Christian Conversion and Pagan Initiation

Christian Conversion and Pagan Initiation January 28, 2011

Sometimes when you get on a roll the inspiration just keeps coming.

Here’s another interesting piece, this time by Briallen Hopper at Huffington Post Religion. It’s titled “Amazing Grace: How Conversion Really Works.” It’s fairly short – go read it now, but as you do, substitute “initiation” every time Hopper says “conversion.”

Did it occur to you that a conversion experience is a Type 3 initiation – “a method for transferring spiritual knowledge and power”? Or at least that’s what I was led to believe growing up in a small Baptist church.

I was eight years old when I had my own conversion experience. I still believed what my parents and the church taught me. I didn’t have enough life experience to realize that there were other opinions on religious matters and I hadn’t started contemplating the implications of exclusive, orthodox Christian doctrines – contemplations that would make me a universalist long before I set foot in a UU church. My father and the preacher told me I “needed to get saved” and I believed them. I walked down the aisle, knelt at the altar and asked Jesus to forgive my sins.

It was a rather emotional experience, but there was no flash of light, no feeling of being “strangely warmed,” nothing that matched the Damascus Road experience that was preached over and over again. And after the initial excitement wore off, I didn’t feel any different.

I was led to believe I should have had an ecstatic religious experience, though no one in that church would have described it in those terms. I didn’t. That disconnection caused me great distress while I was trying to be a Christian, and although it isn’t the reason I left, it certainly pushed me in that direction.

Back to Briallen Hopper’s essay.

The problem with the conversion narrative is that most people have lives that don’t fit the classic before-and-after plot. When we insist on the standard story, we fail to appreciate the varieties of religious experience. In focusing on sudden change, we can forget that most transitions happen slowly over time.

This is as true for Pagans as it is for Christians. Initiation can be a wonderful experience, but even if you prepare diligently there’s no guarantee it will be electric. That’s one of the main reasons I’ve always been skeptical of Type 3 initiations – maybe that power will get transferred and maybe it won’t. In my experience, power is almost always gained “slowly over time.” Do all the work before the initiation and the ceremony simply confirms what you’ve already achieved. Do the initiation up front and your commitment may be strengthened, but you still have to do the work.

Perhaps the reason I didn’t have an ecstatic religious experience at age 8 was that I wasn’t supposed to – if I had, I might never have questioned the concept that some are saved and some are damned and would never have found this path of Druidry, Paganism and Unitarian Universalism. A Calvinist would probably say that means I was predestined for damnation… which would be yet another reason I could never be a Calvinist.

In any case, this is one of the reasons I emphasize setting appropriate expectations for initiations. It may be a mind-blowing all-at-once experience, but more likely it will be one small step on a spiritual journey that takes a lifetime.

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