A brief note on “conversion” to Christ.
One often hears Christians and others talking about “conversion,” and explicitly about “being called by Jesus,” or “becoming a Christian,” or “becoming a disciple of Christ,” and so on. Or one hears in doctrinal church circles the claim that when an infant is baptized, the child “begins a life in Christ,” or “is filled with grace,” or “becomes a Christian,” and so on.
I prefer to use the term “conversion to Christ” in a more definite, less doctrinal, more experiential sense. Whether an infant is “joined to Christ” in baptism, I have no idea, because of such an experience I have no awareness; it is merely a doctrinal assertion one hears among those given to talking in religious language abstracted from concrete experience. Let them talk, and pass on by.
The following brief meditation could be fleshed out later, perhaps should be developed for the sake of greater clarity and to avoid misunderstandings. For the sake of sparking an interest in those for whom these words may have meaning, I submit the following.
Properly understood, and grounded in reality and in language derived from experiences of reality, to be “converted to Christ,” or expressing the same experience(s) in equivalent phrases, has a definite meaning that has unfortunately been all-too-neglected among both “Christians” and non-Christians. Let’s be as concise and as clear as possible:
To be “converted to Christ” refers to an experience of faith-grace, in which a human being chooses to open up his or her heart to the presence of God in Christ, and Christ floods into consciousness. This breaking-in of Christ is the essence of “conversion.” How one can say that he or she is “a Christian,” or a “disciple of Christ,” without such a grounding experience, I do not know. What could it mean to be “a Christian” except one in whom Christ lives with a humble and grateful response from the human partner? God is in all, but not all respond with trust and love; and many seem utterly unaware of indwelling divine Presence. When awareness of Presence dawns, one has been converted to God. If this experience of Presence is related to God-in-Christ, then one’s conversion is “Christian,” or in-Christ.
Consider the foundational experience again: A particular human being hears about Christ, about the presence of the Unknown God in the man Jesus, and lovingly opens up one’s being to Christ; now that human being is alive in the Resurrected Christ, as proclaimed by the Apostle Paul and other men and women in Christ who have had similar experiences. “God raised Jesus from the dead” may be the operative phrase that moved the heart to open up, although such words can easily be understood in an objectifying manner, divorced from concrete experience—as in the Nicene Creed, for example: “He suffered, died, was buried; he was raised on the third day.” This language has indeed divorced experience from verbiage, and many then get caught in the words, and miss the underlying reality or truth. (It is unfortunate that the more experiential language of the Apostle was omitted from the Creed: “Christ suffered, died, was raised, and appeared.” The apostles’ visions of the Resurrected give context and meaning to the verbal formulations of “raised on the third day,” and so on.
Hence, less ambiguous are formulations of those who had the “apostolic experiences” themselves, and not second-hand warm-ups, as in creedal formulations. As a good example, one finds the words of the Apostle Paul compressed in his true but not expounded words: “Now I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2). Such are the words of a converted human being, who is now “a man in Christ Jesus,” that is, living in a state of faith-union with the Resurrected Christ. The Apostle is marvelously conscious that Jesus Christ is alive in Paul’s own heart, mind, consciousness. So when Paul writes that “Christ was raised,” he is grounding his words not hearsay or on mere formulations, but on his real experience of Christ appearing to him, and now alive in him. Such is the life-giving awareness that the church Fathers forgot or unthinkingly stripped away when they composed the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325). They substituted formulations for genuine experiences in Christ, and unwittingly paved the way for the spiritual wasteland that one all-too-often finds in churches yesterday, today, and probably tomorrow. Here are the churches; but where is Christ?
Doctrinal formulations, however useful, have plagued the gospel movement and Christianity at least since the third century. In the churches of our time, so much damage has been done by doctrinalization and recourse to ritual and sacraments as substitutes for genuine spiritual experience that the best that a seeker of truth can do may be to immerse himself or herself in Christ and other divine experiences apart from external forms of “religious practice.” Rituals and church services are not bad in themselves, but they can and do often become substitutes for, and blockages against, genuine spiritual experiences of Christ. I write this as a warning for those of us who have had contact with organized Christianity. Rather than nourish men and women in Christ, the churches have often inflated minds with “the Bible,” or with “Sacraments,” or with “official Church teachings,” and so on. The Bible, teachings, and sacraments are of little if any true benefit unless a particular man, woman, or child is open to the direct and overshadowing experience of divine Presence, whether as the Resurrected Christ, or as the “Holy Spirit,” or simply as “God.”
Contrast the Christianity of our present churches with the genuine spiritual experiences of the Apostle Paul and the writers of the canonical Gospels. The evangelist John, for example, finds numerous ways to communicate his own personal faith-union with the Resurrected in words he puts on the lips of Jesus: “I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who lives and believes in me, even if he dies, shall live….” To experience the Resurrected is to allow the divine Life to flood into one’s consciousness, so that dying to self becomes a joyful way of allowing the eternal I AM to live in, with, and through the human partner. The one in union with Christ experiences in his or her heart the same I AM that appeared to Moses out of the burning bush. The Unknown God, symbolized as “Father,” enflames or enlivens one’s consciousness, so that one may express the experience as “being raised with Christ,” or “awakening,” or “now I live, yet not I, but Christ,” or “did not our hearts burn within us” (Luke 24), and so on. The verbal expressions are many and varied, ever imperfect or imprecise, but all drawn out of the fundamental experience of being converted to “God, the living God,” through the message about Jesus crucified and risen, with the attending experience of the in-breaking of Christ into one’s own consciousness as “my LORD and my God” (John 20).
Such is conversion. “By their fruits you will know them.” Out of faith-union with Christ will flow love that gives life, and truth that raises from the dead. All too often one experiences in the churches love as mere inner-worldly action (the “social gospel”), and rather than minds raised from the dead, minds and hearts dully put to sleep by stale and tired religious formulations. To those who have undergone genuine conversion, the experience of Christ is real, alive, and convincing. But without the experience of being in union with Christ, preaching or teaching is a mere movement of verbal formulations, dead leaves blowing around spinning or nodding minds—in a word, churchianity.
I conclude this brief meditation on conversion with an attempt to verbalize the foundational experience of conversion, of being alive-in-Christ Jesus:
I in you, and you in me. All that I am and have I give to you. All that you are, you share with me. Apart from you I can do nothing truly good; in you and with you, even this passing self becomes a divine vessel of life, a human vessel of divine life. You are the Mind of my mind, the Light shining in the darkness of doubt and unbelief, the living flame of love that burns out the dross of selfish love and enflames the heart with love that enlivens. In You and with You, even this imperfect being becomes a channel of your flowing stream to thirsty ground. Be in me, LORD God, a purgatorial fire, burning out all that does not proceed from You, and lead back to You. For You who are Life is overcoming death in me, so that the union becomes ever more real, ever more delightful, from now into eternity, the fullness of You in all.
—Wm. P. McKane
14 October 2019
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