Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Conversion and deconversion

I’m going to comment on some statements from this post:

For the Reformed, then, the change marked by Sudduth's announcement is a huge, dramatic change. The difference they see in this conversion is the difference between heaven and hell.
For Sudduth himself, what happened to him can barely be described as a change. Certainly not as a sharp turning. It's more like a gradual growth, a continuation, a more complete, more full discovery of what, in fact, already was.

i) Of course, that’s equivocal. It confuses objective change with a subjective impression of change.

ii) Keep in mind, too, that the change which apostasy represents isn’t so much a personal change in the apostate, but a relational change. For instance, his loss of faith may be incremental. When he makes a final break, that’s not a sudden, abrupt change, but the culmination of a gradual process.

Or the apostate may always have been a nominal Christian. He simply went public.

Yet apostasy can still involve a radical disruption in the apostate’s objective relationship to God.

iii) Because relational changes happen to us rather than in us, because relational changes don’t necessarily change us, but rather, change our objective standing with someone or something else, there’s no reason to think we would sense a change.

Suppose the king dies when his heir is away from home. His heir is now the king. But his heir doesn’t feel any different. The moment the king dies, the heir doesn’t perceive a change. He’s not even aware of the king’s demise.

iv) Keep in mind, too, that from a Reformed perspective, apostasy (if we define that as a definitive break with the faith) does not entail a fundamental change. The apostate was always a reprobate at heart. So his apostasy is continuous with his prior condition. What is latent becomes patent.

But there’s still a categorical difference between election and reprobation, salvation and damnation. That doesn’t range along a continuum. Even if the phenomenology of conversion or deconversion has continuity, the reality is discontinuous between two contrary states of being.

This experience of conversion as realization and recognition of what is already true, as acknowledgement of what already is the case, rather than as some sort of change, is actually quite common in conversion narratives. This is a standard part of contemporary accounts of conversion.

One thing this fails to consider is that conversion/deconversion testimonies aren’t merely descriptive accounts. Rather, the reason the individual is giving an account of the process is to justify his conversion or deconversion. As such, there’s a tendency to present his journey in the most favorable light.

We wouldn’t expect him to say: “I’m gullible. I’m a sucker. I’m intellectually unstable.”

No, the strategy is to shift blame to his upbringing. There was nothing deficient with him. Rather, his religious environment was deficient. As such, he didn’t know any better.. He believed what he did because that’s all he was exposed to. As a kid, he had no control over that. 

But then, when he went off to college, did his own study, he instantly saw the folly of what his elders believed. The folly of what his elders taught him as a child.

With variations, that’s the stereotypical narrative.

Consider Scott Hahn's popular account of his conversion to Roman Catholicism...He describes his conversion as a coming home. This is in the title of his book, Rome Sweet Home...

Of course, that’s how Hahn packages his conversion to Rome, not because his experience selects for that interpretation, but because he is assimilating his experience to the institutional claims of his adopted denomination. Rome claims to be Mother Church. Protestant denominations are schismatic. So, by theological definition, if a Protestant converts to Rome, he is returning to the source. Coming home.

Yet it’s not the phenomenology of conversion, per se, that specifies this paradigm. Rather, Hahn is using Catholic categories as an interpretive framework. That’s something superimposed on the raw experience, not given in the raw experience.


  1. "The apostate was always a reprobate at heart."


    White-washed tomb. Very clean on the outside, but dead-bones inside and heart inside.

    I struggle with my being born again sometines, becuase of the sin that still abides in me:-pride, lust, self-centeredness. Yet my trust in the Scriptures, and the genuine affection I have for the Word, and for Christ, help me know that I know God, and that he knows me. (Gal. 4:9)

  2. "The apostate was always a reprobate at heart."

    This is not necessarily true since one could repent of one's apostasy.

  3. Depends on whether we're using "apostate" in distinction to backslider, or as a general term to cover both cases.

  4. You cannot tell prospectively whether someone who professed Christianity and then professes not-Christianity will, at some later point in their life, become regenerate.

    The shift from professing Christianity to not-Christianity is, presumably, what you mean by apostasy? But for the above reason, someone who does this is not necessarily reprobate.

    In context, as things stand, Sudduth is certainly on his way to facing God's judgment. But he can escape God's wrath by repenting and placing his faith in Christ.