Theses On Religious Conversion (In General)

Since the series on “What’s Wrong With Catholic Conversion Stories?” has unfortunately generated some inappropriate and unhelpful chatter, and since I, honestly, did not write each post with the level of clarity and charity that I had imagined them embodying in my mind prior to writing them, I thought I’d try a different tactic. Here is a provisional statement about religious conversions in general. Constructive comments are welcome. Denouncing vitriol and other forms of apologetic grumbling are not welcome.

Theses on Religious Conversion (In General)

(1) Conversion, or, the process of moving from one faith tradition to another, is a complicated phenomenon involving the totality of a person – reason, emotions, will, and the body through whose instrumentality these immaterial aspects of a person encounter and interact with the external physical world.

1a. One element of a person’s makeup may predominate in a conversion experience (it is possible to convert almost entirely for emotional reasons, or almost entirely for rational reasons), but all the elements of a person are in some way involved in the conversion process.

1b. It is important to recognize this multifaceted nature of conversion because it involves real human beings, made in the image of God. As fellow image-bearers, they possess a basic dignity of person and deserve basic respect even when we profoundly disagree with the decision they have made. We may think that their reasons for conversion are inadequate and perhaps even absurd, but we do need to try to remember that we are faced with a whole person, and make our maximum effort to respect the dignity of their image-bearer status.

1c. Due to the nature of the issues involved in conversion, which usually go down to the very roots of a person’s self-concept and understanding of the world, it may not always be possible to approach discussions with converts in a “dispassionate” manner. We human beings are more than minds, and religion, being more than a merely rational phenomenon, especially engages all aspects of our beings.

1d. Accordingly, it is extremely easy to profoundly insult a person with respect to matters of religion and religious conversion. Although we should strive not to be insulting, we should all understand that sometimes it will happen regardless of our best intentions. The questions we must all face on this score are (1) how we will handle someone’s complaint that we have profoundly insulted them, or, (2) conversely, how we will handle being insulted by them.

1e. It is probably impossible to lay down any hard and fast rules for dealing with charges that either we have religiously insulted someone or that they have religiously insulted us. Such matters have to be worked out on a case-by-case basis, and involve the very difficult matter of the practical application of prudential judgment to fluid human situations.

1f. It may help to propose and keep in mind the idea of “thresholds” of conversion – that is, the idea that different people have different personal needs, different questions about the world, and different expectations of life, and so a factor or factors that lead one person to a conversion may be entirely inadequate for another person.

1g. Conversion stories are, in other words, entirely relative to individual persons. As such, no convert should present his conversion story as if it embodies some universal rule of correct approach to truth, and so those who disagree with his reasons for converting are substituting groundless prejudice for true rationality. If the person evaluating a given conversion story has a duty to respect the basic dignity of the convert, the convert has a reciprocal duty to not assume the person evaluating his story is simply a prideful fool who denies “plain” truth.

(2) Conversion is a profoundly life-altering phenomenon, involving profound changes of personal loyalty, social network, emotional orientation, rational content of belief, and basic assumptions about and expectations of life. This fact is all the more intensified when the conversion happens as the result of what one feels is a severe “crisis point” in one’s life, a point involving the very difference between Truth and Error, Security and Insecurity, Light and Darkness and so forth.

2a. “Crisis point” conversions present a special challenge in terms of how others respond to them, because, per the theses of Point 1 above, we are dealing with whole persons whose entire lives have been deeply altered by the conversion experience.

2b. Intellectual, emotional, and spiritual “crises points” are of such a nature that we must avoid two equal and opposite responses to them. It is precisely because conversion involves whole persons that they involve every level of the image of God in that person. This means that a person’s conversion story should not be mocked as mere idiocy, even if it does appear to us to be based on inadequate grasp of the issues or even upon absurd arguments. Whatever a given person’s reasons for converting, those reasons answer fundamental needs of some kind or another within them. Again, the convert’s dignity as an image-bearer of God must be respected.

