THE CENTRALITY AND SCOPE OF CONVERSION
by Robert M. Price
The recent controversies over cult "brainwashing" and deprogramming have brought the question of "conversion" once again to people's minds. Just what is involved in such a sudden and unexpected turnabout? Is it the work of the Holy Spirit, or mere brainwashing? In the light of this questioning, perhaps the time is ripe for a reconsideration of conversion and its role in evangelical Christianity. This article will argue that conversion understood as the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit is not merely the entry-point to the Christian life. Rather, it is integral to the theological agenda and determines the shape of evangelical religious life from beginning to end. And when the understanding of conversion as supernatural is modified, the far-reaching implications are both surprising and ironic.
Conversion and Miracles
Among evangelicals (Christians who would describe themselves as "born-again" or "Bible-believing"), conversion is commonly believed to be a miraculous operation of the Holy Spirit, an act of God discontinuous with the ordinary chain of worldly cause-and-effect. One often hears such phrases as: "God just reached down into my life." It would be hard to deny that most born-again Christians mean this in more than a metaphorical ... sense; we might call them "hard-line supernaturalists." But in recent years, some of their psychologists have become willing to admit that conversion is quite admissible to naturalistic causal explanation, and that the supernatural aspect of conversion must be redefined. This shift results in part from the embracing of general psychological methodology, wherein immanent causation, not otherworldly intervention, is the only calculable factor in diagnosis and treatment.
But one suspects that these psychologists have also felt the force of the challenge of William Sargant and others, who claim to be able to show the purely psychological roots of conversion. For example, Sargant (1975) wrote, "When we find that the technique of ‘saving' people at revival meetings follows the same pattern [as abreactive treatment of wartime patients] and depends on the same brain mechanisms, it is impossible not to wonder about the reality of the divine power supposedly responsible for the ‘change’” (p. 194). Long ago, of course, William James had made essentially the same observation:
Psychology and religion... both admit that there are forces seemingly outside of the conscious individual that bring redemption to his life. Nevertheless psychology, defining these forces as “subconscious” . . . implies that they do not transcend the individual’s personality; and herein she diverges from Christian theology, which insists that they are direct supernatural operations of the Deity. (James, 1958, p. 173).
But James adds, "I do not see why Methodists need object to such a view" (p. 191). That is, perhaps evangelicals might find acceptable some model of conversion that did not demand a miraculous intervention of God in the psychological process.
Now it seems that some psychologists have taken the bait, compelled to make some peace between their professional methodology on the one hand and their faith on the other. Malcolm Jeeves, responding to William Sargant, is certain that theological truth is of quite a different order than that of the facts of psychological causation. Thus even if Sargant is right, one need not doubt that the supernatural is still involved, at least in some sense. Jeeves writes:
Neither is the psychological account [of conversion] a competitor with the account which the person converted gives in his own personal and religious language... The point is that within its own language system and at its own level, each account may be regarded as, at least in principle, exhaustive... but [not] exclusive. . . . Thus the personal account which refers to a personal encounter with God does not have to be "fitted in" to... the psychological. . . account. . . . In general, we find that the personal account of the event is much more concerned with the personal significance of the event than with the particular psychological. . mechanism which may have been operative at the time. (1976, p. 141).
Thus conversion requires no miraculous intervention into the normal psychological process.
We find a similar approach to the mechanics of conversion in Keith Miller (1978). After accepting James’s basic outline of the psychological process of conversion, Miller goes on to explain conversion in terms borrowed from Abraham Maslow:
the experience of "Christian conversion" seemed very similar in some ways to Maslow’s “peak experiences" in the lives of self-actualizers.... There may be a real correlation between what happens to a person through becoming a Christian and the meeting of different clusters of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy.... What may have happened is that through a significant conversion experience some Christians have had several of their basic clusters of need met by God and the church (pp. 78-79).
Indeed Maslow himself is hardly disinclined to see conversion experiences ("personal revelations") in such terms. But again he sees a significant implication that Miller does not see.
The big lesson that must be learned here, not only by the nontheists and liberal religionists, but also by the supernaturalists... is that mystery, ambiguity, illogic, contradiction, mystic and transcendent experiences may now be considered to lie well within the realm of nature. These phenomena need not drive us to postulate additional supernatural variables and determinants (Maslow, 1974, p. 45).
