Something’s going to convert you

Conversion is inevitable. It’s going to happen to you. It probably already has. Even in a culture that champions relativism and perpetual skepticism, no one escapes conversion. No one walks through this life without being converted to something- some ideology or philosophy or religion. This truth is telling when placed next to the very real disdain Christians face in their attempt to speak and embody Jesus to a spiritually lost world. Are Christians unique in their attempt to convince others of truth and reality? Absolutely not. Tim Keller, a pastor in NYC, pointed me to a New York Times article by Mark Lilla, an academic in the field of religion and society- and a man who once claimed to be “born again” only to later become convinced of secularism. In the article, he writes about his experience at a Billy Graham Crusade where he met a young man- a grad student at the University of Pennsylvania- who became convinced by Graham’s message and decided to respond by placing his faith in Jesus as Lord. Lilla, a secularist by then, could not understand why a young man with such a promising future would make such a decision. He writes this in his article (via Tim Keller):

I ask whether he (the student) went forward during the altar call, and to my surprise I learn he did. Why? “Because,” he says, shrugging, “what he was saying tonight made so much sense.”

I found it hard to conceal my bafflement, since Billy had not said much at all. You must be born again – that was it. I felt a professorial lecture welling up in my throat about the history and psychology of religion. I wanted to expose him to the pastiche of the biblical text, the syncretic nature of Christian doctrine, the church’s ambiguous role as incubator and stifler of human knowledge, the theological idiosyncrasy of American evangelicalism. I wanted to warn him against the anti-intellectualism of American religion today and the political abuses to which it is subject. I wanted to cast doubt on the step he was about to take, to help him see there are other ways to live, other ways to seek knowledge, love, perhaps even self-transformation. I wanted to convince him that his dignity depended on maintaining a free, skeptical attitude toward doctrine. I wanted… to save him.

I thought I was out of that business, but maybe not. It took years to acquire the education I missed as a young man, an education not only in books but in a certain comportment toward myself and the world around me. Doubt, like faith, has to be learned. It is a skill. But the curious thing about skepticism is that its adherents, ancient and modern, have so often been proselytizers. In reading them, I’ve often wanted to ask, “Why do you care?” Their skepticism offers no good answer to that question. And I don’t have one for myself.

Even belief in nothing, or belief in skepticism, necessitates a conversion. William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke Divinity School, puts it this way (again via Keller):

The dominant culture in which we live is that of expressive individualism since the Enlightenment. People like to say, “Well, what the church says may be right for some, but I think you have to determine right or wrong for yourself.” But they’re not thinking for themselves. They’re doing exactly what the culture tells them. In reality they are espousing the very way of knowing that has been imposed on them by their culture… Everyone has been deeply formed into some point of view that is not innate. The real question you must face is which externally imposed formation will have its way with me.

So, what has converted you? What will convert you? In Christianity it’s not about concepts, theories, ideas, or philosophies. It’s a person. Jesus Christ, God in flesh, ultimate reality and truth. You can read the whole NYT article here.

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