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Posted By Subaltern Queer

Evangelical Conversion
What Is Conversion?

I've been thinking a good deal about conversion therapy and the Nazis recently. I promise I'll get to that. But, for the moment, I want to consider the notion of conversion. What does it mean to 'convert' to something? We usually think of conversion as something 'religious', but there is no reason why it needs to be religious in nature. One could easily have a political conversion (become a Trump supporter), economic conversion (give up Keynesianism economics for Milton Friedmanism), or philosophical conversion (become analytic).

In both ancient Greek thought and the New Testament, we have the idea of metanoia. While this is usually translated as 'repentance', it means a radical change of 'mind' (nous), though we often speak of a change of 'heart'. It is a reorientation of oneself. While we most associate this idea with Christianity, it was also prevalent in other 'competing' philosophies of the time (as Pierre Hadot makes clear in Philosophy as a Way of Life).

The OED gives a rather surprising definition of conversion that goes as follows: "the action of (illegally) converting or applying something to one's own use." The example given is: "a person is guilty of a conversion who takes the property of one person by assignment from another, who has not any authority to dispose of it." I have never thought of conversion in this sense before. In effect, one takes that which does not belong to one and makes it one's own--on the supposed authority of someone who actually has no authority to permit such 'conversino'. Hold on to that thought for a moment. We'll get back to it.

The definition labeled 'theology' is: "the turning of sinners to God; a spiritual change from sinfulness, ungodliness, or worldliness to love of God and pursuit of holiness." The editors of the OED insist that their job is purely descriptive--they are merely describing how people use words, not how they should use them. But do you see the black-and-white choice portrayed here? You can stay in sinfulness and worldliness. Or you can turn to loving God. Those are your two options.

I've included the cartoon not merely because I find it humorous but also because it makes clear that a central issue in conversion is marketing. The people at the door have a product to sell. You might respond: "but the grace of God is a free gift!" It may be a gift; but it requires your soul. Christianity drives a hard bargain.

On the other hand, the competing story of Faust has many versions. One is that Johann Faust lost interest in divine things and lusted after worldly knowledge. The version told by Goethe has Mephistopheles offer Faust true happiness in exchange for his soul (Faust is only saved at the last minute by the Virgin Mary). Thomas Mann's version has the composer Adrian Leverkühn bargain for twenty-four years of brilliant composing and acclaim, followed by an agonizing death from syphilis in 1940--a metaphor for the death of the German soul.

The Christian story is about giving up sinfulness and turning to God; the Faustian story is the same story but told in reverse. Are we condemned to just two stories? I don't think so. While the world in which the bad people all wear black hats is comforting (and, alas, racist), these stories are told precisely because actual life is so much more complex. We like stories in which the good people triumph. But reality is very mixed up. It is interesting to me that, when Jesus' disciples complain to him that there are people casting out demons in his name, his nonchalant response is that they cannot be both against and for him at the same time. In other words, "don't worry about them." That kind of response evidences nuance and complexity.

In contrast, let me provide an account of simplistic thinking that well captures the problem. Richard Dawkins writes: "If you feel trapped in the religion of your upbringing, it would be worth asking yourself how this came about. The answer is usually some form of childhood indoctrination. If you are religious at all it is overwhelmingly probable that your religion is that of your parents. If you were born in Arkansas and you think Christianity is true and Islam false, knowing full well that you would think the opposite if you had been born in Afghanistan, you are the victim of childhood indoctrination."

Oh, Dicky Dawkins, what are we to do with such nonsense? First, picking on people from Arkansas is such a cheap shot, against Arkansians, the American south, and the US in general. You are doing what some Brits do so well: bully people. Do they offer some sort of Oxbridge course on bullying? I do admit that people like yourself are really superior when it comes to bullying; I doff my cap to you, Sir. Second, your bit about 'childhood indoctrination' is not quite as simple as you make it out to be. Would it not be possible that someone might be born to Oxonian fundamentalists? What about being the child of Arkansian atheists? The difficulty here is that child are 'taught' various things. There is no possible world in which children can be raised without teaching them things. We can call this 'indoctrination'--if we don't like what they are being taught. But is it 'indoctrination' to teach a child about climate change? Because raising a child to be either a climate-change denier or a climate-change affirmer sounds like indoctrination on your view.

