Jan 24, 2012

The experience of conversion as always-already having been

However radical a conversion, however different the new-found faith is from what came before, there's a sense in which it's understood by the converted as not radical at all. It's understood as an adjustment, as an alignment with what was always the case. The converted give an account of their conversions -- not always, but much of the time -- as if it were nothing more than a recognition of what was already true.

This can be seen with Michael Sudduth, a philosopher of religion, who recently announced his conversion from Reformed Christianity to the bhakti tradition of Vaishnavism, which is known in the U.S. mostly via Hare Krishna.

These faiths are not normally understood as in proximity to each other.

The Reformed response to Sudduth's announcement reflects this: he's been called an apostate, and his conversion a "deconversion." It's been said his news re-raises awareness about the "dangers of Eastern religions." The harshest analysis claims Sudduth must be mentally impaired, for either physical reasons ("As I recall, Michael has been on antidepressants. I don’t say that as a criticism.") or spiritual ones("I trace Michael’s problems back to when, as a teenager, he and some friends toyed with a ouija board .... I think dabbling in the occult opened a door which he was never able to close.")

For the Reformed, then, the change marked by Sudduth's announcement is a huge, dramatic change. The difference they see in this conversion is the difference between heaven and hell.

For Sudduth himself, what happened to him can barely be described as a change. Certainly not as a sharp turning. It's more like a gradual growth, a continuation, a more complete, more full discovery of what, in fact, already was.

He writes: "I began to see my former 'God conceptions' as limited expressions of a fuller, richer, and more experientially meaningful view of God that was now present in Lord Krishna himself."

"I should add, and I think this is very important, that I felt I was experiencing the same God that I had experienced on many occasions throughout my Christian life. However, I felt like this being was showing me a different face, side, or aspect to Himself, or – better yet – a different mode of my relationship to Him. I felt a certain validation of my spiritual journey, both past and present. I had gone so far in my Christian faith, but it was now necessary for me to relate to God as Lord Krishna."
What this means is, however different these two faiths appear, however different they actually are, they're experienced by this convert as continuous. As of a unity. He understands himself in some important way to have been already worshiping Krishna, to have always, in some deeper reality not readily apparent on the surface of things, already been a Vaishnava.

The conversion is narrated in a sense in the past perfect tense. It's not happening, present continuous, it's not just happened, in the simple past, but has happened, and thus has this feeling of being finished before the narrative begins. The narrative comes as an announcement, pronouncing what's already complete. But also, with that, there's a sense of it having always been finished.

That, at least, is how Sudduth portrays how it feels to have converted.

Now, it might be that this is unique to conversions to universalist religions, such as Hinduism, which understand all the various expressions of spirituality and differing faiths and apparently opposing religions as refractions of a deeper unity. There's space in Hindu theology for what Sudduth is saying. Jesus can be understood as an avatar of Vishnu. So one could imagine that this sense of a conversion not being radical might be possible for someone converting to Hinduism in a way it wouldn't be for other converts.

That's not the case, though.

This experience of conversion as realization and recognition of what is already true, as acknowledgement of what already is the case, rather than as some sort of change, is actually quite common in conversion narratives. This is a standard part of contemporary accounts of conversion.

Consider Scott Hahn's popular account of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Hahn certainly doesn't see all faiths or even all versions of Christianity as merely reflections and refractions of the true religion, which is most truly revealed in Roman Catholicism. He thinks religions are really different. Nor does he present himself as having been a Catholic before he was a Catholic.

And yet -- he does.

He describes his conversion as a coming home. This is in the title of his book, Rome Sweet Home, and in his description of the moment he converted too. His writes that, after a long time considering Catholicism, he prayed,
"'Lord, what do you want me to do?' I remember praying that and thinking, I wonder why I haven't asked you that before now? 'Lord, what do you want me to do?'
"I was utterly taken aback when, to my surprise, I felt his response back to me, 'What is it, my son, that you want to do?'
"That was easy. I didn't have to think twice. 'Father I want to come home.'"
Hahn doesn't mean he's coming home in that he was already a Catholic in the sense of having been baptized as an infant and then strayed, or something like that. He hasn't left something he's now returning to. His conversion's a homecoming in another sense: "Home," here, has to be taken as something like the right place to be, the place where one belongs.

Which means it's experienced as being a return, whether or not it would be considered such from an outside perspective. It's a restoration.

However much it might look like a change and a choice, it's not experienced or narrativized that way. However discontinuous it appears -- and this conversion can be conceived of as quite a radical break -- even that evident disjunction is taken, in the account of the conversion, as testimony to the true unity underneath.

Hahn writes that as a young man he hated Catholicism. He was a Presbyterian with an active and vicious anti-Catholic streak. He passed out anti-Catholic lit. to his friends. He argued Catholics weren't Christians. He destroyed his grandmother's rosary and prayer book. In the book, this comes across as a protesting too much. There's a continuity between his anti-Catholic and Catholic selves, with the conversion depicted not as a huge, dramatic change, but just his recognition of who he really was. Even where Hahn describes himself as having changed, he does so in a way that makes his former self seem like it was just in rebellion to what was true, and his converted self is presented as if it merely stopped fighting that spiritual reality, accepting what was. The conversion is presented not like a choice, but as an experience of recognition.

This same thing is reflected in the evangelical language of conversions, of course, of being "lost" and "found."

This idea is expressed, too, in the Gospel of John, where Jesus says, "You did not choose Me but I chose you," and in John's first epistle, where he writes, "We love, because He first loved us." There are, just in Christianity, deep deep theological accounts of how conversion is not an action but a reaction, not something that one does, but that someone recognizes as having already been done.

Nor is this unique to Christianity. It seems to be something nearly universal in accounts of conversions.

In Islamic conversions, stories, for example, it's common to hear "Islam found me; I didn't find Islam." Prof. Fidelma O'Leary, describing her conversion, says she was given a Koran and, reading, recognized what she already knew. "I was pretty darn excited," she says, "to know that there's actually a religion that was what I believed."

The tense seems to me to be key. It's as if she believed in Islam before she knew what Islam was. As much as her conversion would seem to be a choice, it didn't feel like a choice. As much as it appears to be a change, it's understood by her to be something more like a becoming, a manifestation or realization of what always was.

It doesn't feel to her like it was radical at all.

This is all very curious. This seems like a feature of conversions -- maybe not all conversions, but more than a few. It's a feature, too, regardless of which religion one is converting too, and regardless of whether one of them or any of them are right.

Yet religious conversion looks like a choice. It seems like it must be choosing. It's hard to think of how we could think of conversion, especially within contemporary pluralism, without thinking of it as choosing. Choice would seem, furthermore, to be choosing among choices, choosing knowing there were infinite other possible choices one could have chosen, and one is, as it were, suspended above an epistemological abyss.

Against theoretical vertigo, though, we have the experience of conversion as it's accounted for by the converted. As stories, these conversion narratives are narratives of choice that act to eliminate the choosing. Or, perhaps, narratives of apparent choice that reveal that the choice was only ever an illusion, that the converted were only seeing what in truth always already had been.

The experience is described as having nothing to do with pluralism or religious marketplaces. If it is about that, that's effaced in the way it feels and in the way that feeling is recounted.

Phenomenologically, conversion apparently doesn't feel like a choice at all. Or like a change. Or a leap. Or like anything really radical. It is, instead, this moment like eye contact and recognition with what has always been the real.