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Conversion, III (Psychology of)


There has been a twofold movement in the psychology of conversion in recent decades: psychologists, primarily social psychologists, have continued to study the phenomenon of conversion, and theologians interested in conversion have begun to study psychology, primarily developmental psychology.

Social psychological studies on conversion have largely limited their scope to examining conversions which resulted in a change in religious identity, defined to include both radical change in one's self and change in one's professed religion, and have, in fact, often utilized a separate term, "intensification," for cases involving a new level of commitment to the religion in which one was born. Further, much of the research in the first half of the twentieth century centered on conversion as experienced in North American Protestantism, and much research in recent years has examined conversions into and out of new religious movements, sometimes called sects or cults.

Examination of such research in light of the nine-cell matrix of types and levels of conversion suggested above (see conversion, ii [theology of]) reveals that type one, intellectual conversion, and level three, evolutionary conversion, will remain largely unobserved by these studies, as they fall outside of their definition of conversion. Further, the line between fundamental and revolutionary conversions will tend to escape notice on methodological criteria, since it would be difficult to establish empirical criteria for determining whether converts were basing their lives on values or were in love with the Mystery prior to their conversion processes. Even the distinction between moral and religious conversions will most frequently be blurred, leaving a single, undifferentiated phenomenon called simply "conversion" as the object of study.

Nonetheless, if these limitations are kept in mind, research done by sociologists and psychologists of religion can have considerable value in creating an interdisciplinary understanding of conversion in the broader sense in which the term is used in the contemporary Catholic tradition. Theologians studying conversion, as well as church leaders trying to plan effective evangelization and RCIA programs, for example, should take note of studies of the different characteristics of sudden and gradual conversions, of the interplay between change of belief and change of behavior in the conversion process, of the roles of social networks and advocates, and of the importance of helping an aspirant develop a master attribution scheme consonant with their new religious identity.

The second approach to the psychology of conversion in recent decades has been an effort to explore conversion in light of the insights of developmental psychology. The works of Piaget, Erikson, Kohlberg, Fowler, and Kegan, in particular, have been examined for their implications for religious development. An outline of religious development has been worked out, and the major transitions in that developmental process have been labeled "conversions."

A representative schema of this sort (Conn, 1986,37) correlates moral conversion with Piaget's formal operations, Erikson's Identity stage, Kohlberg's conventional stages, Fowler's Synthetic-conventional stage, and Kegan's Interpersonal and Institutional stages. This correlation, if accepted, suggests that the earliest likely opportunity for a moral conversion, a decision to base one's life on value rather than satisfaction, occurs sometime during adolescence. This correlation would have explanatory value. For instance, it suggests that the reported age for the average evangelical "conversion experience," 15, invites us to understand this experience as perhaps primarily a conversion from satisfaction ("sin") to value ("God"). It would also have prescriptive value. For instance, religious education for pre-adolescents may well stress the content of moral norms, but the invitation to personally appropriate these norms rather than just follow them as laws would best be made a goal of programs for adolescents.

In the course of this work, more kinds of conversions have been proposed than Lonergan's intellectual, moral, and religious. An affective conversion is commonly added, and the moral and religious conversions are sometimes divided into moral and critical-moral and religious and critical-religious conversions, respectively. Further, there is as yet no agreement among authors about precisely how to correlate the stages outlined by the various developmentalists with the proposed schema of conversions. More research, both theoretical and experimental, is clearly needed.

In seeking to place the results of the work thus far in a context of Lonergan's original three-fold distinction of conversions, recourse to the nine-cell matrix of kinds and levels of conversion outlined in the previous article may serve a heuristic function. For instance, "moral conversion" can be seen as fundamental moral conversion, and "critical-moral conversion" can be seen as a species of revolutionary moral conversion.

As another example, "Religious conversion," variously placed by different authors as early as Kohlberg's Conventional stages and as late as his seventh, or Religious, stage, (corresponding to Erikson's final, Integrity stage), can be seen in either case as the capstone variety of revolutionary religious conversion, not to be equated with fundamental religious conversion. After all, if fundamental religious conversion can be equated by Lonergan with operative grace, surely that cannot be said to be usually absent before the mature years. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense to envision a final, radical gift of self and acceptance of God's love, yielding a radically new horizon for the summing up and handing over of one's life, as the culminating result of a life founded on a much earlier gift of love, lived out through one or more previous revolutionary conversions and a lifetime of evolutionary conversion.

Bibliography: m. c. boys, "Conversion as a Foundation of Religious Education," Religious Education 57 (1982) 211224. j.w. conn and w. e. conn, "Discerning Conversion," The Way Supplement, 64 (1989) 6379. r. w. hood, b. spilka, b. hunsberger, and r. gorsuch, The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach (New York 1996). b. spilka and b. mcintosh, eds., The Psychology of Religion: Theoretical Approaches (Boulder 1997).

[r. t. lawrence]

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