The National Catholic Review

Cambridge, MA. Many readers of this blog will think of me as a progressive on interfaith matters, one of those Jesuit liberals. You may not know, however, that I am also, with some regularity, pilloried in the conservative Hindu blogosphere, by journalists concerned about Christian aggression against Hindus.

I have been described as an famed evangelist or, considering how positive my writings about Hinduism often seem to be, as a tricky Jesuit wolf in sheep’s clothing, covertly dedicated to the conversion of Hindus by the strategy of saying nice things about them. Consider for example a January 2012 post by Mr. Sandhya Jain. It sums me up in a brief statement: “Of course, [Clooney’s] priority is the conversion of pagan Hindus to Catholicism. To this end, he has steeped himself in the process of inculturation and drawn many intellectual Hindus into his interfaith orbit.” But read the whole item yourself.

While I think such comments are inaccurate, and wide of the mark, they do raise for me an inelegant question: After 40 years of studying Hinduism, learning from wise Hindu teachers, becoming friends with many a Hindu in India and the West – do I intend to convert Hindus? Mr Jain and others like him are good to raise the question: If you are a Christian and never preach the Gospel, what kind of Christian are you? So what have I done with the Christian imperative to evangelize? This is a large question, and this blog is fortunately not the place to answer it, particularly in the 40 minutes or so I allot for any entry at this site.

But I raise the topic here and now, as I have been reflecting on this Sunday’s Gospel – the 4th Sunday of Advent, year B – from the Gospel according to John, where we hear the famous words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3.16) - words that speak to the core of the Christian message, and words often invoked in the course of inspired efforts to convert others.

But I have always thought that any such faith claim is likely to be misunderstood - a truth floating in space, a challenge unmoored from John’s actual text - unless we take it in context. Remember where we are in John 3: Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, who has come to him in the night, for fear that he might be seen by others. He came of his own will, he was not summoned. Jesus teaches him in riddles about being born once and again, here and above, and even alludes to the bronze serpent that Moses held aloft in the desert, that people might not die. After the teaching, which surely focuses on John 3.16, the chapter ends, and we hear no more of Nicodemus – until after the death of Jesus when all hope is lost and the wisest thing to do seems to be to join the apostles in running off and hiding, denying any knowledge of Jesus. But instead, Nicodemus suddenly reappears, facing the cold, naked light of failure. Joseph of Arimathea has asked Pilate for the body of Jesus, and then Nicodemus steps forward: “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.” (John 19.38-39)

All of this seems to teach us something about conversion - not in the Clooney-as-wolf-in-sheep’s clothing mode but otherwise. Think about it: Jesus did not go seeking after Nicodemus, but waited until Nicodemus decided to come to him. Jesus talked to him, answered his questions but also puzzled and confounded him. He gave no smooth answers to naïve questions, he packaged no convert-to-my-religion message. Jesus - or the narrator- indeed proposes a great truth that “God so loved the world…” but did not make this a test for Nicodemus. Jesus neither held onto him nor condemned him, nor even invited him to follow him. He spoke to this man who had come to him, then let him go, perhaps never to return. And yet, in his own good time, when perhaps even Jesus might have thought him gone forever, Nicodemus risks everything by helping to claim and bury this criminal, loser, non-Messiah. He did convert, we might say today, but in his own good time, as he saw fit.

I don’t know what Hindu journalists such as Mr Jain think conversion means, but they often seem to reduce the process to street-corner preaching, imperial power applied to force people to change religions, or the intellectual sleight of hand by which people are robbed of their intellectual and spiritual dignity and tricked into changing religions. Perhaps there are some such evangelists, and if so, it is well that they fail in their mission.

But to be a missionary is first of all to be like Jesus, and Jesus was never just one thing. This Sunday at least, I favor the Jesus of John 3, and pray to be like him: don’t go chasing after people, but talk to those who come to you. Answer questions and raise new ones, and never worry about the effects of the conversation, as if there are deadlines to be met. Sometimes, like Jesus, we may have an effect on a Nicodemus, but only much later, even after we are gone. Or not. What happens is in God’s hands, not ours.

