Conversion, II (Theology of)
CONVERSION, II (THEOLOGY OF)
Conversion is a word with a variety of meanings. For most Catholics, the word "conversion" means first and foremost "change of religious affiliation," and "convert" is primarily a noun, designating someone who joined the Catholic church as an adult, either from some other Christian denomination, or from some other religion, or from no religion at all. For many Protestants, especially evangelicals, conversion means first and foremost "experience of redemption from sin," and convert is primarily a verb, usually in the past tense and passive voice, describing a personal experience of "having been converted" at a particular point in their lives when they "first accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior." For social scientists of religion, conversion is a psychological experience of dramatic religious change, usually involving both a change of religious attitude and of religious affiliation, to be studied and accounted for.
To understand the variety of ways the word "conversion" is used, and to begin to account for conversion in a coherent and comprehensive theology of conversion, some distinctions need to be made. One may profitably distinguish both a series of kinds of conversion, and a series of levels of conversion.
The most important Catholic theologian for the theology of conversion in the last half of the 20th century was Bernard lonergan, S.J. (1904–84). For Lonergan, all conversion is an experience of self-transcendence resulting in a shift of one's point of view, or horizon, which defines the sweep of one's knowledge and interests. In his Method in Theology, he distinguishes three kinds of conversion: intellectual, moral, and religious.
Intellectual conversion is the radical change in my intellectual horizon when I move from the world of immediacy, or perceptions, to the world as mediated by meaning, as revealed to me in the processes of experiencing, understanding, judging, and believing.
Moral conversion is the radical change of my criteria for decision making from satisfactions to values. This conversion enables me to rise above asking "Is this good for me here and now?" i.e., immediate satisfaction, and even above asking "Is this good for me in the long run?" i.e., delayed gratification, to ask "Is this good?" and to choose for value even against satisfaction when value and satisfaction conflict.
Religious conversion Lonergan defines as "being grasped by ultimate concern. It is other-worldly falling in love. It is total and permanent self-surrender without conditions, qualifications, reservations." This definition of religious conversion is very similar to the definition of conversion given by Karl rahner, S.J.: "the voluntary acceptance of a fundamental religious experience of the inescapable orientation of man toward the mystery which we call God." Lonergan notes that religious conversion is the same reality called in Catholic theological tradition since Augustine "operative" or "sanctifying" grace, the replacement by God in us of a heart of stone with a heart of flesh.
Lonergan suggests that both theory and experience testify that these three kinds of conversion are independent, in that they can occur separately. One can be a brilliant scholar or scientist and a despicable human being at the same time, and a person of great integrity of values can be intellectually naïve. Similarly, an atheist can nonetheless be a person thoroughly devoted to both truth and value. The paradigmatic case, however, is for moral conversion to sublate (i.e., to include, preserve, and carry forward into a new and richer context) intellectual conversion, and for religious conversion to sublate both.
In fact, Lonergan suggests, while the order of explanation is intellectual, moral, and religious, from a causal
viewpoint the order is properly the reverse: the gift to us of God's love reveals values to us in their splendor, and enables us to embrace them, and this in turn includes the value of truth.
Such a definition of religious conversion is surely much more fundamental than the decision to change religious affiliation or the description of an emotionally intense religious experience. Still, even this definition is in itself not adequate to make sense of all the uses of the word "conversion" in the Catholic tradition. If religious conversion can be equated to the gift of sanctifying grace, what are we to make of the tradition of calling monastic profession "second conversion," or of the call made by recent popes in various contexts for "continuing conversion"? To situate such uses of the word "conversion," we need to distinguish various levels of conversion.
All conversions, intellectual, moral, or religious, can be fruitfully distinguished on three levels, fundamental, revolutionary, and evolutionary.
Fundamental, or initial, conversion is the foundational act of self-transcendence that opens one up to the reality beyond the self as an object of knowledge, value, or love. Such a conversion creates a horizon. Revolutionary, or subsequent, conversion is a vertical act of selftranscendence that opens one up to a fuller reality beyond the self. Such a conversion creates a new horizon. Evolutionary, or continuing, conversion is an ongoing act of self-transcendence that explores this new or fuller reality. Such a conversion maintains and broadens a horizon, and works out the consequences of living in this new horizon.
Characterizing a given conversion both by its kind and by its level creates a nine-cell matrix that can serve as a convenient heuristic structure for sorting out the various uses of the word "conversion" in theological, psychological, and even popular literature.
Foundational intellectual conversion occurs when a person first realizes that things are not what they seem to be, and that therefore knowing is not like seeing, but has structures and methods and a discipline of its own that must be adhered to if real knowledge is to be gained. The obligations to be attentive, be intelligent, and be reasonable are assumed by the knower, as Lonergan explains in Insight.
