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Conversions

I recently read an interesting and, admittedly, challenging article.  It was written by Charles Curran, a moral theologian who is very respected by me and others.  He is a Catholic theologian who teaches at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.  He is my age or older, so has been around for some time as a challenger of the Roman Catholic sometimes narrow interpretations of things.  But he challenges not only his fellow Catholics.  He confronts the narrowness of all of us who are not Catholic.  I have appreciated him for this.  He has helped me grow.

I was caught by the title of his essay before I even realized it was by Curran.  The title jumped out at me: “Facing up to privilege requires conversion.”  The focus of the article is on white privilege.  I understand this is an issue that is receiving a great deal of attention, but also realize it is a very old issue.  In effect, white privilege is what I have simply because I am a white person.  There is nothing I did in my life to deserve it.  It is simply how I was born.

However, in this inspirational piece I don’t want to focus on the idea of white privilege---even though it deserves a long and studied reflection.  Instead, I want to focus on the other major idea in Curran’s essay, namely, conversion.  Conversion is something I have thought about for a long time.  But Curran’s treatment added some new thinking to my way of seeing conversion.

Curran identifies three “types of conversion,’ as he calls them.  These three are personal, intellectual and spiritual.  He applies these to how he is dealing with his own sense of white privilege.  I think this is admirable and I plan to learn from what he is doing.  But I also think that these types of conversion apply more broadly than solely to white privilege.  I would like to look at each one to get a fuller sense of what conversion means.

Literally, conversion means turning away from something (or someone) and turning toward another thing (or person).  In some ways to convert is to pledge allegiance to that the one to which you convert.  Many of us have used the term to claim a conversion to God.  This is probably the easiest place to understand the first type of conversion---the personal.  When I use conversion in this sense, I don’t necessarily mean an altar-call type of conversion.  I recognize this characterizes the way it happens for some folks and I respect that.  But it was not that way for me.

Instead my experience has been slow, gradual and sometimes hit-or-miss conversion.  My experience has been this kind of slow pledging allegiance to the creative, sustaining God of the Universe (however that God is conceived).  It is personal because it causes me to be and do things on account of this commitment to and relationship with God.  In some ways I am sure this conversion process will go on as long as I live.  I continue to need to convert the remaining parts of my personal life.  Conversion is not a “one and done” deal.

The second type of conversion Curran identified is intellectual.  This makes much sense to me.  Intellectual conversion involves becoming conscious---conscious of who I am, my own historical and cultural situation, etc.  This is a big piece of being aware of my white privilege.  But in the context of my conversion to God, the intellectual aspect of conversion means leaning to see myself in a new way and trying to live out of that newness.

For example, conversion to God in my own Christian way means intellectually I am now a part of the body of Christ.  And that body of Christ includes many, many people who aren’t like me, except that they are Christians, too.  My commitment means I need to care and share with everyone---even the ones I might not really like.  Intellectual conversion means seeing this new way and, then, having the spiritual guts to go for it.

And that brings in the third type of conversion---the spiritual.  In some ways this spiritual conversion drives the other two.  If I can put it simply, if intellectual conversion is a conversion of the head, the spiritual conversion is a matter of the heart.  Only if my conversion includes the heart can I put “my whole heart into it.”  My heart is nothing other than the “real me” or the “deeper me.”  There are many superficial “me’s,” but they don’t convert.  Conversion only deals with the “deep me.”

Admittedly, it is easy to write this stuff.  I can put words on the computer screen and you can read them and, in effect, we both can claim, “that’s finished.”  If I have said anything true, conversion is not finished---at least, until I die.  And the beauty of Curran’s analysis is conversion is not just one thing.  That is why I used the plural, conversions, in the title.

My hope is I can not only remember all this, but I can be practicing it.  Each new day I want to embrace the conversions in my life and see myself growing personally, intellectually and spiritually into the person God dreams I can become.  I want to be God’s dream come true.

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