There was a funny scene in an otherwise forgettable movie (and that’s not so much a criticism as a confession that I actually can’t remember what it was) in which a couple of average white Americans pretending to be renowned Japanese scientists – complete with Japanese name tags – introduced themselves to someone who asked them the obvious question: “Aren’t you guys supposed to be Japanese?” Their immediate response was, “We converted.”
The idea of people “converting” is seen by most today as either comical in this sense (remember also the Seinfeld episode where a comedian converted to Judaism just so he could do Jew-related material?) or it is seen as distasteful. References to conversion, unless by genuinely religious followers, are either lighthearted in nature or negative and coming from a secular or left-leaning point of view. Critics suggest that attempts to “convert” people are somehow oppressive, and cynics maintain suspicion about people’s professed conversions. Today a prison inmate who has a religious conversion is as likely be scoffed at as he is applauded for his professed change of heart.
And whether you play the scoffer or the encourager may have a lot to do with where you stand. People tend to believe and appreciate conversions TO their way of thinking, while looking distastefully down their noses at conversions AWAY from their way of thinking. If you want to be a media darling today, then convert away from your conservative religious upbringing for some professed reason having to do with how your thinking ‘evolved’. But don’t go the other direction. When the late Oxford philosopher Antony Flew, after spending his illustrious scholarly career as a leading voice for academic atheism, changed his mind and decided that God most likely exists, the response from his former camp, according to Roy Varghese in the preface to Flew’s final book, “verged on hysteria. … Inane insults and juvenile caricatures were common in the freethinking blogosphere.”
Christians have always seen conversion as more than just a change of mind, more than the acceptance of a few key beliefs and a switching of allegiances, more even than the moral alteration that causes someone to behave differently. It involves all of this but more still. Because Christians believe that God is involved (to summarize the theology of conversion in the barest of terms), there is a decidedly supernatural element. Nevertheless conversion for Christians certainly includes a profession of belief that is specified such that it affirms some things to the exclusion of others. In the case of Flew, his was not a Christian conversion but a conversion in the looser sense of the term as people often use it; he changed positions on a very key issue that has far-reaching implications.
If we zero in on this important and obvious component of what conversion means, something will likely become obvious to us the more we think about it – namely that changing one’s mind, or professing x to be true (and, whether overtly or by logical implication, not x to be untrue), is a regular experience of life hardly unique one specific group of people. In fact it is completely non-controversial. Doesn’t everyone believe and profess certain things to be true? Hasn’t everyone at different times in life rejected beliefs or accepted beliefs, changed his or her thinking from belief that x is true to the belief that x is not true?
Furthermore, not only has everybody had changes of mind on different questions (mini-conversions of a limited sort), surely everyone has also sought to convince or persuade someone else to believe something. That too is just a normal part of being a human being. Consider for a moment just how much of life is dedicated to people attempting to influence and persuade others, using various means in hopes of bringing people around to a certain perspective or view. In comparatively trivial areas (sports, entertainment, food) as well as in serious areas (politics, ethics, big business) people are forever looking to get others to see something as true. It’s all around us all the time. Every ad campaign, every debate on issues of the day, in a million workplace environments, in courtrooms and across the internet, the desire to bring about a change in someone else’s thinking pervades the atmosphere.
And thing about this is: There’s nothing wrong with it. It is natural. It is what I expect if people truly believe the things they profess. If on any subject that you think matters you hold a view that you feel pretty strong about, why wouldn’t you make a case for it and work to show other people what you perceive and the reasons for your position? I sometimes hear someone say something like, “Well I have my views on that, but I don’t try to influence anyone else to believe them.” I’m always skeptical as to just how true that is, but if so I want to ask, “Why not? Surely you have some good reasons for your views, and maybe someone else would benefit from seeing what you see and understanding it the way you do.” If someone never makes any effort to defend anything he or she believes, I would have to wonder whether he or she really believes it, with what level of confidence, or if the subject is meaningful to him/her at all.
The tendency of so many today to be offended by someone’s attempt to convince them of something is a peculiar idiosyncrasy that says a lot more about our culture right now than it does the issue of religion or individual rights. While everyone is accustomed to the playbook of advertisers to persuade us, straightforward attempts to convince people when it comes to more significant beliefs is another matter. We are somehow less put off by the barrage of marketing gimmicks that constantly hound us than we are simple person-to-person attempts of people to influence other people’s religious views. The seemingly automatic reaction of Americans to someone’s effort to be persuasive along these lines is self-righteous revulsion: “How DARE you try to push your beliefs onto me?”
Christians can be as guilty of this as anyone else. I’ve heard way too many Christians brag about how they gave the Mormons or JWs at their doorstep the sanctified ‘what for’ & sent them off of their property. My response has always been to squash their celebration & tell them in plain terms that their reaction was wrong. Maybe you’re busy, I say. Maybe you’re not up for a lengthy discussion at the time. Whatever the circumstance, you are not allowed to feel offended or outraged that they would come with their literature and with the hope of convincing you. That is, again, just what I expect them to do if they really believe what they profess. I could make a case that you should feel offended if you have a devoutly (fill-in-the-blank) friend who does not make any effort to convert you.
