03 June 2008

On Transcendence: The Conversion of Abraham (5 of 6)

The Conversion of Abraham

Because all of the preceding events lead to conversion, I have put more emphasis on its transcendent nature than on previous events. One’s conversion incorporates the transcendence of these other events to make each individual a self-subsistent part of a converted community. To further explain, we must first consider the event of conversion, and then evaluate conversion in general. The example of Abraham has been used in this discussion although any example could suffice.

When discussing conversion, many religious people make use of a wide range of definitions, some of which are contradictory. These well-intentioned attempts to describe or even to break down and analyze a significant religious phenomenon often result in misunderstanding regarding the experiences or phenomena composing conversion because of apparent contradictions resulting from imprecise or inaccurate definitions. When seen in light of a more experiential understanding of conversion, these religious definitions of conversion seem to clarify themselves. Applying a phenomenological approach to attain more general understanding of conversion, then, allows a wider range of persons to mutually understand the phenomenon of conversion.

Because the term conversion could be applied under many different circumstances, a “universal” definition of this experience cannot rely on a particular understanding of conversion derived from one’s limited experience. Even the collection of several understandings would prove problematic if presented as a definition. This limitation on our experience forces us to consider conversion more as an event as well as more particularly. By examining the experience of conversion, we come to see that acceptance of a set of beliefs, often cited as the definition of conversion, can neither fully define nor accurately describe conversion, since I may say that I am converted to Platonism (or to Cartesian thinking or to other philosophical positions) in the sense that I consider myself a student of (or a “believer” in) Plato’s writings, feeling, perhaps, that I have adopted the requisite beliefs to such a self-identification. Yet I might continue to learn additional philosophical beliefs (for example, Postmodern criticism of Plato’s dialogues) that would be included in the set of beliefs required to be “converted” according to a strict set of necessary and sufficient conditions for conversion as it is often defined. Thus, our description of conversion must reach beyond such an adoption of beliefs to incorporate the possibility of “continued conversion.” Additionally, our discussion of conversion might lead us to conclude that the process of conversion takes a convert through a series of steps, the combination of which forms “complete” conversion. This conclusion, however, if posed as a definition would neglect to recognize the ongoing character of the conversion process and would fall into the same hole as the earlier example, assuming finality to accompany the completion of this set of steps. I could accurately say that, though I was initially converted to Platonism, I continually change and refine my vision of this philosophical view through constant re-readings and re-evaluations of my previous understanding, continuing that conversion on a regular basis. Many academics find that after many years they no longer concord with themselves in some of their earlier publications. They undergo a gradual change of opinion as they re-focus their attention and discover new ways of seeing. They might even say that they had been converted from their earlier beliefs to a deeper understanding within their field. Having evaluated these understandings of conversion, we might begin to think that nothing could describe conversion universally. To resort to an absolute relativism, however, would prematurely ignore some key aspects of conversion—in fact, it would preclude understanding of the most basic aspects of conversion.

Having now evaluated several examples of failed descriptions of conversion, we might evaluate and attempt a positive explanation of this phenomenon. A converted person changes her values and beliefs. Conversion, however, encompasses more than these changes as seen from earlier examples. To be converted, one not only adopts new values and beliefs, but a new vision of the world around her. She recognizes that her position in relation to this world changes as both she and the world change. The constant changing of individual and world yields a new relationship between the two. When the individual recognizes this change and comports herself according to these new relationships, her state would be recognized as “converted.” Thus, the phenomenon of conversion is accurately reflected in describing conversion (though admittedly in simplified form) as a shift in relations between individual and world. This can be reflected linguistically in the terms metanoia from Greek, בוש (shuv) in Hebrew, and conversio from Latin. These terms each have been translated as conversion in English, but they carry connotations that can add to our understanding of the word “conversion,” itself. The Greek term, literally translated, means new or transformed mind, suggesting a renewal process. This term has also been seen as alluding to a process of turning with, suggested by the Latin phrase. This linguistic insight lends support to the experiential description of conversion as a constant change in relations. Similarly, the ancient Hebrew term (shuv) was used as a term for both repentance and for physically turning. The repentance aspect of the turn suggests a change in orientation to the divine, whereas the physical turn literally involves a change in orientation to the world. All of these linguistic examples corroborate the evaluation of conversion experiences as a change in relations. When one is converted, one’s relationships and relations to the world completely change, though such changes may seem gradual to the one changing (or being changed). Granted, these changes might seem minimal, nevertheless, the presence of change in one’s relations to the world creates a new model of Heidegger’s concept of being-in-the-world. Conversion, thus, entails a different way of being-in-the-world. This change can be described through a dialectic between phenomena and descriptions of phenomena (Ricoeur’s “Manifestation and Proclamation”). The individual changes through experience, thus being informed by her experiences. That world, on the other hand, changes as a result of these experiences. The two sources and recipients of change mutually inform one another. This dialectic creates a constantly changing world. The change evident in the world, however, does not constitute conversion; the subject who converts (or who is converted) has no role in that dialectical change. Instead the constantly changing world creates opportunities for relations between a constantly changing individual and his constantly changing world to change. When such changes take place, that individual could then be considered a convert. This “conversion” includes the adoption of new beliefs, but it is not limited to that aspect of conversion. It also allows for the continual refinement or rethinking of beliefs, yielding the “continuous conversion” that was problematic in the above examples of attempted definitions to prescribe what conversion means. This phenomenal account of conversion requires further examination, but to incorporate any such examination, we must move from generalities to specifics, requiring a focus on a narrower universe of discourse.

