What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

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When was the last time you heard about the religious conversion of an entire nation? A region? A city? A neighborhood? A family? In reading contemporary missionary literature, one does occasionally come across the conversion of whole families, and even more rarely, of entire clans. But these conversions take place in cultures deemed to be “primitive”, offering little hope to us in the “developed” world.

The fact is that Christendom was built on the conversion of groups, not individuals. And these conversions flowed hierarchically from the top of society to the bottom, not democratically as a “grass roots” movement.

In the most recent issue of the Saint Austin Review (if you are not already a subscriber, I hope you’ll rectify the situation and subscribe immediately), dedicated to “Religion and Politics”, you will find the following gem by the renowned historian Christopher Dawson:

The great missionary expansion of the nineteenth century was based on the principle of individual conversion … There is a fundamental contrast between this approach and the collective or communal form of expression which had dominated the Christian world for upwards of a thousand years. Western Christendom was not built up by the method of individual conversions. It was a way of life which the people accepted as a whole, often by the decision of their rulers, and which when accepted affected the whole life of society by the change of their institutions and laws …

Moreover it may well be claimed that the missionary Churches of the Dark Ages produced a richer harvest even in the sphere of culture than anything that the modern missionary movement can show. There is little in the new non-occidental Christianity that can be compared with Bede and Boniface, with the religious art of Northumbria or with the new vernacular Christian literature. For in the case of Anglo-Saxon England, the mass conversion of the people meant the rebirth of culture …

In the modern world there will continue to be individual conversions, and for these we can thank God. But there will be no conversion of our own nation, and certainly no revival of Christendom, apart from two essential things now universally disfavored: 1) an hierarchical society with respect and veneration for authority; 2) a strong, communal identity as a people. History shows us clearly how the twin evils of egalitarianism and individualism, embraced by both left and right in the current socio-political milieu, conspire against any hope for conversion on a communal level.

But perhaps it’s not really as hopeless as all that. There are still units of society, albeit small ones, that are potentially vehicles for the conversion of many. The most obvious unit is that of the family. The conversion of a family’s head, if it be a strong family, might be sufficient for the conversion of the unit as a whole and also for generations to come. The same might be true of any small to medium sized organization, if it operates in the old familial and patriarchal fashion, with an internal culture so pervasive that its members absorb the Faith almost by osmosis. That being the case, we can see how today's effeminate, unchallenging, non-threatening, emotion-soaked evangelism fails to reach those who exert the greatest social influence, starting with the men who lead families.

Only in these small units, where respect for hierarchy and authority and communal identity have not been altogether extinguished, does the possibility exist today of conversion en masse. Our task, in the interim, is to revive these prerequisites in a manner that is practical and harmonious with existing circumstances, neither accepting the lies of modernity nor denying the reality it has imposed upon us.

Comments (98)

But why is a communal conversion above the family unit to be especially desired?

The Dark Age tribes were numerically much smaller than modern societies and the comparison as to the religious art then and now is not much sensible either.
Perhaps Dawson is unfamiliar with the mass conversions of tribes on the Assam frontier in the British India. These were the people reborn in the exactly the same way as Saxons.

But why is a communal conversion above the family unit to be especially desired?

Because a Christian society is something to be especially desired. Do you disagree?

I don't know, Jeff. When I went to the Rite of Election, I took a special joy in the fact that something like 250,000 other people were becoming Catholics (in the USA) on that same evening. That's quite a tribe in a single year, so to speak.

But can we become a Christian nation again as we once were? Probably not. But Christendom as it was in the Middle Ages was essentially more a superstition than a faith. Most people never went to Mass or took communion from what I've read.

Real faith demands such a radical departure from the mainstream nowadays that few care to embrace it. It simply marginalizes you; makes you odd man out. And people are social, want to belong at ease in the herd.

In the times of the Great Awakenings, there was no competition about the supernatural. People were either opportunists and materialist cynics (the few) or had a fear of the Lord because death was all around them all the time, and suffering was as close as your dearest loved one or beloved child.

When suffering and death are close by, people are more mindful in the way Samuel Johnson said about your hanging being a mere fortnight away.

Suffering really is the royal road to heaven, if you can survive it.

To talk about the conversion of nations is to equivocate on the meaning of conversion.

Jeff, et. al.

Is Matthew 28:19 relevant to this topic?

"having gone, then, disciple all the nations, baptizing them - to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit...."

Dawson's language is loaded. For the Anglo-Saxon conservatives at the time, mass conversion might have meant not a "rebirth of culture" but the conquest of their own, traditional culture by a new, foreign culture. Was a culture being reborn or replaced?

If there's not much authority in our society, then there's at least something that comes pretty close to it. Our priestly class - Oprah, Dr. Phil, et al. - does hold something close to authority in the classic sense of auctoritas as opposed to potestas. Oprah isn't exactly the Pope, but still, for her followers, a pronouncement from her is in its own way "more than advice and less a than command." The route to conversion-by-authority would seem to lead not through heads of family but through talk show hosts, movie stars, singers, etc.

We shouldn't lose our sense of proportion. As much as we love our Christian societies and Christian cultures and ought to love them, cultures, societies, nations, even empires are fleeting things, here today and gone tomorrow. Individual human souls, on the other hand, are eternal, are potential gods or demons. Any individual soul is, by comparison, infinitely more important than any of those transient fleeting things that men create in this life.

It was originally hypothesizedt, among sociologists, that Pentacostals came mostly from the disenfranchised poor, but when they actually looked at the data, they found that, by and large, it was middle-class and rich folk who became Pentacostals or in poor countries, it was poor people who wanted more material things. Spiritual experiences became a sort of possession, like a car.

True conversion is a reflective process of letting one's mind be transformed by the Truth. This takes time, usually, and peace and quiet. In a modern world of almost Borg-like multiple voices all playing in our head, simultaneously, this reflection is very difficult exceptnamong then poor. Christianity is spreading the fastest among the poorest nations, not the most primitive. The first Great Awakening occurred prior to the Industrial Revolution. When the Industrial Rvolution occurred and wealth began to spread, the mood in the U. S. Turned more towards experiential Christianity - revelations and ecstasies. The best way o return to authentic Christianity is for the U. S. to have another depression. During the Depression, Chatismatic groups went largely underground, while more practical Christianity flourished.

The Chicken

The fact is that Christendom was built on the conversion of groups, not individuals.


Mmmm, not really. To answer this question I would go first to the book of Acts. In Acts I find some examples of conversions that are definitely said to have been of households (the Philippian jailor being the most obvious), some that are definitely said to have been of individuals (Lydia, the seller of purple, and plenty of others), and some that involve large numbers but for which we're simply not told whether this involved whole households or not (the 5,000 on the day of Pentecost at the very beginning).

Moreover, martyr stories like those of Felicity and Perpetua involve individuals who leave and refuse to listen to their _pagan_ families by clinging to Christianity. One of those women (can't remember which) had recently given birth to a child, and the strong implication of the story is that even her husband was not a Christian. Her father, in a dramatic scene, begs her to renounce Christ, and she refuses.

St. Paul addresses the issue of Christians with non-Christian (probably Gentile pagan) spouses because evidently it was a prevalent occurrence in the early church.

And then there is Jesus' statement that he came not to bring peace but a sword and to set the children at odds with their parents, etc.

Christians were cast out of the synagogue (per another of Jesus' prophecies) because their entire communities did _not_ accept Christianity.

So I'm afraid I can't agree, as a sheer matter of history, with the thesis of the main post that Christian conversion used to be communal and is individual only in wimpier modern times.

Ah, correction: Lydia appears to have been the head of her own household. She originally heard the word of God apparently at a riverside, accepted it, and brought her own household along. Inference that she was a widow seems plausible.

The Ethiopian eunuch is a good example of an individual brought to Christ qua individual--God sent Philip all the way out to the desert to meet him. So too is the example of the two-on-one discipleship of Apollos by Priscilla and Aquila. Apollos previously knew only the baptism of John the Baptist.

The main point to keep in mind is that Christianity very often came _into_ a society with plenty of authoritarian structure and in such a society created a ruckus or drove a wedge between those who accepted and those who did not. Again and again in the Book of Acts we find riots and stonings, etc., against the apostles when the gospel is rejected by part or most of the populace. Sometimes it will say "but some believed" or something like that.

A similar experience is repeated today when Muslims accept Christ and then are in danger from their highly authoritarian community. The whole community does _not_ convert, whole families do _not_ convert, but God values and saves the individual souls who are willing to risk all to follow Jesus, even when this puts them in danger from their own families. And believe me--that doesn't happen by means of wimpy evangelism.

Lydia, in the statement you quoted he wrote "Christendom" by which I assume he meant "the West" or, more specifically, Catholic Europe. I think this excludes the instances and areas you refer to from the Book of Acts. So, isn't Jeff's statement generally true?

I don't know if it's an either/or thing. Rome was converted by individual conversions and by the grand conversion of Constantine.

Lydia, in the statement you quoted he wrote "Christendom" by which I assume he meant "the West" or, more specifically, Catholic Europe.

I fully admit, Bruce, that I haven't fully researched the history of the conversion of Catholic Europe. It's of course possible that as an historical matter its conversion involved a far larger number of tribal or familial conversions en masse than individual conversions.

But I think you'll have to admit that Jeff was making more than one point in the main post. He was also conveying very strongly the idea that the notion of individual conversion is a modern rather than an ancient one, born of modernist individualism and egalitarianism. I think this is plain false, and I think that Acts refutes this.

Nor is this merely a matter of history. It is a matter of the nature of the case. This is why Jesus said that about setting families against one another. Yes, sometimes there will be conversions en masse. But because Christianity (sorry, Jeff) has an ineliminable individualistic element--i.e., the fact that God _does_ value the individual soul and not simply the community--Christianity involves a call to all who will hear, a call for response. It is inevitable that this will involve tearing families apart.

In fact, the more hierarchical and communal the original, non-Christian culture is, the more this will be true! The more Christianity will set families and communities by the ears. We see this with Islam. If Jeff were right and the production of hierarchical, patriarchal societies were an important pre-condition of evangelism, we should see more successful evangelism in Muslim countries than in the individualistic West--whole families converting en masse and so forth. But not so. On the contrary, what we see are individuals converting, often individuals who are _lower_ on the totem pole (wives, daughters, etc.), and then being in danger from their more powerful relatives because of their individual conversions. Or we see men converting, even leaders, but having little impact because of the rejection of Christianity by the powerful culture and community around them.

Do we really want a strongly hierarchical society that is, initially, _non-Christian_, in the hopes that we can come in in several fell swoops and convert this society to Christianity by en masse conversions? It ain't going to happen. It would be a bad idea to try to produce.

