Monday, July 21, 2008

Cliff Notes: Conversion

As James continues his great Varieties, we learn that, not surprisingly given the previous two chapters, the process of conversion is the process of uniting two disparate selves into one. This is not switching one set of theological beliefs for another, but of moving from sinfulness to a conviction of sin. Rather than living divided between one set of ideas, and another set of ideas that understands the first to be harmful, conversion insists on one set of ideas about what is and is not harmful.

Marvelously, James names these sets of ideas "habitual centers of personal energy." And they are often moved, though never easily. In conversion, the center of energy that had been dividing us from its position on the periphery, moves dramatically into our core. This happens primarily through "eruptive emotions," like those commonly found in adolescents:

"Emotional occasions, especially violent ones, are extremely potent in precipitating mental rearrangements. ... Hope, happiness, security, resolve, emotions characteristic of conversion can be ... explosive. And emotions that come in this explosive way seldom leave things as they found them."

Those incapable of these volcanic passions, are, in James' estimation not hysteric, but lacking. What religion does, increasingly, is shape these feelings toward self-surrender. The religious conversion is toward helplessness:

"From Catholicism to...quakers by the way, we can trace the stages of progress towards the idea of an immediate spiritual help, experienced by the individual in his forlornness and standing in no essential need of doctrinal apparatus or propitiatory apparatus."

This progress can be gradual, as in adolescence, but can be instantaneous, as in many Methodists. These instants of profound conversion can be traced to the psychic size of the area of subconscious activity of an individual. The more that goes on behind the scenes, James asserts, the more sudden the eruption of the whole act upon the stage. Not for the Methodist is the placing of one religious thought here and another there: they seem to emerge into the scene wholly formed.

James understands this largely Protestant conversional phenomenon to be wholly superior to any the Catholic tradition offers. This is so not because of the particular doctrines associated with it (which are very few or none) but because of the fruits this momentous psychic conversion produces. These are four-fold:

the loss of all worry and the perception that all is well with one's self
the sense of perceiving truths not known before
a sense of interior and exterior beauty
the ecstasy of joy produced

After this delineation and defense of sudden conversion experiences, James concludes by noting that the value of these experiences depends on neither their origin (either psychological or theological) or their duration, but only in their significance in the life of the individual.


Anne G G said...

I like this, though I'm not sure that I agree that explosive emotions are apt to produce fundamental change. I suppose the less emotional person might experience an explosion of emotion only at a moment of great change - but those drawn to the more emotive protestant churches seem often to be the type (like myself) who experience explosive emotion on a more recurring basis.

I guess you might say, emotional explosion is not always the sign of great upheaval and restructuring, but at the site of great upheaval and restructuring, explosive emotion will often or always be present?

Curious Monk said...

yeah, i think you've about got it. it's the most helpful chapter of james so far, but also the weirdest.

for example, the adolescent association is also confusing: so only adolescents can have conversions? conversions are adolsecent phenomena?

i think james was trying to get at the third data point, the explicatory structure for the correlations:

adolescents have greater emotions because their personal centers are shifting, making them more susceptible to conversion, which is also about restructuring via the unconscious.

the takeway point for me, though, was the differing sizes of the unconscious field in individuals. that may have explicatory power. i always thought we were supposed to picture an infinite dark sea. James was NOT a Freudian.

Anne G G said...

I can't help but again relate his ideas here to the book I read on his study of paranormal phenomena. He and his cohorts - though I think other scientists headed up this part of the study - looked at many stories of the dying appearing to their relatives at the moment of their death. The theory he developed in the end was that they were not appearing after death as apparitions, but that the dying person's thought of their loved one was so strong that it was capable of creating a connection with that person despite the physical distance between them. In that case, I suppose, the emotion restructures physical or psychic laws?