Analytic Theology

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Why Is There Religious Evangelism?

October 28th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: Christians believe not only in the historical reality of Jesus, but also that he had certain ascriptive predicates, as set forth, for example, in the Nicene Creed. Muslims believe in the former proposition, but deny the latter; Jesus simply was a “messenger of God,” whereas it was Muhammad who was God’s final prophet. Both Christianity and Islam believe in the existence of a monotheistic God, though they may not be referring to the same one. For example, the Shahadatayn declares, “There is no God but God,” and Muslims believe the God they worship is the God of Abraham, just like the Hebrews. However, they also believe the Christian concept of God, and its accouterments (such as the doctrine of the Trinity), is polytheistic.

Both Christians and Muslims are entitled to their respective beliefs, and there can be no question but that, at least for true adherents, they are sincerely held. But why is it that both Christians and Muslims also seek to “evangelize,” that is, obtain converts to their respective causes? This kind of “outreach” program cannot be extrapolated, or inferred, from personal belief, itself, no matter how intensely held.

One might imagine a hypothetical evangelist (of either faith), saying: “It’s not sufficient that I believe. Rather, as a tenet of my belief, you have to believe what I believe, too. In fact, my belief is, or may be, threatened, by your non-belief.” Clearly, this creates the probability of a collision; for in the demolition derby of who-converts-whom, only one team can win.

The Christian evangelical program has its roots in the New Testament. Although the same theme is found elsewhere, Matthew 28:18 states, “And Jesus came to them and spake unto them, saying, All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” emphasis added. This passage, known as the “Great Commission,” has been used to justify everything from the Crusades, to the Spanish Inquisition, to the colonization of Central and South America.

While there should be a difference between Catholics and Protestants in their respective urges to evangelize, I don’t think there is, in practice. Catholics believe the intercession of a priest is necessary in order for a worshipper to commune in the presence of God. This can be seen in the sacraments, for example, confession; and was one of the theories behind the Tridentine Mass. Protestants, on the other hand, believe faith is more of a personal matter, and the moral guidance of the priest isn’t necessary. Consider, for example, Kierkegaard’s depiction of Abraham as a spiritual man, who nonetheless was deeply isolated. This dichotomy in turn affects their respective beliefs about religious community. In principle, the Protestant religious community simply is a collection of individuals, each with his or her own interpretation of faith. Catholics, on the other hand, see the entire world as one great big potential religious community — a universal church — under the guidance of the Pope, who stands in a direct line of descent from Jesus, himself.

Given this, it stands to reason Catholics should be more aggressive in their urge to evangelize, than Protestants, because they would be augmenting the community with additional members, rather than dealing with individual beliefs on an episodic, single-shot, ad hoc, one-off basis. It seems to me it would be much harder to comprise this collection of individuals into a coherent whole, than it would be to start off with mutual premises already understood.

Islam is slightly more ecumenical. For example, both the Qur’an and the Sunnah (the second source of Islamic law, after the Qur’an) differentiate the monotheistic “people of the Book” (i.e., Jews and Christians), from polytheists, who, properly understood, are no better than idolaters. At some point, both Jews and Christians fell somewhat off the track: Jews, because they worshipped the Golden Calf; and Christians, because of the doctrine of the Trinity. Properly understood, this is a corruption of doctrine. It isn’t bad enough, however, to warrant their expulsion from Heaven. Provided they “act rightly,” they “will have their reward with their Lord. They will feel no fear and will know no sorrow.”

This suggests that Muslims should devote their evangelical energies only to polytheists and idolaters. Allah has dispatched his Prophets world-wide, in order to reveal Islam as the one true religion. Those who reject Muhammad’s message, after it has reached them, will go to hell on Judgment Day (Jews and Christians excepted). And indeed, this seems to have been Islam’s early practice: Jews and Christians were allowed to worship peacefully, so long as they didn’t make a nuisance of themselves (by proselytizing, for instance), and paid their taxes. Whereas, the indigenous native polytheists either had to convert, or face exile, or even execution.

Significantly, “conversion” wasn’t just a matter of changing one’s belief, as with Christianity (see my earlier post, Is There a “Judeo-Christian Tradition”?). Rather, a convert would be required to uphold the Shahadah, perform the Salat (five daily prayers), engage in Zakat (alms-giving), observe Sawm (fasting during Ramadan), and, at least once during their life, visit Mecca (the Hajj). These are specific religious-cultural rites, and it would be pretty obvious if you weren’t doing them.

