Conversion Methodology and the Case of Cardinal Newman

By Marlett, Jeffrey D. | Theological Studies, December 1997 | Go to article overview
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Conversion Methodology and the Case of Cardinal Newman


Marlett, Jeffrey D., Theological Studies


Religious conversion has been a conspicuously unwieldy matter to study. This is particularly evident in Christianity, where the word "conversion" has occurred often and held many meanings. It continues to do so. Converts have been regarded as among the most colorful figures in the history of Christianity; anyone endeavoring to understand them and the period in which they converted faces a treacherous path. By taking as a case study the 1845 conversion of John Henry Newman (1801-1890) from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, some of the methodological difficulties of studying religious conversion in general may be clarified.

By conversion one can mean either "a change from lack of faith to religious belief" or "a change from one form of church, religion, doctrine, opinion, currency, etc. to another." Such definitions emphasize the change that occurs in religious conversion, and not the foundation on which its takes place. Conversion also affects a person's preexistent relationships and attitudes. Therefore, the meaning of a religious conversion is determined in part by the worldview from which a person converts.

At times the language of Christianity obfuscates this. The conversion of Paul of Tarsus is recorded in Acts 9:3-9, 22:6-11, and 26:13-16. One version has Paul blinded by a flash of light, suggesting the "darkness" of unbelief in which he traveled earlier. In a well-known verse, Paul himself wrote: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face" (1 Corinthians 13:12). This suggests a current "darkness" which will diminish as the truth increasingly becomes evident. Paul's emphasis on the destination of conversion (beyond the "darkness") has been paralleled throughout Christian history. Writing in 1864 about his gradual road to Roman Catholicism, John Henry Newman echoed Paul's sentiments:

From the time that I became a Catholic, of course, I have no further history of my religious opinions to narrate. In saying this, I do not mean to say that my mind has been idle, or that I have given up thinking on theological subjects; but that I have had no changes to record, and have had no anxiety of heart whatever.... I was not conscious, on my conversion, of any inward difference of thought or of temper from what I had before. I was not conscious of firmer faith in the fundamental truths of revelation, or of more self-command; I had not more fervour; but it was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.(1)

Newman's postconversion confidence embodies the notion that conversion concerns arrival in the new faith, not departure from the old.

But more resides in Newman's words. He also noted a lack of change between his new faith and the old. This suggests, though, that the "port" in which Newman docked and the one from which he sailed were not so different after all. Conversion might indeed mean "change," but that implies three focuses for studying religious conversion: the old faith, the new faith, and the actual point of conversion. Perhaps a fourth would be the person who converts. A historical study of religious conversion would be multivalent, focusing on the multiple faiths and historical situations surrounding a particular person. Additionally, such a study would contribute to an understanding of the theological sensibilities, both individual and social, of the period.

In this article I pursue just such a study of Christian conversion. I treat material in three sections: first, an overview of some common methodological approaches to conversions; second, an exploration of an interdisciplinary method that, by combining history, literary criticism, and religious studies, seeks a new interpretation of conversion; and third, a section focusing on John Henry Newman as a case study for this new method. Conversion within the history of Christianity will thus be viewed as a holistic process, the meaning of which is determined by the historical environment surrounding the convert and the autobiographical and biographical accounts of the conversion, as well as the historical setting of beliefs involved in the conversion.

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