Epilogue: Conversion in Retrospect
John M. Headley
In dealing with such a considerable variety of topics and treatments pertaining to the idea of conversion, I have chosen not to pursue the chronological presentation offered in this volume, but to follow a two-fold plan, which first seeks to assess the general range, aspects, and dimensions of what conversion can mean by seeing how it is handled differently in a number of cases, only then to address two major issues presented in this volume: namely, the Constantinian model of conversion, and the acculturation of the civilizational component within the religious system.
At the outset it would perhaps be useful to remind ourselves of the model provided by Richard Fletcher in his The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386 AD, which presents a tenfold agenda of questions: 1) The Apostolic impulse or motivation of a Gregory I or St. Boniface; 2) What types engage in such evangelization? 3) What is the target of this missionizing -- a ruler? his elite? a woman? 4) What is the incentive or motive on the part of the converted? 5) What means are available or used for getting across the message? 6) The adaptability of the message, its compromise; 7) What patterns of Christian living result? 8) Consolidation, whence does a mission become a church? 9) Cultural consequences of conversion; and 10) Most difficult of all -- What in any age makes a Christian?1 Particularly, Fletcher’s ninth mode will prove most interesting for our discussion later on in this chapter.
In rehearsing these issues, reflecting the dimensions of our subject matter, we quickly recognize that conversion in the past few decades has become a much more complex subject than its traditional focus on the interior upheaval and apparent displacement within such a great religious personality as Saul, blinded on the road to Damascus, or Augustine in the garden at Milan -- events which, by themselves, are already difficult enough to assess in the extended psychological, intellectual, and/or spiritual processes of the individual religious leader. Rather, the understanding of conversion has become extended to engage social, political, and cultural dimensions of a community or an entire people. Less an apparently abrupt turn or shift for an individual, it comes to be seen more as a larger, ongoing social process, affecting millions.
In fact, the very term conversion, so much suggestive of a sudden, total transformation or reorientation in which one complete religious identity is replaced by another, seems inapplicable to the gradual socio-religious process operating over centuries. Before proceeding further, we would seem to require some conceptual apparatus for contending with conversion on the mass scale. For although only three of our contributors -- Schwaller, Koegel, and Tueller2 -- become involved in any direct way with this long-range type of conversion, implicitly, the problem of Christian conversion or Christianization posits such a form of conversion where a Constantinian imposition of the new religion will involve an extended process -- both external and internal, material and psychological -- of gradual transformation.
The appreciation of conversion as a complex socio-religious process acting over centuries has been analyzed impressively by Richard Eaton in relation to the Moslem world.3 In the case of the Bengal frontier (along the eastern border of present-day India), he dispenses with the conventional theories for explaining mass conversion: 1) military conquest; 2) political imposition; 3) patronage, whereby through relief from taxes, advancement, and other favors, one is enticed to conversion (best evinced in Umayyad Spain); finally, and most improbably, 4) the social liberation theory that anachronistically credits modern values of liberty and equality backwards upon the past. None of them here apply. Instead, in his examination of the Bengal delta frontier from 1200 to 1760, Eaton recounts the clearing of forest tracts for cultivation being secured by tiny rural mosques and shrines: undramatic and almost imperceptible. This religious/economic/social process of conversion admits three stages: 1) inclusion, whereby a new divine agency is accepted along with existing local divinities and cosmologies; 2) identification, by which the new transcendental divine agency merges with the traditional system, surpassing mere coexistence; 3) displacement, whereby the very names of the Islamic superhuman agency replace those of the other local divinities. In this instance, where the old and the new religions are loosely structured and admit to processes of protracted porosity and seepage, the present tripartite set of developments operating over a long period of time provides a satisfying model for appreciating the complex phenomenon of mass conversion to another religion.
Nevertheless, because Eaton is analyzing another universal religion’s capacity for mass conversion rather than that of Christianity, and in a specific situation where porosity and fluidity between old and new religions prevail, no simple application can be made to all cases of Christian mass conversion. His model does not apply, at least at first, to the Spanish conversion of the Amerindians, where military obliteration of resistance and ostensibly of idolatry followed by mass baptism characterize a most imperfect Christianization, only to reveal in time that idolatry had simply been driven under and must somehow be excised from the hearts of the Indian population. Only then, in the long process of exposure to a Christianity transforming and being transformed, does this analytical apparatus begin to apply in its workings over the next half millennium, wherein a type of Christianity, but on local American terms, will be clinched by doses of force and by the increasing adoption of the Spanish language.4
Yet a more direct application of the Bengal conversion process here charted can be found elsewhere in the Christian experiences and diaspora. Similar to the way that Islam grew in tandem with deforestation, agrarian expansion, and the planting of small mosques on lands granted by the ruler, as revealed in Bengal and also in Java, the Benedictine and Cistercian monastic orders from the eighth through the twelfth century proceeded eastward, dispelling the Germanic religious awe for deep forests as shown by the case of Boniface and the Oak of Jupiter. In this case, we are given the almost routine picture of an abbot proceeding into a new clearing with a wooden cross in one hand, while sprinkling holy water with the other, taking possession of the space in the name of Jesus Christ.5 Ultimately, however, it would be a mistake to compartmentalize the immensely spiritual/individual conversion separately from the extensive social/religious one. In the second case, some sort of properly religious choice has been made, a watered down Pauline/Augustinian moment has occurred and perhaps been stretched out over generations. And so, to what extent does this complex of processes function in a more neutral, secular register, namely in assimilating the dominant culture or civilization?
