By Bill Leonard
Of his 1821 conversion, evangelist Charles Finney wrote: “As I went in and shut the door after me, it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. … No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. I wept aloud with joy and love; and I do not know but I should say, I literally bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart.”
In The Kingdom of God in America (1937), H. Richard Niebuhr wrote: “Regeneration, the dying to the self and the rising to new life — now apparently sudden, now so slow and painful, so confused, so real, so mixed — becomes conversion which takes place on Sunday morning during the singing of the last hymn or twice a year when the revival preacher comes to town.”
In Christianity After Religion, Diana Butler Bass observes that “conventional religion is failing and a new form of faith which some call ‘spirituality’ … is being born.” She termed this “a new spiritual awakening … being performed in a networked world,” representing “an effusive, experiential, practice of faith sweeping across the globe.”
How did the conversion experience, long an entry point to faith for generations of American evangelicals become a conversion crisis? Did the dynamic, salvifically gut-wrenching, religious experiences of Charles Finney and other 19th-century believers evolve into mechanistic transactions that simply fulfilled a salvific requirement? Did the methods for describing the nature and need of conversion get lost in debates over dogma, culture wars and “Christian” politics, right and left? Is it time to reconsider, even re-form, Protestant approaches to religious experience in 21st-century culture, as Finney and others did in their era? What exactly is “conversion” and how is it experienced?
William James’ classic text, The Varieties of Religious Experience,remains a valuable guide for exploring the shape of Christian conversion. For James, terms like conversion, regeneration and experiential religion describe “the process, gradual or sudden by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy becomes unified … right superior and happy,” through a “firmer hold upon religious realities.” Christianity’s multiple expressions — Catholic/Protestant/evangelical/mystical/pietistic — offered various “stages of progress towards the idea of an immediate spiritual help.”
James distinguished between once-born and twice-born Christians, the former who “see God, not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate; but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world….” For the once-born, divine grace surrounded them on entry into the world. For the twice-born, James said, “the world is a double-storied mystery” divided between “the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.” Conversion began with spiritual struggle, even despair, ending in spiritual deliverance and restoration with God. With a few dramatic exceptions, most Christian communities claim adherents from both once and twice-born approaches to faith. Today, many communions struggle to describe the meaning and method of both approaches, particularly as a growing number of individuals appear less concerned for either option.
Then there is Jesus, the “author and finisher of faith,” whose 21st-century interpreters and interpretations are so diverse, even contradictory, that many in both church and society are uncertain as to which Jesus they should follow.
And what does faith in Jesus create? In Religious Experience in Earliest Christianity, Luke Timothy Johnson says that Christian conversion involves direct encounter with God, with “four-components” including a response to what is ultimate; an impact on the “whole person”; a distinct intensity; and a call to particular action. It is an experience of grace that impacts one’s entire being, immediate and lifelong. For some, it is as if they have found God’s grace, long ignored or neglected. For others, it is as if grace found them, and that it had been there all along.
In The Future of Faith Harvey links faith with “awe and mystery,” suggesting optimistically, “Faith rather than beliefs is once again becoming its defining quality and this reclaims what faith meant during its earliest years.” Thomas Merton insisted that both Catholics and Protestants should affirm that conversion to Christ is not merely a change from “bad habits to good habits, but nova creatura,” a new creation.
Given all that, how might churches respond to the conversionistic challenges now facing Christianity and culture? They could:
• Articulate a theology of religious experience appropriate to their identity and tradition.
• Recognize the diversity of religious experiences that may claim or be claimed by individuals, even within the same faith tradition.
• Continually explore the nature and significance of religious experience individually and in community.
• Consider conversion as life-long process, perhaps punctuated by intense spiritual encounters.
• Re-claim and re-engage the “Jesus story,” multi-layered, provocative, haunting. Who knows where that story might take us and we might take it? Still makes the heart “gush” a little, doesn’t it?
Bill Leonard unpacks these and other details in A Sense of the Heart: Christian Religious Experience in the United States, which is published by Abingdon Press and will be available Nov. 18.