Converting the Child:
The Religious Conversion of Children
Eric P. Lemonholm
January 17, 1997
I. Introduction: Converting the Child
Pre-adolescent religious conversion is common among many more conservative, charismatic, or fundamentalist churches in the United States. To take one example, in the Southern Baptist Church, it is becoming common for preschool children to be baptized. For instance, “Southern Baptist Churches baptized 3,043 preschool children in 1989 and 42,181 between the ages of six and eight. That is a combined total of 45,224 baptized before the age of nine or 12.8 percent of the total number baptized for the year.” We can assume that many more nine year olds to early teens were baptized during that time. In my own denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, early childhood conversions are common especially in Bible camps (as we shall discuss later).
Early childhood religious conversion, therefore, is a reality for many children in the United States. Why? Is it healthy? Does it make sense from a developmental standpoint? In this paper, I will approach this issue indirectly, through an exploration of the thought of William James, Merold Westphal, and Ana-Maria Rizzuto. While only Rizzuto directly considers the religious elements of early childhood, James and Westphal will set the stage with a general understanding of the religious life and conversion. I shall conclude with an account of my own childhood religious conversion(s) as an illustration of some of the benefits and problems of this phenomenon.
II. Conversion and the Right to Believe
James tended to organize his thought (roughly) in terms of triads regarding (in psychological terms) volitions, conceptions, and perceptions. The last, the perceptual, is sometimes more broadly experiential, or even feeling oriented. In keeping with James’ spirit and intentions, the consistency of the various forms the triads take is not to be overstressed. These various categories for understanding phenomena are roughly coherent, but not equivalent, and one holds them pragmatically, not dogmatically. They are categories developed in the context of understanding particular phenomena. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (hereafter Varieties), James lists his criteria as immediate luminousness (momentous, experiential), philosophical reasonableness (forced, conceptual coherence), and moral helpfulness (live, ethical). Can these rough categories help us make sense of religious conversion?
These criteria of James reveal his empirical perspective. In religious matters, as in all of life, James says, “By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.” Since the roots of religion, argues James, are “inaccessible to us,” the fruits revealed in “practice” are our “only sure evidence.” In his 1896 essay “The Will to Believe” (some five years before the Varieties) James defends the individual’s right to believe “upon insufficient evidence” in religious and moral matters, if the hypothesis in question is “a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds.” A genuine option must meet three requirements.
1) In the realm of conduct, a genuine option must be live. It must be a real possibility which would make a difference in the life and conduct of the person. Since nontrivial religious and moral beliefs undoubtedly affect how we live and act, they are live options. There is a risk involved in waiting for certainty in these realms. Certainty may never come, and the individual may never get around to living morally and religiously, if she waits. For example, acting on the belief that God exists and loves us may be what confirms the truth of the belief, for one could say that in acting on faith, one is put in the position to experience and know that the loving God exists. It is not something known apart from being in a relationship to what is known that is not merely cognitive. Thus, asking one to wait for the judgment of reason on live religious or moral beliefs is putting an alien requirement on those realms which may limit or destroy one’s abilities to be religious or moral.
2) In the conceptual realm, James argues that a possible belief must be forced, which means that the individual is faced with a “dilemma based on a complete logical disjunction.” There are situations in which not to choose is itself a choice. The skeptical stance is itself a decision which cuts off other possibilities. This category can be generalized in terms of coherence. If a live idea does not cohere with what we otherwise believe (or may believe), we are forced to decide (or discern) between the possibilities, or else risk incoherence. Finally, 3) a momentous belief is one which connects with personal experience in a nontrivial manner, so that to deny the belief would be in effect to deny the contents of one’s own experience, which includes sense experience and “feelings, mood, and… non-sensuous perception.”
Our interest in live, forced, and momentous beliefs may not be epistemological; that is, we are not concerned here with defending the right to believe. An encounter with a “genuine option,” as a religious option which is live, forced, and momentous, however, does seem to be a prerequisite for religious conversion, as long as it is understood that the option is live, forced, and momentous for the individual.
But James’ criteria do not get us very far, because the right to believe is not at issue, but rather the nature of conversion. What these criteria provide is a framework for understanding the prerequisites for a conversion experience: Is the option live, forced, and momentous for the individual? Only at the end of our inquiry might we use these criteria to flesh out a vision of healthy childhood conversion that is experientially based, conceptually coherent, and aimed at helping the child become a mature person.
III. The Varieties of Religious Experience and Conversion
What can the Varieties contribute to an understanding of pre-adolescent religious conversion? A quick glance through the Index reveals an apparent lack of interest in the religious experience of children. The book thus seems to focus mainly, if not wholly, on the varieties of adult religious experience. However, the importance of the Varieties in exploring the nature of religious experience, and the great deal of attention given by William James to the dynamics of religious conversion, make James’ perspective, especially as found in the Varieties, worth examining.
James’ basic definition of religious conversion is fairly simple:
To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities.
Conversion, then, is the process of a divided self becoming unified through a “firmer hold upon religious realities.” We must immediately ask, What does it mean for a self to be divided? To answer this, we must understand James’ notion of the sick soul; but to understand the sick soul, we had better start with the healthy-minded soul. This is the logic of Lectures IV through X of the Varieties.
The healthy-minded or once born person is generally optimistic, happy, unconcerned with evil or sin in the world or themselves, and loves nature and freedom. James writes of the healthy-minded:
It is to be hoped that we all have some friend, perhaps more often feminine than masculine, and young than old, whose soul is of this sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than with dark human passions, who can think no ill of man or God, and in whom religious gladness, being in possession from the outset, needs no deliverance from any antecedent burden.
