Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Conversion and Reversion -- 1

Conversion and Reversion

The title for this brief essay comes from the topic for a conference being held October 3 and 4 at the University of Winnipeg, titled “X-Mennonite”. The topic implies a search for reasons that people have for leaving the Mennonite Church, or abandoning their Mennonite identity. I have been asked to look at one piece of the larger topic: “Why do people leave the Brethren in Christ (BIC) Church in Zimbabwe?”
I am trying to answer the question with the help of a friend in Zimbabwe, who is interviewing a number of people there who have been BIC, but have left the church for some other spiritual identity. In this essay I ask a preliminary question: Why do people convert to Christian faith in the first place? We can then guess at the answer to the further question: Why then do people revert (or de-convert) from Christian faith?
Why do people convert? One can ask this question in general, not just of Christian faith. While giving a general description, one acknowledges that every person’s story is different, and the description that follows may apply to a greater or lesser degree. Conversion involves (in my view) a change of worldview. In conversion, one weighs one’s worldview against a new religious option that involves adopting a new worldview.[1]
Ian Barbour’s term for worldview is a paradigm (Barbour 1974). We see all of reality within a basic paradigm, or through a particular worldview. Worldview, the centre of culture, is an ideational phenomenon that is learned by children (much of it within the first five years of life), shared by the members of a particular society, consisting of symbols and rituals, and making sense of reality for the people who hold that worldview.[2] These characteristics are critical: learned and shared. We learn our worldview from our parents and community, within the first years of life, and we use our worldview throughout our life to make sense of reality.
What happens when we face new situations? Data that our worldview cannot account for is presented to our senses. This is the case whenever two cultures meet, especially if one of them is dominant in a colonial setting. So Ndebele people at the end of the 19th Century in southwestern Zimbabwe were faced with a colonial expropriation of their country. As part of the larger social-political movement that engulfed them, missionaries arrived with a religious worldview that provided a new set of answers. Older Ndebele tended to hold on to their traditional worldview, while younger people considered the clash of worldviews that they faced. Traditional explanations for life proved inadequate to make sense of colonial realities. They could embrace the new whole-heartedly, reject the new and try to remain completely traditional, or look for some sort of synthesis of old new (within or without the church). In this setting many people converted to Christian faith. Now, over 100 years later, we are faced with the question of why some of their descendants reject the Christian faith that their grandparents adopted.
The answer, I suspect, takes a variety of shapes. One person might return to a revised traditional faith, what Wallace calls a “revitalisation movement” (1966). Another might abandon spiritual faith entirely and become a modern secularist. Yet another might remain Christian, but embrace one of the newer Pentecostal churches that are an important part of the African landscape. One might turn from the church because of a perception that Christian faith is required to be non-political, and the problems Zimbabwe face include the necessity of social and political change.
Beneath all of these I think that a common thread is the same dynamic that led their grandparents to convert to Christian faith. If they grew up in the BIC Church in Zimbabwe, their parents taught them a worldview that is both Zimbabwean and Christian. But the realities that face people in 21st Century Zimbabwe are noticeably different from those that faced the people in the 1960s, or even in the 1980s. If their worldview is not able to make sense of, or provide coherent answers to the questions of how to live in the new setting, then one can expect such people to revert from Christian faith. In effect, they experience their own conversion to a new faith, one which makes sense of the new situation and gives more satisfactory guidance for how to live.


Barbour, Ian G. Myths, Models, and Paradigms. HarperCollins, 1974. 

Ellwood, Robert S., Jr. Introducing Religion: From Inside and Outside. Second edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983. 

Hiebert, Paul G. Cultural Anthropology. Second edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1983. 

Kraft, Charles, H. Anthropology for Christian Witness. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 

__________. Worldview for Christian Witness. Pasadena, CA: William Carey, 2006. 

Wallace, Anthony F.C. Religion: An Anthropological View. New York: Random House, 1966. 

Whiteman, Darrell L., editor. An Introduction to Melanesian Cultures. Goroka, PNG: The Melanesian Institute, 1984.

[1] Note that this statement involves a view of religion as being at the centre of culture, in a way that is similar to worldview. Ellwood’s phrase (1983) is that religions are “scenarios of the real self”. We use worldview and religion as a way to construct our essential identity.
[2] I take my basic understanding of culture and worldview from Darrell Whiteman’s opening essay in Whiteman (1984). I draw extensively also on Charles Kraft (1997; 2006) and Paul Hiebert (1983).


Unknown said...

The Biblical accounts of the conversions of Jesus disciples seem to indicate they responded to Jesus invitation to follow Him. Later we learn that people become followers of Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit. Does this still happen today? I don't sense that is under consideration as a factor in this attempt to answer the question of conversion.

Climenheise said...

The question that I'm using to look at conversion and reversion is: What does it look like? Certainly my own understanding of conversion--responding to Christ's invitation in our lives--requires the work of the Holy Spirit both in the initial call and in our response.

For the conference on conversion and reversion, I am taking a phenomenological look at conversion. Simply: What does it look like. Following that description one must always add that we cannot come to God unless God enables us.