Convertitis

There is a phenomenon, manifestly evident online, resultant from the transition from one faith to another, that is usually called convertitis. The symptoms of this malady usually gravitate toward binarism (a fairly rigid black-and-white-no-grey viewpoint), literalism, prooftexting, and the imbalance (if not separation) of head and heart. Another malady, fundamentalism, is similar, even related, but the two are not, I do not think, the same thing. Though convertitis can be found just about anywhere that one finds people moving from one religion and faith to another, it does seem to be a particularly vexing problem for Protestants, more specifically, evangelical Protestants who are converting to Orthodoxy or Rome.

While convertitis gets a bad rap, and deservedly, it is important to note that convertitis actually begins as a positive move of the soul from one faith to another. There is a point, in conversion, where it is extremely beneficial, if it is not always necessary, that the soul make clean and clear distinctions: this, not that; here, not there. Apart from this clarity, it does not seem to me that most souls can navigate the thlipsis, the squeezing necessary to shift and reorient one’s thinking and living. Even if that transition is, in some ways, small, during the conversion the soul is filled with conflict as one or another belief changes, as some allegiances shift, and as relationships are, in some cases, tested (or at least stressed by the change). Without a clear direction and a simple directive by which to navigate the varying degrees of chaos and psychic tug-of-war, it does not seem likely that the soul will reach the telos it is seeking. The incipient binarism at least cleanses the mind and frees the will. The literalism and prooftexting gives space to the reason to see the outlines of the new thinking. These psychic devices provide space in which relative ataraxia, tranquility, can be had, even if superficially, and one’s will can be energized to continue moving.

The problem, then, is not the binarism, the literalism, the prooftexting, per se. These are mere tools, ratcheting devices by which the soul can make the final inch-by-inch moves through the straits. These tools, these psychic devices, are, in my view, a normal part of the process of conversion, and one we would do well not to dislodge in the converting soul, lest we divert the soul from the conversion.

No, the problem is when the convert does not disengage these tools, but nails them down into the structure of the soul. This is when, it seems to me, conversion becomes distorted and develops into convertitis. This is when the tool, the means, becomes the end. There comes a point in the process of conversion when the soul no longer needs these devices to continue on. The squeezing, the narrowing has been navigated, and the pilgrim has come out into open land and wide spaces. For the person, then, to continue to insist on these devices is to constrict and harden the soul when it should be expanding and softening. For that is what convertitis utlimately results in: a psychic sclerosis, hardening of the soul, and an internal decapitation of head from heart.

This is a tricky spot to weather, and were it not for the manifest mercy and grace of God–and more often than not, for an expert and beloved spiritual father–I do not see how very many souls, my own included, could make it through. For the point of conversion does not strictly coincide with the visible and sacramental markers: it certainly precedes, and normally succeeds such markers. (I have in mind here the very narrow definition of conversion, as opposed to the more general life of repentance Christians are to undergo.) And the timing for casting off these devices is often quite delicate: too soon and the convert may not pull through; too late and the helps become chains. Clearly this is God’s doing, and the task of wise soul-winners.

This is a lesson for us evangelical Protestant converts to Orthodoxy: we must not make over the Orthodox Church in our own image, substituting sola scriptura for sola patrilogia, sola fide for sola lex canonica. But by the same token, for those converts for whom convertitis has been successfully navigated, they should be careful, in their understandable concern, of taking from their still-converting counterparts the tools necessary for them to make the journey. One may affirm general truths without canonizing methods. One may offer loving correction, without sinking to diatribe. And always one may offer simple and prayerful silence.

For it is God who saves. And it is always good to pray.

3 thoughts on “Convertitis

  1. This is a tricky navigation indeed. I must say that I am regularly drawn back to these “tools” because in order to communicate my new ecclesiastical “place” with family and friends who challenge …and keep challenging…. my decision to move to Orthodoxy, my defences hardly get a rest. Prayerful silence is good (desired even) but in the arena of close relations, it’s hard to let obvious direct challenges, in the forms of passing and light hearted comments, go without a defence….without using a tool.

    I guess I could always keep my mouth shut…..”as a sheep led to the slaughter”…..this is what I’ve been doing….it doesn’t feel very good. Ohhhhh…but diatribe is sooooo tempting. (I know I’d regret it in the morning.)

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