There’s another interesting thing about both the Christian and Islamic encouragements to evangelize. Neither of them have anything to do with the welfare of the potential convert. It’s not like either Jesus, or Muhammed, said to the ones responsible for doing the converting: “These people are going to be a whole lot better off (i.e., there will be an increase in social utility, or economic welfare), if they convert. Not only will they like it, it’ll be better for them, too.”

Rather, evangelizing is more of a commandment issued by Jesus, or Muhammed, respectively. It isn’t a suggestion, or merely precatory; it’s more akin to an order, it’s something that’s compulsory. In other words, as a condition precedent to being a true believer, one not only must sincerely believe, oneself; one also must go forth and harvest other believers, too. The fact that you alone believe, for some reason, isn’t sufficient. Evangelizing therefore has far more to do with the social utility, or economic welfare, of the evangelizer, than it does with that of the evangelizee.

In this respect – for Christianity, at least – the requirement to evangelize is an exception to the general focus on sincerely held belief, as opposed simply to compliance with social rules, or conventions. For example, at Matthew 5:27 (during the Sermon on the Mount), Jesus says: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

In other words, for Christians, simply thinking about adultery is the functional equivalent to being an adulterer; whereas for most other religions, one can think whatever one wants to think, it’s what one actually ends up doing, that counts. Ask Jimmy Carter!

Even for the Christian, though, one just can’t sit around thinking about evangelizing; rather, one’s supposed to get up, and go out, and do it. Not just as an activity; not because it’s the “right thing to do;” not because it’s good for the potential convert; but rather, it’s a requirement for your own heavenly salvation.

I suppose even the voluntary convert could “fake it,” by going through the motions, all the while still believing in one’s original religion. The penalties for back-sliders (i.e., the converted who un-convert, or maybe it should be dis-convert, or de-convert), however, are extremely serious – because, having been shown the correct way, it is apostasy then to reject it.

You really have to ask, therefore, if faking it is worth the trouble; you might as well convert. Perhaps I am just a creature of the 20th-21st century, but it is very difficult for me to get my head around the idea that I would be willing to become a martyr, for a tenet of faith. This seems particularly true if one’s faith is not an “ancestral religion,” i.e., one that originates from the territory of one’s indigenous homeland. Because all that you’re doing, essentially, is worshipping somebody else’s God, or their concept of God. As a matter of the propagation of your DNA, it’s not at all clear what stake you have in the outcome. For me, at least, the Bible is interesting, and everything, but it isn’t the story of my people. I’m not being disrespectful for an instant of the people whose story it is, nor do I doubt the unquestionable sincerity of their beliefs. They just don’t happen to be mine, at least, when it comes down to the details. For more on this, see my previous post, The Origins of Monotheistic Culture.

On the other hand, if I was of Arabic extraction, and lived in a territory that historically had been considered an Islamic one, then I would have no problem at all with being a Muslim. The same would be true if I was Jewish. I think under those circumstances, it would be wrong to play-act with religion; one then should do everything within one’s power to become an observant Muslim, or Jew, respectively.

The anomalous cases occur when a religion begins to expand, into new territories beyond its original borders; or, when one is an adherent to a religion that in turn has been displaced. For example, consider the case of the Central American or Asian “Christian;” or, the Muslims in places like France, or the U.K. I don’t understand why the Central Americans don’t go back to worshipping their Aztec or Mayan God/Gods; or why Asians aren’t happy with Confucianism, or Buddhism. In principle, the adherent to the “old faith” in such an expansion zone faces risk of persecution, or forced conversion.

Something like this happened with Islam; as it expanded, Jews and Christians became increasingly marginalized. While policies differed with each local caliph, in general, they were increasingly persecuted. For example, the Jewish philosopher Maimonides was forced to masquerade as a Muslim, and eventually fled Spain. Various other passages from the Qur’an and the Sunnah (i.e., other than those pertaining to the “people of the book”) were used to justify this practice. Most notorious are those verses instructing the faithful to fight against non-believers, especially those in possession of territory once claimed by Islam; and promising paradise to the faithful who fall in holy war, or jihad. Even the so-called “people of the book” came to grief; for example, it variously is alleged that Islamic Arabs in northwest Africa held (predominantly, white) stranded mariners from America and New England, as slaves, up to as late as 1925.

So, we still haven’t really answered the question of from whence springeth the evangelical impulse. It finds textual support, in both Christianity, and Islam. It has no logical support whatsoever; from the standpoint of predicate calculus, it’s kinda like a logician trying to quantify from an opaque context. On balance, I think we should let Rodney King have the last word: “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?”