We are used to dealing with conversion narratives in the Church. Everybody’s got a story to tell about how and when one came to faith in Christ. Some are filled with struggle and passion, and some are quiet and matter of fact. Some were looking for a validating faith experience, and others were not; indeed, some were completely poleaxed by their introduction to Christ. Augustine, Luther, and Wesley furnish prototypes that some look to to explain their experience; others look for models in hymnody and revival practices. We have a multitude of expressions to attempt to convey the multiplicity of forms the conversion experience comes to us in: being saved; being born again; making a decision for Christ; accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; being found; surrender to Christ; making a profession of faith; repentance; praying through; knowing the Lord; got baptized; having a personal relationship with Christ; coming home to the Father; saw the light; and so on.
But whatever else conversion is – and regardless of whether one believes that it is the expression of something ontological/metaphysical/supernatural – it is, at bottom, an exchange of identities. I once was lost, but now I’m found. I once was . . . but now . . . That is to say, I understood myself one way, described myself one way, before. And now I claim something different about myself. This is true even if one’s conversion is a matter of growing up in church, with no lightning-bolt experiences that one remembers to light the way. You may not have been a notorious sinner and are now a saint (at least, in training), but there was a time when you said, “I’m a Christian,” meaning whatever that meant, and now you have more content to pack that noun with. In the same way, a child says, “come over to my house,” and means the home provided by its parents, while an adult says, “come over to my house,” and means the home he or she has outfitted for oneself (and one’s family). What are you? A Christian. That becomes, What are you? A Christian.
Attempting to describe how that exchange of identities comes about, when so many differ in the details of their experience, is surprisingly easy. First, the question arises, about being this rather than that, or at least, this more than before. The question can arise from something you witness or something someone says, or even an explicit invitation. Previous attempts to raise the question are immaterial. The question impinges itself on one’s mind when it does, and not before. “The wind blows where it wills . . .” And where before, the question had no meaning, or aroused no interest – maybe even, resistance, for some reason, this time, an interest is piqued. You start asking yourself, “what does that mean?” or “how does that happen?” or “is it even real?” And again, disbelief may shove the whole question aside, but you keep encountering things that bring it up again. You begin to pay attention.
Eventually, your interest begins to manifest itself in desire. Maybe even desire against your desire, so to speak. But even as you may continue to officially disbelieve what the new identity is saying about who you are now, or who you might be, you find yourself wishing it might be so. The experience that tells you it is not so – in you, now – is at war with the thought that it might be so – in you, if only . . . Eventually this cognitive dissonance – or, to coin a term, spiritual dissonance – becomes so great that you do something to resolve it: perhaps something explicitly religious, following a given model, but perhaps just something on your own – and you find, suddenly, that you have decided (and you may not be sure exactly when you decided) that the old identity is no longer you, but this new identity is.
C.S. Lewis wrestled long and hard against religious belief before acknowledging the existence of God. But he still didn’t believe in Jesus, until one day, on a motorcycle trip with his brother to the zoo, he started out on the trip not believing in Jesus, but when he got where he was going, he found he did. And he was not aware of when the change happened, only that it had. Others, who have sought that exchange of identities more gladly, have obediently “gone to the altar” to “give their heart to Christ,” and having done so, find that they can now claim for themselves this new status. That was then, this is now. I was that, but now, I am his. I was uncommitted, now I’m all in. However you put together your story, that’s the key. Conversion is an exchange of identities.
Will it last? It can, and frequently does. And it will surely last for a while. Having resolved all outstanding questions that were part of that dissonance in your life, for the moment at least you stand confident in your possession of The Answers. Which is why arguing with new converts is of little use. Now, you may argue yourself out of your new identity later, as new experiences come into your life. And the wearing down of your new identity against the abrasion of others’ opinions and relationships – what we call peer pressure, which everybody of all ages and conditions is subject to – may come to have bad effects upon your claim to be what you now say you are. But these things come around again and again, and may be strengthened by new experiences down the road. For a great many people, certain identities, having once been claimed, are never really rejected (even if we frequently fail to live up to whatever we have claimed for ourselves to be). And so we renew them from time to time.