Nor is the use of hierarchy to oppose Christianity reserved to Islam or (as in the Felicity and Perpetua case) paganism. My own mother was forbidden by her father, an atheist, to go to church as a child. He relented in her teens, she met my father at church, and that's why I'm here today. My father also was the only one of his family other than his mother to be a Christian, and for most of his life his mother followed the lead of his exceedingly strong-willed father and never went to church.

"To believe" is the action of individual persons, not of the aggregate. Nations do not have faith, though some individuals, or even many, within that nation might have it. Unbelievers, even those who come from allegedly converted nations, are still lost in their sins. They are not converts -- they are not Christians -- just because their nation claims to be. If you, personally, do not have faith in Christ, you, personally, are lost, despite what spiritual condition others around you might have, and despite what others might claim about your nation or your tribe. Regeneration is specifically for those persons who believe, not for political entities called nations, or for ethic groups called tribes (or called anything else).

Another historical point worth adding: Christianity initially flourished among slaves. Sometimes, yes, whole households including both masters and slaves converted, but often it was just the slaves. The apostles and the early church leaders evidently had no problem with this, despite the fact that this was making a division within households (slaves were considered part of the larger household). This bespeaks a more "individualistic" view (if one wishes to use that word) of conversion than one would gather from this, by Dawson (emphasis added):

The great missionary expansion of the nineteenth century was based on the principle of individual conversion … There is a fundamental contrast between this approach and the collective or communal form of expression which had dominated the Christian world for upwards of a thousand years.

That isn't, I note, just about specifically Christian Europe. It implies that the entire notion of individual conversion was some sort of Victorian invention.

Well, I'm sorry, but balderdash. Pro-pre-modern nostalgic historical revisionism.

Of course, if the anti-individualists want to stress Dawson's use of "upwards of a thousand years" and imply that Dawson definitely means to _exclude_ apostolic and pre-Constantinian missions (perhaps anything up to the Dark Ages?), be my guest. I won't know enough to refute you decisively, though I'll still suspect the thesis much exaggerated inasmuch as it treats individual conversions as something of an anomaly or as fairly unimportant to the Church during an extremely long period of time. (Wasn't there some story...some story...about a 13th century Dominican...kidnapped by his brothers, defying his mother who was then the head of the family...because they didn't want him to become a beggar monk. Yes, I believe there was.)

But this would be rather amusing anyway: I doubt very much that Dawson or Jeff wants to give aid and comfort to the evangelical contention that they are rediscovering a pure form of Christianity more true to that of the Apostles and early church and corrupted after the Church attained earthly power with the reign of Constantine. If those darned 19th century individualist missionaries were doing something more like the early apostles and martyrs, then count me in with the darned 19th century individualist missionaries.

I'm not sure what to make of the mass conversion thing. It would seem that those occasions could be distinguished by the homogeneity and the size of the population. So I don't know if the 'king converts/ everybody follows' motif is quite accurate. I remember reading of St Wilifred(?) going to the Frisians and maybe some other peoples and baptizing thousands in a few days of preaching. It wouldn't be many conversions before whole villages or towns were basically Christian. Were the kings foreigners (as in the roman empire) or of like mind with their people, same loyalty, same language, blood and historical memory?

On the other hand, we have seen mass conversions even in recent centuries, though Catholics may refer to it as Apostasy.

Very good thoughts to ponder, Jeff.

Lydia, who are the "anti-individualists" you are speaking of? Jeff shows clearly that he is not against individual conversions, but is for them. Of course important conversions of individuals have occurred throughout Christian history. I don't see Jeff or Dawson denying this, nor are they saying conversions occurring on an individual basis are wanting or defective. As I read it, Jeff is simply showing here the strengths of the conversion of entire communities, and what has been lost by the loss of this understanding. This is something worthwhile to ponder, even if en masse conversions that occurred more commonly in earlier Christian history are not to be experienced again.

Dawson is definitely implying, as I read the quotation, that there was something novel about what he calls "the principle of individual conversion"--novel to the 19th century. Actually, the "principle of individual conversion" goes back to Jesus Christ. As in, "Leave your father and mother and come, follow me."

Jeff connects individual conversion to the "individualism and egalitarianism" of the modern era.

Jeff's prescription, as I understand it, is that we should revive stronger and more hierarchical families *in general*, including in non-Christian groups, in an attempt to set up the "prerequisites" for larger-group conversions--by families.

I think that's not a good or practical idea. And we have a practical test of it. In the Muslim community, we actually need to do more to _break down_ the often despotic hierarchical set-up in order to make it even possible for _anyone_ to be converted to Christianity without getting killed or beaten to a pulp. Not to mention the fact that that strong hierarchical structure also supports other bad practices such as FGM, wife-beating, etc.

Moreover, I don't know how to say this any less bluntly: I believe in child evangelism and youth evangelism. I have no problem at all with programs that target children and young people and hope thereby to bring families into the church. This is bottom-up rather than top-down evangelism of the most blatant kind, and my past experience (I will be happy for Jeff to prove me wrong in his case) is that it tends to be disliked *in principle* by a particular type of hierarchical traditionalist.

Lydia -

I thought I was clear the first time, but maybe not. So let me put it differently: I am for individual conversions. Totally for them, all the way, and it would be wickedly wrong to exclude them. Clear enough? Will respond to the rest as time allows.

Do we want to (ever) have Christian societies again? Societies where we're not a religious minority? THen Jeff's ideas seem like a good way to get there to me.

Dawson is definitely implying, as I read the quotation, that there was something novel about what he calls "the principle of individual conversion"--novel to the 19th century. Actually, the "principle of individual conversion" goes back to Jesus Christ. As in, "Leave your father and mother and come, follow me."

I think you've misinterpreted what Dawson is saying. When the nineteenth century rolled around, "upwards of a thousand years" would not be an intelligible way of describing the time period encompassing all of Christian history. It would be much more intelligible for Dawson to have said something like "close to two thousand years" if he was trying to say that a focus on communal conversions had always been the norm. Instead, Dawson is asserting that communal conversions had been the main means of conversion for a long period of Christian history up until the 19th century, but not necessarily the entire period of Christian history from the beginning. Your misunderstanding here may have something to do with your misunderstanding of Jeff's position on individual conversions.

But Buckyinky, I anticipated that possibility and replied to it above. Look, let's face it: Dawson sounds like he prefers communal conversions. I _highly doubt_ that he would want to say (which would be a concession to the evangelicals) that their "principle of individual conversion" was characteristic of Jesus, the apostles, and the early Christian, had been set aside in favor of mass group conversions for a thousand years beginning somewhere after the reign of Constantine, and that they were reviving it. If so, that would be an argument _for_ the "principle of individual conversion," whereas Dawson apparently thinks that its revival in the 19th century after "upwards of a thousand years" is an argument _against_ it.

Do we want to (ever) have Christian societies again? Societies where we're not a religious minority? THen Jeff's ideas seem like a good way to get there to me.

Bruce, really? Practically, I absolutely don't see it. Let's set aside the fact that there seems no practical way to revive hierarchical family structures on a society-wide scale in secular families anyway. What if somehow we could? Is that a good way to move us in the direction of Christian society? Doesn't sound like it to me. It sounds more likely to produce parents who use their authority to keep their families secular (like my grandfather, for example). If they got really excited about having a "family culture" and "passing on their values to their children" they'd start sending them to kids' atheist camp (these really exist). But come to think of it, the public schools probably do pretty good duty as a poor man's atheist camp anyway. The parents would just put themselves in harness with the public school teachers and make *darned good and sure* to use their authority to raise children as impervious as possible to the Gospel.

The same is true, mutatis mutandis, for families with specific non-Christian religions, such as Islam (which I've discussed above).

This discussion reminds me a bit of something that came up once on VFR. An Indian reader wrote to LA saying how pleased he was with the concept of traditionalism and how he wanted to apply this to the preservation of traditionalist Indian Hindu society. As I recall the exchange (don't have it in front of me right now), it was he who made the first reference to Christian missionaries undermining this Hindu traditionalism. But perhaps I brought it up. Anyway, one way and another, I made comments, which LA posted, which drew out the fact that this Hindu traditionalist reader was all in favor of anti-conversion laws in India to hinder Christian missionary efforts! In-ter-est-ing.

And that's how it is and will be. The more hierarchical, clannish, and traditionalist we make a society that _isn't Christian_ (be it secular, Hindu, or Muslim), the more resistant we make it to Christianity, not the more liable to become Christian. We simply supply such a society with more effective tools for producing young people in the image of their parents, for passing on the non-Christian cultural values, for making it more and more difficult to convert.

When it comes to non-Christian society and distinctly non-Christian values, Christianity might better be thought of as anti-traditional and radical.

There might, of course, be _other_ arguments for reviving something like patriarchalism in society at large, including secular families. For example, less divorce, fewer couples living separately as if divorced so that they can each have their own careers. Support for traditional marriage. Less abortion. The strengthening of the military. And so on and so forth. But that's all different from any argument about conversion to Christianity.

You could have whole nations "converted" to Christ and have not even one in ten citizens actually converted. The use of the word "conversion" in this context is misguided. Historically and theologically, this isn't about conversion; it's about superficial cultural re-direction, which is quite different.

The route to conversion-by-authority would seem to lead not through heads of family but through talk show hosts, movie stars, singers, etc.

I understand your point, but I think it's too much to ask of them. Their influence is too symbiotic and they don't have any real leverage. They can be "edgy" and influential, but once they offend the gods of Demos, they're toast.

JC, if I didn't know better, I'd think that you were out to smear Christianity, portraying it as a violent totalitarian movement, a la Islam.

Dawson is definitely implying, as I read the quotation, that there was something novel about what he calls "the principle of individual conversion"--novel to the 19th century.

The "principle" in question is not the idea that individuals need conversion, or that missionaries should endeavor to convert individuals - that's a constant and irrevocable theme of the Christian faith - but the idea that only individual conversions are reliable and worth pursuing. The "principle of individual conversion", as I understand it, is horrified at the notion that some persons in a converted group may be insincere, or opportunistic, or otherwise less than totally committed and exemplary in their Christianity.

Jeff connects individual conversion to the "individualism and egalitarianism" of the modern era.

No, I connect the "principle of individual conversion" to the individualism and egalitarianism of the modern era. The "principle of individual conversion" ignores some basic truths about human nature. Paradoxically, by failing to produce a communal or corporate Christianity, it makes individual conversions of the non-heroic sort more difficult than they need to be.

Jeff's prescription, as I understand it, is that we should revive stronger and more hierarchical families *in general*, including in non-Christian groups, in an attempt to set up the "prerequisites" for larger-group conversions--by families.

