Mudrashram Institute of Spiritual Studies
Born Again Process: Conversion and
By George A. Boyd ©1988
With the current uproar and indignation about the movie "the Last Temptation of Christ" by members of certain fundamentalistic sects of the Christian Church, it may enlighten us to inquire why these believers may feel so threatened by the presentation of a variant point of view from their own. Further, we will discover by looking at the processes that turn fundamentalist believers into such entrenched dogmatists, convinced of their exclusive possession of truth and salvation, the power that certain terrifying ideas hold on the human mind and spirit.
In this article I shall propose a model for understanding the stages in conversion and subsequent development of the born-again Christian's lifestyle. Since personality changes in converts into these sects of the Christian Church may be dramatic and long lasting, it is important to understand the dynamics by which these sects progressively shape and mold human character.
Fundamentalist thinking within the Christian faith is characterized as belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible and the inerrancy of scripture. There is typically also an inflexible morality and dogmatic interpretation of the scriptures. This scriptural literalism is usually extended to a belief in the second coming of Christ, the Rapture of believers, a Last Judgement, and sentencing of the spirit to an Eternal Heaven and Hell. Depending on the particular sect, there may also be an insistence on infilling of the Holy Spirit with evidence of spiritual gifts, a particular baptismal rite, or selection of a particular version of the Bible such as the King James Version. Evangelical churches are characterized as fundamentalistic sects which place their greatest emphasis on "winning souls for Christ", in other words, effecting conversion. Members of these churches may refer to themselves as "born-again Christians."
In our initial scenario, a potential convert is exposed to materials advocating the fundamentalist or evangelical point of view, often repeatedly. These initial stimuli include exposure to preaching or Christian testimonials, watching Christian television programs, or reading gospel tract materials.
If the individual, as a result of that exposure, actually undergoes conversion and lifestyle modification, the steps of the process of conversion and lifestyle change may follow the pattern shown below.
Step one and two constitute the creation of doubt process. A terrible fear that cannot be empirically disproved is introduced into the proselyte's awareness. This fear evokes the primal terror of non-existence, of destruction of the soul. Further, the message this fear is couched in attacks the basic assumptions about life, about God, about the universe. This blatant attack at the foundations of psyche is presented as absolutely authoritative, from the Bible, the Word of God, virtually paralyzing any attempt to rationally defuse it.
Simultaneously, a solution is offered in the context that it is "the only solution, there is no other way". In the state of vulnerability that goes with existential doubt, the need for certainty, for some firm ground under one's feet, is tantamount. The basic security that one's values, existence, and personal meaning are safe and valid, that one's fundamental assumptions can be trusted, has been assaulted. There is a need to quickly reduce the cognitive and emotional stress this attack engenders.
To accept this solution offered reduces the dissonance. The convert may reason in this manner:
By accepting the solution, too, the fear and emotional distress is lessened. This mitigation effect is especially pronounced when during the prayer for forgiveness and salvation that accompanies Christian conversion there is an inner mystical experience with a conveying of assurance that forgiveness and salvation has been granted.
Accepting the solution suggested requires more than an acceptance of a new belief, whose immediate result is to reduce dissonance and fear. The ritual confession, repentance, and request for forgiveness and salvation (the conversion prayer) are only the beginning of a whole series of lifestyle changes and obligatory behaviors. One must undergo a rebirth or initiation ceremony (baptism), and in some churches there is prayer for empowerment, or anointing, by the Holy Spirit (confirmation) which occurs later. Additionally, one may be encouraged to attend church regularly and worship with other believers, to pray and study the Bible daily, to attend Bible study groups, and to attend social functions with other believers (fellowship).
In steps three and four, the acceptance process, there is the conversion experience, and the restructuring of lifestyle of the Christian neophyte to allow an ongoing instruction in matters of faith, about expected behavior, and for correction of belief (indoctrination).
This indoctrination provides for reinforcement of the attitude of faith and quelling of doubts or misgivings, and the shaping of a new character by the minister's exhortations and pressure of expectations by the new convert's fellow believers. The instructional process the new convert experiences approximates a total re-socialization, and involves establishment of a new lifestyle based on belief in certain foundational principles of morality, and communication of a world view about the nature of the Divine, of the origins of the universe, the place of man in History, and the future of the world as foretold in prophecy.