There is a certain ambivalence James’ portrayal of healthy-mindedness revealed in this passage. The healthy-minded person is associated with “innocencies” rather than “dark human passions,” the implication being that a once born soul lacks a depth of understanding of the darker side of life, and thus, of reality as a whole. Also, the antitheses feminine versus masculine, and young versus old, imply that perhaps healthy-mindedness is a bit shallow and childish. Patricia H. Davis has shown persuasively the limitations of James’ understanding of both the religious experience of women and, similarly, of the rootedness of “most healthy-mindedness… (at least as much as sick-souledness) in personal struggle to survive and make sense of life” throughout the Varieties.
Nevertheless, James’ discussion of healthy-mindedness is not without value for our inquiry. In particular, James reveals “a psychological similarity between the mind-cure movement and the Lutheran and Wesleyan movements”: each of them speaks of “a form of regeneration by relaxing, by letting go.”
To the believer in moralism and works, with his [sic] anxious query, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ Luther and Wesley replied: ‘You are saved now, if you would but believe it.’ And the mind-curers come with precisely similar words of emancipation.
This, says James, is “one fundamental form of human experience.” This salvation can understood theistically as by “grace, which creates a new nature within one the moment the old nature is given up;” pantheistically as “the merging of the narrower private self into the wider or greater self, the spirit of the universe (which is your own ‘subconscious’ self), the moment the isolating barriers of mistrust and anxiety are removed;” or naturalistically as the removal of higher cerebral processes from impeding the action of simpler processes; or perhaps a combination of these understandings. In any case, this form of healthy-minded(?) religious conversion suggests that at least some healthy-minded individuals are not simply born with “sky-blue” souls, but receive them at the end of a process culminating in self-surrender, a process that may by no means leave the subject unacquainted with evil or “dark human passions”:
To get to [salvation through self-despair], a critical point must usually be passed, a corner turned within one. Something must give way… and this event… is frequently sudden and automatic, and leaves on the Subject an impression that he has been wrought on by an external power.
In fact, this type of conversion suggests that healthy-minded folks may be neither shallow nor immature, nor even once born. Or perhaps the healthy-minded and the sick-souled are on a continuum, so that only on the extreme end of the healthy-minded are souls completely once born. In fact, James’ categories are fluid and not to be taken as absolutes. The salvation by letting go seems to be a way for moderately sick souls to become healthy, of letting go, of getting beyond the guilt (and shame) that keep them from living.
In the beginning of his lectures on “The Sick Soul,” James contrasts the healthy-minded view, “a way of minimizing evil,” with the sick-souled or morbid-minded view, “a way of maximizing evil” To be a sick soul is precisely to identify with that which is evil in oneself and in the world. Sick souls tend to be depressive or even melancholic; they have a lower “misery-threshold” than do the healthy-minded, and thus, from their “prison house” they offer “a profounder view” of the human predicament. James’ ultimate indictment of healthy-mindedness is its inability to understand the depths of evil, suffering, and death in the world. The insight of the sick soul can be summed up as the revelation of “the vanity of mortal things… the sense of sin… the fear of the universe,” each of which destroys humankind’s “original optimism and self-satisfaction.” All this argues against a “systematic healthy-mindedness” which denies all evil, if not against more balanced healthy-minded perspectives.
What can heal a sick soul? James considers the sick soul as a divided self:
The psychological basis of the twice-born character seems to be a certain discordancy or heterogeneity in the native temperament of the subject, an incompletely unified moral and intellectual constitution.
The sick soul has two warring selves, the actual and the ideal self, or conflict between “the higher and the lower feelings,” or between “the useful and the erring impulses.” This inner conflict between two selves, or inner chaos and disorder, are a source of great trauma, and will continue to be so until “the period of order making and struggle” is finished. The ideal self stands as judge over the actual self, and the result is “self-loathing, self-despair.”
The solution of course is to unify the divided soul. There is nothing inherently religious about this process. It may occur over time, or come suddenly. James notes E. D. Starbuck’s notion of “subconscious incubation,” in which a change develops over time in the unconscious realm until “ready to play a controlling part,” and it erupts “into the conscious life.” Thus, a seemingly sudden conversion may have a long subconscious history. Unification may come about “through altered feelings” or “altered powers of action;” “through new intellectual insights” or “mystical” experiences. The unification, moreover, can be in any direction, including moving away from religion. What is key is the “firmness, stability, and equilibrium succeeding a period of storm and stress and inconsistency.” But the unification of the divided self, the healing of the sick soul, is not a transformation into (pure) healthy-mindedness, argues James, because she has “drunk too deeply of the cup of bitterness ever to forget its taste, and [her] redemption is into a universe two stories deep.” The consciousness of evil in the self and in the world is not destroyed, but overcome by that good which has unified the self.
Conversion, then, is a change in “the habitual centre of [the individual’s] personal energy,” so that “religious ideas, previously peripheral in his consciousness, now take a central place.” James draws on Starbuck’s Psychology of Religion to argue that conversion is a normal part of adolescent development, when one makes the transition “from the child’s small universe to the wider intellectual and spiritual life of maturity.” Every mature adult has made this transition. The difference between conversion within “evangelical circles” and among non-revivalistic groups is that for evangelical children the “duration of storm and stress” (Starbuck’s phrase) is greatly shortened, and thus intensified, by the “conviction of sin,” which leads to “a definite crisis” (Starbuck).