Revolutionary intellectual conversion occurs when an already responsible knower encounters a new intellectual perspective, a new framework that not only provides new answers, but asks new questions from a new point of view. Such a new intellectual horizon is the result of a vertical leap in intellectual self-transcendence that, while not as dramatic a change as fundamental intellectual conversion (which it in fact requires as a prerequisite), nonetheless deserves to be called a conversion. Revolutionary intellectual conversion is what is described in detail by T. S. Kuhn as a "paradigm shift." In physical science, an example would be the shift from Newtonian physics to quantum mechanics. In Catholic theology, an example would be the shift from the literal way of reading of Scripture that characterized the Pontifical Biblical Commission decisions of the early years of the 20th century to the critical way of reading that characterizes Vatican II's Dei Verbum.
Evolutionary intellectual conversion is the ongoing process of living up to the demands of the foundational and revolutionary conversions. Lonergan describes this when he talks about the need to identify and root out the individual, group, and general bias that can interfere with the process of knowing. Such biases are rarely completely obvious, and even more rarely totally eradicated, so this remains a lifelong process both for the individual and for the intellectual community. If even Einstein could refuse to accept the intellectual consequences of quantum mechanical theory because he could not believe that God shot dice with the universe, lesser mortals would be well advised not to neglect the task of ongoing intellectual conversion.
Fundamental moral conversion occurs when a person first realizes that satisfaction is not the same as value, that something can be a value in itself even when it is not a source of immediate or even delayed satisfaction to him, and chooses to base his actions on value rather than on satisfaction. This is sometimes called by moralists the "fundamental option." Since the maturity necessary to distinguish between satisfaction and value is rarely achieved until sometime in middle to late adolescence, fundamental moral conversion is frequently experienced at this time, often in a religious context.
Revolutionary moral conversion is a vertical leap in moral self-transcendence that results in a new moral horizon. Such a new moral paradigm results, for example, when a person passes from a conventional moral framework, where the moral norms laid down by his or her society are uncritically accepted as values, to a postconventional moral framework, where these norms themselves are critically examined for bias and error, and where necessary rejected on the authority of conscience. A similar shift in moral paradigm results when a person passes from a strictly individual sense of morality to a moral framework that includes the social, economic, and political dimensions of our common existence. The move of Leo XIII to broaden the traditional notion of justice to include distributive as well as commutative justice, and the subsequent move of John Paul II to include contributive justice as well, represent revolutionary moral conversions in the Catholic community as a whole.
Evolutionary moral conversion is perhaps the one cell of this nine-cell matrix that most people are most familiar with in their lives, and perhaps most identify with being a good person: the everyday struggle to listen to the demands of reality and the values it presents instead of giving in to the easy temptation to choose satisfaction and call it value. If intellectual bias is insidious, moral bias is even more so. Calls to "continuing conversion" are often largely, if not exclusively, directed at this kind of ongoing moral conversion.
Fundamental religious conversion is the unconditional falling in love of which Lonergan spoke, the surrender to our inescapable orientation toward the mystery we call God of which Rahner spoke. It is experienced as gift, given us from without and yet freely accepted from within. It can also be spoken of as "operative" or "sanctifying" grace, or as gratia increata. This gift fundamentally reorients a person as a person unconditionally in love. This is the fundamental gift that empowers and sublates the fundamental option. Because this fundamental conversion is transcendental rather than thematic (to use Rahner's distinction between the two), it will not always occur in a recognizably religious context. It is this possibility of being in love with God without even knowing God explicitly, or even knowing that God exists, that creates the possibility for what an older theology called "baptism of desire," what Rahner called "anonymous christianity," and what is addressed by theologians under the rubric of Christianity and World Religions.
Revolutionary religious conversion is a vertical leap of self-transcendence that opens up a new horizon in one's relationship with the Absolute Mystery. This may be experienced primarily in terms of the Mystery, or primarily in terms of the relationship. A new horizon on the Mystery occurs when a person comes to a radically new experience of Who God is. A new image of God is frequently accompanied by a new self-image, a new religious community of reference, a new belief system, a new symbol system, a new form of spirituality. A person, for example, who was in love with a God seen primarily as the maker and enforcer of cosmic and moral law, and who comes to share in Jesus' experience of God as Abba, is undergoing a revolutionary religious conversion of this sort. A new horizon on the relationship occurs for a person who experiences the same God, but in a radically new way or with a radically different level of intensity. The three levels of monastic conversion found in john cli macus's Ladder of Divine Ascent, as explained by J. R. Price, are examples of revolutionary religious conversion of this sort, and each enables and is implemented by subsequent further intellectual and moral conversions.
