Dr. Sarah Claerhout <<back
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[Religious conversion; religious violence; Christian secularization; Indian debate on conversion; inter-religious dialogue]
The main concern of my doctoral research is the issue of religious conversion. More specifically, it is oriented towards the debates and practices of Christian religious conversion in the Reformation Era and the spread of this Christian process since that period.
This religious process of change and transformation is fascinating because of its pivotal role in the formation of the western culture. The long-term goal of the research project on conversion is to clarify the role this process has played in shaping some basic characteristics of the western culture: the western normative ethics and its understanding of moral growth. The study of the impact of conversion on other cultures and societies will help us here. My focus is on South Asia, more specifically on India. A deeper understanding is needed of the Asian reactions to, and apprehensions about, Christian conversion, since these reflect important cultural differences between Asia and the West.
Currently, I am exploring three different threads.
(1) First, I look at how the typical Christian process of ‘conversio’ developed in the West. This process was originally created in the monasteries, where it shaped the lives and experiences of the monks. Conversion was more or less synonymous with Christian life in the monastery. It soon became the dominant answer to the question “What does it mean to be a Christian?” To become a real Christian, to become a member of the Christian communion of believers, one had to undergo this process. This, however, was mostly restricted to a small group of people, the clergy.
In this research I focus primarily on the era of the Protestant Reformation. In this period, a significant change occurred in the dynamic of the process of conversion. More precisely, a shift took place which transformed conversion from an exclusive and restricted process—accessible only to a small group of clerics—into a general process which should be disseminated across broad layers of society. The Protestant Reformers, in a way, imposed this demanding process on each and every believer. The process of conversion is from now understood as the necessary process of transformation for every human being towards a new life and a new birth as a good man. It is the only route towards living in accord with the Will of God. Hence it is the only route towards being a good human being and towards real happiness.
I try to make sense of questions like: What kind of a process is conversio for Luther, Calvin and the other major Reformers? How could they extend the process of conversion to all human beings while earlier this process was restricted to the clergy? What are the implications of such an extension? Is conversion the one and only route towards being a good human being? What is the relation between the process of conversion and that of moral growth? What are the implications of this for our current understanding of the process of moral growth? Etc.
(2) Secondly, I focus on the debate on religious conversion in India. Since the last century, religious conversion has become a controversial topic here. The main problem is that many Indians show total incomprehension towards the mission of Christians to evangelize the flock. Christian conversions generate nothing but social tensions, according to most Indians. My questions are: Why is conversion such a sensitive issue in this Asian country today? Is there any resemblance between the 16th century debates on conversion in the West and the 21st century debates on conversion in Asia? Why do so many Indians have difficulties with how Christianity and Islam convert others? Why do many of them oppose the right to convert and even strive for a ban on conversion in the Indian Constitution? How did the many cultural and religious traditions in the Indian society in the past manage to live together without tensions like these?
To understand the debate on conversion in India I need also take into account the impact of colonialism on this culture. Throughout its history, the British colonial state expressed significant problems in allowing active evangelization in Indian society. More attention was given to the civilizing mission without seeing conversion to the Christian religion as the necessary starting point. However, the study of the colonial educational documents shows an interesting parallel between the British educational project and the Christian mission of conversion. They desired a patient and silent transformation of Indian society: (a) through education, the natives would gradually become aware that their ‘idolatrous’ traditions could not possibly represent God’s will and (b) they would eventually recognize the call of the Holy Spirit and convert to Christianity. In this way the colonial educational project can be understood as an attempt to create the conditions to enable true conversion. What were the implications of such an undertaking?
(3) A closely related thread is the issue of religious violence. Few scholars have provided clear insights into the connection between religion and violence. My research on conversion might be of help here. Studying conversion forces one to pose the question if conversion causes violence. If it causes violence, is that violence an instance of religious violence? But, in order to fruitfully answer such a question, another question has to be dealt with. What makes violence into religious violence? Hence, what makes some act of violence into an act of religious violence?
My questions are: What is the impact of imposing the process of conversion on non-Christian societies? Is the specific Christian process of conversion transgressing its theological boundaries in order to spread Christianity? Is conversion causing violence? If it is, what kind of violence does it concern?