Since the exact meaning of conversio has historically undergone change, it also would seem prudent to consider briefly its development in the early Church, at least prior to its formalization and consolidation around the time of Augustine. The original words used to convey the sense of conversion -- epistrophe, metanoia, and conversio -- all connoted change, a change of belief, but even more importantly, a change of behavior, and of belonging. Preparation required a catechumenate of three to five years, during which time the candidate did not belong to the church. Baptism capped this preparation, marking conversion to the belief, life, and membership of the community. With Constantine and increasing state approval, much would change. From a special elite, the church had to open itself up to the masses, including them through a “carrot and stick” strategy. In the process of re-socialization -- from a deviant lifestyle of an alternate society to a joint association, a corpus permixtum, an imperial church -- the Christian church burgeoned, becoming the sole legal cult in 392, with conversion made compulsory according to Emperor Justinian in 529, while securing infant baptism during the interval. The content of catechizing was lowered, and catechumens were now received as full Christians. More of the host culture became acceptable, conversion requiring less an abandonment of an earlier, possibly aristocratic way of life. While Augustine appealed by means of a catechetical instruction to as yet unbaptized catechumens to be converted, Caesarius of Arles (468/70-542 C.E.) urged conversion upon already baptized Christians. With everyone now ostensibly a Christian, the earlier sense of a change of belief became displaced from conversion. Indeed, by 550, at least bishops were to be catechized, here understood as a year of conversion, before entering upon their functions. By Carolingian times, conversio would come to entail, in a Christian civilization, a change involving belonging -- as with the monastic profession -- as well as behavior. In that sense internal to life among Christians, conversion had come to apply to the clergy. The world of the ‘religious’ and the great mass of the laity -- between converted and baptised -- had begun.6 Such being the modifications to the understanding of conversion during the first six centuries of the Common Era, pertaining internally within the consolidated Christianitas, what then, external to Christianitas, would be its meanings and course of development in the expansions of Christendom toward new peoples?
In keeping with the new sophistication and expanded range of the subject, the conference on which this volume is based itself originally began with an individual, yet one lacking the intensity and depth of an Augustine or Saul, a lesser saint, or more precisely, the legend of same, as it passes through several registers. For the legend of Saint Guthlac, discussed in this volume by Christian Aggeler, presents us with several variant textual traditions, each version reflecting a distinct audience, and each offering a different understanding of the conversion experience.7 At its source stands that of the earliest Latin Vita, in which conversion pertains not to a new belief system, but to a change from the martial to the religious life and, presumably, to a more intense spirituality that is now directed toward the lay aristocracy as its audience. Such a shift from one level of Christian life to another comes to embody the medieval sense of conversio. A later Old English version betrays the hagiographical intent of forsaking the particular and historical to promote the paradigmatic and the universal, which shifts the cause of conversion from a moment of enlightenment to an extra-personal combat between supernatural beings. The new view of conversion as a battle between good and evil spirits hovering over the Christian person serves the purposes of a monastic audience. In the pictorial narrative presented in the Harleian Roll, conversion comes to be represented as a process inaccessible to the ordinary individual. This view contrasts sharply with the final Middle English versions, here in apparent response to the post-Lateran IV emphasis upon penitence:8 the whole discourse of conversion has been displaced by one of penitence. Thus, Aggeler’s article nicely serves as a portal to our inquiry, opening up the subject, not simply to different views of conversion according to the expectations of the intended audience, but also in their variant refractions as functions of divergent textual traditions and their interpreters.
