1. Historic forms of conversion
Judaism and Christianity
Missions, wars of religion, revelations
2. The different aspects of the phenomenon
According to its etymological signification, conversion (from the Latin, conversio) means a reversal, a change of direction. The word is used, therefore, to designate every kind of turn or transposition. Thus, in logic the word is employed to designate the operation by which one inverts the terms of a proposition. In psychoanalysis, this word has been used to designate “the transposition of a psychic conflict and its tentative resolution in somatic, motor, or sensitive symptoms” (Laplanche and Pontalis, Vocabulary of psychoanalysis). The present article studies conversion in its religious and philosophical acceptations; it deals with a change of mental order, which may range from the simple modification of an opinion to the total transformation of the personality. The Latin word conversio in fact corresponds to two Greek words with different meanings, on one hand epistrophe, which signifies change of orientation and implies the idea of a return (return to the origin, return to the self), on the other hand metanoia, which signifies change of mind, repentance, and implies the idea of a mutation and a rebirth. There is, then, in the notion of conversion, an internal opposition between the idea of a “return to the origin” and the idea of “rebirth.” This fidelity-rupture polarity has strongly marked Western consciousness and conscience since the appearance of Christianity.
Although the representation which we in the West habitually have made of this phenomenon of conversion is somewhat stereotyped, it has nonetheless undergone a certain historical evolution and it can manifest itself under a great number of different forms. It will therefore be necessary to study it from multiple perspectives: psychophysiological, sociological, historical, theological, philosophical. At all levels, the phenomenon of conversion reflects the irreducible ambiguity of human reality. On one hand, it testifies to the liberty of the human being, capable of totally transforming herself in reinterpreting her past and her future; on the other hand, it reveals that this transformation of human reality results from an invasion of forces exterior to the ‘me’, that it is more about divine grace or some psychosocial constraint. One can say that the idea of conversion represents one of the constitutive notions of Western consciousness and conscience: in effect, one can represent the whole history of the West as a ceaseless effort at renewal by perfecting the techniques of “conversion”, which is to say the techniques intended to transform human reality, either by bringing it back to its original essence (conversion-return), or by radically modifying it (conversion-mutation).
1. Historic forms of conversion
In Antiquity, the phenomenon of conversion appeared less in the religious realm than in the political and philosophical realms. This is because all the ancient religions (except Buddhism) are religions of equilibrium, to borrow the expression of Van der Leeuw: the rites assure a sort of exchange of requests between God and humankind. The interior experience which could correspond to these rites, consisting in some sort of psychological inversion, does not play an essential role. These religions therefore do not take over the entirety of the interior life of their adepts and they are largely tolerant, to the extent where they allow alongside themselves a multiplicity of other rites and forms of worship. Sometimes certain phenomena of contagion or propaganda arise, such as the spread of the Dionysiac cults or, at the end of Antiquity, the mystery cults. These religious movements give a place to some ecstatic phenomena in which the god takes possession of the initiated. Yet, even in these extreme cases, there is nothing of a total and exclusive “conversion.” Perhaps only Buddhist enlightenment reveals this character of deep and drastic reorientation of the whole individual. This is why the inscriptions of the Greco-Indian king Asoka (268 C.E.) are so interesting. There one sees the king allude to his own conversion to Buddhism, but also to the moral transformation which has been effected on all his subjects in the wake of his enlightenment.
Above all, it is in the political domain that the ancient Greeks underwent the experience of conversion. The practice of judicial and political debate in a democracy revealed to them the possibility of “changing the soul” of the adversary through the skilful handling of language, through the use of methods of persuasion. The techniques of rhetoric, the art of persuasion, were constituted and codified little by little. So they discovered the political power of ideas, the value of “ideology,” to use a modern expression. The Peloponnesian War is an example of this political proselytism.
More radical again, but less widespread, is philosophical conversion. In its origins it is closely bound to political conversion. Platonic philosophy is at its heart a theory of political conversion: in order to change the city, it is necessary to transform men, but only the philosopher is really capable of this, because he himself is “converted.” We see appearing here for the first time a reflection on the notion of conversion (Republic 518c). The philosopher is himself converted because he knew to turn his gaze away from the shadows of the sensible world and turn it towards the light which emanates from the idea of the Good. And all education is conversion. Every soul has the possibility of seeing this light of the Good. But the soul’s gaze is badly oriented and the key to education consists in turning this gaze in the right direction. Then a total transformation of the soul follows. If the philosophers govern the city, the whole city thereby will be “converted” toward the idea of the Good.