Miller wants to facilitate our understanding of conversion for good pastoral reasons, but, as Maslow observes, the mere explicable conversion becomes in immanent psychological terms, the less room is left for divine causation from without. The less mysterious it becomes, the less miraculous. And Maslow warns against simply redefining terms like "miraculous.”
I am myself uneasy, even jittery, over the semantic confusion which lies in store for us-- indeed which is already here--as all the concepts which have been traditionally “religious” are redefined and then used in a very different way. (1974, p. 45).
Just such a redefinition seems to be implied in the writings of psychologists and counselors like Jeeves and Miller. The influence of the Holy Spirit is still supposed to underlie the process of conversion in a general but rather unclear way. It is striking to realize the continuity between the "soft-line supernaturalist" redefinition of the miraculous aspect of conversion, and the understanding of miracles in Liberal theology.
In fact... a miracle in the sense of an action of God cannot be thought of as an event which happens on the level of secular (worldly) events. It is not visible, not capable of objective, scientific proof.... The thought of the action of God as [a]... transcendent action can be protected from misunderstanding, only if it is not thought of as an action which happens between worldly actions or events, but as happening within them. . . . The action of God is hidden from every eye except the eye of faith. (Bultmann, 1958, pp. 61-62)
In events like the Exodus or the Resurrection, Liberals say, no extraordinary events occurred, but God may still be said to have “acted” in the significance of events. Divine action did not interrupt or preempt the ordinary sequence of cause-and-effect. In Bultmann's terms, God did not actually vivify the corpse of Jesus, but he did "raise Jesus into the kerygma” in Geschichte (supra-history). (1961, pp. 41-42). Or as Gordon Kaufman puts it, God’s acts take place in the “history of meaning,” not in the history of events (1968, p. 433).
The same tendency is apparent in the writings of Charles Martin (1973). He also seeks to reply to the charge of Sargant, which he first summarizes:
The mechanism by which [Christian conversion] is produced is akin to psychological brainwashing. Billy Graham and his fellow mass-evangelists are seen as expert mindbenders ... Thus becoming a Christian can be reduced to molecule-talk (mass psychology) (p. 114).
Molecule-talk is one of three language-games enumerated by Martin. “Mo1ecu1e-talk assumes a real world, cause and effect, and the significance of rational thought" (p. 11 0). By contrast, the second and third language games are those of personal subjective freedom, and of ethica1 “oughtness" and obligation. Each is irreducible to the others.
[N]ow "God” cannot be fitted in among these.... Yet God-talk gives accounts of things that can be acc.ounted for in the other fields.... Certainly "God" cannot be fitted into any of these three frameworks nor can he go into a fourth area on the same level (p. 11 0).
Once again, God is the transcendent cause lying behind the whole works, not a “ghost in the machine” that interferes with its workings at opportune moments:
The realm of nature, the molecule-talk area, is seen to depend upon God as creato! in setting it going, and God as sustainer in keep- ' ing it going. It is regular and open to rational investigation because it is the work "of a reliable, rational God (p. 111).
Not only has Martin repeated Jeeves's (and Bultmann's) sealing off of the historical/scientific and the theological levels of reality; he has (no doubt unwittingly) even recapitulated the assumptions of Schleiermacher' s polemic against miracles! Schleiermacher wrote in his magnum opus The Christian Faith (1963):
Now some have represented miracle [as intervention in the cause and-effect process] as essential to the perfect manifestation of divine omnipotence. But it is difficult to conceive... how omnipotence is shown to be greater in the suspension of the interdependence of nature than in its original immutable course which was no less divinely ordered. For, indeed, the capacity to make a change in what has been ordained is only a merit in the ordainer, if a change is necessary, which... can only be the result of some imperfection in him or in his work (p. 179).
Schleiermacher, like Martin, hails the Newtonian regularity of God's creation and attributes it to God’s sovereign transcendence that He is not one more cause-among-causes! What Schleiermacher sees that Martin does not is that this observation demands the redefinition of "miracle" in a noninterventionist sense:
Miracle [should be understood as] simply the religious name for event. Every event, even the most natural and usual, become s a miracle, as soon as the religious view of it can be the dominant [view]. To me all is miracle (Schleiermacher, 1958, p. 88).
