This isn’t all there is. If we are to have any meaning in life, it must be engaged cosmically and spiritually, and not just at the level of what we see with our eyes and hear with our ears. If meaning is indeed a thing, then it must also be engaged personally. I don’t mean to say that all meaning is individual. As particular individuals, we, including Elon Musk do not live at the scope to autocratically determine the meaning of things. But we cannot understand something as meaningful unless it is experienced personally. So, I want to tell a very personal story – the one of how I came to be in communion with God. I would say “how I became a Christian,” but you might get the wrong idea. There is nothing wrong with being a Christian, but the word itself, currently, connotes supposed political commitments and a certain seedy relationship to reality that does not serve well in communicating my story. But it is a story with a number of different touchpoints with which you may identify. Not only is it personal, but it may also be a story that is shared.
So, in getting to a communing relationship with God, I can’t tell the story of just one conversion. There are at least three. But this is a rather remarkable claim. In evangelical Christian terms, religious conversion is like being born again – it is a one-time event. Initially, the uniqueness of my conversion seemed like a one-time affair. But as I look back on the journey, I have come to understand my relationship with God as deeper and more all-encompassing than a compelling emotionally-felt decision. Another view of religious conversion is from one way of being to another. Let’s use conversion in the latter sense where I have moved from one way of being to another – and I have done this three times. And in each conversion, a new way of being has emerged in regards to authenticity, sin, and awareness.
I grew up on the white, upper-middle class side of a rather segregated small city of Brandon, Manitoba, Canada in the 1970s and 80s. At the moment when I had accepted Jesus as my “savior”, I felt the incredible responsibility of the sin I had committed (including an earlier-than-usual set of lustful thoughts and the occasional lying to my parents), the sin in which I was embedded (the structural inequality of our segregated community), and the worldwide sin that the TV made evident in all kinds of suffering from war, to drought, to famine. In what I later came to realize was a well-worn trope, I broke down in front of a camp counselor and balled my head off. I repented my sins because I was so guilty!
Ten years old! And guilty for the humanly-irreparable damage I had caused. And I experienced a kind of forgiveness. I was certainly a child of my place and time. I had grown up in the church, been surrounded by well-meaning Mennonites, and I was produced in such a context. The repeated messages I heard of the necessary personal commitment to Jesus, with the accompanying repentance of my own sin were drilled into my head. They also came out of my mouth.
Conversion #1 – Becoming a Christian as a child
Much to the pride of my parents, I got baptized (a believer’s baptism) when I was 11 years old, which was rather young, comparatively speaking. I spoke openly in secondary school about God and tried to get others to believe that Jesus died for their sins. I was a student leader for Youth for Christ. I participated in all the church clubs I could: Boys’ Brigade, youth group, and Sunday School. I ushered in church. My first girlfriends were God-fearing and church-informed. While I had grown up in a Mennonite Brethren (re: Anabaptist) community, my first two girlfriends had gone to a Pentecostal Assembly, and the Christian Missionary Alliance, respectively.
This first conversion happened when I realized that I was a sinner and that I could not pay my moral debts on my own. I needed Jesus’ help. My understanding of sin was very personal. I was the one who committed it either intentionally or by omission, and I was responsible.
But another issue, which only came to me well after my adolescence, was a particular form of inauthenticity. You see, I grew up the son of a lay minister/university professor, who was a man of high status in both the church and academia. Further, I had seven older siblings (I still do). I loved them but naturally wanted to compete with them in everything – including in the competition for my parent’s love and acceptance. Becoming a Christian early, and advocating for it so noisily was a way to earn my dad’s love and the approval of the surrounding community. I call it inauthentic because becoming a Christian needed to be detached from the pursuit of earthly recognition. Otherwise put, it had to come from me.
In terms of awareness, I had been encouraged to take on a universal awareness, that is, to feel responsible not just for my own sinful thoughts and behaviors, but for my community’s and my world’s embedded sin. The marginalized people lived on the “other” side of town, and they lived downtown. When I encountered a poor kid, a disenfranchised Sioux or Cree child, or someone drunk downtown, I thought I had something to do with it. When I saw the war in Vietnam or the famine in Ethiopia on TV, I thought there was something I not merely could do something about, but that I should do something about.
In other words, my first religious conversion, bred in a particular context, was to a universal and inauthentic awareness of universal sin that made me so incredibly important not just to my own particular life, but to world history. It feels narcissistic now (and not without cynicism), but it sure gave me an adolescent purpose. God saved me so I could “save” others. And a young social activist was born.
