Lesson 16: The Way of Conversion

Allen GreenspanI was recently at a conference where a female Roman Catholic scholar who had worked in ecumenical relationships for decades revealed she was finally beginning to appreciate that the most important first step in healing our broken Church was coming to appreciate each other’s languages. Her thoughts popped into my mind as I was reading chapter 13 of Chittister’s book.

I had a tough time figuring out what Sister Joan meant by conversion. We both seemed to be talking about repentance or rethinking your life, but she certainly used the word differently than I do. I think of conversion as choosing another lifestyle, such as the action of moving from a secular to a religious life or from one denomination to another. She spoke of it as growth. I see it as changing radically; she saw it as becoming aware of what is already going on. I mean transformation; she meant “get real.”

I began to catch on after reading her statement that “conversion is more important than captivity to a system.” She seemed to be talking about holding on to real life rather than succumbing to an artificial system. That makes sense as we find ourselves constantly being asked to have confidence in systems rather than trusting in personal relationships. Those who appeal to values that respect all people are often accused of not knowing how things work in the real world. Sister Joan turns all this around when she claims it is faith that truly discerns reality. Knowing the creator is essential for knowing how things work.

When she calls for conversion, she calls for enriching your present life by recognizing what is already there. Conversion is to become conscious of God’s presence and therefore to become mindful of your own significance, to see the sacredness of all life and therefore to recognize you are made in the image of God.

Although Sister Joan focused on how acknowledging our natural connections with God and the creation improves the quality of our personal lives, conversion also has some pretty important social implications. Derek alluded to one in his very thoughtful comment last week. He observed that technological optimism seems to be the only positive picture of the future left and then offered a very telling example of how it alone cannot provide a healthy tomorrow. “I fear automation may indeed lead to there only being 20 hours of work per person, but instead of three people at ease, we will have two who are impoverished and one putting in sixty stress-filled hours.”

My favorite example of this kind of problem is Alan Greenspan explaining why the Federal Reserve System did nothing to prevent the 2008 financial crash. He reported he really did believe the rhetoric that claimed the market system would correct itself. Obviously few listened to him as those in charge after 2008 called for dropping more and more regulations to create a supposedly free market. From Chittister’s perspective, this was a retreat from reality into the artificial world of system.

Chittister’s version of conversion recognizes we have responsibility in these kinds of situations. Rather than ignoring reality, we work for the kind of justice that God describes making for a compassionate community. My old teacher, Richard Niebuhr, spoke of this as the responsible self that responds appropriately to God’s love and life’s events.

In this context truth becomes an essential value in a healthy community. We do well to pay attention in a time when fake news has become the norm. From our point of view whistle blowers such as Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Daniel Ellsworth are heroes rather than traitors.

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3 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Marland says:

    From Bethlehem
    Rather than reject systems or more importantly systemization or total systems integration – we as a people of faith need to learn to lay the cloak of love and understanding over it all. Infecting it with the conciliation, certainty and conviction of Jesus ‘ S teachings. Imagine that for taxes, internet access , work/ labor and compensation within a world system. Not just capitalist one.

  2. Fritz Foltz says:

    I think we are trying to get at the same thought. However, my school of technology studies sees modern systems having built in defenses against Christian values. For example, financial institutions are not accountable because they are too big to fail and wars cannot be opposed because the military must be assigned quickly. Any critique of the former is regarded as creating difficulties for the poor and the latter as not supporting the troops. I experience the same response whenever I voice the thoughts of the last paragraph in the lesson. My best friends claim my calling the whistle blowers heroes is to ignore the consequences that place agents in great danger. The argument rests on the assumption that all large modern systems demand some secrecy precluding an ethical critique. That flies in the face of traditional morality that believes decent society is at least based on truth. Besides that I have not found any reason to believe such claims abut the endangerment of the poor, the troops, or agents is anything but untested rationalization for the actions.

  3. Don Motaka says:

    You have some thoughtful insights into the “conversion” to which Benedictine discipline calls the professed brother. As part of my vows of profession I promised to commit to “converting” my life. It definitely includes a turning away from the old (sinful) self, as well as turning away from the world, but is also means a changing in terms of growth; a caterpillar-to-butterfly analogy, sort of.

    The minor point – you might want to consider dropping Assange from the pantheon. His antics to date (especially entangled with the Pres. Elect) certainly don’t merit a ranking with Ellsberg (not “worth” – don’t feel too bad – I had to do spell-check to get “caterpillar” right). Manning and Snowden had something in the way of a moral reason for their reveals. Assange comes across as a bit too “entrepreneurial” for the point you’re trying to make.

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