2c. On the other hand, “crises points,” and the conversions which often follow them, can in fact be generated by various forms of immaturity of perspective and immaturity of response to the external world. As such, other people should not be expected to merely take for granted the convert’s own testimony that he has experienced profound insight into Truth. Certain types of sports cars may be naturally able to go from 0-60 in 3.5 seconds, but no human being can, as it were, start from scratch and 6 months later claim to be a virtual expert on “what the Church Fathers taught” or “what the Reformation was about.” Converts must be vigorously resisted whenever they present themselves as “human sports cars,” and no one must ever feel any shame for so resisting them.

2d. The convert, accordingly, has the reciprocal duty toward those to whom he presents his conversion story of trying to take their critical disbelief seriously and perhaps even as legitimate goads to himself to grow beyond the (possibly) immature factors involved in his “crisis point” mentality.

2e. To reiterate and expand on the points of 1d-e, interactions between converts and those evaluating their stories are fraught with difficulties related to the fact that there are whole persons and whole fundamental views of the world and life involved. Respecting the basic dignity of another person, especially with respect to a profound religious conversion, is every person’s duty, but this duty does not extend to a requirement that one must indefinitely extend to their opinions the benefit of the doubt or indefinitely continue discussions with them about the issues related to their conversion.

2f. Practical prudence may dictate that a given evaluator of a given convert’s story must at some point tell the convert that all that needs to be said has been said, and it is now time for the convert to let him be and go press his story upon someone else, because further discussion between themselves is not going to bear any constructive fruit. Freedom of speech may in general be a grand thing and a right of all intelligent beings, but it does not imply the corresponding slavery of another to a demand to continue listening to what is being freely said by someone else. Respect is a two-way street, and binds both the convert and the evaluator of his story.

(3) Following from the principles of (1) and (2), conversion stories simply are not dispassionate recitations of objective, universal, plain facts which the convert has a right to expect all “rational” people to acknowledge upon pain of being considered obtuse. They are, rather, profoundly personal and subjective exercises in autobiography, and this must be kept in mind as the convert presses his story upon others and as the others strive to listen and evaluate what the convert is saying.

3a. In a culture where freedom of speech is a guaranteed right, no one can stop a convert from spreading his autobiography about as liberally as he wishes. However, to reiterate 2e-f, no one outside of the convert has an obligation to listen to him, let alone to grant his story infinite credibility merely because the convert himself finds it all so glaringly “obvious.”

3b. The profoundly personal and perceived universally explanatory nature of a conversion experience easily leads the convert to believe that his experience is, or at least ought to be, taken as a universal rule for others. This is a false and uncharitable expectation on the part of the convert, and the sooner he realizes it is an immature result of the initial “romantic” phase of his conversion (perhaps akin to a temporary adrenaline “rush” in a time of crisis), the more profitably and constructively he will be able to engage others with his story.

3c. Accordingly, those who are trying to evaluate a conversion story are under no obligation to give absolute credence to the convert’s self-perceptions of either the tradition he left or the tradition he has now embraced. Let us take two representative examples of the many which could be adduced:

3d. On the one hand, just because a man who has converted to Catholicism happened to be raised a Protestant and eventually graduated Summa Cum Laude from a Protestant seminary does not mean that just anything he claims about “Protestantism” now that he has converted to Catholicism ought to be accepted by Protestants who have not converted and who are resisting the claims involved in his conversion story. Academic credentials mean only that a person has completed a specified course of study at a level that satisfies those who created the course of study. They never mean that the person has become an omnicompetent expert whose opinions on just whatever he decides to talk about at a given time automatically deserve credence.

3e. Likewise, just because a man was raised in the Catholic Church from infancy through all of his formative years and as an adult came to reject Catholicism, does not mean that anyone else has an obligation to accept his universalization of the claim that since he “never met Jesus” in the Catholic Church and “never heard the Gospel” preached in the Catholic Church, this means the Catholic Church is a false religion with a false Gospel and no one else has really met Jesus or really heard the Gospel in the Catholic Church.

