A conversion experience is a religious moment which leads to a change or acquisition of religious belief. Usually life changing, conversion experiences come in a variety of forms and can be sudden or gradual in nature. We have many accounts of conversion experiences and the debate is ongoing as to whether they originate from some divine creator or are based within our own psychology. One of the arguments used in this debate is that conversion experiences often coincide during a time of stress or crisis. How true is this?
The first conversion experience we should look at is that of The Roman Emperor Constantine. Constantine was about to attack Rome when, the night before the battle, he dreamt that Jesus came to him and told him that if he painted a symbol onto the shields of his men then he would b victorious. Constantine did so and the morning of the battle he saw the symbol in the sky, this time accompanied with the words “In this sign you will be the victor”. Despite the fact that the odds were not in his favour, Constantine went on to win the battle, become Emperor, abolish the Polytheistic beliefs of Rome and end the 300 year persecution of the Christians by the Romans, giving them money, land and allowing them to practice their religion freely. Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
When we look at this account it becomes clear that Constantine would have been under a lot of stress. He was about to go into battle, one that he would probably lose. Also Constantine would have had knowledge of Christian beliefs and there are records of a group of Christians travelling with him who took the opportunity to try to convert him prior to the battle. With Constantine already having ideas of Christianity in his mind and the pressure and stress of the battle, it would be easy to argue that his conversion experience stemmed from stress rather than God. The only point that is difficult to refute is the vision in the sky. If Constantine and his entire army had seen the words then it would be classed as a corporate religious experience and therefore less simple to dismiss. This point, however, could have been introduced after the battle was won, possibly in order to give further support to the Emperor and the Christian faith.
The second conversion experience we should look at is that of is that of St Paul. At the time of his conversion, St Paul was a Jew who helped to persecute the early Christians. On his way to Damascus a bright flash caused Paul to fall to the ground and he heard a voice claiming to be Jesus asking why he persecuted the Christians and telling he that he would be told what to do when he got to the city. When Paul got up and opened his eyes he found that he was blind and for three days he did not eat or drink anything. In Damascus, a disciple named Ananias was told by Jesus to find Paul and that he would be the one to spread the word of God to the gentiles. When Ananias placed his hands on Paul he was healed. And went to be baptized.
Instead of stress we find guilt playing a large part in the conversion of St Paul. He helped to arrest and persecute Christians and perhaps, after witnessing the cruelty towards them, he felt guilty for playing a part in things, this is a view supported by the Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. This would possibly explain the voice Paul heard, maybe it was his conscience. The light is more difficult to explain but that could be attributed, like Constantine, to the story being edited slightly for different purposes e.g. to show the divinity of God etc.
The next account is that of Augustine of Hippo. Augustine’s mother was deeply religious and his father spent a great deal of money and time to try to further his son’s education while Augustine spent the majority of his adolescent years “running wild with lust”. When Augustine went to study at Carthage “a cauldron of illicit loves” he grew close to a group of people he referred to as ‘the wreakers’. During this time Augustine grew close to a woman claiming that “I lived with a woman, not my lawful wife but a mistress”. When Augustine’s father was on his deathbed he asked to be baptised and it was after this that Augustine became a teacher in Carthage where the rowdiness of his students wore on his nerves, he persisted nevertheless, for eight years. Then Augustine went to visit his former student, became ill and then discovered that several children had left in order to avoid paying their fees. Late Augustine travelled to Milan where he met St Ambrose. Augustine finally had his conversion experience when he was with a friend who was being visited by a Christian who told them about St Anthony and the desert monks of Egypt who lived a life of aestheticism and prayer. Throughout the visitors stories, Augustine was gripped with a desire to convert and all the time he was gripped with a burning shame “my conscience gnawed away at me”. Augustine left the house an sat at a fig tree where he heard a voice saying “pick it up and read it”. Augustine complied and opened his Bible, which fell to a page that talked about the evils of lust and that people should renounce them in favour of Christ. Afterwards Augustine became a Christian and always claimed that he prayed for chastity as a youth.