After Plato, in the Stoic, Epicurean, and Neoplatonic schools, one strived less to convert the city than to convert individuals. Philosophy became essentially an act of conversion. This conversion is an event provoked in the soul of the listener by the words of the philosopher. It corresponds with a total break with the customary manner of life: change of dress, and often of dietary regimen, sometimes the renunciation of political affairs, but above all a total transformation of moral life, assiduous practice of numerous spiritual exercises. Thus, the philosopher arrives at tranquility of the soul, inner freedom, in a word, beatitude. In this perspective, philosophical instruction tends to take the form of preaching, in which the means of rhetoric or logic are placed in the service of the conversion of souls. Ancient philosophy is never therefore the building of an abstract system, but appears as an appeal to the conversion through which a human being recovers his original nature (epistrophe) in an uprooting from the perversion in which ordinary mortals live, and in a drastic reorientation of his whole being (metanoia again).
Judaism and Christianity
The interior experience of conversion attained its highest intensity in the religions of “unhappy consciousness,” to borrow the expression of Hegel, which is to say in the religions such as Judaism and Christianity, in which there is a break between human being and nature, in which the equilibrium of exchange between the human and the divine is broken. Religious conversion reveals in these religions a radical and totalizing aspect which resembles philosophical conversion. However, it takes the form of an absolute and exclusive faith in the word and in the salvific will of God. In the Old Testament, God often invites, through the mouths of the prophets, his people to “convert” themselves, which is to say, to turn themselves around, to come back to the alliance concluded long ago at Sinai. Conversion is therefore, here again, on one hand a return to the origin, to an ideal, perfect state (epistrophe), on the other a renunciation of a state of perversion and sin, penitence and contrition, a drastic change of being in faithfulness to the word of God (metanoia).
Christian conversion, too, is epistrophe and metanoia, return and rebirth. But it is situated, at least in its beginning, in an eschatological perspective. One must repent before the impending judgment of God. The interior event therefore is here indissolubly tied to the exterior event: the rite of baptism corresponds to a rebirth in Christ and conversion is the interior experience of this new birth. Christian conversion is provoked by faith in the reign of God announced by Christ, that is, in the eruption of divine power which manifests itself by miracles and the fulfillment of prophecies. These divine signs will be the first apologetic arguments, the first causes of conversion. But soon the Christian message, in addressing itself to the Greco-Roman world, took numerous themes from philosophical preaching and the two types of conversion will tend to be superimposed, such that it clearly appears in the writings of Clement of Alexandria. Commenting on the Gospel saying: “Who loses his life finds it,” Clement writes: “To find his life, this is to know oneself. This conversion to divine things, the Stoics say, takes place by an abrupt change, the soul transforming itself into wisdom; as for Plato, he says that it is accomplished by the turning of the soul towards the best and that this very conversion turns it away from darkness” (Stromata IV, vi, 27, 3).
Missions, wars of religion, revelations
Every doctrine (religious or political) which demands of its adherents a total and absolute conversion aspires to be universal, and therefore missionary; it uses preaching, apologetics, and, assured of its righteousness and its truth, it can let itself be taken in by the temptation to impose itself violently. The connection between conversion and mission is already perceptible in Buddhism. But it appears clearly, above all, in Christianity and in the other religions which were born after the Christian era. The movements of expansion of Christianity and Islam are well known. But one must not forget the extraordinary rise of the Manichaean missions: lasting from the fourth to the eighth century, they extended Manichaeism from Persia to Africa and Spain on the one hand, and to China on the other.
The evolution of conversion methods in the history of missions remains less well-known. The Christian missions, for example, have taken on extremely different approaches depending on the place and time. The problems of mission came up in very different ways in the age of Gregory the Great, the Age of Discovery, the era of colonialism, and the era of decolonization.