Literal miracles, or miracles as traditionally conceived, would require God to be one more finite causal agent within the realm of "molecule-talk,” since it is God and no natural process which vivifies corpses and parts the sea.
Another way to approach this question would be to apply Francis Schaeffer's "line of despair" schema (Schaeffer, 1976, p. 22). According to this theory, modern theology (as all modern culture) has opted for an explanation of mundane reality in terms of a closed system of cause-and-effect. Experienced reality is explicable naturalistically, without penetration by divine causation, i. e., no miracles or miraculously revelatory Scripture. If this is true, conclude s Schaeffer, reality functions mechanistically. It is then nothing short of an arbitrary "upper-story leap" above the "line of despair" to postulate any noumenal realm of transcendent, divine reality (p. 58). If the rise of Easter .faith can truly be accounted for without a literal resurrection, what besides religious nostalgia could lead Bultmann to postulate a "suprahistorical" act of God? The important thing to see is that by declaring theological explanation different in kind from psychological explanation, and parallel to it, Jeeves and the others have made God is alleged action in conversion "suprahistorical." Divine causation does not penetrate the continuum of worldly events; it runs parallel "above" it. Jeeves writes:
It is not that the descriptions in terms of the various restricted categories [i.e., of psychology and theology] of the same events have gaps in them. Such descriptions might be in theory complete and perfectly valid as description on the scientific level. The point is that there are other levels (1967, p. 13).
Jeeves, like Bultmann, has made an "upper-story leap." And if this kind of understanding of God's acting can be admitted at this point, shouldn't soft-line supernaturalists be willing to adjust theology across the board? In fact, the burden of proof would be on anyone who would hesitate at such consistency.
The same link between conversion and the biblical miracles is reflected in sort of a mirror-image fashion in the work of apologists like Carl F. H. Henry and Clark Pinnock. They have warned that Liberal theology “dissolves the availability of the Gospel's answer for lithe existential dilemmas of modern man" (Pinnock, 1976, p. 14; Henry, 1968, pp. 152-153). What they have in mind is of course “born-again" faith. If one opted for a libera1lheilsgeschichte" understanding of God's activity, the possibility of real personal regeneration would be compromised a few steps down the line. If theologians deny that God intervenes miraculously in history, they cannot then affirm that he may intervene miraculously to regenerate individual lives today. Thus, apologists warn us, Liberalism is to be shunned. But now, ironically, some “soft-line” psychologists are beginning to erode the whole enterprise from the other end! If conversion is not literally miraculous, why must any other "act of God" be? Now such an implicit wide-ranging theological readjustment might be a good thing. But if one is unwilling to make it, one might better push the camel's nose out of the tent. Evangelical psychologists should stick to their hard-line supernaturalist guns and try to refute Sargent and others, if they think they can.
Conversion and the Christian Life
Having indicated the oft-unsuspected theological centrality of conversion, understood as supernatural, the discussion will show how miraculous conversion shapes the religious life from start to finish. A brief consideration of three aspects of “the born-again experience!” will serve this purpose.
First, conversion produces what might fairly be labeled "a short circuited process of growth of the personal identity. It can be understood in Helfaer’s (1972) terms as "precocious ego-identity formation” (p.5).
In the case of the conservative Protestant subculture, the social identity around which the ego-identity is formed is that of the “Christian," or “follower of Christ." The identity is a relatively simple one, and it represents the internalization of the mutually recognized values and symbols of the community (p. 65).
If conversion occurs in late childhood, the born-again Christian will apparently have a head start over his secular friends. "Adolescence is not a time for major reorganization of the personality” (p. 65). Why should it be? The evangelical youth has been given the answers, even before he or she becomes aware of the questions.
James Marcia (1966) has investigated what he calls the "foreclosed" personality among college students. The resulting portrait strikingly matches that of many fundamentalist college students and, we would argue, of other born-again Christians as well. According to Marcia,
A foreclosure subject is distinguished by not having had experienced a crisis [of identity formation] yet expressing commitment [to set value s and beliefs]. It is difficult to tell where his parents’ goals for him leave off and where his begin. He is becoming what others have prepared or intended him to become as a child…. College experiences serve only as a confirmation of childhood beliefs. A certain rigidity characterizes his personality; one feels that if he were faced with a situation in which parental values were nonfunctional, he would feel extremely threatened (p. 552).
