The Limitations of the Word
Is conversion always the right word to describe what happens when someone changes from one belief system to another?
It certainly captures for most people a key aspect of the experience. On the other hand I think it’s missing something.
When I look back at my whole life trajectory from the moment I said to my mother I was not a Catholic anymore to when I made the declaration of intent we shorthand as becoming a Baha’i, I was on a quest. In fact I still am. I was searching for something then with rather more desperation than I search now.
The quest had its roots partly in suffering. My own early experiences of pain – mine, my parent’s and a world’s recently at war - seemed partly responsible for this search mode. I once wrote this poem.
Just rose thorns scratching at my window pane!
How many times I’ve moved to open up
only to calm my straying arm again.
Hope will maintain a vigil till wind drop.
I am no Heathcliff, lost no Catherine:
what need to answer every scratch and tap?
I have my dead, it’s true, padding within,
around the cage of memory, a map
of all my days for them to roam across,
bloodless symbols, reverberating boards,
stench: unfree, never still. I’d grieve no loss
of them -
. . . . . . . . . yet something there is I yearn towards,
strain ears eyes after, a presence I have
sought since mourner I grew, without a grave.
But I don’t want to explore the issue of quest from this angle in this post – maybe in another post later. What I’m after here is to determine, if I can, whether the suffering hypothesis explains my search with nothing left over.
I’m a died-in the-wool anti-reductionist as those who read this blog regularly will already know to their cost. So, it should come as no surprise to hear me conclude that I think there’s a huge amount left over.
I can trace back one part of the leftover aspects to an experience in church when I was very young. Everyone was bowing down at the same point in the Mass and I asked my mother in a whisper why they were doing this and she replied, in a way which she thought fitting for my age and degree of understanding, ‘Because it’s too beautiful to look at.’
This was a challenge too difficult to resist. Something that beautiful and I couldn’t look! This I must see.
And I looked up and I looked round everywhere. All there was was the same old altar, the same old pictures of the stations of the cross, the same old man in a funny dress standing in front of the altar.
The only difference was this big round golden thing he was holding above his head. This seemed to be the object everyone was bowing to, but I didn’t get it. It was quite pretty but definitely not too beautiful to look at. I detected a trace of thirst in me then which grew stronger with the years. It was more than curiosity: it was fueled by a faith that things could be adequately explained.
To call it a thirst for truth in me at that age would be pretentious but it had the same parched quality: the difference was in degree not kind. (It’s the Baha’i Fast as I am writing this so perhaps my choice of metaphor is a bit predictable.)
A Need for Understanding
In my posts about conviction I quoted Fromm‘s idea that there is a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being which cries out to be filled with a suitable object of devotion.
I didn’t go on to make completely clear that there is not only a feeling component to this but a thinking one as well. We need not just to organise our lives around an object or objects of devotion, but we need understanding too. For things to mean something there has to be an intellectual satisfaction as well as an emotional connection. Those two aspects are contained in the word meaning in any case. We need a coherent meaning system, with which we can securely identify, to guide us in life. If we can’t get hold of a good one, a bad one will do instead. Ditchwater’s better than nothing to a man dying of thirst.
I was being driven even at that early age by a need to understand, and to understand in ways that made real sense to me not just in hand-me-down terms that people were fobbing me off with. The Faith I now belong to endorses that need as one that arises from our deepest nature, from our very soul as we would say.
So, I shut the door of the Catholic Church behind me and stepped into the back lanes of agnosticism. It wasn’t long before I was on the beach of atheism watching the tide of faith go out beyond eye-shot.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Not that it worried me consciously.
I wanted to look the hard facts of the world full in the face, see reality for what it was without all that mumbo-jumbo/hocus-pocus/smoke-and mirrors stuff (delete according to your particular distastes). I felt I had found the bed-rock of a firm and true understanding (except I was writing poems about search for reasons I didn’t understand at all).
Still, I stuck with my supposedly godless views because I thought they made sense of everything. I didn’t see it as a faith, which it is – just as much a leap in the dark as any other faith might be and ultimately far more unsatisfactory than many others which accept that there is a God. I had simply made a god of nothing since to believe in Nothing is an act of faith.
