This afternoon, I was reading somebody’s testimony about her journey from the occult into Seventh-Day Adventism. While I do not hold to her beliefs, I clicked “like” on her testimony because, in general, I like to read people’s testimonies, regardless of where they’re coming from or going to.
I’ve read or heard a variety of testimonies. One book I liked to read off-and-on was Jesus for Jews, a Jews for Jesus book compiled by the daughter of Moshe Rosen, the founder of Jews for Jesus. Jay Sekulow’s testimony is in there, and this was before he became a right-wing celebrity. This book was about Jews who became Christians.
But I also read the other side—Jewish Christians who converted to Orthodox Judaism. The counter-missionary group, Jews for Judaism, had such stories on its web-site. I also enjoyed ex-fundamentalist sites, such as Walk Away, or Ex-tian (I think that’s what it was called). I’ve read one lady’s testimony about her departure from Seventh-Day Adventism and her conversion to Roman Catholicism. Moreover, in recovery groups, I’ve heard people give “leads,” which are essentially their story about how they got into recovery.
I wonder what these testimonies have in common. A lot of times, people have tried to say that the primary push for a person to convert to something is emotional. Conservative Christians have said that those who leave Christianity for atheism do so because they want to live any way they please, or because they’ve been hurt by Christians. Atheists have said that people become theists because they’re looking for a crutch, or community, or hope and meaning in life.
I don’t deny that there’s an emotional factor in conversions. For example, atheists and Orthodox Jews have expressed more than intellectual disagreement with the evangelical belief that non-Christians will be tormented in hell forever and ever: they’ve expressed disgust. I once read a Jewish Christian’s testimony about his conversion to Orthodox Judaism: he said that he was seeking a deeper connection with his people, the Jews. Jews who convert to Christianity or Messianic Judaism, by contrast, have testified that they feel a deeper connection to their Jewish heritage as a result of their acceptance of Jesus. There are probably as many reasons for conversion as there are people, and any generalization I make doesn’t do the issue of conversion complete justice.
When I read or hear people’s conversion stories, I notice a quest for wholeness. But what stands out to me even more is their quest for truth. People abandon one set of beliefs and embrace another because they conclude that their former beliefs are false, whereas their new beliefs are true. In this case, their reasons for converting are intellectual. When a Jewish Christian compares the Hebrew Bible with Christian interpretations of it, and concludes that Christians have not been faithful to the Hebrew Bible’s meaning, he may decide to become part of a belief system that he believes is faithful: Judaism. Someone with a general belief that the Bible is true may choose a denomination that appears to correspond with what she believes the Bible is saying, whether that denomination is Adventism or Roman Catholicism, or something else. A fundamentalist may notice contradictions in the Bible and conclude that the Bible is human (not divine) in origin, and so he becomes an atheist. An atheist may be convinced by Christian apologetics, feeling that Christianity presents the most sensible explanation for how the universe and life came to be, and for how the Christian movement got started and grew, despite persecution. In all of these cases, there is a quest for truth, although the quests may have different presuppositions.
In recovery communities, however, I don’t see so much a modernist quest for truth, but rather an experiential quest: recoverers know that their addiction has landed them into pretty bad places, and so they seek a better life. They notice that people who do the twelve steps have that better life, and so they do what those people do. At times, I may hear a recoverer use arguments for the existence of God—such as the cosmological argument, or the argument from design. But, in many cases, they choose to believe in a higher power because that has worked for people they know, and they notice that it works for them, too. I notice this sort of approach in testimonies by people who become Buddhists: for them, Buddhism presents an outlook that helps them in their lives. My understanding is that Buddhism doesn’t make heavy-handed doctrinal claims about God—the Buddha even said that he didn’t know how the universe began. But if offers an outlook that helps people to rise above their inner demons (i.e., jealousy, hate, etc.), cope with the transient nature of life, and achieve a quality of living. Some people taste this, and they like its consequences: that makes it true to them.
Granted, I also hear conversion stories from people who aren’t interested in truth claims, but in what appeals to them personally or meets their needs. In this case, it’s like preferring one restaurant over another: it’s a matter of personal taste, rather than what is true or false. I’m somewhat like this, though my current religious beliefs also overlap with how I characterized the recoverer’s quest for truth in the above paragraph. But many of the testimonies I’ve heard are by people who approach issues in a modernist intellectual manner, probably because they’re by people who were at some point in fundamentalism, which has a modernist outlook.