Absolutely. But that isn't merely a consequentialist approach: stronger and more hierarchical families are objectively better families, period, for everyone involved. A point which even you seem to concede in your comment at 5:36.

I think that's not a good or practical idea. And we have a practical test of it. In the Muslim community, we actually need to do more to _break down_ the often despotic hierarchical set-up in order to make it even possible for _anyone_ to be converted to Christianity without getting killed or beaten to a pulp. Not to mention the fact that that strong hierarchical structure also supports other bad practices such as FGM, wife-beating, etc.

Please, let's keep to some basic distinctions here. What needs to be changed in the Muslim world is not their traditional family structure, which is in many ways commendable and even superior to ours in the West, but the despotic and barbaric practices of Islam. Yes, it's true that the hierarchical Muslim family makes the conversion of individuals more difficult. But it also makes the conversion of families easier. My son's godfather, a native of Iran, belongs to one such family of converts.

Moreover, I don't know how to say this any less bluntly: I believe in child evangelism and youth evangelism. I have no problem at all with programs that target children and young people and hope thereby to bring families into the church.

My first reaction is that programs which "target" children for conversion, apart from their families, are a sure way to alienate their families for good. Which doesn't strike me as wise policy. Certainly children can be converted independently of their families, and their conversions should be respected. I've always thought that Pio Nino probably erred on the right side of this impossible choice: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgardo_Mortara

My first reaction is that programs which "target" children for conversion, apart from their families, are a sure way to alienate their families for good.

The people who do child evangelism will tell you otherwise. They use the children to try to bring in the families. It's a deliberate tactic, pursued for tactical reasons. In fact, often youth and child evangelism is deplored not because it is ineffective but because it is effective. Perhaps I shouldn't pursue further here exactly how that works, but let's just say that those hostile to it often are upset by the very fact that it does indeed bring families into the churches at which their children began to do youth activities. Obviously, no one is kidnaping the kids _against_ their parents' wishes.

I am not a true history buff, so maybe my sense of history is too thin, but it seems to me that when a nation "converted" this was merely the beginning of a long, long process, taking at the minimum 2 to 3 generations, in which the people gradually came to practice Christianity. Probably in the typical cases the bulk of people who truly were Christians in the full sense, with a complete faith in Christ, were the ones born at least 2 generations after the conversion. Aren't the stories of cultural disjoints, and elements of the populations trying to hold to the old ways during the first generations, pretty close to universal? The critical benefit, then, of national "conversion" is that you get the machinery in place to enable a faithful people to be formed down the road.

Tribal conversions probably took less time, but then a tribe is more cohesive than a nation. In a tribe you have people personally acquainted with the leaders, and looking up to them personally for guidance. So if the leaders convert, that has a personal impact on the people of the tribe.

I have always been very chary of targeting children for evangelization. Seems to me that if the child should be invited, SO SHOULD THE FAMILY. And this would preserve the natural order, that the child remain receiving from the parents the faith they should be teaching him. So there should be no such thing as specific targeting of children as such. If a child converts without your targeting him independently of a mission to his family, then that can be attributed to God's own work - the Spirit moves where it will, and what the Spirit moves, the Spirit can protect if He chooses.

The more hierarchical, clannish, and traditionalist we make a society that _isn't Christian_ (be it secular, Hindu, or Muslim), the more resistant we make it to Christianity, not the more liable to become Christian.

Lydia, that statement is simply false, historically. It was precisely those kinds of societies that ultimately embraced the Gospel corporately and gave us Christendom. A modern, egalitarian, and individualistic society is incapable of doing anything as a society. Egalitarianism robs it of effective authority, and individualism robs it of identity and common purpose. The result is stagnation and decline - America 2011.

If Jeff were right and the production of hierarchical, patriarchal societies were an important pre-condition of evangelism, we should see more successful evangelism in Muslim countries than in the individualistic West--whole families converting en masse and so forth.

Mohammadism is a special case. This is due to their religion, not the structure of their societies. It has always been virtually impervious to the Gospel. Furthermore, I would suppose that contemporary missionary efforts have not much changed since the 19th century and still operate on the "principle of individual conversion", so we should not expect much in the way of whole families or villages converting en masse. There are some exceptions. Here's a story of an entire Muslim village converting: http://tinyurl.com/3rwp85j . This was accomplished in the traditional, hierarchical, patriarchal manner, through the village chief.

Some other groups have proven equally impervious, like the Shinto Japanese. But the exceptions prove the rule. A general Christian culture has never been known to exist apart from group conversions above the level of the family.

The indomitable warrior-monks who Christianized Europe, South America, the Philippines and elsewhere were aiming to bring entire societies into the Christian fold. That meant converting pagan kings, who exercised real authority, and securing their favor and protection. It sometimes meant promising worldly advantages to prospective converts, such as the temporal benefits of Roman civilization. It meant dangerous and unpleasant tasks like destroying pagan shrines, suppressing pagan practices, and punishing transgressors. Sometimes this was done with too much zeal, and saintly men complained that conversions were set back because of it. Tony is certainly correct in that conversions could be "shallow" at first, but ultmately the groundwork was prepared for the peaceful spread of Christian influence, and we have this messy process to thank for our own inclusion in the mystical body of Christ.

Is Matthew 28:19 relevant to this topic?

"having gone, then, disciple all the nations, baptizing them - to the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit...."

Bruce: Without a doubt!

Look, let's face it: Dawson sounds like he prefers communal conversions.

Certainly he sees this as genuine progress. And why shouldn't he? The more souls that are saved, the better: what kind of Christian would disagree?

Perhaps you will argue that communal conversions do not, initially, guarantee that more souls are saved. These conversions might be superficial, opportunistic, etc. But here is where I think we meet a fundamental difference between Catholic and Protestant soteriology. For the Catholic, salvation is a process, a continuum; for the Protestant, salvation is an instant, a moment in time. From a Catholic perspective the individual conversions within a group might be shallow at first, but over time at least some of them will mature in their faith and come to bear good fruit. Meanwhile, the friendliness and respect for the Church among the half-converted masses give the Gospel a fighting chance to deepen its roots in their midst.

Practically, I absolutely don't see it. Let's set aside the fact that there seems no practical way to revive hierarchical family structures on a society-wide scale in secular families anyway.

I think our society/nation needs to be scaled down anyway. A "nation" of 300+ million that spans a continent is much too big. Maybe smaller societies/nations would make Jeff's ideas more feasible.

For the Catholic, salvation is a process, a continuum; for the Protestant, salvation is an instant, a moment in time.

Jeff, I think that tendency is more exaggerated in the low Protestant, "once saved, always saved" churches. Since those churches are now numerically dominant, that seems like Protestantism. But some of the older Protestant churches have a somewhat different soteriology.

Lutherans, for example, understand that they are saved when they believe, but that true faith has to be nurtured & cultivated through hearing the Word and participation in the sacrament. Getting people into a situation where they can continually hear the Word and participate in the sacrament can bear fruit as I think you suggest.

This is due to their religion, not the structure of their societies.

Jeff, it's obviously _both_. If you look at things like honor killings, the involvement of cousins and uncles in such killings and in impromptu "courts," the way the neighborhoods hang together, all of that and more, you see exactly what I'm saying--namely, that the highly tribal and inward-turned structure of the society tends to _preserve the religion_. It's like a physical immune system, with efficient mechanisms in place for getting rid of and blocking alien elements.

Certainly he sees this as genuine progress. And why shouldn't he? The more souls that are saved, the better: what kind of Christian would disagree?

Perhaps you will argue that communal conversions do not, initially, guarantee that more souls are saved. These conversions might be superficial, opportunistic, etc. But here is where I think we meet a fundamental difference between Catholic and Protestant soteriology. For the Catholic, salvation is a process, a continuum; for the Protestant, salvation is an instant, a moment in time. From a Catholic perspective the individual conversions within a group might be shallow at first, but over time at least some of them will mature in their faith and come to bear good fruit. Meanwhile, the friendliness and respect for the Church among the half-converted masses give the Gospel a fighting chance to deepen its roots in their midst.

The structure of this argument is interesting, Jeff. You start by making it sound like simply a matter of numbers. What kind of Christian could disagree that more souls saved is better? Then you acknowledge (even, apparently, from your own perspective) that it isn't that simple. Tony has highlighted this as well. If we simply count the whole nation or the whole family or whatever as "souls saved" after a mass conversion even Catholics admit we're probably miscounting, maybe even miscounting by a lot.

So it _isn't_ just a matter of numbers.

Surely you realize that _everybody_ wants friendliness of the masses, right? Protestants have gone at this in a lot of ways themselves. For example, the "through gates of splendor" five went with airplanes and dropped gifts on the Aucas over a period of months to try to show them their friendly intent. In the end they were martyred, and the next generation of missionaries reaped the fruit of their initial contact.

Other Protestant missionaries engage in various types of material aid to the people--medical care, etc.

I myself do think of salvation as a process. You would probably say I have a more "Catholic soteriology." Yet I think quite legitimate questions can be raised about the wisdom of calling friendliness to the Gospel "the conversion of an entire tribe" or something like that, precisely because of the imprecision and confusion that generates *from the perspective of either soteriology*.

I take the flow of your own argument to be a case in point--the almost irresistible initial temptation to talk as if this is a simple matter of having *really converted* all those people. Wow! Who couldn't want these numbers of souls saved? And so forth.

What we're really talking about are various strategies for getting the general friendliness of people and getting a chance for the Gospel to do its work.

And, I might add, getting the friendliness of the people without syncretism or compromise. All missionaries face this danger and these worries. All, without exception. But directly targeting the king and trying to bribe him to "be converted" (quote-perhaps-very-much-unquote) so you'll have the friendliness of the masses carries, shall we say, special dangers in this regard.

Seems to me that if the child should be invited, SO SHOULD THE FAMILY.

Tony, obviously, any church that has special programs for youth and children also very much wants the family to come and does invite them--to services, evangelistic gatherings, etc.

If they didn't invite the family to the church, then children's programs couldn't be used to bring the families to the church. There'd be nothing to "bring them to" if the parents weren't welcome!

Where we clearly disagree is that you evidently share the fairly common Catholic (and Orthodox) notion that it is wrong to have programs specifically for children and young people whose parents are not already church members. I just don't think that's correct. Again, nobody is kidnaping the children. If the parents didn't in some sense consent to their coming to whatever it might be--VBS or Sunday School, etc.--the kids wouldn't be there. But with the parents' perhaps rather indifferent consent, the kids are presented with the Gospel. This is, of course, in the hopes that the parents will be eventually drawn in as well. But it is overly rigid to insist that unchurched or unsaved children must not be taught the gospel by anyone other than their parents and/or that one ought not to teach the children Christian truth in any setting where the parents are not actually present. If it's okay with the parents that the kids come to some sort of program, and the parents aren't going to be teaching the children the gospel otherwise, why shouldn't the children learn it there? I simply see no problem with this, and in fact, it has been used of God in many cases.

you evidently share the fairly common Catholic (and Orthodox) notion that it is wrong to have programs specifically for children and young people whose parents are not already church members. I just don't think that's correct. Again, nobody is kidnaping the children. If the parents didn't in some sense consent to their coming to whatever it might be--VBS or Sunday School, etc.--the kids wouldn't be there.

