As I have previously mentioned, one of my ongoing projects is to explore the idea of conversion. I continue to be intrigued by this concept, presented in my youth as a straightforward and obvious phenomenon, but which now in my latter years has continued to complexify.
To that end, I am currently reading a significant new work investigating the idea and experience of conversion over the course of time: A History of Christian Conversion by David Kling. Since the book is over 650 pages long and I am eventually going to be writing an official review of it, my thoughts on it will likely appear here at least once more. For now, though, I will offer a few words about some of its earlier ideas.
On the very first page, Kling notes that "Conversion is a movement from something to something" (1; emphasis retained). A simple sentence, but one which provides some helpful clarification, especially for historical study of the concept. For a conversion to be a conversion, in other words, we might say that it needs to involve an existing setting, practice, belief, or habit of thought away from which a person moves. This is the first step, one might say. Beyond this, a conversion needs a new direction with which to orient said person. This is the "to" part of the process.
Such a definition, while largely self-evident, reminds me that there is always a place where someone starts. A Kling puts it, "conversion does not occur de novo or float down from the sky as an independent, self-generating experience...there is no singular type or model of conversion; each community defines conversion in ways appropriate to that community" (21). Context--not just personal but social, cultural, historical, and religious as well--provides the place from which and out of which a person converts. In this way it exists as that which a person is rejecting in conversion, even as it provides the lens through which a person experiences it.
While I am only six chapters into Kling's work, I think that his historical attention to context is important, for it helps guide readers to consider that where we are changes our approach to conversion. Think about it: a first-century Jew, a second-century Roman pagan, or a fifth century Germanic tribal lord each might be said to convert to Christianity, but the unique place within which that change occurs makes significant difference in terms of meaning.
Conversion from is only one half of the equation, though. Human beings may change from something to something else, but it is not done for no reason. As Kling reminds us, "people converted in the ancient world for the same reason they do today; they sensed it was in some way advantageous to do so" (30). When he disadvantages of their present situation would appear to be appear to be ameliorated by a change to something new, change would occur. What they converted to, then, was important.
The direction in which conversions were made also carries the mark of context. For while we today think of conversion on a purely personal and individualistic level, part of that reason has to do with our cultural and philosophical situation. We think of conversion as a psychological and spiritual process almost exclusively. And while evidence for such things can certainly be observed in the ancient world (Augustine is notable example here), there are also other contextual forces at work.
In days gone by, pagan conversion to Christianity could take place because someone was convinced that the God of the Christians was simply stronger. That Jesus Christ was a better patron for life and success that all others. The embrace of Christianity could be made because it was politically wiser, offered opportunities for partnership with Rome, or provided rulers with a structure, system, and philosophy for streamlining their hierarchies. Each of these reasons, impacted by their context, influenced both what they moved from and what they moved towards.
The move towards embracing a new faith always meant something new, but the questions of context and religious translation begged the question of how much. As Kling puts it, "how much turning in involved in belief or behavior? How much of the old must be shed for the new?" (13). On this score it seems our ancestors had some different answers. Dispel here thoughts of true conversion being a complete and 100% change. While I do believe that the work of God is certainly and foundationally significant in this respect, there is little sense in which it involves a complete overwriting of everything about a person's being. Our conversions may indeed be transformative, but I do not think they completely replace us with a new "alien" other. I convert, and while I am changed in some foundational ways I am still who I am in some sense. Otherwise conversion did not happen, but mere replacement.
Assuming that conversion transforms even as it works with pre-existing material, this means that Christian faith, as something converted to, is experienced and lived differently by various subjects in various contexts. In almost every case, this adaptation of faith involves aspects of the context being mixed in. Here, of course, is the age-old question of syncretism or combination--the old mixing with the new, as per Kling. This can be seen today even as it was in the time of Constantine, and raises ongoing questions for Christian believers and those called to lead them.
The idea that context impacts conversion and can reshape the way we experience and live it can quickly draw out the cynic in us. It can lead us to ask whether it really matters at all, or if it is simply just a power game or a kind of jockeying for control. It makes us wonder if religious faith is just a force that lulls the masses even as it is wielded as a tool by those wise enough to perceive and manipulates its levers. These are honest questions.
And yet, I think, that this is not the whole story. For while conversion to the Christian faith can be done from all sorts of contexts and towards all sorts of goals, there is more at work. What we human beings decide, even based on misunderstood or limited frameworks, can have impact beyond our initial imaginings. What someone might do, at least initially, for power, worldly advantage, or based on limited data can over time become something else. If conversion to Christianity is not just a human invention but something divine at work, it very well means that God can make use of even messy and problematic conversions to help effect real change. Would that it was not this way, but it is the world in which we live.
Near the end of the most recent chapter I finished, Kling says the following, and with his discussion of the conversion of Europe I will conclude my thoughts:
"...political considerations were a crucial, if not primary, motivating factor for kinds and rulers converting to Christianity...Not all this means that rulers or their people ignored the personal demands of Christianity...Christianity's view of the world as infected with sin had radical ethical consequences and inverted many aspects of pagan behavior considered permissible, even virtuous. " (149).