RE1c The Varieties of Religious Experience: Conversion

Having considered the importance of religious experience and the nature of religious experience, our attention turns to the variety of religious experience, that is, the wide range of different forms of religious experience.

Of the three you must understand, the first is conversion.

The word conversion has its root in the the Latin word ‘convertere’ which meant to ‘turn around or transform’.  It is now more commonly used when we go on holiday to mean changing from one currency to another, but in religion it retains the stronger, original meaning.

Conversion, as a form of religious experience can be found in a variety of contexts.  Mostly we refer to conversion as being from not believing in God to believing in God, but it can be a conversion from one religion to another or a conversion between different groups within a religion.  We might even think of conversion from believing to not believing, though it is debatable whether this would count as a religious experience.

Before going any further, it is vital that you read and make notes on the examples of conversion that can be found here.

When we study the features of conversion, the first and most important thing to note is that conversion brings change in the life of the subject, that is, the person having the experience, both in terms of their beliefs and their behaviour.  We can see in each of our three examples this change occurring.  Saul no longer persecutes Christians, he becomes one and changes his name to Paul; Tolstoy’s depression and suicidal tendencies disappear when he comes to believe that ‘God is life’.  C. S. Lewis stops avoiding God and falls to his knees and prays.

But after this, there are clearly differences between conversions.

Non-volitional conversion

The Conversion of Saint Paul by Michelangelo Buonarroti

Saul is an excellent example of what we call a non-volitions conversion.  In this type of conversion we would expect to see a sudden and dramatic experience, an experience in which God intervenes directly.  The scale of change in the life of the subject at the moment of conversion is large and they are passive during this experience, since it is not something they are seeking.  The subject may well be hostile to the belief that they then convert to.  This is a non-volitional conversion as it goes against the volition, that is, the will of the subject.  It is not a voluntary conversion.

Volitional conversion

Leo Tolstoy

A contrasting type of conversion is the volitional conversion., meaning it is a voluntary conversion.  This is because it is a sought after conversion.  The subject has some sort of revulsion or unhappiness in their life and they are looking for a solution or an answer.  This means that this is a gradual process, maybe over years.  The change is incremental or step by step and this type of conversion is often internal and private, instead of being by a dramatic act of God.

Self-surrender conversion

A statue of C.S. Lewis entering the wardrobe to Narnia

The final type of conversion is a self-surrender conversion.  While non-volitional and volitional conversions are opposites, self-surrender conversion describes something very different.

In this type of conversion, the subject may well resist the experience of the conversion process, but it is not until they give up resistance that the conversion takes place.  The surrender of the self means that the change in the life of the subject can then take place.

Finally, let’s return to the key characteristic of conversion – change.  Remember that converse is not just about any kind of change, it is about transformational change, a turn around.  This is clear in a case such as Saul, but it is worth noting that this was still a process, one in which Saul has to accept what was happening to him.

For Tolstoy and Lewis, the incremental change means it is harder to see transformation, but it is clear that both their beliefs and their behaviour were significantly altered, though it may have taken some time.  However, it is also worth noting that despite the slow process for both of these people, they are able to highlight a particular moment and point to that as the key moment of conversion.

In summary, conversion is about transformational change.

Non-volitional conversions ar usually by sudden and dramatic acts of God, with the subject originally being hostile to the belief they come to hold and with large scale change at the moment of conversion.

Volitional conversions are gradual, with the subject seeking answers to the difficulties or unhappiness in their life.  Change is incremental over time.

Self-surrender conversion is when the subject resists the conversion process until they relent, give in and accept the change that is happening in their life.