In the wealth of accompanying articles presented in this volume, several focus on the nature of conversion, while others principally emphasize the means. One of the original conference papers that operates beyond the parameters of this volume proves, nonetheless, particularly useful for its definition and understanding. Peter Jackson’s Mongol case of non-conversion advances important perspectives.9 His inquiry into the reasons for failure to convert to Christianity affirms at the outset two features that otherwise figure significantly in our broader considerations, yet, in this case are absent: first that the Catholic missionaries are not seen by the Mongols as bearers of a superior civilization; and secondly, the absence of any threat or resort to military force. Jackson describes contexts of rich religious pluralism and variety where Christian missionaries compete with Buddhists, Moslems, and Confucians on a level playing field before Mongol overlords. There are important hints that Christianity is being made too erudite and sophisticated as well as too political. With the Mongols, Western logic may win, but it does not engage. And papal letters only deter. Particularly, Christian exclusivity contrasts with Buddhist inclusivity. The issue of the numinous, or the localization of sacrality, shows the Christians to lack a ready resort to the stars, to magic, or to accommodating the Mongol ancestral customs. Islam is also exclusive in its own way, but it has the lure of allowing concubinage and polygamy, and of practicing the deft use of gifts. Christianity appears hidebound, hobbled by constraining attitudes, practices, expectations, but above all unable to command the spirit-world of Inner Asia.
Several articles in this volume focus preeminently upon the means of conversion. John Koegel’s essay offers an extensive analysis of the role and presence of music in the colonial church of Mexico.10 Most important for our purpose here is that of John Schwaller in its defining three phases in the evangelization of New Spain, in which we are introduced to the incredible linguistic achievements of the religious orders in their efforts to adapt the message, which does not stop at language but has recourse to cartoons, as well.11 Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún appears somewhat disingenuous in assuring the natives that the king has no temporal designs upon them. Yet in his stunning achievements toward intellectual and cultural engagement with the indigenous population, one cannot help but compare Sahagún’s efforts at accommodations to those of Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, a generation later on the other side of the globe. Schwaller cites the arresting statement of the mestizo priest, Bartolomé de Alva, to his Amerindian parishioners in 1634: “Turn around backward (or better I should say toward your front) and look and marvel at the people of Japan, your younger brothers in the faith... .”12 The statement is arresting in that it proclaims the emerging sense of the interconnectedness of the global experience -- following in the wake of the preaching religious orders -- and also arresting in its proclamation of a common humanity across the globe. With Sahagún, the expressly evangelical intent of the man displaces that of the ethnographic scholar. In Schwaller’s detailed study of the imperfect extension of the sacramental system to the native population, the Spanish colonial church emerges as emphatically a non-communicating one. Was the resulting motley, hybrid character of this church something unexpected, unintended? He leaves us with three distinct phases of conversion worth pondering: first conversion through example; then conversion by intellectual/cultural engagement; finally, conversion by extirpation of an inner idolatry.
Architecture, the most historically enmeshed of all the art forms, becomes at the hands of Laura Hebert, in her intense and revealing study of the temple at Aphrodisias, less a means of conversion and more an expression of a conversion completed, marking the formal passage of a community from paganism to Christianity. This shift, occurring at the end of the fifth century, is carefully calibrated and dependent upon a realignment in the allegiance of the local aristocracy. The temple’s end provides silent monumental evidence, punctuating the shift by the majority of the provincial elite.13
With Oliver Nicholson’s study of Constantinople, we move from the conversion of a provincial capital and its temple as a common problem in the late Classical world to the Christianization of an imperial metropolis.14 Through its processions, ceremonies, and monuments we come to know the pulse and rhythms of Constantine’s city. Beyond the gradual appearance of hermetic columns, monasteries, and churches in Byzantium that serve to transform the urban inscape, the essential change arises as a result of imperial sensibility -- Constantine’s early acquired loathing of blood sacrifice, associated with the pagan cult. And while the withering of pagan observance in the city’s public life did not immediately translate as the conversion of its inhabitants to full Christianity, a momentous step had been taken in snapping the traditional link between the fortune of a city and the worship of its gods. For by a sort of reversed euhemerism, the gods had been reduced to so many images, no longer a focus of affection, removed from any ritual context, de-energized, rendered now as art, so much urban decoration, almost ready for the museum. The relation of this ruthless gutting of the familiar, this redefining of holiness, this transformation that finds its literary parallel in the work of Lactantius’ incorporation of pagan features into now a Christian view of the world, makes his essay a most effective analysis of conversion in its urban dimension. In a world being created anew, in an urban landscape now transformed by its Christian inscape, conversion becomes the Christianization of a city and of a civilization.