No, we were just talking about different categories of targeting. I was not envisioning the kind of evangelization aimed at children whose parents have already consented, at least in part or at least implicitly, to their kids hearing the Gospel message. What I was thinking of as "targeting" was a kind of evangelization that goes on behind the parents' backs, often with subterfuge, with absolutely ZERO consent even implicit by the parents. Targeting that implicitly is designed to acquire a child's intense interest before the parent even has a chance to become involved. I.E., "evangelization" that takes advantage of a child's lack of critical thinking, and his natural trust of adults, to positively circumvent a parent's natural authority to lead the child to God.

Any "technique" that you would object to being used on your kids by those of an opposed religion, as being a form of inappropriate influence, should be off limits to your own cohorts as applied to others' kids, shouldn't they?

Tony, I've been involved in conversations before with a person who was definitely opposed to child evangelism. Those who are hostile to it tend to assert that it is being done "behind the parents' backs" but don't in my opinion bring good evidence to support this, especially when we are talking about actual programs to which the children went. Did the parents literally think their children had mysteriously disappeared during this time? Did they call the police to find the missing children? Evidently not.

I suppose it's a little bit like the argument between pro-lifers and pro-aborts over Crisis Pregnancy Centers. Sorry if this seems like a distasteful analogy, but I think there are real comparisons. The pro-aborts assert that the CPCs are "deceitful," but their only evidence is that the CPCs don't have big signs or say spontaneously, "We are not an abortion clinic! We do not refer for abortions!"

Similarly the claim that there are "deceitful techniques" being carried out usually have to do with vague things like the evangelicals setting up what sound like fun programs for kids, the parents sending the kids to them, and (shocka!) then it turns out that the children are being taught evangelical Christianity at the programs. Obviously, if the parents have a strong aversion to this or worries about such a thing, they should do due diligence before letting little Johnny run off with his buddies to the new "community center" that was just set up, or whatever.

In non-Christian countries opposition to child evangelism sometimes takes the form of actual onerous legislation that any Christian program for children where there will be Christian teaching should require each child to have a signed letter of consent from the parents. This treats Christian teaching like sex education (!) and implies that only such an artificial type of consent can avoid "deception" and the like. I tend to think that parents are responsible for where their children go, and that if it was *in that general sense* okay with the parents for the kids to go to this program--or perhaps even just okay with Johnny's parents for for Johnny to run around with Billy and go where he goes all day long, and Billy goes to this program--that's good enough. Christian (or evangelical Protestant) teaching shouldn't have some sort of special taboo about it.

I take the special legislation calling for signed letters to be similar to the anti-CPC legislation calling for signs in the waiting room and affirmative statements by CPC employees. It's meant to harass, discourage, and stigmatize the program and the information it is offering.


Any "technique" that you would object to being used on your kids by those of an opposed religion, as being a form of inappropriate influence, should be off limits to your own cohorts as applied to others' kids, shouldn't they?

Mmmm, depends. Truth matters. And the age of the minor matters. I don't think any of the people who met with Rifqa Bary in her mid-to-late-teens, presented the Gospel to her, and eventually helped her to run away did anything wrong. I think the parallels some tried to draw by saying, "How would you feel if someone did this with your child from a Christian family?" were false parallels. There, there was the complicating fact that Islam calls for killing apostates, and Rifqa had reason to believe this would be carried out on her! She also claimed to have been abused by her family in the past, but it wasn't reported by the teachers at the school even when she mentioned it. She clearly needed help in perfectly ordinary, "secular" ways. But aside from that, she had been meeting with Christians for a while, and that was how she became a Christian in the first place. I can't really see this as a problem.

The structure of this argument is interesting, Jeff. You start by making it sound like simply a matter of numbers. What kind of Christian could disagree that more souls saved is better? Then you acknowledge (even, apparently, from your own perspective) that it isn't that simple. Tony has highlighted this as well. If we simply count the whole nation or the whole family or whatever as "souls saved" after a mass conversion even Catholics admit we're probably miscounting, maybe even miscounting by a lot.

Isn't your response here illustrating the difference between Catholic and Protestant soteriology that Jeff was pointing to, such difference making it difficult for you to understand what he is saying here? Based on what you said above, you are thinking of conversion in terms of "souls saved" at the very point of conversion. Catholics do not look at salvation in these terms, because we don't believe these terms accurately describe the reality of how we are saved. If salvation were indeed a once-in-time phenomenon, and Catholics understood it to be so, then yes, communal conversions, in which there is a very high likelihood of numerous shallow "conversions" up front, would not be a good method of making converts. These shallow converts, according to this understanding, are not saved, and therefore would not truly be converted (see Michael Bauman's comments above, which are representative of many Protestants). But Catholics do not understand salvation this way, again because we do not believe this is the reality of how it occurs. Upon the conversion to Christianity of a nation, it would not be the way of thinking of a Catholic to put in definite numerical terms how many individuals in the converted nation are now "on their way to heaven." The conversion of a community to Christianity makes it much more likely that the individual souls of this community will see God, but it is a guarantee for no individual.

Those who are hostile to it tend to assert that it is being done "behind the parents' backs" but don't in my opinion bring good evidence to support this, especially when we are talking about actual programs to which the children went.

We're still not on the same page. I am not talking about any formal "program" at a specific organization's location, I am talking about situations where an adult literally approaches a kid "out of the blue" where the parents have no clue, and cannot make a judgment about whether they want this adult in their kid's life because they are oblivious to its happening.

And the age of the minor matters.

Yeah, that's sure. A 16 year old is a very different case from an 8 year old. At 16, in a lot of cultures she would have been considered an adult.

Truth matters.

Absolutely. The truth is not like error, and therefore it is not "in parallel" to it. We should expect to see discrepancies in how they play out.

But truth is also all of a piece. So a person who is doing the evangelizing should reflect all of it, not pieces. And this means living by it, as well as proclaiming it. If a Mormon 3rd grade art teacher in a public school starts telling the kids of pagans that Jesus Christ is God and using her status as an authority to impress them with the truth that she has (as limited as it is), even though
she is RIGHT that Jesus Christ is God, she is devoid of truth because she is using her authority delegated for one purpose on something wholly and completely outside of the scope of that purpose. And similarly, if a Catholic nurse hired by the public school to teach 10-year-olds a health lesson specifically on drugs steps outside of that authority to teach about the truth of the Catholic Church, she is violating Truth because she is violating the limitations on what authority she has been given.

Isn't your response here illustrating the difference between Catholic and Protestant soteriology that Jeff was pointing to, such difference making it difficult for you to understand what he is saying here? Based on what you said above, you are thinking of conversion in terms of "souls saved" at the very point of conversion.

No, I don't think so. Remember, Jeff introduced the phrase "souls that are saved," not I. But by his own account as he continued, what is really happening, even from a Catholic perspective, is simply the creation of _opportunities_ for souls to be eventually saved, or beginnings of processes that may very well not be completed, or, for some, not even the beginning of such a process. So, even from a Catholic perspective, you can't simply count up the number of people in some tribe that has "converted" and say, "See, look at all the souls saved!" and then compare that to the smaller "number of souls saved" had one gone about things by way of a less en masse method. Yet that was what his first few sentences sounded like.

Once we realize that we're talking about opportunities, it's just a matter of deciding on techniques and tactics in specific situations. Protestants also (of course) want to increase opportunities for souls to be saved! And for that matter, there is no reason why Protestants shouldn't, when it can be well done, secure the good will of leaders, kings, etc. I'm sure they have often done so. Gladys Aylward became the head foot inspector as part of her campaign to work with the leader of the region in China. He wanted her to help him in his Westernization campaign which involved eradicating the practice of foot-binding. But--and I think this is quite correct--his hiring her as foot inspector wasn't the same thing as his converting to Christianity! He knew it, Gladys knew it, and there was no point in pretending or saying otherwise. Later, I believe, he _did_ convert to Christianity, and both of them knew that this was something new and different. But meanwhile, she had had access to the region and freedom to teach the gospel, start an orphanage, etc.

The question then appears to be to what extent aiming for something _called_ "converting the entire tribe" or "converting the entire family" or "converting the king" is the best way to increase opportunities for the spread of the gospel. I tend to think that is not something to be aimed at as some sort of ideal goal and is not, per se, the best tactic. And I think it often can result in rather serious and problematic confusion, when there hasn't been anything at all even like an actual desire to *be a Christian* on the part of the leader in question and/or a large number of his people. Regarding such a desire as the beginning of a process doesn't make this issue irrelevant.

So, even from a Catholic perspective, you can't simply count up the number of people in some tribe that has "converted" and say, "See, look at all the souls saved!" and then compare that to the smaller "number of souls saved" had one gone about things by way of a less en masse method. Yet that was what his first few sentences sounded like.

Generally when a Catholic talks about saving souls, he is talking about souls going to heaven or purgatory - the next life. That's what I meant as well. But this language can also be used in other ways, even amongst Catholics, so I appreciate the difficulty in getting on the same page here.

Conversion and salvation are not the same thing. But conversion does make a Christian, which increases the prospects for salvation. When a large group converts, they receive the sacrament of holy baptism and confess the truths of the Creed. Baptism effects an ontological change in the soul. That's a good and necessary beginning. Not only do group conversions give more souls a good beginning, they make individual conversions easier down the road, for generations to come. Ultimately, it seems clear that more souls will be saved (and have been saved) by focusing on the conversion of groups and societies, as opposed to a strictly individualist approach.

Once we realize that we're talking about opportunities, it's just a matter of deciding on techniques and tactics in specific situations.

Conversion is always an opportunity - it's the beginning, not the end.

I keep thinking of this post by Lydia:

http://www.whatswrongwiththeworld.net/2011/03/the_kimyal_receive_the_new_tes.html

Are the Kimyal an example of a group conversion? If so, I can't imagine they'd have been reachable as a group if they were egalitarian individualists and I didn't see much worry when this was posted over how shallow some of their conversions were. I think Jeff's point in the original post about egalitarianism and individualism was an excellent one.

First of all, conversion is an act of grace and grace is unpredictable, seeing as how it is from the Holy Spirit. The best one can do, as any apologist will tell you, is to remove the obstacles to conversion, but even then, conversion is in no ways guaranteed.

