The journey of conversion: excerpt from Boundaries Thick and Permeable posted in response to Joel Peters’s A Call (To Action!?)

The questions Joel asks in one of his recent posts are questions I’ve been asking for a while. Here’s an excerpt from my recent book that tries to address some of those questions. As with my last excerpt, I’ve decided to make the passage more readable by removing the footnotes.

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We are not the master of our journey. Paul instructs us that because the gift of the Spirit inhabits our bodies, “you are not your own,” but are instead wholly united to Jesus (1 Cor. 6:17-19). As bodies wholly confessing to the Lordship of Jesus, we work at something of which we are not in charge. Such is the natural implication of undertaking a journey that originates with and aims towards something other than ourselves (namely, God’s work/love). We are, as Merleau-Ponty often describes it, pulled to create a work of which we are not the master. This is such that Merleau-Ponty often argues that the artist’s creative journey – his or her style – is not accessible even to the artist her- or himself. For, rather than being something the artist might possess, “[i]t is that very life, to the extent that it emerges from its inherence, ceases to be in possession of itself, and becomes a universal means of understanding and of making something understood, of seeing and of presenting something to see – and is thus not shut up in the depths of the mute individual but diffused throughout all he [sic] sees.” That is, though the artist manifests his or her dialogue in a constituting expression, she or he neither owns nor even accomplishes this expression.

One of the reasons this is important to spell out is that it mitigates against some of the ways we might misunderstand our role as “uncoverers of God and God’s new world.” For example, we might be tempted, as are many churches that attempt to take discipleship seriously, to speak and think of the work we undertake in the name of Christ as “Kingdom Building.” However, understanding that we possess neither confessional work nor word, we can see that this problematically suggests that building God’s Kingdom is our work and not God’s – and this even if we bracket the presumption and overconfidence with which this slogan equates our actions with God’s. Beyond the crippling burden I imagine must accompany such a duty, this kind of belief/expression will tend towards the elevation of ends – bringing about the Kingdom – above means. This, in turn, carries with it the danger of undoing a Christian confession of faith, which must consist of journey and encounter. For to effectively “build the kingdom” we must “make a difference”; thereby we allow the predetermined standard of this end goal to erect a rigid and often violent (for how else can we secure results?) boundary that we imagine will enable us to take control of situations, people, and relationships. There is, in other words, no gesture in Kingdom Building.

Or, as a related example, we might understand our role in wholly embracing the call of Jesus as the need to take ownership of our relationship with Jesus. Many churches rightly concerned with personal friendship with God tend to do this, speaking of “my” or “your” faith; relatedly, they tend to equate “personal relationship with God” with an odd ethereal feeling that is (impossibly) locked up inside the individual, and answerable only to a will that (again, impossibly) precedes act. Thus, not only is the nature and content of my faith entirely up to me, but it is entirely inaccessible and unaccountable to anyone or anything besides my autonomous will. Notwithstanding the undesirability of the god in this schema, this sort of protectionism and ownership of an internal state is antithetical to an understanding of confession of faith of which we are not the master. This practice of confession does not journey, or, at best, sees journey as a means; it is unable to share its life and expression with anybody or anything; it composes boundaries without bodies, practices, or others, even if these boundaries are supposed to result in changes to bodies, practices, and others; and it sets these boundaries arbitrarily, the confessing, composing, and enforcing will taking over the role of God.

The point with these examples of misguided confessional activity is not only that they institute rigid boundaries, but also that the boundaries they create are insufficiently thick. Made up only of a representing will or a community’s intention, we will often be unable to maintain them. Furthermore, unable to receive well from others, people in both situations will often be blind to hidden violences in their midst, which they should root out and exclude. And also, in collapsing the work of discerning and drawing boundaries wholly to the community or individual, they neglect the fact that boundaries rooted in the call of Christ call to us, shaping and moving us.

