Saturday, January 31, 2009

On Evangelism and Coercion

I spoke with a Christian classmate and they said that their stomach turns when they hear the word “Evangelical”. I asked them why, and they explained that feelings of coercion and pride were at the root of the feeling. I suppose that the person felt like “evangelism” was tantamount (at least connotatively) to the Inquisition: Believe or die!

This is a common perception on my sociological category. And perhaps my ancestors were indeed inquisitors and I have to deal with that true legacy. Or it’s propaganda. In either case, I’ve got a strike (or three) against me in starting any conversation because I’m an “Evangelical”. So every once in a while, I am compelled to give a defense for the word with which I am stereotyped.

Evangelism is for me simply the attempt to convince another to believe in a theory about God and the universe. This theory has brought me great joy and peace, and because I love my neighbor, I wish to share the joy and peace.

My motivation hinges on changing belief. But the interesting thing about belief is that it’s not voluntarily changeable. No matter how much money I offered to pay you, you could not believe that the tooth fairy is sitting on top of your monitor right now. Even if you stood to make $1 million, you could not actually believe in something that you believed to be false. And no matter what I threatened you with, you couldn’t change your beliefs. You could say you believe something, but clearly you can’t change your own mind this way. Coercive “belief”, isn’t belief.

The next point is one of Christian doctrine. Christians believe that salvation comes through belief (at least…). So if no one can ‘coerce’ anyone else into believing a thing and if my religion teaches that belief is required for salvation, what then is evangelism? Whatever it is, it logically cannot be coercive. What is it then?

If you want to change someone else’s mind (say, on the team that will win on Sunday), you need to use evidence. Everything from a qualitative statement like “The Cardinals have such a great offense,” to a quantitative one: “Kurt Warner threw 4583 yards in the 2008 season.” This is the way you can change a mind: present compelling evidence. The mind’s evaluates evidence: “For the ear trieth words, as the mouth tasteth meat” (Job 34:3). So give it evidence!

Do I have the truth? I think I do, as I hope everyone thinks they do. Or at least a part of it.

Isn’t it arrogant to claim that your way is the only way? It would be if I claimed that the human institution of Christianity was the only way, it would indeed be arrogant; we are humans who built it, after all. This is the incredible thing about Christianity: we don’t have a monopoly on the truth. You don’t have to go to a Christian church to be saved. You don’t have to call Jesus “Jesus.” You just have to believe in the truth. Those Christians who do this will be saved; those who don’t, won’t. Jesus actually says that many will profess to be his followers but in the end “…I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” The same goes for every human on the planet: if you have right belief, you will be saved.

It’s not about Christianity; it’s about the truth. Just like nature, gravity doesn’t care if you’re calculating where a cannonball lands from Newton’s laws or from lots of practice. Gravity is gravity, and its rewards are not exclusive to Newtonians. We can say that Newton has perhaps the most effective and elegant way to analyze gravity on a macro scale, but a man need not know the name of Newton to use gravity effectively. The same is true for Christianity. It’s the most effective and elegant way to analyze the spiritual world, but a man need not know the name of Jesus to attain salvation.

So I am an Evangelist for Christianity as Newton was an Evangelist for physics. Did Newton coerce people into believing his theories? No. He convinced them. One piece of evidence at a time. Because his view was true, people who believed in it were better off because of their belief. And belief in Newtonian physics spread.

We consider it an obligation and an honor for a scientist to make his findings known. We look at respect on the evangelical scientist, he who tries to better the world by his revelation of truth. And this is what I aim to do: to share what I believe I understand. If my reasons and evidence are compelling, believe. If not, don’t. I am an Evangelical Christian as Newton was an Evangelical Scientist.

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