Memories, Conversions, and Convictions

Memories, Conversions, and Convictions January 15, 2014

The triad named in the title of this blog has been illuminating as I have reflected about the stages of my life as a Christian. The meaning of memories is obvious, especially our memories of growing up, going back to childhood and continuing into young adulthood and beyond.

Conversions are about major changes in our orientation toward life. Not just changes like a new job or geographical move or marriage or divorce or retirement. Those can leave us unchanged, even as they sometimes become the occasion for conversion. Rather, conversions are about fundamental changes in how we see things – our lives, what is real, and what matters most to us.

Convictions are settled and foundational ways of seeing that are not easily shaken. They are more than “opinions.” Ideally, they are open to change, even as they are not easily changed.

My memories of growing up more than half a century ago include an understanding of Christianity that I had absorbed by the end of childhood. If somebody had asked me at age 10 or 12 to state in a sentence what I thought the heart of the Christian message was, I would have said something like the following: Jesus died to pay for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven, provided that we believe in him.

Note what it emphasized: the afterlife; our problem as sin and our need for forgiveness; Jesus as the means whereby we can be forgiven; and the importance of believing. It also included the belief that Jesus and Christianity were “the only way.” My understanding was not idiosyncratic to my family or church but might be called “the common Christianity” of the recent past – what most Protestants and Catholics took for granted then and many still do. I took it for granted too.

My major conversions have been intellectual, political, and religious. The first two happened in college, the third in my early 30s. They have led to a very different understanding of Christianity and to the convictions that have shaped my life in the decades since.

My intellectual and political conversions were also religious in the sense that they changed my thinking about Christianity and the Bible. The first happened in a required religion course on the history of Christian thought. I had no idea how diverse it was and that there was no one universally accepted understanding of what it meant to be Christian. What I had absorbed as a child became one of many ways of understanding Christianity.

My political conversion occurred in a political philosophy course. We spent a week on the prophet Amos and his strident indictment of the wealthy and powerful of his time who had created a society radically unfair to the majority of the population. I was stunned. I had had no idea that the Bible had such passion for economic justice and fairness. The politics of my childhood changed.

My religious conversion happened in my 30s. It was much more experiential than the first two, both of which happened in academic settings. It was the product of a series of experiences that I have learned to call mystical experiences. They did not change me from being non-religious to religious or from one religious tradition to another. I have been Christian all of my life, even as my understanding of what that means has gone through changes.

Rather, they made God real to me. And they changed my understanding of the referent of the word “God.” Until then, I had thought that the word referred
to a supernatural person-like being who had created the world a long time ago as something separate from God. And as an authoritarian figure being who allegedly had revealed how we must live, the requirements (of belief or behavior or both) that we must meet in order to be saved (which had meant for me, to go to heaven). By my teenage years, I had begun to have doubts about whether God was real. By my 20s, I had become a closet agnostic.

The experiences of my 30s changed all of that. “God” no longer referred to a being who may or may not exist, but to a radiant presence, a glorious “more” that pervades everything that is and that in extraordinary moments is sometimes experienced. God became, in words attributed to Paul in Acts 17.28, “the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” Not a being separate from the universe who may or may not exist, but a reality all around us, everywhere present, and sometimes experienced, known.

The religious conversion of my 30s led to the convictions that have shaped my understanding of Christianity and religions and life ever since. These include not only that the word “God” refers to a reality, but also that no religion (including Christianity) has a monopoly on God. It has also shaped my understanding of major religious figures within Christianity (including the Bible) and within other religions: many of them were people for whom God, the sacred, was an experiential reality. From their experiences flowed their passion, insight, and courage.

Nothing in this blog is meant to imply that only people who have had mystical experiences are “really” or “truly” religious. There are many who have not who are not only devout but also transformed by their religious lives. But for me, experiences of “the sacred” have made all the difference.

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