Those of you in the front row who are now raising your hands know what's coming next. Dicky is engaging in what philosophers call the 'genetic fallacy', in which something is discredited precisely because of its origin rather than its truth value. And the really smart kids in the class also realize the next point: that the genetic thesis may itself have been taught to us by our parents, which would discredit the whole thing. 

It's difficult to know what to do with supposedly smart people who engage in simplistic thinking. One would think they would be able to see through such shallowness. Alas, we are often unable to see our own limitations.

Let's go back to the definition of conversion as taking something and making it one's own on the basis of a false authority. With some fear and trembling, I must say that I find so many 'versions' of religion to be exactly this: making something one's own by twisting ideas while thinking that one has been 'authorized' to do this in the name of God. The worst abuse that I have suffered has always been in the name of Jesus. The Provost of Wheaton College, Stanton Jones, began the meetings of his witchhunt against fags like me with a prayer about how much we care for our brother Bruce. My lawyer, who had attended St Olaf College and thought he understood 'Christian' colleges, remarked that, of all his dealings with people in the business world, the treatment that I received from Wheaton College was far and away the worst he had ever seen. But, as I pointed out to him, if you have twisted religious belief into a form that can be used as a cudgel against the people you deem to be 'sinners', you are free to do anything. Everything is not just permitted but required if you are doing God's will. 

Let me close with a quotation from that CIA 'homo' memo: "The homosexual is a complex, intelligent, interesting, and mixed-up individual." If you think about the training of CIA agents, it is pretty black and white in nature. There are the good guys (Americans), the somewhat OK guys (Brits, maybe some French and Germans), and then the commies, socialists, and feminists. There's not much complexity there. See why gays are bad? They're 'complex'. They're also 'mixed-up'. But I wonder if being complex ends up seeming like being mixed-up to people who can only view the world in narrow categories.


4 Comment(s):
BEB said...
Hey Samir, what an excellent point! Conversion may be simply a name-change, not a reality change. I think virtually all conversion therapy is simply about thinking rather than about reality. But, in y own experience, that change of thinking is really dangerous. One comes to 'hate' oneself and 'think' that one has been converted. But, really, the only thing that has changed is how one thinks about oneself. The underlying reality has not changed.
May 28, 2020 07:26:30
BEB said...
First, Joshua, let me say that I appreciate what you've said about picking and choosing. You suggest that sexual ethics and alcohol are common targets because they are viscerally salient. I think that's correct. Sex is frightening. It's one of the most basic aspects of existence (not just human, I should add), but it is really a kind of mystery. Realizing that the soul is a mystery (really, for that matter, so is the body) should make us 'reverent' as Chesterton puts it. You mention that lots of things could go wrong. Aristotle talks of the mean as being easy to miss and very hard to hit. In other words, things are more likely to go wrong than right. My guess is that, regarding alcohol for instance, is that it is a very simple gauge of 'spirituality'--you either drink or you don't. Lust or envy or greed are much more difficult to spot and certainly impossible to measure.
May 28, 2020 07:22:54
Joshua said...
Christians in particular seem to be very good at picking and choosing the areas of life they need to challenge other people on in order to convert them. Sexual ethics and stuff like alcohol seem like some of the most common targets for us, maybe because they are 'visible' or viscerally salient? Sex quickly becomes one of those rules by which people say 'you will be a good Christian if you fix this part of your life'. But I wonder how many of us would be willing to challenge ourselves on less 'visible' parts of who we are? I really like the description of charity given by Chesterton, which is of "a reverent agnosticism towards the complexity of the soul". Being agnostic as to another person's salvation should encourage you to treat them as carefully and as lovingly as possible. I say should - lots of ways this could go wrong! (as it did even with Chesterton himself)
May 28, 2020 01:30:37
Samir El Mouti said...
Conversion is rather like taking an old label and replacing with another. The essence will be still there for a convert. Very often when you hear that someone being refereed to as Christian convert not Christian, Muslim convert not Muslim. When conversion happens, what might change is the belief, religious practice, but not identity, and that probably what makes conversion to Judaism very complicated: you start practising Judaism but one never becomes a Jew. This idea can be applied to conversion therapy: some of those who claim conversion therapy turned them into straights are just confused between behaviour and identity and have not understanding of the complexity of human sexual identity.
May 27, 2020 12:50:10
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