The phenomenon of conversion is manifested equally in reformation movements and in religious “awakenings.” Movements of reformation are born from the conversion of a reformer who wants to retrieve and rediscover primitive and authentic Christianity by rejecting the deviations, the errors, and the sins of the traditional Church: thus there is at once a “return to the origin” and “new birth.” The conversion of the reformer brings about other conversions; these conversions take the form of adherence to a reformed church, which is to say a religious society in which the structure, the rites, the practices have been purified. In the religious “awakenings” (Methodism, Pietism, for example), too, the conversion of a religious personality who wishes to return to the authentic and the essential provides the point of departure, but the conversions are less adhesions to a new Church than they are entry into a community where God becomes sensible to the heart, where the Spirit manifests itself. This communal religious experience can give way to phenomena of collective enthusiasm and ecstasy; it also translates into an exaltation of the religious sensibility.
If force, political or military, is put at the service of a religion or a particular ideology, it tends to use violent methods of conversion, which may be more or less intense, ranging from propaganda to persecution, the religious war or the crusade. History swarms with examples of such forced conversions, from the conversion of the Saxons by Charlemagne, through Muslim holy war, the conversion of the Jews of Spain, the dragonnades of Louis XIV, to, in modern times, brainwashing. The need to conquer souls by any means possible is perhaps the fundamental characteristic of the Western spirit.
2. Different aspects of the phenomenon
Under whatever aspect one considers the phenomenon of conversion, it is necessary to use testimonies and documents with great caution. There is in effect a “stereotype” of conversion. Traditionally, conversion has been represented according to a certain fixed scheme which, for example, strongly opposes the long periods of waywardness, the errors of the life preceding conversion, to the decisive illumination suddenly received.
The Confessions of Augustine, notably, has played a capital role in the history of this literary genre. This stereotype risks influencing not only the manner in which one tells the story of the conversion, but the very manner in which one experiences it.
The first psychological studies of the phenomenon of conversion were made at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Conversion was interpreted, in the perspective of the theories of the time, as a total remolding of the field of consciousness, provoked by the eruption of forces emanating from subliminal consciousness (W. James). Many testimonies and documents were gathered during this time.
Contemporary research focuses more on the physiological aspects of the phenomenon. It studies the influence of physiological conditioning (the use of conditioned reflexes) or of brain surgery (lobotomy) on transformations of personality. Some political regimes have also used psychophysiological methods for the “conversion” of opponents (brainwashing).
In a psychoanalytic perspective, finally, the representation of the “return to the origin” and the “new birth” can be interpreted as a version of the aspiration to return to the womb.
In sociological perspective, conversion represents an uprooting from a particular social milieu and adhesion to a new community. This is an extremely important aspect of the phenomenon. In effect, this change of social attachments can contribute greatly to giving the event of conversion a character of crisis, and it explains in part the complete upheaval of personality which results: the remolding of the field of consciousness is indissolubly tied to a remolding of the environment, of the Umwelt. Modern missionaries have been able to experience, in all its acuteness, the drama that unfolds for a member of a tribal society, the uprooting from his or her way of life (milieu vital) that conversion to Christianity represents. This problem is faced constantly throughout the history of missions. In general, this passage from one community to another is accompanied by moral scruples (a sense of betrayal and of abandoning a familial or national tradition), difficulties of adaptation (a sense of rootlessness) and of understanding. On the other hand, it is possible that deracinated individualities, those who, for one reason or another, are uprooted momentarily or permanently from their native milieu, are more disposed than others to conversion (Monod). Conversely, it must be remarked that one of the more powerful motives for conversion rests in the attraction that the receiving community exerts, by the atmosphere of charity or charisma which may reign there: such was the case of primitive Christianity, and it is still the case in some communities that descend from movements of religious “awakening.” The influence of these communities provokes a phenomenon of contagion which can develop very rapidly.
The phenomenon of conversion characterizes above all the religions of “rupture” in which the initiative of God erupts in the world and introduces a radical novelty into the course of history. The Word that God addresses to humankind and which is then consigned to a sacred book, demands absolute adherence, a total break from the past, a consecration of one’s entire being. These religions are missionary, because they aspire to universality and because they lay claim to the totality of the person. Conversion in these cases is “repetition,” not only in the sense of a new beginning, or a rebirth, but also in the sense of a repetition of the original event upon which was founded the religion to which one has converted; this is the eruption of the divine in the course of history which repeats itself in the history of the individual. Conversion here also has the sense of new creation, if it is true that the original creative act was an absolute divine initiative. Augustine, in his Confessions (XIII), identifies the movement by which matter, created by God, receives illumination and formation and is converted toward God, with the movement by which his soul tears itself away from sin and has been illuminated and turned towards God.
