‘Has the world gone mad, or is it me?’ Reflections on still believing in conversion
I was talking to a group of friends recently about a project I hope you will hear a lot more of soon. One, who is a very successful evangelist, said in passing, ‘I met with another evangelist recently, and he started the conversation asking me if I still believed in conversion, because too many don’t!’
The conversation moved on, but the comment stuck with me. On one level, it resonated; on another, it seemed ripe for theological reflection. I can think of two ways to ‘believe in conversion’ – I want to sign up to both, but one really matters, and the other perhaps less so.
I am cheerfully, if not totally uncritically, evangelical in my practice of Christianity; one recent Sunday, I spent time after our morning service linking someone from China who had begun to attend some of our meetings into an international Bible study, and time after our evening service speaking to someone who had responded to an appeal which it had fallen to me to give at the end of a baptismal service. And I long and pray for more days like that. Moving people from outside the church to inside the church, via friendships and conversations, yes, but supremely via powerful encounters with God’s Spirit at work in their lives, is right at the heart of what I want my church, and my ministry in my church, to be about.
So, I believe, in an ‘evangelical’ sense, in conversion. I believe that people who have no faith in Jesus Christ need to come to faith in Jesus Christ, and I believe that this process will often involve a moment, or some moments, of crisis and decision.
I also believe in conversion in a broader sense. I have spent some time in the last couple of months reading and writing about a variety of recent Roman Catholic theologians, as it happens, and I recognise, of course, that they would not particularly agree with my ‘evangelical’ understanding of conversion. One of the two people I spoke to that Sunday was baptised and had a childhood history of Christian practice; if an evangelical account of ‘conversion’ would tend to discount that history, a Catholic account would tend to emphasise it. This person has entered the church in baptism, and has received catechesis; if the process stalled, it is not irrelevant.
I have some theological issues with this account, but there is a deeper point of agreement. Orthodox Catholic theology stresses ‘conversion’ in the sense that it teaches that people are fallen, broken, guilty, and in absolute need of forgiveness, recreation and salvation through God’s work in Jesus Christ, applied to a person’s life by God’s Spirit. My evangelical tradition shares this diagnosis of the state of fallen humanity, whilst differing slightly, but importantly, in its account of how to treat the offered diagnosis.
There is a tradition of Christianity, however – it begins at least as early as Pelagius in the fourth century, but seems particularly strong in the contemporary West – that denies this diagnosis. On this telling I am – and you are, and every other human person is – fundamentally sound, OK. The world we live in is disordered and, if we are not clear-sighted and careful, our choices will be distorted because of our environment. Fundamentally, however, what we need is clearer sight (and perhaps some measure of forgiveness for past wrongs), not personal renewal and recreation.
‘Has the world gone mad, or is it me?’ The question is stolen from a Hawkwind lyric (they were the local band made good when I was a teenager. I am not embarrassed at all to have their lyrics in my head, or to have seen them live on several occasions – not embarrassed at all….) but it captures this basic divide: am I basically OK, but living in a difficult context, or am I not OK, needing transformation – conversion? I think my friend’s friend was right: this is a fundamental question for the practice of Christian ministry.