AND SCOPE OF CONVERSION
by Robert M. Price
The recent controversies over cult "brainwashing"
and deprogramming have brought the question of "conversion" once again
to people's minds. Just what is involved in such a sudden and unexpected
turnabout? Is it the work of the Holy Spirit, or mere brainwashing? In
the light of this questioning, perhaps the time is ripe for a
reconsideration of conversion and its role in evangelical Christianity.
This article will argue that conversion understood as the miraculous
work of the Holy Spirit is not merely the entry-point to the Christian
life. Rather, it is integral to the theological agenda and determines
the shape of evangelical religious life from beginning to end. And when
the understanding of conversion as supernatural is modified, the
far-reaching implications are both surprising and ironic.
Conversion and Miracles
Among evangelicals (Christians who would describe
themselves as "born-again" or "Bible-believing"), conversion is commonly
believed to be a miraculous operation of the Holy Spirit, an act of God
discontinuous with the ordinary chain of worldly cause-and-effect. One
often hears such phrases as: "God just reached down into my life." It
would be hard to deny that most born-again Christians mean this in more
than a metaphorical ... sense; we might call them "hard-line
supernaturalists." But in recent years, some of their psychologists have
become willing to admit that conversion is quite admissible to
naturalistic causal explanation, and that the supernatural aspect of
conversion must be redefined. This shift results in part from the
embracing of general psychological methodology, wherein immanent
causation, not otherworldly intervention, is the only calculable factor
in diagnosis and treatment.
But one suspects that these psychologists have also
felt the force of the challenge of William Sargant and others, who claim
to be able to show the purely psychological roots of conversion. For
example, Sargant (1975) wrote, "When we find that the technique of
‘saving' people at revival meetings follows the same pattern [as
abreactive treatment of wartime patients] and depends on the same brain
mechanisms, it is impossible not to wonder about the reality of the
divine power supposedly responsible for the ‘change’” (p. 194). Long
ago, of course, William James had made essentially the same
Psychology and religion... both admit that there
are forces seemingly outside of the conscious individual that bring
redemption to his life. Nevertheless psychology, defining these forces
as “subconscious” . . . implies that they do not transcend the
individual’s personality; and herein she diverges from Christian
theology, which insists that they are direct supernatural operations of
the Deity. (James, 1958, p. 173).
But James adds, "I do not see why Methodists need
object to such a view" (p. 191). That is, perhaps evangelicals might
find acceptable some model of conversion that did not demand a
miraculous intervention of God in the psychological process.
Now it seems that some psychologists have taken the
bait, compelled to make some peace between their professional
methodology on the one hand and their faith on the other. Malcolm Jeeves,
responding to William Sargant, is certain that theological truth is of
quite a different order than that of the facts of psychological
causation. Thus even if Sargant is right, one need not doubt that the
supernatural is still involved, at least in some sense. Jeeves writes:
Neither is the psychological account [of
conversion] a competitor with the account which the person converted
gives in his own personal and religious language... The point is that
within its own language system and at its own level, each account may be
regarded as, at least in principle, exhaustive... but [not]
exclusive. . . . Thus the personal account which refers to a
personal encounter with God does not have to be "fitted in" to... the
psychological. . . account. . . . In general, we find that the personal
account of the event is much more concerned with the personal
significance of the event than with the particular psychological. .
mechanism which may have been operative at the time. (1976, p. 141).
Thus conversion requires no miraculous intervention
into the normal psychological process.
We find a similar approach to the mechanics of
conversion in Keith Miller (1978). After accepting James’s basic outline
of the psychological process of conversion, Miller goes on to explain
conversion in terms borrowed from Abraham Maslow:
the experience of "Christian conversion" seemed
very similar in some ways to Maslow’s “peak experiences" in the lives of
self-actualizers.... There may be a real correlation between what
happens to a person through becoming a Christian and the meeting of
different clusters of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.... What may have
happened is that through a significant conversion experience some
Christians have had several of their basic clusters of need met
by God and the church (pp. 78-79).
