Here’s an interesting column on the place of proselytizing in interfaith activities from Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It asks the question “must proselytizing be off-limits in order for differing faiths to work together?” And if so, how can we ever expect participation by those whose religions require proselytizing?
As someone who is first and foremost a universalist who believes there are many paths to God and Truth, I find it difficult to deal with proselytizing. “Can’t you see we’re all God’s children?” “Can’t we put our differences aside and come together to build a better world here and now?”
The column gives the example of an Imam who told an interfaith gathering that it was a requirement of his religion to issue an “invitation to Islam” – but after that obligation was fulfilled, he would gladly work with others. When a more moderate Muslim criticized him, he said “Yes, I am a bit prejudiced in favor of my faith. And you should be for yours.”
I think the problem many of us have with proselytizing is the unstated assumption that it reflects a lack of respect for other religions. This is particularly important to those of us in minority religions such as Unitarian Universalism and Paganism. “If you think I should convert to your religion, you must think that my religion is inferior.” And we take offense where sometimes (though far from always) no offense is intended.
All of us recruit for our religions, if only by the way we live our lives – which is a reminder that if we aren’t careful we can drive others away, just as fundamentalists drove me away from Christianity. If our faith means anything to us, we want to share it – at least with those we think might have a predilection for it. Is it so hard to understand that others may feel the same way, only stronger?
The column closes with the story of Hasidic Rabbi who was warned that a few people at an interfaith gathering he was to attend might say something offensive. His response was “What will they do? They may try to convert me? Then they will fail. Then? Then we will get down to business.”
May we be strong enough in our own faith that we aren’t threatened by those who would convert us, and may we be committed enough to dialogue and service that we tolerate a little proselytizing in order to contribute to the greater good.