20: Conversion

Compass

Conversion is an all-too-uncommon experience in our age of enlightened skepticism and easy religion. The skeptic is apt to consider a conversion experience delusional, for it (or any human experience whatever) cannot be observed through scientific means and so cannot be said to truly exist. For the religious atheist, on the other hand, the phenomenon of conversion is supplanted by the notion of a kind of software update where beliefs and behaviors are changed but that’s about it. However, conversion is much more profound and precarious than either of these attitudes may attest.

The Impossible™ Conversion

The answer to the skeptical denial of genuine conversion experiences is simply the occurrence of such experience, so I won’t waste any time trying to induce one in skeptical readers. The “software update” model of conversion, however, substitutes something that looks like conversion for the real deal and treats the two as if they’re the same. We can call such conversions Impossible™ Conversions in honor of everyone’s favorite soy burger. [1]

The Impossible™ Conversion is what most people generally think of when they think of the idea of conversion: a change in beliefs and behaviors achieved by accepting some dogma or other. For instance, when someone converts to a new religion, this is taken to mean that they have a new belief system that they will subsequently act in conformance with, if they are consistent, anyway. Often, this means going from “not believing in God” to “believing in God”, or from believing in some god(s) to believing in some other god(s).

In accordance with our age’s fetish for propositions, new believers take their belief in terms of a statement about reality that may be true or false. Previously they thought some proposition was false, now they believe it is true and we say they “believe” it is true because the particular proposition(s) cannot be demonstrated using rigorous methods.

In other words, belief is a matter of procedural dogma devoid of any spiritual or even human import, not unlike a software patch for a program that changes how it behaves when you run it. It would do no injustice to the machine to say that when it receives an update it changes its beliefs about what it should do under certain conditions. Injustice would be done, however, to a human being for thinking about him or her in the same manner.

Accordingly, the Impossible™ Conversion, like its gustatory analog, is an oxymoronic euphemism. It is not really a conversion, but a mock conversion treated as if it were real. What is “impossible” is that the event is considered both a conversion and not a conversion at the same time, in the same way an Impossible™ Burger is treated as a hamburger while at the same time not actually being a hamburger. In each case, we play pretend.

For one who’s never experienced conversion, an Impossible™ Conversion may seem to pass for the same experience. However, as we shall see, the essence of conversion has little to do with beliefs, propositions, or software updates, and everything to do with orientation.

Turn Turn Turn

To better understand the phenomenon of conversion, we need look no further than the word itself. The word conversion is composed of the Latin con-, meaning “with” or “together”, and vertere, meaning “to turn”. Accordingly, we see that conversion principally consists in “turning with” something or other. But what does it mean to turn?

Similar to the phenomenon of permission, conversion is a concrete transformation of the way we exist in the world. However, where permission makes possible possibilities into actual possibilities through the permissive grant, conversion opens previously inaccessible possibilities through a shift in orientation.

That is, in conversion we “turn with” that which now orients our being. The “with” indicates that conversion is not a uniliteral act of will, but an event wherein one undergoes as much as one undertakes. The convert is converted even as they convert, willing “with” the turning that has come upon them. Conversion thus consists in an event that is not the product of volition, yet is nonetheless affirmed in the very moment of its occurrence.

Accordingly, conversion cannot be compelled and, in religious terms, is always a matter of grace [2] beyond the capacity of humanity to effect for itself. This reveals just how profound is the split between the Impossible™ Conversion and conversion proper: the former can be executed volitionally with the same reliability as a software update, while the latter cannot be predicted or done on command. [3]

What, then, is at stake in a conversion event? Nothing less than a transformation of the totality of possibilities open to the one undergoing the conversion. Through conversion, one finds oneself in a new situation even though the world around one remains materially unchanged. A rock is still a rock, McDonald’s still serves hamburgers, Burger King still serves soy burgers, and people are still dying and paying taxes. Nonetheless, everything looks different, for the meaning of things has changed. [4]

A new look

So far we’ve established that conversion consists in a turning about of one’s existence in such a way that previously closed possibilities are opened through a process of reorientation. Moreover, we found that this reorientation transforms the meaning of things in the light of what we are now oriented toward, whether that be God, a lover, or something else. But what does it mean for everything to have a new look post conversion?