The authority for these mythic and theological underpinnings of the convert's new world view and morality is based on the Bible, which in fundamentalistic sects is held to be infallible and unquestionable.
The acceptance process is also the "locking in" of the believer into a closed system that discourages exit. Fear and ridicule are used to thwart investigation of any other belief systems, and unacceptable doctrine is vigorously attacked in preaching. Any attempts by the believer to doubt the faith or question the infallibility of scripture is quickly corrected by the minister, or by those who have reached the level of personal commitment, who take it upon themselves to be teacher and guide for the neophyte.
There are also certain internal conditions that predispose the believer to continue in the life of faith. To doubt or stop believing is to re-expose oneself to the existential fear evoked by the imagery of Hell and Eternal Damnation. The relative safety provided by the Church, despite its shortcomings, may be seen as preferable to re-immersion into the doubt and fear that precipitated conversion in the first place, or into the guilt that has become attached to the prospect of resuming former "sinful" behaviors or relationships with non-believers.
These external and internal pressures combine to thoroughly reshape a new believer's thinking and beliefs. With this cognitive change, there is also behavioral change, and new habits supplant the convert's old ones. This grooming of a new person, replete with full definition of permissible behavioral limits and acceptable belief, requires the capitulation of personal inclination and independent inquiry to the posture of submissive and timorous conformity in thought, word and deed. The mountain ram, full of the vigor of life and the freedom of nature, has become the caged, domesticated sheep.
The commitment process of steps five through seven begins with the asking of the convert to part with something of value, usually represented by money. This is done by asking for sacrificial offerings, beyond the "dollar in the hat" or "spare change for the minister" kind of giving. Sacrificial giving may take the form of committing to a certain amount each month (pledges), ten percent of overall income (tithes), or the giving up of a cherished personal desire or goal, and spending the money put aside for that purpose on the Church or in charity (sacrifice).
Giving is justified by reference to scriptural promises that the believer will be rewarded by Divine Providence many times over. Indeed, many churches preach the way to prosperity is by generous tithing and giving. This ensures that the Church will have a splendid building to hold its services in, that the pastor will not endure the rigors of poverty, and that there will be plenty of money to buy media time and gospel tracts to convert the non-believers. Non-believers, upon their conversion, will also learn the virtues of giving.
Business is booming in the fundamentalist churches. Evangelical groups report the largest number of new conversions, together with the largest growth in church income.
Money, when given voluntarily, is a statement that "I value this." Even if the giving does not initially involve genuine valuing, the dissonance reaction "if I'm giving so much money, it must be important to me" begins to operate, and attitude change follows. Eventually, the believer comes to feel that he or she truly values giving, and may use the scriptural promises or minister's assurances as proof of the "rightness" of this behavior.
Personal commitment, genuine wholehearted advocacy of the faith, is established through the process of attribution. Life changes or so-called "miraculous" transformations are attributed to the "power of God" or "faith", and the believer begins the process of proving that the belief is correct. To anchor genuine conviction , the believer obsessively tells others about his or her beliefs (preaching), tells the story of his or her personal odyssey and transformation (testimonial), and attempts to convert others to the "truth" and "saving faith" (proselytization). Ministers often encourage this newly found zeal, knowing that a tale twice told becomes more believable.
These life changes and healing have been explained by other means. For example, the self-fulfilling nature of expectancy has been implicated in attitude changes. Belief in faith healing has been shown to have an immune enhancing response in promoting recovery from illness.
But it is more important to the zealot in the stage of personal commitment to attribute them to his or her spiritual wellsprings in the power of God, or faith. By strongly asserting his or her belief and faith, the believer is actively fighting against his or her internal doubt and misgivings.
The zealot's advocacy of belief involves going out on a limb and taking personal risks. Fear of "losing face", that is, becoming ashamed or embarrassed before the congregation, makes the believer all the more fiery in his or her zeal to "live the life" (be an example for virtuous behavior) and "preach the gospel to every living creature" (proselytize others).
This inner drive for perfection, the constant striving to be an example for the congregation creates a tremendous psychological pressure and conflict within the committed believer.
Social pressure comes to bear on the believer, too, for once the believer adopts a leadership role in the Church, the congregation expects him or her to maintain it. This pressure exerted from within and without may either lead the individual to crack under the strain and regress to his or her former behavior before conversion (backsliding), or it may catapult him or her into the stage of total commitment (holiness).