There are many factors which could have influence Augustine’s conversion. Firstly he was raised by a devout Christian mother and this early introduction to Christianity may have stayed with him for many years furthermore, if we are to believe Augustine’s claim that he prayed for chastity then it proves his mother had great influence on him throughout his life. Secondly his father spent a lot of money on Augustine’s education. The way that Augustine treated this, through idleness, could have made him feel guilty. Thirdly Augustine’s friends, the ‘wreakers’ may have influenced him and led him to further sin. Fourthly Augustine led a life of excess and sin. He had a son with his mistress, had various affairs “The brambles of lust grew high above my head and there was no one to root them out”.. Also Augustine had elements of stress in his life before his conversion. His illness and the behaviour of students could not have helped and may well have contributed to his experience in terms of stress and perhaps even depression. Augustine was also friends with Christians and was probably familiar with their teachings. In the moments leading up to his conversion he was listening to a Christian talking about aestheticism and this could have caused him to look over his life and think about his sins and the fact that his life had been devoted to everything his mother had desperately tried to deter him from. It could be argued that Augustine’s hearing of the words “pick it up and read it” is divine intervention and that God deliberately told Augustine this to change his life. It would be equally as easy to counter this, however, by saying that this is Augustine’s conscience speaking to him and telling him to look to faith to help him. Once again it is difficult to account for the way the Bible conveniently opens to a page regarding lust other than either:
1) As with the previous two examples, the story has been edited through time.
2) The Bible has so many verses about sin and the evils of lust the odds of Augustine turning to one of those pages was quite high.
The conversion of John Wesley should also be looked at. Wesley was raised by an Anglican preacher and , like Augustine, his mother was devout and instilled a strict sense of belief into him. The beginning of Wesley’s conversion can be traced back to when he was six and a fire broke out in his home. Wesley became trapped and, although he was saved, he spent the rest of his life suffering from a pathological fear of death. Wesley received a religious education and after he left school worked with his father as curate. Wesley helped to found the Holy club with his brother which became revered for its analytical study of religious texts. It is around this point that Wesley becomes a missionary and, after limited success in the Indian territories of Georgia, Wesley boarded a ship and was deeply impressed with a group of Moravian preachers. A fierce storm made Wesley fear death once again but the courage and faith of the preachers on board gave Wesley faith and it was because of this that Wesley visited Moravian preacher Peter Bohler who encouraged him to trust completely in his faith and in Christ, after which Wesley went to a Moravian meeting where the other members made him feel as if his heart had been warmed, something experience by Augustine, and he felt assured that his sins had been forgiven. After his conversion Wesley preached salvation through faith.
John Wesley’s conversion experience is different to the others we have looked at. Wesley already believed in Christ but he did not fully trust that his sins would be forgiven or that God loved him. Wesley’s conversion experience could have been brought on by a number of things. Firstly, Wesley’s upbringing was a strong Christian one and this obviously would have contributed. Furthermore the Moravian preachers helped to open Wesley up and have him accept the idea of a forgiving God. Wesley’s fear of death was also a factor. His stress regarding dying meant that his trust in God was shaken and this opened things up for the Moravians. His fear of death was not, however, the main factor that was the Moravian preachers who converted Wesley.
Author C.S Lewis also had a religious experience. Lewis taught Medieval Literature at both Oxford and Cambridge and spent many years looking into various faiths such as Islam and Hinduism. In his book ‘Surprised by Joy’ Lewis talks about how he found Christianity through books such as those by Milton, Spenser and Johnson. It is important to stress that Lewis already believed in some divine power but it wasn’t until later that he found Christianity. Lewis says that the first thing that he became aware o was his own sin, this is similar to the account of Augustine. Lewis wished to pray but was as yet, unsure who to pray to so he prayed to God, although he was only technically still a theist at the time. Lewis was friends with various other authors and it was through a long night spent with them and through discussion about the nature of Jesus and his relationship with God that Lewis finally began to consider Christianity. Lewis writes about how the discussion kept him awake all night. The next day Lewis and his brother travelled to the zoo and it was on the journey that Lewis had an epiphany and converted fully to Christianity.
Lewis’s conversion is an intellectual one because he spent so much time looking at different faiths, the interest was already there. Stress and crisis is not explicitly mentioned to be a factor in his experience although it may have been. Lewis fell in love with an American woman who later died of cancer and it could have been this tragedy that started his search for religion. Generally though it seems that the main factor was an underlying interest and intellectual discussion.