Indeed, argues James, the end result is the same, whether the change comes through an evangelical conversion experience, or through a gradual or sudden (though subconsciously incubated) non-Christian, even non-religious, adolescent (or adult) conversion. This is where James’ pragmatic perspective comes in. What are the “fruits for life” of conversion? Evangelically converted people, says James, do not possess any distinctive “class-mark” which sets them apart from others. Indeed, says James,
The real witness of the spirit of the second birth is to be found only in the disposition of the genuine child of God, the permanently patient heart, the love of self eradicated. And this, it has to be admitted, is also found in those who pass no crisis, and may even be found outside of Christianity altogether.
James outlines five features of “the state of assurance” (or “faith-state”) which comes with conversion: “the loss of all worry… the peace… the willingness to be”; the perception of new truths; the perception of the world as new, beautiful; the occurrence of automatisms (such as hearing voices or seeing visions); and an “ecstasy of happiness.” Whatever the causes of conversion, these elements are genuine fruits in the lives of those converted.
At the end of his discussion on conversion, James argues that “backslidings and relapses” do not destroy the value of conversion, which lies in showing “a human being what the highwater mark of his spiritual capacity is… an importance which backsliding cannot diminish, although persistence might increase it.” No matter what low level the converted backslides into, the illuminative value of the conversion experience is not destroyed. The possibilities for human existence revealed in the state of assurance are not annulled by the fall back into muddy human existence.
What is the nature of conversion as religious experience (as experience of something beyond the conscious self)? James delineates four marks of mystical (religious experiential) states: 1) Ineffability. Mystical experiences, argues James, defy “expression,” and thus “must be directly experienced.” They are “more like states of feeling than like states of intellect.” That said, however, we must add that mystics do in fact, talk and write about their experiences; even though, like feelings, religious experiences cannot be directly communicated or expressed through words, nonetheless they are not totally ineffable. We can get a taste of another’s religious experiences, however fragmentary and limited; that is the point of James’ extensive quotes in the Varieties. But the main point, that mystical experience, as experience that is beyond the range of normal human experience, is to a great extent ineffable. In a conversion experience, the individual experiences more than can be told, something occurs that is not reducible to prose, that cannot be caught in a net of words.
2) Noetic quality. But that there is a comprehensible content to religious experience is underscored by this second quality: they are “also states of knowledge” or “illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance,” which are usually authoritative for the mystic. There is content in a conversion experience, which calls for a changed mind as well as a changed heart, and opens up new levels of existence and new possibilities for the converted person.
3) Transiency. Mystical experiences are usually fleeting, and often fragmentary. The spiritual high is not sustainable. One could say that to strive to remain in the ecstasy of happiness for an unnatural period of time would interfere with the content of the experience, which points one toward action. The transiency of mystical experience reminds us of the importance of not seeking the experience so much as seeking that which one has learned through the experience. In living out what one has learned experientially, the reality and power of the experience will be reinforced more than if one had clung to the experience itself.
4) Passivity. Though sometimes “facilitated,” mystical states are usually accompanied by the mystic’s will being “in abeyance” to “a superior power,” a process which is remembered, and which modifies “the inner life of the subject.” The passivity of religious experience alerts us to the fact that conversion cannot be pursued. Instead, it tends to pursue us.
What does conversion lead to? In his “Conclusions” to the Varieties, James delineates five characteristics of the religious life. The first three are beliefs: 1) The “visible world is part of a more spiritual universe;” 2) “our true end” is “union or harmonious relation with that higher universe;” 3) in “prayer or inner communion” with the higher universe, “spiritual energy flows in” to this world and “produces effects.” There is a MORE beyond, or in the depths, of our being. Salvation is found in becoming
conscious that [the higher part of the individual] is conterminous and continuous with a more of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him, and which he can get in working touch with, and in a fashion get on board of and save himself when all his lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck.
The religious life is not, however, merely a set of beliefs. The consciousness of union with the MORE is an experiential reality, which includes at least two “psychological characteristics”: 4) a “new zest which adds itself as a gift to life;” and 5) an “assurance of safety and a temper of peace, and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.” These characteristics bear fruit in the relationships and activities of the individual, grounded all the while in the spiritual life in communion/unity with the MORE.
It turns out that James’ account of conversion in the religious life is insightful. Conversion is the unification of the divided self, the healing of the sick soul, salvation by letting go. Conversion can be religious, anti-religious, or a-religious; it can involve a consciousness of sin (guilt) or not; it may merely be a change in life direction. It may come about gradually, or else spring up suddenly after a long subconscious incubation period. Some sort of conversion commonly occurs during adolescence, as childhood gives way to a wider (or narrower!) adult world. Religious conversion may be followed by a measure of backsliding (which is to be expected), but generally leads to a fuller religious life, which includes a happy connection with a MORE beyond the self, which gives one a certain zest for living, inner peace, and love for others.
James’ earlier defense of the right to believe is strengthened by all of this. Conversion involves the whole person, morally, intellectually, experientially. Religious conversion, in particular, is an experience over which one does not have much control, but which connects one’s own higher self with a reality beyond oneself, gives one veridical knowledge, and makes one a better person. Surely the individual has the right to trust her conversion experience, if the fruits of the experience in her life are good.
But what about pre-adolescent conversion? James does not help us understand conversion at younger ages. That is not a criticism, as much as a limitation of his project, which was ambitious enough.
