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)