Thursday, July 03, 2008

Conversion: the Importance of Community

I have stressed in previous posts the necessity of continuity in a person's life in order to make sense of a conversion experience. Of course, certain areas of discontinuity are necessary as well, without which conversion appears to be merely a cumulative effect of previous efforts. At root, conversion means 'turning around', even going a way opposite to that which I had been going. I will return to this observation after a note on community.

In After Virtue and elsewhere, A. MacIntyre puts forward the idea of the 'goods of excellence' as being something that human beings naturally strive for. For suspicious moderns, this immediately generates the question: Who determines what is 'excellent'? It is to MacIntyre's credit as a professed Christian that he does not take a fideistic way out and simply say, "Well, excellence is what virtuous people naturally desire." This would un-invite him from most philosophical discussions going on today. At the same time, he does therefore leave unchallenged the dominant postmodern notion that there is no truth and therefore no standard of excellence.

Instead, he appeals to the idea of community. Excellence in painting is determined by those expert practitioners of painting who will or will not accept new members into their community based on whether the new members accept the same standards of excellence. We might speak of 'schools' of painting in this way. When I was a performing musician in what posed for a kind of avant-garde in Chicago in the mid-90's, a goal that my group of friends and I set for ourselves was creating a 'scene', the idea being that like-minded improvisational artists would benefit from mutual support and critique. We could hone our craft and push it to new levels of expression by committing in some way to a community of shared standards of excellence.

Today, none of those friends are in that particular 'scene' anymore, but have gone on to adopt the standards of other musical communities. In a sense, this requires a conversion. Our drummer now fronts a classic rock cover band. If he held those musicians to the standards we used to have, they would face a crisis; either they would have to part ways or one or other side would have to agree to the others' standards. Similarly, our violinist has returned to her roots in classical/Romantic music, and so has laid aside the standards of psychedelic electrified fiddling. This requires a fairly difficult conversion: she had to 'unlearn' much of her classical technique in order to play in our ensembles. Now she must relearn the disciplines of classical technique.

When we experience a conversion to Christ, it necessitates adopting the standards of virtue of a community, the Church. This requires us to let go of certain behaviors and standards that we may have had before, some of them in and of themselves perfectly good standards. For example, when I began cantoring at my parish, expecting the parish choir to adopt the standards of the Robert Shaw Chorale would not have been helpful, and probably not even appropriate. Indeed, this is the cause of much tension in church music: musicians are trained to standards of excellence that prevail at Carnegie Hall (not a church community), and then must adjust to the standards of the liturgy, where excellence in to be found in a larger context than musical precision and compositional artistic merit.

Other conversions require us to drop entirely previous standards of excellence as being opposed to the gospel. Much of what makes for a good mafioso will not be accepted by the Church community. In such a case, the sense of conversion as 'turning around' makes more sense, even if it not wholly absent from the musical example I used above.

MacIntyre might stress at this point that what both types of conversion have in common is a search for actual truth. A conversion is not simply 'adopting a new lifestyle', as if to imply that when we get bored of this lifestyle, we reinvent ourselves. Rather, conversion draws us closer to apprehending the truth; if it did not, it would lack the compelling sense that genuine conversions do. [This is where M departs from Thomas Kuhn: scientists don't adopt new theories simply because they solve problems better or have aesthetic appeal; they do so because they strike us a true. Ptolemaic astronomy was a very good approximation of how the solar system seems to work, but Copernicus, Kepler, Newton and Einstein have provided a much more comprehensive description of observed reality, and therefore have the force of truth to them].

The importance of community is that we do not have to reinvent the wheel, and we do not need to rely solely on our own observational powers to find the truth. We can be pointed to it by a community that we trust, but this will require us to adopt their standards of excellence, proof, and behavior. I also suspect that the postmoderns have a point with their reluctance to embrace 'truth', but that this point is addressed by community. No human being (we Christians would except Jesus Christ) has the fullnes of truth, and anyone who claims to is probably best described as an idealogue. Yet, certain communities are oriented toward the truth more precisely, as Einsteinian astonomers are closer to the truth than Ptolemaic astronomers. When we claim, as Christians that truth is found in the Church, we are claiming that this community will orient you to truth (Jesus Christ), not that you will know the answer to everything. Yes, this will require us to let go of some of our personal ideas of truth, but if these are all that we have, we run the risk of insanity, which is hardly a mark of embracing the truth.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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