Though Marcia shows that religious dogmatism is part of this personality-package, "foreclosure" refers in general to the subjects' attitudes toward vocation, politics, and other areas. Such a student has definite ideas on all these topics, yet without having wrestled with the questions on his or her own. By contrast, Marcia also dealt with "identity diffusion" subjects, sort of “good time Charlie” students who drift through college years with neither settled goals or definite convictions. They have also "successfully" avoided a crisis period, but have no firm commitment either Then there were "identity moratorium" subjects who, at the time of testing, were in the throes of the identity crisis. For them everything was "up for grabs." Answers were not clear, but the hope was that they eventually would be. The last group, "identity achieved" subjects, were those who had completed the “moratorium" or crisis period, with the result that they had solid opinions and goals, integrated into their personalities, and wholly their own.
Returning to the "foreclosure" category, we may easily expand Marcia's references to "parents" to include the “significant others" of the individual's religious peer group, especially those responsible for his or her conversion if born-again faith has not been simply inherited from the family. The aptness of this sketch may be attested by anyone who has had much experience with campus Christian groups like Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Navigators, Chi Alpha, etc. Adopting Marcia's categories, Henry and Renaud (1972) describe the college experience of "foreclosed" students: "A good majority never consider any other path, and any question of alternative life styles rarely comes up for discussion" (p. ) Just so, the evangelical student may attend discussions where moral alternatives (say, premarital sex) are raised only to be refuted with proof-texts.
Awareness of options or the possibility of change tends to precipitate anxiety in"such young people, and left to themselves they skirt the unfamiliar. . . . Thus they effectively insulate themselves from meeting new people and being exposed to new ideas (p. 5).
Accordingly, Campus Crusade and Inter- Varsity "action groups" establish a cozy support group where the student1 s "plausibility structure" (Berger, 1970) is maintained against the pressures of the secular environment. The student is to venture forth to meet the "unsaved" only on covert missions of "friendship evangelism.” Contact with those of different opinions is initiated for the purpose not of interaction but of proselytizing.
One of the implications of such a mode of operation for the college experience is that these students, already largely closed down to new experiences and ideas when they enter college, usually continue to avoid faculty whose views might challenge theirs (Henry and Renaud, p. 5).
This observation accounts for the frequent avoidance of religion or Bible courses by fundamentalist students on secular campuses. Of course there are exceptions which prove the rule; nowadays one finds more fundamentalists taking such courses specifically in order to “defend the faith" against unbelieving professors. For this purpose, the student is armed by the evangelical staff worker with apologetics literature such as Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1973). The Inter- Varsity Press, probably the most sophisticated arm of that organization, seems largely dedicated to providing an extensive range of apologetics material dealing with every issue from biblical criticism to comparative religion, from Behavioristic psychology to Marxism. The student is led to believe that he or she just happens to be heir to the most cogent interpretation of the facts in virtually every field. And this of course is just what these students want to believe anyway. Why bother to evaluate the alternatives for themselves? The apologists have saved them the trouble.
Besides falling short of liberal-arts academic ideals, do such "foreclosed" students, whether born-again Christians or otherwise, really suffer ill-effects from their "foreclosure"? Yes, it seems as if they do. Marcia found that such individuals’ self-esteem was more easily threatened by negative feedback than those who had "achieved" identity through struggle. They also seemed inclined to set unrealistic goals for themselves. And, not surprisingly, they tended toward authoritarian thinking. The relevance of this last observation is only too clear relative to those students who are taught to settle all questions by biblical proof-texting instead of inductive reasoning. Chesen (1973) summed up the problem well: “Rigid, confined, and stereotyped religious thinking patterns can be directly contributory to emotional instability" (p. 27). It would certainly seem to be in the interests of the campus evangelism groups themselves to encourage a more flexible and inductive approach to college experience among their members. Evangelical students might then arrive at a faith better integrated and more balanced, though obviously the dangers of assimilation and secularization would also be increased. Yet this risk is the price of trusting students to think for themselves. Certainly more might drift away from faith and into the secular mainstream. But others would no longer be driven from faith by the narrow limits of it defined by their campus groups. And graduates from these groups might be more capable and valuable members of the evangelical movement.
