March 31, 2008
— Martin E. Marty
Many sincere religious changings occur through inter-faith marriages or after quiet searches, while the publicized, stormier versions of conversion produce what their left-behind communities call "apostates." The difference shows up terminologically; it is one thing to hear from a "former"—as in "former" Catholic, Mormon, or Southern Baptist—and another to hear from an "ex-" Catholic, et cetera. Converts who are "ex-" often sound like those in philosopher Max Scheler's description: "The apostate does not affirm his new convictions for their own sake, he is engaged in a continuous chain of acts of revenge against his own spiritual past."
When the foremost Italian Muslim journalist Magdi Allam was baptized as a Catholic last week, Pope Benedict XVI said "we no longer stand alongside or in opposition to each other." Allam, formerly seen as a "bridge" by Catholics to Muslim moderates and a long-time ardent supporter of Israel, offers plenty of quotations that breathe the spirit of Schelerian revenge. Some Muslims grieve but say that Allam's conversion was a personal matter. But his versions of what Islam is always about must be supplemented with testimony by Muslims who "stayed," or by more neutral analysts and critcs.
Conversion remains one of the most controversial topics on the religious scene. Becoming a Muslim apostate is dangerous business, something which ex-Muslim authors of best-selling memoirs publicize and exploit. Again, one does not count on them for balanced reports on Islam, any more than ex-Mormon testimonies were reliable witnesses about the Latter-Day Saints during the Mitt Romney campaign.
Christianity and Islam are traditionally convert-seeking movements, as Judaism has not been for most of the last twenty centuries. Many Christians who are less zealous to make converts are quiet about the conversion theme. Give a host of evangelical leaders credit, then, for risking abrasion with Jews through a full-page advertisement in the March 28 New York Times. The signers of the ad, many of them mission-minded evangelical leaders, emphasize their loyalty to Israel and their love for Jewish people, expressions often affirmed by Jews who know them. Yet they make clear that the attempt to convert Jews is not off their agenda. "It is good and right" for there to be "ministries specifically directed to the Jewish people," the touchiest point. "It is out of our profound respect for Jewish people that we seek to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them…for we believe that salvation is only found in Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the World."
Many Jews, welcoming evangelical support for Israel, hide their uneasiness or disgruntlement over evangelical attempts to convert Jews, knowing that efforts to convert will continue, so cherished is the conversionist ideal among many Christians. So strong is the impulse to pursue it that one can read off-beat stories about it. In the Wall Street Journal (March 28), Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, a lively columnist who opposes the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod administration from the Missouri right, attacks the Synod's current "Ablaze" campaign for public relations overreaches: "Historically," she writes, "the church kept statistics on baptisms. Now, however, it keeps a tally of what it calls 'critical events.' On March 17 a man reported discussing Jesus with his waitress—and the Ablaze! Count went up by one." That waitress is not likely to engage in acts of revenge against her own spiritual past. Others will, and the arguments will go on.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.
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