Indeed Maslow himself is hardly disinclined to see
conversion experiences ("personal revelations") in such terms. But again
he sees a significant implication that Miller does not see.
The big lesson that must be learned here, not only
by the nontheists and liberal religionists, but also by the
supernaturalists... is that mystery, ambiguity, illogic, contradiction,
mystic and transcendent experiences may now be considered to lie well
within the realm of nature. These phenomena need not drive us to
postulate additional supernatural variables and determinants (Maslow,
1974, p. 45).
Miller wants to facilitate our understanding of
conversion for good pastoral reasons, but, as Maslow observes, the mere
explicable conversion becomes in immanent psychological terms, the less
room is left for divine causation from without. The less mysterious it
becomes, the less miraculous. And Maslow warns against simply redefining
terms like "miraculous.”
I am myself uneasy, even jittery, over the semantic
confusion which lies in store for us-- indeed which is already here--as
all the concepts which have been traditionally “religious” are redefined
and then used in a very different way. (1974, p. 45).
Just such a redefinition seems to be implied in the
writings of psychologists and counselors like Jeeves and Miller. The
influence of the Holy Spirit is still supposed to underlie the process
of conversion in a general but rather unclear way. It is striking to
realize the continuity between the "soft-line supernaturalist"
redefinition of the miraculous aspect of conversion, and the
understanding of miracles in Liberal theology.
In fact... a miracle in the sense of an action of
God cannot be thought of as an event which happens on the level of
secular (worldly) events. It is not visible, not capable of objective,
scientific proof.... The thought of the action of God as [a]...
transcendent action can be protected from misunderstanding, only if it
is not thought of as an action which happens between worldly actions or
events, but as happening within them. . . . The action of God is hidden
from every eye except the eye of faith. (Bultmann, 1958, pp. 61-62)
In events like the Exodus or the Resurrection,
Liberals say, no extraordinary events occurred, but God may still be
said to have “acted” in the significance of events. Divine action did
not interrupt or preempt the ordinary sequence of cause-and-effect. In
Bultmann's terms, God did not actually vivify the corpse of Jesus, but
he did "raise Jesus into the kerygma” in Geschichte
(supra-history). (1961, pp. 41-42). Or as Gordon Kaufman puts it, God’s
acts take place in the “history of meaning,” not in the history of
events (1968, p. 433).
The same tendency is apparent in the writings of
Charles Martin (1973). He also seeks to reply to the charge of Sargant,
which he first summarizes:
The mechanism by which [Christian conversion] is
produced is akin to psychological brainwashing. Billy Graham and his
fellow mass-evangelists are seen as expert mindbenders ... Thus
becoming a Christian can be reduced to molecule-talk (mass psychology)
Molecule-talk is one of three language-games
enumerated by Martin. “Mo1ecu1e-talk assumes a real world, cause and
effect, and the significance of rational thought" (p. 11 0). By
contrast, the second and third language games are those of personal
subjective freedom, and of ethica1 “oughtness" and obligation. Each is
irreducible to the others.
[N]ow "God” cannot be fitted in among these.... Yet
God-talk gives accounts of things that can be acc.ounted for in the
other fields.... Certainly "God" cannot be fitted into any of these
three frameworks nor can he go into a fourth area on the same level (p.
Once again, God is the transcendent cause lying
behind the whole works, not a “ghost in the machine” that interferes
with its workings at opportune moments:
The realm of nature, the molecule-talk area, is
seen to depend upon God as creato! in setting it going, and God as
sustainer in keep- ' ing it going. It is regular and open to rational
investigation because it is the work "of a reliable, rational God (p.
Not only has Martin repeated Jeeves's (and
Bultmann's) sealing off of the historical/scientific and the theological
levels of reality; he has (no doubt unwittingly) even recapitulated the
assumptions of Schleiermacher' s polemic against miracles!
