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from the Secretary General

Conversion

by Robert L. Stern

Conversion [from the Latin conversio, from the verb convertere, from com-thoroughly + vertere to turn] 1. The act of converting, or being converted in substance, condition, form, function, etc. 2. A change in which one comes to adopt and uphold new opinions and beliefs; especially in matters of religion, a spiritual turning to righteousness and faith.

Let me come right out and say it, I don’t like using this word for religious matters at all. I don’t like talking about “converts” and “converting” and “conversion.”

Somehow it suggests a kind of betrayal – turning away from what one held before, turning one’s back on all that was past as though it had no value at all.

In the human quest for meaning, for the transcendental, for God, as a general rule I don’t think we’re meant to switch sides like a voter who changes party affiliation or a football fan who decides to root for a new team.

I do think we’re meant to build on the foundations of our lives – to grow from where we were first planted – to mature and develop, integrating new insights – to make occasional corrections to ensure we are on course to our final destination.

Now, this doesn’t mean someone should never make a radical, complete change. It may be that the course and direction of one’s life is profoundly flawed or that a person is hungry for a new identity and community. But, it shouldn’t always need to come to this.

On the other hand, the way the world is, we need to put people in one category or another. For example, as a Christian, could I try to integrate all I may find insightful, spiritually enriching or meaningful in Islam into my life, remaining a disciple of Jesus?

Privately, it may be possible. But, publicly what would it mean? Would fellow Christians accept my following some Muslim practices? Would Muslims allow me to share any of their tradition without renouncing much of my Christian heritage? Is there any room for a Christian Muslim or Muslim Christian?

Suppose I’m a Jew looking at the teaching of Jesus and attracted to it. Is there any way for me to integrate it into my life, remaining a Jew by identity and a member of a Jewish community? Privately, it may be possible. But, publicly it would be a kind of consorting with a historical enemy.

Some try it, for example, Jews for Jesus. But, how do you embrace Jesus without replacing all the customs and practices of Judaism with the foreign customs and practices of one of the Christian churches?

Am I out to “convert” anybody? A long time ago, unhesitatingly, I would have said yes. Now, I realize it’s more complicated.

Am I out to share whatever good that has been given to me or that I have found, by the grace of God? Of course. Am I eager to grow in holy wisdom and help anyone and everyone else to do the same? Of course. Do I want others to switch sides, adopt a new culture, cheer a new leader, leave behind their past, forget their roots and be seen as a traitor to those left behind? No, I don’t want that.

What is the answer? I don’t know.

O God, if there is to be any “conversion” in my interacting with your other children, please make it my turning away from all that pulls me away from you and correcting the course of my life so that it brings me to you.

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Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern



Tags: Christianity Cultural Identity Religious Differences