And not only among Christians: The world is full of seekers, people travel the spiritual highway all the time now, everywhere in our world visiting religious teachers, seeking wisdom but sometimes finding confusion, sometimes quickly changing their lives, other times delaying until everyone else thinks it is too late. Some disappear in the night, and some like Nicodemus decide only at the last minute to witness to the truth that others cannot see; they stick their necks out, risking everything for the sake of a wisdom they heard long ago.

Suspicions notwithstanding, I honestly do not think of myself as an evangelist, and anyone who reads my work will be hard put to find evidence of such plans and purposes. But since the question arose - Clooney out to convert the Hindus - I wouldn’t mind being like Jesus, who lets Nicodemus come and go as he wishes, trusting him right to the end. For freedom is key, it is what the spirit is about; as Jesus puts it, “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.” (John 3.8)

 

Comments

Amy Ho-Ohn | 3/17/2012 - 7:18pm
I think it is not necessary for somebody to explicitly acknowledge Christ in order to take advantage of the redemption made available by His sacrifice on the cross. Christ is the eternal word through which the universe was created; anybody who acknowledges the moral order of the universe and strives to live in accordance with it has confessed Christ through his life, even if not with his mouth. (God knows, many who call themselves Christian make the name of Christ very odious to those who do not.)

In the last volume of C.S. Lewis' Narnia series, there is a character who comes from the land of the Bad Guys, but after the big armageddon, he turns up in paradise, walking around in a daze saying "Tash? Tash? Where are you?" (Tash is the god of the Bad Guys.) He explains that all his life he has tried to tell the truth, give alms to the needy, fight for justice and do no unecessary harm, because that's what he was taught Tash wanted him to do. And Aslan says to him, "I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash ... if any man swear by him and keep the oath for the oath's sake, it is by me he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him."

I concede that this is rather mushy soteriology, and in fact C.S. Lewis was widely criticized for it. But I have known so many non-Christians who do so much good in the world, and whose obedience to Christ's commandments is so diligent, that it seems a very probable doctrine to me. Obviously, it is (superficially) contrary to the truths revealed through the Magisterium, so I would never express such an opinion to anybody in my parish.

A corollary is that the best way to evangelize a non-Christian is to be an example of the truth and self-evidence of the eternal Word, the moral law of the universe, and the mercy and love Christ revealed on the Cross. The details are less essential.
JIM MCCREA | 3/17/2012 - 3:34pm
" When you have tasted the Mercy of God, after great sin, you cannot help yourself. You want others to know Him. St Gregory said: "Converted sinners, once ensnared by the devil, will stop at nothing to give themselves, heart and soul, time and effort, even life and death, to share with others the joy of being reunited with their loving God." "

Absolutely possible without becoming a Christian.
C Walter Mattingly | 3/17/2012 - 12:28pm
I would echo the thoughts of David Power (1) above. Francis's idea of using words "when necessary," cued by being asked.
I wonder if Fr Clooney also might have been positively influenced by Karl Rahner. I recall reading somewhere in his writings that those who have grown up in a faith tradition are probably well advised to remain in that tradition. At the same time, it seems Fr. Rahner rarely missed an opportunity to express the affect of Christ's coming as an alteration of man's ground of being with a unique message applicable to all men.
Response: Mr Mattingly - yes definitely, Rahner has been a big influence on all Jesuits of my generation! FX
David Pasinski | 3/17/2012 - 10:35am
I appreciated youor lecture last week at LeMoyne College, Fther Clooney, and especially this approach to "evangelization." I fear that the present climate in the Church -while having currents of oen dialogue and witness - is more focussed on the more traditonal forms of evangelization of "we have the truth and you don't." Also, while I don't know if your own scholarship and theology has been called for an  examination, as I mentioned that evening, the history with your esteemed colleague, Jacques Dupuis, was not enncouraging.