3f. All attempts by converts of any kind to universalize their conversion experiences, to use them as really substantive intellectual or spiritual qualifications implying universally substantial insight into “Objective Truth” and offering universally valid criticisms of other traditions should be immediately rejected with the utmost skepticism by anyone attempting to evaluate the non-subjective merits of whatever substantive points may be present within the story.

3g. No one can charitably deny that the reasons a given person converted from one tradition to another were sufficient reasons for him, but anyone can and may with absolute impunity deny that the reasons another person gives for a religious conversion have any relevance to his own personal situation.

3h. Following from all of this, convert stories should not be “marketed.” That is, they should not be made the focal point of intensive advertising campaigns by defenders of one tradition who are aiming to get adherents of another tradition to question their beliefs. Autobiographies often make interesting reading, but they simply cannot provide universal insight into the many very complicated issues of religious disagreement and religious conversions. Marketers of convert stories should be strongly rebuked and strongly encouraged to adopt more constructive and charitable approaches to those who live outside of their own faith traditions.

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15 Responses to Theses On Religious Conversion (In General)

  1. Steve P. says:

    I think I agree with your thesis that we ought to be respectful of something as profound as conversion and careful not, for example, to ridicule a convert simply because we don’t agree with him. I’m happy you’ve apparently changed your mind on this question, since you’ve been doing a lot of ridiculing of converts to Romanism up until now. It was a little embarrassing to read for a person with any empathy since you were making yourself look bad.

    I don’t agree with everything you say here, however. While it is true that different persons have different needs, different human persons also have many of the same needs. The question of becoming a member of the Roman Catholic Church would not seem to be a question of individual needs but of the universal need for men to belong to the catholic Church and whether or not the Catholic Church really is identical to (“subsist in?”) the Roman Catholic Church as Romanists claim. Similarly, differing questions about life and expectations of life, while impacting whether or an individual does convert or not, they are not the point. The point has to do with the question of whether or not they ought to convert, the question of what the Catholic Church is.

    Why should no convert present his conversion story as if it embodies some universal rule of correct approach to truth? Augustine did. He didn’t seem to think the truth was relative or merely a truth “for him.” Indeed, the idea that truth is relative seems quite suspect, doesn’t it?

    Of course we should not be expected to merely take for granted the convert’s own testimony that he has experienced profound insight into Truth, but that doesn’t mean that we should hold his arguments and insights suspect because he is a convert. Conversion neither adds credence to nor detracts from a proposition, since there are converts “both ways.”

    You and I certainly certainly can charitably deny that the stated reasons a given person converted from one tradition to another were sufficient reasons for him. (And we ought to try to do it politely and carefully, as you said). If they were not valid reasons they were not sufficient reasons for him or for anyone else. Furthermore, if they were sufficient reasons for him they were sufficient reasons for anybody. If he is right and his reasoning was valid his reasons were good reasons. If he was wrong his supposed reasons were no reasons at all.

  2. I think the ironic thing about all of these posts is how any type of “convert boom” for the Catholic Church is vastly outweighed by the number of people leaving the Church by the thousands. While overly educated white suburban Evangelical trickle in and are featured on EWTN, thousands of more Latinos and even just run-of-the-mill Joe Catholic in the pew start going to the Four Square Gospel Church down the street, with “powerful preaching” and all kinds of fun activities for the kids. In a lot of ways, the “convert boom” on a cultural level is merely status symbol of being “more cultured and educated” than the rest, reading your issue of First Things after your copy of the New Yorker, and having a bunch of medieval religious art that you don’t treat like the average Catholic treats her home shrines in Guatemala or Poland. In a word, it is all OVERBLOWN. 60% of the time, I don’t even know what it means to be Catholic in 2009. Maybe we need to solve that question before we go on the warpath against Evangelicalism, and using the tools of the virtual altar call as a propaganda tool.