To make this a little more concrete, consider that after a religous conversion or falling in love with someone, sex with Johnny or Janey from the bar looks rather different than it did before the conversion event. This is because in “turning with” the orienting center sex with Johnny or Janey is given in a new light. Some dimension of that prospect that was previously hidden is now revealed, and another dimension is now hidden.

Specifically, one may previously have been able to experience delectable bar sex with delight, revelling in the free release of the dynamic energy arising from the confluence of bodies. After conversion, however, such an engagement may be cast into a starker relief in light of the personal, cosmic, and/or religious significance granted by the orienting center, whether that be betrayal of a lover, sacrificing one’s authentic being for a delusion of connection, indulging addiction, or something else besides.

In other words, conversion reveals significance in things that was not previously given, thereby opening a greater possible range of experience, for better or worse. In this case, sex is transformed from a merely biological activity akin to the mounting behaviors of squirrels into a fundamentally different act, namely a human one, that is, one with significance within the wholeness of a human life.

Indeed, the effect is one of augmentation, since the possibility of squirrel-sex remains open, but is now supplemented by the possibility of meaningful sex [5] granted through the reorientation accomplished in the conversion. Now, one has a choice between multiple acts where there was previously only a choice between doing one act, sex, or not. That is, now the act matters.

The astute reader may have noticed that there is an implication of the phenomenon of permission in such a case. The distinction is, however, that conversion or lack thereof precedes the grant of permission and makes it possible. In this example, whatever the nature of the bar sex with Johnny or Janey, this nature is given in advance of any permission to engage or not, since what is up for permission varies in each case. For instance, if one is not in love, the permission to betray one’s lover in a bar fling cannot be given because sex with Johnny or Janey is not given in light of one’s love for one’s lover. Thus, whatever that act may be, a betrayal of one’s lover it cannot be.

Turning away

Once a conversion has occurred, it remains possible for the convert to turn away from the orienting center established in the conversion event. Indeed, the possibility of turning away is precisely what grants the augmentation of possibilities accomplished through conversion. That is, one may now will in the direction of the turning, turning with it, or else one may will against it, turning away from the orienting center.

In this respect, the convert has both greater capacity for action but also for error. Like the randy squirrel, one without an orientation can only but go along with whatever is given, for there is nothing to move toward or away from. In contrast, one converted may turn explicitly away from the center.

Using our bar sex example, one unconverted by either love or God cannot accomplish so great a betrayal of love or divinity through lasciviousness as one ignorant and unoriented toward these things. That is, one who rejects the possibility of love cannot turn away from it so fully as one who acknowledges it, though they may trample upon it and harm themselves and others just the same. The distinction is that the convert will not be falling away from any orientation as such, as the unconverted does, but turning away from a given orienting center.[6]

In short, orientation grounds the possibility of turning toward, or away. To remain without orientation is to live, or attempt to live, the pure life of plants and animals who are free from the possibility of turning entirely. Rather, they only ever will along with whatever simply is, never against it.

The human burden

It is questionable whether humans are capable of such animal purity. Indeed, it seems that we are ever burdened to go along with or against something or other, even in lieu of an orienting center granted by a conversion experience.

Perhaps it is just the attempt to escape this burden to become like creatures we are not that gives rise to the possibility of subhuman actions - those that fail the effortlessly careless activity of animals, while yet falling short of human action, with its capacity for turning with or against. Zombies come to mind…

In the end, we are destined to choose and to will, with or without a center. It remains an open question whether humanity can live without conversion and the orienting center it grants. In other words, can humanity dwell within the abyss that is nihilism?

Notes

[1] It turns out Bleeding Soy™ Burger, while descriptive, isn’t very enticing.

[2] “Destiny” might be a secular equivalent, though it doesn’t carry quite the same meaning as “grace”.

[3] Religious authorities may disagree with this, as there are conversion rituals for many religions. However, I would contend that such are, one of two things: 1. formalities that follow an original event of conversion and sanctify it within a given religious community, or 2. attempts to occasion a conversion event wherein one willing is graced with such an event in the midst of the ritual. Of course, this is something of a theological matter, and I’d love to hear others' perspectives on this.

[4] The transformation is not entirely unlike that described in Plato’s allegory of the cave.

[5] The meaning will depend on the nature of the conversion and toward what one is so turned. Nonetheless, insofar as a conversion has occurred, new possibilities of meaning open new possibilities of action.

[6] Such turning against is the occasion for repentance, the subject of a forthcoming post.