Monday, June 23, 2008

Converts - Part 1: "The Christian Mid-Life Crisis"

Observations From a Fellow Convert

Over the last several years, I have noticed a common trend among many converts to various sects within Christianity that confuses and irritates me. I am not speaking about the casual church attendee who bounces from denomination to denomination based on the "feels" of a given congregation. I am talking about people who eat and sleep a certain belief system for years and then change that foundation in the worst possible way for everyone around them.

I will go ahead and warn everyone that I have a very critical view of any church leader who spontaneously converts from one church body to another... especially when it is done in a Pharisaically public manner.

What makes die-hard loyalists (pastors, elders, and theologically-sound laymen) stray? At the risk of oversimplification, I have observed that the launching point that starts many converts down the road to leave a particular confession is often built on a line of thinking that is based on a critical logical fallacy. For this part of the discussion, I am not even going to talk about the "right" and "wrong" confession to believe in. Right now, we are simply talking about the "right" and "wrong" way to go about looking at your confession versus the others that you may be interested in. If you read conversion stories from this category of theology junkies, they tend to follow this reasoning:

The Mid-Life Crisis Method:

Step 1. I am a [X]ist.
Step 2. I do not disagree with [X]ian doctrine, but my fellow [X]ists are not [X]ian enough.
Step 3. [X]ists do not meet my expectations and standards of [X]ism.
Step 4. That imperfect condition of [X]ism here in the church militant makes me unhappy.
Step 5. Therefore, I am going to go looking at a faith that is even more not [X] for answers and judge this new (i.e. fresh/exciting) faith against the one that I am already dissatisfied with. At that point I will choose between the faith that I already don’t like and the one that I think might be better.
Step 6. Now I suddenly realize that this new faith is what I had always wanted to be as an [X]ian. After fair analysis, I have suddenly realized that this new faith is what I always should have been, but was too ignorant/cynical/partisan to notice. This new faith is what I was really looking for when I became a [X]ian in the first place.

This is the impression that I get from many of these stories. I think that this is why converts are often treated the same way that we treat middle-aged husbands who "trade up" from their old wife to a new fling from work. At least in my mind, the comparison fits in the majority of cases. By the time a convert starts to seriously look at a new belief system, the decision to leave the old belief system has been made. They may not even realize it yet, but they have spiritually left the church, but physically remain there as they struggle to come to grips with their dissatisfaction.

This condition makes the comparison process unfair and disingenuous. Once you reach Step 4, it is virtually impossible for the old system to compete with any new system that you consider. You may even fool yourself into thinking that you are providing a fair and balanced comparison, but such a thing is impossible. The process of comparing confessions this way is a sham that only serves to assuage the convert’s guilt over what he perceives as possible disloyalty to his old beliefs. To feel better, he offers his old faith (which he has already begun to reject) a chance to redeem itself in the kangaroo court of his own mind. It is no surprise that the old belief so often fails every test that it is given while the new faith passes with flying colors.

To support this observation, I would like to point out that many of the public stories about conversion have very little to do with objective concerns over doctrine. You do not find perceived error as the launching point of the quest for truth outside of the original faith. It always starts with complaints that sound so much like the "marital problems" that "force" men to look elsewhere. I also submit that the majority of these converts are middle-aged men who demographically fall into the category of individuals most prone to this kind of narcissistic second-guessing in other areas of their lives. It is no wonder then that religious converts often choose the first "rebound" belief system that presents itself and it always starts with innocent flirting. Most of the time, the rebound belief system of choice possesses the very thing that they have always felt their old system lacked. This new system that they gravitate towards has a better pedigree, is flashier, is more missional, is more modern, or seems more enthusiastic. It is only when that missing need is met that converts bother to reconcile doctrine.

I think that this is why converts are willing to gloss over the new faith’s short comings. Once you have decided that you might want to leave the belief system that you have been so invested in, you are tempted to look for somewhere—anywhere to make yourself feel better. At this point you do not make clear decisions. Just about anything looks good when you have such a low view of where you are at. You start to make decisions based on what you think is right for you under the guise of following your conscience.

From Being in a Bad Situation to Creating a Worse Solution

The truth is that you have gotten so good at lying to yourself about your motives that you can no longer trust your impulses. This is the dangerous time when the Devil appears as an angel of light and helps you to select the "best course of action" for your unfortunate circumstance. The Devil does not want a public pillar of your church to just fade away or to resign correctly and respectfully. The enemy is constantly seeking to damage the church further by heaping mountains of human baggage between individual Christians and their Savior. He is looking for one thing when it comes to wounded church leaders: scandalous collateral damage.

