(Shortly after posting, it was announced that Osama bin Laden has been killed by US forces outside Islamabad. It is hard to know exactly what this means but it does throw the developments described below into sharper relief.)
Fr. Michael Sweeney used to theorize that the reason that evangelicals are able to “evangelize” so many Catholics is that they are building upon the spiritual impact of infant baptism without knowing it. His idea was that infant baptism left Catholics with a kind of felt “spiritual itch”, a spiritual restlessness that made lapsed Catholics especially open and responsive to the proclamation of the Gospel. We didn’t proclaim Christ clearly, tapping into that restlessness and call our own to discipleship but they were primed to respond when someone else did.
Of course, Catholics believe that baptism leaves a permanent, ontological “mark” on the soul (or baptismal character). In addition, can there also be a felt, existential impact of baptism on someone who does not know they were baptized?
I first asked this question when a Jewish convert to Catholicism told me her story. She had experienced a deep life-long attraction to Jesus and the Catholic faith while being raised as a practicing Jew. She finally defied her father and became a Catholic at 18. It was only years later that she learned that her grandmother has secretly baptized her as an infant without the knowledge of anyone else in the family!
Now from the Muslim world comes this amazing story of conversion which raises the same very issues. The source is the Lausanne World Pulse.
“Sixty-five years ago, “Hakeem” was born into a Muslim family. His two older siblings had died, so—reasoning from superstitions—Hakeem’s parents took their infant son to a church and had him baptized—something unheard of and potentially dangerous for Muslim parents to do.”
OK. A little background. It is regarded “superstitious” by the evangelical author, not just because it was the baptism of an infant but because the subtext was that a baptized child would be protected by God and survive.
Where “Hakeem’s” parents picked up this idea is unclear but it means that they knew and lived near Christians. Or possibly came from a family where some members were Christian. (Since we don’t know where he lives and even his name is a pseudonym to protect his identity, there is no way to know which Christian group baptized him.)
It is not only very rare for a Muslim family to have their infant son baptized but it would be extremely rare for Christians who are part of ancient Christian communities living in a Muslim context to agree to baptize such a child. Even if the parents said that they wanted to become Christian themselves and raise the child in the faith, there would still be much hesitation as baptizing a Muslim child.
Local Christians fear that these requests may be traps laid by government agents hoping to smoke out Christians who seek to convert Muslims. Even if the family requesting baptism was being honest, it would almost certainly bring persecution down on the those who did it as well as the family involved. Unless “Hakeem’s” family lived in one of those very rare pockets of religious freedom and tolerance. Or did the parents or Christian family or friends baptize the baby informally? In any case, there is definitely a story behind the story!
“Throughout his life, Hakeem was drawn to Jesus, although he never really knew much about him. As a child, when he was scared he would occasionally run to a church and hide in the back to feel safe—again, something extremely odd for a Muslim to do. As far as I know, he had no involvement with true followers of Jesus for most of his life.”
Fascinating. Like my Jewish friend, Hakeem was instinctively drawn to Jesus and Christianity as a source of safety throughout his life without knowing why. Is this spiritual sensitivity a mysterious grace of the baptism which he does not remember?
The comment that “he had no involvement with true followers of Jesus for most of his life” reflects the distinction that many evangelicals make between a baptized person and one who is a disciple. It is very common for evangelicals working among Muslims to use the word “believer” where most of us would use the word “Christian”. They make a distinction, that we would not make, between those whose Christianity is purely cultural or notional and one who is a disciple.
Back to our story. Fifty five years pass for Hakeem.
“Around the age of 55, through Christian broadcasts, Hakeem came to embrace the truth about Jesus.”
There have been very significant Christian radio and television broadcast for decades throughout the Muslim world. For instance, the Arabic language “Jesus is risen” flash mob video that took St. Blog’s by storm last week was produced by Sat-7, a Christian television network that broadcast throughout the middle east and north Africa. Over 9% of the population of northern Africa and 5.5% of western Asia (what we typically call the “middle east”) listen to Christian radio and television broadcasts.
“He had no real believers with whom to interact on a personal level—only the broadcasts and the Spirit of God. Under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, he grew in his faith, and soon his whole family began to follow Jesus with him. A few years ago they all actively started to share their beliefs with other Muslims.”
Christian broadcasts throughout the world have led to the remarkable phenomena of millions of hidden “radio” or “media” Christians from non-Christian backgrounds who gather in groups about broadcasts. I took a few minutes to listen to the Vatican’s Arabic coverage of John Paul II’s beatification this morning. I am sure that there are already hidden “radio” or “internet” Muslim believers in the Catholic faith as a result of the Vatican’s decision to add Arabic broadcasting!
Back to Hakeem. 10 more years pass. Hakeem is now 65.
“Just a few months ago, Hakeem began to realize he needed help with all that was happening, so he wrote to the Christian station to see if they could send someone to assist him. Station personnel contacted my friend “Ray,” who went to meet Hakeem.
As Ray sat with the now-65-year-old man, Hakeem began to pull out papers that contained the names of numerous people and showed how these people were networked together. It was like a family tree, with branches sprouting off here and there.
It was a chart of the fifty-five Muslim followers of Jesus for whom Hakeem was responsible…because he, one of his family members, or one of the newer believers had led them to Jesus! With absolutely no help—no in-person input from a single Christian, Hakeem had been “pastoring” all these people, who were spread out among multiple reproducing house groups throughout the city!”
The article ends with the note that since Hakeem contacted the station, the number of "believers" has grown from 55 to 124! So a baptized but uncatechized Christian, who lived as a Muslim for the first 55 years of his life, has - with only radio broadcasts for support - evangelized a whole network of Muslims who believe in Christ but are probably not baptized themselves. What are we to make of this from a Catholic perspective?
Hakeem’s story sound very much like the experience of the first Korean Catholics who learned of the faith from a scholar was baptized in China and brought it home in 1784. They baptized many and formed their own congregations but didn’t receive their first priests until 1836, 52 years later!
Hakeem is not alone but actually part of a growing movement. Christianity Today reports that a 2010 gathering of representatives from several prominent mission agencies, both national and expatriate, met to compare notes about the progress of their respective ministries in one Muslim-majority country. (The country's name is withheld for security reasons.)
"The representatives rejoiced that more than 1,000 "fellowships," as they call them, have been established for people from Muslim backgrounds. In fact, many of the fellowships had already planted new fellowships, and those fellowships had planted still more. Many thousands of Muslims in this nation alone, then, had found faith in Jesus.
Several of these fellowships can be traced back to small networks of Muslims who had encountered Christ and in turn began sharing with family and friends what they had discovered."
While Catholics talk almost exclusively about Islam in terms of a“clash of cultures”, evangelicals are seriously talking of a “Emerging Muslim Convert Church” that will eventually dwarf the historic Christian bodies of the Near East.
To get a sense of what it could look like, check out the Iranian Christian Church, the largest congregation of Muslim background belivers in the US.
What do you think?