Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Psychology of Conversion, 3

Ive changed the title of this series, dropping 'epistemological crisis' for reasons I hope are fairly obvious...

In commenting on the first of these posts, Bob makes a very reasonable criticism of my charge that fundamentalists undergo conversion and then stop being converted. After more thought, I recognize that I had in mind two separate phenomena, and that I could have more carefully worded the charge. I agree with Bob that in what is termed 'fundamentalist Christianity', conversion can be ongoing just as much as it can for Gregory of Nyssa. Before I parse the two phenomena behind my critique of certain forms of conversion, I would like to emphasize one important point of MacIntyre's reading of 'epistemological crises'.

In his essay Epistemological crises and dramatic narrative, MacIntyre takes issue with a series of thinkers: Descartes, Burke, Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn. In his opinion, what they have in common is an approach to truth that neglects the role that coherent narrative plays. To use the most famous example, Descartes, faced with the crisis of philosophy in his day, imagined that he could reduce himself to the radical doubt of all previous traditions (narratives), and start, a priori, with a brand new one. To use a more subtle example, M questions Burke's critique of the French Revolution. Again the question is not whether the Revolution represents a good or an evil, but whether it can be understood coherently as part of ongoing French history. Burke saw a rupture, but according to MacIntyre, thinkers as diverse as Peguy and Belloc (!) "were able retrospectively to see the great revolution as reconstituting a more ancient France, so that Jeanne D'Arc and Danton belong withing the same single, if immensely complex, tradition."

The key word I wish to suggest in this context is 'continuity'. MacIntyre goes so far as to suggest that traditions actually require revolutions 'for their continuance'. The successful resolution of an 'epistemological crisis' requires narrative and dramatic continuity. So, too, I would suggest that a genuine and lasting conversion requires the same for the same reasons. I mentioned this in the first post with a reference to late medieval Nominalism. Can we claim that Descartes' radical doubt is best seen not as a rupture, but in continuity with Nominalism? God willing, I will take up this loaded question at a later date.

Today, I would like to conclude with a response to Bob's correction. What I had in mind there, as I said above, is a mixture of two different phenomena. The first is what I understand to be a derivation of certain tendencies in Calvin, in which acceptance of conversion is seen as a once-for-all proposition that guarantees salvation (no matter what happens in the narrative before or after?). As Bob correctly noted, this in fact does not match with the experience of the genuine experience of Christians, but it can create tension with the received theology. As I understand it, the movie "Unforgiven" plays this out, where the lead character, unable to make a coherent narrative out of his life after his faltering conversion, decides to force the narrative into coherence by committing one more act of (vigilante) murder. This seems to him to be 'more in character'. Therefore, in retrospect, his conversion appears as a mirage and the grace of God unavailable. So this failure of the narrative of conversion is one problem I meant to present.

The second has more to do with the label 'fundamentalist' that I used. In this case, the fundamentals of the faith are understood to be disclosed by the Bible and not in any way by natural philosophy. Again, I submit that this impulse, highly principled though it be, weakens personal narrative in crucial ways. For one thing, it can only provide an explanation for what a person previously believed (if that person subscribed to natural philosophy, e.g. some form of belief in evolution) by positing radical deception. There can be no dialogue between the person's former and current selves, at least it seems to me. What happens in fact is that continuities of unexamined sorts pop up (analogously to Descartes' unintentional echo of Augustine in his famous Cogito ergo sum). I would point to things like Christian rock and multi-media megachurches as instances of unintentional continuity between the world and the saved Church. Be that as it may, my principal concern here is to contend that the rupture envisioned between life before conversion and life after can create real problems.

In concluding and anticipating the next post, we should be clear that Christianity does present us with a radical choice that requires a renunciation of life 'according to the flesh' or 'in the world'. How does our encounter with Jesus Christ risen cause us an 'epistemological crisis', and how is it resolved? I will hopefully try to tackle these questions in subsequent posts.

1 comment:

Amator Catholicarum said...

Thank you for a thought-provoking post here. I might have concerns over MacIntyre's argument, though I can see his argument used in debate with the flawed attitudes of nouveau-Hegelianism (or its descendants)and progressive utopianism in the post-modern world.
As to the considerations facing the fundamentalist Protestant, that tension, as far as I have seen, leads to the abandonment of any theology embodied in liturgical practice or even home life.
I would be interested in a discussion of how this tension between conversion and epistemological continuity manifests itself in many Catholics. It seems that many of them do not seek for the continuity within the context of the faith, but rather their own lives. That is to say, the result is that the conversion becomes an isolated part of their lives, but does not convert the whole person.

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