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Proselytism and “The Deep Slumber of a Decided Opinion”

I just sent off a review of Elmer Thiessens’s The Ethics of Evangelism and find myself with proselytizing on the brain. Despite the fact that I was largely persuaded by Thiessen’s argument that ethical proselytizing is not only possible but, in a qualified sense, obligatory, I’m still a bit  suspicious of the word “proselytize.” I don’t quite know why. Perhaps I don’t like the way it is often used or the images it conjures up of eager missionaries eager to add another convert to their checklist. Perhaps the word has somehow picked up the connotation of objectifying and people and treating them as means rather than ends (to borrow Kantian language). Perhaps I just don’t like the way the word sounds. I don’t know.

I probably also don’t like the word because I was never very interested in or good at it—at least as I understood the term. For me, it was an inescapably confrontative, obnoxious, and self-righteous activity that I wanted no part of. I hated going to churchy events and coming away feeling guilty that I hadn’t “shared my faith” with anyone that week. I had precisely zero desire to manipulate conversations with friends in order to bring Jesus into the picture. I didn’t really want to convert anyone, truth be told. I probably wasn’t sure or confident enough in what I believed to want to share it, and I certainly didn’t need the perceived weight of failing to do my religious duty piled on to what was, perhaps, a rather wobbly worldview-in-formation.

However justified or unjustified my apprehensions and insecurities around the term might be, I appreciated Thiessen’s book for, among other things, challenging my gut-level reaction against the word “proselytism.” I like it that he roots the practice of proselytism in the dignity of human beings and in their unquenchable thirst for and pursuit of truth. To attempt to persuade our neighbours of anything is to pay them the compliment of considering them worth “converting.” It is to participate in the basic reality that as human beings we are social creatures whose beliefs and practices are negotiated together. It is also to assume that our neighbours are free, rational, and moral creatures, who are capable of understanding and embracing what we are convinced is true, good, and beautiful (even if it turns out that we are mistaken about this) and that we, in turn, have the same capacities and obligations to be open to their conceptions of the same. It is to be convinced that the shared pursuit of what is true is good for us as a collective whole.

This is well illustrated, I think, in a passage from Thiessen’s book which borrows from the thought of John Stuart Mill:

The institution of proselytizing is of benefit to humankind, says Mill, because without such proselytizing, human beings may be deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth. To silence the proselytizer because he or she may be in error is to make the very questionable assumption of infallibility, according to Mill. Even if the proselytizer is propagating false beliefs, society as a whole still has much to gain by allowing such propagation, because the propagation of error stimulates thought and discussion, without which individuals and society as a whole are in danger of falling into “the deep slumber of a decided opinion.”

Society as a whole has something to gain by allowing proselytism!  Imagine that…

Whatever we may think of the word “proselytism” and the benefits it may or may not entail, we simply can’t avoid the practice of persuasion. Whether in advertising or politics or conversation at the coffee shop or the medium of blogging (!), we are often either trying persuade others or are ourselves the objects of others’ attempts at persuasion. We are all proselytizers, in a sense, no matter how uncomfortable we may be with the term.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. I took a discipleship class my first year in college through the InterVarsity group, and the last assignment was to go into the student union and ‘manipulate’ a conversation with a stranger in order to bring up Jesus. I did, although in a clumsy way, I am sure. I never did it again, but I was glad at least to have tried it.

    And now, after many years of sojourning in mainline Christianity, I am in a place where even clergy are often incapable of articulating what they believe and why they believe in Jesus, apart from written sermons. It is almost as if the paranoia about proselytizing is such that it inhibits any sharing of one’s faith.

    When the local Baptist evangelists come knocking on my door, there is a part of me that admires them, even with our differences in theology. They have courage. Of course that didn’t stop us from putting a ‘No Soliciting, No Proselytizing’ sign on our door once!

    January 5, 2012
    • Ken #

      One Presbyterian minister that I knew in seminary presented a blank piece of paper when asked to write a statement describing what he believed. At least he was honest! He believed nothing. Others made up their own version of the gospel – the gospel was whatever each person considered plausible.

      January 5, 2012
      • Do you think he really was honest? I think everyone believes something, even if it’s that they don’t (think they) believe anything… An interesting, if puzzling, gesture, though…

        January 6, 2012
    • Yes, I know what you mean, Chris. I might cringe at what the door-to-door missionaries say, but sometimes I envy their confidence and boldness. I think you are right—we can be so paranoid about offending and unsettling people that we rarely share our faith with others. Of course, many of us are familiar with people who are far too eager to (loudly and frequently) share their faith. I suppose a good target would be somewhere between these two extremes (Aristotle gets it right again :)).

      January 6, 2012
      • Tyler #

        I’ve been waiting for this day. I like to believe that final reference came from my own proselytizing…

        On a more serous note though, there is nothing wrong with proselytizing at all. The problem is all in the delivery. Our coffee shop conversations were a respectful method… we disagreed but we also listened. Sadly, listening rarely happens anymore. Maybe that is the most important characteristic of a proselytizer?

