The Church and the Conversion Experience

The Church and the Conversion Experience July 11, 2008

Some time ago someone made a comment on one of our threads characterizing the LDS notion of revelation as a “hot sensation brought on by emotionally charged media.” In regard to the role of revelation in the conversion experience, the writer also felt “challenged” by the need to explain the revelatory experience to an investigator because he or she had “expected divine communication to be more clear.”

I share the writer’s distaste for the maudlin and sentimental in media, from which I protect myself via the “off” button. The remainder of the critique, however, is less than compelling. The key to the writer’s anxieties and discomfort probably lies within his or her expectations. If I had to guess, I’d say that those expectations were forged almost completely by interaction with the BoM and perhaps the surviving popular accounts of early LDS experiences.

The LDS conversion paradigm, however, is grounded in the NT conversion experience and the NT idea of what is communicated during conversion. Conversion events in the NT are emotional but they do not tail off into emotional incoherence. Instead, these experiences lead to behaviors that form and shape the community into the body of Christ. Missionaries are uniquely qualified for their role in bringing the conversion event to culmination.

A Burning in the Bosom

The reference above to a “hot sensation” is probably an allusion to the idea of “a burning in the bosom.” I cannot say precisely how the expression passed from 19th century Protestantism into LDS thought, but its ultimate source is the experience of discipleship on the road to Emmaus:

Luke 24:29-32 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

There are three point of interest here. First, notice what Luke reports was happening when their hearts were burning. It’s not during the meal, but while an otherwise unknown teacher was “opening the scriptures” to them concerning the Messiah. In other words, a persuasive intellectual interaction with a stranger prompts the sensation. Second, notice that the experience is NOT self-explanatory. In fact, they don’t even notice it until the teaching moment has passed into retrospection, although they clearly regret the oversight. Finally, notice that the disciples so graced do not drop into emotional incoherence. Instead their actions are logical as they decide to rise and return immediately to Jerusalem to share their experiences.

In the larger picture of NT Christianity, then, Luke is teaching that this sensory experience allows converts to be persuaded of the person and work of Christ when he is taught among them despite that fact that he is not physically present. From an LDS perspective, I imagine that when we talk about the founding and role of the Church, we are likewise talking about the person and mission of Christ. So if the NT account is in some way normative, we might reasonably expect investigators to experience the same response.

Self-Explanatory Experiences

The return of the disciples to Jerusalem from Emmaus is significant. When we extend this investigation to other NT commissioning and conversion experience, we find that other people always play a significant role in the experience. Take, for example, the story of Paul on the road to Damascus:

Acts 9:3-6 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.

Note that even when Jesus himself appears in what we might call a “substantive” event, he does not explain the implications of the experience. Instead this activity is delegated to one of Paul’s fellow humans, in this case a gentleman by the name of Ananias. So critical is the success of this investigator-Christian interaction that Jesus will also appear to Ananias, just to make sure that nothing untoward happens!

And we find much the same thing when we look at the Cornelius story, likewise a “substantive” experience:

Acts 10:1-6 In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3 One afternoon at about three o’clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, “Cornelius.” 4 He stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” He answered, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside.”

Why is it that Cornelius must send for Peter? In a limited sense, this is the event that will open Christianity to the Gentiles, so Peter’s standing among the disciples was a key to the validation of that effort. But this answer only delays grappling with the real issue. Why must Paul hunt up Ananias, why must Philip find the eunuch of the Candace, why must the disciples return to Jerusalem, why can’t Cornelius just show up at the local Christian branch, and why must missionaries explain some facets of the conversion experience to those who encounter it? Why can’t Jesus just do it all by himself?

The short answer is that the conversion experience is not self-explanatory, and that if the missionaries don’t bring it to the attention of investigators the event may never come to culmination. But the more comprehensive approach lies, I think, lies with the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ, that is, as a community:

Ephesians 4:14-16 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

In the end, the conversion event does not seem to have been designed to be self-explanatory. On the contrary, it seems to have purposefully been created in a fashion that requires the participation of the community. It is the means by which the whole body is “joined and knit together” so that each part can promote the growth of the whole. Indeed, it is the primary experience by which individuals can perceive themselves as members of this body, as part of the community. Ideally, we reach toward the other parts of our community precisely in order to build the whole up in love.

The Clarity of Divine Communication

The NT Christians did, in fact, believe that the divine communication in a conversion experience was clear. This was not, however, a verbal form of enlightenment. To them, something wonderful and special was happening among them in the transformation of life that they experienced themselves and saw in others.

And so it is that if you read Paul carefully, you can almost hear his voice ringing down through the centuries, celebrating the fact that God’s love for us entailed that “while we were yet sinners” and could logically expect nothing on our own merit, “Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). “If anyone is in Christ,” said Paul, that is, if we have a relationship with Christ, “then that one is a new creature” (2 Cor 5:17). Indeed, Paul announces, “the old things have passed away” in favor of new things and we are reconciled to God by Christ’s self-sacrificing love (2 Cor 5:18). When Paul wrote about “reconciliation” or “freedom” or “redemption” or “expiation” or any one of the myriad effects of the Christ-event, he wrote about what he had experienced, indeed, about how he felt.

At the heart of the NT experience of God-as-reconciled was the Spirit. Paul told the Galatians how to distinguish between the old and new creature based on what he termed the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:19-23):

9 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, 21 occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like… 22 In contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control…

Notice that the fruit of the Spirit is a list of emotions. What is significant about these particular emotions is that they are precisely those that remake us in the image of God and renew our relationships with others. In other words, they issue in concrete acts of benevolence that mirror the interaction of God with his creation. Perhaps you would like to have Moroni show up and supervise you as you write “the church is true” fifty times. Myself, I cannot think of a more profound way to send the message that God is to be found here than to find God within myself as I reflect on the church as the work of God in Christ.

Conclusions and Concluding Thoughts

So…I find myself in agreement that the merely sentimental [Mogget-speak = pious crap] can be emotionally manipulative. If your various media players do not have an “off” button, I recommend you write the manufacturer.

The Church’s conversion experience paradigm is modeled after the intellectual-emotional experience of the disciples on the road to Damascus Emmaus. This does not seem like an illogical choice if we keep in mind that individual responses may vary.

The participation of the community is a vital part of the conversion event. Had there been any other person on the earth with the relevant insights and authority, Joseph Smith’s experience might have been more like Paul’s.

As the representatives of the community, missionaries are logical candidates for the role given them in an initial explanation of the conversion event. Ideally, most missionaries have recently had the same experience themselves and so are qualified, if not confident.

It is challenging to align one’s expectations with reality and no less so when those expectations concern God. What God communicates in the conversion event is himself as present and transformative among believers. This is precisely what needs to be known.

Although your comments on any part of this are welcome, a good topic for discussion might be what sorts of things we might say to an investigator to avoid manipulation.

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