Generally speaking, to a Catholic, interior conversion is finalized by a public act, manifested in the reception of the sacrament of baptism or confession. As such, there definitely have not been conversions of whole countries at one time. There have been conversions of a nucleus of people who then went on to evangelize others. Conversion is, most often, a process of percolation, whereby the Faith slowly spreads from small group to small group until most of the country is converted. There is a rich mathematical discipline describing how percolation occurs, but I am pretty sure it has never been applied to the problem of religious conversion, although it would be somewhat similar to how a virus is spread within a culture.

It you want to discuss vectors and mean free paths and the like for the spread of a viral outbreak, that would be interesting.

You also need to define what you mean by conversions, eh? Geneva "converted" to Calvinism and then partially reverted under the preaching of St. Francis De Sales. Does that count as one act of conversion, two, or none? The flaw in Dawson's argument is obvious: there were only a few Christian or quasi-Christian groups back in the first ten centuries of Christianity, so it was easy to look like whole countries were being monolithically converted, but once the late Medieval and Renaissance splintering of Christianity occurred, the whole notion of conversion became problematic to define. You can see why the notion of corporate conversion cannot be tracked throughout time. The individual conversions in the nineteenth-century, in America, mostly, are not conversions to Catholicism, but to various types of Protestantism. Indeed, Catholicism was under siege both in the United States and Europe. One need only read the widely diverse Protestant literature of the period to discover the large disparity among groups. Pure Methodism had a large number of converts at the beginning of the century, but its off-shoot, the Holiness Movement, produced more converts after the Civil War and later it was the Baptist's turn. Who's theology governed conversion, anyway? Finney's? Princeton Theology? Edwards? Was it Calvinism or Armenianism? Simply put, if you had asked the question about who was converted back in the nineteenth-century, really asked, there would have been blood in the streets. The only consistency in conversion in the nineteenth-century in Protestantism was that, somehow, Jesus Christ was involved in the belief system and Catholicism was excluded. These are pretty weak conditions to say that a whole country or even individuals might be converted.

It is easier to define conversion within Catholicism, because it is a more monolithic Faith and most of the conversions prior to the Reformation were to Catholicism - a single monolithic Faith, which makes the conversion of a whole country easier to recognize, but in later history, it makes the discussion of country conversions vs. individuals even more problematic, since that monolithic Faith was splintered.

It is not even just that there are Catholic and Protestant forms of conversion. The fact is that there is no longer even a way to recognize what a true conversion is, in part, at least (I am NOT saying that conversion cannot ever be recognized - read on). For instance, a nominally Sunday-going once-a-year-confession, relatively in a state of grace Catholic gets Baptized in the Spirit and, suddenly it is Jesus, this and Jesus, that. Has he been converted? Does enthusiasm (in the emotional sense, not the theological sense) count as conversion? Consider, within Protestantism, one group that says confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior is enough, but another says that speaking in tongues is the outward sign of conversion. Which is it?

Both theology and outward signs have become fractured.

Before Jeff can really speak of the best conditions for the spread of Christian conversion, it might be best to start by simply defining the term. Neither Jeff nor Dawson, from what I gather, have done this in a way that would apply consistently throughout history. Therefore, the whole discussion is moot from the start.

What is this thing called conversion? If it is defined as obeying Matt 28:19, then it would seem that to define conversion, one needs to consider, primarily, the number of people who are baptized, in one form or another (water, blood, or desire) as a result of kerygma. Does Dawson define conversion that way? No. Does Jeff? I don't know.

Besides that, the whole notion of what one needs to do to convert a nation is to have a strong hierarchical structure and communal identity presupposes that the hierarchy receives one Truth and that community identity is not defined by something inimical to the reception of Faith. Since the American system of government, literally, guarantees that the Faith structure of the hierarchy will change every four years and since, as well, the Faith structure of the elite has become relativized such that the Truth proclaimed to the hierarchy of government and the elite is not from a single voice, but from multiple voices all claiming slightly different forms of the Truth, the requirement of a hierarchical structure as a condition of conversion is doomed to failure in an America separated in increasing distance from its common, mostly Anglican, roots.

Likewise, communal identities shift, today, almost as fast as the public bands of angry youth spawned by Twitter form, dissolve, and reform, however, the most stable group with the single greatest communal identity in America, today, if one needs to find one, is the group of divorced men and women. Second to that are those who identify, whether they know it or not, as post-Modernists. Both groups are stable, but hardly likely to embrace Christianity except in the most diluted fashion. Hardly conversion.

So, while this topic can be more rigorously defined, there are a number of problems with the way Dawson and Jeff have framed the issues.

I'm feeling poorly (can't tell if it's blood pressure or inflamed blood vessels), so I've left a number of topics for discussion and will, hopefully, check back in on Monday.

The Chicken

Are the Kimyal an example of a group conversion?

I don't know. My post was about something that happened, obviously, quite a while after a large number of the people in the tribe _had_ converted, so that video doesn't tell us how it got kicked off, and I haven't researched that history in any detail.


I didn't see much worry when this was posted over how shallow some of their conversions were.

I was rejoicing over a large number of people whose sincere love of God and the Lord Jesus Christ was absolutely shining. That video wasn't _of_ their conversion. It was of their receipt of the New Testament in their own language.

Before Jeff can really speak of the best conditions for the spread of Christian conversion, it might be best to start by simply defining the term.

Chicken, I did that in my previous comment: baptism and profession of faith (i.e., the Creed). It's not complicated.

When a large group converts, they receive the sacrament of holy baptism and confess the truths of the Creed. Baptism effects an ontological change in the soul.
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Jeff, my understanding is that on the Catholic view, a person who has reached the age of reason should consent to his baptism, should actually desire it. Perhaps I'm wrong about this, but I believe there is a distinction made between infant baptism and adult baptism along these very lines. That's why, as far as I know, Catholics don't baptize lifelong adult atheists when they are in a coma after an accident (just to pick a sufficiently bizarre example to make the point).

It at least used to be that adult converts were catechized before being baptized. That was done during Lent, and the converts were baptized at Easter.

If I'm right about all of this, it leads me to believe that there would be something problematic, from a Catholic perspective, with a large number of adult baptisms of people who had no clue or virtually no clue what this was all about, were just doing it in exchange for some direct bribe, because the king or tribal leader did it, or even worse, because the king ordered it!

Insofar as mass conversions risk that sort of situation on a fairly large scale, that calls into question the premise that this approach will lead to the ultimate salvation of more souls than a more cautious approach that focuses on making sure that individuals (at a minimum, if one accepts infant baptism, individuals who have reached the age of reason) truly wish to commit themselves to Christ in some important sense prior to baptizing them.

To clarify, I take it that "confess the truths of the Creed" supports my point, and that there needs to be some actual understanding of the truths confessed. Is this really done in the case of mass conversions?

Lydia, you are partially correct. The baptism of anyone over the age of reason must be accompanied by a free profession of faith, and I am quite certain that has always been the case. Baptism with no instruction and no profession "because the king ordered it" is not a valid conversion and never has been.

As for those baptized as children, they remain Catholic until they formally renounce their Catholicism. (Even protestant babies are Catholic. :-)) If, as adults, they still have never received instruction or formally consented to the tenets of the Faith, that's pathetic indeed. I wouldn't count them as "converted" in the sociological or historical sense that Dawson employs, but I doubt that was much of a problem back then. It's more of a problem today.

To clarify, I take it that "confess the truths of the Creed" supports my point, and that there needs to be some actual understanding of the truths confessed. Is this really done in the case of mass conversions?

Lydia, I can't even imagine otherwise.

Hmmm. Looks like I've played it loose with the term "converted" in this thread, as well, especially with my reference to the "half-converted". Most commonly, conversion refers to that beginning of the Christian life in which the soul first turns to God. But there is also the idea of conversion as a process, in which we are continually turning from the old life to the new, because in the beginning we might still be very much attached to the old. For purposes of this discussion we should stick with Dawson's obvious meaning: conversion is the beginning.

JC, sooner or later you need to come to grips with the fact that you are speaking from a position of abject weakness.

Even your own Holy Father, Benedict XVI, by all accounts a more than usually conservative Catholic, would sooner apologize for then endorse the practice of forced "conversion."

That, in itself, doesn't prove that you're wrong, of course - but it does mean that you might want to adopt a different rhetorical strategy. I.e., cut the arrogance, pump up the charm.

Lydia, I can't even imagine otherwise.

If careful catechesis is done on an individual level to make sure of this, doesn't that greatly minimize the distinction between "individualist" and "non-individualist" approaches? After all, imagine an ardent Protestant missionary confronted by a bunch of people in a tribe--say, all or most of the adults in the tribe--expressing eagerness to become Christians and be baptized. Is he going to turn them away? No way. Sure, he'll take some time to teach them first both in a group and individually, but evidently so would the Catholic missionary.

Now, I hate to say it, but I doubt it's that simple. I tend to think the distinction between "individualistic" and "mass" conversion approaches may well be real. But in that case, well, doubts do arise about the "mass" approach.

Steve, who said anything about "forced conversion"?

Steve, are you just reading the title of this post over and over again and neither the content of the post nor the very interesting discussion we've been having in the comments thread?

I'm sorry, but that's what it sounds like.

I suspect that Steve, a libertarian, is prone to equating social incentives and disincentives with "force". For many of Steve's persuasion the individual human will must act totally without outside influence in order to be considered "free". For instance, if the old pagan religion is no longer sanctioned, if Christians are favored for certain positions in the kingdom, etc., then all conversions are deemed "forced", or at least "coerced" and unfree. Such a view is profoundly mistaken.

If careful catechesis is done on an individual level to make sure of this, doesn't that greatly minimize the distinction between "individualist" and "non-individualist" approaches?

I see what you mean, Lydia. But I think the difference is in the top-down approach of the missionary effort, with careful respect for preserving the integrity of the group insofar as possible. You have already made the point that penetrating clannish, traditional societies can be difficult at best. Arguably, the most effective way of reaching them is through their leaders.

Another difference is that although the individuals in these societies were certainly instructed by the missionaries, there was a group dynamic in their initial acceptance of the Gospel following upon the conversions of their kings. I don't mean to imply that it always goes smoothly this way. In Bede we find that some royal families were divided and at enmity, often splitting kingdoms. In terms of temporal peace, sometimes things got worse before they got better.

with careful respect for preserving the integrity of the group insofar as possible

In practical terms, I worry about what this might mean. For example, I can imagine that it might mean making a deal with the king or head of the tribe or nation that you would, say, only give medical help to his people but wouldn't talk to any of them about the Gospel until he agreed or decided to convert. A little bit as though all members of the tribe were children and he the father.