Conversion #2 – Becoming a Christian because God was treated as absent
By the time I had gotten to grade 11, I had become a very “heady” kid. I read ideas; other kids my age didn’t. I had moved to the private, Christian high school in the nearby bigger city of Winnipeg. I was exposed to a kind of wealth that I had not experienced before. Even though the school was located in a poorer “inner city” neighborhood, the students seemed not to be touched by poverty. I lived in a place without a shower. I only had a hairdresser’s sink to clean myself with. I walked to school; a girl in my class arrived in a Porsche on the first day of school.
My experience of social Christianity started a process by which my so-called universalized awareness of my salvation became as detached as it sounds. Unlike my tear-filled first conversion, when I was convicted in my heart, I lived almost completely in my head. As I got older, I started to discover the pleasures available to me as a virile young man, which I pursued vigorously. While cloaked under the protective veil of Christian education (high school and early undergraduate), I began to live as if God was absent. I grew into the divided self of being able to persuade while at the same time living without conviction.
I got married and chose a career in my twenties – both lousy things to do when you generally live without conviction. I relied on the values of my community for these monumental decisions: I married a distant relative who was still a close enough relative that, out of caution, I looked up the law about who one could marry. I was a Mennonite after all. I also chose a career in philosophy and headed off to grad school. (It wasn’t until later that I realized that while I loved philosophy, I didn’t so much like philosophers. Nor did I realize in time that marrying someone acceptable in your community for the pleasures of virility were not good reasons for getting married.)
I had lived out my universal and inauthentic awareness of who I was and interpreted the rules of what constituted sin as a kind of parameter by which I measured what behavior was permissible. It turns out if you pay attention to all the rules in the Bible that there are lots! Even though I had some philosophical gifts, there was no way to mentally overcome my poor discipline and my complete inability to deal with mistreatment from my spouse and others. Habitual lying, pretending, and cheating have this way of being more than just behaviors; they spoil the soul. But shreds of my conscience were still intact. I was at least vaguely aware that I was in trouble.
And then I encountered God. God spoke to me through a friend who had caught me out in a lie. God told me, in a darkened car outside a strip club in Windsor, Ontario, that I was loved no matter what I did. But if I were to have a relationship with God, I could not go on lying. (You can see here for a fuller telling of this part of the story.) For those who are skeptical that I was talking to God, I cannot convince you with my words. But many of you will recognize the authority with which God speaks. That authority spoke with a different voice. It resonated in such a way that made my bones vibrate, i.e. it made me realize my skeleton was spiritual. The tears I cried that night were not ones of salvation – they weren’t even the tears of repentance. They were the tears of loss. I had been called to live in a way in which I would have to give up a normal-pathed philosophical career through academia, my first marriage, and most of all, my delusions of grandeur.
My second conversion was from a life where I treated God as absent to an acute awareness of God’s continual presence. God’s presence was not entirely peaceful; He sometimes was there to deliver intense pain. My second conversion, unlike my first, was intensely personal (and had little to do with ideas).
I was on a plane from Vancouver, Canada to Incheon, South Korea. I had turned my back on academic philosophy and decided to teach English abroad, at the same time leaving Canada after the end of my first marriage. And I was talking to a present God in the sky over the Northern Pacific Ocean. Some might say I was praying. I committed to follow God where God led me and to care for everything God presented to me as if it was a valuable gift. (If you have read my blog before, you will know some of the story that comes after it – and I encourage you to look here for it.)
God gave me everything I have. In chronological order, I got a career, some of my best friends, my spouse, my kids, and an opportunity to travel much of the world. By treating what came into my care as a gift, I received so much more. By living in faith, God exercised presence every day. I can’t say it was the Biblical faith that I had heard preached up to and including my complete adolescence. It was not just a story – it was a living reality.
Conversion #3 – Awakening to Christ
When I arrived in Gimhae Korea, I was soon gifted with a trip to the temple. The trip to the temple filled me with peace. I went back to the temple – which was a short drive from where I lived – four or five times in my first two months. One of my students who went by the English name Dion was very gifted in English. He knew a monk (who couldn’t speak English) at the temple who was interested in Western Philosophy, particularly the philosopher Hegel and Nietzsche. I was interested in meditation, and Dion was wanting to learn English by translating, And every Sunday for six months, we communed together in spiritual exchange: I learned how to meditate, the monk got better informed about Hegel and Nietzsche, and Dion’s English improved.
