The Contours of Convers(at)ions

Yesterday I began to sketch out some thoughts on how my approach to teaching the Bible has shifted towards a participatory understanding of learning and community. (This is no small part is influenced by the research of my dissertation and is reflected in much greater detail there and in my forthcoming book.)

Today I want to say something about why this play on words, convers(at)ions, which I take to reflect the interplay between conversation and conversion.

It is my belief that we are shaped by many micro-conversions throughout life. I’ve written about three of my own in the past (a, b & c). There may be one central moment where we “wake up” from a like Lazarus, but as I look back through my life I see many points at which my life took on, sometimes, radically new information and incorporated it into my existing framework or even shifted that framework in a new direction.

When I moved from a charismatic non-denominational church to the Quaker tradition I experienced a major paradigm shift that has deeply impacted my life. That experience was one of being adopted into something larger. I began thinking, “I’ve been a Quaker my whole life without knowing it.”

These shifts, or conversions if you will, in thinking so often happen through conversations. Conversation with other people, with texts, with nature, or an experience that works like a “embodied conversation.” This might be seen in those things we go through physically – the death of a loved one, dealing with cancer, the loss of home or job, deep depression – and how they can act as a kind of conversation with who you are prior to, during, and after that experience. In other words, it is a conversation with who you are becoming.

Sometimes it is a dialogue with history that brings us into a new paradigm or presents a fork in our narrative.

Sometimes it is the meeting of an individual for the first time, or something a mentor or friend says to us that acts as a lightning rod of conversion. And yes, conversation with God is a tried and true vehicle of conversion.

As you can see there is an interplay between formation and dialogue that is essential to what it means to be human.

But the quality and reception of dialogue here is important. There are plenty of experiences in which we are told or pressured or forced to do something that has an impact on our lives. This isn’t convers(at)ion.

There are plenty of times when we refuse to receive a truth that could open us up into a more loving and whole human being.

As Anthony de Mello writes:

The truth that sets us free is almost always the Truth we would rather not hear.

So when we say something isn’t true, what we all too frequently mean is, “I don’t like it.”

Here are some of the contours of convers(at)ions I find helpful:

Convers(at)ions are mutual.

If you were to sneak up on this kind of conversation you wouldn’t necessarily know who the teacher was, or the quality of teaching would surprise you. It’s not authoritarian, expert-driven, or protective – in the copy-right sense as in this is my material and you must only consume it, do not break copy-right by trying to do you own thing with it. It is shared and it builds trust. Being mutual is the opposite of what we often see where people, families, relationships, are fused together. If I do or believe this, then you must also believe/do this. Fused relationships do not know where the one person begins and where the other ends. Mutuality then is focused on being “independent together.” We can share in relationship precisely because we are independent human beings, who have our own trajectories, thoughts and experiences, and we remain together through dialogue, connection, and shared experiences. In this model, there is no way of telling who will experience transformation.

Convers(at)ions are invitational and non-coercive.

Much of what passes as religion these days has at its core an image of an abusive God, “God must break you to make good things happen!” These and other emotional tactics that generate fear, rivalry over against the other, or are literally abusive, are in stark opposition to what I am talking about.

To be invitational is to create a space of hospitality where an individual’s soul is welcome and safe enough to show up as little or as much as she or he feels free to do.

The weight of the expectation is on the space being safe, not on the person or community responding in a specific way to the teacher. A basic premise of teaching is that students cannot learn if they are not moving toward their teachers.

This kind of dialogue is also invitational in that it isn’t trying to fix the other person. It honors where they are at and honors the fact that the Inward light of Christ, or as Parker Palmer calls it the “Inward Teacher,” is already at work in that person’s life. Therefore, it is becomes our work to help journey with that person and help open up a space for that to hear God talking to them.

This is driven more primarily by asking open-ended questions, exploring personal experiences, various perspectives, and testing what reflects truth in that given place and time. It follows what Rilke writes about here:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. -Rainer Maria Rilke

Convers(at)ions point in the direction of love.

They begin and end from a place of love. Of deep concern for the other, not as an image or projection of myself, but as a differentiated person seeking their own wholeness. To have this point in the direction of love is to be pointed in the direction of God. It knows that wholeness cannot be found apart from coming to know for oneself the unconditional love of God. But it also knows that there is no way another person can make another person know or understand or experience this. Beyond this, it points in the direction of love in that those who experience this kind conversation/conversion will be themselves working towards a more loving posture in the world.