Sunday, September 23, 2012

Conversion or Initiation

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.

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  1. I couldn't have said it better, Urban! This is why I love my path in life as well. "In an initiation system, you can be dual (or more) in your beliefs." And, yes, I also believe that "the rigidity of belief will be the downfall of any religious system" and the evidence of that is already evident in today's religious movements in North America. More people stray away from the conversion method of religion and seek a more independent, self-defined spiritual path that incorporates several different religious practices and/or belief systems (to the point where they create their own mini "religions" and yet they are not doing anything perfectly new).

    It is not commonly understood that initiation is different from conversion. Take for instance my own initiatory path of Dianic Witchcraft -- a branch of Goddess-centered Wicca that was exclusively female (later became co-ed in the 90s)-- it wasn't the only Witchcraft path I was initiated into, something that confuses people who do not understand what initiation means, including many neo-Pagans and Wiccans. A Witch can be initiated into several different traditions of Witchcraft, but s/he can be of ANY religion. There are Christian Witches, Catholic ones, Native American church ones, and you-name-it-they're-out-there Witches whom you'd never know are Witches because they don't go walking around with pentacles around their necks. You can be a Witch and not a Pagan, but Wicca itself is the magico-religion of Witches that falls into the definition of a neo-Pagan religion. You can go up to a Witch and find out that s/he is not Wiccan, but then go up to another one and find out that they define themselves as one and the same. Yet Wicca is not a conversion religion, not at all.

    But then I wonder about why religions that require "conversion" are so popular and continue to thrive. My answer to this is because they do ask people to give up their old lives and allow them to start a new life.

    I grew up in an Evangelical household, very strict, very ecstatic worship, went to church up to three times a week, where we lived very devotional lives. Even though I did not agree with the rigid lifestyle and bigotry (especially the sexism), I learned what it was to be dedicated and why people chose to convert. Most converts to Pentecostal/Evangelical Christianity were people who were suffering from drug addiction and many other terrible problems that were life-shattering, they needed to start over completely, so the salvation offered to them by religion was a way to white-wash their souls. The only problem with it is it can be an escape, not a solution (heh, "soul-solution -soul-tion"). Conversion religions grab people at their most vulnerable and promise a better, happier life, ultimately fulfilling Karl Marx's famous phrase: ""Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes" = "religion is the opiate of the masses."

    Speaking of that quote, I'm going to look it up and post the full quote, in context, in another quote next (I tried to post it all in this same comment but I went over the accepted character amount, yikes!)

  2. Continuing where I left off, I wanted to quote, in full context, Karl Marx, to point out that example of "religion as an opiate of the masses" (just for some colour):

    "The foundation of irreligious criticism is: Man makes religion, religion does not make man. Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man – state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

    "Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

    "The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

    "Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower."

    Not that I completely agree with this, but Marx wasn't the first person to compare religion to an opiate. However, I do not think all religion acts as a numbing drug for those who seek escape from their emotional suffering.

    I think that the kind of religion atheists and philosophers criticized was conversion-type religion, the kind most main stream in the West. Would they say the same about those with an initiatory practice?

    Or, as I so often have come across (I do not know if you have) would they have thought initiatory religions as true religions anyway? Most such religions lie outside of traditional, worldly experience, especially back in different eras of history. Even today initiation is still considered something secretive.

    The last student I had bailed on me because she was afraid of going through an initiation ceremony. It was the first and only time I saw someone really run away from it. Even though I was disappointed, I respected her wishes and did not get angry with her, just let her go. Not everyone is cut out for it, and it's best that they choose and not be forced into anything, much less go through something half-hearted, too. She was surprised I wasn't angry and that I didn't push her. "Does this mean I can still practice magic?" She asked. Of course! But she was not meant to be a Witch, just meant to be something else. I explained to her that what she was being trained for was to be part of a religion that is a tradition, not the whole part of the religion. "Oh, I thought the tradition was the religion," she said, and I had to explain the difference.

    "You can do this or not do this, but if you do it, you have to mean it," I told her. Being an initiate is more of a commitment and, in my opinion, a practice of dedication, not conversion. I like that it is about dedication, something that feels much more empowering.

    I hope that this gives you plenty of feedback to ponder over! And that I did not write too much... :-)

    1. It made for good reading, but

      "You can do this or not do this, but if you do it, you have to mean it," I told her. Being an initiate is more of a commitment and, in my opinion, a practice of dedication, not conversion. I like that it is about dedication, something that feels much more empowering."

      I found truly inspiring. Yes, a commitment it is. And there in lies the difference. In Vodou, anyone can practice, but the initiate has made a commitment. Commitment is extremely important, as is the initiation, because it places you on the path. You may find and walk the path without initiation, but initiation should place you on it.

      I think this should hold true for most initiatory religions.

      Thanks for the feedback. Great viewpoints.

    2. Thanks, Urban! You narrowed down my thoughts and got my main message. :-)

  3. In that regard (only), conversion and initiation are actually exactly the same. Conversion practices like Confirmation absolutely represent a commitment to continued, dedicated, active practice. If it doesn't always seem that way to us it's because many of us were raised Christian and saw it as routine rather than a choice or commitment. But I've seen kids raised in initiatory traditions blow it off too, and adults Received into the Episcopal Church view it as a lifelong dedication.

    In general I love your essay, Urban, and I'm proud to be part of a non-converting initiatory religion. But is it really fair to view conversion religions as inflexible or lacking something? Perhaps people can get just as much discovery and evolution by going deep in one tradition as they can by going broad across many. Maybe spiritual monogamy can even teach things that no amount of extra initiations can.

    It must be a profoundly different experience.

    1. Drew, thanks for replying, I like what you've said. I also appreciate adding to the conversation.

      I try not to disparage any religion, because I know it works well for so many. That's not to say everyone follows their beliefs, some walk through the motions, no matter what tradition they are in.

      I know many interesting and thoughtful Christians who fit this bill (being predominantly surrounded by Christians). They carefully examine their beliefs and refine their understanding every day. I respect that. They are on a powerful spiritual journey, which at times mirrors my own.

      The point I try to make is one of being able to be more than one thing. I do believe it's possible to belong to multiple religious systems simultaneously. Obviously, there will be contradictions among the different systems, but I think you can just as easily identify and have to reconcile contradictions within any one particular religious tradition.

      My hope is that this isn't speaking down to any major (or minor) religious system out there. I have tremendous respect for my Christian, Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters. I think any system, followed with a good heart, will find a path to a higher spiritual experience (whether with or without a belief in God). I like having a broader set of tools to use in my case.

      I also believe there is no one right answer. What works for me, might not work for you. That's doesn't mean I'm right and you're wrong, it means we use different paths of understanding to reach our destinations. That to me is the beauty of it.

      This can be summed up by the quote from Archbishop Anselme Titianma Sanonin in Burkina Faso that Saum posted recently: "You must search for unity in diversity. Because if the one who created the world had wanted everything to be the same, he would have made it that way. This search for spirit, we have to do it without selfishness or thought of our own gain. It's the reason for living, the reason for dying: to search."

      To me, it's how you go about that search. He summed up my beliefs pretty well.