English: Conversion of St Paul
English: Conversion of St Paul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Conversion is a total and complete change of allegiance, belief and practice from a secular to a religious outlook, or from one religious belief system to another.

This is the textbook definition. In actual fact, conversion is usually an ongoing process in which old elements of the personality (and related attitudes and beliefs) diminish and possibly die out while being replaced by new ones.

Alternately, aspects of the old personality may endure but be transformed and applied within a new outlook. For instance, a musician may at one time play predominantly for the love of music and to please people, self-aggrandize and make money. After a conversion experience he or she may play music to glorify God.

The term also has more popular uses, such as “I converted from meat eating to vegetarianism.”

In the New Testament we hear of some conversion experiences that are sudden and powerful, such as the persecutor of Christians Saul falling off his horse and becoming St. Paul. But these are typically rare. The norm seems to be a gradual conversion, characterized by moments of grace and spiritual dryness. Or perhaps an initially powerful conversion experience is followed by periods of dryness and grace.

When someone has a powerful conversion experience they usually claim to “know” instead of “believe,” which arguably could be an interpretive mistake. And new converts are often overzealous and intolerant of other forms of belief. At least for a while. If they’re inherently sensible, the school of life usually balances them out over time. But if they’re not sensible about their beliefs, converts may continue to be fanatical and, perhaps, alienate more than inspire others.


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