Q & R: Does Evangelism = Proselytizing?

Here’s the Q: A friend of mine who is Hindu recently read the manuscript for my upcoming book (Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?). He then read the following article …
… and sent me this question:

I find the idea of proselytizing to be, at best, patronizing towards the other. It flies in the face of Vaclav Havel’s dictum to “keep the company of those who seek the Truth, and run from those who have found it.”
How do we deal with this in a multi-faith world?

Here’s the R:
Thanks for this good and important question. Christianity and Islam (unlike Judaism and Hinduism) are often called “missionary religions.” But I think that categorization is problematic. Here’s why.
All religions, I think, have a mission. For some manifestations of each religion, the mission appears to be little more than institutional survival – keeping a clergy class employed, keeping buildings or temples open, and so on. For others, the mission focuses on bringing benefits to members only (sometimes “enhanced” with threats towards the other). For others – the best ones, in my opinion – the mission extends to “the other” by focusing on the common good, with special attention to the outsider, outcast, stranger, marginalized, forgotten, disadvantaged, and even the enemy.
In some sense, then, all religions are missionary religions – it’s just that their missions differ.
Many religious communities are also proselytizing religions – meaning they actively recruit people from other religions to defect from those religions and join their own. This, I think, is what you find patronizing. This approach may assume that one’s own religion is purely good while other religions are purely evil. It begins by assuming my primary duty to my neighbor of another religion is to persuade him to convert … or else. This is what Havel’s quote rightly warns about: when we assume we already have the truth and so have nothing more to learn or seek in company with the other.
It’s no accident that this viewpoint has historically gone hand in hand with colonialism. Such an us-vs-them attitude suits the colonial agenda perfectly.
To avoid this patronization, self-deception, others-deprecation, and colonial mindset, many people advocate a kind of religious isolationism … you have your religion and I’ll have mine; let’s keep religion private so it doesn’t cause conflict and division.
I can see why this approach would seem appealing – all the more so if one is surrounded by proselytizers. Nobody wants to be colonized – religiously or politically.
I think we need an option better than either proselytism or isolationism. Such an approach would indeed be missional (focusing on mission for the common good), but it wouldn’t fall for the oversimplified dualism that says “us=good/better” and “them=bad/worse.” We might even say such an approach would be “evangelistic” – not in the traditional sense of demanding conversion with the threat of eternal damnation, but in the original sense of good news. In this approach, each religion is encouraged to bring its good news – its message about the common good, its transferable wisdom, its treasures to be shared.
This approach avoids the us-them thinking of conventional proselytism, which is highly problematic, as you know.
Any honest person would admit there are a plenty of problems in his or her religious community. There are plenty of blemishes, blind spots, inconsistencies, misunderstandings, divisions, disputes, prejudices, and flaws. And any honest person would admit there are plenty of virtues in the religious communities of others – heroism, loyalty, wisdom, morality, generosity, virtue, strength. Conventional proselytism largely ignores the negatives one is taking on when joining “us” and the positives one is leaving behind when leaving “them.” Jesus spoke of this – he criticized those who travel over land and sea to make a single convert, only turning the convert into “twice the son of hell” he was before conversion!
That’s why I think we need an approach that acknowledges the strengths and weaknesses on all sides and that invites people to come to the table with their unique gifts to offer the others. Gifts, of course, can’t be imposed – that’s colonization, not gift-giving. The very nature of a gift is that others can say, “No, thank you.” When people obsessively push their gifts on others, that’s also a dysfunction … more like sales than friendship!
So my Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish friends come to me with the gifts of their traditions, and I come to them with the gifts of mine. Some we may welcome; some we may not be interested in – now, anyway. Sometimes, the uninterested response of others will cause me to ask if there’s something wrong in my presentation of the gift I offer …
Interestingly, I think that’s what you and I have experienced in our friendship. I’ll never forget when I heard you tell the Hindu parable of the cosmic fig tree to a group of Christians … I could tell they were gaining real insights from that story – insights about desire, about wisdom, about the complexities at work in our own minds and motivations. You didn’t require us to become Hindus to gain those gifts … and neither did you keep them to yourself, assuming we had nothing to gain.
That, to me, is a good kind of evangelism …bringing good news, healing stories, gifts of wisdom … to one another. I can imagine those gifts being received in one of two ways. In one way, a person might say, “We have nothing like this in our tradition. I will gladly leave my tradition and join yours so I can gain the treasures you have.” That’s a matter of religious freedom, and I think we can celebrate that freedom not as a matter of patronization but rather of hospitality. But there’s another way those gifts could be received: “My tradition needs this wisdom. Let me welcome it and see how it improves and challenges and even transforms my understanding, within my tradition.” That approach isn’t always easy … but no path of growth is.
Anyway – those are a few thoughts on the subject. I guess you could say I’m against proselytism but for evangelism, sharing good news that can bring benefits to all, whatever their religion, culture, heritage, or history. Looking forward to more conversation on this subject.