Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I've been thinking a lot about conversion.  No, I'm not planning to be born again (once was enough), but I'm interested in the psychological phenomenon (or phenomena) that this word describes, especially in a religious context.

The broadest dictionary definition of conversion is "alteration in nature or state"--ie., metamorphosis.  Obviously, a lot of religious "converts" do not think of their conversion as anything nearly so fundamental:  they are merely exchanging one set of doctrines and practices for another set.  They do not see this switch in external loyalties as involving any kind of meaningful alteration in their internal make-up--they remain, in their selfhood, what they were before.  Thus, when he married a Catholic, my brother "converted" from Presbyterianism to Catholicism (not particularly demanding); thus, too, 15th Century Spanish Jews and Muslims, in order to avoid death at the hands of los reyes catolicos, "converted" to Christianity (quite demanding, but still not a genuine alteration in the converso's essential self).  In other words, most conversions are fairly superficial, involving external behavior--not profound changes in how the convert understands and experiences his own being.

Such conversions strike me as somewhat dishonest--convenient rather than sincere, superficial rather than fundamental.

But what about those emotional "born again" experiences?  Aren't they genuine "alterations" in one's fundamental psychology?  Undoubtedly some individuals do indeed experience a complete transformation in self-awareness that amounts to a sort of metamorphosis.  The conversion of St. Paul comes to mind.  And St. Augustine under the fig tree.  And Martin Luther's overwhelming reaction to "the just shall live by faith alone."  And Pascal's Memorial.  The subsequent lives of these men are proof that they were, indeed, turned around and, in some sense, "reborn."  After their conversions, they were new and free and unafraid to assume responsibility for what they now understood they were.

But I wonder if the most frequent born-again experiences aren't, in fact, rather elaborate self-deceptions--convenient, bad-faith justifications for NOT changing, for NOT altering one's "self", for NOT taking responsibility for one's freedom.  Let us say, for instance, that you are a woman trapped in a dead-end marriage with an unloving husband and an unfulfilling life as a housewife.  Your existence makes no sense and you suffer every day.  Then, how lucky!, you have an "experience" and you "accept Jesus."  Now you can tell yourself that Jesus, at least, loves you and that for Jesus, at least, the messiness of your life makes some kind of sense.

But in truth, you haven't changed a thing in your life--and your fundamental psychology remains the same:  you are still somebody's "thing."  Worse:  you now find that the only way you can feel good about yourself is to brag about your conversion and assert, dishonestly, that YOU are living rightly, whereas OTHERS are in error.

In short, your "conversion" did not change your nature.  It merely afforded you a justification for not changing-- for not casting out your own personal demons but rather, for finding demons in others in order to feel good about yourself.

Not a pretty picture.  Ted Haggard.  Jim Bakker.  John Ensign.   With apologies to Kafka, these guys are genuine dung beetles who, alas, never REALLY metamorphosed into authentic human beings.

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