a terrible thing, regardless of when or by whom or where. Forcing christians to become muslims in the 21st century is as awful as torturing muslims to force them to become christians was in, say, the 300+ years of the Spanish Inquisition, or the forcing of Jews to become Christians at many times in western history throughout Europe, or in forcing native peoples to become Christians in the New World.

John Lyons, I am wondering if you also feel that the ''divine'' revelations to Mohammed, recorded in the Koran, or those written in the Book of Mormon should also be ''shared'' with the world as you believe Catholicism and Judaism should be?  I am interested that you do acknowledge Judaism - Jews most certainly believe that they are God's chosen and God's truth is revealed in the Hebrew scriptures - yet they feel no need to go out and proselytize.  Are they wrong to not actively seek converts?
7 years 6 months ago
Thank you, Fr. Clooney for writing this piece.  It led to a lively discussion as you can see.  And I truly enjoy reading the various responses/reactions.  They made me stop and think!


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