Conversion

If you can find it, Simon Chan’s Liturgical Theology – The Church as Worshipping Community (2006, IVP Academic) comes highly recommended from me. I found this quote in relation to the ancient catechumenate and baptism to be stimulating. Chan writes (at p121, my emphasis):

For the church fathers there was no separation between the spiritual reality and the sign. The liturgy was no dead ritual but a vibrant reality energized by the Spirit. But it is a truth that the modern mind cannot grasp. It is particularly difficult for evangelicals to appreciate sacramental realities because of an implicit nominalist philosophy which sees signs as mere names or arbitrary pointers rather than as having any necessary connection to the things they signify. As British evangelical Philip Seddon has noted, evangelicals have “a deep-seated suspicion of references to ‘mystery’ or to anything that is not explicable.” Seddon sees this as “the triumph of the Enlightenment at the heart of Evangelical readings of the sacrament.” Modern evangelicals find it much easier to grasp the Zwinglian “memorial” theory of the sacraments, since it does not require them to associate transcendence with anything so mundane as water, bread and wine. For many today, it makes better sense if spiritual realities are located within the subjective experience of the person, in the “feelings.” If worship stimulates a particularly strong emotional upsurge, that is “real”! It is rather ironic that the evangelicalism that claims to be the heir of the opponents of Protestant liberalism in the nineteenth century should find itself unwittingly concurring with the father of liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who understood the source of religion to be found precisely in human subjectivity: “the feeling of absolute dependence.”

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I haven’t been converted. Yet I am already am. But I’m also in a process of conversion.

A strange paradox? Maybe. But it’s a challenge to the evangelical in me about whether I am a convert to Christ or not. The typical evangelical understanding of “conversion” is that it is a single, once-off moment when one decides that they will follow Christ. When one does that, one is said to have “converted” and that was the point of their “conversion”. In this aspect I already am a convert to Christ, courtesy of that one lunchtime in high school when I made a personal decision to follow Christ. That was my conversion moment. Nothing big or supernatural about it. But is this assumption true about conversion?

I don’t really think so, because when I look at my own life, I know that in a sense, there’s still a part of me that hasn’t really converted to Christ at all. I’m still selfish, arrogant & proud (to name a just a few things). These I haven’t yet fully surrendered to Christ. Which leads me to my next point in that I am in a process of conversion.

Again, Simon Chan in Liturgical Theology gives some very good points in his book. In chapter six, which deals with the ancient catechumenate and how the modern church could learn from it in terms of missiology and evangelism, he says (pp123-125):

It is important to note that the whole catechumenal process is properly set within a liturgical context. It is more than instruction or indoctrination; it is training through actual participation in the liturgy. As Kavanagh puts it, “One learns how to fast, pray, repent, celebrate, and serve the good of one’s neighbor less by being lectured on these matters than by close association with people who do these things with regular ease and flair.” This is more than an educational process; it is a process of conversion.

The typical evangelical understanding of conversion could be pictured as the crossing of a fixed line, an experience sometimes described as a “crisis conversion.” Hiebert argues that conversion is better conceived as a movement toward a center (the Christian faith), but it is a center with a porous rather than fixed boundary. In other words, becoming a Christian means a basic reorientation of life toward the center and a continuing movement into it.

The ancient catechumenal process corresponds more closely to the idea of contuing conversion. It is a process of becoming in which the initial response is tested out, clarified and strengthened. Just as true love between a man and woman culminates in marriage, the catechumenal process culminates in baptism, when one renounces the world, vows lifelong commitment to follow Christ and enters into full communion with the church. Second, through the catechumenate the ancient church inducted new converts into the Christian sacramental universe. The early catechumenate thus challenges evangelicals to rediscover what God’s world is really like and to encounter the mystery of grace in the liturgy. Here, however we run into a serious problem: How do we teach sacramental theology to people who have virtually no experience of encountering God in things? The ancient church would have no such problem, since it inhabited a world that was itself essentially sacramental.

All of this leads me back to the Benedictine approach towards the Christian faith. One of the vows that Benedictine monks and nuns make is that of conversatio morum. In monastic parlance translated back into regular English, it essentially is “fidelity to monastic life.” For me as a lay Benedictine (if oblation isn’t possible), this term could be better put as “conversion of life”. “Conversion of life to what?” you may ask. Conversion of life to Christ. St. Benedict asks all who read and seek to follow his regula to convert their lives to that of a follower, if not an imitator (in the best understanding of that word) of Christ. To value nothing less than Christ himself so that He may bring myself and others all together to eternal life (the last sentence in RB 72).

My understanding of my world view and faith has changed quite dramatically in the past year. From one which has been that of the usual evangelical to one who sees his entire life as a Christian as that of being continual conversion of life (with all the joys, troubles, challenges and annoyances it brings). To encounter the mystery and economy of grace in the liturgy, the sacraments and in the things and situations that make up my day to day life.

I haven’t been converted. Yet I am already am. But I’m also in a process of conversion. What about you?

Pax in Christo,
+ bf 2334hrs

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