Fr David Chislett has written a very interesting article – Conversion – real and ongoing – on conversion and the way Christians are committed to their faith and more so to the person of Jesus Christ. The different ways people are converted will certainly depend on their circumstances of life, experience and personalities.
He differentiates between sudden conversions like that of St Paul, looking at it from the theological point of view – grace – and the way of someone who arrives at Christianity through a long and drawn-out journey, tending his soul like a carefully maintained garden. He then brings in the dimension of the “cradle” Christian (with the adjective of one’s choice to denote whether the person was raised in Catholicism, Orthodoxy or an Evangelical version of the Christian faith). Fr David then hits upon something without describing all the implications – love. What is love?
- Agapè – ἀγάπη: the kind of love that St Paul describes in I Corinthians xiii, totally altruistic and the purest, self sacrifice that does not count the cost.
- Éros – ἔρως:love through pleasure and desire, not necessarily sinful.
- Storgê – στοργή: the kind of love that characterises family bonds.
- Philia – φιλία: friendship, pleasure from company, love of things and interests (eg: philo-sophia – love of wisdom) – same thing with people who like collecting stamps or admire old cars, boats, trains, etc.
There is also the notion of passionate love, so-called romantic love, which many of us have experienced when relating to the opposite sex and living a relationship. This is the drama of marriage, having to move beyond the initial passions to a combination of all the above Greek terms and concepts.
Science has explained this phenomenon in simple terms. We get “high” from the natural chemical substances our body contains. The feeling is wonderful and narcotic! The most important “shoot” we get is from dopamine, made by the brain and adrenal glands, and which causes the release of testosterone. Dopamine enhances everything, not only our sexual instincts, but also our moods, emotions and feelings of happiness and excitement. The neurotransmitters norepinephrine and phenylethylamine bring focused attention. But these natural “drugs” only last a short time. Build your foundations before you run out of cement!
This initial reaction of falling in love has either to become a relationship, or the persons concerned have to come to terms with a break-up. Reality comes in. Different people go through these changes in different ways. We live through these dramas in our own families and see them acted out at the cinema or on TV.
Religious conversion can almost certainly follow the same dynamics. We hear of people becoming “warm and fuzzy” when they have had some kind of experience that made them accept Christianity for the first time – one of “romantic” love with Christ. The Christ in question may only be a figment of the imagination, like falling in love with a character in a film. That can be a good start, as long as it is only the start…
There are also experiences on another level which do not depend on biochemistry, but rather on an interaction between the person at a level of the spirit and above our biological existence. These are more difficult to explain.
Pastoral practice of priests and others involved in parishes and other types of communities seem mostly to be inadequate when dealing with those who have had this “experience” and the relationship with faith has become “unstuck”. Some of us get “burned”, an it isn’t easy to “go back for more”! The person has then to “move on” to other things or work towards a re-conversion on another basis, one that is more rational than emotional. This is what many of us married folk have to go through when the “romantic love” has dies and remains only in the memory. A new basis of the relationship has to be forged and worked out, so that the couple can build something lasting and strong.
The conversion experience in itself is not an adequate basis for Christian commitment or a life completely guided by Christian principles and moral teachings. The parable of the sower, explained by Christ himself, shows the differences and contrasts between the rootless conversions that dry up against the enduring and abiding relationship based on a deeper and more solid foundation.
The real point, whether in our Christian commitment or marriage, is knowing that we are never there, but always on the way, trying to improve and get things better each day, week, year, etc. Conversion is also a question of our values and priorities in life, whether everything is for ourselves or for our relationships with others. These things are so easy to say and so difficult to put into practice.