Nevertheless, thank you for your own own continued leadership and example. 
Jeanne Linconnue | 3/17/2012 - 9:13am
I realize this is probably a dumb question, but.... Why do people (mostly Christians - not those of the eastern religions or Judaism) feel it necessary to try to 'convert' people to their own religion - especially if the others have their own religion which provides spiritual nuturing and spiritual community and supports them on their journey to God, and especially if others haven't demonstrated interest and initiated a conversation?  Crystal became interested because of seeing how someone's faith impacted them and how they lived. This makes sense. Going out to 'save' those who are already 'saved' even if not Christian seems unnecessary and even a tad bit arrogant and presumptious.  Maybe it's better just to trust in the Holy Spirit to guide people to their own individual and proper path - which might not be the christian path.
Response: Ms Linconnue - good question, not dumb at all. It has to do for instance with John 3.16, which I quote in my blog. These are scriptural texts of great power, and they make claims about all of humanity. Hence the decision on the part of many that the message needs to be spread. My point, of course, is that teaching the truth as Jesus did also carries with it a certain intuitive and patient element. So speaking the Christian truth can be done in the way Jesus did it. FX
PJ Johnston | 3/17/2012 - 7:14am
Speaking from experience on the receiving end, it's also possible to convert somebody to what is for them the least congenial possible religion imaginable by being inhospitable, contrarian, and actively trying to dissuade them from joining your faith.  The fact that possible conversions could result from either of two diametrically-opposed rhetorical strategies (seduction or alienation) or from no active effort to convert anybody whatsoever suggests that trying to prove somebody who doesn't think of himself as a "missionary" is actually trying to "convert" somebody on the basis of his/her actions is a pretty stupid thing to do - you just can't know.  People are ill-advised to engage in that kind of specious argument unless they are writing polemics for partisan political purposes.
Crystal Watson | 3/17/2012 - 1:21am
I think about this often.  I'm a convert myself to Christianity from agnosticism/atheism.  No one talked me into becoming a Christian but it was another person' example, how they lived their faith, that made me interested enough to want to learn more, and what finally convinced me wasn't another perspn's efforts but my own personal experience.  My best friend is not a Christian but I don't try to sell her on it, and I'm not sure it matters to God if she's a Christian or not - I hope God saves everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs.  When my mother was dying of lung cancer, though, I did try to talk to her about Jesus because I just couldn't think of any other hopeful thing to do for her, but she got angry and said I was trying to convert her.  So, I'm pretty mixed up about this wholes subject, I guess.
david power | 3/16/2012 - 9:39pm
For a long time I thought of you in less flattering terms than the Hindus.I have read this article with great attention and great profit.I know that it is impossible to maintain this level of insight and for an interfaith guy such as yourself the focus on Jesus  week in week out but this is an absolutely wonderful piece of writing.
Your analysis of Jesus and his relationship with Nicodemus is very revealing.
I wish you a good weekend father Clooney and thank you for putting this into my mind. 
MATTHEW NANNERY | 3/19/2012 - 9:31pm
I continue to be concerned about our use of the word truth, which to most hearers has an all-or-nothing ring.
As Catholics, we believe that the major tenets of Catholicism are true. But we know these things by faith, not by proving them so.
As Jesus said to Thomas: ''Because you've seen me, you believe; blessed are those who have not seen yet have believed.''
When we use the word truth in the context of evangelization or interfaith dialog, I wonder whether we put up a wall between cultures and faiths rather than knock one down.
Richard Lender | 3/19/2012 - 8:44pm
Hello Jim McCrea,

''Absolutely possible without becoming a Christian.'' Well, with due respect, Christians do not think so.  And if we have the words of Christ accurately reported to us in John 14:6, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,'' it seems clear that Christ Himself did not think so, either.

And it is for this reason that so many evangelists (many of them Jesuits) have met with martyrdom, often quite horrific, to bring that mercy and union with God to all peoples - the martyrs of North America, of Japan, of Vietnam, of Uganda, and (if tradition is to be believed) most of the Apostles themselves...the list could be multiplied at great length. What did they die for? Were their deaths in vain?  If you are right, they *did* die in vain.