What do you believe in? Why do you believe it? Were you born into it or did you change your beliefs as you came upon it? Is it mutually exclusive of other viewpoints and beliefs, or is it inclusive and expansive with them? The two words: conversion and initiation used in a religious or spiritual context have subtle differences in meaning. They both usually refer to coming to a new religious system or belief, but they depart from there.
When I was first introduced to Hinduism, I was told it was something people can’t convert to. At the time my 20-something brain said to me, don’t tell me what I can and cannot do; I was put off. Whenever I’m told there is something I can’t do, my first reaction is gut-wrench abhorrence to the idea: why not? Whether the statement itself is true or not, the answer underlying it is rooted more in philosophy and perspective than mere facts. My current understanding is: you can’t convert to Hinduism, but you can initiate into it. The difference seems subtle, but the meaning is very important. (I’ll leave caste aside.)
Most of the dominant Western religions [Judaism, Catholicism, Islam] have a conversation aspect to them. You shed your previous beliefs and proclaim you now have taken on the new dogma. You are converted. You now believe what the others believe. Of course there are variances. Not all people from a religion are generic and believe the same things wholeheartedly, but the conversion takes place and in doing so you proclaim your faith in the new dogma and doctrines. The door closes on your past belief system. These systems are usually exclusive in their beliefs with the religion you converted into.
Many other religious offer what’s known as initiation. You are initiated into the new beliefs. Initiation implies a door opening. You now have access to a new system to incorporate into your beliefs. These systems can be inclusive of your other beliefs: past and future. You can believe in more than one system. They all have a place at your table.
I make a comparison to citizenship in America. It used to be that to become a citizen of the United States, you had to renounce your old citizenship. You were no longer a citizen of your prior country, but exclusively a US citizen. More recently, the US has accepted the stance of dual citizenship. You can now be Canadian and a US citizen. You can be a citizen of more than one country. In a conversion system, you renounce you old beliefs. In an initiation system, you can be dual (or more) in your beliefs.
Why is this distinction important? I consider myself a Catholic, a Christian, a student of the Himalayan Vedic meditative tradition and a Vodou priest. To me, they all coexist peacefully. I draw upon each tradition, pulling out common threads, unique beliefs and take the best of all of them. To a Catholic, I’m fairly certain they would not consider me a Catholic, same to a Christian. To a practitioner of Vodou, there is less conflict. In fact, many Vodouisants in the west consider themselves Catholic as well as followers of Vodou. They see these systems as complimentary.
To me, initiation is powerful. It expands your belief system with new possibilities. Conversion jettisons the old beliefs to be completely in your new religion. I find that many of the dominant Western religions have this duality: you are one of us (completely) or you are not. There is no room for multiple belief systems in their theology. Many others systems are less rigid. They offer to answer the same questions: where do we come from, what is God, how should I live my life, what is the divine and how can I experience it; but the questions are open and evolving. They change with the times, coexist with science and evolve with us as humans. They are there for you to figure out their mysteries as you yourself progress in your understanding of them.
I don’t write this to say everyone will agree with me. I’m sure there are people in each of the non-dominant Western traditions who will say there is no room for interpretation, no room for dissent, no coexistence with multiple beliefs. This has been my subjective interpretation; for me it’s a powerful one. We as people can benefit from our spiritual systems not being dualistic: you’re one of us or you’re an outsider. Allowing someone to be introduced into your beliefs and incorporate the ones that best mesh with your own opens doors to stronger beliefs and better refinement. It’s flexible, malleable and can evolve with us as a people as we discover more about the world.
In my understanding, religion should be able to change with the times like language does. Language constantly evolves as new ideas are created. Religion in that same vein should be able to evolve with new scientific discovery, with new spiritual discovery, with any type of discovery. We should be able to evolve our understanding of the ecstatic experience of what the divine means to us (whether you believe in God or not). This benefits all of humankind.
I believe the rigidity of belief will be the downfall of any religious system. Without the capability to reinvent itself it is destined to die, even if it takes centuries to happen. If humans evolve, their religious systems must evolve with them to stay relevant.
The path of initiation is a road before us. We have taken the first steps, and it’s up to us which direction we walk. We can stay on the road, or we can stray off the path, finding and making new paths along our way. That is the power of initiation, the beliefs are shown to you, it’s up to you what you’ll do with them. You can fully immerse yourself or reinvent yourself. You can incorporate what fits. It can change with you.
Conversion to me limits our options. We have less leeway to stray from the common beliefs. We declare ourselves one religion with the others of our faith. We follow the doctrines of our faith. There is little room to stray from the path.
This is my understanding of the difference between the two words today. I’m interested in how you might disagree, or how you might feel I’m wrong in my understanding or if you agree in part or wholly. Do you feel the religion you practice is conversion oriented or initiatory? Do you feel this is the right way for religions to be and if so why? Please take the time to comment below so I can expand my understanding.
I always appreciate the feedback I receive to my blog on Facebook. If your comment isn’t private, I ask that you share it on my blog by clicking on comments below. I also appreciate Facebook likes/shares, +1s, tweets or any other type of sharing for any of my posts. For those of you who do, thanks for sharing.