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On conversion.

Meet two of my new profs: Richard Kearney and Thomas Groome.

After two days of class, my head is already swimming with thoughts, but here is a short note about apolegetics and conversion:

The two classes that I have attended thus far have been a philosophy class with world-renowned scholar Richard Kearney, and a Christian Education class with beloved Catholic theologian and instructor (and now one of my principal advisors) Thomas Groome. This peculiar juxtaposition, which would have only been possible in a degree program such as this one, elicited some interesting contrasts between Christians’ different ideas about conversion—which, if you think about it, could be considered quite an arrogant thing: Here I am, as a Christian, charged with the Great Commission (which is part and parcel to my belonging to this faith-community), and thus I must seek to compel you, my dialogue partner, to encounter my faith and my God—(and not only that, but also that as mitigated through my words, my culture, my particular frame-of-reference).

In my second class, Groome said (and I agree) that to understand conversion in this way is a misunderstanding of the Great Commission, not to mention of the Kingdom of God: Christians should increase in their self-awareness, even as they assume the great task of the Commission that is charged to every disciple (yes, that means everyone), becoming more conscious of the predilection we have towards either cowering in the shadows, or force-feeding faith. We should also broaden our understanding of conversion in the first place, which I would state as a need to re-define evangelism in my contexts: The Gospel is proclaimed whenever Christ’s healing, restorative, loving presence is made manifest in the world. Therefore evangelism is the same as justice, as compassion, as relationship, as truth-telling, as prayer. This is a more holistic understanding of the task of the Church.

On the heels of Kearney’s class, however, even this call struck me as difficult, due to a possible arrogance—well at least, there is a temptation to be arrogant, whether we realize it or not. Indeed, any concept of apologetics, holistically-understood or not, seems that it would be a difficult pill to swallow for anyone with postmodern sensibilities. There are some branches of philosophy (e.g. Alasdair MacIntyre) that leave room for “conversion,” albeit radically re-interpreted, but the task of “Gospel-proclamation” remains always interpreted, always with the potential for grave distortion, always seems a bit “self-focused;” i.e., at the end of the day, my interaction in the world is about what I can give to it, or perhaps in a somewhat-mitigated version, what God can offer the world through me. 

Dialogue, relationship, narrative— all these are metaphors being used to describe the interaction between disciple and non-disciple… yet (genuine) dialogue, relationship, and even narrative, are more other-focused, than self-focused. Indeed, such a “self-focus” belies the very teaching of the Jesus the Gospel proclaims.

As I imagine Kearney would say, “conversion” and “apologetics” are probably words that simply need to be stricken from the Christian (or any tradition’s) vernacular— unless, perhaps, we speak of the former as a “mutual conversion.” That is to say:

Christians enter into conversation with others, including non-Christians, with the expectation of being changed, not only (and perhaps even more so) than to change. In that sense, conversion is an ongoing process that never ceases; even as we are continually being converted (i.e., renewed) in Christ, we are also converted by the Christ that appears to us, in expectedly ways, in the face of the non-believer, the skeptic, the Muslim, the Hindu, and the “vaguely religious” modern.

In fact, what better way, perhaps, to proclaim the Gospel in this world, than to be willing to listen, learn, and grow?



Posted by on September 9, 2011 in theology


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