Revive Us Again?
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
In my continued exploration of the idea of conversion, another ideas rises to the fore: intensification.
Brought to my attention in David Kling's A History of Christian Conversion, intensification as I see it is a style of conversion that does just want it sounds like: takes an existing or inherited religious impulse and thoroughly deepens and strengthens it.
In that it broadens our understanding of the concept and may controvert stale understandings, I think this notion of conversion is worth considering. As it stands, conversion--at least in my mind-- often draws up notions of full and utter changes on a binary level: sinner to saint, good to evil, etc. Such alterations might at times be so severe that the converted individual is just completely different. That is one way of looking at conversion. What the idea of intensification reminds us, though, is that instead of a new creation ex nihilo, there is a sense in which a Christian conversion can also base its logic, language, and outlook on a pre-existing base-level religious orientation.
The Apostle Paul would be an interesting example here. Though his encounter on the Damascus Road and subsequent interactions with a Christian believer in Damascus might often be framed in the classic binary conversion model, it has been said that his own experience might better fit the picture of intensification. He was, after all, a religious Jewish man of the first century, with everything that entailed. While the life, teachings, and work of Jesus of Nazareth were not the same as the traditions of Paul's youth, they did arise out of that context. Paul was a Jew...and so was Jesus. Paul, then, rather than letting go of everything about his previous religious orientation, might instead be said to have found his faith's fulfillment or conclusion in what Jesus brought.
For Paul, following Jesus might then indicate an intensification of his religious orientation. It also means more than that, I think, as it involves a radical revision of those same beliefs. Yet the broadest contours his thought: Creation, the idea of God, and the legacy of the Hebrew faith--they are still all there. Paul significantly quotes the Old Testament in his writings. While he might radically rethink some of them in ways first-century Jewish thinkers would reject, he nevertheless takes these Scriptures as his touchstone, looking to understand the entirety of God's revelation--to the Jew and now to the whole world--as unitary.
It is helpful to consider that religious conversion need not simply be a "light-switch" kind of experience, moving from one state to a completely different one, but might instead exist as a kind of intensification process. It helps explain the stories of some famous Christian converts--Augustine, for instance, who was raised by a Christian mother but not fully converted until later. John Wesley, who notably grew up in a pastor's home and served on the mission field before having his most transformative religious encounter. Many things might be said to have changed in the conversions of these two, but all the same they did not come out of nowhere. Nor was their new religious understanding something that needed to be created completely afresh.
Conversion as intensification helps provide some understanding to the notion of revivalism in the United States--the idea, in other words, that a fresh, renewed, and shared experience of Christ is needed and ought to be sought and prayed for. Because this country has from the days of the earliest colonists taken its cue from Christianity, asking Americans to be "revived" in their faith made since. Since the overwhelming majority were Christian or at least "Christian-esque," asking them to be spiritually reinvigorated was akin to asking them to take seriously the faith that they had culturally been taught was the right one.
Revivals have a lot of conversions associated with them. But in the American context, my guess is that the yeoman's share of these are lapsed or disengaged people with a pre-existing and/or broadly Christian understanding who suddenly had their religious faith intensified. Very few of the conversions in the history of American revivals, I would say, came from people converting from outside the "Christian" perspective (i.e. other religions).
If conversion can be intensification, this provides an important lens for us to understand what it might be today. For while there are certainly instances in history of conversion being wholesale change from one religion or non-Christian set of beliefs into Christianity, this does not seem to have been the prevailing case in the "Christian" society of the United States. For the overwhelming majority of our history, Christianity has been our touchstone in one form or another.
Yet today, secularization continues apace and even the Christian veneer on society that previous generations would have experienced is fading away in places. Simply stated, increasing parts of our population have no Christian faith to be intensified. Added to this, of course, is the growing religious diversity of our country. For individuals in these groups, revival or intensification would likely mean a deeper embrace of their own faith, not the Christian religion.
For Christians who want to make the case for conversion in this time and place, then, old ideas and practices of revivalism and calling people to "turn back to God" may need to be rethought. Language will need to be adapted, and modes of explaining the Christian faith will need to change. Think, for instance, of the ideas of sin and salvation. For someone with a vague sense of Christianity, there might be a common frame of reference from which to begin a conversation. For others? Not necessarily.
Christianity has from its infancy asserted that it has a message of God's love and salvation for everyone. Those who follow Jesus have shared and continue to share their faith the world over, and desire that all would trust in Him. Conversion is a part of these efforts, and not just the intensification kind. So if Christians in the United States are going to make our case in a changed and changing context, we need to carefully and continually consider how we will do so.