IV. Conversion and the Nature of Religion
Merold Westphal’s book God, Guilt, and Death: An Existential Phenomenology of Religion provides further insight into the nature of the individual facing or experiencing religious conversion, which will take us a step beyond James. Westphal explores religion from a phenomenological or descriptive approach. His purpose is neither to evaluate the truth or falsity of a religion or of religions, nor to explain the causes of religious phenomena. Rather, Westphal intends to describe religious experience as it affects the subject. The focus is on understanding the phenomenon of religion. This, moreover, is not (supposed) to be a dry scholarly exercise, but an opportunity for us to “relearn to see the world” and gain greater self-understanding.
Westphal notes the feeling of “ambivalence” which religious individuals tend to feel toward that which is sacred or holy. Following Rudolph Otto, he describes the holy as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, or the “aweful and fascinating mystery.” The sacred inspires fear and joy, hate and love. The believer is faced with a mystery which is “wholly other,” and is both attracted to it by its infinite worth and separated from it by the believer’s own “ontological inadequacy.” Thus ambivalence toward the Sacred is an integral aspect of religion.
Related to this ambivalence is the ambivalence of inertia. The individual’s will to transcend everyday existence and be united with the Sacred is never pure. To be in the presence of the Sacred is to be made aware of its absolute claim upon oneself, which the individual cannot fulfill because she “cannot unreservedly want to.” Drawing on Heidegger, Westphal notes that the “believing soul” has “a built-in resistance to any moral and spiritual transformation of the self.” Contact with the Sacred may also breed resentment because of a feeling of comparative worthlessness.
Central to Westphal’s description of the believing soul are the related concepts of guilt and death. The essential nature of guilt is that “in guilt I approve the other’s disapproval of me.” The individual’s worth is questioned by another and, if she is honest, she will recognize her own lack of worth in relation to the other. In religious terms, the believing soul cannot help but affirm the judgment of that which is wholly other. Guilt is a reaction to the Sacred as tremendum. In relation to the absolute worth of the Sacred, one’s complete inability to measure up, one’s essential unworthiness is revealed.
A weakness of Westphal’s otherwise insightful book becomes apparent here in his limited engagement with contemporary psychology and psychoanalysis. This is evident especially in his discussion of guilt, which is conflated with shame. At one point, Westphal notes the “depleted sense of personal worth that we call guilt or shame.” Surely this “depleted sense of personal worth,” this internalization of “the other’s disapproval of me,” is better understood as shame than guilt. This point also applies to James’ discussions of guilt.
The interest in death is not simply a question of the continuance of biological life. Death, rather, is a “boundary situation” of life which, if we face it, becomes “a challenge… to live and to test my life in view of death;” the question to be asked is “have you used the gift of selfhood rightly?” Death, as the temporal limit of one’s life, forces one to confront one’s finitude. To live in the forgetfulness of death is precisely not to “number our days, so that we may get a heart of wisdom.” There is a close connection between death and guilt (or better shame): reflection on one’s finitude, including the inevitability of one’s own death, brings about the question of the worth of one’s life.
Westphal outlines three typologies which demonstrate different ways in which religions confront and handle guilt (and shame) and death. Each of the world’s religious traditions may have any or all three within its parameters, and each is based on a fundamental attitude toward the world. The first is exilic or anti-worldly religion, which sees the world and the body as a prison house of the individual’s spirit, from which the individual must escape. Often the individual is concerned to escape the cycle of rebirth into the world. The second typology is mimetic or semi-worldly religion. Mimetic religion, called by Eliade the “archaic mentality,” is anti-historical. Its purpose is to negate the chaos of history and to “integrate human existence into the natural cosmos” by ritually imitating the past actions of gods or heroes.
The third typology of Westphal is covenantal or worldly religion. Covenantal religion affirms both nature and history because God created the world as “very good” and God enters into the world and saves “by being with them in it.” The notion of a covenant between God and God’s chosen people is prominent in this typology. Instead of the anti-historical nature of mimetic religion, covenantal religion affirms the “redemptive history” in which God out of grace and love promises to redeem God’s people. This covenantal relationship of promise and obligation is both the source of guilt and the source of hope for God to overcome the believer’s guilt and death through forgiveness.
In addition to the uses of religion in helping the believing soul face and overcome guilt and death, religion is also an end in itself. Job’s faith withstood all the wrongs which God inflicted upon Job and his family. True prayer and sacrifice are not merely nor even primarily instrumental, but rather are ends in themselves. Westphal calls them examples of “useless self-transcendence” because they involve both adoration and self-surrender. This highlights the nature of the religious life, which, Westphal argues, consists of three basic dimensions:
…the awesome terror of the sacred as ontological and axiological tremendum, the attractiveness of relation to the sacred as a means for dealing with guilt and death, and the attractiveness of relation to the sacred as an end in itself, as a form of useless self-transcendence.
It turns out that Westphal does not lead us very far beyond James, but he does provide some clarity regarding specifically religious conversion, especially by grounding conversion in the experience of the Holy. Faced with the Sacred as both terrible and attractive, the individual is ambivalent, because of both the ontological and the moral inadequacy of the individual in relation to Ultimate Worth. In fact, the experience of the Holy highlights the individual’s essential finitude and moral unworthiness. But relating to the Sacred also offers a solution to this human predicament because, paradoxically, the Sacred also offers the solution to finitude and unworthiness: identify with that which is ultimate worth, and your lack of worth will be taken up, transcended.