Robin Darling Young’s work on the Armenian church affords an interesting contrast, first by its Mediterranean culture and then its Zoroastrian/Iranian inheritance quite apart from the Graeco-Roman world, in pursuit of the formation of a uniquely national Christianity.15 The Armenian case evinces a distinctly monastic culture in the conscious appropriation of the late classical Christian world. There must first be the creation of a national script, compared in its providential achievement to the Mosaic revelation of the laws, before there can be that astonishing assimilation of Greek and Syriac theological authors into Armenian. Armenia’s Christianization becomes literary, first in that it depended upon the development of an alphabet, and then a written literature for the creation of a native liturgy and Bible. Here Armenian Christianity develops as a national entity in imitation of, yet in opposition to, imperial Iran in the south. The process of conversion is driven by the preaching, sermonizing, and teaching of a monastic-based culture. Furthermore, the Armenian church succeeds, largely because it develops from a supportive context in the effort to use Christianity for national identification. The case for the kingdom’s conversion as a literary work is further enhanced by the fourth century being credited with what actually occurred in the fifth century, all in order to create a national myth of Armenia as the first Christian nation.
In a contrasting vein, Calvin Kendall’s sensitive study of Bede’s “Anti-Constantinian” narrative regarding the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria introduces us to the issue of probably the most momentous single transformative event in the history of the Christian Church: namely the conversion, or better, commitment of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity, and more generally, to the Constantinian model of conversion.16 At once, the event of 312 C.E. presents us with the most obvious historical agency or instrument for effecting any people’s conversion, and one that detains us in a number of different articles here, namely: a rather unseemly arrangement whereby “a bargain [is] struck between the ruler and God -- conversion in exchange for success in battle,”17 and gradually, or not so gradually, the consequent getting in step of all members of the imperial community. Thus it presents itself, as with a badly disfigured ancient coin, the imperfect political squaring of love’s circle, the continuing effort to adjust potestas to caritas. The historical preeminence of this sort of conversion, together with the fundamentally problematic relationship that it inevitably established, posits the Constantinian moment as a most salient issue of this volume.
Kendall unravels the Venerable Bede’s implicit objection to the “potent model” provided by Constantine, as revealed in Bede’s Anglo-Saxon translator’s correction and doctoring of the author’s dismissive attitude toward Constantine, his silences regarding same, and his apparent rejection of Clovis’ repeat performance of the unseemly bargain. In a variety of narratives, Bede is seen as focusing on that of King Edwin of Northumbria’s conversion, and as deliberately finessing the Constantinian model, since the story of Edwin’s promise to convert in exchange for victory in battle was available to him. Bede represents the king frequently as deeply ruminating within his inmost heart, in contrast to the chief priest of the old religion, Coifi, who argues from military and material premises. Bede’s careful cultivation of Edwin’s spiritual nature and intellectual growth does not prevent his representation of the king from an awareness of his own political context and the welfare of his subjects. We can do no better than quote Kendall here:
Bede surely knew that the enduring conversion of a people could not be effected without preparation, hesitations, and delays. ... By artfully weaving together the three narratives of Edwin’s conversion and allowing them to comment on each other, Bede critiques the Constantinian model of conversion, and offers an alternative that stresses the importance of spiritual preparation for both the individual and the group -- a model that would be, unlike the Constantinian one, worthy of imitation.18
Jonathan Shepard’s paper affords us an unique opportunity to get behind the Constantinian model and moment in order to appreciate the conversion of a people as something more than a divine or imperial fiat. Through the careful piling up of archeological evidence plus an acute sensitivity to the political kairos, Shepard gets into and behind the decision of the new Constantine, Prince Vladmir, thereby providing a most persuasive reconstruction of the circumstances and motives making the event of 988 possible and credible.19 We are privileged in seeing not only the evidence for prior Christian conversions in Rus -- Princess Olga and her nobles -- but also the living presence of effective alternatives in the forms ofJudaism, Islam, and of course, a strong pagan resistance. For there is nothing inevitable about the final choice of Byzantium’s God, but rather a clustering of opportunities and circumstances that lead to Vladimir’s decision: namely, that he momentarily enjoys a freer hand than his predecessors in the determination of public worship; that he provides Byzantium with timely military aid; and that he takes back as reward “a purple-born bride.” In returning to his beginning, the laudatory sermon of the eleventh-century Rus churchman Ilarion, Shepard vindicates the judgment of this sermon that makes Vladimir, as the new Constantine, responsible for the conversion of his people to Christianity. But, by now, we have been led to a greater appreciation of the complexity and richness of that historical moment. And even after Vladimir’s fateful choice, Christianization becomes only possible where the prince exercises effective authority.
