Conversion, Spiritual Epiphanies and Mystical Experiences

By Dave, the WM

I've never met a single person who became a zealous Christian after being presented an intellectual reason to believe. In fact, I would dare to say that there has not been one real conversion in history that can be entirely attributed to a simple, unemotional presentation of facts. That's not how religion works. Religion finds fertile ground in the field of a person's emotions. If a few random twigs on the periphery of a Christian's faith suffer damage during a violent storm of logic, the roots of that faith tend to remain deeply buried, far out of site, and untouched.

I've never been accused of being overly sensitive or romantic, yet my own conversion to Christianity was highly charged with emotion. Tears ran down my face. I trembled uncontrollably. I felt that I was having a face-to-face meeting with the everlasting Godhead. Even today, the experience is strong in my memory. "How to Witness" classes I attended in following years encouraged me to rely on my subjective emotional conversion with statements like, "Unbelievers can't argue with your personal testimony," which meant no one could refute your personal experience.

Here I was in a witnessing class learning how to "disciple the nations," yet the most reliable weapon against unbelief is subjective personal experience?

Is an emotional experience really that reliable? Does an emotional experience provide solid enough ground on which to build a life?

Admittedly, much of life rests on just exactly that type of foundation. For instance, do any of us scientifically and analytically pick a mate? Or, is our selection usually based on something less well defined, such as emotions and/or hormones? Do we choose our food after a thorough nutritional analysis? Or, is our dinner choice usually based on something considerably less researched, like what would taste good today?

Our religious choices fall along the same lines.

While a Christian, I was also a musician, heavily involved in the music ministry at a Charismatic church. I understood music’s power and knew how to use music to play on the emotions of the congregation. If you doubt that music has this ability, to play on your emotions, try watching an adventure or mystery movie with the sound turned off – just read subtitles instead. See if your anticipation for “what will happen next” is nearly as intense as compared to when the soundtrack is playing underneath the action.

When the music at church was "right," and the volume swelled just so, ecstatic utterances — tongues, words of knowledge, prophecies — would bubble out of people's mouths like milk boiling in a pot. After the service I'd hear, "Wow, the Spirit was really moving today," and "The Lord really ministered to me today," and "I felt the Lord all morning," and so on.

I'd speculate about what would happen if we abandoned music during the services. I questioned whether anyone would still enjoy worshipping God. I wondered if the Holy Spirit would be felt at all.

Feelings. That's really what the bulk of Christianity and religion is really all about: fabricated, fluffy, feelings.

Although I eventually wearied of the shallow emotionalism, I didn't immediately give up on faith in the magical Christ. "People will disappoint you, but Christ is faithful!" That's what I told myself for the next 15 years.

I went from church to church, searching for the real thing. "I" never "found it" in church. Along the way I catered to my appetite for deeper truth by consuming theological, historical, apologetic, and inspirational books of every stripe. My education wasn't formal, but it was extensive. Gaining that knowledge altered my views dramatically. In time I began to realize how much Christianity had mutated over the centuries, and how nearly every "truth" that modern day believers hold dear evolved over time. Today’s 20-century-old Christianity would be unrecognizable to its First Century progenitors.

The details of each Christian "testimony" are varied, but the root of every conversion is some sort of a spiritual (emotional) epiphany. And the "high" that religion can bring will carry a new believer along for a considerble while. Eventually, if the believer has a questing mind, doubts will arise, and that's when the vast libraries of apologetic books are brought into play.

As an aside, apologetic books sell by the millions, to believers. Unbelievers don't generally purchase apologetic books. Apologetic books are not a tool for evangelism. Conversion is based entirely on emotion and not because the unbeliever finally collected enough information to be converted. While I've never known of a single person who was converted solely from reading an apologetic book, I do know people who have "backslidden" and later rededicated their lives to Christ after reading an apologetic book. However, rededication is not the same as conversion.

Christian logic is primarily the armchair variety: "When I look at the stars, sky, trees, and my new baby, it just seems logical to conclude (insert here: 'It just feels right to me') that the world was created by an incomprehensible, loving, spiritual entity. Therefore, Jesus is the Son of God!" And, "This experience was wonderful. I was filled with a feeling of love so powerful, it was simply overwhelming. Therefore, Jesus is the Son of God."

So, how to interpret personal conversion experiences? If a harbinger of truth is knocking at the door, talking about his or her unquantifiable ecstatic "miracle," and seems dogmatically sure of his spiritual experience, what's a skeptic to do? Is it true that no one can argue with a Christian's personal experience?