Schleiermacher wrote in his magnum opus The Christian Faith
Now some have represented miracle [as intervention
in the cause and-effect process] as essential to the perfect
manifestation of divine omnipotence. But it is difficult to conceive...
how omnipotence is shown to be greater in the suspension of the
interdependence of nature than in its original immutable course which
was no less divinely ordered. For, indeed, the capacity to make a change
in what has been ordained is only a merit in the ordainer, if a change
is necessary, which... can only be the result of some imperfection in
him or in his work (p. 179).
Schleiermacher, like Martin, hails the Newtonian
regularity of God's creation and attributes it to God’s sovereign
transcendence that He is not one more cause-among-causes! What
Schleiermacher sees that Martin does not is that this observation
demands the redefinition of "miracle" in a noninterventionist sense:
Miracle [should be understood as] simply the
religious name for event. Every event, even the most natural and usual,
become s a miracle, as soon as the religious view of it can be the
dominant [view]. To me all is miracle (Schleiermacher, 1958, p. 88).
Literal miracles, or miracles as traditionally
conceived, would require God to be one more finite causal agent within
the realm of "molecule-talk,” since it is God and no natural process
which vivifies corpses and parts the sea.
Another way to approach this question would be to
apply Francis Schaeffer's "line of despair" schema (Schaeffer, 1976, p.
22). According to this theory, modern theology (as all modern culture)
has opted for an explanation of mundane reality in terms of a closed
system of cause-and-effect. Experienced reality is explicable
naturalistically, without penetration by divine causation, i. e., no
miracles or miraculously revelatory Scripture. If this is true, conclude
s Schaeffer, reality functions mechanistically. It is then nothing
short of an arbitrary "upper-story leap" above the "line of despair" to
postulate any noumenal realm of transcendent, divine reality (p. 58). If
the rise of Easter .faith can truly be accounted for without a literal
resurrection, what besides religious nostalgia could lead Bultmann to
postulate a "suprahistorical" act of God? The important thing to see is
that by declaring theological explanation different in kind from
psychological explanation, and parallel to it, Jeeves and the others
have made God is alleged action in conversion "suprahistorical." Divine
causation does not penetrate the continuum of worldly events; it runs
parallel "above" it. Jeeves writes:
It is not that the descriptions in terms of the
various restricted categories [i.e., of psychology and theology] of the
same events have gaps in them. Such descriptions might be in theory
complete and perfectly valid as description on the scientific level. The
point is that there are other levels (1967, p. 13).
Jeeves, like Bultmann, has made an "upper-story
leap." And if this kind of understanding of God's acting can be admitted
at this point, shouldn't soft-line supernaturalists be willing to adjust
theology across the board? In fact, the burden of proof would be on
anyone who would hesitate at such consistency.
The same link between conversion and the biblical
miracles is reflected in sort of a mirror-image fashion in the work of
apologists like Carl F. H. Henry and Clark Pinnock. They have warned
that Liberal theology “dissolves the availability of the Gospel's answer
for lithe existential dilemmas of modern man" (Pinnock, 1976, p. 14;
Henry, 1968, pp. 152-153). What they have in mind is of course
“born-again" faith. If one opted for a libera1lheilsgeschichte"
understanding of God's activity, the possibility of real personal
regeneration would be compromised a few steps down the line. If
theologians deny that God intervenes miraculously in history, they
cannot then affirm that he may intervene miraculously to regenerate
individual lives today. Thus, apologists warn us, Liberalism is to be
shunned. But now, ironically, some “soft-line” psychologists are
beginning to erode the whole enterprise from the other end! If
conversion is not literally miraculous, why must any other "act of God"
be? Now such an implicit wide-ranging theological readjustment might be
a good thing. But if one is unwilling to make it, one might better push
the camel's nose out of the tent. Evangelical psychologists should stick
to their hard-line supernaturalist guns and try to refute Sargent and
others, if they think they can.