The attractiveness of the Sacred, however, is also an end in itself. Religious conversion, therefore, cannot be reduced, for example, to merely the means to attain the end of unifying the divided self. Nor must religious conversion be nothing but a speeding up of the normal adolescent transition to adulthood. That is not to say that religious conversion is completely dissimilar to nonreligious conversion, but the Holy, however conceived, is an experiential reality. This, perhaps, reveals a tension in the Varieties. On the one hand, James defends the reality of religious experience, arguing that, however one understands the MORE which touches the religious individual through the subconscious realm, one cannot discount the value of the religious realm for humankind. On the other hand, James is equally concerned with demonstrating that religious and non-religious conversion have the same basic result, which is the unification of the self. But religious conversion is in fact distinct, not because of its self-evidently superior results (a contention which James rightly rejected), but because of its nature as religious, as an experience of the Holy.
Westphal’s typology, finally, reveals the different (ideal) religious contexts within which conversion takes place. Religious conversion is not a single phenomenon, but takes on different forms and has different ramifications depending on the combination of exilic, mimetic, and covenantal elements in one’s religious situation. This concerns that to which the individual is converted. How does interaction with the MORE affect how one understands and relates to the world, other people, and the self?
V. Childhood Development and Conversion
James and Westphal have given us a basic understanding of religious conversion’s context, content, and purpose. Ana-Maria Rizzuto’s book, The Birth of the Living God, which is “a clinical study of the possible origins of the individual’s private representation of God and its subsequent elaborations,” grounds our inquiry in an understanding of childhood development, and is applicable for understanding conversion, at least in a theistic context.
From an early age, children form object representations of their mothers, fathers, siblings, or other close persons. As Freud stated, these representations, once formed, may be developed or transformed “in certain directions, but [the child] may no longer get rid of them.” Indeed, says Rizzuto, “we need our objects from beginning to end; the warp and woof of our psychic structure is made from them.” Our object representations help make us “psychologically viable people in the real world,” stable selves, as our memories are stored in a representational form we can later retrieve.
Object representations are not static entities external to the person, nor are they pure imaginative constructs. Instead, they inhabit “the intermediate area of illusions and play which [D.W.] Winnicott considers essential for human development.” We need this transitional sphere to relate in the world. The representations are “compounded memories” which originate both in the person represented and in the self. It must be emphasized that representations are fluid, malleable; we can play with them, reinterpret them. Although we cannot get rid of them, we do “engage in constant dialectical reshaping of our self- and object representations to attain psychic balance.”
These object representations have a large impact on the child’s life. It is also from these representations (as probably the most important sources) that the child’s representation of God is formed. States Rizzuto,
The type of God each individual produces as a first representation is the compounded image resulting from all these contributing factors– the pre-oedipal psychic situation, the beginning stage of the oedipal complex, the characteristics of the parents, the predicaments of the child with each of his parents and siblings, the general religious, social, and intellectual background of the household.
To all this, Rizzuto adds the “insubstantial coincidences” which may color the child’s representation of God. In terms of the pre-oedipal situation, the most important element is the mother’s (and hopefully the father’s) mirroring of the child back to the child in eye contact, smiling, and care for the child; the lack of assurance that the child is “a wonderful creature” may lead to a fixation on “a narcissistic need for psychic mirroring.”
After the “oedipal defeat and realistic appraisals, the child begins to experience disillusionment with his parents and family,” as well as a “fear of separation.” In dealing with these feelings, the child may develop fantasies of the “family romance… having an animal companion,” or “having a twin.” The God representation can also be important in helping the child deal with the “feeling of loneliness and separation,” because with God, the child need never feel alone, but has a friend, closer than a brother or sister, who knows the child’s deepest thoughts.
For the child, God is “like” a parent, only “bigger and mightier than anyone else.” The young child may carry through the logic of causality to an anthropomorphic endpoint (Who made everything?). If all this takes place in the context of a family and culture in which God is endowed with a sense of reality and veneration, the importance of the child’s God representation may be heightened. On the other hand, given the “idiosyncratic and highly personalized representation of God” which each child develops, it is also possible that the child’s representation of God may seriously conflict with that of her family or cultural context; this provides an “endless potential for maladaptation.” The child’s representation of God needs to be treated with great care by her parents and other adults. Perhaps a major source of the religious abuse of children can be traced to the attempt to conform the child’s representation of God to the dominant familial or cultural conception of God. Recognition and acceptance of the uniqueness of each person’s God representation should be seen as an important way to love one’s neighbor and one’s children.
Rizzuto builds on Winnicott’s notion of transitional objects. As a transitional object, God “is located simultaneously ‘outside, inside and at the border.’” As a unique transitional object made from “materials whose sources are the representations of primary objects,” God is “at the service of gaining leverage with oneself, with others, and with life itself.” If God is not needed for maintaining a sense of stable selfhood, the representation may simply be stored away for possible future use.
Rizzuto’s understanding of conversion is illuminating. She understands it as
the convergence of an emotionally laden life experience with… the ego-syntonic release from repression in a given individual of an earlier (or even present) parental representation linked to a God representation. The dynamic process of keeping one’s own sense of self in balance, and the recognition of the affectual connectedness of that God representation and the present self-representation give the experience an “overwhelming” sense of reality and “a rapture of devotion to God” ensues.