By placing the theology of conversion in the most general perspective pertaining to the theology of creation, Augustine showed the way which enabled him to resolve the theological problem of conversion: how to reconcile human freedom and divine initiative? In a theology of the creative act, all is “grace,” since everything rests on the free decision and absolute initiative of God. The act of conversion is then totally free, but its freedom, like everything else, is created by God. The mystery of grace is identified in the final analysis with the mystery of divine transcendence.
In Antiquity, philosophy was essentially conversion, which is to say a return to the self, to one’s true essence, through a violent tearing oneself away from the alienation of unconsciousness. It is beginning from this fundamental fact that Western philosophy has developed. On the one hand, it has been forced to elaborate a physics or a metaphysics of conversion. On the other hand, and above all, it has always remained a spiritual activity which has the character of a veritable conversion.
Again, ancient philosophy proposed a physics or a metaphysics of conversion. How is it possible for the soul to return to itself, to turn toward itself, to recover its original essence? It is to this implicit question that the Stoic and Neoplatonic doctrines responded. For the Stoics, it was sensible reality itself that was capable of this movement of conversion. The entire universe, living and reasonable, animated by the Logos, was endowed with a vibratory movement running from the interior to the exterior and from the exterior to the interior. Conversion of the philosophical soul was then extended to the conversion of the universe and, finally, of universal reason. For the Neoplatonists, only true reality, that is, spiritual reality, is capable of this movement which is one of reflexivity. To realize it, the spirit separates from itself so as to return to itself, it steps ecstatically outside of itself in life, and goes back to its roots, recovering itself in thought. This scheme will dominate all dialectical philosophies.
For Hegel, history is the odyssey of Spirit, and history comprehended, in philosophy, is the return of Spirit into its own interiority (Er-innerung), understood to mean “conversion,” which Hegel, faithful in this to the spirit of Christianity, identifies with the redemptive act which is the passion of the Man-God: “comprehended History . . . [is] the inwardizing and the Calvary of absolute Spirit, the actuality, truth, and certainty of his throne, without which he would be lifeless and alone” (final phrase of the Phenomenology of Spirit). For Marx, it is human reality which is capable of this movement of alienation and return, of perversion and conversion: “Communism is . . . the reintegration of man, his return to himself . . . a complete and conscious return which assimilates all the wealth of previous development” (K. Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844).
More and better than a theory of conversion, philosophy itself has always remained essentially an act of conversion. One can follow the forms this act has taken through the whole length of the history of philosophy, recognizing it, for example, in the Cartesian cogito, in the amor intellectualis of Spinoza, or again in the Bergsonian intuition of the durée. In all these guises, philosophical conversion is an uprooting from and a break with the quotidian, the familiar, the falsely “natural” attitude of common sense; it is a return to the original and the originary, to the authentic, to interiority, to the essential; it is absolute recommencement, a new point of departure which transforms the past and the future. These same traits are taken up again in contemporary philosophy, notably in the phenomenological reduction which has been proposed, each in his own way, by Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Under whatever aspect it is presented, philosophical conversion is an access to interior freedom, to a new perception of the world, to authentic existence.
The phenomenon of conversion reveals in a privileged manner the insurmountable ambiguity of the human reality and the irreducible plurality of systems of interpretation that one can apply to it. Some will see in conversion the sign of divine transcendence, the revelation of the grace which underlies the only true freedom. Others will see a purely psychophysiological or sociological phenomenon, the study of which may enable them perhaps to perfect techniques of suggestion and methods of personality transformation. The philosopher will tend to think that the only true transformation of the human being is philosophical conversion.
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L. Brunschvicg, De la vraie et de la fausse conversion, Paris, 1950.
W. James, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” in Gifford Lectures, 1902, French translation, Paris, 1906.
C. Keysser, Eine Papua-Gemeinde, Neuendettelsau, 1950.
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Translated by Andrew B. Irvine, © 2008.