Augustine of Hippo
Review by the Rev. Alvin C. Johnson
Religious conversion seems so obvious as to need no explanation. Yet the concept often proves to be the most difficult to accept, understand, and integrate, and fertile ground for exploration. That is true for Dong Young Kim’s two-part thesis. As he writes: “religious conversion is usually an evolving process in which many aspects of a person’s life may be affected … and the study of religious conversion is enriched by an interdisciplinary approach, which examines coherently the personal and socio-cultural contexts of the convert and the religious dimension of conversion.”
Kim quotes Lewis Rambo’s description of conversion as “a process of religious change that takes place in a dynamic force field of people, events, ideologies, institutions, expectations, and orientations.” Kim argues, as Ed Friedman would say, that conversion takes place in the midst of many emotional forces, all of which are being processed by the capacity of psychological and spiritual insight of the one seeking, or drawn to, a different life. Augustine’s conversion “occurred while developing relationships with himself, others, and the divine. More specifically, it could happen in the complex contexts of his struggle to know himself and the divine, his interactions with others, his participation in the Christian community, his philosophical and cultural changes, and his deep encounter with God.”
Kim critiques reductively psychological, sociological, anthropological, or theological views of religious conversion. All of these overlap within the complexity of any human life, hence conversion cannot be reduced to one aspect, even if the person who converts believes that to be true. Conversion includes the person’s sense of internal dissonance, hunger for the divine, family background, trauma, theological beliefs, personal relationships, and the community of the recently converted.
As Kim writes: “the theme of Augustine’s re-creation of loving relationships with himself, others, and the divine guides us to recognize that one’s conversion experience is not simply a ‘once and for all event,’ but an ongoing process of change in one’s whole lifetime.” This is a fascinating study of a great mystery of faith.
The Rev. Alvin C. Johnson directs the Ministry Resident Program in Alexandria, Virginia.