Conversion is more than a change in direction, it’s a change in connection. (Frank Viola & Len Sweet’)
I was recently re-reading the introduction to A Jesus Manifesto by Frank Viola and Len Sweet, a book that urges Christians to put Christ at the centre of their faith in very powerful language, when my eye fell a sentence which seemed to be filing in a gap in my thoughts somewhere, even though I can’t even exactly say why. But it did remind me that there are much more different factors in conversion than most people think of….
Conversion is more than a change in direction, it’s a change in connection.
Conversion, often simply seen as the change of religion, which can be more accurately be described as the turning towards Something Higher that hadn’t an important place in someones life before, deeply impacts a person, and it does not happen overnight. One does not just become a Christian, or Marxist, or modern Pagan, or very convinced atheist without changes on different levels or domains of their lives.
There are at least 4 different levels that I will explore in this post.
Edit: Note that I’m only talking about the individual level here, and thus about conversion of a human being in one lifetime, not of his family or culture over the generations…. Shifting baseline is a very strong factor here, and things like forced conversions will play out very differently over a longer time and beyond individuals… Even the kakure kirishitans are not recognisable as Catholics anymore…
Intellectual acceptance of information
This is the lowest level of what happens during conversion, and if it happens it’s not actually a conversion at all yet. Just accepting information as true in the abstract can be a step in a conversion, but it’s not at all the most important thing, even though some atheists and Christian apologists use all their energy to work on this domain. At least that that’s what I would conclude from the way they try to convert people by using a lot of reasoning and logic.(I suppose personality type is very important here too.)
The issue is that belief and faith are not the same thing at all. Belief is accepting information, while faith is trusting Someone/something. Americans who have faith in the constitution don’t believe that the document exists, but that it is important, and that it should be followed because it will bring liberty for all and yadda yadda… Christians should have faith in God, and thus trust God to take care for them in some kind of way. (See psalm 23 for example) Mere belief in something that goes against the naturalist worldview is not ‘religion’ at all. It is often part of religion, but some people can have just a very intuitive connection to God (or another deity) with no concrete beliefs at all, only a deep natural connection. That’s what faith is, not just ticking the box before every line of the creed…
Acceptance of a Reality in a Paradigm shift
This is a step deeper, and goes beyond the rational to the acceptance of a Reality that is percieved in one way of the other, and thus accepted. Often a paradigm shift happens when the data don’t seem to fit with the beliefs held, and the old worldview is rendered obsolete by the actual world as encountered by the person. This is often not a choice, but a realisation that just needs to be surrendered to.
On the other hand, just accepting a reality does not convert anyone either. I can happily accept the existence of Loki, fairies, or the information in Marx’ das kapital’ without converting to anything at all. A lot of people believe in God, not just as information but a knowledge of a Reality, without doing anything with it.
That’s no conversion at all yet.
Only if I make a connection and change my life towards one of the things I’ve acknowledged as a reality I really convert myself..
Polytheists are very interesting in this regard. They acknowledge the existence all kinds of gods, but that doesn’t mean that their path involves all of them. The polytheist will have connection with certain gods or deities and not with others that are as real to them, just as a human I do have friendship with certain people and not with others, even though I do completely believe in their existence…
So what’s needed for a real conversion is not just accepting how reality is, but aligning ourselves with that Reality.
Change in direction
So a change in direction is what is often seen as a definition of conversion. You change your ways, and thus convert. ‘Repent and follow me’ is what Jesus said.
But there is a-one problem: this still can be completely outward, or in other words, fake. One can pretend to convert, and change outward ways without having any conversion at all.
Forced conversions for example are often lacking in this area. People are outwardly converting to the new religion, and become nominal Christians, or Marxists, or Muslims, but in their heart and behind closed door they remain connected to their old gods or God. Crypto-paganism probably lived on underground for centuries after the moment when Christians or Muslims made their religion the State religion.
The same has happened with Christians under rule of other religions that expected them to convert, sometimes under threat of death too. The Japanese kakure kirishitans are a fascination excample of that: the Japanese Catholic Church went undergound during the Edo period after the Shimabara Rebellion in the 1630s when Catholicism became forbidden, and remained hidden until recent times, slowly evolving to something hardly recognisable.
No-one can really be forced to convert. It’s easier to take someones life than to take away the connection they have with their God in some cases. True believers will keep their connection no matter what happens…
Making a New Connection
Real conversion is also making a New Connection, as Frank Viola and Len Sweet said in the original . Not just an outward change in direction, but an inward change in connection.
We turn away from our former values, and gods, and embrace Something New that will guide our life, and connect with it.
When we become Christians we will from now on follow Christ, make Him the center of our life, and build our life around Him.
Others see that the deep Truth in Marx’ writings calls us to change not only our lives but the world for better. Or or give ourself over to the Higher Truth of science and reason because there’s nothing else to demand our obedience as source and truth. And so on… But it is only when we make the connection to whatever Higher thing we have come to believe in as real, that we really convert…
This does have several implications for us as Christians, as well as for others I suppose…
what do you think?