  3. Jacob of Sterlington says:

    I agree with Arturo. It’s hard to evaluate any news report on this. I think with the emergent phenomenon, the fall of Baby-boomer mega-church religion, and the rise of nascent (I don’t really know what that word means) spiritualities, the spiritual atmosphere is changing. Many are interested in Catholic, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox communions because they are (quite rightly, I might add) in touch with the mystery aspect of the faith.

    But just as many opt for Shirley McClain.

  4. kepha says:

    Damn, Arturo, you make some excellent points. You make me wanna be Mexican sometimes! :)

  5. The Scylding says:

    Excellent post Tim. What you say is quite true, especially with regards to marketing. And this connects with what Arturo says, which is also unfortunately quite true. People buy into an image of RC / Orthodoxy / other forms quite eaily. And just as your typical TV advertisement carries a a lot of subtext regarding a lifestyle “package”, so conversion stories are often used to do the same.

    The Ochlophobist (www.ochlophobist.blogspot.com) had a very intersting post on a realted matter yesterday, from a Orthodox perspective.

  6. Tim Enloe says:

    Steve P.,

    I see no contradiction in this post and my others. “Respecting” someone does not necessarily mean not taking him to task – possibly even with strong words – when he is being foolish or irresponsible. A big part of the “problem” you think you see in terms of me supposedly making myself “look bad” in previous posts is that converts are generally very insecure people who cover over their insecurity with massive amounts of rhetorical bluster.

    As a general rule, the more traumatic their conversion process was, the more blustery they are after they have converted. But often enough, they are still very insecure inside, and cannot stand light being shed on the problems of their conversion experience that they are not yet able to see but which others can see. You will scarcely ever find a greater example of a soul at war with itself than a convert who is a raging blowhard regularly spewing strong language at others only to turn right around and play the whiny crybaby when someone speaks strongly to him.

    It’s all just part of the game, and shows the deep and abiding instability and immaturity of many converts. (And again, yes, I’ve been there myself).

  7. Steve P. says:

    You should look back at what you’ve written. I wasn’t talking about your taking people to task I was talking about the caricature and crude ridicule that is more on the level of a particularly vicious 19th century political campaign than what you would expect to find from a serious scholar (or at least according to 20th century standards of scholarly discourse).

    I wouldn’t say the problem I think I see in terms of your supposedly making yourself “look bad” in previous posts is that converts are generally very insecure people. The problem is that I am highly sympathetic (empathetic?) person. I put myself in the place of the person whose embarrassing actions I am witnessing and I feel just as embarrassed as if I was the one doing it.

  8. Greg says:

    Tim,

    In your previous post about what is wrong with Catholic conversion stories you mentioned that the Reformation meaning of “the Gospel” and “Evangelical” is, among Protestants, generally quite different today from what it was then.

    What Protestant Churches have retained the Reformation meaning of gospel and evangelical?

    Thanks.

    Greg

    • Tim Enloe says:

      Greg, generally speaking, the Lutheran and the Reformed and no doubt some Anglican churches have retained the Reformation meaning of Gospel and Evangelical. There are surely exceptions even among these categories, but the general rule holds. Most American “Evangelical” churches stand outside the Reformation’s understanding of these things.

      • Greg says:

        Tim,

        Considering the Lutherans, have both the Luthern Church Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America retained the Reformation meaning of “the Gospel” and “Evangelical?”

        Thanks.

        Greg

        • Tim Enloe says:

          Greg, where are you going with this line of inquiry? If I answer this one, is your next post going to be “So of the 42 varieties of Presbyterian churches, which ones have retained the Reformation meaning of the Gospel?” If that’s what you’re doing, I’m not responding any more. I don’t have time for games.

