Need For a Dialogue on Theology Of Conversion

Address by Reverend Father Gregory Comella, Professor of Theology, Graduate Theological Union of Berkley University, California, and ordained Catholic Priest at New Delhi, Nov 15-17, 2001

Need For A Dialogue On Theology Of Conversion

Address by Reverend Father Gregory Comella, Professor of Theology, Graduate Theological Union of Berkley University, California, and ordained Catholic Priest at New Delhi, Nov 15-17, 2001

On Nov 3, 2001 Cardinal Lorenzay, on the occasion of the Hindu Fest of Dipavali, called for education to begin among Hindu and Christian communities regarding learning to dialogue in a spirit of mutual esteem and respect.

One week later John Paul II encouraged his Catholic audience to be present to other cultures and religions because the Gospel message has the power to enlighten and to act as saving leaven.

Both messages were delivered within the backdrop of the increasing violence of the last few months, and in an apparent desire on the part of the Vatican, to lessen that violence to the medium of dialogue. And yet, it has been noted by spiritual leaders within the Catholic community and in other faiths in wisdom traditions likewise and as well, that a Catholic theology that exclusively highlights and privileges conversion and baptism as an end purpose of all interfaith dialogue, is violent in and of itself.

If the drive and the motivational intention of the churches is to convert people, change people and ultimately to baptize people, this is going to be experienced as violent to other cultures and religions.

Indeed, does the church have alternative scripture images of salvation that might be more helpful in promoting dialogue and ahimsa at a time when dialogue and non-violence is seen as utterly salvific and urgently needed?

As an ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church and thus part of its teaching ministry, I would like to strongly urge, at this time of great urgency, for a dialogue with the Vatican and the Pontifical Counsel for Inter-Religious Dialogue, to cease using the image and theology of conversion changing people and baptizing them.

Conversion terminology and theory seems to close the doors of dialogue. And instead it creates fear, anger and a deep resentment at the implication that only Christians, and Catholics in particular, are saved.

Conversion theology and conversation seems to be impending upon genuine mutual esteem and respect, So this has prompted me in my own education and ministry within that religious tradition – that I appreciate, and which is my lineage – to explore other images in the Christian Scriptures of what salvation might look like and how the Church could be present and engaged in a world of diversity.

I would like to present to you five images from the Christian Scriptures that give another understanding, another luminous understanding of what salvation might look like and how we might be involved in the world with each other.

The first passage is from Luke’s Gospel, Chapter XII where the teacher, the Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, mandates his students to be leaven in the world. Leaven is that substance added to dough that allows it to rise, to lighten, to become airy. Leaven is that substance added to dough that allows it to rise, to lighten, to become airy. Leaven is that which enhances lightness and allows the bread to be appreciated. It adds nothing to the substance of the bread. The bread does not have to change. In fact the bread becomes more bread because of the yeast. We lighten the mass of dough by our presence we don’t detract from someone’s bread nor do we add to the taste of the bread.  We don’t have to convert the bread, we don’t have to change the bread. All we need to be is that which lightens and creates an airy spirit.

What would it look like for the Christian churches to imagine themselves as that airy and lightening and livening presence where the already present fullness, where the already present divinity rises and is recognized?

The second image is from a passage in Matthew V where Jesus addresses and mandates his students to be light standing on a  basket. Ss we know light has no content. It is not meant to change a situation of a person. Light is that which when given, enables that which is already present in fullness, to be recognized. Light is that which provides the capacity for clear seeing of knowledge and reality. Light adds nothing to a person or an object. It simply allows the fullness, the purnam, of whatever is already there to be seen, appreciated and celebrated. And Jesus the Rabbi closes this particular passage by saying: Be light so other people can offer their god thanksgiving.

The third image is from Matthew V, verse 13 where Jesus invites his students, his disciples to be salt had two purposes. So when he was inviting them to engage in the world and be present in the midst of diversity, he said be salt, be flavorful for certain flavor. Salt was also used as a preservative. At the time of Jesus, salt was that which would preserve the goodness of something that was already present.

What would it look like for churches to regard themselves as salt, to be that which would enhance and protect people’s cultures rather than change and convert?

In the fourth image Jesus paints in Matthew XXV, a picture of the Last Judgment that has nothing to di with being baptized r converted. He provides for us another image of salvation which does not imply changing people or inviting them to be different. The teacher, the Rabbi suggesting to his students a salvation based on dharma and living within the golden rule. The Lord speaks at the moment of judgment of being fed, nurtured,  and refreshed, of being visited in illness, of being welcomed when he was a stranger and of being sheltered when he was exposed to danger and loneliness. The person beignwelcomed into heaven claims to have never done that charitable service for the teacher. The Lord God simly responds “Come and enter the place prepared for you since the beginning of time. SO when you did it to the least in your midst, I was there. You did it for me.”

What would it look like for churches to be present as light and leaven and salt in the world? What would it be like for the churches to engage in diversity as dharmic communities for the sole purpose of simply loving? Of simply loving and serving with no intention of ultimately converting or baptizing? What would it like to be about a love that could be described in Sanskrit as sufrit – to love without reason? Because that is who we are. What would it be like to love the creation and indeed all creatures as the very being and the self of god?

Jesus finally would describe for us how church missionaries might be present in lands of diversity. One day he got up in the morning and he crossed to the other dise of the lake. The other side of the lake. The other side of the lake was Phoenicia. It was a land that was not his own, that was considered foreign, too diverse and unclean. He was met by a pagan, a foreign woman, We don’t know her name but she had a gravely ill daughter and had an urgent concern that her sickness be healed. Initially Jesus the Rabbi, the teacher refused her need and her request for healing because he understood that his mission was a to reclaim the lost sheep of Israel, of which she was not. He said that he could not be giving healing to the dogs. She persists strongly to the teacher that even dos get the scraps from the table. So strong was her belief that healing had come for her daughter. The teacher then commends her faith, and his own sense of mission is expanded. He leanrs. He grows because of her. And becomes more inclusive than he ever would have imagined. The little girl was healed, the teacher was taught.

What would it be like for church missionaries to be learners before they speak, and to allow people to whom they are sent, to be their teachers? Jesus requires this spirit.

At the concluding session of the World Congress

This morning was not a pleasant experience for me. It was a year ago that Swamiji (Dayananda Saraswathi), to whom I am grateful, began to expose me to the clear, honest truth that conversion is violence. And I am oart of that tradition because I am a Roman Catholic priest. I am grateful for that awareness that I am part of a tradition that has caised immeasurable violence, and hurt and insult to peoples of other cultures. And although I am only one person from that tradition, on behalf of the tradition I ask your forgiveness.

There is a ritual in the Catholic Church  called confession. The confession of something that was done wrong in the past doesn’t bring the freedom and it does not bring the reconciliation.What actually brings the reconciliation to fullness is when the party who committed the injury makes a full purpose of wanting to change, to live a life more dharmic and less injurious to other people.

So long with experiencing profould regret I make a full purpose of amendment to do what I can in my own life to make sure that cause of manipulative conversion ceases.