We may, indeed, change certain major parts of our identity without challenging the core. We might, from a Methodist beginning, become Catholic, or Baptist, or Charismatic, or what-have-you. And these exchanges of identity from one form of faith to another are often also called “conversion.” They, partake of the same basic nature of the thing talked about here. As does Call, as in a “call to preach” or “call to ministry.” Everyone who enters the ordained ministry has a Call story, and they vary as greatly – but in the same way -- as Conversion stories.
Of course, Call might not be a religious call. It could be a call to a secular vocation. Where once you thought you would do X, or you were working in the field of Y, your increasing dissatisfaction with that is suddenly met by this new opportunity that seems to turn a key in you, which unlocks new and more satisfying answers for your life. “I used to be that, but then I got into this. And it just fit me. It’s who I am, and I can’t imagine doing anything else now.” Many would also say, “It’s who I was always meant to be.” So, a choice of profession is also, even without religious faith, an adoption of a new identity, and if a new identity, then one which is exchanged for an old one.
And once we start thinking about life’s unfolding in this way, we keep meeting the same phenomenon in all kinds of places. For there are many different conversion experiences that all kinds of people are having.
There are political conversions, where someone who was once a follower of a given party or ideology switches affiliations and becomes a follower of another party or ideology – often one diametrically opposed to the previous one. And as these people talk about how they came to lose faith in their previous political commitments and came to advocate for their new ones, they tend to talk as if they’d had a “born again” kind of experience. Even those with no religious faith – even those who are hostile to religious faith – talk this way. That’s because “conversion” is more than just a religious experience. It's a very common one.
The process of nationalization and assimilation of immigrants is a process of conversion. Nor is it a new thing, or something different in modern America than in other times and places. After a couple of generations, the Norman barons found that they had to teach their children French in school, since they grew up speaking English at home. A few more generations, and their successors thought of themselves as simply, English, and most definitely not French. Some cultures are harder to assimilate to, even for willing participants; some pull newcomers in, even when they wish to remain separate. And the tension between the old country and the old ways and the new environment works on everyone who changes their place and their allegiance. “I am an American” may not mean the same thing to every one who claims that identity, but the fact that they claim an American identity – particularly if they weren’t raised up in that identity – shows that the process of conversion, of exchange of identities, continues.
Or how about “falling in love?” There are as many stories to tell of how two people choose each other as their one, true love as there are people to tell them. But the pattern of conversion holds true for many of them. First, there is the question: who is this person? Then, the interest, which provokes desire – which may not be welcomed. There may be an internal struggle within one or more of the couple as well as one between the two persons. Finally, though, there comes a moment of change. This is typically marked by a declaration of the new identity one is claiming.
Tears and fears and feeling proud,to quote Judy Collins. And again, “Will it last?” It might. Or it might not. But either way, that doesn’t affect the exchange of identities that has taken place in oneself at this moment.
To say “I love you” right out loud
The Canadian military historian, Gwynne Dyer, in his book and PBS series, War, points out that Basic Training is, in effect, a revival meeting. Recruits – civilians – come in wanting to be soldiers, and with it, whatever of manhood and confidence and outlook on life goes with being a soldier. The drill instructors put them through a series of stressors designed to make them lose their old identity and yield to a new one. And at the end, in the overwhelming number of cases, they succeed. The recruits come in civilians, and they leave – soldiers. The fact that the recruits want to be made into this new kind of person facilitates the process. It was harder during WW2, when you had armies made up overwhelmingly of civilian draftees, many of whom were more mature than the 17- and 18-year-olds who come to Boot Camp with such starry eyes.
You can see the same kind of thing in the building of teams, whether athletic or corporate. “There is no I in TEAM,” they say. The object of team-building is to create a new identity and get all the individual members to adopt it. A good team-building experience will stay with one for the rest of one’s life. Long after boyhood is over, for instance, members of old athletic teams and Scout troops and garage bands will find each other and renew an identity that can never be taken away from them. “We’re the Fighting Harriers!.” “Rah! Rah! Spider Patrol!” “Rock on, Two Piece Trash!” Even if we will never again be who we were, we will always be who we were. The new identity, once born and shared, is ineradicable.
