Several weeks ago I met with a few friends for an ongoing discussion of William James’s classic Gifford Lectures, The Varieties of Religious Experience. One of our criticisms of James concerns his assumption that psychological phenomena recur unchanged over millennia. This came up again in our discussion of James’s lectures on conversion. As a New Testament scholar, I wondered why James skips lightly over Saint Paul’s conversion. James calls it “the most eminent” of those “striking, instantaneous instances” of conversion, but refrains from analyzing it in much detail. This is significant because Paul’s conversion has provided a template for other conversions throughout the history of Christianity. It is also significant because, in recent decades, scholars have debated the conditions of Paul’s about-face from persecutor of the church to preacher of Jesus as the Christ. A consensus has formed around the view that Paul did not—indeed could not—convert from Judaism to Christianity, but from Pharisaic Judaism to an apocalyptic, messianic sect of Judaism. The debate continues over the question of whether this conversion was truly instantaneous or whether it was the culmination of prior social and psychological processes. This question is complicated by the fact that our only accounts of the event come from Paul’s own letters, written some twenty years later, and the second-hand reports in the Acts of the Apostles.
As I see it, there are at least three ways to frame the issue:
Paul’s experience was preconditioned by his formation as a Pharisee and/or other factors related to his Jewish upbringing, and is fully explicable within that context; only later did he identify Jesus with the apocalyptic son of God who had been revealed to him in the environs of Damascus.
Paul’s experience was preconditioned by his knowledge of the emergent Jesus movement and his fraught encounters with its members; he may not have been looking for a revelation of Jesus, but he was psychologically prepared for the event.
Nothing or next to nothing in Paul’s background prepared him for the event, although he presses his background into service, at times, in order to articulate his present commitment to Jesus in the starkest possible contrast to his checkered past.
The first two positions are mutually compatible, in part because they both presuppose that conversion is a socially constructed phenomenon, and in part because Pharisees and the earliest followers of Jesus coexisted as first-century Jewish sects. As yet, there was no such thing as Christianity. The third position approximates James’s notion that Paul’s conversion exemplifies a distinctive, transhistorical variety of religious experience—the instantaneous conversion.
To say that conversion is socially constructed is to acknowledge the power of language to shape social realities. As an Evangelical convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, my own experience provides a kind of case study. My conversion did not take place instantaneously in a blinding flash of light, but only after many months of reading, praying, and searching for what I hoped would be an intellectually and spiritually deeper experience of church. I was frustrated with the vapid homogeneity of Southern California’s Evangelical churches, where a typical worship service consists of 45 minutes of repetitive praise songs and a 45 minute, rhetorical roller-coaster of a sermon with a final call to “ask Jesus into your heart” or “make Jesus your personal Lord and Savior.” The parody of such services in the video below is spot-on:
During my conversion I read enough Evangelical-to-Eastern Orthodox literature and encountered enough converts from Evangelical Christianity to learn that we all have similar stories, despite differing emphases. At one point this bothered me so much that I stopped calling myself a convert. I have since come to appreciate the fact that such recycling of stories is unavoidable and even necessary for the formation and maintenance of likeminded communities. For converts to the ethnically-constituted churches of Eastern Orthodoxy—Greek, Russian, Arabic, and so on—these stories help us to bond with each other and to establish a distinctive identity in parishes that are still largely defined by family ties and cultural commitments that, to be frank, do not always coincide with our own. In short, our stories shape our social reality within communities that continue to generate considerable barriers to entry and considerable cultural dissonance thereafter. The relative homogeneity of these stories does not point to a transhistorical variety of religious experience but to the historical experiences of particular people who share a particular set of circumstances and, for reasons that are probably beyond our ken, collectively choose to represent those experiences in a particular way.
So, what does all this have to do with Saint Paul? He was not the first Jew to conclude that Jesus is the Christ, nor even the first Jew to invite non-Jews to participate in this new community of likeminded believers, so it is reasonable to suppose that his conversion story was influenced both by his past and by the lost stories of others in his adoptive community. Still, James’s notion of relgious ‘geniuses’ makes me wonder whether one person’s story can be so compelling as to change the narrative for everyone who follows in his or her footsteps. Were we to identify Paul’s conversion story as just such a story, would this imply that his experience was indeed sui generis—unprecedented—or only that his peculiar genius lay in his manner of presentation?