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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Religious Conversion and "Identity Construction"

Pondering the experiences of several Muslim converts, Bill Cork has a fascinating post on the meaning and psychology of religious conversion.

I'm also reminded of the work of V. Bailey Gillespie (e.g., The Dynamics of Religious Conversion), who sees conversion as part of identity construction (and therefore we shouldn't be surprised that it is particularly a phenomenon of the young).

Now, I see nothing in the articles I've skimmed or in my experience to suggest that men actually convert more often than women--quite the opposite, in fact. But men are more likely to tell stories about it. Perhaps people in "men's work" are right. Perhaps our society is lacking in male initiation rituals. Perhaps conversion tales are ways for men to describe their "hero's journey" or "vision quest." This would still place the phenomenon within the context of transition to adulthood, specifically the formation/integration of adult identity. Shawn, if you're reading, do you have any thoughts?

Looking back over the course of my own life, I've experienced a good number of "conversions" to one thing or another: answering an alter call at a Southern Baptist youth camp and "giving my life to Christ"; flirting with existentialism and nihilism in college; embracing the ideals of left-wing radicalism, pacifism and anarchism; losing my way in the mires of reckless hedonism; re-encountering Christianity by way of reading C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity; confronting, and ultimately embracing, the claims of the Catholic Church, with the blessed help of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and G.K. Chesterton . . .

Hardly what I would describe as a "heroic" journey -- I tend to think of it as rather a slow plodding towards the truth, the ultimate goal being, please God, not so much a construction of my own identity as the discovery of my true self in Christ. How far along I am I cannot say, although I often feel as if I've barely begun, taking one day at a time.

How many others can relate to Thomas Merton's prayer, expressing fear and hope as real to me today as they were when I read it a decade ago:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.


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