By means of probing questions that go behind the triumphalist and providentialist “Authorized Version” of Ilarion, Shepard opens up a huge subject to a consideration of other forces and alternative possibilities in an inquiry that does justice to the complexity, often randomness, and perhaps ultimately providential nature of the process of conversion to Christianity in a vast region -- from the Middle Dnieper to the Gulf of Finland. His new “Unauthorized Version” of interpretation, which includes a variety of evidence -- from crosses superceding amulets in funerary sites, the initiatives of women, and a mobilization of hitherto disparate political activities and developments leading to a mass baptism -- concludes with a picture of churches replacing pagan shrines, of icons replacing idols, and of bishops, monks, and altars expelling demons. Such sensitivity to a wealth of scattered detail effectively serves to bring conversion to Christianity into focus as a historical problem that engages the role of the individual and political power, approaching the providential, with a well-seeded yet open context, capable of enforced reassembling. As the author intends, the new “Unauthorized Version,” in recognizing the almost miraculous role of Vladimir, does not simply replace the “Authorized Version,” but also certainly enriches it.
Before leaving the conversion of Rus, we may note two other features of general interest for our understanding of conversion. We are introduced to the ambivalences of Byzantine practices regarding conversion with their reluctance to sponsor “top-down” state conversion, which would serve to create a rival Christian power. Such a justifiable fear makes all the more ironic and complex the deal struck with Prince Vladimir. Secondly, let us linger briefly over the moment in Ilarion’s encomium that speaks of liberation from false gods and the cult of human sacrifice: “No longer do we slay one another as offerings for demons, for now Christ is ever slain and segmented for us as an offering to God and the Father. ‘No longer do we drink the blood of the offering and perish, for now we drink the pure blood of Christ’.”20 One inevitably thinks of the comparable cases of Aztecs and Mayans in their preoccupation with blood sacrifices, and one ponders the effectiveness of the Christian liturgy, Catholic as well as Eastern, in addressing through the eucharistic service this elemental need. The subject needs further study.
With Patrick Provost-Smith’s article, we are wonderfully introduced into a truly imperial, indeed global arena for the examination of the fundamental problem posed in all its intensity early in Christian history -- the relation of evangelium to imperium.21 What in other hands had been the relatively simple presentation of differing missionary strategies with casual political implications, here, by being placed under the almost artificial lens of Constantinianism, we enter not only into a dialogue between early Church and sixteenth-century opportunities across the ages, but we are led also to see the bitter fruit and enduring dilemma posed by the legacy of Constantine. In this vast geo-political context of the missionary enterprise, the differences in the conception and appropriation of the Constantinian legacy play themselves out in the evolving programs of the three Jesuits -- Ricci, Sánchez and Acosta. Ricci’s focusing of his efforts upon the conversion of the emperor inevitably involved the engagement of the Constantinian model and an imperial focus to the Jesuit mission. Although Ricci surely sought something like Constantine’s Edict of Toleration rather than any attempted imposition of a single orthodoxy, the Chinese would continue to find problematic Ricci’s European distinction between the spiritual and temporal jurisdictions. For his part, Sánchez, fresh from the Philippine conquest and impatient with Ricci’s slow and uncertain methods, proposed an outright conquest of China, which brought into the debate the harsh legacy of the American experience. Sánchez’s claims implicated Augustine’s providentialist assessment of Rome. Acosta, his most articulate critic, played Augustine on unjust war against Sánchez’s triumphalist Augustine. To Acosta, the Chinese had good reason to fear the Spaniards, “‘for being a people very bellicose and accustomed to commanding’.”22 The entanglement of Christ with Caesar will surely serve to hobble, again and again, the forces of Christianization in Asia against the somehow less burdened Islam.
Provost-Smith’s work provides new depths and new perspectives upon an enduring problem, especially in Ricci’s efforts to separate Christian conversion from questions of political jurisdiction, and apparently to re-engage something of the mentality of pre-Constantinian Christianity. Insofar as Ricci has an emperor, he is perforce Chinese rather than immediately Iberian, and as the sole Italian among the three, it might here be added, that he partakes of that il modo soave established by his superior and predecessor, Alessandro Valignano, Jesuit Visitor to the East, who was the real architect of a missionary program marked by accommodation. This would represent the most distinctive strategy of conversion of the next three hundred years, thus warranting some mention in a volume of this nature. Without Valignano, there would have been no Ricci. And while Ricci certainly effected significant modifications to that strategy, it may be questioned here whether his own solution to the resolution problem was of the same expressed political nature as that pegged by the Iberians, Sánchez and Acosta. Whether directed toward his Chinese Constantine or the literati elite, the logic of Ricci’s methods seems less expressly political than most subtly cultural, intellectual, and religious, directed toward a resolution that could never ultimately be satisfied with an accommodation of Christianity to Chinese culture, but rather a complete transformation of it. Most baldly stated, is not the Jesuit program of inculturation directed less to cultural accommodation and more to a form of intellectual imperialism or colonization? The sources for Ricci’s inspiration, not to mention the dozens of later Italian Jesuit appointments to the East -- appointments untainted by the Iberian conquistador spirit -- seem less to lie in any identification with a pre-Constantinian Christianity and more to flow outward from a Catholic humanism and the Collegio Romano.23
Notwithstanding such possibilities, one can only laud the sustained rigor and huge compass of Provost-Smith’s argument as it deals with possibly the greatest single conundrum, so painful and so peculiar to our civilization: the shifting adjustments of imperium to evangelium, of potestas to caritas. For this reader, at least, the drama in the threefold workings of this enigma is heightened by the long shadow cast by St. Augustine, the great African doctor, in his own ruminations on the enigma and their multiple refractions down through the ages.