If you think about this w.r.t. a country like Afghanistan, a parallel would be Christian groups' obeying the anti-apostasy, anti-proselytizing laws when they come to give aid and carefully muzzling themselves as far as spreading the Christian message, because the government (which I suppose in this case corresponds to the hierarchy of the group) doesn't agree.

Or what about women? If we're trying to preserve the group structure as far as possible, do we come into the region with a promise to all the husbands that we won't tell their wives about Jesus unless we have the husbands' permission? Or, even more radically, until after the husbands convert?

I have a problem with any of that.

Yes, Lydia, I jumped the gun.

Comment withdrawn.

Jeff, the question of social incentives is an interesting and delicate one. I should say here that Protestant as well as Catholic missionaries have had to deal with this question. Indeed, the anti-conversion laws in India are (this may interest you) premised on the assumption that most conversions from Hinduism to any form of Christianity are not "truly free" for exactly the reasons you give. Ironically, this results in the bullying of new converts by the authorities with repeated insinuations that they have not converted freely, that they were offered incentives, and that they therefore should return to Hinduism. So actually, of course, the force is on the other side--from the state against the convert. Apparently one of the incentives is that they get out of the caste system if they are Christians, which is naturally attractive to those of low caste.

It seems to me that there are going to be incentives that arise fairly naturally. Right at the beginning in the Book of Acts we find that the Apostles had money distributed to the widows who were part of the early church. I can just imagine people's asserting (though the Bible doesn't say that they actually did) that some widow converted to Christianity just to get on the Christian dole!

The very fact that Christians (rightly) give special consideration to fellow Christians in the distribution of charity (the Bible expressly enjoins this) is going to be seen as a form of incentive.

In the old days (this is probably not true anymore), including those allegedly individualist 19th century days, Protestant missionaries sometimes had an entire enclave of "mission natives" who built up a Christian community around the missionaries and formed a compound. This could sometimes be defended against, say, marauding Masai. Nowadays I suspect all missionaries, Protestant and Catholic alike, would consider that highly inappropriate, not culturally sensitive, offering the wrong kind of incentives, causing insincere conversions, etc. But I've always thought that I could see exactly how it could happen naturally. For example, the Christian natives naturally want to associate with other Christians. The missionary understandably wants Christian employees. If they are in a region surrounded by dangerous people they want to band together for mutual assistance. So even though that sort of arrangement is now "politically incorrect," I could never get het up about it.

All that being said, it seems to me that from a strictly theological point of view it is ultimately very important that we seek God for the sake of God and that those who are accepted as converts genuinely do want to follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Of course the full realization of that longing after God is a state that many of us struggle after for years and years and do not achieve. But since, in the final analysis, the sincere desire for God and love for God is central to what Christianity is about, I do balk at *deliberately* offering *direct* worldly incentives to people to convert. If the incentives are just there "in the situation," having arisen in some natural way, then so be it. But I do think that in that case one should proceed with special caution in admitting new converts to try to make sure they are sincere and not just cynically "out for what they can get."

And the following Catholic argument could be made: If these people convert, they are going to be taking the Sacrament, so the last thing one wants is for them to be doing so after an insincere conversion, made for reasons of worldly gain. One should avoid that for their own sake!

We have it directly from the mouth of the Apostle: The gifts of God are not to be sold for money.

I don't know if this makes me a "libertarian" in your view, but I suspect we do disagree. I also think that this is a disagreement that could take place between two Catholics and need not be a Catholic-Protestant disagreement per se.

If these people convert, they are going to be taking the Sacrament, so the last thing one wants is for them to be doing so after an insincere conversion, made for reasons of worldly gain. One should avoid that for their own sake!

But if they're insincere, they're in danger of damnation anyway. So can they really eat and drink MORE damnation on themselves? Maybe Catholics say "yes", I don't know.

I'm not saying that they should give the Sacrament to anyone in any situation because if they're not where they need to be they're toast anyway. But for new converts I don't know what Catholics can do beyond conveying to them what scripture teaches and what their Church teaches and letting these new converts examine themselves.

But for new converts I don't know what Catholics can do beyond conveying to them what scripture teaches and what their Church teaches and letting these new converts examine themselves.

I know. You could try _not_ saying, "Hey, become a Christian so you can get Roman citizenship. It's a great deal. Buy now and save." I'm afraid that's positively courting the bad situation I'm discussing. And, yes, taking the Sacrament insincerely after taking on a form of Christianity for reasons of earthly gain would be a very serious matter indeed as far as damnation.

Frankly, the more I've been thinking about it the more problematic the direct and deliberate attempt to get people to go through a form of conversion for worldly advancement is. I just don't have time to write more about it right now.

As I said in my previous comment, there are plenty of ways in other countries in which Christianity might be seen or might seem (at least temporarily) to have worldly advantages just as a natural function of the social situation. No reason to be out there trying to erase those. But saying, "King So-and-So, here are four purely worldly reasons why you should become a Christian" in the hopes that this will open up the country more to evangelism--that's a problem, in my opinion.

I've been neglecting my personal blog so have decided to post my further comments on worldly incentives/inducements over there:

http://lydiaswebpage.blogspot.com/2011/10/on-offering-worldly-inducements-to.html

"But if they're insincere, they're in danger of damnation anyway. So can they really eat and drink MORE damnation on themselves? Maybe Catholics say "yes", I don't know."

2 points from a Catholic:

1. It should be irrelevant if this causes "more" damnation or not. Offending God is something we should always try and avoid doing. Not caring about offending God even more is really just a sign of how deep "in the hole", so to speak, you really are. And the Church should try and prevent people from doing that.

2. However, in the technical sense, though you can't be "more damned", in the Latin Catholic line of thought (not sure of what Eastern Catholics would have to say on the subject) there are degrees of punishment in Hell. So yes, the worse you are in life, the worse off you'll be in Hell. Still, Hell is Hell either way. Best not to end up there at all.

But saying, "King So-and-So, here are four purely worldly reasons why you should become a Christian" in the hopes that this will open up the country more to evangelism--that's a problem, in my opinion.

Yes, that would be a problem. Yes, that would be corruption. No, it's not what I had in mind. I had in mind more of the natural advantages such as you described - Roman civilization would be one of them - in conjunction with (and not in lieu of) a thorough presentation of the Christian message. Whether or not that is a problem would depend entirely upon how the invitation is made. We know from medieval accounts that many of these conversions were indeed sincere and costly.

I don't believe it is wrong, in itself, to mention temporal advantages when evangelizing the pagans, if there be any. A Muslim woman might well be told by missionaries that, as a Christian, she will be helped to escape her tormenters and will not have to undergo the abuse and humiliations she tolerates as a Muslim. That's a purely temporal thing and by itself is no reason to become a Christian. But the infomation helps. Sure, it would be best if she embraced Christianity with a total spirit of martyrdom, ready to perish in a gruesome honor killing. But most of us convert from mixed motives, and only after conversion do we find that purity of intention that really should have been there at the beginning. This was the lesson of the early Christians.

Besides, Christianity has a definite connection with some temporal advantages. The just treatment of women is specifically a Christian phenomenon. The same goes for many other benefits of civilization. Such advantages might include divine favor for a conquering army, or access to certain technologies. Etc. This is part of the "package" when the darkness of paganism encounters a real Christian civilization.

Now, let me address actual naked corruption, the kind you are legitimately afraid of, where incentives are presented for conversion with no serious effort to ensure the conversion is genuine. It's definitely wrong - scandalous, even - and I'm sure it offends God. I am in no way excusing or advocating this. But I'll be honest with you: it isn't something I get overly worked up about in the grand scheme of historical events. I'm sure it has happened before and will happen again. I think it would be an easy sin for a zealous missionary to slip into, and probably springs from the highest motives in many cases.

Again, I do think there is a Catholic-Protestant divide lurking behind the question. Protestantism tends to set one immovable bar that is too high for sinners and too low for saints. The idea of mixed motives in religion is abhorrent to most sincere Protestants; it's an everyday reality for any serious Catholic who knows how to examine his conscience. God understands that pure motives are rare, and He does not require them of us in order to have access to grace. Do we avoid sin and pursue virtue for the love of God alone? If so, our love is pure. But if we avoid sin, also, out of the fear of hell and temporal punishment, that isn't wrong: God accepts our small offering of love even as He provides a healthy dose of fear to keep us on the straight and narrow.

But most of us convert from mixed motives, and only after conversion do we find that purity of intention that really should have been there at the beginning. This was the lesson of the early Christians.

Jeff, I think that's true for many of us. I converted to have access to a culture that's apart from our morally-degenerate culture and fellowship with people that are apart from the same. That's not the purest of motives (and obviously not entirely realistic either).

I should add that's not all that converted me. God convinced me of my sinfulness in ways that are too personal to discuss.

A Muslim woman might well be told by missionaries that, as a Christian, she will be helped to escape her tormenters and will not have to undergo the abuse and humiliations she tolerates as a Muslim. That's a purely temporal thing and by itself is no reason to become a Christian. But the infomation helps.

I'm having difficulty imagining a way in which this would be a natural advantage of Christianity. I would compare helping a Muslim woman to leave her tormenters to giving medical aid. Normally, I think it would be wrong for missionaries who give medical aid to say, "We'll give this to you as a Christian, but if you don't convert, maybe not." If they're medical missionaries they should give the aid to non-Christians as well (and use the opportunity to share the gospel, of course). Similarly for helping a woman to escape an abusive husband. I really doubt that missionaries should be helping Muslim women escape their abusive husbands only on condition that they convert to Christianity.

I think if you think that particular example through you'll agree that there's no good way for it to work out to simply a natural advantage of the woman's conversion.


But I'll be honest with you: it isn't something I get overly worked up about in the grand scheme of historical events.

It's something I would get pretty worked up about if I believed that the missionary methods I was recommending made it more likely. And if that sort of scandal and offense (your terms) is a particular danger of the "group method" for some reason, then that's a good criticism of the "group method."


The idea of mixed motives in religion is abhorrent to most sincere Protestants; it's an everyday reality for any serious Catholic who knows how to examine his conscience.

I anticipated this type of response at my personal blog. There is a huge difference between recognizing that people act from mixed motives and making use of their tendency to act for impure motives *in order* to get them to convert. The fact that people do often act for mixed motives should be kept sharply apart from the debate about deliberately offering incentives. In fact, it should be kept all the more sharply apart because of the temptation to use the "mixed motives" point as mitigation of the evil of wrong evangelistic methods.

Please note that offering incentives isn't the same thing as making no serious effort to insure that the conversion is genuine. But if a missionary _deliberately offers worldly incentives_ he is _significantly increasing the odds_ that the conversion is, shall we say, seriously compromised. There would be something exceedingly odd in deliberately offering worldly incentives and then saying, "Now, let's just check to make sure that *even though I offered you these worldly incentives* your conversion is genuine." It would be a bit like offering a bribe to a politician and then stopping at the last minute to have a conversation about why he thinks the law in question really is a good one.

