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.