The essay of James Tueller, which comes the closest to addressing conversion as a long, complex social process, serves to advance an issue that might otherwise be lost in any consideration of the properly religious dimension of the problem of conversion, and one rather vaguely and poorly represented by Richard Fletcher in his ninth mode: namely, acculturation, or better the cultural/civilizational component in the baggage of any religious system and its relation to that system.24 Is it by names, or by clothing, or better, by life, itself, that properly measures and constitutes conversion to Christianity? With Tueller’s paper we encounter not only the issue of acculturation, but also that of Fletcher’s eighth mode, consolidation; and tenth: What makes a Christian? Here religious conversion becomes “best understood in the context of the social networks of conversion among all the inhabitants of the Marianas Islands.”25 The embarrassing question is asked: “If the cristianos viejos (old Christians) did not live the laws of the Church,” why should the Chamorros as cristianos nuevos be expected to do so?26 One is reminded of the point made by C. R. Boxer in his The Dutch Seaborne Empire, when he notes that an eighteenth-century governor of Surinam urged that the Dutch ruling elite be first converted to Christianity, before attending to the conversion of the natives.27
Building upon these insights, let us attempt to bring into focus that issue peculiar to the Latin Christian experience of conversion: namely, the secular element or component of a parallel supporting ethos, reinforcing but ultimately having a capacity to function independently on its own, recasting the hitherto religious phenomenon into a specifically secular, civilizing force. Interestingly, the secular, cultural ingredient in the Western process of conversion is only dimly represented by Richard Fletcher’s ninth category -- the cultural consequences of conversion -- in his otherwise exhaustive analysis of the modes of conversion. Such a form or outgrowth of conversion, now as a secularizing force, seems to be a peculiarly Western development, first because all other societies in history have been constructed in terms of their religious ethos permeating every aspect of life so as to disallow, even if desirable, any partitioning off of a separate segment of reality: religion, politics, and society are one cake, as best exemplified in the case of the only other operable universal religion, Islam. But secondly, with Christianity, its historical experience is unique from the beginning in early coming upon a still viable pagan, imperial culture, which it co-opts; and then it theoretically defines the secular sphere as separate from the superior ecclesiastical sphere with St. Augustine’s City of God and in the formula of Pope Gelasius of 494.
In general, for the next thousand years Latin Christendom functioned like any other religiously-oriented society wherein the liturgical/clerical/spiritual motor dominated all aspects of life. At one point, William of Malmesbury (ca. 1080/95-ca. 1143) will recognize Christianity as a civilizing force, pacifying the warlike habits of the English and capable of achieving the moral as well as the spiritual conversion of its adherents.28 Only later, during the Renaissance, are currents released that will permit the detachment of the civilizing from the specifically Christianizing toward the articulation of the concept of civilization.
What was the cultural face -- in its entirety and in its components -- into which Europe intruded in the course of the sixteenth century?29 Certainly, among the forces impelling the first half century of the missionary orders in the New World, the expressly religious stood uppermost: the spiritual drive by means of quick baptism to include the newly-found children of Adam within the Christian fold before the impending end of time. With the coming of the Jesuits to the American scene, however, the more explicitly civil, secular dimension to the European impact upon the indigenous populations revealed itself. It had become a matter of missionary policy for the Jesuits, whether evangelizing in the Indies or in those otras Indias, such as the back alleys of Naples, first to establish ‘civility’ before attempting baptism and formal conversion. We are reminded of this connection by that notable authority on political geography, Giovanni Botero, when he writes in his Relationi universali of 1595 that there is nothing more alien to evangelical doctrine than unsociability in our bearing and cruelty of mind, for Christ presents himself as gentle and humble of heart, in which manner it was easier to inform them more effectively as to the meaning of humanity. We hear the apostle asking us to bear each other’s burdens, and in another place, duly to respect our superiors - ecco la somma della civilitá e d’ogni gentilezza:
Thus I consider it the greatest advantage to the introduction of the faith that refinement, (pulitezza) whatever it may be, is introduced by government and by rule of the great princes in America, because it removes peoples from rudeness and from harshness, disposing them to the gentleness and pleasantness that so become the life of a Christian.30
