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.