Conversion, Interreligious Dialogue and Evangelization

I first became acquainted with the Cistercian monk Christian de Cherge through the film Of Gods and Men. De Cherge was part of a Cistercian community at Tibhirine in Algeria, living and working among the Muslims there until he and six of his fellow monks were abducted and then assassinated in 1996.

After seeing the film, I gave little thought to de Cherge until my friend Richard gave me a book for Christmas, Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope, written by Christian Salenson. I started reading the book this week an am loving it.

Since I often talk about conversion, both in retreats and in the book talks I’ve been doing about Growing in Love and Wisdom, I smiled at Salenson’s description of de Cherge’s way of understanding conversion (a subject about which he wrote much), since it echoes what I often say on the subject. Salenson quotes one of de Cherge’s chapter talks, in which he said:

Conversion is a dynamic process, a way of being meant to remain active. It is a ‘tropism’: we turn toward God the way f plant turns toward the sun. Conversion must not be confused with change of religion…Change of religion may bring about an important shift in focus, but it does not exhaust the whole meaning of conversion, and it may well turn out that it is not even a part of the meaning of conversion.

De Cherge understood that all, of whatever religion, are called equally to conversion – a conversion that is a turning toward God.

For de Cherge, this understanding of conversion as, first and foremost, a dynamic process of turning toward God, says something about the goal of interreligous dialogue. The purpose of interreligious dialogue is not to convince the other person of the tenets of our own religion. In Salenson’s words, “Interreligious dialogue obliges us to distinguish between conversion to God and change of religion. Although conversion remains the heart of dialogue, this conversion of all participants does not mean a change in religious affiliation but a turn to God.”

This also invites us to think about how we articulate the goal of our Christian mission of evangelization and reminds us of the importance of distinguishing between evangelization and proselytization. Witnessing to Christ and proclaiming the Gospel is our task, not seeking to have adherents of other faith traditions abandon theirs in favor of ours.