No, not that kind of conversion therapy. Just to disappoint (or assuage) you at the outset. I have no desire to wade into the fraught and stormy waters of sexual identity and public policy on such a lovely summer morning. Also, just in case you were tempted to think too highly of me (an unlikely prospect, I grant), I have just ably demonstrated that I am not above the occasional click-baity headline. Sorry, again, to disappoint.
I am thinking instead about the constant call one hears these days for “more education.” The world of international football has been rife with bad behaviour lately. There’s the racist abuse that has been hurled at the three (black) members of the England national team who missed their penalties in the Euro 2020 final loss to Italy. There’s the homophobic chanting of Mexican fans that has been the subject of repeated sanctions from FIFA to little discernible effect. In both cases, there are calls for football federations, governments, etc., to “do more to educate” people about these transgressions that are proving so difficult to root out.
Beyond the world of sports fans behaving badly (which is sorta what sports fans often do, particularly when they’ve been marinating in beer for half a day or so), I’ve heard similarly solemn declarations from church colleagues who, frustrated with what they deem to be their parishioners poor COVID performance (not wearing masks, wearing masks improperly, etc.) that what is required is more and better education. Evidently, after eighteen months of a pandemic, some people still are lacking the requisite knowledge about how a mask is meant to fit over a face. Or so it seems to some, at any rate. Perhaps more education would also fix the recent spate of church burnings across Canada (close to 50, at last count, with barely a whisper of condemnation from the Canadian government). Maybe people simply don’t know that they should not be doing such things. Perhaps if someone were to patiently explain it to them.
You will no doubt have noticed a hint of sarcasm in the preceding paragraphs. While I think rather highly of education, it obviously has its limits. The answer to every social ill is clearly not “more and better education.” It is not lack of knowledge that makes football fans hurl abuse from the stands or online. Presumably they’ve occasionally encountered the idea that racism and homophobia are bad things in the media. Same goes for those torching churches. It’s doubtful that a sensitivity training seminar is the remedy. And it is probably not lack of knowledge about masks that leads to uneven COVID behaviour in churches and beyond. Those who refused to wear masks probably weren’t just waiting for the right lecture from the right authority to have their minds changed. And it’s at least theoretically possible that people actually have differing opinions on masking at this stage of the proceedings (particularly if they’ve been vaccinated). In either case, “more education” might not be the golden ticket.
The idea that all human beings need to change their behaviour is the right information is rather simplistic (at best) and betrays a woefully naïve anthropology. We are so much more than information processors. We are complex and often bewildering creatures, led around by reason, yes, but also by instinctive emotional reactions and a desperate desire for social affirmation and belonging. These last two factors alone account for far more of our beliefs and behaviour than we would like to admit. We are also influenced—and I realize how hopelessly retrograde this makes me sound—by some dark and selfish tendencies that are stubbornly resistant to change. Some used to refer to this as “sin.” Sin is the sort of thing that makes people say, “I don’t really care what you say or what the ‘right thing to do’ is, I’m still going to verbally abuse people because their skin is a different colour and because I’m irrationally angry that my country didn’t win a shiny piece of silver for kicking a ball around a field.” For example.
Sometimes, what is required is not more and better education, but conversion. Another retrograde, unfashionable, and ugly word, I know, but sometimes ugly realities require the vocabulary to match. Conversion involves information, certainly. There is an educative component to any change we make, whether it’s to a new religion or a different political party or veganism or anything else. But when it comes to the ugliest parts of our humanity, change requires a transformed moral vision and deep spiritual renewal.
Sometimes this comes via Damascus Road type experiences where God breaks down the door and everything we once believed is turned upside down. Sometimes we will simply “see the light.” These are relatively rare experiences, but they do happen. Sometimes change will come through personal stories and being confronted directly with the impact of toxic beliefs and behaviours. Sometimes we will come to a point in our lives where we are simply exhausted by our sins and realize we can’t go on like this. Sometimes—who knows? it could happen!—it might involve a trip to church. Sometimes it will be a combination of any of these things and probably a few others besides. But however it happens, it will almost certainly involve more than a wagging moral finger from someone who wishes to “educate” us.
The word “conversion,” in my estimation, covers more (and more important) territory than “education.” It gathers up all of who we are—the rational, the emotional, the social, the sinful, the spiritual—and declares that the deepest changes we require, whether as individuals or as a society, go beyond proper apprehension of the right information (which is a moving target). We are far more stubborn and glorious creatures than this. We need (and are capable of, by the grace of God) far deeper change than this.