The penultimate conversion that we should consider is that of Nikki Cruz. Cruz was a prolific gang leader in 1950’s New York and was born to a couple of spiritualist mediums. Cruz was converted by street preacher, David Wilkerson. Cruz’s conversion could’ve been brought on by stress. Being a gang leader his life was constantly in danger. His upbringing should also be mentioned. Many people go through a phase where they try to push away from their parents as much as possible and, because of their spiritualist backgrounds, it may be a reason why Cruz became involved in gang violence in the first place. It is also important to remember that Cruz was young and probably looking for his own identity. Stress could’ve played a part but a more likely reason is the quality of preacher and Cruz’s age.
The final conversion experience we should look at is that of Yusef Islam (or Cat Stevens). Cat Stevens was a singer in the 60’s/70’s and came to fame at an early age. Despite being raised as a Christian, Cat spent much of his youth looking at different religions and even when he started recording, continued to research other beliefs. He claimed that to him statues of Jesus were just statues and that he didn’t understand key Christian thoughts such as the Trinity. Soon Cat became involved in the music industry and this moved him away from religion and he became involved in drink and drugs, becoming taken in by the media. Cat soon became very ill with TB and had to stay in hospital for a year. It was during his stay in hospital that Cat began to resume thinking about religion again. Cat looked at many different religions and developed the belief that the soul moves on after death. Cat had come to the belief that he was not just a body but he had not yet become a Muslim. Later he came to the conclusion that his illness was a blessing given to him by Allah in order to provide him with a good opportunity to think. At one point the looked to Buddhism but decided he was not ready to seriously leave everything behind to become a monk. He tried tarot, Eastern religions and astrology but found nothing. At one point the even began to look back to the Bible. Things changed for Cat when his brother came back from Jerusalem and told Cat of how relaxed and peaceful it was. He also gave Cat a copy of the Quran and it was through this that Cat was first introduced to Islam. Cat read the Quran and found that it worked well with his own religious ideas. It made sense. It was at this point that Cat decided to travel to Jerusalem to experience Islam for himself. There Cat prayed with other Muslims before returning to London where he met another Muslim named Nafisa who referred him to the New Regent Mosque. There Cat Stevens became Yusef Islam, realizing that Islam allowed him to directly contact God.
Yusef Islam’s conversion has several factors to it. Firstly Yusef was ill with TB and this gave him and opportunity to study other faiths, it may well have been that this incident ,and the moment after Yusef had left hospital where he almost drowned, made him aware of his own mortality and that caused him to look into faiths. Furthermore being thrown into the limelight of the media is stressful at any age let alone adolescence which is when Yusef first came to attention. The lifestyle of sex, drink and drugs may have also had an effect on him. Also, just like Nikki Cruz, Yusef may have wished to separate himself from his parents beliefs, furthermore he spent a great deal of his youth trying to find himself through researching other faiths, meaning the conversion is an intellectual conversion. Cat’s brother brought him back a Quran from Jerusalem and helped introduce him to Islam, making his conversion both Experimental and Affectional as well as Intellectual. Yusef Islam’s religious conversion was triggered by years of religious soul-searching which finally cam to a head when his brother introduced him to Islam. Yusef says that he came to Islam through God which I cannot agree with simply because it seems that Allah could have and should’ve done it sooner. Perhaps even avoiding TB and near drowning all together.
In conclusion stress and crisis are often closely linked with religious conversions. This can be seen in most of the examples listed above and, although there are other factors such as own personal reading and research into the religion, stress and crisis seem to be not only the most common but also the most plausible. Constantine was about to go into a battle he couldn’t win, St Paul felt guilty over his treatment of the Christians, St Augustine felt guilty for his sinful life and rejecting his mother’s teachings, Wesley was terrified of Death, Lewis lost his wife, Cruz was constantly in danger of either arrest or being murdered and Yusef Islam had TB and almost drowned. This view is supported by Freud and, as previously mentioned, Carl Gustav Jung. William James talks about how religious experiences, including conversions, often lead to a unifying of the self and leads to a better life. Personally I agree with the statement. As and Atheist I do not believe in any God and it does not make sense to me that God would choose only a handful of people to ‘see the light’ and convert and even then not everybody converts to the same religion. For a God who once demanded that we worship no other God than him, it seems strange that he would diversify us so much.