For those of us researching mission history, as much of my own research could appropriately be characterised, there are recurring questions about how to approach the issues raised. Coming as I do from a liberal Enlightenment university tradition, it is out of question for me that the study of mission history would be connected to the pursuit of mission activity in the sense of proselytism. I am far from alone in this: Andreas Feldtkeller is one of many who have argued coherently against this confusion (e.g. he does this elegantly and succinctly in Sieben Thesen zur Missionsgeschichte, series: Berliner Beiträge zur Missionsgeschichte, Berlin, Heft 1, September 2000).
However, these issues do still intrude. When, a few years ago, I initiated the Christians in the Middle East research network, now run with colleagues from Balamand and St Andrews, several enquiries came from individuals and organisations who were seeking to ‘convert’ Muslims in the Middle East to (a very evangelical kind of Protestant) Christianity: some sought an academic connection with us, others wanted to use our mailing list to promote their work; one enquirer even suggested we might want to make use of his staff in the region as ‘agents on the ground’ to promote our (supposedly) evangelical mission. Although one of the areas we are interested in is the study of missions from, to, and within the Middle East, especially historically, pursuing such activity today is emphatically not what the CME network was created for; these enquirers were rebuffed, politely but clearly.
Nonetheless, such interventions raise interesting questions about conversion and what is meant by this use of language. Specifically, we might ask what the proposed conversion is really from and to that these people are now trying to pursue, and that missionaries in the past have sought to bring about.
Simplistically, in this instance, we can point to a change from adherence to a tradition called Islam, to a tradition called Christianity. Indeed, such language of Christianisation is the dominant model for a great deal of mainstream church mission activity around the globe from the 18th into the 20th century; now this tends to be something that is pursued only by certain fringe groups and smaller denominations. In this model, existing beliefs were to be repudiated and replaced with new beliefs – the simplicity of this language conveys the simplicity of the process as many missionaries initially saw it in the past (and some still do so today). After all, many missionaries reasoned, the Greek New Testament used simple language to describe the transformation that the new believers in the gospels and Pauline letters were to undergo: metanoia is the key term here. This was used in the Septuagint (a Greek version of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible) to mean ‘after-thought, change of mind, repentance’ and is used in the New Testament to denote ‘repentance from sin’. What was argued on this basis is that the ‘former life’ of the convert was one of sin, and only turning away from that enabled salvation. This becomes a kind of ‘re-enculturation': the complete abandonment of existing patterns of belief and behaviour and the complete adoption of new patterns of belief and behaviour (for a brief discussion of the problems with the term ‘belief’, see my posting here).
Of course, such ‘re-enculturation’ is impossible. Enculturation, as a process of socialisation and hegemony-production, is often defined as enabling competent engagement in a specific cultural context; further encounters with other cultural norms move into what is commonly called acculturation. There is a fluid boundary between these two, ever more so as discerning specific cultures without resorting to essentialist distortions becomes increasingly difficult in our globalised world (such distortions easily elide into racism: I am thinking of conservative writers such as Niall Ferguson, Samuel Huntingdon and others). In the 19th century, missionaries – representatives of European global dominance, whether they felt this gave them power or not – could perhaps still convince themselves that they were engaging with an alien culture when they left Europe, and that converts should follow their particular understanding of metanoia. However, as I have shown in the Palestine context (and many others have done so in other contexts), any conversion that might have taken place was always a process of acculturation: converts maintained significant elements of their enculturated norms, and amended or added to these in taking on the missionaries’ new norms. (Incidentally, I argue that despite the asymmetrical power relationships, it was the missionaries themselves who underwent the most significant changes in the missionary encounter: a process of reculturation.)
What does this mean for the question of conversion from and to? If, as I have argued in an earlier blog posting, we cannot usefully speak of different ‘traditions’ in a world religions paradigm then questions of conversion also become much more complex (scholars such as Suzanne Owen and our own Tim Fitzgerald have also argued this in other contexts). Following the argument above, we can say that ‘conversion’ is not so much about moving from one enculturated norm to another (what I have loosely called ‘re-enculturation’), but acculturation, and consequently, the language of ‘religious conversion’ becomes rather meaningless.
In conclusion, the most appropriate usage of the term ‘religious conversion’ seems to be – at best – as a descriptor of certain historical attempts to pursue a particular strategy of Christianisation, attempts that we should be glad are largely behind us.