Monday, March 18, 2019

Am I Free to Go?

It's almost impossible to tell how much any choice I make is independent and how much it is a response to social pressures and influences.

For example, I choose what to wear in the morning but any 'freedom' in that choice is bound up in a context. And people who lose their grip on dress-code conventions are rarely labelled 'free' - more likely, we think they're nuts!

My dominant context as a child was one that valued - possibly above all else - those who made an independent choice to become a Christian. This choice was called Conversion. I grew up in church communities and, more importantly, non-conformist church communities. These got their sense of identity from being different to more hierarchical (such as Catholic) churches, where parents and priests passed faith on to children and they adopted it. In my place, a verbal explanation of one's independent conversion to the faith was a sign of authentic belonging.

I remember, at the tender age of 5, choosing to follow Jesus. This made sense in my context and was a response to social pressures and influences. I saw that a certain decision would lead to acceptance, belonging and respect. Why would I choose otherwise? There is nothing wrong with this: embracing a supportive culture, a tribe, a place to belong, is good.

That said, it is false to claim that my choice was made 'freely' from external pressure. For me, things go wrong when that argument takes hold. When a particular decision to join the tribe is conflated with a step into ultimate freedom, like taking the red pill, people are later held back from journeying past this point. *

My founding tribe is not the same as yours, no doubt. Some are religious; some are family - 'blood ties'; some are about political or intellectual affiliations; some relate to careers. But I suspect that genuine 'conversion' experiences feel similar regardless of context because they always involve loosening ties with your tribe. They are recognisable because we resist them intensely. A profound change feels like threat. It is not an escape or a refuge; it is more like a death. It involves periods of deep uncertainty and sadness; a sacrifice of safety. Conversions are inexplicable; they necessitate leaving your tribe for the wilderness.

Like Eliot's Magi, I expect my path towards the 'truth' will feature hard and bitter agony. I am also pretty sure that I will always have the option to ignore it. The best tribes will never deny the existence of pathways 'out' or insist that those who wish to travel these are deviant, back-slidden.... or nuts.


* (See Fowler's Stages of Faith for one model explaining what comes next.)