Nov 22, 2011

'When we set out, I did not believe that Jesus Christ
is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo, I did'

My students find the fictional conversion narratives in Christian fiction unpersuasive. The word they use to describe it is "sudden." It happens too fast, like a slip over a line. It's not staged as a deduction or a conclusion, though there are arguments. The arguments happen, and then there's a gap. And then a moment where the need for arguments has evaporated. There's a knowledge in that moment -- the character "knows" -- but knowledge that's not at all like the knowledge of a conclusion.

The characters "just know," and, further, they know they know, though there's not really any clear articulation of how.

Generously, my students assume this is a failure of the fiction. That it's simply staged badly. It makes no sense to them that this is how it happens, so they attribute the implausibility to the badly written books. It must, they say, make more sense in real life, and if only the authors were better writers, the conversions would seem less sudden.

I don't know, though. It seems there is this moment of "slip" (that's not quite the right word for it, though). There is a suddenness to conversions, in how they're described by people who experience them. There's a moment when the arguments, however carefully constructed, however thoroughly labored over, don't matter anymore.

Maybe in one sense this makes it irrational, but it's not exactly experienced as a giving up of reason. More like, something about that which one was arguing oneself towards has changed, been vivified, and is no more like a reason than a butterfly. As inarticulate as that is. It's neither a reason nor a rejection of reason, but a realization.

It's a long silent moment, then "oh."

There can be a suddenness to the experience, which seems so implausible from the outside. Accounts of the experience of conversion -- Christian conversions, but others too -- often involve this moment of a sudden switch, a toggle. A moment of "and then I knew."

I'm finding it rather hard to explain.