Now, again, perhaps you are going to say that you _aren't_ in favor of directly offering worldly incentives, but I have to say--I get a back-and-forth sense from your comment. On the one hand, X is corruption, a scandal, and an offense to God. On the other hand, you can't get too worked up about it in the grand historical scheme!

It's _Protestants_ to whom the idea of mixed motives is abhorrent, whereas Catholics just see it as a daily reality. This is presumably supposed to explain why a Catholic "doesn't get too worked up about" a missionary's deliberately offering direct worldly incentives to Christianity.

Frankly, I don't think that should be a Catholic-Protestant divide. It certainly doesn't follow logically, that I can see, from any particular piece of Catholic or Protestant theology. If that's the way things are, it seems to me the Catholics should be more "Protestant," though the scare quotes there are quite deliberate.


Bruce,

I converted to have access to a culture that's apart from our morally-degenerate culture and fellowship with people that are apart from the same.

What you were noticing there could have been a clue to the truth of Christianity. Only one clue, and a fallible clue (Mormonism, for example, would have had a similar advantage), but a clue nonetheless.

"Hey, become a Christian so you can get Roman citizenship. It's a great deal. Buy now and save."

Isn't this exactly the reason given in so-called Prosperity Gospel churches? Likewise, the Pentecostal explosion in India and Korea is being fueled, in part, from exactly this reasoning: become a Christian and you will have access to spiritual power. God will hear your prayers and you can command poverty to flee.

In reality, Christianity can promise only two things to its followers: mercy and the Cross. Now, mercy may take many forms, both before and after conversion, and one need not expect mercy, in the form of charity, to flow only after conversion. If the poor settler is being chased by Indians (stereotypes, I know, but for the sake of argument...), one would expect that the Christian settlement had better open their doors when the settler got there, even if he were a heathen.

Jeff, it seems to me that you mostly glossed over my long post, above. Conversion != baptism for many modern Christian groups. For many classical Pentecostals (although less so, today) speaking in tongues was the evidence of conversion - that they had been touched by the Holy Spirit. I repeat: it is hard to discuss the matter of country-wide conversion unless there is a monolithic Faith to which to convert. This, in large part, is what gives the appearance of country-wide conversions prior to the Renaissance. In reality, I see no historical evidence that this ever really happened in any country at any point in history, as a free-will , knowledgeably-accepted thing (except, perhaps, Ninevah). I repeat, the pattern of Christian conversion of any country - take for instance, Ireland, has always been through percolation or diffusion. It was the pattern in the primitive Church and while Constantine's acceptance of Christianity as the state religion opened the door to Christian conversion, Rome only really became Christian when the pagans died out. There was no mass conversion. I simply do not agree with your hypothesis.

Now, hierarchy and communalism are nucleation principles in percolation theory and they can help increase the size of the "raindrops" (committed subgroups) and make the spread of the Gospel easier, but they do not guarantee conversion of the culture, especially if there are competing hierarchies and communities within the culture, as there are in most modern societies (in part, due to the ease of dissemination of ideas because of technology). I think you have to seriously address these issues before making the analysis that you have. The science of how ideas and even viruses spread has made impressive strides in the last few years. Here is a blog post that not only explains how the process works, in part (the theory he presents does not cover all situations), but he even attempts to apply it to the spread of Christianity (how successful he is, I cannot say because I haven't taken the time to read the source literature).

The Chicken

I think if you think that particular example through you'll agree that there's no good way for it to work out to simply a natural advantage of the woman's conversion.

I think you're overthinking my example. If the woman remains a Muslim, she will continue to submit to her abuse out of religious obligation. So of course her liberation from this situation - assuming her Christian friends have the means to help - would be a natural advantage of the woman's conversion.

And if that sort of scandal and offense (your terms) is a particular danger of the "group method" for some reason, then that's a good criticism of the "group method."

This is the only compelling argument I can find in the opposition you have expressed thus far. I agree that the aforementioned scandal and offense is a danger peculiar to the "group method". However, the "principle of individual conversion" is beset with even greater dangers in my opinion, not the least of which is a false anthropology. The solution is to guard vigilantly against abuses when pursuing the conversion of groups, not to abandon the practice.

If the woman remains a Muslim, she will continue to submit to her abuse out of religious obligation.

Sure. I now take it that you mean that the Christians simply say, among other things, "We Christians don't view women the way you have been taught to view women as a Muslim. Our view is a correct and better view," and in the course of converting to Christianity, she rejects her previous abject status and seeks help. There's obviously nothing wrong there. I didn't get that from the statement that "as a Christian, she will be helped to escape her tormenters." Lots of women have rejected the Muslim view of women as chattel and sought help to escape without becoming Christians.

I'm glad, however, to be able to take it from this exchange that your comment above about "maintaining the integrity of the group insofar as possible" isn't meant to endorse any such self-muzzling rules of engagement as I asked about earlier.

I will just say here that I'm afraid there isn't going to be much group integrity left towards which to be solicitous if missionaries _don't_ agree to such muzzling rules and such a careful ordering of their approach. For example, if one preaches to women "behind their husbands' backs," as it were, if one preaches to underlings of the tribe as one has opportunity even if one can't or hasn't obtained the special permission of the chieftain, etc., one is just preaching the Gospel and not worrying about "maintaining the integrity of the group insofar as possible." Indeed, it's not at all implausible that such missionary carryings-on will result in a rather serious upheaval in the structure of the group. And often, a good thing, too. It's no accident that Paul & co. were known as the men who had turned the world upside down. I think it plausible that your natural humanity, Jeff, and your love of the Gospel would in practice get in the way of that whole idea of maintaining the original hierarchical structure of the society as much as possible. Which is a good thing, in my view, but probably isn't what you intended.

MC, you wrote:

It was the pattern in the primitive Church and while Constantine's acceptance of Christianity as the state religion opened the door to Christian conversion, Rome only really became Christian when the pagans died out. There was no mass conversion.

There was no single mass conversion, but there were multiple group conversions. I believe it's true that conversions for the first three centuries were focused on individuals and extended families rather than tribes or nations, and that the growth of Christianity during this period was largely exponential. But the conversion of Europe, once Christianity became the religion of the empire, was a different matter, as it was for the rest of the world.

I simply do not agree with your hypothesis.

OK, maybe you're right and I'm wrong. But I'm not sure you understand my hypothesis to begin with, which is nothing but this: Christendom was made by the conversion of cohesive groups, large and small, under the influence of hierarchical authority. Influence does not mean state compulsion. Although legal compulsion was sometimes used (a notable example here: http://tinyurl.com/3rpeh2v ) it is not something I am defending and I don't believe it was normative. Certainly with respect to the Anglo-Saxons the missionaries actively discouraged this kind of compulsion.

As to how this process might track with "nucleation principles in percolation theory", I haven't the foggiest idea. If the conversion of nations requires "percolation and diffusion", fine, but since percolation and diffusion took only 30 years in Ireland, you can't tell me that large groups weren't part of the process.

Oh, unless you mean something else again by the term "coversion". As I said previously, for purposes of this discussion we should be using the term in the sociological and historical sense employed by Dawson in the OP - a beginning in the Christian life. There are other ways to use the term. I was baptized 45 years ago, but now when praying compline with my family I pray "Convérte nos, Deus salutáris noster" - "Convert thou us, O God our Savior". Conversion in this sense is a lifelong process. But that's not what we're talking about here.

Christendom was made by the conversion of cohesive groups, large and small, under the influence of hierarchical authority.

Indeed, Jeff, and this was both the most interesting, and most ignored, contention of your post. And it is this levelling of hierarchy that makes future "conversions" all the more difficult. That our own co-religionists have not merely tolerated, but verily created, abetted, and finally cheered this whiggish deformity makes it all the more ironic.

OK, maybe you're right and I'm wrong. But I'm not sure you understand my hypothesis to begin with, which is nothing but this: Christendom was made by the conversion of cohesive groups, large and small, under the influence of hierarchical authority.

Well, individuals convert and then they cohere, no? Otherwise, I agree with your hypothesis as stated. In reading your original post, I assumed you meant group = country because you threw in the word nation very close-by. Since you mean only group = small groups, I have no problem with that.

Wow, one more thread in which I now have no significant comments to make.

The Chicken

That our own co-religionists have not merely tolerated, but verily created, abetted, and finally cheered this whiggish deformity makes it all the more ironic.

Indeed. Although it was Christianity that introduced the dignity of the individual to the pagan world, modernity (which now permeates the Church) has taken this principle to the level of a heresy.

Well, individuals convert and then they cohere, no?

Yes, but individuals also cohere and then they convert together.

Since you mean only group = small groups, I have no problem with that.

Actually, I wrote "large and small", and yes, sometimes a group means a nation!

Again Jeff, good thoughts. Though the conversation has been interesting, like Steve I see that the most important point you were making in the original entry has been largely confounded. I hope this doesn't deter you from future entries like this.

Indeed. Although it was Christianity that introduced the dignity of the individual to the pagan world, modernity (which now permeates the Church) has taken this principle to the level of a heresy.

Would that include things like guaranteeing charity to everyone who asks for it without consideration for their background?

Somewhat related, Ferdinand Bardamu (a rather notorious game advocate) has a very interesting post (warning, a lot of risque ads) on how Capitalism and Liberalism have contributed to radically overthrowing traditionalist views in Poland. If you cleaned up his language, it'd sound very similar to a lot of paleocon and traditionalist critiques of modern society.

Thanks, Buckyinky, for this and your earlier contributions. I think the point was made: I just assume that no one can think of a rebuttal. ;-)

Mike T., you wrote: "Would that include things like guaranteeing charity to everyone who asks for it without consideration for their background?" No, I think there's a much more traditional precedent for this:

"Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you." - Matt 5:42
"Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you." - Matt 5:42

That's an individual commandment, not a public policy prescription. Furthermore, the way it actually works as public is like this:

1. John Doe goes to government and asks for freebies.
2. Government agrees to give John Doe freebies.
3. Government goes to Jeff Culbreath and says "your taxes have gone up."
4. Jeff Culbreath finds out that the "charity" was clean hypodermic needles, a comprehensive STD test, a bag of condoms and a morning after pill for John Doe's girlfriend.

Accuse me of hyperbole all you want, but you cannot credibly argue that bridging the gap between that verse as an individual commandment and as a public policy prescription is only feasible in a state that is consciously guided by Christian social teaching.

Would that [i.e., the leveling of all hierarchies] include things like guaranteeing charity to everyone who asks for it without consideration for their background?