We have been concentrating on young people and students, but it would seem that basically the same dynamics are in play no matter at what age conversion occurs, since much evangelical rhetoric tends to make the goal of all personal (“spiritual”) growth the ideal of "conformity to the image of Christ,” characteristically interpreted as being religiously mature. Other facets of life tend to be ignored. The effect of this adoption of a relatively simple, and basically religious, ego-identity has two important, superficially positive, results. First, it accounts in large measure for the much vaunted "sense of purpose" and of “having the answers." Born-again Christians seem to "have peace” in a troubled world because they do not have to work out the answers for themselves. Second, this sudden "ego-identity formation” explains the ideological "party-line" approach to moral issues present among most rank-and-file evangelicals. For example, the minions of Jerry Falwell and Anita Bryant know homosexuality is evil, perhaps without ever sensing the need to reason it out.
A second area in which the importance of conversion is manifest, is that of "witnessing" and apologetics. Conversion provides a bond of emotional tenacity which no reasoning is likely to affect. Leuba (1896, cited in James, 1958) wrote, “As the ground of assurance here is not rational, argumentation is irrelevant. . . it is a gross error to imagine that the chief practical value of the faith- state is its power to stamp with the seal of validity certain particular conceptions" (p. 198). He means to disallow emotive nonsequitors like "You ask me how I know he lives? He lives within my heart.” But can anyone deny that born-again believers constantly confuse emotional fervency and rational convincement in this manner? This can be seen most readily in the quasi-rational approach taken in trying to deal with objections of a non-believer whom one is trying to convert. The lay evangelist has taken the trouble to master the answers to “questions non-Christians most commonly ask,” but if he is stumped, he has been coached to reply, "Say that’s a good question! I don’t have an answer, but I'll try to get one for you." The irony of this reply should be, but may not be, obvious. The whole appeal to the skeptic is an allegedly rational one, seeking to satisfy rational objections, but the last statement makes it clear that the believer himself holds his view on the strength of sheer will power!Other wise, how could a “good” (i.e., genuinely cogent) objection not phase him? This common practice is depicted in cartoon form in a recent flyer distributed by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1980), advertising a "Lay Seminar on the Authority of Scripture." In the drawing, a smirking skeptic challenges a (literally) wide-eyed believer. carrying a huge Bible, "Don't you believe the Bible is full of errors?" The believer answers "No, the Bible is inerrant.” The skeptic barrages the inerrantist with questions about textual contradictions, evolution, etc., to which the believer replies variously "Well...," "Ahh...," "Well ahh. .." The skeptic: "Doesn't anyone have answers to my questions?" Not the believer! For he answers, "Funny you should mention that. There is this seminar. . . ." (p. 1). Since born-again faith was probably accepted because of emotional-existential factors, not intellectual factors, the latter have little to do with the maintenance of faith. Apologetics is only a strategy, and often a subtly dishonest one.
Third, conversion can be seen to be determinative of the whole shape of "the Christian life" because of the "get-saved-quick" scheme it proffers. "It cannot really be disputed that most evangelistic rhetoric offers virtually instant solutions to all problems through conversion. For example, take the "Four Spiritual Laws" booklet (1972) used extensively by Campus Crusade for Christ, the recent "Here's Life America" campaign, and many local churches. A diagram characterizes the "carnal" life as chaotic and troubled as long as "self" is on the throne. By contrast, the "spiritual" life has all interests in order, orbiting serenely about the enthroned Jesus Christ. And the difference is as simple as praying the standard prayer that follows. However this promise is seldom completely fulfilled.
A second Campus Crusade booklet, "Have You Made the Wonderful Discovery of the Spirit-filled Life?" (1972) reveals the hitherto-unsuspected existence of a third classification, the "carnal Christian." One's life is again a shambles, even with Christ as savior, but again the remedy is simple. "Spiritual breathing" (confessing sins and appropriating the Spirit's fullness) will rectify things. Note that all of life’s problems are here reducible to sin. And one need seek no further for a solution than religious repentance. Let no one think that Bill Bright (founder of Campus Crusade) is unique in this perception of things. In slightly different idioms this “hard religious line" (to modify our earlier terminology) is common to evangelicals ranging from Jay Adams (1971, 1975, 1976) with his "nouthetic counseling" to Don Basham (1977) and his "deliverance ministry,” with several stages in between: e.g., Vernon Grounds (1976), Tim La Haye (1974).
