I consider this to be a universal truth: only God can convert people.
In the context it is most often heard, it is advice to evangelical Christians in their efforts to evangelise their religion. It suggests the evangelist should not get too concerned about whether they are successful or not, it is not by their power that they convert people, so they need not feel bad if or when they fail. It also helps them not be too pushy/aggressive, their role is only to share the Truth, beyond that it is out of their hands, their job is done.
With that description, it isn’t much of a universal truth, is it? It sounds like a Christian truth, specific and limited to the context and language of Christianity. Or other monotheistic religions maybe. However, I suspect my regulars already know where I’m going to go with this…
I consider it a universal truth, not limited to a theistic deity, that can be quite easily translated to, or seen from, a post-theistic context. Let me try to rephrase / explain the concepts in a non-theistic fashion. Mining out these universal aspects, separating it from the theistic context:
- God is Truth… Yes, that’s a theological statement, not a simple equality statement. But even theists would often happily substitute Truth. “We can’t convert people, that’s the work of Truth“, personified.
- God is “something inside”. This is a stance explicitly taken by some liberal theologians and explicitly warned against by some “conservatives”, but I’d expect all Christians and most other monotheistic religions (hopefully all religions, but anyway…) would accept and agree that God operates “from the inside”, causes a shift of mindset, rather than physically forcing you to act differently by overpowering your muscles. Non-theists, secular humanists, etc. might consider God an idea that influences believers in the idea, an influence, again, from the inside, something pretty much “owned” by the individual, a part of them.
- Conversion as Metanoia. Metanoia, or repentance, or spiritual conversion, or the changing of one’s mind (in some fundamental way, a paradigm shift), this is something much more fundamental and “internal” than a mere confessing to a different creed, or attending a different faith community. (What metanoia refers to in Carl Jung’s psychology is quite interesting, but I think only tangentially related.)
The point is this: a true metanoia, a true shift in mindset, a true “conversion”, no matter from what to what, cannot be achieved by power, cannot be done by the sword. And it cannot be done by us, it is done by truth and in the person undergoing metanoia, it happens from within. It is up to them and their relationship with Truth.
Consider a scientific theory, and the awe-inspiring experience of an Eureka! moment of understanding something, often way beyond the powers of our imagination, more amazing than we could dream: Being dumbfounded by how much bigger the universe is than we can even conceive of. Or mountain ranges forming by tectonic plates moving about over millions of years, rather than being created as-is six thousand years ago. I sometimes just sit and stare at the folded crust of the earth (recently, some mountains in the Alps), and imagine, awe-struck, the geological forces of these huge plates that crumple the crust like that. WOW! These things are truly amazing, but for that kind of metanoia, truth has to work from the inside, the discovery has to be made by the individual searching for truth. Otherwise it is just a bunch of facts given by an authority, learned by a student, and no true metanoia happens.
I’ve seen cases where people seem to have no faith in the power of truth itself, believing/feeling they must convert others to their way of seeing things (rather than trusting truth to do its thing, trusting the seeds to grow when the soil is fertile), and they try to do so by their own power… It’s the kind of attitude that ends with “look what *I* have achieved!” with regards to those they have influenced, a self-focused victory, rather than a celebration with the other person, for the other person, for having discovered truth by their own means, even if you “helped out”.
So yes, I’m erring towards the other side rather: I want to convert no-one from anything to anything else, in fact, I even have some kind of fear of that happening. It helps me stay out of the way, and “let truth”. All I want to contribute, is to encourage better understanding between people, create an environment where truth is able to spread, to be sought, to be understood. At that point, I believe it is out of my hands, truth will do the rest, in its own time. In fact, I go so far as to say, sometimes in our efforts to “force the truth”, we end up harming it, we get in the way.
To borrow from Lewontin’s review of Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World” (and this doesn’t follow directly on the previous paragraph, I have the utmost respect for Carl Sagan and for what he does):
Conscientious and wholly admirable popularizers of science like Carl Sagan use both rhetoric and expertise to form the mind of masses because they believe, like the Evangelist John, that the truth shall make you free. But they are wrong. It is not the truth that makes you free. It is your possession of the power to discover the truth. Our dilemma is that we do not know how to provide that power.
He was pointing out that much of Carl Sagan’s science-popularisation and education was effectively an argument “from authority” again. Because yes, scientists are authority figures, in their fields of expertise. They can teach, the learner can pick up knowledge. But if it is to be about more than just teaching and learning of simple facts, the seeker‘s role in seeking for truth, their relationship with that truth, that is really the most important!
I have much faith in truth. (Perhaps too much? ) I would like to be a vehicle for truth, to be an enabler for truth to spread. (And I’m talking broader truths than just “scientific facts”, I’m specifically including compassion/empathy as well, a way of life, a life-stance, an attitude… I also call these “truths”.) Beyond that, beyond playing an active role in promoting the propagation of truth, I want to stay out of the way, and let truth do its work.