If by charity, Mike means: "charity" (in the sense of the Modern Charitable-Industrial Complex), then I suppose it could very well be considered part of the heresy. Of course giving to everyone who asks without consideration for their background should hardly be considered actual charity. At best that might rise to simple indifference, and at worst it could actually be considered conscious malice, when, for example, what the person in need asks for is precisely the opposite of what they need. Insofar as true charity seeks the best for its object, it cannot, even in principle, be impersonal nor paired with indifference. It ought to go without saying that whether or not any government might alleviate some subset of suffering, bearing always in mind the Law of Unintended Consequences, is one left to the prudence of human governors and not a matter of irreformable Christian teaching.

I think the point was made: I just assume that no one can think of a rebuttal.

Myself, I'm not motivated to "rebut" the idea that if you *really convert* the king to Christianity, with no hanky panky in the form of offering him direct incentives, that's great. More power to your elbow. If the king's conversion then has *only legitimate influences* on the further progress of the gospel--e.g., he puts no hindrance in the way of your further missionary efforts, he maybe even sends security guards to protect you from unfriendly natives, people say, "Huh, I just respect the king so much that since he accepts this Christianity, maybe I should give it a listen"--that's great, too.

I can't imagine any individualist that would disagree with that. Obviously, both throughout this entire discussion and in my long post at my own blog, I have been raising questions (e.g., about insisting that you _must_ first convert the king, what it means to "maintain the hierarchical structure of the society as much as possible," how you converted the king, what might happen if you actually _strengthened_ the hierarchical structure of a _non-Christian_ society, etc.) about the nitty gritty of Convert the King First and Have Him Help You Via Hierarchy as a Big Strategy for missions.

So, no, Jeff's point hasn't been ignored. It's just that there are more ramifications of it than are captured by either, "What a horrible idea!" or "Wow! Why didn't I think of that! Let's put hierarchies in place in America as quickly as possible so we can convert the whole country in big chunks!"

At best that might rise to simple indifference, and at worst it could actually be considered conscious malice, when, for example, what the person in need asks for is precisely the opposite of what they need

Despite the talk about social incentives on this thread, it seems lost on many Catholics that comprehensive welfare guarantees are actually subtly malicious on a spiritual level because they remove the social disincentive to behave in many self-destructive ways. Poverty is a powerful motivation to not do certain things when it's a realistic prospect as a consequence of certain behaviors.

I don't advocate taking away these things because I hate the poor, I advocate taking them away because the poor particularly need incentives to not behave self-destructively.

I think, Lydia, that Jeff's point is far deeper than merely converting the king and having that "legitimately" influence (or not) the broader culture under him. The tearing down of heirarchy has eliminated the very concept of "betters" and "lessers". This is unnatural and has had in fact tragic consequences. That there ought to be in any healthy and sustainable culture 1) a clear division between one's betters and lessers; and 2) wide cognisance of this fact. The leveling heresy has destroyed both.

Today, those who actually would be "betters", having eliminated any conscious notion that they are anyone's betters (being an elitist is almost as bad as being a Nazi... or a smoker), have to that same extent lost any sense of obligation to those below them in the social hierarchy (to be patronizing is today tantamount to Nazi-sympathy). They have largely become libertardian hedonists or quietist busybodies or (often) both. Thus, the sins of the rich, the consequences of which can often be sideskirted or ameliorated (in this life) by the rich, are today aped by their would-be lessers, whom, lacking the resources, connections, margins, suffer immensely for them (in this life).

Similarly, those "lower" on the social scale, equally drunk on the kool-aid of egalitarianism, do not accept the kindness, toleration and generosity of the those above them as a gracious gift, but in fact as something owed them as a just payment from a class of people that is (obviously) keeping their boot heel on their heads... and there never will be enough of it. Lessers are thus stuck in an on-going generational cycle of increasing depravity, coupled with increasing dependency upon with simultaneous rage at their betters. And betters for their part continue at once to deny that they are "betters" at all, have any right to judge the choices of those below them, nor sense any obligation to live as a good example for the good of the whole people.

Needless to say, this is not leading in a healthy direction.

Interestingly, traditional Christianity is seen with utter contempt (bitter clingers to guns, etc.) by modern day elites. They have no need (in this life) for such religious forms. But those who would most benefit from the rigors of such religion (in this life), the (how-to-say) non-elites, are discouraged by the terrible example of their would-be betters from following it. Today, freedom from constraint becomes the highest good... no matter the cost.

Mike, it's not clear whether you are agreeing with me or not. I am Catholic, and I believe it is quite obvious that government programs targeting poverty (and a variety of other social ills) have only served to exacerbate those ills. I agree, however that Catholics are sometimes too fond of throwing around the cudgel of "justice" without defining very well what they mean. In most cases, the argument (e.g., about "healthcare", or "the poor") would fall apart immediately upon defining it.

Steve N., it's possible that Jeff wanted to have a full-scale discussion of the wonderful-ness of old-fashioned monarchy or tribal hierarchy as a system or set of systems, leading to noblesse oblige on the part of the betters and gentle, beneficial following on the part of the lessers.

Myself, I tend to question the rosy view you are painting. Kings have very often been anything but good examples to their subjects, etc., etc. And if we're talking about the whole range of tribal leaders, headsmen, etc., all over the world who might be converted in the future or who were converted as a route to the conversion of whole tribes and nations, we're going to find examples of a lot of bad stuff, indeed. As in, chieftains who have fifty "wives," with all the consequences that entails, chieftains hand in glove initially with witch doctors or other pagan religious men, leaders who regard their people as akin to their cattle, and so forth.

In any event, that would to my mind obviously be a much wider-ranging discussion than the actual post or than the "point" that was supposedly ignored, which I understood to be specifically about the _relation_ between kingly or tribal hierarchy and mission work. The latter set of issues I have attempted to discuss at some length and from many angles in response to Jeff's post. I did this because Christian missions is a special interest of mine.

It seemed more than a bit odd, after all of that, to have more than one person implying that some deep "point" regarding the conversion of Christendom and hierarchy has been ignored in the thread because it "could not be rebutted." It seems to me, on the contrary, that the issue of hierarchy and conversion has been discussed quite a lot.

And, in addition to Lydia's point, the notion in a hierarchy of one's "betters" and "lessers" is, almost universally, part of the problem. In a social order properly ordered to the good and supportive of that good in principled ways, the "betters" would be - at least normally - people who are more virtuous, more holy, more educated, and more wise than the "lessers". That is to say, these qualities ought to be the very criteria for what we mean by the "betters" - with virtue and holiness coming in ahead of education by a good margin. There hasn't been a country in the world where these criteria defined the socially accepted notion of social betters for any length of time. As a result, social "betters" have almost always been identified by means of other criteria that at the very best act as stand-ins for the difficult-to-measure criterion of holiness, [with (a) having a long-term family standing, and (b) wealth, being the 2 leading candidates], but more usually having still more base stand-ins such as notoriety and *ability to get the government to pay out benefits* being common.

I don't think that hierarchy in which the criteria of "better" is rabble-rousing notoriety is something that we ought to expect lends itself to conversion in any specially fruitful sense. Now, if we had an aristocracy in which the aristocratic body changed hands every generation using an objective measure of virtue to find the new members, that might be a good starting point.

In a social order properly ordered to the good and supportive of that good in principled ways, the "betters" would be - at least normally - people who are more virtuous, more holy, more educated, and more wise than the "lessers". That is to say, these qualities ought to be the very criteria for what we mean by the "betters" - with virtue and holiness coming in ahead of education by a good margin.

I disagree, Tony. In a properly ordered society - Christian or otherwise - one's "betters" are not necessarily more virtuous. Grace builds on nature, as you know, and the natural order is hierarchical in ways that have little to do with personal sanctity. Education, intelligence, skill, knowledge, and yes, even wealth and family background are part of the fabric of hierarchy in any normal society. That doesn't mean that these things are more important than virtue or holiness: it means simply that they exist and the social order is naturally governed by them.

1) It is not necessary to use one's imagination but rather simply to know human nature, human society, and human history in order to see that very, very often those in charge are bad--bad examples and bad rulers. Sometimes they rule merely by brute strength, sometimes because the people admire some not-very-admirable quality of theirs. Give me Joe the Plumber over Joe Kennedy and his progeny any day. In these cases there is no particular reason to expect grace to build on the mere fact that this strong man or this rich man or this self-destructive starlet happens to be in charge or happens to be adored by many people. And indeed all of this is quite biblical, to an extent that would be tedious to relate. The Psalms, not to mention the Magnificat and the teachings of the Son of Mary are full of wise words about God's preference for the humble and meek. James is scathing on the subject of preference for "the great."

2) Even where some non-Christian ruler is comparatively speaking wise and just and/or rules by a sort of visible "natural aristocracy," it may well happen that mission efforts directed at him are unsuccessful and that his people listen where he hesitated or rejected. Paul clearly thought pretty well of Agrippa, and he preached to him gladly, but Agrippa did not accept the message, while others "lower" in social status did. Missionaries certainly should not be stymied by such situations. They should preach, teach, and disciple as they have opportunity. Period.

I shd. add not only God's "preference" for the humble and meek but the greater ease with which they enter the kingdom. Jesus is explicit on the point.

Lydia, I think you would find this interesting:

http://nobility.org/2011/07/11/burial-protocol-austria/

To my mind, it's a beautiful synthesis of the radical claims of the Gospel against the "greats" of this world, and the natural order which, though humbled and put "in its place", is acknowledged in ritual and otherwise undisturbed.

I shd. add not only God's "preference" for the humble and meek but the greater ease with which they enter the kingdom. Jesus is explicit on the point.

Yes, He is, and His point is not in dispute. I have post in the works on the subject of poverty - a book review, actually - so stay tuned. :-)

Wonderful, wonderful burial ceremony, Jeff. Beautiful.

And don't get me wrong: I'm no Jacobin. I'm not recommending that missionaries come into a country with the avowed intention of, say, overthrowing the monarchy. That might be a very bad idea indeed, from many angles. And whether or not the country needed a new ruler or family of rulers would depend on many factors beyond missions questions. I'm just recommending that they come into the country with the intention to preach the Word--to great or small, to whoever will listen and heed. No good missionary would pass up an opportunity to preach before kings and princes. No good missionary would pass up an opportunity to start with the peasants, if that were where the opportunity first opened up, even if it displeased the king. And so forth.

Another point, of course, is that rulers like the Hapsburgs are already Christian. Trying to create or praising a hierarchical structure that is definitely either pre-Christian or post-Christian (such as a missionary would encounter as in the initial Christianization of what would become Europe) is an entirely different matter. If anything, that setting is less likely to yield examples of admirable rulers.

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