This is where the misguided seeker becomes an instrument of division and schism that the Devil uses to wreak havoc on both sides of the conversion. It is not enough to publicly admit to a crisis in faith and commit to a penitent period of prayer and fasting while you beseech the Holy Spirit for divine guidance. It is not enough to admit that you are no longer fit to be a teacher because you have critical questions that need answers. It is not enough to withdraw from public view so that you are free to perform several months—maybe years—of study and evaluation. It is not enough to try to address these problems maturely and promptly for the good of the church. No, you have to continue to keep these concerns secret so that it festers until it is too much to bear. You have to let the whispers in your head go unchallenged by pretending that you can make wise decisions without help from your peers and superiors in the church body.

All of a sudden, after years of pretending that you can handle this and lying to your brothers and sisters by making it seem that everything is okay (even though you are nursing private doubt and concern), something happens. You feel "led" to make a knee-jerk decision that instantly changes your public confession while you are still locked in the leadership position that you abandoned long ago. The same impulse that made you feel "led" to keep your concerns relatively secret now prompts you to feel "led" to spectacularly convert one day. You swing from super-private doubter all the way to poster-boy convert in one loud swoop. Who—or what—is doing the "leading" here?

In spite of all of the self-delusion going on, you manage to correctly diagnose that your old faith has serious problems. You correctly diagnose that all of the controversies and bickering obscure the Gospel. Your solution? Leave that already damaged sect in such a way as to create even more controversy and bickering among the poor Christians that you have elected to abandon while simultaneously creating a cloud of controversy that follows you to the new faith that you have decided to join. How is that faithful to the body of Christ?

Is that really your conscience or is that the voice of someone trying to use your situation as weapon against the church? The voice suggests that you should prove to yourself and others that you are in control and are capable of fixing what you now perceive to be decades of misjudgment. Most of all, it demands that you remain true to yourself…

…not true to your oaths
…not true to the Gospel
…not true to Christ
…not true to Holy Scripture
…not true to apostolic tradition
…not true to your troubled church body, your besieged congregation, and the obligations of your divine call to brothers and sisters that you know will be shaken to their foundations by the way you are going about your personal crisis.

…but be true to YOURself and what YOU now believe to be right for YOU and YOUR conscience.

All of a sudden, you dust off that word "integrity" which you have been ignoring during this whole irrational process and decide that it is best if you just come clean to everyone about your total reversal in belief systems regardless of who it hurts. You put your precious spiritual integrity ahead of the souls of weaker Christians that might be permanently driven from the saving shelter of the Christian Faith by your stumbling block. To go back to our mid-life crisis metaphor: It is not enough that you are compelled to divorce your wife, you have to combine that with leaving her for the hot tart that you only noticed when you started having problems at home. You don't even bother having the decency to put a reasonable period of time between you moving out and your new honey moving in. How did you think it was going to come across?

...But at least you’re being true to yourself and are no longer living a lie.


Christopher D. Hall said...

Interesting psychological profile, Mike. I don't agree with you all that you write here--I think you are making some leaps and assumptions, but in a general sense, you seem to understand people well. Does that make sense?

In other words, I think much of what you write here is true psychologically in a general sense, but it grows more stereotyped and wrong as you look at individuals.

But I think you speak some from experience, no?

Mike Baker said...

I am speaking generically without a specific case in mind so it is going to sound like sterotyping.

I am also drawing from observations from several dozen of these conversion stories which all appear to follow this description very closely (at least by the testimony of the individuals explaining their motives and methods.) I have not stereotyped them. They have fallen into this stereotype by their actions.

Obviously people whose specific cases are different than what I am describing here do not fit into this discription. It is also possible that they are not telling us the whole story. I can only go by what they tell me as seen through the lense of my personal experience.

And my personal experience tells me that:

(1) If sinful men can mess something up, they will mess it up despite their best intentions.

(2) Pride is a powerful motivator that causes good men to make dumb choices that end up hurting lots of people uneccesarily... and they still think that they did the right thing.

(3) Christians rarely consider the fixable plights of their neighbors as they try to heroically solve the "important" problems that have plagued the church for centuries

(4) When pastors start to doubt the doctrine of their church, they seem to not follow the advice that they would give a church goer if he came to them with the same concern. They often assume that because they are theologeans that they can figure all of this out in secret and with minimal outside help... a grave mistake that the devil exploits to damage the church and further wound a good pastor.

(5) The highest form of integrity is admitting that you have problems and weaknesses the FIRST moment that you identify them.