The classical seems here to inform, promote, and be fulfilled in the Christian. Despite the intimate association, even coalescence, of the two -- the classical and the Christian -- the Jesuit program reflects the beginnings of a potential disengagement that becomes evident in the light of an earlier statement on this relationship. In the course of the Middle Ages, the two had been so closely identified as to be indistinguishable, and only with the Renaissance do the beginnings of a concept of ‘civilization’ emerge. Standing at the beginning of the Age of Discovery, the Italian humanist historian Polydore Vergil, in concluding his rambling De inventoribus rerum with a section dating from 1521, entitled “The Preeminence of the Christian Commonwealth,” identifies the civilizing process with the very heart and purpose of Christianity, so that the later Jesuit priority is reversed and the civil manners and virtues are the gift, import, and ultimate intent of the Christianizing. The mission of Christianity is to civilize and to soften the ferocity of savagery with mild-tempered virtues. Vergil writes, “Thus it is generally recognized that only to the Christian Commonwealth has it been given to promote in the world the most perfect mode of living.”31
It can be argued that although Vergil conceives of Christianity and civility as a single amalgam, one cake, in giving the entirety a secular purpose, he has gone well beyond the later Jesuit program in understanding the relationship between the two and thus their potential separation. In the New World, the Spanish practice of the reducciones reveals the expressly cultural as a perceptible and distinguishable component in the larger program of converting the Amerindian. Whatever the degree of its failure, there can be no doubt as to the presence of the civilizing ideal in the purposes of the reduccion, that urban/civic resettlement of the Amerindians, coexisting along with the religious as well as the economic and administrative purposes of the program. Conversion to civility jostles conversion to Christ.
As a penultimate reflection, even interjection, let us momentarily entertain the notion of our civilization as a vast engine, constructed from the beginning for intra-global communication and conversion. For our civilization’s history can be seen as one continuous effort to penetrate, reduce, and dissolve all aspects, degrees, and cases of separateness, localism, regional differences, and tribalism to achieve a single human community, whether its participants desire it or not. From its earliest beginnings in the wake of the Alexandrian conquests, the idea of a single humanity was first marked by equality and rationality in the case of the Stoic notion of cosmopolis and reinforced shortly thereafter by the interlocking liturgical/religious experience in the fellowship and love intrinsic to being drawn to the unifying Body of Christ; together they posit the idea of humanity as a total biological/moral collectivity, and its potential universal jurisdiction. The first statement of a number of rights inherent to the individual human does not have to wait for the social theories of John Locke and company, but appears five centuries earlier with the canonists of the twelfth century. And when the religious, ecclesiastical half of this immense composition falters and fragments in the course of the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the ecclesiastical sphere, now too inwardly torn and mutually antagonistic to retain its former hold, will be largely shuffled off at the time of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) with the secularization and religious neutralization of this universalizing principle. With an all too often horrifying intensity, this now European civilization rather than Latin Christendom will, in the course of the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, master and exploit the world, but not without extending and advancing a net of moral and legal notions promotive of an all-inclusive humanity and its theoretical overriding jurisdiction.
In such a context, let us attempt to offer a balance sheet for this volume. Conversion, as the conversion of a people, is a long, and uncertain process, whatever the initial mass baptisms and smashing of idols. It is often a process of gradual adhesion by a sort of capillary action, a process taking anywhere from five hundred to a thousand years. We have found the Christian program to be peculiarly hobbled by both its intellectual baggage of Greek metaphysics and logic, and its political entanglement, to which may be added an exclusivity regarding the local social customs of other religions and peoples. Moreover, the heavy burden of the Constantinian legacy, of confusing potestas with caritas, argues for the best possible future of Christianity as either one of witness and suffering, in short a new pre-Constantinian church, or a broad benevolence in charitable actions throughout the world.
And insofar as we are willing to admit into our consideration the cultural component to the conversion process sketched here, despite these very impediments, one may suggest in closing that Christianity, from its roots and from its reinforcing association with Stoic rationality, possesses at its best a unique and intrinsic commitment to the totality of humankind, which, since the seventeenth century, has been increasingly recast theoretically into a largely secular register. This is most evident today, following the horrifying ravages of European imperialism, war, and exploitation, not simply in the global advance of Western science and technology, but also in the continuingly uncertain extension of the universal jurisdiction of humanity in programs of human rights to the peoples of the globe.
But it is more appropriate to conclude on a less speculative note, one nearer to the purposes of this collection of fine papers. In returning to that of Professor Tueller, we may end by pondering, for once, the unlikely Marxian historical wisdom of Friedrich Engels: namely, that because of the conflict of so many divergent wills -- and we might add here, deep-seated customs practiced by often hostile, recalcitrant peoples -- “what emerges is something that no one intended.”32
Richard A. Fletcher, The Conversion of Europe: From Paganism to Christianity, 371-1386 AD (London, 1997).
