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Conversion and the Idea of Salvation

December 14, 2012

Have You Had a Religious Conversion?


I think we collectively and individually have a pretty fuzzy idea of religious or spiritual conversion.  Some people feel their own adoption of a set of beliefs or a sense of surrender to God or some turn-around experience is a religious conversion.  Others have grown up exposed to certain beliefs and either taken them on or not, with no sense of conversion.  How about you?


My educated guess is that most people have not had a clear “conversion experience”, though a great many have.  Those lacking a clear “experience” would include people all along the Christian spectrum from most conservative to most liberal.  Most are fine with that… no felt need for such an experience.  But Evangelicalism has a strong thread within its tradition that glorifies and tends to expect clear-cut conversions.  Thus some tensions, often.


There were the very emotive “Camp Meetings” of the Second Great Awakening that covered especially the western and southern frontier. (And some pretty “charismatic” stuff that even Jonathan Edwards felt compelled to address, and not entirely negatively, in the earlier Great Awakening also.)


Rev. Jonathan Edwards, a leader of the Great A...

Rev. Jonathan Edwards, a leader of the Great Awakening, is still remembered for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


This tradition continued with various forms of “revivals” and with regular “altar calls” in many churches.  I’d put the large evangelism campaigns of Billy Graham (and others) in the general revival category.  These tend to draw a higher percentage of the faithful (who are often “revived” in their faith) than the unconverted, but many are converted.


Does Conversion Equal Salvation?


Of course, conversion is a term used outside of a religious context also.  But thinking about the potential linking of a spiritual conversion with salvation raises a raft of questions (for another time).  Maybe most important is just what is salvation?… What is being “saved”? (Something virtually all Americans have heard in relation to Christian faith.)


To me, one of the most problematic, psychologically damaging things about Evangelical theology is the focus on salvation… what constitutes it, how it is obtained and held onto, etc.


Some traditions claim it needs no “holding onto” but in practice I don’t think I’ve known more than a handful of people within this kind of theology who claimed they never had a personal doubt about their salvation.  And if they are so certain and secure for themselves, they probably have nagging doubts about some of their not-so-faithful-nor-dedicated friends or family.  Not a fun place to be living, especially in that their likely view of being “unsaved” involves eternity in some form of hell.


What About Being Converted Away from Some Form of Religion?


Some people speak of a de-conversion from Christianity.  When I underwent a radical revision of the form (belief system) of my faith, I didn’t think of it in those terms.  It was very gradual and not internally traumatic for me, but I know it can be a real crisis, frightening or otherwise traumatic for some when they either leave religious affiliation and beliefs or make major adjustments.


Have you experienced some kind of conversion in one direction or the other, or perhaps both? Was it gradual and mostly mental or was it a heavily emotional experience, perhaps also relatively sudden? 


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