Day Three: Conversion Practices
On New Year’s Day, I visited my Uncle Jon in Chicago. He is a member of JPUSA, a Christian commune in Uptown. He’s a feminist progressive Christian who is more aware of his white male privilege than any Christian man I know, so it’s refreshing to spend time with him. He was telling us about his changing views on evangelism. He described a certain perspective on efforts at conversion that he called, “dive bombing.” “Dive bombing” is when you come from above and attempt to strip your target of their (false) understanding of the world so that you can then replace it with yours. This approach, he pointed out, is very condescending. And it works by establishing that someone else is wrong. So it’s basically gaslighting evangelism.
I’ve written here and here about the Calvinist notion I was raised with that the way what you think saves or damns you. If that’s what you believe, that thinking the right or wrong thing about the world and about God, puts your eternal soul in eternal glory or eternal damnation, then yeah, you probably want to spend a lot of time showing people how wrong they are. But you also need to be really confident that you’ve got it figured out. Because the premise of your whole project depends upon that being the case. (Neat little trick to this way of thinking: no one can tell you that you are wrong, because just by stating that they disagree with you, they show themselves not to be saved and thus not to be worth listening to.)
A different evangelical approach, the one that my uncle prefers, he calls “submarine evangelicalism.” On this approach, you don’t come from above and attempt to strip someone of their way of thinking, you come from below and you listen to them and support them and make yourself vulnerable to them. When I first blogged about this idea that “it’s the thought that counts,” I compared the Calvinist intellectualism to Socratic intellectualism. At least one interpretation of Socratic ethics is that you live according to what you think is right. There’s no “I do what I do not want to do.” You do what you want to do, and what you want to do is what you think is good. If you want to change, you have to change your notion of what is good. But this discussion of evangelism made me reconsider where Socrates falls in relation to Calvinism (not Calvin; I think I like Calvin better than Calvinism).
Socrates, like Jesus, was interested in conversion. But like Jesus, Socrates was not interested in doctrine. He didn’t want his interlocutors to think the right thing. He wanted them to turn their soul from caring about the less important things to caring about the more important things. And he recognized that doing that wasn’t going to be accomplished just by throwing better arguments at them. Sometimes Socrates’ arguments aren’t very good. Sometimes his interlocutors’ arguments are really good. Socrates is interested in creating a moment for the soul to become affected. I used to think Socrates was doing that by “dive bomb” philosophical evangelism — showing them where they are wrong so that he can replace their view with something better. But weirdly, Socrates doesn’t really have views to replace with something better. In places where it seems like he does, like the Republic, the argument is so far-fetched and comedic and a failure, that it’s difficult to think he really wants them to take this view away in their souls. Rather, it seems, he’s trying to jar them into turning their souls, language Plato has Socrates use in the Republic where he talks about the philosopher’s work in the cave. Socrates says that education is not putting knowledge into the soul of others, but rather turning their soul not only to see, but to care for what is most important (περιαγωγῆς), the same word for conversion. The submarine evangelist seems concerned with that too.
If Socrates is more interested in turning the soul than getting those with whom he engages to accept a certain series of propositions, it makes sense why Socrates doesn’t accept from one interlocutor a view he seems to be encouraging in another — the point isn’t about thinking the right thing. The point is about letting the thinking affect you. In one case, that view might be operating to make an interlocutor look important, but the person offering doesn’t actually seem to have formed his character in light of the claim. I have a now dormant article manuscript on how the Socratic elenchus or method can be best understood not as an attempt to establish the best propositional claims, but as a way of binding a relationship of knowledge and virtue together to constitute the individual as they are.
In evangelical circles, people talk about what causes the moment of conversion and they point to some movement of the Holy Spirit, or if they are Calvinists, they say this moment is pre-ordained, so you just lay out the information and it’s not on you whether they accept the truth. In either case, though, it wouldn’t be about having the best argument or stripping “nonbelievers” of their view.
See what I did? I pointed out the contradiction in those who point out contradiction in others to convince them they are wrong. I’m sure that will convince them now not to do that.
There has been a lot of discussion on social media of late about how what the Left needs to do to exert more influence–how it can win. That effort seems to focus on how it can be most convincing, and various people have pointed out that articulating all the ways one conservative position is inconsistent with another has, surprisingly, not led to hoards of conservatives adopting progressive positions. I would like to suggest that we can learn from Socrates (and from Jesus) that conversion does not happen because you replace one set of propositions with another, but because in some way, your soul is turned from caring about some things to caring about others. This caring is not unrelated to intellectual pursuits, but it is not reducible to having the right set of premises. The problem is not just getting people to agree to those propositions, but finding ways to motivate people to allow those premises to affect the way they live.
Image is of La conversion de Saint Paul by Luca Giordano (1690), Museum of Fine Arts of Nancy.