Thus, conversion occurs at a time of high emotion, when a repressed representation of God breaks into consciousness and cannot be denied by the individual, because of its “affectual connectedness” with the individual’s self-representation. Conversion is not a one-time life occurrence, but rather religious crises and their resultant changes occur during all stages of life. Especially during these times of “developmental crisis,” moreover, the representation needs to be “recreated… if it is to be found relevant for lasting belief.” Adolescence, with all its dramatic changes, is a common time for conversion experiences, and it “tests the elasticity of the God representation to the extreme.” But adolescence is not a unique part of life, because change occurs throughout life. Indeed, for many (perhaps most) people, who struggle with issues of narcissism, a mid-life conversion may be more important for the development of the self than any conversion in their teenage years.
VI. A Personal Example of Childhood Conversion
I was raised in a fairly conservative church denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, and grew up attending a fundamentalist Bible camp from age seven. At around age nine, I experienced a dramatic conversion experience at the camp, and continued to have similar conversion experiences, or “recommitments,” for at least ten years. These experiences are worth examining as a case study in childhood conversion. I claim no absolute objectivity or completeness in this account; it is merely illustrative.
It will be helpful for placing my religious conversion in a context to relate some of my earliest remembered dreams (or nightmares), which occurred in about the same period as my conversion, probably before. A story that James narrates in the Varieties, on the perception or consciousness of the presence of “something” that is not perceived by the senses, reminds me of my dreams of Satan as a very young child (somewhere between 5 and 9). In those dreams, I never saw Satan, but I clearly felt him. I knew exactly where he was in space. Satan was perceived in a way similar to the narration: “a… pain spreading chiefly over the chest, but within the organism– and yet the feeling was not pain so much as abhorrence.” In the dream I would try to tell my family, but they only laughed. In one of these dreams, I perceived Satan enter into and possess my older brother (two years older) Kevin. Again, I tried to warn my parents, but only I could feel the presence of Satan, even as he possessed my brother. I pleaded with Kevin to resist Satan, whereupon Satan came out of him. There was a deep voice, menacing (I do not remember what he said, if anything intelligible), as well as a feeling of rushing winds and many distant, screaming voices heard within me. Immediately Satan lifted me up and threw me over the railing and down the stairs. Thankfully, I woke up before I landed.
I do not recall how long these dreams lasted, but probably not very long. They affected me for years (and also scared my brother a little when I told him!). I am fairly sure they occurred before my religious conversion at camp. If nothing else, these dreams convinced me of the reality of the spiritual realm and evil; they definitely contributed to my early religious consciousness. It is worth considering what in my religious environment could have inspired dreams of demon possessions, although it is also possible that I had seen the movie The Omen on cable television before these dreams occurred.
Another set of dreams from my early childhood center on insecurity in my relationship with my parents. In these dreams, one of my parents (usually my mother; only once do I remember having this dream about my father) would be leaving the family for good. I would plead with her (or him), but the response was always cold or nonexistent. I always woke up crying from these dreams. The meaning of them, I believe, is fairly clear. I was a sensitive child, and my mother was sometimes moody, even depressive, especially during P.M.S. (we have spoken of this several times in the last few years). At times, I was not certain how she would react to me. My father has always worked about twelve hours per day, so he was often not around while I grew up. I was a little insecure, therefore, as a child. I was also often alone.
As I have said, I was around nine years old when I was “converted” at Bible camp. It was night, lights dim, emotive “spiritual” singing, a convicting message. We were sinners destined for the flames of Hell– but there was an escape, a way out: Accept Jesus into your heart and life. “You must decide tonight– who knows, you might be dead by tomorrow, or Jesus may come at any moment– and you’d be left behind.” I was afraid of being left behind.
There was a call to go pray with my counselor. I did so. I was convicted as a sinner bound for Hell. I cried, I was at the height of emotion. Then forgiven, elated, filled with joy, filled with the Spirit, seeing the world differently, the night transfigured, I became a religious being.
Everything was different. I loved everyone at camp. I felt close to God. Accepting Jesus into my heart was a joyful, ecstatic experience, the burden (of sin) was lifted, the Spirit was in my heart. I was high, the lights dim, the piano playing softly in the background as we prayed. After chapel we had a campfire, extending and heightening the spiritual experience. More slow praise choruses. I remember crying while I sang “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” swaying, arms in the air, someone in the crowd perhaps speaking in tongues, a fellowship of young believers (most of our counselors were in high school).
Unlike my dreams of demon possession (in which I resisted being possessed), this was a possession I welcomed. The Spirit made me feel light, but it did not pick me up and dash me to the ground. I felt it within me, not outside of me. In my dreams, Satan was always outside of me, a foreign power even when lifting me up with the rushing winds, the screams, the deep angry voice of Satan. Here, in contrast, was a loving spirit, my ally, my assurance that Satan could not touch me or possess me, could not have me. I belonged to Jesus, I was a part of a fellowship of believers. It felt good to belong to that holy crowd. I could feel secure, I was not alone.
This experience, which was renewed practically every day at Bible camp over the next ten summers, gave the camp an important place in my life, even above my church and family, because it was at camp that I was in touch with God’s Spirit. (In spite of my language of asking Jesus into my heart above, I always felt a connection with the Spirit rather than with the specific person Jesus. I connected with the sense of the presence of the Spirit, who was not embodied.) My religious experience in the camp community was at the same time very personal; often, I would go off by myself, usually to the woods, to be alone with God.
