Conversion is the subjective dimension of justification, the transformation by which flawed nature is elevated and healed by grace… (In honor of the Feast of All Saints, we re-publish the following part of our earlier post Tony Blair: The Problem Convert?, though with deep sorrow at the former Prime Minister’s persistent Anti-humanism.)
I think many of us are working under a misunderstanding of the Christian doctrine of conversion. Now, theologically, conversion is the subjective dimension of justification, the transformation by which flawed nature is elevated and healed by grace. Note how in the Council of Trent, the one true Church rejected the Lutheran doctrine of forensic justification (sprung from the Manichaeanized side of St. Augustine), which saw salvation as a Gnostic jump from the demiurgic humanity of sin to that of grace. For in truth, the natural and supernatural orders are rooted in the same God, the latter a (supercosmically) higher mode of communion into which one grows by grace. (Thankfully, Kuyper’s revisionist Calvinism, with its emphasis on “common grace”–derived from Calvin’s affirmation of the enduring providence of God–has begun to correct Neochristian theology.)
Conversion, in other words, is a grace-borne process that begins at baptism, and we can’t demand that it happen instantly in everyone: It takes time for the mustard seed to grow; and so the Church understands that the transformation of the Inner Self takes place differently in different people. Thus, in volume 1 of his magisterial Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, the Neochristian (i.e., Protestant) theologian Ernst Troeltsch noted how the one true Church, while setting up an exacting moral standard for her members, doesn’t demand that they all adopt it once for all on pain of excommunication, but allows them to grow into it according to their station, within the bosom of the Body of Christ. If this conversion is never completed within our lifetimes, we follow original Christian teaching in believing that it will be completed by the fires of love in the next life (see Matthew 12:32), through the merits of Christ and, in Him, of His Church considered as a mystical organism.
Maybe the problem is that we’re too excessively influenced by the Damascus model of conversion, based on St. Paul’s virtually instantaneous change from militant unbelief to total faith. Thus, back in the 18th century, so intelligent a Neochristian minister as Jonathan Edwards actually demanded a “conversion experience” from his flock.
What we perhaps fail to note is that conversion in Scripture and in Christian history is more nuanced by far, and more often characterized by fits and starts. St. Peter, after his call by Our Lord, long persisted in his worldly vision of the Messianic mission (hence the Dominical vade retro); and it took the tolle, lege episode, whatever its historicity, to finally effect St. Augustine’s moral conversion. Indeed, conversion for the most part resembles the experience of Elijah: hearing the soft voice of God not in but after the noise and the tempest.
Speaking of double standards, then, we cannot suddenly demand total instant conversion from our initiates simply because we are presently at war with Antihumanism and Liberal Fascism. Whatever the social situation, conversion is ultimately God’s work and follows His pace, notwithstanding RCIAs and catechumenates; and who was it (Simone Weil?) who said that many enter the Church through disapproved ways? It is surely unjust to withhold mercy from presumptively sincere beginners, when even the latae sententiae excommunication of mass-murdering abortionists (who just happen to be cradle “Catholics”) can be lifted upon their repentance. Of course, I don’t mean adopting a big-tent policy in the style of Anglicanism, but a sort of “basilica ecclesiology”, where conversion means walking down the nave to the altar rail to receive the Blessed Sacrament, and entering the church is but the start of the Greatest Pilgrimage.
May God bless us all.