        January 6, 2012
      • Yes, Tyler, you can add a (qualified) Aristotle conversion to your list… Well done :).

        I agree, respect and listening are crucial. In my experience, people have radar that is highly attuned to being used, manipulated, talked down to, or “listened to” only in order to return fire. In other words, people know when they are part of genuine conversations in which there is mutuality of respect and an honouring of common dignity, and when they are not.

        January 6, 2012
  2. Ken #

    Did Thiessen equate proselytism and evangelism, or did he differentiate them?

    I have never proselytized. It seems to me that it is one thing the talk about one’s faith and quite another to try to persuade someone to give up their current religion (or other belief) for another. It seems that evangelism consists only of the former in some Christian traditions, even while in others or for some people proselytism is evangelism. Does Thiessen advocate proselytism as evangelism?

    My tendency is to see proselytism as a kind of abuse, while evangelism is not effective when abusive. It is effective when it is kind.

    I remember a proselytizer in a campus ministry who referred to evangelism at “hitting them on the head with the gospel.”

    January 5, 2012
    • He largely equated the two terms. He had a formal definition of the term “proselytism, but I left the book in my study and don’t have it in front of me right now.

      For Thiessen, proselytism and persuasion were also very similar—both seek to effect change, whether a change of mind, behaviour, habit, or whatever. On this definition, as I said in the post, we are all proselytizers. Every time we share our views with others we are, to varying degrees, attempting to “convert” our conversation partner—to persuade them to modify or expand their position, to consider alternative views, or to adopt ours, etc. For Thiessen, proselytism is not abuse; it is actually an unavoidable part of being a human being engaged in the pursuit of truth.

      January 6, 2012
      • Yes, in my book I treat “evangelism” and “proselytizing” as equivalent. However, I recognize that some people restrict the meaning of “proselytizing” to coercive evangelism. I argue that such a restriction is arbitrary and confusing. One qualification on your last sentence, Ryan – “proselytism is not abuse”. Better, “proselytism is not necessarily abuse”. Proselytism, like evangelism, can be done in a coercive manner, and when done in this way it is abusive. But it need not be coercive. I look forward to reading your full review. Where will it be published?
        Elmer Thiessen

        July 2, 2013
      • Thank you for the clarification, Elmer. I appreciate this.

        The review was published in the February 2012 issue of the Mennonite Brethren Herald. It can be accessed here.

        July 3, 2013
  3. Casper #

    Sounds an interesting book. I too have a distrust of proselytism mainly for the reasons you set out, despite spending a couple of years actually doing the door to door and street corner preaching thing. That approach is always a one way approach, though.

    I have found personally (and without actually looking for it) that i have probably talked and sought to persuade far more over the last year or so in normal conversation than for a long time during my fundy days – which is ironic because I don’t think I’ve ever been more unsure of my Christianity.

    January 6, 2012
    • Interesting indeed, Casper. Although perhaps not entirely unexpected. Maybe it is when we are most aware of our blind spots, insecurities, uncertainties, and the things that we don’t know that we are the most well-situated to engage in the persuasive kinds of conversations that bring life and change.

      January 6, 2012
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Much to consider here.

    I thought this Wikipedia assessment of the Judeo-Christian understanding of the terms under discussion, could be useful.

    “In Christianity
    Main articles: Mission (Christian), Evangelism, and Christianization
    Mark 8:34

    Whosoever will come after me—It seems that Christ formed, on the proselytism of the Jews, the principal qualities which he required in the proselytes of his covenant.

    The first condition of proselytism among the Jews was, that he that came to embrace their religion should come voluntarily, and that neither force nor influence should be employed in this business. This is also the first condition required by Jesus Christ, and which he considers as the foundation of all the rest:—If a man be willing to come after me.

    The second condition required in the Jewish proselyte was, that he should perfectly renounce all his prejudices, his errors, his idolatry, and every thing that concerned his false religion; and that he should entirely separate himself from his most intimate friends and acquaintances. It was on this ground that the Jews called proselytism a new birth, and proselytes new-born, and new men; and our Lord requires men to be born again, not only of water, but by the Holy Ghost. See John 3:5. All this our Lord includes in this word, Let him renounce himself. To this the following scriptures refer: Matthew 10:33; John 3:3, 3:5, 2 Corinthians 5:17.

    The third condition on which a person was admitted into Judaism as a proselyte was, that he should submit to the yoke of the Jewish law, and bear patiently the inconveniences and sufferings with which a profession of the Mosaic religion might be accompanied. Christ requires the same condition; but, instead of the yoke of the law, he brings in his own doctrine, which he calls his yoke, Matthew 11:29: and his cross, the taking up of which not only implies a bold profession of Christ crucified, but also a cheerful submitting to all the sufferings and persecutions to which he might be exposed, and even to death itself.
    The fourth condition was, that they should solemnly engage to start in the Jewish religion, faithful even unto death. This condition Christ also requires; and it is comprised in this word, Let him FOLLOW me. See the following verses; and see, on the subject of proselytism, Ruth 1:16-17
    — —Adam Clarke’s Commentary,”

    Hopefully this accounting, though certainly rigorous to the modern ear, at least in part, points to a form of persuasion that is open to critical evaluation and arguement. One wonders how a “voluntary” choice could be made otherwise.

