I generally do not interact in great detail with readers who leave comments on my blog. It’s not that I wouldn’t like to, but I find it difficult to blog consistently and stay active in every comment thread.
Nevertheless, a friend I used to work with in Louisville left me a long comment about my recent post in defense of proselytism. Since his comment represents the thought of many in our society today, I thought I would respond to his comment with a new post. You can read the original post and his comment (unedited) here.
Gary: Please know that I appreciate you and mean you no disrespect at any point through this missive.
Trevin: I echo the same sentiments, and I am not offended in the least by the points you raise. Even though I’m going to press you on some of your comments, I hope you’ll take them in the spirit of friendship that I offer them.
Gary: Each of us must find that way of viewing the self, world, and the divine that works best for us, that which we feel to be superior, so while an adherent of any philosophy, spiritual system of thought, or religion will likely find their path to be “the best”, what makes proselytizing a rather ugly practice, in my honest opinion, is the belief that the proselytizer’s path is *objectively* superior, not *subjectively* superior.
Trevin: You are rightly focusing on the main issue – that someone who proselytizes thinks their belief is objectively true for all, not merely true for them. That is the rub. For me to remain a faithful Christian, I cannot speak of Christianity as merely “the best way to live.” We believe that the Christian Story is objectively true.
I don’t think it’s arrogant to make a claim that is true for all people. It seems more arrogant to me for someone to make the case that their faith is superior, without making any attempt to ground that conclusion in objective reality. If faiths are merely a matter of subjective preference (like having a favorite color, or a favorite kind of ice cream), then yes, proselytism is ugly and intolerant. But if faith deals with truths that encompass all of reality, then proselytism is only natural.
Gary: He who is not called to proselytizing may follow his path to his utmost while recognizing the uniqueness of each creation and the free will upon which each creation is founded…. In this point of view, the non-proselytizer can embrace the great diversity of paths which begin from different starting points but which all, in their own time, converge upon the mountaintop at the same point.
Trevin: I believe you are contradicting yourself, and if the full text of your comments is any indication, you recognize that this is a contradiction. You believe that we should all see our faiths as “subjectively,” not “objectively” superior to another, which means that we should not proselytize, but recognize that everyone has their own subjective viewpoint.
The problem is… if you are going to hold fast to this idea, you too must admit that your mountaintop analogy is also subjective. But that’s not what I see going on here. No… you are using an objective argument (“all faiths lead to the same point from different starting points”) in order to make your case that all faiths are subjective.
Can you see the arrogance of this line of argumentation? Everyone else is blind and can’t see the whole mountain. I alone have the vision that captures it all. I alone can see that all religions are actually getting at the same thing.
Your method of argumentation actually cancels out your main point, namely – that we should see our beliefs as subjective rather than objective, since you are putting forth an argument that assumes an objective reality that encompasses all of the subjective religious beliefs. Though you claim to be just another pilgrim on a different path, your illustration betrays the fact that you actually are standing from a vantage point that takes in the whole picture. (You recognize this at the end of this section of your comment, when you admit that your belief here is also subjective.)
Gary: The proselytizer ultimately hopes to accomplish the subversion of another’s free will to choose the path that is for them – the imposition of one’s will upon the other.
Trevin: I don’t see it that way at all. The proselytizer is merely seeking to persuade someone to another point of view, which is what you are doing too in this comment thread. Nothing wrong with that!
I don’t believe you are trying to subvert my free will by trying to convince me that proselytism is “ugly”. You are making a case and seeking to persuade me. Likewise, I’m making a case for Christianity and seeking to persuade you. We are appealing to each others’ mind, emotions, and experience. I’m not subverting your free will or imposing my will on you. Neither are you doing the same to me.
Gary: I do not believe that all religions are “equal”. I believe that that while there is great commonality across the religions, especially to the eye of the mystic, there is significant difference. They are not “equal” at all. However I would contend that each path is *valid* to those who know how to properly use it.
Trevin: I am glad that you do recognize differences between systems of thought. My question is this: What do you do when the religions contradict one another?
For example, Muslims do not believe that Jesus died on the cross, but someone who looked like Jesus got crucified. Christians believe that Jesus died on the cross. These statements are contradictory. One must be true and the other false.
Likewise, Hindus believe in many gods. Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe there is only one God. Atheists don’t believe in any god at all. Who is right?
My concern is that, in your effort to see commonality between the religions, you paper over these distinctions and consider all these viewpoints valid for the one who holds them. But it is wrong to consider falsehood (in any form) as valid.
If you are driving a car on a path headed toward a cliff, it would be silly for me to say, “As long as you think your path is leading up the mountain, have a good ride!” Instead, you would expect me to warn you that the path is wrong. If you told me that your religion teaches the non-existence of gravity, I would be a fool to say, “As long as that’s true for you, have fun jumping off my house.” No… I would say, “Gravity is an objective reality whether you believe it personally for yourself or not. Watch out that you don’t kill yourself.”
The proselytizer believes in something objectively true, and that is why he or she warns other people who may be adopting false beliefs.
Gary: The narrow-minded need to foist Jesus upon another, rejecting that which the individual has learned and gained upon their sacred journey and supplanting it with a *personal*, subjective vision of truth. The act which you describe says loudly, “I personally know what is best for you… over and above what **you** think is best for you.”
Trevin: The biggest source of our disagreement is in how you define religious truth. You would proselytize me into believing that Christianity is just one of many paths to the same (nebulous, undefined) god. You would have me not proselytize, even if Jesus commands me to make disciples. You would have me abandon the radical, unique truth claims at the heart of the Christian faith.
I cannot adopt your idea of religious truth as being subjective and personal without cutting out the very heart of my faith. You want me to be true to Christianity as a religion true for me. But that is not how Christianity works.
Christians believe that God entered the world as Jesus Christ, died as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and then rose again bodily to new life on the third day after his death. The death and resurrection at the heart of Christianity are historical events that change things objectively. We believe these events are objectively true regardless of how many people believe in them. For me to see Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as a “personal, subjective” belief is to abandon legitimate Christianity and replace it with something else.
In the end, I go back to my initial defense of proselytism. Both of us are involved in proselytism, Gary. I just wish that you would recognize your version of it. You make your case as if your belief is objectively true and encompasses various religious beliefs (and should be adopted by proselytizers like me!).
There’s nothing wrong with that… We can have a further discussion about religion if we can at least agree on the basic tenet that there are objective truths in the world that are true for everyone, and if you will admit that you are putting forth an objective viewpoint in an effort to persuade me as well.