Many of us at camp had conversion experiences every summer; after the first one, they were called “recommitments,” although they are not phenomenologically different from first-time conversions. At the same time as the first-time converts, one would come forward to pray with one’s counselor, often in a group. We would pray together, the only difference being that sometimes the counselor asked if it was one’s first time, or if one needed to recommit oneself to Christ. Most of the children probably did not recognize the difference, because they felt the same inadequacy, sinfulness or, better, worthlessness, the same separation from God, the same need to come forward and be forgiven and reconciled with God, the same method of conversion. It was not uncommon for a young person to say that they had given their heart to Christ five times or more, sometimes more than once in a given week at camp.
Statistics for this past summer (1996) for this Bible camp are as follows: “583 youth campers resulting in 33 first-time commitments to Christ and 117 rededications.” Thus, almost 26% of the campers at the same camp during the summer of 1996 (and probably more who were not counted) had some sort of conversion experience. Notice also the focus on statistics: the success of the camp is measured by the number of conversion experiences among the children who attend. This was demonstrated to me many times over the five summers that I served as a counselor at the camp. When I was involved in a similar ministry in the same denomination, we were supposed to keep a (secret) list of our students, in terms of Going to Heaven, Going to Hell, or Unsure. I never fulfilled this requirement.
For many children of the Bible camp, this religious situation led to a roller-coaster faith-ride for their whole childhood and adolescent years. One would have a week of an emotional and spiritual high, followed by a let down, then a struggle to keep the high going, to sustain it as long as possible. This, of course, is impossible for a child to accomplish. Personally, I would lead a devout life for about a week or less, and then I would go back to swearing and chewing tobacco with my friends (or whatever we children did), but always with a touch of guilt.
Can our exploration of the thoughts of James, Westphal, and Rizzuto shed light on this personal testimony? Recognizing the limitations of my memory; the fact that my early religious conversion has been an interpreted (and reinterpreted) experience since I began reflecting on it, which was soon after the fact; the possible distortions in my memory caused by this later reflection (which has continued up to today) and later religious experiences at the camp which may be conflated in my mind with the earlier ones; and the necessarily brief and incomplete nature of the story; the narrative is nonetheless basically true to the events as I experienced them. And our exploration has not been fruitless. Here are some tentative conclusions.
First, as a young child at Bible Camp, was my conversion experience a genuine option in James’ sense? It was forced, in the sense that it fully cohered with what I otherwise knew in my religious environment: “All sinners go to Hell. You are a sinner. You are destined for Hell. But God loves you, and has given his Son for you on the Cross. If you only ask for forgiveness and ask Jesus into your heart, your sins will be forgiven, and you can go to Heaven.” That is a narrative I justifiably accepted without question. The option was also momentous, in that I was convicted as a sinner, I felt separated from God, and thought I had to convert right then, or risk utter separation. But not only guilt was involved. There was also the experiential reality of the Holy in that chapel, in both its terrible and attractive elements (Westphal and Otto). Finally, the conversion option was live in that it made a difference in how I lived, especially in how I lived at the Bible camp. I was somehow a new person, especially as long as the spiritual high would last, and then, to a lesser degree, throughout the next year, until I returned to camp. This experience at the camp has been decisive in the shape of my life since then.
It is interesting that in the Bible Camp context, everyone is considered a sick soul in need of conversion. In fact, one might say that the environment creates sick souls, or at least creates the conditions wherein many not very sick souls experience the Holy, and are transformed, at least for the week of camp. Those children who do not convert, of course, are considered bad, or at least lost. Children were presumed guilty until proven otherwise, and the proof was in the experience and the confession of being saved.
I am not sure of the appropriateness of the term “sick soul” for young children. I certainly had a strong imagination as a child; not living close to anyone of my age, I often lived out whole days in worlds of my creation. I read Anderson’s and Grimms’ fairy tales and myths (especially the Norse myths of my ancestors) avidly from a young age. The spiritual realm, including God and the Devil, was certainly real for me. Interestingly, I originally wrote this narrative of my childhood over a month ago, in preparation for this paper (December 11, 1996); at that time, I had not directly connected the two dream cycles to each other and to my religious conversion. Assuming that the Satan encountered in my dreams originated during “the oedipal and latency periods” from “the sadistic, phallic components of the parental representation,” it may be that these dreams revealed my insecurity and fear in relation to my parental representations, embodied in the bodiless Devil. In my dream of a hostile (or indifferent) parent leaving, perhaps I was more directly facing my fears of the dark side of the parental representations, as well as the fear of rejection and abandonment associated with a parent who (in the dream especially) does not mirror acceptance to the child.
Given this situation, the notion that there is something wrong with me was readily accepted, and the opportunity to relate to One who accepts me unconditionally was seized. In that context, where sin and separation were strongly emphasized, the loving Jesus and the enveloping Spirit were also present. In the light of this exploration, my main reservations about the evangelical Bible camp experience are the obsession with inducing conversion experiences, especially first-time conversions; and the charismatic, emotional, manipulative environment which is created to bring about the highest number of such experiences in the children involved. Conversions are better understood as a natural part of the religious development of the individual. In saying that, however, I am making the theological assumption that children do not go to Hell simply because they do not have a dramatic conversion experience, so that it is more important to focus on spiritual growth than to induce emotional and spiritual highs in children. But that issue is beyond the boundaries of this paper.
Capps, Donald. The Depleted Self: Sin in a Narcissistic Age. Minneapolis: Fortress. 1993.
—. “Sin, Narcissism, and the Changing Face of Conversion.” In the Journal of Religion and Health. Vol. 29. No. 3. Fall 1990.
