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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

False Religion and Conversion
distributed 10/12/07 - ©2007

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Betty and Phil Weber, of Loveland, Colorado. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

If Christian churches are going to be able to do solid, transformational ministry that works for the well-being of all of God's creation, we need to change our thinking about other religions. In fact, we need to start working very actively for conversion.

Let me immediately condition that statement in terms of what we usually think of as the "religions" of the world.

I think it is wonderful that many Christians have found common ground and shared purpose with other great faith traditions. In our collective work for the environment, for peace and justice, and for human rights, we have learned much from each other, and worked in effective coalitions. This lively inter-religious dialogue and cooperation is essential, not only among the "people of the Book" -- Jewish, Christian and Islam -- but also among followers of Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, a wide variety of indigenous religions, and many more.

So, I'm not suggesting that we need to convert the adherents of those other religions, and turn them all into Christians. On a certain level, we're all working for the same cause, even as we make our very distinctive claims about truth, meaning and ethics.

My concern is that there is a thriving world religion that has a belief system quite contrary to most of the recognized faith traditions. If we don't recognize the direct conflict that we have with this other religion, and if we don't look at strategies to convert people from that belief system, then our own Christian faith will become marginalized and irrelevant. And so will the other traditional religions of the world.

That is a central part of what Buddhist philosopher David Loy says in his article, The Religion of the Market.

[The] Market is becoming the first truly world religion, binding all corners of the globe more and more tightly into a world-view and set of values whose religious role we overlook only because we insist on seeing them as "secular". ... The major religions ... have been unable to offer what is most needed, a meaningful challenge to the aggressive proselytizing of market capitalism, which has already become the most successful religion of all time, winning more converts more quickly than any previous belief system or value-system in human history.
The fact is, many of the people who hold membership in our churches, and who think of themselves as good Christians, are avid followers of the religion of the market. Indeed, many of us who are church leaders -- who preach and teach and counsel -- are deeply influenced by the anti-Christian beliefs of this religion of the market.

I have been renewed and deepened in this awareness by one of the books in my summer reading. In Branded: Adolescents converting from consumer faith, religious educator Katherine Turpin looks at consumer culture as a faith system.

More than a system of economic engagement in the world, consumer culture offers a story of meaning and purpose to define human existence. Specifically, consumer culture offers the story that the key to a good life lies in acquiring enough money to obtain the goods that offer happiness, status, protection and comfort. ... We are inundated by the gospel of consumption through every means imaginable.
I know -- most of us have heard that analysis of consumerism in some form. What struck me so powerfully over the summer, though, was her assertion that describing consumer culture as a religion is not a catchy metaphor, but a functional truth.
I came to realize that the problem ran much deeper than cognitive awareness: at stake was the shaping of imagination, agency, and the most basic structures of meaning making. ... What has to be transformed is not our understanding of consumer culture, but our faith in it. In short, adolescents require educational structures to support an ongoing conversion of faith.
It is not only adolescents who need a transformed faith. We all need that conversion.

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Conversion is very different from instruction. If we are going to entice ourselves, our friends and neighbors into an "ongoing conversion" process, we must develop faith communities in which our counter-cultural values are richly and consistently embodied. People must be mentored and encouraged in the daily actions that both express and shape our beliefs. We must provide the sort of exceptional and life-changing experiences that can stand in stunning contrast to the ways of the dominant society.

We must be able to make a compelling sales pitch for why our perspective on faith and life is good and true. We must be willing and able to speak out about why the religion of the market is false. Those proclamations will be most effective when they are made through our everyday lives and choices -- when we joyously choose sufficiency instead of excess, when we are offended by advertising instead of seduced, when we ground our lives in compassion instead of privilege.

If our goal is conversion, then we must be intentional and active in putting forth our positive message. We must be assertive in naming the false gods and the false promises that we reject. We must make clear the choice between two contradictory belief systems, and call on people to decide where they will place their trust and their hope.

I fear that much of the faith-based environmental movement is not willing or able to call for conversion. Much of what I hear in churches is clear about the ecological threats, but the answers tend to focus on new technologies and efficiencies which do not challenge our core beliefs and behaviors. The mindset of the market is failing us, but we are not willing to invite people away from the individualism and materialism of the market society. We are hesitant about calling people toward voluntary simplicity, community, and the genuine abundance of "enough." We are eager to ask people to change their light bulbs, but we are afraid to ask them to change their lives.

We in the Christian church do have good news. We have a message of deep meaning and values, of salvation and purpose, which stands in sharp contrast to the shallow and destructive promises of the market. Selfishly, we might be bold in proclaiming that message because it will strengthen the church. But we must also put forth the call to conversion because that is what our faith demands of us as we care for God's creation.

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If it hasn't already done so, the church must recognize that it lives in a pagan society; it must seek for values and norms not shared by society. In short, it will either recover the Christian doctrine of nonconformity or cease to have any authentic Christian voice.
      -- Doris Janzen Longacre

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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