Jesus tells Nicodemus, John 3, that if he wishes to see the Kingdom of God he must be born again or born from above. This story is central to the Christian faith tradition, for it reminds us that to be a Christian means to make a decision to be a disciple, to follow Jesus, and declare him to be Lord. According to John’s presentation, to seek the kingdom of God one must make a very personal, existential, life-changing decision. The message here is that we are born once of the flesh, but then born once more by the Spirit of God.
Conversion is definitely a part of the Christian reality. Although many Christians are essentially born into the faith, for the first three centuries of Christian history, this was a proscribed faith and to become a Christian meant separating one’s self from the rest of society. Baptism served as a sign of this decision, and often occurred after a long period of instruction. Still, even today, even in communities that practice infant baptism and assume that one becomes part of the community from that point on, there is the assumption that one must own this faith at some point. It’s true that for many Christians the transition doesn’t require change one’s life to a great degree, but for others, even those born into the faith, the decision to follow Jesus and live accordingly, is wrought with great angst and does involve a very dramatic change of perspective and life-style. For those who enter the faith from outside even great change may be involved. Discussions about conversion are complex and can be difficult, especially when the change involved is seen as a threat to another community.
The assumption inherent to conversion is that it involves a change of understanding, of lifestyle, and community. It can involve a sense of repentance, recognition that one’s past life didn’t reflect God’s expectations. So, for instance, consider the stories of people like Bartolomé de Las Casas, who discovered that faith in Christ required that he stand up for the rights of the indigenous population of Latin America. Or, there’s John Newton, the former slave trader, whose conversion led him to oppose slavery.
People convert for many different reasons – some because of material incentives, but others because of intellectual discovery or an experience of the spiritual that changes one’s focus in life. It can be dramatic – a Damascus road experience -- or it can involve an evolving sense of a new vision for life. For Augustine, Martin Luther and John Wesley, a new sense of faith came as they read Paul’s letter to the Romans. Augustine notes that he was experiencing a moment of deep spiritual crisis when he heard voices telling him to “Pick it up, read it,” and at that moment he picked up the Bible, and opened it to Romans where he found a directive that enlightened his life and his heart exchanged a spirit of doubt for one of certainty. Many conversion narratives involve dramatic spiritual tension, and these are the stories that attract us most, even if our own story isn’t nearly as dramatic. Whatever the case they inspire us.
The collection of conversion stories that takes the title Finding God offers us a series of narratives that begins with St. Paul and runs chronologically to Bono. Some are autobiographical, while others are the accounts of others. There are some stories that involve changes of religion, but others don’t involve moving out of one religion into Christianity, but rather speak of a deeper realization of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. That is, these are expressions of that “twice-born” experience that Jesus speaks of with Nicodemus. This collection of conversion stories is gathered and introduced by John Mulder, formerly President of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, and is based on an earlier collection edited by Mulder’s mentor at Princeton Hugh T. Kerr that was published under the title Famous Conversions.
The collection includes the conversion narratives of Augustine, Martin Luther, Bartolomé de Las Casas, Teresa of Avila, John Wesley, Fanny Crosby, Pandita Ramabai, Albert Schweitzer, Toyohiko Kagawa, Dorothy Day, Simone Weil, Mother Teresa, and many more. Some of these stories focus on the intellectual, but most reflect something far deeper – an abiding sense of God’s transformative presence. The stories help us realize that conversion is highly complex and very personal. As one who has undergone conversion experiences – probably more than one – I am very aware of this reality. It is fitting then that the editors have chosen to provide us with representative records. No attempt is made to “type” them, but rather they’re laid out chronologically. The first is Paul and the next is Constantine –one of the more controversial converts in Christian history. Constantine’s story is told by Eusebius – the earliest church historian and confidant of the emperor. Since Constantine is often demonized in contemporary circles, reading his story may confirm some suspicions but also open us up to the possibility of the complexity of such decisions. There could be a mixture of motives and it’s not always easy to judge.
This is by no means a complete collection of conversion stories. Mulder notes that figures such as Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, and Dwight L. Moody do not appear. In part because they have not left enough of a narrative to display, even if there is evidence of conversion. Mulder concludes, after naming a number of possibilities who could have been included but whose narratives are rather terse, that there are sufficient numbers of stories to be told. And he concludes his introduction, having shared his own “twice-born” experience, that “Whether famous or not, the important thing for any Christian is not only to record what it means to be converted but to have one’s own name ‘written in the Lamb’s book of life’ (Rev. 21:27).”
Reading through this collection of conversion stories can be inspiring, and one needn’t read cover to cover to get the sense of the variety of conversions that have occurred and continue to occur. For those Christians, who, like me, are involved in interfaith work and worry about coercive forms of conversion (proselytism), this collection may provide fodder for discussion. The stories help us understand that Christianity is a religion that involves conversion, though some put more emphasis on it than others. Hopefully meditation upon these stories will help us clarify the difference between coercive and deceptive forms of conversion and those that represent appropriate and personal decisions that involve deep changes in one’s life.
I believe that this collection is worth keeping close at hand, especially for preachers, but also for those like me who have developed close relationships with people whose faith confessions are very different from my own. I found this collection to be at times challenging, but also inspiring. We're indebted to John Mulder for expanding the earlier volumes for our use today.