Friday, August 08, 2014

Negative or Positive?

Reversion: Some Negatives—Some Positives
Reversion, I argue, is often like a new conversion—from the worldview and faith with which one grows up to a new form of that faith, or to a new faith entirely. As with conversion in general, then, reversions take place because the old worldview meets a new context, and the old worldview does not fit that new context very well.
But conversion is always specific.[1] It is a specific person who converts (for example, to Christian faith) or reverts (leaves their religious faith). The general description flattens out the specifics of each case and therefore to some degree falsifies each case.
So a specific person might leave the faith of his/her parents because he/she does not want to live up to the standards (moral and ethical) that their parents did. Certainly in my background those who left the BIC were sometimes seen as simply “backsliding”—turning away from God in a decisive way, and thus condemning themselves forever. Although such a view of reversion is judgmental (and therefore problematic), it is also sometimes correct. Some people do not want to be good, so they abandon a worldview that says they should be good.
This kind of negative reason can also apply when the one who reverts wants to live a moral life according to North American standards[2] (they do not seek to be “bad people”), but are unwilling to commit to the rigour of the high ethical standards of, for example, the Sermon on the Mount. This dynamic is one reason that the BIC have always held that each person in each new generation must come to his/her own true faith in Christ. We emphasize conversion even for those who begin their life with a Christian worldview within a Christian family.[3]
But is reversion simply negative? Is it simply a rebellion against one’s parents, or worse, against God? I admit readily that one of my deepest desires is to pass my Christian faith on to my children, and to see them pass it on to their children in turn. But that desire is not enough to say that reversions are simply bad.
Those who leave the church of their parents, but retain their Christian faith, may indeed have internalized that faith more deeply than those who simply remain—and become increasingly nominal. The fact that reversion is also a kind of conversion suggests that it has a genuinely positive side. (This truth suggests that responding to reversion, or seeking to preserve our children in their own version of our faith, must include some way for the new generation to process and choose—and real choice includes the possibility of saying no.)
Those who leave Christian faith entirely are in a different situation, but again it is not simply negative. I remember a friend who has left Christian faith for a form of agnosticism, while exploring a variety of religious options—from none to Buddhism to others I know nothing about. He could have held on to his Christian faith by presenting his friends and family with a mask, concealing his real self. Such dishonesty tears the soul and in the end does not truly deceive. His choice to state his own stand openly (that is, to revert from Christian faith) is a far better step than the pretense of maintaining a false faith.
The positive effect of reversion is greater than simply embracing honesty. If reversion comes from slippage between an old worldview and a new context, then reversions reveal that slippage to those of us who remain in the church and love the church deeply. We are not stuck with problems that we cannot identify. Reversions reveal the problems that we must deal with to remain relevant and vital. Those who revert are our best friends in dealing with these problems, helping us to see problems in our worldview that we are unable to see without their help.

Smith, Christian with Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. New York: Oxford, 2005. 

Smith, Christian with Patricia Snell. Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. New York: Oxford, 2009.

[1] In the last blog I said that the next blog would talk about why patterned boundaries are inadequate for passing on one’s faith. Instead I am digressing to some reasons for reversions.
[2] This is what Christian Smith (2005) calls “moral therapeutic deism”, which constitutes the fundamental religion of most American youth of all religious backgrounds today. See also Christian Smith (2009).
[3] Whether or not this emphasis on conversion works is the subject for a different series of blogs.

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