In 1996 National Geographic magazine featured an article on my old hometown of Toronto, in which a Torontonian commented on how the great urban city has changed over the years and become more multi-ethnic. The aging Torontonian delighted in his city’s diversity, and compared it to the more monochrome Protestant Toronto he had grown up in prior to World War II: “I grew up when you went to Sunday school and dropped your pennies in the box for the missionaries to convert the pagans and the heathens. Now the pagans and the heathens have moved in here, and they’re quite nice people, eh?” I grew up in the 60’s in Toronto, when it was just beginning to embrace its present cosmopolitan diversity, and I also have met the pagans and heathens of my old hometown. And yes, they are quite nice people. Cultural diversity is wonderful, whether encountered in Toronto or anywhere else.
The question arises then about those missionary boxes and the legitimacy of sending missionaries to “convert the pagans and the heathens”. (Strictly speaking, of course, one cannot speak of an urban “heathen”, since by etymological definition a heathen is someone who dwells out on the heath, i.e. in the rural countryside. The term refers to the historical fact that most of those clinging to the old gods of Greece and Rome lived in the countryside; Christianity was primarily an urban phenomenon. But never mind.) In particular, one might now ask, “Should we attempt to convert the heathens? Should we strive to convert to the Christian Faith those who are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, or those of no religious faith whatsoever? Is this not the height of arrogance? Why should we try to convert them at all?”
It is a good question. Certainly we should not try to convert in an effort to make them “quite nice people”, because as the aging Torontonian noticed, they are quite nice people already. And we should not try to convert them because otherwise they would go to hell. Maybe they are hell-bound and maybe not. That is not and cannot be our concern. Our evangelistic efforts should, I suggest, be quite separate from the distinct question of anyone’s present eternal destination, if only because that bit of information is not available to us. This question we must leave to God.
So then, why should we try to convert the heathen? Does our present delight in cultural diversity mean that we must now abandon our historical mandate to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15)? Some would answer, “yes it does”, and argue that striving to convert others to Christianity constitutes a kind of ideological imperialism, a hopeless survival of a past and now discredited colonialism. Orthodoxy, rooted in the mindset of the Fathers, asserts, “no it does not”, and insists that our Lord’s commission to His apostles remains as binding today as it did when He first uttered it prior to His Ascension.
First, a brief history lesson: the world in which the early Church lived had just as much cultural and religious diversity as we do now. The existence of a monochrome world culture, be it pre-World War Protestant Toronto, or the western Catholic Middle Ages, or eastern Byzantine Orthodoxy, is the exception. In the case of Byzantium, it was admittedly a long-running exception. But it was the exception, and it is over now. The world of the early church contained an exciting and bewildering collection of languages, cultures, and religions, and they all co-existed more or less cosily beside one another. Though everyone of course preferred his own religion to that of others, everyone acknowledged the other religions’ right to exist. “Live and let live” was the motto of the Roman world (so long as one also confessed “Caesar is Lord”). Everybody in that society accepted this diversity as the divinely-sanctioned status quo.
Everybody, that is, except the Christians, and it was for this refusal to accept the status quo as divinely-sanctioned that we got into all the trouble. When we looked at the old religions worshipping the historical gods Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite, we did not discern legitimate religious diversity but the worship of demons (see 1 Cor. 10:20). In our initiation rites, the convert formally renounced his old religion, condemning its cult as the worship of “Satan and all his works, and all his angels, and all his service, and all his pride”. I have no doubt that the heathen neighbours of the new convert who still clung to the worship of the old gods were “quite nice people”. But his religion (or “service”, to use our liturgical language) was still recognized and renounced as the worship of Satan anyway. This is what our present Orthodox Liturgy refers to by the term “former delusion”.
But if we make no assumptions about the present eternal destiny of those clinging to other religions, why ask them to convert to ours? In a word, because our Faith is more than simply eternal fire insurance. We ask people to embrace Christianity for two reasons: 1. because it is in fact true, and 2. because through the worship of Christ we have access to a peace, joy, healing, and transformation not found anywhere else.
Take conversion from Islam for example. I gladly put my pennies in my missionary box (or write my cheque to the Orthodox Christian Mission Center) because Islam asks its practitioners to believe things that are not in fact true—such as that Jesus of Nazareth was not crucified (when He was), and that He is not the Son of God (when in fact He is). Why believe an error when one can have the truth? Also, I would convert my quite nice Muslim neighbour because I believe that were he to worship Christ as God as part of His historic Church he could find abundant life not otherwise available to him were he to remain a Muslim. Salvation (or theosis, to give its fancier name) is only found through the worship of Christ our God, and through penitent participation in the Church’s sacramental realities. My Muslim neighbour is admittedly quite nice already without any such theosis. I might be nice apart from Christ as well. But how much happier would we both be with such theosis? Christ came to offer abundant life (Jn. 10:10), and conversion is simply the process whereby we all lay hold of it.
I suspect that modern people, in Toronto or elsewhere, have given up the practice of putting pennies into missionary boxes and striving to convert others to Christianity because they have ceased to believe in Christianity themselves. They do not view religion as a way of seeing the world as it is (i.e. having an accurate worldview), nor as a way of experiencing interior healing and transformation (i.e. obtaining salvation). Rather, religion is now viewed simply as an expression of one’s earthly culture, like cuisine or manner of dress. Cultural diversity is rightly valued because differences in cuisine and dress are all equally legitimate. But religion cannot be reduced to matters of culture. Rather, it connects us with transcendent realities and powers. In the case of heathen religions, some of those powers are harmful, and should be renounced. In the Christian Faith alone do we have the possibility of accessing a power that leads to healing and joy. And that is ultimately more important than simply being quite nice.