John F. Schwaller, “Conversion, Engagement, and Extirpation: Three Phases of the Evangelization of New Spain, 1524-1650,” chap. 8 of this volume; John Koegel, “Music and Christianization on the Northern Frontier of New Spain,” chap. 9 of this volume; James B. Tueller, “Networks of Conversion: Catholic Congregations in the Marianas Islands, 1668-1898,” chap. 10 of this volume.
Richard M. Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1993).
See Schwaller, “Conversion, Engagement, and Extirpation,” chap. 8 of this volume.
Eaton, The Rise of Islam, 113-19, 268-72, 297-303, 313-14. See W. Levison, Vita Bonifatii auctore Willibaldo, chap. 6; Scriptores Rerum Germanicarum (Hanover, 1905), 11-57.
Alan Krieder, “Changing Patterns of Conversion in the West,” in The Origins of Christendom in the West (Edinburgh and New York, 2001), 3-46, esp. 4, 11-3, 38, 44-5.
Christian Aggeler, “A Path to Holiness: Hagiographic Transformation and the Conversion of Saint Guthlac,” chap. 5 of this volume.
The Fourth Lateran Council of November 1215 was the twelfth ecumenical council of the Catholic Church.
Peter Jackson, “The Mongols: A Case of Non-Conversion.” Paper presented to the “Conversion to Christianity: A Late Antique, Medieval, and Early Modern Phenomenon” Conference. Consortium for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Minnesota; Minneapolis, MN, May 2001. For more on this topic, see Peter Jackson, The Mongols and the West, 1221-1410 (Harlow, England, 2005).
Koegel, “Music and Christianization,” chap. 9 of this volume.
Schwaller, “Conversion, Engagement, and Extirpation,” chap. 8 of this volume.
Schwaller, “Conversion, Engagement, and Extirpation.”
Laura Hebert, “Pagans and Christians in Late Antique Aphrodisias,” chap. 2 of this volume.
Oliver Nicholson, “Continuity, Constantine the Great, and Conversion,” chap. 1 of this volume; also published in The Making of Christian Communities in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, ed. Mark Williams (London, 2005), 27-47.
Robin Darling Young, “The Conversion of Armenia as a Literary Work,” chap. 3 of this volume.
Calvin B. Kendall, “Modeling Conversion: Bede’s ‘Anti-Constantinian’ Narrative of the Conversion of King Edwin,” chap. 4 of this volume.
Kendall, “Modeling Conversion,” 138.
Kendall, “Modeling Conversion,” 150.
Jonathan Shepard, “The Coming of Christianity to Rus: Authorized and Unauthorized Versions,” chap. 6 of this volume.
Citing Ilarion, Shepard, “The Coming of Christianity to Rus,” 212.
Patrick Provost-Smith, “The New Constantinianism: Late Antique Paradigms and Sixteenth-Century Strategies for the Conversion of China,” chap. 7 of this volume.
Citing Acosta, Provost-Smith, “The New Constantinianism,” 247.
For the importance of Valignano, see Andrew C. Ross, '”Alessandro Valignano: The Jesuits and Culture in the East;” for Giulio Aleni, S. J,’s program of inculturation, see Qiong Zhang, “Translation as Cultural Reform: Jesuit Scholastic Psychology in the Transformation of the Confucian Discourse on Human Nature,” both respectively in The Jesuits: Cultures, Sciences and the Arts 1540-1773, ed. John W. O'Malley, S. J. et al. (Toronto, 1999), 336-51 and 364-79.
Tueller, “Networks of Conversion,” chap. 10 of this volume.
Tueller, “Networks of Conversion,” 334.
Tueller, “Networks of Conversion,” 344.
C. R. Boxer, The Dutch Seaborne Empire, 1600-1800, (New York, 1965), 169.
W. R. Jones, “The Image of the Barbarian in Medieval Europe,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 13 (1971): 376-407 at 391-92.
On this development of the cultural issue in the succeeding paragraphs, as it relates to the properly religious intent of conversion, see the present author’s “Geography and Empire in the late Renaissance: Botero’s Assignment, Western Universalism and the Civilizing Process,” Renaissance Quarterly 53/4 (2000): 1119-55, esp. 1137-42; idem, “The Universalizing Principle and Process: On the West’s Intrinsic Commitment to a Global Context,” Journal of World History 13/2 (2002): 291-321, esp.297-304.
Headley, “Geography and Empire,” 1142.
John Headley, The Europeanization of the World: On the Origins of Human Rights and Democracy (Princeton, 2008), 229 n. 38.
Letter from Friedrich Engels to Joseph Bloch, September 1890, quoted by James Tueller, “Networks of Conversion.”