Evolutionary religious conversion is the ongoing task of growing into the relationship to the Absolute established by fundamental and revolutionary religious conversion. Evolutionary religious conversion is the fruit of what Augustine called cooperative grace, and what later medieval theology called actual grace, the gradual movement toward a complete transformation of one's being and living. Greek theology calls this process theosis, literally, the process of divinization. As this process occurs, it will, at least in the paradigmatic case, both sublate and work itself out in intellectual and moral evolutionary conversion, gradually producing the whole human being, fully alive, whom Augustine called the glory of God. This is continuing conversion in its fullest form.
An understanding of the three kinds and three levels of conversion can help, not only to make sense of the various ways in which the word "conversion" is used by various authors and in various contexts, but also to diagnose and prescribe for our own conversion needs and those of others.
Such an understanding underlies, for example, the approach of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) developed since Vatican II and the new emphasis on ongoing adult religious education and formation in the Catholic Church. When conversion meant simply "becoming Catholic," the conversion process was essentially a one-size fits all phenomenon: the new "convert" studied the catechism under the tutelage of the parish priest until the latter was satisfied that enough doctrine had been learned and enough loyalty demonstrated, and then the new member was baptized, or "baptized conditionally" if previously baptized in some other denomination. Once people were received into the church, or after graduation from Catholic school if born into the church, it was assumed that they were fully prepared for life as good Catholics, and no further education or formation was deemed necessary for laypeople.
Today it is incumbent upon the ministers (priests, deacons, and lay catechists) conducting the RCIA and preparing a parish strategy for ongoing adult formation to assess the conversion status and conversion needs of each aspirant as an individual and of a parish as a whole. One seeker exploring the catechumenate may be a thoroughgoing American consumerist, whose life, dominated by the accumulation of things, has seemed emptier and emptier as his closets have gotten fuller and fuller, and who is seeking, perhaps rather vaguely, for some more enduring source of satisfaction. Such a person is in need of fundamental moral and religious conversion. The goals of the catechumenate for him will be to experience value as superior to satisfaction, and to abandon self-centeredness and fall in love with God.
A second aspirant may have already embraced a moral life based on value, and fallen in love with the Mystery, but have never seen the Mystery as a reality not less than personal, capable of infinite, personal loving as well as of being loved. Her moral conversion may only be evolutionary, but her religious conversion will be revolutionary. The goal of the catechumenate for her will be to experience the God of Jesus, to fall in love with that God, and to root herself in the community of faith that shares that love.
Still a third aspirant may have already experienced and fallen in love with Jesus' God, and been baptized and catechized in another Christian communion of a fundamentalist persuasion, but now finds himself drawn to the life of Word and Sacrament as these are lived in the local Catholic Church. Such a person is not a catechumen at all, but a candidate for full communion with the Church. The RCIA dictates that his baptism, and the fundamental conversion that first brought him to the font, be respected, not repeated. In the intellectual sphere, he may need to achieve a revolutionary conversion, learning the Catholic way of reading and interpreting scripture. But in the area of religious conversion, he needs probably only an evolutionary conversion, opening him up more and more to the fullness of Christian spiritual growth in our tradition.
A complacently middle-class parish may have a collective need for revolutionary moral conversion that becomes the highest priority in that parish's pastoral plan, in order to bring them to see the social, economic, and political dimensions of Christian morality. A parish in which most of the parishioners have deep roots in the Bible may have a greater need for evolutionary intellectual and religious conversion, which the parish will meet with a series of Bible study programs that helps them read and pray the Bible in a way that combines modern scholarship and traditional devotion.
Every person is different, and every community is different, at different levels of different kinds of conversion. Attention to these differences will be well repaid in pastoral practice as well as in understanding the literature on conversion.
Bibliography: w. j. conn, ed., Conversion: Perspectives on Personal and Social Transformation (New York 1978). w. j. conn, Christian Conversion (New York 1986). v. gregson, The Desires of the Human Heart (New York 1988). s. happel and j. walter, Conversion and Discipleship (Philadelphia 1986). john paul ii, "Ecclesia in America," Origins 27:28 (February 1999). b. lonergan, Method in Theology (New York 1972). j. m. mcdermott, "Tensions in Lonergan's Theory of Conversion," Gregorianum 74:1 (1993) 101–140. j. r. price, "Conversion and the Doctrine of Grace in Bernard Lonergan and John Climacus," Anglican Theological Review 62:4 (1980) 338–362. a. veilleux, "The Monastic Way of Conversion," American Benedictine Review 37:1 (1986) 34–45.
[r. t. lawrence]
"Conversion, II (Theology of)." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 12, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/conversion-ii-theology
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