Another way to put this is that though we receive the confessional movements of discipleship and spirituality they are still work, and indeed work that we have a deep stake in; that is, confessional sojourning is the work of Christ that we are converted to. I have already argued for this in other ways, so what I wish to do now is show how being fully converted does not necessarily imply a certainty that will not change and has nothing to learn. Working at this is another way to explore what it means to work well at manifesting a confessional path that is not ours, with the work of conversion naming our belongingness in something other than ourselves.

Writing on the possibilities of freedom in regards to participation in revolution, Merleau-Ponty argues that “[t]he revolutionary project is not the result of a deliberate judgement, or the explicit positing of an end….  [Rather, the stand I take] matures in co-existence before bursting forth into words and being related to objective ends.” For Merleau-Ponty, we do indeed freely and fully take a position; however, this does not suggest “that the worker makes himself [sic] into a worker and a revolutionary ex nihilo” through an internal positing of a value. Rather, we live through this wholehearted and passionate position in ambiguity, such that “it appears to itself as anterior to decision.” Likewise, in regards to speech, Merleau-Ponty reveals that the use of language “is the subject’s taking up of a position in the world of his [sic] meanings.” He sees that we receive all meaning and thought from language, which wholly inhabits us and lends us its power of signification. However, for Merleau-Ponty this does not mean we do not take a stand – i.e., apprehend, convey, co-ordinate, and modulate a meaning-full existence – but that “our thought crawls along in language,” empowering its expressiveness with our “phonetic gesticulation.” Though we do not speak of our thoughts, we do speak our thoughts, thereby manifesting our living relation with others and the world. Thus, the speaker dwells within and grapples with a language that claims her, trusting that, with her touch, “the words of language…suddenly swell with a meaning.” We are not masters of our journey, but we do journey.

For example, consider the married person who puts on her wedding ring each morning. She does not make a decision to wear her ring in the sense of a conscious deliberation of the costs and benefits of being married that day, her marriage held before her as an object in her “mind’s eye.” Putting on her ring each morning is not an option. In another sense, however, she does make a choice, each time taking up the task of being part of a marriage relationship. Every morning she lives through this decision; she does not possess or posit it, but she does freely participate in the act. In this sense, one could say that she is converted to her marriage. And this conversion requires the constant and careful work of performing the intentional practices that continually re-convert her, just as she re-commits to these practices every morning in claiming her ring. This does not mean that she should look to practices that will maintain some static state called “marriage”; for just as she does not own her choice, her lived through participation in her marriage will continue to fluctuate as circumstances change and as she further receives, teaches, and learns in the various movements of this participation.  Of course, she may one day decide not to put on her ring, that is, to leave her marriage. However, this does not mean that she arrives at a different conclusion after a daily exercise of deliberation, but that a deliberation took place where normally there would be none. Further, this deliberation does not cease her activity of living through/with her marriage and represent a new goal of non-married life; rather, it marks a radical reorientation of the direction of her intentionality, as well as the practices and movements that will simultaneously derive from and inform this new direction.

Counter-intuitively, then, to practice a journey that is not ours points us towards the vital importance of careful thinking and deep intentionality in our practices and movements. For if, as a confessing church, we are set on a path by God, this gives us responsibility without ownership; as Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 6, because we are God’s we should act like we are God’s. In Merleau-Ponty’s descriptions and my example we witness the subject continually taking up his or her world with the ongoing action of living through the world; with a “labor of manifestation” the subject gives life to already available meanings. In our navigation of the world that is in dialogue with the world, we actively cultivate our expression. In this, then, we see that gestural expression is not opposed to, but works with intentional cultivation of a way of being as the work of conversion. What gestural expression does change is the nature of our intentional nurturing of ourselves and others, such that it is always bodily, lived-through, and practiced with the world. In short, our intentionality operates in perpetual motion, aiming at its object rather than positing it.

This helps us to see that to be truly converted to the God that claims us involves learning to embody openness – unless we wish to collapse God to ourselves and meander into self-idolatry. Thus, to be converted does not involve having it all together; in fact, we do not have anything at all. Coles picks up on this, powerfully calling for confessing Christians to cultivate times and spaces where we relinquish the initiative and “let others take it from us, let them radically call us into question, let them call us to pause indefinitely.” We are converted to what God is doing and thereby should not just admit to the possibility of change, but should count on being continually changed. And it may be that this change undoes our conversion itself.