I congratulated myself on the hard-headed no-nonsense courage I was displaying by seeing the world as meaningless. I chuckled appreciatively over Castaneda‘s concept of ‘controlled folly’ in his books about the Yaqui Indian ‘way of the warrior:’ you know the world means nothing but you choose to give it a meaning none the less in a brave act of defiant self-assertion.
I plunged into left-wing politics and became ‘a fellow traveller.’ I couldn’t quite make the leap into becoming a real socialist: something held me back. When I began working in mental health and went to see a therapist, we decided that the epitaph engraved in big letters on my tombstone would be, ‘He died with his options open.’ I was very reluctant to make any kind of commitment.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Yet at the same time there was this restless seeking after an indefinable something. Because I shared Chekhov‘s revulsion from violence and lies I stepped away from the radical socialism I was toying with. Even milder versions that eschewed violence in my eyes seemed, like everyone else seeking power, far too keen on lies. The ends always justified the meanest means. In some incoherent way I was expressing that I valued truth more than power except I could never have put it like that at the time.
This drove me to psychology (of which there has been more than enough in these pages already and there is plenty more to come). And that led onto Buddhism which seemed a conveniently atheistical religion with a sophisticated psychology. Choosing to investigate that at the same time as I studied psychology was a no-brainer for me.
. . . . . . . . . On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.
I came to a point in my life where the ideals of communism -’ from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ – seemed to me to have been betrayed by all of its followers that had actually got into power. For example, far from rescuing the bulk of Europe from tyranny, the war against Hitler, with supreme irony, handed whole swathes of the continent over to a tyranny of an equally repellent kind.
On the other hand, Buddhism, which still seems to me a religion of great beauty, depth and power though I never threw in my lot with it, disappointed for a different reason.
I was impressed painfully by its combination of deep spirituality and practical inefficacy in the modern world. I had been haunted since the end of the Vietnam War by a potent symbol of this: those images of Buddhist monks burning themselves to death in the streets. The most widespread effects of these supremely compassionate acts of courageous self-immolation seemed to be futile if passionate demonstrations by the well-meaning and a series of tasteless jokes of the ‘What’s little and yellow and burns with a blue flame?’ variety, which combined racism and cruelty in about equal proportions.
Without knowing it at the time I longed, from the deepest levels of my being, for a pattern of belief, a meaning system, that could combine effective social action with moral restraints strong enough to prevent that social action becoming a source of oppression.
To embark now, after 1500 words, on a tale of how I found the Faith would test the patience of potential saints. Suffice it to say that I believed then, 27 years ago, that the Baha’i Faith offers just such a system and I believe it still. Hence this post.
What’s this got to do with conversion not being the right word?
Oh, I almost forgot!
The whole point of starting this story was to use my experience to indicate that the word conversion is missing something. When I became a Bahá’í I did not feel I was abandoning a previous belief system to adopt another quite different one. Anything but.
I felt I was finding a system of belief and practice that exactly corresponded to what I had always believed, could never have articulated so well and had always wanted to find in someone or something else apart from somewhere behind a fog in my own mind.
So strong was the sense of home-coming that when I went on pilgrimage four years later, I ended up weeping at the gates near the Shrine of the Báb, overcome by waves of relief and gratitude, such as a person who had been decades in exile might feel after a long and arduous journey as he looked down from a nearby hill top on the sunlit roofs of his birthplace.
Of course, my journey of discovery is not over. It would be very boring if it was. Becoming a Baha’i, as I said at the beginning, is a declaration of intent. I am constantly working at improving my understanding of its teachings and striving to increase my love for God through interacting with the Words of Bahá’u'lláh and reflecting on His life.
But as I said, the search is now a lot less desperate. I’m not at sea now in a storm, at the mercy of the waves, nor even on that desolate beach. I’m on dry land under a bright sun and feel I am moving forwards in something far closer to the right direction.
I just need to remember to keep looking at the map, that’s all. Carrying it in my back pocket doesn’t work too well.