The Problem with Traditional Proselytism: A Mystical Perspective

The traditional goal of proselytism is to convert people to an institution and its ways, but there is a deeper conversion that often gets overlooked and overshadowed that has nothing to do with institutions.

Religions often say you must become one of us to be saved. This seems to be the intention of all traditional religious proselytism and conversion: “be baptized into our church and you’ll be saved.” But I think this is often a misguided approach and interpretation of spirituality.

It is misguided, I think, because it suggests that there is one right way, one right religion, one right form of spirituality, one true belief, one chosen people, one true gospel, one right doctrine, one true ritual system, which will ultimately bring humanity to God or Ultimate Reality.

And so people spend an enormous amount of energy trying to convince each other that their particular religion, their way, is the right one, the only one, that can “save.” And, of course, many different religions vie for this singular position, but only one could ever fill it if it were the case. So it often causes tremendous contention in the world, as history has shown.

Rather than this traditional approach of needing to become something else to be saved, I suggest we must be nothing other than what we already are.

The real problem, it seems to me, is that we often do not know what we really are. We are blind to our own true nature and identity in this cosmos. We don’t know ourselves. We are bound to a false identity, even imprisoned in a false sense of self, which we must transcend or divest or be liberated from to realize our true Self, our essential reality. It is our blindness to our true identity that causes the problems of life.

The goal is not to be converted to this or that religion, political party, club, nationality, tribe, etc., which claims to be the “best” of all, superior to all others, the “one true” club that will bring salvation. No. It is to realize our deepest nature, our truest nature, as it already is, but of which we are ignorant. It is to be converted to what we really are, already, deep within, but which we have forgotten, which has been veiled from our minds, which has been hidden by our false identity, our ego, the “natural man.”

In true conversion, we do not become a member of any particular religion, but rather we realize the true nature of the Self and our divine identity in the cosmos. Our “heart” is converted to the true nature of us all as belonging to the very same nature, the same process, the same reality. Already! We awaken to the realization that we are all One. Already! We come to recognize our true Self in and as One and All. We wake up to our true nature, our true identity, which had been veiled. This is salvation. When we are “baptized” into our true divine identity, we are “saved” from our false self.

One of the insights of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism (my former religious tradition), in his initial mystical experience called the First Vision, was that none of the religions was right, “for they were all wrong.” “believing in incorrect doctrines,” and “none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom.” I suggest that this insight is as true today as it was then. Ironically, Joseph later formed the religious movement known as Mormonism, the majority of which is now the LDS Church, which claims to be the “right one,” with the “right doctrine,” and which they think is acknowledged as “God’s church and kingdom.”

What Joseph really discovered at that time, I suggest, is that there is never one right way. That cannot be found on the Earth, ever, in any organization, doctrine, philosophy, science, religion, politics, ideology, etc. The gospel is not to become a member of this or that denomination to be saved. It is to wake up from the dream that this or that denomination is the right one, and to realize we are all already the One, the Holy (Wholly) One, belonging to this One Nature, this Uni-verse (One Song). We are already members of this One Love, this great Whole, this Singularity, and there is actually nothing we can do to not be part of it, as Paul expressed so well in Romans 8:38-39:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

-Romans 8:38-39

Our error is in thinking we are not already part of it, that we are separate from this One Love, this One Spirit, that we are divided from each other, disparate, lonely, apart, independent, bifurcated, torn, broken, isolated from it and one another, and that we need to become part of it again. But we cannot not be a part of it! It is actually impossible to separate ourselves from it. How would we separate ourselves from reality? We make up reality. It is only our mind that thinks it can be separate, and is apart from it now. As Richard Rohr has said:

We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.

The separation is an error or illusion of our thinking itself, the human mind, the subject-object split of the psyche, which divides the finite subject that we think we are from every other object of perception. This is the “sin” of separation, the Fall, ignorance (avidya), illusion (maya), exile, alienation from God, but it is also a natural human condition and part of the reality of our lived experience in the world. We can have no perception at all unless there is seemingly a dichotomy between the perceiver and the perceived. But that psychological dichotomy is the beginning of all division and separateness that we experience in life. Transcending and then including the necessary duality again is what constitutes the spiritual journey.

When people have sublime mystical conversion experiences, such as the Apostle Paul, I suggest it is not that they are realizing that any particular human institution is the “right one,” and that they must convert all other people to that particular institution, but rather they are waking up to the profound realization that they are already a part of the One, that they are an incarnation of the One, that they are Loved and thus the Beloved, who “I” thought “I” was has died and “Christ” is recognized as already “living in me” (Gal. 1:16, 2:20).

We might think that dying would be a way to separate ourselves from reality, but the mystical dying that most religions point towards is the death of the false dualistic ego identity, which does not separate us from reality, but does just the opposite—the separation itself dies. It awakens us to the timeless reality of non-separation, that we are the living One in God/Reality. The death of duality is the rebirth of nonduality, the resurrection of the One.