Meditation was a game-changer, at the very minimum. The increasingly regular experience of being able to allow thoughts to pass through me, and to hear a sound without naming it, opened my heart to actually experience myself as a real part of nature. As a fundamental cornerstone of life, I was part of the organic world. Light and shadow in the temple flowed through each other and any distinction there was seemed to have been created by my own mind. Sound and silence were often indistinguishable, and in the end what was me and what was not me were often one in playful exuberance. In this giant empty space for experience which was opening up throughout my chest and in the lower back part of my head (for this is where I felt the space opening up) I felt the Christ-presence finding something of a home. I dare not put more words on it than this. If Martin Buber discovered the relationship of I-Thou, then any remaining I knew it was part of Thou.
Now I sometimes say that I’m religiously bisexual because when I found Buddhist meditation, I felt more Christian than ever. When my Protestant friends back in Canada heard me describe this experience, they were skeptical. If you delve into mystic practices, then you’re not on the team anymore, or so they believed. That’s a fair point if you do not take into account the Catholic mystical tradition of the desert fathers, Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, Thomas Merton, and Henri Nouwen.
I think what happened was, I found – it all happened to me in the wrong order. It happened in an order that didn’t make sense, I experienced grace before I had met God. And so I experienced some sort of love, unconditional love before I figured there was a source for that love. Then I experienced a sense of being observed. And then gradually, I experienced what theologian Paul Tillich called ‘the ground of being’. The ground of being is a loving order, a moral order, an eternal order. And so I was occasionally in nature having this sense of things clicking into place, and I didn’t have words for it.
Jesus didn’t walk through the wall and say, “Hey, come follow me.” That never happened. It was the most boring process imaginable. Gradually, life seemed to become more enchanted and more alive. The spiritual realm seemed to be alive with a transcendent and divine presence. It’s like you’re riding in a train, you’re sitting around all the familiar people, you’re drinking a cup of coffee, and you look out the window, and you realize you’ve covered, there’s a lot of ground behind you. And at some point, you’ve crossed over a border. And you’re no longer a non–believer, nor are you a Bible-thumping adolescent. You’re related in your being to something.
In my first two conversions, one habit that never left me was reading. What is this enchanted sensation? What is this sense of divine love and moral order? And because I had grown up with the Christian story, and because I’d learned to meditate, they both came alive to me. And I read the Bible, Old and New Testaments. But I found myself in Thailand, where in my community backpackers and people who were rejected by their birth families for their Christian faith, you had to be willing to sacrifice. And so you have a very unconditional and personal God, very different than the doctrinal and evangelical God of Billy Graham and John H. Redekop. I still sometimes wrestle against that.
Jesus was a Jewish guy from the Middle East. And when you actually see him through the Jewish lens, living in Jerusalem in a land of vicious conflict, a series of highly organized power structures, which he upsets all at once, you realize, Jesus is a total badass; he’s not a guy in a short-sleeved dress shirt at a rally. So I came to defend the much more aggressive and far-reaching Jesus that not only shocks but also asks you to walk with him through the necessary sacrifices. And the Spirit rebuilds rituals in the individual for thriving in the moral order of the ‘Word made flesh.’ And this was my third conversion.
I finally realized that I was living in God’s world and that I was created in God’s image. That not only was I part of Thou but so too were others around me. I converted from searching for my own “best life” to being open to the best life on offer at the moment, with all these gifts of people all around me, and of so much abundance. But the Western world was trapped in its own ideas. And each person was grouped, and in so doing, changed into an object, rather than a living breathing person made in the image of God.
When I returned from Asia, I moved to Edmonton, and I started working with people who had a social science mentality, namely schools in the phrases of social psychology such as sociology and economics. These fields are great at generalizing about populations, But they’re not particularly great at looking at the individual human person. And so you school people in this and then suddenly people have to make judgments about the individual moral person. They swing radically over and suddenly it’s the Spanish Inquisition. There’s no middle ground where you see people as mottled selves like I knew myself to be. I began to realize that the Anabaptist friends of my youth and Anabaptism, in general, have spent a lot of time thinking about forgiveness: like how one does it. You can’t just say I’m sorry. That’s just too simple and too easy. So there are rituals for acknowledging, confessing, and repairing sins. The Catholic mystics knew that these rituals will not be a barrier to one’s relationship with another.
This is the fabric of God’s world, where we act, and because we can never truly know what we are doing, we live in the formulas of forgiveness manifested in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We allow the process of forgiveness to keep us in a reconciled relationship with God and with each other.
My third conversion is coming to know that I live in this structure of God’s world. And the peace that passes all understanding can contain all the conflict we experience. My third conversion is the retreat of the “I” and the expansion of Thou.
2 thoughts on “My Three Religious Conversions”
Remembering the I AM presence in oneself and all is liberating. ✌🏻😇✌🏻
Yes it is. And liberation is another word for salvation.
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