During my years living in Utah I always told Mormons that I appreciated their desire and attempts to persuade me. I would tell them that I’m honored they would like to have me as a convert. The discussions that followed were a lot better once the potential element of personal offense was removed. I had cleared the ground of any notion that I was irritated that they wanted to convert me. They could relax about that and give it their best shot. And meanwhile I could hope to rely on the reciprocal benefit that they likewise need not be insulted that I was returning the favor in seeking to sway them the other way & explain that they had some important things wrong and should what I was aiming to show them. Naturally there were times that I was reminded of the unfortunate tendency of some people to apply different rules to themselves than they do other people and make the missionary effort a one-way street so that it’s wonderful and fine for them to try to convince you, but it’s mean and intolerant for you to try to convince them.
So to reiterate: the act of seeking to convert someone, particularly in the bare sense of just trying to persuade or convince him to believe a given thing, is a rather ordinary exercise. We all do it, and we should neither expect nor desire that this will change. It is good and proper that this common dialectic continue, since it is part of what makes socializing entertaining and stimulating. In a free society it allows people to heir points of view openly and allows competing opinions to clash.
That said, are all conversions equal? As the title of this post indicates, my answer to that echoes the emphatic phrase Paul used in Romans 6:2 to answer a different rhetorical question, that emphatic phrase being, depending on your translation preference, “Absolutely not”(NET, Holman), “God forbid” (KJV), “By no means” (ESV, NIV), “May it never be”(NASB), “Of course not” (NLT, ISV), “Heck no” (Redneck transl.), “Is you crazy?” (Ebonics transl.). “F’get about it” (Italian gangster transl.). So the last three I made up, but you get the point. And why is this? Why are they not equal if everybody who engages in the attempt to change people’s minds is doing something that should be considered OK and not offensive or wrong in any way?
The reasons not all conversions are equal are at least two: (1) Not every view / perspective / system of beliefs to which a person might convert is equal, and (2) not every method or means by which a person might convert is equal. The second of these I will save for a future follow-up post, but suffice it to say for now that some methods a person (or religious group or government) might use to convert people would be considered wrong. Unlike the method I was presupposing in my statement above about there being nothing offensive or controversial about people seeking to convert others, the alternative methods I’m thinking of (alternatives, that is, to simply persuading people with reasons) would indeed be controversial and offensive. But I will set this aside to deal with in Part Deux.
The first reason seems obvious enough. Imagine you had a 17 year old son who came home one day and said with enthusiastic zeal, “I have found a group I can belong to; I have joined a new community with a new cause to which I shall dedicate my life.” Would you simply applaud him before asking for specifics? I suspect you would not. Clearly your response hinges on what sort of group he has joined, and thus what cause he now plans to serve so fervently. Now some people are inclined toward a default relativism and might be tempted to say that so long as the young man is happy and has found something to believe in or something that gives him a sense of purpose, it doesn’t matter what it is. But to the one who says this I would ask: What if the group is the Aryan Nations and his new life purpose is advancing white power over the ‘inferior’ races? I doubt the professing relativist would stick to his original claim that it doesn’t matter.
The point is that conversion is only worth celebrating if someone transitions to something good and true. So if a man was formerly a brothel owner who trafficked in downtrodden women and then a transformation in his life has him repudiating all of that and becoming instead a fighter for the dignity and well-being of those women, we would no doubt give hearty support and encouragement to that kind of change. On the other hand, joining a hate group would not likely lead to rejoicing among people (except the ones in that hate group). The two young men whose bombs rocked the Boston marathon finish line were apparently recent converts in their own right. They were raised as Muslims, but they had become persuaded of late by a particular religious vision promulgated by a few extremists on the internet. Their change of mind, based on the indoctrination of those jihadists, converted the young brothers from mainstream Islam to a radicalism bent on targeting civilians for the sake of their new cause. This, I suspect, is not a conversion anybody outside of Al-Qaeda can be happy about.
So whatever your perspective, so long as those engaged in the practice of trying to convert other people are doing so by legitimate means, there should not be offense taken. Let no one confusedly taut a right not to have to hear any speech that seeks to persuade him or her. Christians shouldn’t act put upon and insulted when someone is trying to convince them of a different religion or philosophy. Secularists shouldn’t act as though it’s a civil rights violation when religious people of whatever kind hand out tracts, invite them to church, or just initiate a conversation about spiritual beliefs. Instead, the focus should be switched to the substance of what people are arguing for, and what kind of change of mind & heart is being solicited.
This is why last year, when a student of mine started ridiculing a strange religious group that was in a free-speech area of the campus engaging passersby in conversation (the student’s outraged criticism being the typical “Why don’t they just leave people alone?”, etc., as if it’s just so rude of them to bother people for 5 seconds as they pass), my response was, “Where are they?” and then after class I walked with the student to that area and began a friendly chat with the members of that group, which – if you must know – was the rather bizarre made-in-Korea cult called the Worldwide Mission Society Church of God, known to frequent college campuses.
What I hoped to do in going there with the offended student was to demonstrate to him that this group was not doing anything wrong or offensive in simply being there and soliciting potential new believers in their cause. My interest was not that they were seeking to talk to people in hopes of persuading and converting them. My interest was that of which they wanted to convince people, or that to which they aimed to convert strangers. In talking with them I was able to challenge a lot of what they said, while being civil and polite about it, and to make it clear that while I come from a tradition that believes in persuading people and in conversion, the difference is in the beliefs, the interpretation, the overall worldview. That makes all the difference. It is a major reason why even though all people are equal in worth and share an equal liberty to express themselves and look to convert people to their way of thinking, nevertheless their views on the most important questions differ widely and cannot all be true; thus not all conversions are equal.