President Bush has been catching some flak lately for his planned speech at the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute’s annual banquet later this week in Irving, Texas.
In the coverage I’ve read so far, the political left has been (somewhat predictably) taking umbrage at the idea that Christians are out to convert Jews to Christianity. Here is one example, from the original Mother Jones piece:
Messianic Jews have long been controversial for Jews of all major denominations, who object to their proselytizing efforts and their message that salvation by Jesus is consistent with Jewish theology. Last year, Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League, told Politico that former Sen. Rick Santorum’s appearance at an event hosted by another Messianic Jewish organization, the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, was “insensitive and offensive.”
People are entitled to be effusively offended about whatever gives them offense, of course, but in this case it seems to me that they are taking offense to pretty much the entire Christian project, which has always been to preach the gospel to all nations — starting with the Jews. There is no getting around the fact that Christianity started out by syncretizing the bizarre (to Jews) pagan idea of an earthly demigod with the bizarre (to Greeks) Jewish idea of a saviour messiah ordained by the One True God to redeem Israel. The tension between these two theological threads is evident throughout the early Christian epistles and the gospels, all the more so if you don’t find yourself constrained to reading only canonical books.
The idea that any particular religion deserves to be culturally isolated from proselytizers strikes me as antithetical to both freedom of speech and freedom of religion, ideals which I hold far more dear than my (woefully incomplete) sensitivity training. Speaking from the outside of all religious faiths, I have no problem when Christians try to convince Jews that Jesus was the Christ and that the Hebrew Bible has a sequel. I have no problem when Mormons or Muslims try to convince Christians that there was another great prophet after Jesus and another revealed book after the Christian scriptures. I have no problem when devotees of the Bahá’í Faith come to my door and tell me that Adam, Noah, Krishna, Moses, Abraham, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad are all true Manifestations of God. (In fact, they were such kindly people that I brought my whole family to attend their worship services.) I am completely unthreatened by would-be proselytizers of any stripe, and cannot fathom why people react fearfully or angrily to the idea that other people have different worldviews and are hoping to win them over. If you have a worldview that you’d like me to consider, I am usually available on Sunday mornings between nine and noon, or any time at all on Twitter. All I ask is that you don’t take umbrage when I try to win you over to metaphysical naturalism, scientific skepticism, or Secular Humanism.