The Problem of Conversion

ChurchToday, April 24, marks the 36th year of my “conversion.” The nomenclature seems grandiose upon reflection. This is not merely because one might regard with suspicion the transforming power of the prayer of a 14-year-old in the dead of night (surely the Divine prefers the oracles of rugged saints, suffering martyrs and innocent children). Add to that the prayer of a boy with no sense of faith, no inkling of the real world and no genuine sense of reality itself. One is  likely to see more mockery than miracle. At the time I was captive to an isolationist, eschatological sect–my life’s circumstances did not tend toward sanity then or even later.

And though my memory preserves the moment as a defining crisis, a brilliant flash in an otherwise dark and terrible decade, I no longer see it as THE moment that evangelical Christian traditions hold aloft as essential to the faith narrative. In fact, candor compels me to regard the episode as only one of many boiling points in an inimitable alchemical process whereby leaden doubt is remade into golden belief not once but many times over.

The latest biography of CS Lewis by Alister McGrath makes reference to a recent tempest in a teapot over the date of Lewis’ conversion. Turns out, in fact, that Lewis got it wrong in his own autobiography. The evidence is pretty solid, and perhaps all it goes to show is that for Jack Lewis the faith journey was far more important than the alleged starting point.

But something did happen for me in the wee hours of April 24, 1977. I recall the sensations very vividly, like Augustine does his open book in the Confessions, and I cherish the exquisitely beautiful moment of gestalt clarity–nothing like Lewis’ romantic, longing Sehnsucht,  much more like that point in The Matrix when Neo sees the program code flowing around him and makes the speeding bullets fall to the ground. (I don’t refer to any sense of the supernaturally heroic there, more to the sense of comprehension of how the world works). It was as if I had punched through the crust of subjectivity and somehow glimpsed quiddity itself. I am aware that to make the claim for such an achievement is beyond outrageous. Obviously that particular impossibility did not happen.

But again, Something did happen. And regardless of whether the experience was entirely self-generated and contained, or the product of a string of illusions (I can argue substantively otherwise, but won’t here), the result was both a revelation and a conversion of sorts.

Conversion to what? That has been the question of the following 36 years. Originally it was resignation to theism, an extra-rational embracing of a Divine presence. By extra-rational I mean that, after a bruising bout with atheism, I had already come to reject it, but had vehemently opposed theism as the alternative, almost purely on personal and emotional grounds. On that particular day in 1977, I took what was both an intellectual and emotional step through an open door I had avoided and accepted that theism was not merely legitimate. It was fact. And I felt strongly (and still do) that I connected with Divinity itself. Today I would say that I became aware of the Divinity that was always there much the way Molière’s bourgeois gentleman discovered he had been speaking prose all his life.

MausoleumBut such a “conversion” is little more than academic. We are wont, in Christian circles, to make much of that first step, and maybe that’s as it should be. But that’s all it is. One step. At most we might say it amounts to landing on a pretty beach from which point one must now navigate a mountain, as in Dante’s Purgatorio. Sadly, some traditions make so much of the beach “landing” that they feel the quest is done. Hymns have been dedicated to it. Countless sermonic laurels  festoon the width and breadth of it. We have constructed a massive ritual structure to celebrating on that beach.

What if this first step is not quite a genuine conversion? Augustine recognized this in that he dates his own true conversion in the Confessions not from the time he came to believe in God and started going to church (he had those bases covered early on) but from the moment he decided to take the Divine claims on his life seriously, claims that radically altered his life choices. Here is an altogether different quality of conversion than the dramatic moment at the foot of the cross in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

The teachings of Christ often indicate that there are really only two faiths among us–the Worship of the Self and the Worship of the Other. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself,” and, “For whoever wills to save his life shall lose it, and whoever may lose his life for my sake shall find it,” are just two examples from scores where Christ directs people away from selfistic predilections and toward Other-centered thoughts and behaviors. In some cases, as in Matthew 22, the love for God is closely affiliated with love for neighbor. The Lord’s Prayer is yet another example, “forgive us … as we forgive those who….” In the apostolic epistles following the Gospels this thread of loving others, of focusing beyond one’s self, is closely allied to the more transcendant love of the Divine (see the epistles of James and John especially).

Here’s the snag. The problem of true conversion for the American Christian is that moving beyond the beachhead of belief and on up the mountain towards a truly transcendant faith is rapidly eclipsed by deeply held individualistic cultural claims that have the ring of religious truth. In fact, many of those claims–such as rights to liberty and happiness, entitlements to ownership, delirious promises of wealth and prosperity, the right to fair treatment in private and public, the well-oiled American Dream itself–are regularly preached from well-respected pulpits across the nation as nothing less than sacred trusts. They are preached even more religiously in American film, television, music, advertising and the burgeoning world of independently produced Internet entertainment.

Since ancient times in both Jewish and Greco-Roman traditions and then in early Christian traditions, one of the clearest indicators of a life that was neither Divinely nor Others inclined was the inability to control the appetites. Simply put, the tendency to focus on one’s appetites, passions and desires indicates a preoccupation with the self to the detriment of others. In Christian medieval teaching and literature, as well as in the elaborate art of the cathedrals, passion or appetite-driven tendencies found expression as animalistic metaphors–wolves, dogs, swine, bulls, etc. Creatures such as centaurs and minotaurs were seen as expressive of these inclinations among humans and were viewed as unrepentant, fallen and hell-bound.

The American psyche as displayed in popular entertainment of so many varieties is the psyche of  medieval half-human, half-creature hybrids like the Medusa. Yet elevation of this psyche to protected status in so many contemporary church traditions (implicitly if not explicitly) steals away the voice of the Holy Spirit that might lead to a transcendant mountain conversion and replaces it with the siren call of self-fulfillment, fantasy and personal dreams of success across increasingly shorter time frames – “immediate results guaranteed!”

Cato urges Dante forward
Cato urges Dante forward

Perhaps most frightening of all is that some wonderfully ethical people who choose not to follow the Mardi Gras parade through the American Christian Quarter are derided and vilified, painted with epithets that seek to marginalize them, treated basically the same as Christ and his disciples were treated by the religious in their time. (I don’t want to imply that I include myself among the persecuted. I, like Saul, am probably still holding people’s coats while the Stephens are being stoned by the brethren). I’m not going to name any names here because the debate would descend into particulars and I don’t want to go there just yet.

Nevertheless, I know a growing number of people who, in their rejection of American Christianity are actually embracing Christ in his true nature; they just aren’t aware that the loving spirit prompting them is actually Divine and they have nothing to fear from the man from Nazareth. I have a feeling that in time they will come to recognize the silent stranger in their midst for who he is.

In Dante’s Purgatory, Cato (the author’s conception of a pagan  whose heart was so pure God couldn’t but let him occupy the first rung of the ladder outside of hell) has a special task. He is there to get the new arrivals off the beautiful beach at the base of the mountain and on their way up the difficult, labor intensive path to Paradise in which the various sins of the self are purged one by one. I have a great fondness for this particular chapter of the Purgatorio. On this anniversary of my own beachhead, I for one am hoping dearly that I’ve made a little progress up that hill.