All this implies what might bluntly be called the "Shazam model of sanctification." If regeneration is to be accomplished in an essentially miraculous manner without the effort of the convert himself, why not the subsequent process of growth? That is, whenever the born- again Christian encounters some personal obstacle or deficiency, he must "lay it on the altar," "give it to the Lord." It would be positively impious to try to struggle through it oneself, and so act "in the flesh." But isn't such struggling, fortunately or unfortunately, the only path to personal maturity? And isn't this model of growth an attempt to leapfrog one's way miraculously into maturity, as when youngster Bill Batson said the magic word "Shazarn” and suddenly became the adult Captain Marvel (Steranko, 1970)? It is not likely to work; immaturity will be protracted as long as one takes Malcolm Smith's (1972) advice to "turn your back on the problem."
The "Soft Religious Line"
Eventually, growing numbers of evangelicals (including Bruce Larson, Keith Miller, O. Quentin Hyder, Cecil Osborne, and Gary Collins) have some to see the lack of psychological realism in this "hard religious line.” They seek to substitute a more humanistic approach, whereby all problems are not simply spiritual in origin or solution, and whereby the only goal is not "spiritual growth." Sentiments like these are representative: "If my faith is in God, then my job is not to build a successful, untainted religious life; it is to live a joyful and creative human life" (Miller, 1977, p. 190). "[It] is absolutely untrue that Christians cannot or should not become mentally ill. We are just as vulnerable as pagans" (Hyder, 1974, p. 153). We might call this a shift to a "soft religious line." Interestingly, the same sort of modification of initially absolutist claims has been observed among Meher Baba sectarians by Anthony, Robbins, Doucas, and Curtis (1977).
The early stages of involvement in a mystical movement may also involve unrealistic expectations of rapid spiritual apotheosis, e.g., Nirvana, Satori, God Realization. Such decisive realization could be expected to obviate all emotional difficulties.... The press of worldly experience tends to result eventually in the diminution of the unrealistic character of such expectations. Over time, converts realize that conversion to a mystical perspective does not result in the early transcendence of all earthly burdens (p. 873).
Renouncing the repression and perfectionism they see in the "hard religious line," such "soft-line" writers announce a new freedom for born-again Christians, a new possibility of "being human." The irony is that the “burdens" being shed according to this new gospel, are precisely the "blessings" promised by the old! Hard-liners like Bright, LaHaye, and Adams offer spiritual-psychological miracles that are supposed to give relief from the burdens of worldly existence. Soft-liners like Larson, Miller, and Osborne recognize such promises as incapable of delivery. Thus the latter group's "good news" is that tired and frustrated Christians can have relief from their burdens by being more like everyone else! It would seem that insofar as evangelicals move toward this "soft religious line, " they ought to be prepared to rethink their evangelistic claims about spectacular benefits available only through Christ. The whole situation comes to look somewhat more ambiguous.
A Possible Solution
Up to this point, this article has argued that miraculous conversion is not merely the beginning of the "born-again experience," but is instead integral to evangelicalism's theological program, as well as to the shape of its religious life. But this far-reaching significance of conversion, understood as miraculous, is often unsuspected. Thus many "soft-line" psychologists in seeking to tone down and redefine the supernatural side of conversion have set in motion changes which are far more significant than they intended. In seeking just a bit more psychological realism, they turn out to alter implicitly but radically both the theological and the experiential claims of evangelical Christianity. It is proving to be more difficult than they had imagined to hold onto humanistic psychology with one hand, and traditional evangelicalism with the other.
Is there, then, any solution, or are the difficulties exposed here insurmountable embarrassments to the notion of conversion? What sort of salvage operation might a psychologist or theologian attempt? One might acknowledge a more liberal approach to the nature of revelation and religious .language and try accommodating theology to it (Kraft, 1979). The implied change s would be far-reaching indeed. And though various factors (e.g. biblical criticism) may yet force such a change, the solution to our particular problem seems less drastic.
One need not revise or weaken the concept of "miracle." One only need alter its application to the concept of “conversion." It would go most of the way toward solving the problem if “soft-liners" shifted the focus of the "miraculous” from the subjective pole (conversion per se) to the objective pole--that to which one is converted. Evangelicals need only maintain the supernatural character of the truths of faith to which one converts. They are the "saving truths," i. e., one's life is affected by the implications of the divine facts themselves, whether or not there is any magic in the believing of them.
