The Places of Conversion
As I continue to read through David Kling's A History of Christian Conversion, its most recent chapters have focused on Christianity in the Majority World (places like China, India, and Latin America). As I read, Kling mentioned the role of pre-existing religious structures and ideas and their connection to Christian conversion. In some way, then, the way in which people in a variety of cultures see and organize their world has a clear connection or path to the reasons and means by which they might convert.
I think this reasoning is sound, since it is fairly clear that we are not simply talking about a conversion to, but a conversion from or out of something. Moreover, at least sociologically speaking, a move towards Christianity does not necessarily mean a "letting go" of everything that came before. There are always pieces that remain within--and which prepare us for--the process of Christian conversion.
Such realities are not true only within settings having to do with Eastern religions and philosophies, but can also be seen to have deep roots in the early conversion of the Roman Empire and broader Europe. There, the structures and modes of religion and philosophical outlook contributed not only to the way that initial outsiders came to see Christianity, but also how they adopted and translated the new faith into their own context.
We could talk at this point regarding how some "translations" of Christianity can go too far and so alter the fabric of the faith that it becomes something else. Religious combination--what is sometimes referred to as syncretism--is a real phenomenon that, instead of merely adapting Christianity into a new idiom, makes it unrecognizable and no longer Christian. This can and does certainly happen. But I confess that conversation is not my main focus here. I want to think about a kind of translation that is applicable and faithful.
As I think about our rapidly advancing secular age, particularly in the so-called West, I wonder about the contemporary grounds out of which someone might convert to Christianity. If a Hindu in 19th-century India was to connect some of the yearnings and directions of their Hindu faith to what they came to understand in Christianity, what is the 21st-century corollary to this amongst rising generations who see much of American Christianity as a "spent force"? Amongst those for whom secular scientism is the order of the day? Within groups and subgroups that remain postmodern and diffuse? In a world where faith itself may indeed have a new meaning? What are patterns, yearnings, ideas, and beliefs that might connect with or lead to Christian conversion there?
I think that these questions are important, because they form the new basis of a culture to which our Christianity is called to speak. Bonhoeffer once famously wrote "What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today." In some ways, what I am asking is similar. I want to think about what we have with us, right now, that helps us understand who Jesus is right now.
A pious answer might simply say the Bible and the direct witness of the Spirit are all that is needed for this. I certainly do not deny that. God works in many ways. And yet: I think that if I am being honest, I know that the place from which we convert has significant influence on our conversion and the way we step into faith.
In contemporary American culture, a rising challenge for the Christian faith is the significant cultural discrediting it is facing. Christianity--especially in its evangelical varieties--is seen by many as backward, obscurantist, and opposed to that most lofty of American ideas, freedom. Paths have diverged--especially with the youngest generations now on the stage. I suspect that the pre-existing fields of generic faith in their hearts are not inclined to embrace Christian conversion as we have sometimes framed it. What they know or think they know of Christianity is, for them, simply not worth considering. A stark picture, true. But I think it is accurate for many.
This is not to say that contemporary Christianity is simply rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic. The story, I hope and pray, is not over. What is over, though, is the former default setting towards Christianity that many--even in the Baby Boomer generation--seem to have had. We now live in a different world, with different priorities of ways of viewing things. Different searches for truth, but searches for truth nonetheless.
And yet: if the person and message of Jesus Christ was able to connect with the religions and philosophies of the great societies of China and India in part on their terms, different as at times they might be, I believe too that there are ways in which we need to explore the connections between our new secular age and the Jesus Christ who is "the same yesterday and today and forever" (Hebrews 13:8).
This means, first and foremost, renewed understanding on the part of Christian believers. The things that people believe today are different than they did in the past. The way they see the world is different. What they long for is different, or at least expressed differently. If we fail to acknowledge this, we fail to respect them as they are and may miss opportunities to understand what connection Christ has to and for them.
So too all of this may necessitate a significant change, not in the essentials of the Christian faith, but in so many of the trappings with which it currently exists. It may mean a full rethinking of the modes and manners by which we communicate it. While it may not mean the most extreme ends of what some might interpret Bonhoeffer meaning by a new "religionless Christianity" in a world "come of age," but it certainly does connect to it.
For Christians in the 21st century United States, this may mean nothing less that a real dismantling and faithful reconstructing of the systems, approaches, and patterns we now have for the sake of the eternal truth of Christ and Christ's message to this time and place.