“Converstionism.” This is one of the few marks of Evangelicalism spoken of by Evangelical historian Mark Noll. Evangelicals believe that people must experience a sincere personal conversion to Jesus Christ. This is a hallmark of Christianity—to be a convert.
Please understand that what follows in no way detracts from this. Conversionism is essential to Evangelicalism. What follows serves as a warning about the dangers that often exist as a person’s conversion from any position to another interacts with their witness and theological integrity.
I was in a spiritual conversation with a gentleman the other day. At times, the conversation became heated. I don’t mind heated conversation or debate so long as it is respectful, honest, and intentional. At one point in the conversation, the gentleman accused me of not being able to see outside of my “Evangelical lenses” that tainted my ability to accept the truth—his version of it of course.
Did you get that. Let me pause and for a bit of repetition. He believed I could not understand because (let me paraphrase):
“You cannot see outside of your Evangelical tainted lenses!!!”
Ouch! And what lenses are you wearing?
“None. I am a postmodern. We are the only ones that don’t wear lenses.”
Interesting. Can I have a pair of those?
It seems that this is becoming increasingly common. In fact, it has happened to me three times in the last few weeks (which is why I bring it up here). The assumption is that one is not a careful thinker because they already believe according to a certain tradition. And you know what that means: it is not you believing, but your tradition believing for you.
Isn’t this odd? One cannot see the truth so long as he already thinks he has the truth, but once he does not think he has the truth, he can finally see the truth? While I do believe that there is a hint of truth to this, it can and is often taken to a self-referentially absured extreme. As well, many of us in the postmodern world like to use it as conversation stoppers when we lack any other recourse. When in doubt and you have no answer, just say this: “You cannot see because your committment perspective blinds you.”
In each of these cases spoken of above, the accuser, interestingly, was a convert from Evangelicalism. None of them were atheists. In fact, all were still Christians (usually of the emerging variety). One thing was clear: they did not like Evangelicalism. They were bitter about its former promises by which they now believe themselves to have been misled.
The problem is that the supposed objectivity that they think they have attained has become their master. They fail to realize that their conversion, irregardless of its justification, may have actually tainted their view more. They have fooled themselves into thinking that to take off the sunglasses of their former perspective means that they are wearing no sunglasses at all.
In reality, we all wear sunglasses that taints our individual perspective. There is no real option that allows us to see things perfectly, the way they really are.
From what I have seen, converts are sometimes the most unable to see things with a balanced perspective. Because of their belief that their previous faith commitments betrayed them, they approach issues as “enlightened” warriors against those former allegiances. The problem is that they normally wear their bitterness on their sleeve and this further taints the glasses that they think they are not wearing.
The issue is not so much about right or wrong, but about being able to think with integrity. It may involve converting from atheism to Christianity, Christianity to atheism, Evangelical to emerging, Arminianism to Calvinism, or a belief in inerrancy to a denial of inerrancy. I have seen this militant conversion attitude much with regard to former dispensationalists who were “delivered” from the “lies” of the dispensationalism. It is interesting to see their attitude. They often have an absolute dismissive spirit toward any argument that is put forth for dispensationalism. “Oh, I took off those glasses. In fact, I smashed them on the ground. You should too.” But what glasses did you put on after you took these off? “The glasses of truth.” Oh, that is nice. Was there nothing good about the old ones? Can they not still contribute to your understanding in any way at all? At all? Are they completely invaluable? Completely? Is everyone wearing them as a duped idiot? Everyone? That is the way you make it sound since your enlightenment.
Calvinists who convert from Arminianism are also good examples. I am sad to say that we can be the most imbalanced of all. Suddenly, Arminians are absolute losers with regard to theological integrity. All things Arminian are not far from all things Satan. Many of these converts make it their life’s goal to correct the error of Arminianism. And they think they are the most qualified to do so because they used to be one!
I have also seen this attitude quite a bit from former Roman Catholics. These newly enlightened Protestants have a mission of hatred. If this mission converts others, great. But the mission of hatred must go on either way. Misrepresentation, ironically, abounds in these circumstances. They feel as if being a convert gives them a pass to say anything they want. “Don’t tell me what they believe, I used to be one!”
To the credit of Roman Catholics, from my experience, I have seen much balance and grace from converts to their tradition from Protestantism. From what I have seen, they don’t exchange their Protestant glasses for anti-Protestant glasses. They retain an appreciation for their former tradition. Most specifically, I think of the prolific conversions of Francis Beckwith, Scott Hahn, and Peter Kreeft. (Note: this is from my experience. I realize that you may have experienced things differently.)
What I am trying to say is that when one converts from on tradition to another, this does not necessarily mean they can speak objectively about the issues. In fact, they often exchange one pair of glasses for its antonymous rival with a special feature of non-appreciation, hatred, and misrepresentation.
I think that we all need to recognize the glasses we wear. We also need to see that when we set down one pair, we always pick up another. There is no objective observer. The emerger of all people ought to know this! This does not discount our ability to discover truth, but it does help us to be more productive, balanced, and realistic in our discoveries.
With regard to converts—especially those from Evangelicalism to some form of emerging: I don’t challenge the legitimacy of any conversion here (that is not my purpose), but I do challenge you to understand that sometimes your conversion can work against your influence. Why? Because it is easy to lose perspective. When I see an emerger who has converted from Evangelicalism and has what seems to be a passionate hatred for Evangelicalism, I tune them out. I can’t help it. Imbalance is something that I have little toleration for. Was Evangelicalism that bad? Aren’t there any good qualities that you still appreciate? Are you working to redeem it or destroy it? Was it that easy to move from love to hate?
If the often said definition of an Evangelical is simply a “nice fundamentalist,” I am afraid the definition of an emerger is quickly becoming an “embittered Evangelical.” No, it is not that simple. And yes, it is sometimes that simple.
- We need to recognize the relative merits of the various positions.
- We also need to understand that sometimes conversion does not have to be absolute.
- Sometimes things are not an either/or, but a both/and.
- Either way, converts need to convert with thoughtfulness, making the most of their experience and the way it might be used to further the kingdom of God.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]