Conversion and the Christian Life
Having indicated the oft-unsuspected theological
centrality of conversion, understood as supernatural, the discussion
will show how miraculous conversion shapes the religious life from start
to finish. A brief consideration of three aspects of “the born-again
experience!” will serve this purpose.
First, conversion produces what might fairly be
labeled "a short circuited process of growth of the personal identity.
It can be understood in Helfaer’s (1972) terms as "precocious
ego-identity formation” (p.5).
In the case of the conservative Protestant
subculture, the social identity around which the ego-identity is formed
is that of the “Christian," or “follower of Christ." The identity is a
relatively simple one, and it represents the internalization of the
mutually recognized values and symbols of the community (p. 65).
If conversion occurs in late childhood, the
born-again Christian will apparently have a head start over his secular
friends. "Adolescence is not a time for major reorganization of the
personality” (p. 65). Why should it be? The evangelical youth has been
given the answers, even before he or she becomes aware of the questions.
James Marcia (1966) has investigated what he calls
the "foreclosed" personality among college students. The resulting
portrait strikingly matches that of many fundamentalist college students
and, we would argue, of other born-again Christians as well. According
A foreclosure subject is distinguished by not
having had experienced a crisis [of identity formation] yet expressing
commitment [to set value s and beliefs]. It is difficult to tell where
his parents’ goals for him leave off and where his begin. He is becoming
what others have prepared or intended him to become as a child…. College
experiences serve only as a confirmation of childhood beliefs. A certain
rigidity characterizes his personality; one feels that if he were faced
with a situation in which parental values were nonfunctional, he would
feel extremely threatened (p. 552).
Though Marcia shows that religious dogmatism is
part of this personality-package, "foreclosure" refers in general to the
subjects' attitudes toward vocation, politics, and other areas. Such a
student has definite ideas on all these topics, yet without having
wrestled with the questions on his or her own. By contrast, Marcia also
dealt with "identity diffusion" subjects, sort of “good time Charlie”
students who drift through college years with neither settled goals or
definite convictions. They have also "successfully" avoided a crisis
period, but have no firm commitment either Then there were "identity
moratorium" subjects who, at the time of testing, were in the throes of
the identity crisis. For them everything was "up for grabs." Answers
were not clear, but the hope was that they eventually would be. The last
group, "identity achieved" subjects, were those who had completed the
“moratorium" or crisis period, with the result that they had solid
opinions and goals, integrated into their personalities, and wholly
Returning to the "foreclosure" category, we may
easily expand Marcia's references to "parents" to include the
“significant others" of the individual's religious peer group,
especially those responsible for his or her conversion if born-again
faith has not been simply inherited from the family. The aptness of this
sketch may be attested by anyone who has had much experience with campus
Christian groups like Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Navigators,
Chi Alpha, etc. Adopting Marcia's categories, Henry and Renaud (1972)
describe the college experience of "foreclosed" students: "A good
majority never consider any other path, and any question of alternative
life styles rarely comes up for discussion" (p. ) Just so, the
evangelical student may attend discussions where moral alternatives
(say, premarital sex) are raised only to be refuted with proof-texts.
Awareness of options or the possibility of change
tends to precipitate anxiety in"such young people, and left to
themselves they skirt the unfamiliar. . . . Thus they effectively
insulate themselves from meeting new people and being exposed to new
ideas (p. 5).
Accordingly, Campus Crusade and Inter- Varsity
"action groups" establish a cozy support group where the student1 s
"plausibility structure" (Berger, 1970) is maintained against the
pressures of the secular environment. The student is to venture forth to
meet the "unsaved" only on covert missions of "friendship evangelism.”
Contact with those of different opinions is initiated for the purpose
not of interaction but of proselytizing.
One of the implications of such a mode of operation
for the college experience is that these students, already largely
closed down to new experiences and ideas when they enter college,
usually continue to avoid faculty whose views might challenge theirs
(Henry and Renaud, p. 5).