This is awakening, enlightenment, it is the resurrection of the Divine within (Col. 3:1), the recognition of God or Ultimate Reality being the totality of all things and beings, and we are a part of that Reality. We are that Reality, as it expresses itself in the world. It is a falling away of the dualistic mind and ego-self identity that is attached to it which causes the perception of separation, and the transfiguration of our identity that realizes Infinite Unconditional Love, which means all things are ultimately eternally One and the same Spirit.

When mystic-prophet-sages turn to teaching others, to “preaching the gospel,” it is not to convert others to a particular human institution, but to help wake them up to this eternal divine reality of the One, of Love, of their true nature in this cosmos, that they are not the small finite mortal self that they think they are. No, they are much much bigger than that, and that we all share a common Being. It is to awaken them to their true Self, the divine Self, to Love, what they really already are, but which has been veiled in their mind, which consciousness has forgotten was in them. That is the true conversion. That is true proselytization. It doesn’t matter what institution we belong to, as long as we have this conscious awakening to Reality, to Love, to the One, to the Truth, to one’s place in the Comm-unity and Comm-union of Humanity, of Life, of Being, and then embodying that realization in the world.

I think this is why when Paul “converted,” when he had his mystical experience on the road to Damascus, he began to realize that the Divine Reality did not belong only to the Jews, but to the Gentiles, or all nations. He recognized that people did not have to convert to Judaism, and perform all its laws and rituals, in order to be “Christians” or be saved. That wasn’t the point. The point was to awaken to “Christ,” to come to “Christ,” to have Christ’s mind/consciousness, to have this resurrection of the Divine within, to be reborn in Christ, to be Christ in the world, to be Love embodied. That’s what seems like really mattered to Paul, not becoming converted to Judaism, or even becoming part of an organized Christian institution. Those who were “assembling” or “gathering” (which is what the Greek ekklesia for “church” means) were those who were awakening to this communal Love, this nondual One, and they could be Jew or Gentile, bond or free, male or female, etc. Their conversion was emphatically not to an institution, but to a divine unitive Reality that is their shared Being.

Often institutions are rightly organized in order to help people come to this mystical awakening, just as the Christian “church” began to form, but the institutions can often quickly overshadow the awakening itself, becoming an end in themselves, as the Christian church soon became when it united itself with empire. The awakening to Love, to the One, to our true Identity as One with the cosmos, can easily become lost in human institutions. The institutions take on more importance than awakening, and the goal becomes to help everyone become part of the institution, and do what the institution says, and not necessarily to awaken. The institution may begin to think that they are the only way to help people awaken, or they might become lost in their own outward forms and symbols of that awakening, but losing the actuality of the awakening, the actual conscious revelation of the true Self. The One is veiled again.

And so it goes, around and around. Mystics rise up repeatedly in history to bring us back on course, to remind us that the goal is to awaken our consciousness to the One, to Love, to Truth, to Being, to Reality, to our true Identity, to Comm-unity with All, to Com-passion, to the divine Self. The goal is not to become part of an institution, unless that “institution” is Love/One itself. The word proselyte comes from the Greek roots pros– (toward) and elḗlutha (come), or to “come toward.” Who/what we are really approaching is the One itself, this Singular Reality that we are all members of already, the “Church of the Firstborn,” the ultimate Nature of all things, the Totality of the cosmos, the Process of Life that we are all partaking of in a fundamentally identical way, the Source from which we all spring.

What do you think about proselytism? Please share your thoughts.

The painting at the top is Fishing for Souls, by Adriaen van de Venne, 1614, oil on oak panel. It is an “allegory of the jealousy between the various religious denominations during the Twelve Years Truce (1609-1621) between the Dutch Republic and Spain.”

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5 thoughts on “The Problem with Traditional Proselytism: A Mystical Perspective

  1. Bryce, that was an excellent explanation of true conversion. Too many devotees jump from one religion to another, alternate from going it alone to studying with a spiritual teacher, and/or move from one guru to the next in search of the one true way. There is no “one true way”; there are now about seven billion ways. You must probe the depths of your inner self; other people can only guide you on the path. The trials and experiences along the way will vary.

    1. Thank you, Ron. Yes, there are many many ways, and they are not necessarily contradictory. They may be many different ways of coming to the same ultimate realization. But until we come to that deep inner realization ourself, we may think the ways are fundamentally in conflict with one another. They may seem mutually exclusive and incompatible. The solution is not necessarily to jump from tradition to tradition, thinking that one or the other is the “right one,” but to go deep enough in a tradition and its practices to come to that inner realization. Although sometimes seeing things through different lenses can help us in our practice, it can fill in blindspots, as can trying various practices.

  2. A Buddhist monk said to his Zen master, “I am confused. Yesterday you told me the path I should follow and today you told another monk a different way. Which is correct?”

    His teacher replied, “Some people veer off the path to the left and I tell them ‘move right.’ Others stray to the right and I say ‘move left.’ Students don’t always follow the same way to enlightenment.”

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