Dr Mark Vernon, in preparing for our forthcoming pilgrimage to Greece, reflects on conversion, Paul’s (Saul’s) and ours.
It’s become one of the most famous moments in history. A Damascene conversion is a sudden and complete change in one’s beliefs. Blinding lights. Tumbling horses. About turns.
Or was it so sudden? I think the answer to that must be yes and no.
Yes, there was a moment in history that radically changed Paul – though just what happened in that moment is also lost to history. Luke gives us three accounts in Acts that differ amongst themselves. And they differ again from Paul’s own markedly brief references to it in his letters.
That speaks to me of the truth of the experience. I suspect that if you had been with Paul on the Damascus Road, it wouldn’t have been clear what was going on. It seems that it wasn’t entirely clear to him. In the letter to the Galatians, he writes of spending time in Arabia working things through, as it were.
So I suspect it also wasn’t so sudden. Think of the time before, when Paul regarded himself as a regular Jew, not one of these new Jews who followed Jesus called Messiah. If the story of him watching the stoning of Stephen is anything to go by, he must have been bubbling with righteous rage, pious hatred, anxious orthodoxy. It was waiting to explode.
The great psychologist of religion, William James, was fascinated by conversion experiences. He understood them as upsurges from places deep within ourselves that may have been gestating for some time. They are precipitative eruptions that re-orientate us around a new axis. “I no longer live but Christ lives in me,” Paul told the Galatians after his return from Arabia. What an insight to have gained.
A group of ancient Greek philosophers can help us understand the experience further. They are the Stoics, the most successful of the ancient schools. The emperor Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic. As was the tutor of Nero, Seneca. The Stoics were also very influential in 1st century Judaism: the mystic Philo of Alexandria drew deeply from their insights. And when John wrote the famous introduction to his gospel, “In the beginning was the Logos (Word)”, he was utilising Stoic ideas to unpack this most tremendous truth about the cosmos.
Whether or not Paul directly read any of the Stoics is unclear. But Stoicism was in the air. And they argued that the great task in life is to re-orientate yourself into alignment with the Logos. Their understanding of the Logos was crucially different to the emerging Christian revelation, as we’ll discover when we meet Paul talking to the philosophers in Athens. But for now, think about the way Stoics understood conversion.
The scholar Troels Engberg-Pedersen proposes a model of Stoic conversion. It begins with the individual dominated by their own perspective on things. They live their life according to their own intuitions, identity and desires. However, they are also vaguely aware that something is not quite right, “Our consciousness of our weakness,” as Epictetus the Stoic put it.
That readies the individual for a second unpredictable stage, when they are struck by an authority from outside themselves. They are dislodged. The old axis of perception is rocked, sways, and tumbles. It may well feel like a breakdown or disaster. But it enables something invaluable: the discernment of a different perception of life. It is now known as coming from a new vantage that is rooted elsewhere – in the soul, filled with spirit, offering an energy that is gentle and unquenchable. The Logos is making its presence felt.
This leads to a third stage in which a new way of life gradually emerges. Hence Paul could also write about the centrality of “dying every day”. If there was a pivotal moment in his life, there is also the on-going task of re-orientating his life with the truth of that experience. Nothing worthwhile is sudden.
This is what pilgrimages can be like too. There is the sudden thrill of arriving in a thin place like Athens or Delphi; the excitement of breathing the same air and feeling the same sun as Paul; a quiet revelation that surges up from within us, blessed by the Logos.
But the pilgrimage experience must also be woven into our ordinary life. It must become part of who we are, which is to say that we must change – must die – in accordance with it. The joy is that the new life, the new axis can then be known every day.