This observation accounts for the frequent
avoidance of religion or Bible courses by fundamentalist students on
secular campuses. Of course there are exceptions which prove the rule;
nowadays one finds more fundamentalists taking such courses specifically
in order to “defend the faith" against unbelieving professors. For this
purpose, the student is armed by the evangelical staff worker with
apologetics literature such as Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands
a Verdict (1973). The Inter- Varsity Press, probably the most
sophisticated arm of that organization, seems largely dedicated to
providing an extensive range of apologetics material dealing with every
issue from biblical criticism to comparative religion, from
Behavioristic psychology to Marxism. The student is led to believe that
he or she just happens to be heir to the most cogent interpretation of
the facts in virtually every field. And this of course is just what
these students want to believe anyway. Why bother to evaluate the
alternatives for themselves? The apologists have saved them the trouble.
Besides falling short of liberal-arts academic
ideals, do such "foreclosed" students, whether born-again Christians or
otherwise, really suffer ill-effects from their "foreclosure"? Yes, it
seems as if they do. Marcia found that such individuals’ self-esteem was
more easily threatened by negative feedback than those who had
"achieved" identity through struggle. They also seemed inclined to set
unrealistic goals for themselves. And, not surprisingly, they tended
toward authoritarian thinking. The relevance of this last observation is
only too clear relative to those students who are taught to settle all
questions by biblical proof-texting instead of inductive reasoning.
Chesen (1973) summed up the problem well: “Rigid, confined, and
stereotyped religious thinking patterns can be directly contributory to
emotional instability" (p. 27). It would certainly seem to be in the
interests of the campus evangelism groups themselves to encourage a more
flexible and inductive approach to college experience among their
members. Evangelical students might then arrive at a faith better
integrated and more balanced, though obviously the dangers of
assimilation and secularization would also be increased. Yet this risk
is the price of trusting students to think for themselves. Certainly
more might drift away from faith and into the secular mainstream. But
others would no longer be driven from faith by the narrow limits of it
defined by their campus groups. And graduates from these groups might be
more capable and valuable members of the evangelical movement.
We have been concentrating on young people and
students, but it would seem that basically the same dynamics are in play
no matter at what age conversion occurs, since much evangelical rhetoric
tends to make the goal of all personal (“spiritual”) growth the ideal of
"conformity to the image of Christ,” characteristically interpreted as
being religiously mature. Other facets of life tend to be
ignored. The effect of this adoption of a relatively simple, and
basically religious, ego-identity has two important, superficially
positive, results. First, it accounts in large measure for the much
vaunted "sense of purpose" and of “having the answers." Born-again
Christians seem to "have peace” in a troubled world because they do not
have to work out the answers for themselves. Second, this sudden
"ego-identity formation” explains the ideological "party-line" approach
to moral issues present among most rank-and-file evangelicals. For
example, the minions of Jerry Falwell and Anita Bryant know
homosexuality is evil, perhaps without ever sensing the need to reason
A second area in which the importance of conversion
is manifest, is that of "witnessing" and apologetics. Conversion
provides a bond of emotional tenacity which no reasoning is likely to
affect. Leuba (1896, cited in James, 1958) wrote, “As the ground of
assurance here is not rational, argumentation is irrelevant. . . it is a
gross error to imagine that the chief practical value of the faith-
state is its power to stamp with the seal of validity certain particular
conceptions" (p. 198). He means to disallow emotive nonsequitors like
"You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” But can
anyone deny that born-again believers constantly confuse emotional
fervency and rational convincement in this manner? This can be seen most
readily in the quasi-rational approach taken in trying to deal with
objections of a non-believer whom one is trying to convert. The lay
evangelist has taken the trouble to master the answers to “questions
non-Christians most commonly ask,” but if he is stumped, he has been
coached to reply, "Say that’s a good question! I don’t have an answer,
but I'll try to get one for you." The irony of this reply should be, but
may not be, obvious. The whole appeal to the skeptic is an allegedly
rational one, seeking to satisfy rational objections, but the last
statement makes it clear that the believer himself holds his view on the
strength of sheer will power!Other wise, how could a “good” (i.e.,
genuinely cogent) objection not phase him? This common practice is
depicted in cartoon form in a recent flyer distributed by the
International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1980), advertising a "Lay
Seminar on the Authority of Scripture." In the drawing, a smirking
skeptic challenges a (literally) wide-eyed believer. carrying a huge
Bible, "Don't you believe the Bible is full of errors?" The believer
answers "No, the Bible is inerrant.” The skeptic barrages the
inerrantist with questions about textual contradictions, evolution,
etc., to which the believer replies variously "Well...," "Ahh...," "Well
ahh. .." The skeptic: "Doesn't anyone have answers to my questions?" Not
the believer! For he answers, "Funny you should mention that. There is
this seminar. . . ." (p. 1). Since born-again faith was probably
accepted because of emotional-existential factors, not intellectual
factors, the latter have little to do with the maintenance of faith.