On the journey of our confession of Christ’s lordship there are many things to guard against; there are many things we must seek; there will be things we need to vigilantly keep and jealously attend to; and there is a Jewish man that we are being converted to. However, there is nothing to hold onto. Though risky, in all of these boundary drawing activities we should not seek to defend either God or ourselves. Doing so precludes the possibility of our being converted to God’s good work. We will, without doubt, continually fail at such a conversion to Christ; such failings work against our confession of Christ and stand under Christ’s judgement. But, by struggling on with, taking up, and crying out this confession we throw ourselves on the grace of our Lord who offers to transform our feeble gestures.

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5 thoughts on “The journey of conversion: excerpt from Boundaries Thick and Permeable posted in response to Joel Peters’s A Call (To Action!?)

  1. Thanks for these great thoughts.

    I will have to read the book (Indeed, I ordered it already!).

    This does shed some light at what I was getting at earlier. I will have to think on this further, for now, just one quick (sorry it’s so broad) question.

    The conversion narratives that we often get in the New Testament are often told as if the decision or personal conviction of the one who was called and got up to follow Jesus was of no importance. They simply did it. The narrator gives no place for contemplation, or for the agency of the one being converted. They listen or they don’t. Is this always the case for the subjects of the New Testament in general, not just in regards to conversion?

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    1. It’s a good question. I think that you certainly identify a trend when it comes to those accepting Jesus. They are confronted by something that simply changes everything. But I think it would be a bit hasty to conclude from this either that there is nothing resembling choice in those conversions or that this gives a complete picture of conversion. Consider those would-be disciples who turn Jesus down because they’re too wealthy or want to bury their fathers and so forth. Or Paul’s visceral anguish when he writes that he wishes that he was cut off from Christ (Romans 9). And then, of course, there’s the disciples’ fear in the face of Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion. This leads to my next point: the calling of the disciples is not quite the same as their conversion. Each gospel acts as a sort of ongoing process of learning (to trust God and practice servant love towards each other) and coming closer to what Jesus offers. Each gospel offers a different conversion-high at the conclusion of this ascending arc – for Mark the centurion at the cross, for John Thomas’s confession when he sees Jesus. This conversion has all sorts of stumbling around and if it does have a straightforward beginning (perhaps) then it certainly does not have a tidy end other than “keep working and trust that the Spirit will be with you.” Does that answer your question?

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    2. Part of the reason for some of the ambiguity, I think, is that the NT is far less interested in giving us any sort of human psychology than it is at telling us about Jesus and what Jesus does for us and enables us to do/become.

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  2. I also feel that this sentence “He sees that we receive all meaning and thought from language, which wholly inhabits us and lends us its power of signification.” is better aligned with Wittgenstein’s thought than it is with M-P. I would caution its application to M-P’s thought (Of course it does not negate the conversion as practice). For M-P, he is extremely interested in the power of what is not said, and the pre-signified realm of human existence. In the Visible and the Invisible he makes it pretty clear that he is interested in our “mute world” and the world that pre-exists signification, i.e., meaning that is not yet apart of language.

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    1. I agree. I’m not sure that it’s a misreading of M-P, but it should be applied with more caution, perhaps by using a broader term than language. Two things. First, I wrote this before I had read all of The Visible and the Invisible. Second, even now that I have read it I still don’t quite know what to make of M-P’s discourse on silence. I believe that it has strong connections to his commentary on gesture and so forth – that is, a pre-conscious realm that is still caught up in significations beyond the gestural implications. That is, I wouldn’t categorize silence in a realm outside of signification because M-P believes that we are always in a context of receiving and creating meaning. He says “[a]ll perception, all action which presupposes it, and in short every human use of the body is already primordial expression.” i get this reading mostly from “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence” and I’m not sure how well it works with The Visible and The Invisible. I’ll also confess that when I’m at a crossroads with M-P I’ll interpret him in a way sympathetic to Wittgenstein.

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