Though by-and-large a “hard-liner" in approach, Bill Gothard's view of scripture meditation is, in isolation, a perfect example of what we are suggesting. Gothard's idea is that God has ordered human life according to certain unchanging structures which can be disregarded only at the cost of the inevitable "reproofs of life." The person converted to the study of Scripture will be at a distinct advantage in life because the Bible tells him or her all about those built-in "structures." Thus if one continually meditates on God's Word, one is assured of "successful living." The process is one of simple common sense. Certainly the divine truths involved are supernaturally ordained and revealed. But so little "miraculous" is either the process of observing these truths or the gaining of results that Gothard admits even non-believers will have success when they follow them. All that is necessary is that one reform one's "thought-structures" by the prolonged and repeated rehearsing of those biblical truths. The doing of it is not supernatural at all, and this is no embarrassment.
Another example would be Bruce Larson's observation (1974) that the born-again Christian's faith in Christ's love provides a head start in the process of learning to love others, a process which in itself is quite natural, however difficult. Similarly, one’s faith in eternal life will surely provide a sense of direction in this life, that a non-believer will lack. And one who believes in God’s loving providence will take adversity with more resilience than one who is resigned to the blows of blind fate. The point in all this is that certain notions cannot help but have positive psychological effects when believed. So the believer in Christ’s love, eternal life, and divine providence can certainly expect the benefits of peace, assurance, and purpose. But there need be nothing supernatural in the believing of these things for these benefits to accrue. Is there anything miraculous in one’s joy at hearing a confession of love from his or her spouse? No, it simply follows “naturally.” Even so here.
It would be useless to pretend that nothing would be different on this understanding. There could be promised no supernatural short-cuts to mature self-identity, no easy answers to questions of personal ethics, no automatic freedom from depression. (On the other hand, believers would be freed, as soft-liners want to free them, from the guilt of believing that they should be miraculously free of problems and confusion when they are not.) Such an awakening to reality, however rude for some, should be welcomed since it ends the illusion that Christian faith is to be embraced for the sake of the benefits one stands to gain. And this is undeniably the approach of much evangelism today, wherein the Gospel is hawked as a miraculous panacea, a happiness elixir. (Witness the amazing bumper sticker: “Make life a little easier with Jesus.”) Any sober reading of New Testament statements like “Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27) suggests that Christian discipleship may actually be more of a liability than an asset for life in this world. The spectacular (and unrealistic) promises of the hard-liners tend to obscure this fact.
So “soft-line supernaturalists,” on the present understanding, do not need to trouble themselves about redefining and compromising the miraculous quality of conversion. They would be well-advised instead to leave the meaning of "miracle” intact and deny that conversion is miraculous at all! Surely the whole point is the supernatural miracle to which one is converted, namely Christ. The decision to believe the Gospel message is "merely” a decision like any other decision. But the message is like no other message. Revivalist Charles Finney knew that there was nothing particularly mysterious about the decision to embrace Christianity. The important thing was how to persuade people to make it.
And this observation raises an apparent difficulty with the present proposal. Though nothing inherent in the concept of conversion implies a supernatural character, conversion might be required to be miraculous because of the other tenets of one’s theology. For example, Calvinists might be more reluctant to accept this solution than Arminians, since Reformed theology seems to require Calvinists to make conversion other than human in origin. But all that need be said in a Calvinist framework is that while the conversion decision is pre-ordained by God, it comes about by no special act of God, but rather as a result of his general providence, just like other, more mundane, events. That is, the causation involved in conversion is more analogous to that operating in a common auto accident or the winning of a contest, than to that at work in the parting of the Red Sea or the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, it can be observed that, as often happens, a problem has been created by a misleading delineation of the issues, in this case by evangelical writers and counselors themselves. And the solution is as simple as putting the issues into better perspective. When this is done, the need to weaken the concept "miracle,” with the ensuing theological implications, vanishes. And though the evangelist will still be justified in promising experiential benefits arising from faith, the se promises will be more realistic both biblically and psychologically. In fact, it becomes superfluous to promise that God will “miraculously” cause peace and joy to spring up in the convert’s life. Anyone who has come to believe that he or she has eternal life with a loving God, will need no help in feeling peace and joy.
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