Apologetics is only a strategy, and often a subtly dishonest one.
Third, conversion can be seen to be determinative
of the whole shape of "the Christian life" because of the
"get-saved-quick" scheme it proffers. "It cannot really be disputed that
most evangelistic rhetoric offers virtually instant solutions to all
problems through conversion. For example, take the "Four Spiritual Laws"
booklet (1972) used extensively by Campus Crusade for Christ, the
recent "Here's Life America" campaign, and many local churches. A
diagram characterizes the "carnal" life as chaotic and troubled as long
as "self" is on the throne. By contrast, the "spiritual" life has all
interests in order, orbiting serenely about the enthroned Jesus Christ.
And the difference is as simple as praying the standard prayer that
follows. However this promise is seldom completely fulfilled.
A second Campus Crusade booklet, "Have You Made the
Wonderful Discovery of the Spirit-filled Life?" (1972) reveals the
hitherto-unsuspected existence of a third classification, the
"carnal Christian." One's life is again a shambles, even with Christ as
savior, but again the remedy is simple. "Spiritual breathing"
(confessing sins and appropriating the Spirit's fullness) will rectify
things. Note that all of life’s problems are here reducible to sin. And
one need seek no further for a solution than religious repentance. Let
no one think that Bill Bright (founder of Campus Crusade) is unique in
this perception of things. In slightly different idioms this “hard
religious line" (to modify our earlier terminology) is common to
evangelicals ranging from Jay Adams (1971, 1975, 1976) with his "nouthetic
counseling" to Don Basham (1977) and his "deliverance ministry,” with
several stages in between: e.g., Vernon Grounds (1976), Tim La Haye
All this implies what might bluntly be called the "Shazam
model of sanctification." If regeneration is to be accomplished in an
essentially miraculous manner without the effort of the convert himself,
why not the subsequent process of growth? That is, whenever the born-
again Christian encounters some personal obstacle or deficiency, he must
"lay it on the altar," "give it to the Lord." It would be positively
impious to try to struggle through it oneself, and so act "in the
flesh." But isn't such struggling, fortunately or unfortunately, the
only path to personal maturity? And isn't this model of growth an
attempt to leapfrog one's way miraculously into maturity, as when
youngster Bill Batson said the magic word "Shazarn” and suddenly became
the adult Captain Marvel (Steranko, 1970)? It is not likely to work;
immaturity will be protracted as long as one takes Malcolm Smith's
(1972) advice to "turn your back on the problem."
The "Soft Religious Line"
Eventually, growing numbers of evangelicals
(including Bruce Larson, Keith Miller, O. Quentin Hyder, Cecil Osborne,
and Gary Collins) have some to see the lack of psychological realism in
this "hard religious line.” They seek to substitute a more humanistic
approach, whereby all problems are not simply spiritual in origin or
solution, and whereby the only goal is not "spiritual growth."