    As is being said here, in one way or another, proselytism that evolves into an uncritically examined or even unexplained set of principals, can too easily become an unhealthy form of indoctrination with the potential to fuel a violent radicalism among its adherents.

    As for Aristotle we have it on less an authority than the members of “Monty Python” that….”Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle!!”…

    Personally, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the posting of Mr. Adam Clarke but surely all things “Python” are incontrivertably (there’s that word again) true!

    January 6, 2012
  5. There are Jesus proselytizers and justice proselytizers. The latter group will give you twenty reasons why you must use fair trade coffee (or insert issue of choice), and they will not agree to disagree. I run into justice proselytizers far more often than the Jesus kind.

    January 6, 2012
  6. Ken #

    As I have thought about this topic, I realize that there have been times when I felt like it would be bad faith to evangelize, especially to proselytize, because I felt like it would be better to persuade others to stay away from a church than to go there – times when it would be dangerous to go to a church.

    I have felt that way when serving in the PCUSA, especially. I could not in good faith encourage a person who was not white to join a group that was overwhelmingly white, even while the white church imagined itself as inclusive (a word they took pride in attributing to themselves.) I have felt that way when a person had illness that doctors could not treat and who wanted to pray for God to heal them. I knew they would not find support for that theology in the PCUSA. More generally, I feel that way when I think about the patriarchy in churches, and in the Bible. I agree with radical feminists that the Bible, at least when read as a guide for conduct, and probably if read at all, hurts women. Certainly every church I have ever known hurts women in the way radical feminists say. When I lead Bible studies I find myself pointing this out to try to reduce its power in that way.

    Ultimately, this, more than anything else, is why I left the PCUSA. I was a campus minister. The people I knew were more likely than not white, and, if interested in God, more likely women than men, and often they were seeking healing. I felt like I would betray their trust if I suggested becoming part of a PCUSA church, and I feared what may happen to them in other churches as well.

    Just before I left, a young man, non-white, and gay, sought me ought to talk. He said that he had found that the liberal church he attended next to campus was unconcerned that he was gay, but effectively ignored him because he was not white. He was personally troubled by his homosexuality and was in a program that he hoped would help him discover his heterosexuality. He wanted a safe place to worship, and wanted to talk about what was going on in his life with someone else who loved God. Somehow he found me. What encouragement could I give? What remedy? I feared the abusiveness of the program he was in. I knew of no church where he would be safe. I gave him what I could of myself. It is not enough.

    So, I suppose I am the anti-proselytizer.

    January 7, 2012
    • Paul Johnston #

      “Preach the Gospel at all times and when neccessary, use words”. – St. Francis of Assisi

      Maybe, if to proselytize, we mean to convict solely through force of arguement, being the “anti-proselytizer” is the more Christ like persona.

      A faith lived and shared converts where mere words fail… Can I hear an Amen! 🙂

      Ken, I don’t wish to offend or reduce this thread to a critique of the term “radical feminism” but I would like to at least outline some general concerns with this advocacy and other wholly political agendas.

      Political praxis, as I understand the Christian paradigm, is not the medium through which people discover the right way in which they are to live with one another and with creation. Rather it is a consequence of a true pre-existing relationship between the Lord and His people. To begin with praxis, is to put the cart before the horse so to speak.

      “Right relationship” is a formative process beginning with an individual’s declaration of fealty to the Lord. Through praise, prayer, sacrament, “word” and tradition a person learns to say, “God is revealed to me” and in the graciousness and depth of His revelation, he reveals my true self to me also. It is this “true” self, and only this ‘true” self, animated by the Lord, that is capable of right praxis.

      In spite of some of my sympathies for the objectives of various political agendas, if they stand apart from Christ, than for me, they stand apart from truth.

      Further any human agenda that cloaks itself in the term “radical”, is for me, cause for dire concern. If the 20th century taught us anything politically, surely we learned that man made ideologies that radicalized and reduced “truth” to the praxis of it’s adherents, without compromise or compassion, was such an anathema to mankind, that it nearly, and could still, lead to the destruction of our world as we know it.

      Please understand that I do not wish to “tar” the righteous objectives of feminism, or any political identity for that matter, with the “same brush” as I would for example, Marxism or Nazism, of the past century, but that I consider “Radicalism” and its inherent indoctrinations and merciless assessments of those who would choose alternative agendas, a far greater danger to humanity, than any expression of Christian identity has been, or could be.

      January 7, 2012
      • Ken #

        The Saint Francis quote is so beautiful.

        I agree with you that the gospel does not depend on force of argument. The gospel is news, good news, not an argument. I suppose one might say that believing it requires accepting an argument, but to me the gospel does not require that. I think of it as something we are given and its power is independent of our belief in arguments.

        Maybe someday Ryan will post something that allows an airing of views on radical feminism or on what we do with the passages in the Bible that are harsh towards women.

        For now, this posting deals with a vital subject – how we speak to others about our faith.

        January 7, 2012

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