Friday, 21 March 2014

The responsibilities of "converts"

First of all, when convert is used as a noun, i.e. when an individual is described as a convert, it may mean one of a number of things.
  • The person could be a person who was part of one major faith tradition, but who became part of a different major faith.  Thus, a convert is a Christian who becomes a Jew, or a Buddhist who becomes a Muslim, etc.
  • Or the person could be a person from a non-religious world view who embraces a religious faith.
These are the classic understandings of what we mean when we call a person a convert.  In these cases, I normally use the word without quotation marks.

In other cases, I use the word convert with quotation marks.  These are when:
  • a member of one Christian denomination becomes part of another Christian denomination (a Presbyterian becomes an Anglican, or a member of the Salvation Army becomes a Roman Catholic, or a Baptist becomes Eastern Orthodox, or a member of the Uniting Church becomes a Quaker, etc.); or
  • a person who identifies as part of a faith tradition, but fairly inactively, develops a greater involvement and commitment to her/his faith, but without changing their religious identity.  (Evangelical Christians frequently use "convert" in this way.)
In these cases, I normally use "convert" with quotes.

So, for example, St. Augustine and Malcolm X were converts, while Tony Blair was a "convert".

Whether we are thinking of converts or "converts" (and, in the rest of this article, I'll write "converts" to refer both to converts and to "converts"), they have some responsibilities both to the faith tradition or denomination they are leaving and to the one they are embracing.

Here are some suggestions.

1.  Make sure you give the tradition you're leaving a "fair go" before you leave.

There is a long-standing Jewish tradition that a potential Gentile convert to Judaism is refused three times before they are allowed to begin the process of conversion.  Only those who persist in asking to convert will convert.

I can see the logic of this, particularly in terms of Judaism.  A person who voluntarily becomes a Jew will find themselves suddenly confronted with the fact that a large number of people violently hate him/her, for no other reason than because of their identity as a Jew.   No community will easily ask any other person to voluntarily accept this level of scorn.

But even moving outside the particular dynamic of antisemitism, there is good sense to this practice.  Many people who seek to change their religious identification have not really given their earlier faith tradition a "fair go".  Leaders of many Christian traditions who frequently find members of other denominations attracted to their life together (Roman Catholicism, Episcopalian/Anglicanism, Orthodoxy, Quakers) normally make a point of telling prospective "converts" from other denominations that they should give their previous denomination another chance to see if they can find sustenance there rather than in a change of identity.  There is wisdom in that approach.  Give your old tradition a "fair go".

2.  Don't treat your old tradition as if it were some unhealthy cult from which you've "escaped".

If you do become a "convert", do not assume that every person in your previous tradition is somehow trapped in something highly unhealthy.  There will be many people who will find spiritual sustenance in your old tradition.  Don't treat the tradition in which you had been nurtured as a cult.

Like many "converts", you may find yourself saying something at times like "I'm an Episcopalian, and I'm also a recovering Baptist."  When you say this, make sure that you mean it as a joke, and that the person to whom you make the comment realises it's a joke.

3.  Don't treat your new tradition as if it is a miraculous cult which infallibly provides everyone with all the answers to life's questions.

Similarly, many "converts" get very defensive about their new tradition.  They find criticism of their new tradition hard to take, even when it comes from people who have had a far longer experience of their tradition.  Realise that there may be people in your new tradition who will regard it as highly confining, even as you find it highly liberating.

4.  Embrace the whole of your new tradition, not merely one aspect or faction within it.

Your new tradition is larger than that aspect of it which initially attracted you to it.  There are other parts of your new tradition which you may find far less attractive.  Guess what?  When you "converted", you adopted a "package deal".  Those aspects of your new tradition you find less attractive are part of your new identity as well.  (It may help here if you don't automatically gravitate to the most eccentrically conservative expression of your new tradition, as many "converts" sadly do.  Embrace the mainstream of your new tradition, as well as the fringe.)

5.  Don't treat "cradle" or "birthright" members of your new tradition as if they are spiritual buffoons.

In many faith traditions, "converts" have a reputation for being somewhat arrogant in their attitudes toward those who were members of the community all their lives, toward those who are "cradle Orthodox", for example, or "cradle Catholics".  (I personally like the Quaker terminology that speaks of "birthright Quakers" and "Quakers by convincement".)  You may find that "birthright" members of your new tradition are a bit more matter-of-fact than you'd like in their approach to what is a new and liberating faith to you.  It may not be an lack of commitment on their part.  It may just be spiritual maturity.

6.  Regard yourself as having a vocation to be a link between your old and new traditions, providing each with a fair and accurate picture of each other.

Don't romanticise your new community or rubbish your old community.  Be honest and accurate when speaking of both.  Be charitable when speaking of your old community.
  • Friends and family members in your old tradition will evaluate your new tradition by you.  Be the best newly Orthodox "convert" you can be. 
  • Friends and fellow-worshippers in your new tradition will evaluate your old tradition by you.  Be the best former Evangelical you can be.
Finally and, I hope, without need for explanation:

7.  When you meet a person who is a "convert" from your new tradition to your old tradition, please don't freak out.  Get to know this person and discuss your different pilgrimages of faith.  You may each teach other much, both about your old/new traditions and about your new/old traditions.

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.