Monday, June 09, 2008

The Psychology of Conversion, cont.

DFB has given me permission to quote the following email exchange between us:

He writes:
"Father Peter:

Professor MacIntyre makes what for me was a startling observation in "Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative, and the Philosophy of Science" that an "epistemological crisis is always a crisis in human relationships." Including the word "always" suggests that this holds for "traditions" and "cultures" in epistemological crisis as well as individuals. I wonder if MacIntyre at the time he authored this essay would agree that "conversion" is necessary for the resolution of an epistemological crisis? The paragraph below makes the process of resolution sound more tentative than conversion:

[MacIntyre writes:] 'When an epistemological crisis is resolved, it is by the construction of a new narrative which enables the agent to understand both how he or she could intelligibly have held his or her original beliefs and how he or she could have been so drastically misled by them. The narrative in terms of which he or she at first understood and ordered experiences is itself now made into the subject of an enlarged narrative. The agent has come to understand how the criteria of truth and understanding must be reformulated. He has had to become epistemologically self-conscious and at a certain point he may have come to acknowledge two conclusions: the first is that his new forms of understanding may themselves in turn come to be put in question at any time; the second is that, because in such crises the criteria of truth, intelligibility, and rationality may always themselves be put in question (as they are in Hamlet) we are never in a position to claim that now we possess the truth or now we are fully rational. The most that we can claim is that this is the best account which anyone has been able to give so far, and that our beliefs about what the marks of _a best account so far_ are will themselves change in what are at present unpredictable ways.'"

My response to this was as follows:

"Dear David,

I will hazard a quick response which may be helpful: I would instead argue that what we consider 'conversion' as committed Christians ought to be understood as more provisional than what is often averred, especially by 'born again' fundamentalist types. God being infinite, and ultimately unknowable in His fullness therefore, we are in a position, as Gregory of Nyssa recognized, to achieve human perfection only by constant growth in holiness, a growth that comes about by the ongoing effort to discover in ourselves the need for profounder conversion. To put this in the language of relationship: 'we are never in a position to claim that now we possess the truth [about God] or now we are fully rational [precisely because we do not yet possess the full truth that is God]. '

The witness of John of the Cross seems to me significant here; the only way forward at certain crucial points in the spiritual life is the negative way of denying whatever we think we know about God and admitting that our present rationality is an obstacle to God rather than a vehicle to God. In more familiar terms, we often learn more about God when He seems absent, precisely because our previous idea of what it was like to have God 'present' actually limits God unacceptably."

1 comment:

Bob said...

Fr. Peter,

Just something to offer on the idea of conversion. I appreciate what MacIntyre says about the need to construct (post-conversion) a new narrative that makes sense of how we could have held our former beliefs. I think that is an important part of understanding what actually takes place during the epistemological crisis.

I also appreciate what you said about how when we are most sure of our view of God is (most likely) when we are furthest from Him. Similarly, when we are in doubt or struggle is the time when we are truly closest.

But to speak for the fundamentalist types, I would say that their "born again" experience refers to a different kind of conversion than you outline here. There is a point-in-time conversion (I believe) when we are confronted with the truth and our life takes a pointed turn. Not to the renewal of all elements-we aren't made perfect in a moment--but to the point where there is no turning back. Typified by Peter's words "to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life."

There is not complete understanding here but rather the realization that the future is eternally changed. This is what I think "born agains" refer to when they say conversion. It is the point where we repent and our lives start a new direction. Unfortunately, they place too much emphasis on this point-in-time conversion and oftentimes suffer from a lack of contemplation, reflection, and refinement that comes from the "continuous conversion" (or sanctification) that you refer to here.


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