I recall a conversation with a Russian parishioner some years back. She had been baptized as an adult (by me) and I referred to her as a “convert” in the course of conversation. She bristled slightly at my comment and said, “I am not a convert. Converts are people who choose.” She went on to explain that although she had never been baptized, she was, nonetheless Orthodox, and would not have considered any other option.
I understood her point – converts are indeed people who choose. And it is also true that there are many people whose religious life has not involved a choice, other than to be what they have always been.
In America, we live in an age of conversion – at least we live in an age of converts and particularly an age of choices. Such choices can be embarrassingly numerous when fully recounted. Many “converts” (regardless of their present loyalties) have fairly convoluted stories that include multiple church memberships or worse. Our culture does not include a lot of straight lines.
I think choices occur on many levels – though two particular levels seem to me to stand in strong contrast. We sometimes make choices on a rational level: we consider matters, weigh them, subject them to logic and a number of other processes and we choose. We make the best decision, or approximate a best decision – and can likely give impressive reasons for our actions.
The other level, I would label existential. Such decisions are often messy, or full of hesitation and hardship. Some months after my family’s reception into the Orthodox faith, I asked my wife, “Do ever just feel crazy” (referring to the life that followed our conversion). Her reply was deeply existential: “If you were floating in the North Atlantic with your family in a lifeboat, you’d probably feel ‘crazy’ – but if you looked over and saw the Titanic going down, you’d feel truly grateful, crazy or not.”
If our questions and pilgrimage are ultimately about God, and not simply about preferences, then our journey will likely be marked by such existential choices rather than purely rational ones. Abraham’s journey towards Canaan cannot truly be described as “rational” (nor can the “sacrifice of Isaac”). St. Antony’s response to the Gospel reading in which Christ tells a man to sell all that he has and “come and follow me,” cannot be described as rational. St. Antony heard the passage read and heard it as applying to himself (not to everyone – but to himself). Giving away all that he had and entering the desert is the act of someone who is driven by their desire for God. When such is the case, “choice” is probably not the right word. “Obey” is more accurate. St. Antony’s “conversion” is the choice to obey.
On this level, everyone should want to be a convert – to be so drawn toward God that our response is obedience rather than merely rational choice. I think I would modify the definitions of my Russian parishioner. Converts are not people who choose – Converts are people who obey. Consumers are people who choose.
It is here that the shape of our culture effects so many. With thousands of Christian denominations, and certainly hundreds of local choices for many urban and suburban areas, religious consumerism can become a very common mode of existence. When I was a Protestant I have met new families visiting the Church I was pastoring say, “We’re Church shopping,” without any sense whatsoever of embarrassment. It is what many people do.
I have to say that as an Orthodox priest I find very few “Church shoppers” at any given service. Becoming Orthodox is a difficult and complicated decision for most people who were not born to it. For that reason, I tend to encounter more people who stand at an existential point in their lives. To become Orthodox, they must want God and believe that He can be found here.
Such existential moments are not the exclusive property of Orthodox Christians (or their converts). Life is generally dangerous enough to offer us many such critical points. It is also true that such points need to be respected by those who see them. I can offer to help someone who is in such a place – but I dare not judge the place they are in – or even the choice that may come of it. Not all choices are equally healthy or true – but I dare not seek to transform someone’s existential crisis into just one more consumerist decision.
May God have mercy on us – converts are not people who shop.
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