And then there’s sexuality. Listening to gay people talk about their experiences and how they understand them has led me to see “coming out” as a conversion experience. It’s another “exchange/adoption of identity.” Some resist it, some seek it out, but once it arrives, it resolves a lot of outstanding questions, and claiming the new identity becomes as secure and as celebratory as any other kind of conversion. Listening to gay people argue fiercely about the inevitability and irreversibility of “coming out” even reminds me of “once saved, always saved” theologies. At any rate, I think all of us in the church need to understand what has happened. That doesn’t mean we need to “affirm” their new identity – if that means, say that all behaviors associated with it are okay -- but we need to understand that what has occurred is a change in identities.
The implications of conversion as an exchange of identities
Conversion is thus not particularly limited to a religious context. It is a normal part of experience, of growing up, and of growing older. Life has many changes, and our identity changes to one degree or another many times. Not only that, but there’s a lot more traffic going both ways than we’re comfortable admitting. We all like to hear of someone of no faith or a different faith becoming Christian, but people have been leaving Christianity for other religions since the beginnings of Christianity. In the Middle Ages, there was a major exchange of letters between a former Christian bishop who became a Jew and a former Jewish rabbi who became a Christian. The church authorities suppressed the letters going one way, but we can infer what was said, to an extent, from the replies. As for politics, well, I had a friend who in college was heavily into leftist associations, including membership in YPSL (Young People’s Socialist League). At the same time as he underwent both a religious conversion and a call to ministry, he changed completely politically to become a conservative Republican. A few years ago, he got involved in progressive causes in the church, and is now on the Left again. Siegfried Sassoon was a committed homosexual in his youth and young adulthood, and celebrated by the gay subculture of his day for it. Until he fell in love with a woman and became as committed a heterosexual as he had ever been a homosexual. After twenty years or so of marriage and the raising of at least one child, he and his wife divorced and he became something of a hermit. So, in one man’s life, the cycle ran from homosexual to heterosexual to asexual. And he never thought any of his identities untrue to the others; he just was what he was.
So, yes, conversions can be modified by subsequent conversions. Conversions may even come to be seen as a mistake, or a phase, to be recovered from, though I doubt that anyone can induce that in an unwilling subject. But just as you might come to me and say, “I want to be a Christian, show me how,” so someone might come to a therapist and say, “I’m tired of being gay, help me become straight.” In a sense, this is no different from someone enlisting in the Armed Forces and saying, “I wanna be a Marine!”
The current controversy over “gay conversion therapy” misses the point. Any competent adult should be free to ask any competent guide for help in how to become anything one desires to be. The big issue is the role of parents or other guardians in the life of a minor. The minor wants to try on a new identity (sexual, political, religious, dietary, what have you), and the parents think this is a bad choice. Their desire to do what they think is best for their child is a pretty big deal. A parent deciding to have his or her child baptized, or sent off to church camp, is putting the thumb on the scales of that child’s sovereign right to choose, and rightly so. But the child may choose otherwise, regardless. The question is how far can parents and other guides go in attempting to influence a child in how that child builds its identity(ies).
I have only two thoughts on this. The first has already been offered: you can’t or shouldn’t attempt to prevent any competent guide from helping any competent adult toward any non-destructive goal that adult wants to pursue. The other one is, in attempting to guide children (who don’t always know what’s best for them), the age of the child is probably the greatest factor. The younger a child is, the more influence the parents can have with the best chance of a compatible outcome. When a child is in its teens, the self is already far advanced in its formation, and attempting to force a conversion – of any sort – that the child doesn’t want, has slim chances of success and a very great chance of harm to the child and to the relationship between the child and the parent(s).
This is a big subject, all around. I offer these thoughts which have been stirring in me for some time as a new starting point for some of the difficult discussions we are having to have in the church these days. Particularly in the conflict over new sexual identities in our culture and in the church, we are pressed that we must understand things in a way that is foreign to us, which requires us to jettison our theological commitments. In effect, we are repeatedly told we must quit being who we are in order to affirm who somebody else is. I don’t think that’s necessary. I think we can come to understand the experiences of others, and keep our integrity even as we grant them theirs. If that is less than what they demand, we shouldn’t be troubled by that. Understanding who you are (and whose you are) is the first thing conversion teaches us. And we must be what we are, even if somebody else doesn’t like it, even as we must let them be what they are, even if we don’t like that.