Converts like Robert Lax bring something fresh, something unexpected to communities

Pope Francis, as we all know, is a Jesuit. And Jesuits are not Franciscans. Even Protestants like me know that, though it would seem sort of linguistically appropriate if Francis were a Franciscan.

At any rate, I salute the Franciscans for being a channel through which some people of other traditions have been drawn to Catholicism. My sister-in-law is one. She went to St. Bonaventure University, a Franciscan institution in Olean, N.Y., and eventually moved from being a member of a United Methodist Church to being a Catholic.

And then there was Robert Lax, the contemplative who was a close friend of Thomas Merton but who wound up considerably less famous than Merton, a monk whose works still sell well today and who gets quoted in all kinds of spiritual writing. Lax was born in Olean and reared as a Reform Jew.

From there, author S.T. Georgiou picks up the early Lax story in his new book, In the Beginning Was Love: Contemplative Words of Robert LaxThe Eastern traditions, particularly Hinduism, had intrigued Lax, but his growing interest in Christianity, (effected through years of Franciscan influence provided by St. Bonaventure University, located near his home), and his eventual friendship with Thomas Merton, led to his baptism in the Roman Catholic Church at age 28.

I had been essentially unaware of Lax until I learned about (and wrote about here) Georgiou's trilogy about Lax, The Isle of Monte Cristo: Finding the Inner Treasure, The Way of the Dreamcatcher: Spirit Lessons with Robert Lax and Mystic Street: Meditations on a Spiritual Path.

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Lax, as I say, is less famous than Merton, though both of them would have turned 100 this year. But Lax is what I would call an intriguing spiritual minimalist, and I recommend Georgiou's books about him to you.

What intrigues me about Lax is his conversion from Judaism to Catholicism. Anyone who has read history, of course, knows that over the centuries many Jews were forced to convert to Christianity on pain of death or exile. This was part of the long arc of repulsive anti-Judaism in Christian history, which I've written about at length on my "Faith Matters" blog here.

We also know that Judaism itself is not a proselytizing religion. As Vanderbilt New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine explains, Jews are tasked with introducing God to the rest of the world, but if everyone converts to Judaism then God would be just the God of the Jews.

Conversion from Judaism (or any other tradition) to Christianity is done for many reasons. In his growing experiences with Catholicism, Robert Lax obviously found something in the tradition that spoke deeply to him. Among those experiences, as Georgiou notes, was that "along with Thomas Merton, Lax also volunteered at a Catholic Friendship House in Harlem. ..."

Indeed, this is how people come to a full and mature faith -- through personal experiences, including their individual travels through doubt. If churches today are loaded with people whose theological education essentially ended in junior high school, then we don't have churches so much as we simply have gathering places of the apathetic, the confused.

Converts bring something fresh, something unexpected to the community. They bring the very questions that the original members should ask but often don't because those members have fallen into complacency or they have run into unmovable walls when they do ask hard questions, so they shut down their theological imagination and stay for the fellowship, the art, the coffee hour.

One of the truths about interfaith dialogue is that it forces those who participate to understand and explain their own tradition in deeper ways. Perhaps it would help all of us if we imagined that we ourselves are new converts to whatever our religious affiliation is. Then we could do what converts inevitably do -- ask questions about why things are the way they are.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former award-winning Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for The Star's Web site and a column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Jesus, Pope Francis and a Protestant Walk into a Bar: Lessons for the Christian Church. E-mail him at wtammeus@gmail.com.]

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