Reviews — From the March 2016 issue

Beginning to See the Light

Religious conversion across the ages

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St. Augustine’s conversion, in fourth-century Milan, also had to do with sex. He’d already spent much of his youth chasing women, even as he was trying to tame his worldly appetites, when a child’s overheard remark — “Take it and read” — led him to open the book of Paul’s letters that lay in front of him:

In silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell: “Not in revelling and drunkenness, not in lust and wantonness, not in quarrels and rivalries. Rather, arm yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature’s appetites.” I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.

In his Confessions, Augustine recalls thanking the Lord the moment he emerged from this experience. “You converted me to yourself,” he exulted, “so that I no longer desired a wife or placed any hope in this world but stood firmly upon the rule of faith.” It wasn’t free will that had finally delivered him from his wrongness, that allowed him to want what he wished to want, but sudden and unbidden surrender. Salvation may have spoken in a still, small voice, but it ran over Augustine like a train.

Augustine, like Saul of Damascus before him, was suddenly transformed, but Susan Jacoby argues that both men, and all the converts who followed, got their own experiences wrong. In Strange Gods, she suggests that converts who thought God was speaking directly to them, inhabiting their souls and rearranging their minds, saw through a glass darkly. Obscured from their view was history, politics, and, above all, the beliefs that accrue silently, the background assumptions that shape our understanding of raw experience into the stories we tell ourselves about who we are — in short, ideology.

That something strange and even wonderful happened to Augustine of Hippo cannot be denied. That it was the Holy Spirit moving through him in the way God always has and always will move, or that there is a God at all: these ideas, Jacoby insists, must be questioned. Augustine’s conversion took place at a time when the Roman Empire was vying for political power with the Church, and as Christianity and Manichaeanism and a thousand brands of paganism were competing for the souls of men. His father was a pagan, his mother a Christian whose interest in his sex life may or may not have led to his troubles with women. Ambitious and curious and eloquent, with a scientist’s interest in the workings of the mind, and especially of memory, Augustine serves as an exemplar of Jacoby’s argument that personal and social history provide the content of the conversion experience.

That’s not how it looked to Augustine, of course. He didn’t understand that the Church, having “managed to take full advantage of the anxieties of the era,” had already colonized his mind so thoroughly that when he felt whatever stirrings he felt, he could not but attribute them to the Christian God. To the contrary, Jacoby argues, he believed that the nature of his conversion was self-evident, that, as she puts it, “anyone who is exposed to the Gospels and refuses to accept them is committing the most grievous form of sin and perpetuating the evil error . . . of choosing a life and philosophy without Jesus at its center.” Only a sinner could fail to see the truth of Christianity, and his failure to see something so obvious was the proof of his sinfulness.

In reaching this conclusion, Jacoby argues, Augustine provided the rationale for trying to save Jews and other sinners from their own wrongness, unleashing the epidemics of coerced conversion that have swept societies for the past 1,500 years. In Jacoby’s telling, this disastrous history is especially tragic in light of how close Martin Luther once came to immunizing the Western world from religious compulsion — and how quickly this promise was lost. The Reformation, Jacoby says, started off as a liberation of individual conscience from the hegemony of the Catholic Church, but within twenty-five years of Luther’s apostasy at Wittenberg, John Calvin had returned to Geneva and joined with civil authorities to enforce his doctrine. It wasn’t the bloodbath of the Inquisition, but by 1546, ten insufficiently pious Genevans had lost their heads and thirty-five had been burned at the stake. More important, Calvin’s “reforms” had instituted a reign of spiritual terror. “By day and by night,” Stefan Zweig wrote in an account quoted by Jacoby, “there might come a knocking at the entry and a number of ‘spiritual police’ announce a ‘visitation’ without the concerned citizen’s being able to offer resistance.” In such a climate, how could even a genuine conversion be said to be freely arrived at? How could reformation mean anything other than what Jacoby calls “the substitution of one absolute truth for another”?

To Zweig, this reversal was part and parcel of the revolutionary impulse. The “reign of force which originates out of a movement towards liberty,” he wrote, “is always more strenuously opposed to the idea of liberty than is a hereditary power.” Revolutionaries know better than anyone how fragile the hold on power can be. But Jacoby thinks this “paradox of protestantisms” goes beyond politics. She situates it in “the incompatibility of a core belief in the right of individuals to directly engage with God’s truth through reading the Bible and a quickly emerging intolerance of divergent conclusions about that truth.” On her reading, Luther and his successors failed to follow their own liberationist impulse to its logical end: a world in which the only conversion worth undergoing is from faith-based ignorance to reason-based enlightenment, and the only possible apostasy is intolerance.

As Jacoby’s history of conversions from Paul’s to Muhammad Ali’s moves into the present, her target becomes less the gods and the religions they inspire, and more the intolerance built into the “absolute-truth claims” that are the sine qua non of religion — not just of organized religion but of all ideologies. “There is little difference between a revolutionary and a traditionalist faith,” Arthur Koestler wrote in a passage that she uses as an epigraph. “All true faith is uncompromising, radical, purist.” This is why, at least according to Jacoby, Stalinism was as much a religion as Catholicism, and why conversions as disparate as Whittaker Chambers’s to Communism, G. K. Chesterton’s to Catholicism, and C. S. Lewis’s to Anglicanism must be seen as responses to the same yearning, sharpened by the displacements of modernity, for absolute certainty, moral and otherwise. Quoting Koestler again — “There is now an answer to every question, doubts and conflicts are a matter of the tortured past. . . . Nothing henceforth can disturb the convert’s inner peace and serenity” — Jacoby makes clear who deserves scorn for intolerance: not the gods but the converts, who are too pusillanimous to resist the temptations of absolute truth, too weak to see that God, mercifully, died as soon as we got enlightened enough to say he might be dead, too terrified to recognize that when it comes to figuring out how to live and what to believe, we are on our own.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of The Book of Woe: The DSM and the Unmaking of Psychiatry.

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