Sentiments like these are representative: "If my faith is in God, then
my job is not to build a successful, untainted religious life; it is to
live a joyful and creative human life" (Miller, 1977, p. 190). "[It] is
absolutely untrue that Christians cannot or should not become mentally
ill. We are just as vulnerable as pagans" (Hyder, 1974, p. 153). We
might call this a shift to a "soft religious line." Interestingly, the
same sort of modification of initially absolutist claims has been
observed among Meher Baba sectarians by Anthony, Robbins, Doucas, and
The early stages of involvement in a mystical
movement may also involve unrealistic expectations of rapid spiritual
apotheosis, e.g., Nirvana, Satori, God Realization. Such decisive
realization could be expected to obviate all emotional difficulties....
The press of worldly experience tends to result eventually in the
diminution of the unrealistic character of such expectations. Over time,
converts realize that conversion to a mystical perspective does not
result in the early transcendence of all earthly burdens (p. 873).
Renouncing the repression and perfectionism they
see in the "hard religious line," such "soft-line" writers announce a
new freedom for born-again Christians, a new possibility of "being
human." The irony is that the “burdens" being shed according to this new
gospel, are precisely the "blessings" promised by the old! Hard-liners like Bright,
LaHaye, and Adams offer spiritual-psychological miracles that are
supposed to give relief from the burdens of worldly existence.
Soft-liners like Larson, Miller, and Osborne recognize such promises as
incapable of delivery. Thus the latter group's "good news" is that tired
and frustrated Christians can have relief from their burdens by being
more like everyone else! It would seem that insofar as evangelicals move
toward this "soft religious line, " they ought to be prepared to
rethink their evangelistic claims about spectacular benefits available
only through Christ. The whole situation comes to look somewhat more
A Possible Solution
Up to this point, this article has argued that
miraculous conversion is not merely the beginning of the "born-again
experience," but is instead integral to evangelicalism's theological
program, as well as to the shape of its religious life. But this
far-reaching significance of conversion, understood as miraculous,
is often unsuspected. Thus many "soft-line" psychologists in seeking to
tone down and redefine the supernatural side of conversion have set in
motion changes which are far more significant than they intended. In
seeking just a bit more psychological realism, they turn out to alter
implicitly but radically both the theological and the experiential
claims of evangelical Christianity. It is proving to be more difficult
than they had imagined to hold onto humanistic psychology with one hand,
and traditional evangelicalism with the other.
Is there, then, any solution, or are the
difficulties exposed here insurmountable embarrassments to the notion
of conversion? What sort of salvage operation might a psychologist or
theologian attempt? One might acknowledge a more liberal approach to the
nature of revelation and religious .language and try accommodating
theology to it (Kraft, 1979). The implied change s would be far-reaching
indeed. And though various factors (e.g. biblical criticism) may yet
force such a change, the solution to our particular problem seems less
One need not revise or weaken the concept of
"miracle." One only need alter its application to the
concept of “conversion." It would go most of the way toward solving the
problem if “soft-liners" shifted the focus of the "miraculous” from the
subjective pole (conversion per se) to the objective pole--that
to which one is converted. Evangelicals need only maintain the
supernatural character of the truths of faith to which one converts.
They are the "saving truths," i. e., one's life is affected by the
implications of the divine facts themselves, whether or not there is any
magic in the believing of them.
Though by-and-large a “hard-liner" in
approach, Bill Gothard's view of scripture meditation is, in isolation,
a perfect example of what we are suggesting. Gothard's idea is that God
has ordered human life according to certain unchanging structures which
can be disregarded only at the cost of the inevitable "reproofs of life." The person
converted to the study of Scripture will be at a distinct advantage in
life because the Bible tells him or her all about those built-in
"structures." Thus if one continually meditates on God's Word, one is
assured of "successful living." The process is one of simple common sense. Certainly the divine truths
involved are supernaturally ordained and revealed. But so little "miraculous" is either the process of
observing these truths or the gaining of results that Gothard admits
even non-believers will have success when they follow them. All that is
necessary is that one reform one's "thought-structures" by
the prolonged and repeated rehearsing of those biblical truths. The
doing of it is not supernatural at all, and this is no embarrassment.