If Christianity were the only modern religion that provided powerful, life-changing, mystical experiences, then those things might add validity to their beliefs. If only Christianity provided these unexplained feelings, it might be reasonable to conclude that Christianity is unique. The problem is that disciples of other religions also have dramatic stories.

Here's one:
I was born in China during the Cultural Revolution and brought up as a typical atheist. We were educated to believe that religious theories were made up by rulers to manipulate people's minds and maintain their political power.
I came to this country in 1996 as a graduate student at the University at Albany. A few months after I arrived, a lady approached me outside a post office in Latham. When she offered me a religious pamphlet and asked if I believed in God, I proudly answered, "No!"

I can never forget the shock and pitying expression on her face. She said, "You don't believe in God? You don't believe that God created human beings?"
I found that idea inconceivable and pitied her for thinking that way.
One day in 1997, my best friend showed me a book she recently got from her parents in China. It was entitled "Zhuan Falun" (Turning the Law Wheel) by Li Hongzhi, founder of a traditional Chinese spiritual practice known as Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa. I opened it and could hardly put it down. Page after page, my lifetime questions were being answered one by one. I recalled my encounter at the post office, thought about the true meaning of life and moved away from atheism. The world became new to me. I finished reading the book in two days -- the happiest days in my life. — Yu Chen

Here's another:
(The) Hindu religion is a source of happiness in this and the other world. No other religion seems to be equal to Hindu religion. Those having mean and unwise bent of mind and give up this religion are wicked and base. Such people suffer greatly in this world and even Yamraj (god of death) does not get satisfied while punishing them. We are wise and learned. Why should we forsake Hindu religion? We have a permanent commitment and love for protecting our religion. — Guru Teg Bahadur

And this one:
"While I was speaking in Southern California a number of years ago, I met four young men who were members of Hare Krishna. It wasn't a planned meeting, we just happened to strike up a conversation as we were crossing the same busy street in Los Angeles. To my utter shock, three of these lost souls were Jews. As I listened attentively to the testimonials of these oddly dressed fellows, each of them carefully described how their newfound religion had transformed their lives. They joyfully spoke of their joining this eastern sect and I could sense the elation and inner peace they felt. They were certain that what they believed was true and it was quite apparent that they were more spiritual now than they had ever been in their former lives." — Rabbi Tovia Singer

I'd like to wind this down with a quote from George Boyd
Conversion by fundamentalistic groups is begun by introducing doubts about one's fundamental beliefs about life, and using irrational fear to coerce confession of sin, repentance, and adoption of a primary religious belief system (faith). After this primary belief system has been established, basic guidelines for belief, morality, lifestyle, and behavior are inculcated and shaped through socialization into the "new family" of the Church. Finally, through asking for and challenging individuals to make progressively deeper commitments to the Christian community and spiritual life, they are led to a greater participation in the works of Christian charity, development of the church and active ministry. Rare individuals may undergo the transformation of character and reliance on inner guidance indicative of holiness.

Fundamentalists need to recognize, however, that viable and personally rewarding solutions to the quest for personal meaning and value, and spiritual growth, across cultures and throughout history, have not been restricted solely to the Christian Church. They also need to appreciate that the same free will they so highly respect, does not function either freely or rationally when conflict is introduced into the subconscious mind through conversion tactics using fear, shame, guilt and the creation of doubt. If we are to survive into the 21st Century, we must recognize that we live in a world of multiple cultures and pluralistic religious beliefs, and tolerance and respect for others' choices, however different from our own, must guide our actions.

OK, so what's the point?

Christian conversion is emotional, much like falling in love, or going into an angry rage, or having an episode of hysterical laughter. Once the passion subsides, it's often difficult to explain why it was ever felt in the first place. Emotional feelings can't be proved or disproved, but they aren't reality. Emotions exist, in essence, only in the mind.

In the decades since my emotional "real-to-me" conversion, I've left Christianity, obviously. I now have a better understanding of how my own mind processes information and the role my imagination plays in filling out my psyche. I realize now that I was initially so convinced of the truth of Christianity, so affected by the emotional appeal of an evangelist, so wanting to connect with the true God, so filled with guilt over my 11-year-old sinful life, that when I knelt down and prayed the prayer of faith, my mind fabricated a significant emotional experience that absolutely blew my mind. But that's the only place that experience existed — in my mind.

What do you think?

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