The British atheist Malcom Muggeridge joined the Catholic Church at the age of 79. When he was asked to explain his conversion, he said that all the books and sermons he had read had little, if any, persuasive influence upon him. But when he saw Mother Teresa in Calcutta with the poor, he said, “If this is it, I’ve got to have it.”
On the other hand, Swiss physician Paul Tournier tells about going back to his medical school to visit his favorite professor just after he had written his first book. As they sat in the gathering gloom of a Swiss winter afternoon, Tournier read from his new book. When he finished his reading, he looked up and there were tears in the old man’s eyes. “Oh Paul,” he said, “that’s a wonderful book. Everyone of us Christians should read that.” Tournier was surprised and exclaimed, “I didn’t know you were a Christian, professor. When did you become one?” “Just now,” he responded, “as you read your book.”
I’m sure people of other religious traditions could tell diverse stories of how they were converted into their faith. I have Christian stories because that’s my tradition. My argument here is not to push Christianity over other religious faiths, but to point out how God may get our attention and speak to us in various ways and means, and that we all have the capacity to change.
For Muggeridge it was a life lived; for Tournier it was a book read. Somehow God broke through their defenses and they were able to hear the voice of the Spirit calling them to embrace a new way of thinking and living.
Of course, authentic conversion/change does not just happen when we initially embrace a new faith. It happens throughout our lives. I was both nurtured and indoctrinated into my faith as a child. There were positive elements to the “nurturing,” but there were negative components in my dogmatic assimilation into an exclusive version of Christianity.
Brian McLaren tells a story about an African friend who was converted into a type of Christianity that preached a prosperity gospel. Later, he began to have questions, which the leaders in the church stifled. Then he started to doubt the very existence of God.
He decided to read the book, “The God Delusion,” by atheist Richard Dawkins. He reasoned, “If Dawkins convinces me that there is no God, I will abandon my Christian faith.” After he read the book, he told McLaren that one evening when he was in the shower the Holy Spirit spoke to him. The voice of God said, “That man, Richard Dawkins, he speaks the truth.” (Think of the incongruity of that statement).
He told McLaren that before the Christian missionaries came they had their own tribal, African understanding of the Divine. The missionaries took all that away and gave them a white, European God. What McLaren’s friend lost was not his faith in the Divine (God), but his faith in the white, European God.
I have lost most of the fundamentalist Christian doctrines I was taught in my younger days in order to find a more inclusive, compassionate, and transformational Christian faith. “Losing” unhealthy beliefs so more life-enhancing ones can emerge is part of the conversion process.
God is still speaking in a variety of ways, and we can change. We can change our beliefs, as well as our negative, destructive attitudes, reactions, and lifestyles. Our whole lives should be about conversion—our becoming daily more loving, caring, humble, and gracious persons and communities.
Bob Dylan rang out, “Times they are a changin’.” His words are as relevant today as when he first sang them. The times constantly change. We can too!