Another example would be Bruce Larson's observation
(1974) that the born-again Christian's faith in Christ's love provides a
head start in the process of learning to love others, a process which
in itself is quite natural, however difficult. Similarly, one’s faith in
eternal life will surely provide a sense of direction in this life, that a
non-believer will lack. And one who believes in God’s loving providence
will take adversity with more resilience than one who is resigned to the
blows of blind fate. The point in all this is that certain notions
cannot help but have positive psychological effects when believed. So
the believer in Christ’s love, eternal life, and divine providence can
certainly expect the benefits of peace, assurance, and purpose. But
there need be nothing supernatural in the believing of these things for
these benefits to accrue. Is there anything miraculous in one’s joy
at hearing a confession of love from his or her spouse? No, it simply
follows “naturally.” Even so here.
It would be useless to pretend that nothing would
be different on this understanding. There could be promised no
supernatural short-cuts to mature self-identity, no easy answers to
questions of personal ethics, no automatic freedom from depression. (On
the other hand, believers would be freed, as soft-liners want to free
them, from the guilt of believing that they should be miraculously free
of problems and confusion when they are not.) Such an awakening to
reality, however rude for some, should be welcomed since it ends the
illusion that Christian faith is to be embraced for the sake of the
benefits one stands to gain. And this is undeniably the approach of much
evangelism today, wherein the Gospel is hawked as a miraculous panacea,
a happiness elixir. (Witness the amazing bumper sticker: “Make life a
little easier with Jesus.”) Any sober reading of New Testament
statements like “Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me
cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27) suggests that Christian
discipleship may actually be more of a liability than an asset for life
in this world. The spectacular (and unrealistic) promises of the
hard-liners tend to obscure this fact.
So “soft-line supernaturalists,” on the present
understanding, do not need to trouble themselves about redefining and
compromising the miraculous quality of conversion. They would be
well-advised instead to leave the meaning of "miracle” intact and deny
that conversion is miraculous at all! Surely the whole point is
the supernatural miracle to which one is converted, namely
Christ. The decision to believe the Gospel message is "merely” a
decision like any other decision. But the message is like no other
message. Revivalist Charles Finney knew that there was nothing
particularly mysterious about the decision to embrace Christianity. The
important thing was how to persuade people to make it.
And this observation raises an apparent difficulty
with the present proposal. Though nothing inherent in the concept of
conversion implies a supernatural character, conversion might be
required to be miraculous because of the other tenets of one’s theology.
For example, Calvinists might be more reluctant to accept this solution
than Arminians, since Reformed theology seems to require Calvinists to
make conversion other than human in origin. But all that need be said in
a Calvinist framework is that while the conversion decision is
pre-ordained by God, it comes about by no special act of God, but rather
as a result of his general providence, just like other, more mundane,
events. That is, the causation involved in conversion is more analogous
to that operating in a common auto accident or the winning of a contest,
than to that at work in the parting of the Red Sea or the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, it can be observed that, as often
happens, a problem has been created by a misleading delineation of the
issues, in this case by evangelical writers and counselors themselves. And the solution is as simple as putting the issues
into better perspective. When this is done, the need to weaken the
concept "miracle,” with the ensuing theological implications, vanishes.
And though the evangelist will still be justified in promising
experiential benefits arising from faith, the se promises will be more
realistic both biblically and psychologically. In fact, it becomes
superfluous to promise that God will “miraculously” cause peace and joy
to spring up in the convert’s life. Anyone who has come to believe that
he or she has eternal life with a loving God, will need no help in
feeling peace and joy.
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