  9. Greg says:

    Hi Tim,

    The on-line format is always a little difficult for me. I never know whether to ask a brief question (as I did above), or go into some background and hope that my question doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. I was not being cryptic because I wanted to lead you down some sort of path.

    OK, so here I go with some context to my question.

    Assuming, for the sake of discussion, that the Reformation was either (1) a necessary correction to what was bad in the church of the middle ages, or (2) a logical extension of what was good in the middle ages – in what denomination or church is this seen today?

    Everyone Christian needs a practical place to live out their faith. Everyone needs to be involved in a church. And, for me at least, I want to be in a church community that correctly understands “the Gospel” and is right in their practice of being an “Evangelical.”

    As I look at the Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches I see a confusing array of beliefs and practices. (I picked Lutheran only because I am aware of the two Lutheran churches I mentioned.) As you noted, however, there is not one Presbyterian (Are there 42?), or one Lutheran (there are at least two), or even one Anglican (there are now at least two in the U.S.) church.

    So here is the bottom line. The practical present-day question. As I look through my phone book, looking for a denomination that has a proper understanding of “the Gospel,” and a proper understanding of “Evangelical” where should I go?

    Greg

  10. Greg says:

    Tim,

    It looks like my 7-6-09, 5:49 am answer was posted before your 7-6-09 5:15 am question. (Now, that’s a bit confusing.) Please allow me to restate.

    Since I need a place to live out my Christian faith:
    + And I do believe that the Reformation injected some long lost truth back into Christianity.
    + And I do want to belong to a denomination with a correct understanding of the Gospel and Evangelical.
    + And I live, not in the 1500′s, but in 2009.
    + And I see a variety of Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican denominations around me. (Some with beliefs that I would not think acceptable to a Christian at any time. And some with practices that seem influenced greatly by the 21st century mega-church seeker-sensitive mentality.)
    + And I do not have the training or skill to research and analyze every doctrine and practice of the various Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches in my phone book, and compare them to a proper understanding of the Bible.
    + And you have obviously given this a lot of study and thought.

    That is why I am asking: To what denomination, or church should I be going?

    Thank you,

    Greg

  11. Tim Enloe says:

    Greg, to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, so this should not be treated as a relationship of spiritual advisor to spiritual advisee. I am not competent to be a spiritual advisor, especially for people I absolutely have no knowledge of beyond a couple of comments on the Internet.

    I would only say this to you. God remembers that we are dust, and He has mercy on our frames. One thing you should not do is live your Christian life in a state of anxiety about “where you should go to church” or “which church has ‘the fullness’ of the Truth.” That is ultimately terribly unhealthy. It tends to lead either to a crippling skepticism (where realizing your limitations you feel paralyzed to make any kind of well-informed decision) or to an arrogant dogmatism (where having at last found “The True Church” you find it hard to exercise charity toward others who do not agree with you).

    Since “the Gospel” is a serious issue for you, have you read my recent post “What Does it Mean to Say Sola Fide *Is* The Gospel”? That’s my own personal view of how to relate a commitment to Reformation truths to trying to figure out where one ought to be going. Beyond that, I don’t wish to go because again, I am not competent to be a spiritual advisor to people I do not know.

    • Greg says:

      Hi Tim,

      RE I am not competent to be a spiritual advisor…

      I disagree. In the area of which denominations today have retained a Reformation understanding of “the Gospel” and “Evangelical” you seem to be informed and, therefore, I believe that you are competent. (There is always more to learn about any given topic, but there is also a level of knowledge at which we can express a relative confidence that our point of view is well founded.)

      RE … have you read my recent post “What Does it Mean to Say Sola Fide *Is* The Gospel”?

      I did, but I did not see how it answered my question, “Which denominations today have retained a Reformation understanding of “the Gospel” and “Evangelical”? If it was in there and I missed it please let me know.

      Christians invite people to church all the time. What I am asking for, in this internet cafe atmosphere, is that invitation.

      Thanks.

      Greg

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