In holiness, the individual becomes totally open to the influence of Spirit. The believer begins to experience altered states of consciousness, and receives guidance by revelations or visions, and inner voices.
These visions may purportedly reveal the meaning of a scripture or point of doctrine that has evaded understanding.
The voices may give him or her commands that he or she feels compelled to obey. The individual may believe that God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit have requested him or her to start a church, to go into the ministry, or prophesy on the street corner.
Under such remarkable inspiration, individuals have been known to carry heavy wooden crosses for long distances, to be chained to crosses for days and nights in freezing weather, to undergo long fasts or self-imposed penance, and carry on other excesses in the name of faith.
If the believer is able to continue to live according to this inner prompting as one's primary source of meaning and personal direction, he or she may become a saint, a prophet, and evangelista person wholly consumed by his or her religion.
In holiness, the "veils of the temple" have surely been rent, and the obsession with God and God's demands on one's life is a consuming passion.
The believer in the grips of holiness is not in a rational state. Because of their recognition of the particular vulnerability and innocence of this state, Catholic Christianity and other world religions have thoughtfully adopted monastic traditions to protect these "opened ones" from themselves, and the excesses due to their own inspirations and convictions.
Unfortunately, in many sects of fundamentalism, these totally committed believers have often assumed positions of influence in the Church, spreading their inspired "revelations from God" in the pulpit to their congregations, and over television to the masses.
The vulnerability of believers in the stage of holiness may take different forms.
This is a particularly innocent state in that the believer has little experience in dealing with communications and revelations from the Sublime, and may readily misinterpret his or her inspirations. Without knowledge of cross-cultural religious traditions or the phenomena of the stages of spiritual growth, the believer may readily lose perspective and suppose his or her fount of inspirations to be the only and final truth.
To truly become a saint, where every impulse is refined, every wayward tendency of mind beaten into submission, and human character has been completely reformed, is a rare occurrence. Only after years of self-discipline and denial do the ultimate fruits of holiness begin to develop: selfless love, humility, purity of heart, forgiveness and compassion.
This revolutionized character does not develop overnight, and those who embark on the way of holiness should not set themselves up for disappointment by expecting instant or miraculous transformation. Worse, pretending transformation where none has occurred, is an unfortunate self-delusion.
The austerity, self-denial, and total commitment required of holiness effectively bars the door to those believers of less steely will and stalwart patience. Many converts can and do develop themselves to the level of personal commitment, but the final leap into surrender to and communion with the Spirit is a sacrifice not palatable to the masses of believers. For even shame, the great motivator of the personally committed believer, must be renounced to enter the door of holiness.
Rare individuals do take the risk of giving all for God. However, the "High Calling of God in Jesus Christ" is not tantalizing enough for most believers to endure the high costs of total commitment. Loss of reputation or public defamation, embarrassment and loss of personal esteem, loss of money or position, even loss of life (matyrdom) may be required to walk the narrow path of devotion. We may add that insanity and the excesses of fanaticism lay in store for those that do not successfully navigate this vale of visions and tears.
In summary, conversion by fundamentalistic groups is begun by introducing doubts about one's fundamental beliefs about life, and using irrational fear to coerce confession of sin, repentance, and adoption of a primary religious belief system (faith). After this primary belief system has been established, basic guidelines for belief, morality, lifestyle, and behavior are inculcated and shaped through socialization into the "new family" of the Church. Finally, through asking for and challenging individuals to make progressively deeper commitments to the Christian community and spiritual life, they are led to a greater participation in the works of Christian charity, development of the church and active ministry. Rare individuals may undergo the transformation of character and reliance on inner guidance indicative of holiness.
Fundamentalists need to recognize, however, that viable and personally rewarding solutions to the quest for personal meaning and value, and spiritual growth, across cultures and throughout history, have not been restricted solely to the Christian Church. They also need to appreciate that the same free will they so highly respect, does not function either freely or rationally when conflict is introduced into the subconscious mind through conversion tactics using fear, shame, guilt and the creation of doubt. If we are to survive into the 21st Century, we must recognize that we live in a world of multiple cultures and pluralistic religious beliefs, and tolerance and respect for others' choices, however different from our own, must guide our actions.