Capps, Donald and Janet L. Jacobs, eds. The Struggle for Life. SSSR Monograph Series #9. 1995.
Davis Patricia H. “The Sky-Blue Soul: Women’s Religion in The Varieties of Religious Experience” In The Struggle for Life. Ed. by Donald Capps and Janet L. Jacobs.
Dittes James E. “Catching the Spirit of William James” In The Struggle for Life. Ed. by Donald Capps and Janet L. Jacobs.
Gunnells Drew J. “Counseling Children about Conversion.” In Southwestern Journal of Theology, vol. 33, Summer 1991.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Cambridge: Harvard. 1985 .
—. The Writings of William James. Ed. by J.J. McDermott. Chicago: U. of Chicago. 1977.
Rizzuto Ana-Maria. The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study. Chicago: U. of Chicago. 1979.
Tracy, David. Dialogue with the Other: The Inter-Religious Dialogue. Louvain: Peeters Press. 1990.
Westphal Merold. God, Guilt, and Death: An Existential Phenomenology of Religion. Indiana: Indiana. 1984.
“Southern Baptist Highlights,” The Quarterly Review 38, July-September 1990, p. 21; quoted in Drew J. Gunnells, “Counseling Children about Conversion,” in Southwestern Journal of Theology, vol. 33, Summer 1991, p. 36. Baptism is performed after a conversion experience.
I owe this insight to Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger, who also directed me toward David Tracy’s discussion of James’ roughly coherent criteria in Dialogue with the Other: The Inter-Religious Dialogue, Louvain: Peeters Press, 1990, p. 38ff.
James E. Dittes, “Catching the Spirit of William James,” in The Struggle for Life, ed. by Donald Capps and Janet L. Jacobs, SSSR Monograph Series #9, 1995.
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience [hereafter Varieties], Cambridge: Harvard, 1985 , p. 23.
Ibid., p. 25.
The Writings of William James, ed. J.J. McDermott, Chicago: U. of Chicago, 1977, pp. 721, 723.
Ibid., p. 718.
Tracy, Dialogue with the Other, p. 37.
The Varieties is indeed a seminal work in the psychology of religion and in religious studies in general: John E. Smith writes that he has “been unable to find any use of the expression “religious experience” as a technical term prior to Varieties.” In “Introduction” to Varieties, p. xiii.
Varieties, p. 157.
Ibid., p. 72.
Ibid., p. 73.
Patricia H. Davis, “The Sky-Blue Soul: Women’s Religion in The Varieties of Religious Experience,” in The Struggle for Life, pp. 163, 176.
Varieties, pp. 94, 96.
Ibid., p. 94.
Ibid., fn. 23, p. 96-7.
Ibid., p. 95.
Ibid., p. 112.
Ibid., p. 115-6.
Ibid., p. 135.
Ibid., p. 138.
Ibid., p. 140.
Ibid., p. 142-3.
Ibid., fn. 9, p. 150.
Ibid., p. 146. These avenues of change, in terms of feelings, action, insight, or mystical experience, are roughly coherent with the Jamesian triad, which we will encounter later.
Ibid., p. 147.
Ibid., p. 155.
Ibid., p. 162.
Ibid., p. 165.
Ibid., p. 193.
Ibid., p. 194.
Ibid., pp. 201-8.
Ibid., pp. 209.
Ibid., p. 302.
This insight was gleaned from Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger in conversation.
Varieties, p. 382.
Ibid., p. 400.
Ibid., p. 382.
Merold Westphal, God, Guilt, and Death: An Existential Phenomenology of Religion, Indiana: Indiana, 1984, p. 252.
Ibid., p. 51.
Ibid., p. 56.
Ibid., p. 78.
Ibid., p. 79.
Donald Capps, The Depleted Self: Sin in a Narcissistic Age, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993, pp. 71-2.
Westphal, pp. 100, 101, quoting Jaspers.
Psalm 90:12, quoted in Westphal, p. 96.
Ibid., p. 196.
Ibid., p. 222.
Ibid., p. 251.
Ana-Maria Rizzuto, The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study, Chicago: U. of Chicago, 1979, p. 3.
Ibid., p. 43.
Quoted in Ibid.
Ibid., p. 53.
Ibid., p. 55-6.
Ibid., p. 73.
Ibid., p. 77.
Ibid., p. 81-3.
Ibid., p. 89.
Ibid., p. 44.
Ibid., p. 45.
Ibid., p. 184-6.
Ibid., p. 198.
Ibid., pp. 198-9.
Ibid., p. 50.
Ibid., p. 90.
Ibid., p. 178.
Ibid., p. 179.
Ibid., p. 51-2.
Ibid., p. 52.
Ibid., p. 208.
Donald Capps, “Sin, Narcissism, and the Changing Face of Conversion,” in the Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 29. No. 3, Fall 1990.
Varieties, p. 55-6.
Of course, objectively speaking, my parents were good parents!
Later, in junior high and high school, Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” still had a powerful affect on me, especially the line “The Son has come, and you’ve been left behind.” The Second Coming of Christ was very much on our minds at camp and church. At camp, we often sang a song in which at one point we would all yell “Rapture practice” and jump into the air.
Source: my home church’s newsletter for December, 1996.
I know of one person in this context, the daughter of a pastor, who accepted Jesus into her heart when she was two years old. Her father honestly thought that his children would go to Hell if they did not know Jesus. But he was also concerned that his children understand the Good News and accept it freely.
Rizzuto, p. 197.