Conversion Once Again

At the North Park symposium (see previous post and all the great comments) we had lots of energetic conversation about conversion. Some common elements that emerged:

1. Conversion is about transformation.
2. Conversion is a process, even when it appears to be more instantaneous and dramatic.
3. Conversion is adoption of (or incorporation into) a new master story. For Christians, it is an initial and ongoing experience of death and resurrection.
4. Conversion involves activity on the part of the one being converted, God, and the community into which conversion is happening.
5. Conversion does not necessarily mean a change in “religion.”
6. Conversion is a radical reorientation, not only to God, but also to others.
7. Conversion, in some sense, means whatever someone says it is; it’s in the eye of the beholder. (I would add that this descriptive account is insufficient for Christians, and that a more prescriptive account is needed.)

At the conference I gave a fairly substantive response to a fascinating paper on “Peter’s Conversion(s)” by Oxford’s Markus Bockmuehl. He looked at the “memory” of Peter in early Christian art and writing, proceeding backward from about the fourth century.

My response concluded as follows:

The church in its wisdom celebrates Peter and Paul on two days in the same month, days that now open and close (January 18, 25) the week of prayer for Christian unity, and again in June on the same day (June 29) to remember their martrydoms. Perhaps, in addition to symbols of Jewish and Gentile unity, and maybe today also especially Catholic (Peter) and Protestant (Paul) unity, these symbols of unity can also celebrate the unity-in-diversity of two sorts of conversion: the instantaneous, more or less, and the prolonged, or the one that has several significant moments of transformation. This too may represent a more Protestant versus a more Catholic understanding of conversion, on the whole, though there are plenty of Catholics with Paul-like stories and Protestants with Peter-like stories. Perhaps we can learn from one another on this matter of Petrine-Pauline similarity and difference. Conversion is incorporation into the master story of Christ’s death and resurrection. It can happen instantly, or in fits and starts. In either case it either is, or becomes, a process of ongoing death and resurrection, of living into the initial experience, whether we identify that initial reality as baptism or conversion or salvation or being born again or whatever. Even Paul acknowledged the need for ongoing conversion, both for his churches (especially the Corinthians, as Stephen Chester has shown in Conversion at Corinth) and, in some sense, for himself: “I die every day; I press on” (1 Cor 15:31; Phil 3:12-14). Which means also for us.

8 Responses to “Conversion Once Again”

  1. Siufung says:

    I note that the words ‘convert’ and ‘conversion’ appear only four times in, for example, the NRSV in the New Testament. So I assume that the discussion is around today’s usage of the English words at a more popular level. Funny that recently I have had several discussions with friends and colleagues here in Australia about this very topic. Thank you, Michael, for using Peter-and-Paul to help us avoid polarisation. As a (so-called) ‘convert’ from another religion-tradition to Christianity, I find that ‘conversion’ for me is a definitive change of allegiance to Christ Jesus our Lord (from my former non-Christian tradition). It took me about a year to come to that stage, but it was a clear ‘conversion’ nonetheless. I find parallels in the New Testament when it comes to the Gentiles’ conversion experience in the Bible. But as an Australian (I have been here >20 years), I find that for many Westerners (and second-generation migrants) who have spent many years in a Christian environment, their experience may be more like that of Peter or other first-century Jewish believers. They were already worshippers of Yahweh. But they needed to come to understand that Yahweh had now sent Jesus to be the Messiah – the Anointed King – and he’s the one to whom they should give their allegiance. Of course this Jewish-Gentile-believer notion does not explain everything about conversion, and the analagy will break on several points. But I hope this helps.

  2. MJG says:

    Siufung—

    Great to hear from you, and greetings in our common Lord! Yes, we were discussing the phenomenon of conversion, while trying to define it theologically, sociologically, pastorally, etc., even though the English term is rarely used in translations.

    I suspect that MANY conversions are slow processes with certain key moments.

  3. Nils says:

    Interesting post Michael. I like your point that conversion is about transformation. I think transformation is the true fruit of conversion. It’s like James says about faith and works and what Jesus says when he makes the point that we will be known by our fruits.

    I would like to hear more about your point that conversion does not necessarily mean a change in “religion.” Dave Andrews, an Australian Christian leader (daveandrews.com.au) touched on this at a conference that Siu Fung and I went to last year. One of the points Dave raised was that if, say, a Hindu becomes a Christian, do they remain with their Hindu community or do they leave and join a Christian community? I guess alot of it depends on how the new convert will be received if and when they go back to their current community. If they go back, do they then worship Christ as the only true God or is Christ added to their list of gods. If the latter, are they really converted?

    This is a fascinating topic.

  4. Siufung says:

    Thank you, Michael. I have a copy of your book Cruciformity, and have been following some of your other books on Paul. I am working on my PhD on suffering in Romans (and it’s a very slow process since I have an almost-full-time job), and I think your understanding of Paul will be very helpful for my project.

  5. merf says:

    Petrine and Pauline prisms are interesting for the different views exposed, but for me your statement following says it all–conversion is dynamic and Christ-centered!
    MJG wrote: “Conversion is incorporation into the master story of Christ’s death and resurrection. It can happen instantly, or in fits and starts.”

  6. MJG says:

    Thanks, “merf.” Of course I absolutely agree. The context is important; the conference consisted of eight very long papers and eight longish responses. One of the papers was on Paul’s conversion (“Damascus Road”), one on Peter’s (call, maybe Casearea Philippi, post-resurrection, Cornelius/Joppa [Acts 10-11]).

  7. Angela says:

    Great discussion, Michael!

    Reflecting…One of the common elements suggested above (#4) mirrors a Trinitarian model of participation and a missional function of corporate transformation. So, conversion isn’t just dualistic—God and the person being transformed but conversion probes and invites the community to participate in the radical metamorphosis.

    Fascinating posts on conversion for sure!

  8. MJG says:

    Angela, absolutely yes. It’s interesting to think about the effect one person can have on a community into which she or he is converted. Paul is the most obvious example, but there are more.

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