Religious Conversion

Having established this preliminary understanding of conversion, the relation of conversion to religious living can now be evaluated. Because of my own limitations with other religious worldviews, I limit my discourse to Judeo-Christianity. I would suggest that a key component of religious conversion involves relational changes in respect to authority. Both Judaism and Christianity have clear authoritative heads after whom they are named. When a person is converted to these religions, her relation to Yahweh or to Christ radically changes. The Yahwistic or Christian conversion involves a relationship with the authority figure. This relationship can lead to one’s recognition that this deity’s way of being-in-the-world supersedes one’s own. Such recognition leads the believer to adopt a way of being attributed to the recognized deity. Thus, the singular change in relation to deity can lead to a complete reversal of one’s way of being-in-the-world in drastic cases (as in the case of Paul, for example). Such conversions are often cited as examples of “religious” conversion. By examining specific examples of conversion, we can approach a fuller understanding of the phenomenon of religious conversion. Scriptural examples (specifically biblical examples) provide a common ground for the Judeo-Christian tradition. By examining these examples of conversions, our own conversions can become clearer and more focused. Significantly, these experiences were not written to enable the conversion of the person whose experience was recorded. These conversion narratives have a different purpose, which can be seen through careful study of the narratives themselves.

Abraham’s Conversion Narrative: Genesis 17

Abraham’s conversion narrative provides a particularly useful narrative as the first such experience recorded in detail. The experience narrated in Genesis 12-25 shows Abraham’s change of identity and relation to the world. In this light, as noted in The Encyclopedia of Judaism, Abraham appears under the heading of “Conversion in the early books of the Hebrew Bible,” even though conversion is not specifically mentioned during this early period of Jewish history (Neuser, I: 113). As such, it merits consideration in an analysis of religious conversion. Adding to this merit, the implicit allusions to Abraham as an initial conversion to Yahweh leading many subsequent prophets to record their own conversion in terms of Abraham’s (see accounts of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Paul for examples) makes an understanding of Abraham’s experiences key to understanding the phenomenon of religious conversion in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Because of its status as foundation of Yahwism, Abraham’s conversion merits further analysis as a conversion narrative. Such analysis enables us, as readers and as heirs to the Judeo-Christian tradition, to relate to Abraham and to see our own conversion experiences in light of his own. Thus, our understanding of conversion in general can be enhanced through a careful examination of Abraham’s experience, which textually focuses on the events of Genesis 17. To achieve a phenomenological understanding of this, we turn now to hermeneutics of scripture to aid us in our pursuit of a better understanding of religious conversion.

The experience recorded in Genesis chapter 17 forms the apex of a chiasm beginning in chapter 12 and continuing until chapter 25. This highlights its significance in the life of Abraham and in the biblical tradition. The Abrahamic story is the first biblical narrative to offer details in its story-telling. Earlier accounts recount the mythic origins of humanity. Abraham’s narrative offers itself as the beginning of the Hebrew people and hinges on the experience of chapter 17 as a landmark event in the history of that civilization although details from the entire Abrahamic narrative prove relevant to a description of that experience. Though the phenomena of the chapter could be described differently, the most widely accepted opinions of Genesis 17 paint the picture of Yahweh establishing his covenant with Abraham. This understanding incorporates the changed relation to authority relevant to our earlier discussion of religious conversion. The narrative portraying Abraham’s experience suggests several changes in relationships. To most understandably analyze this conversion experience, a brief exegesis of Genesis 17 proves helpful.

Exegesis of Genesis 17

Biblical scholars have asserted strongly held beliefs about the text of Genesis 17. They use historical and textual evidences to precisely address the event of Abrahamic conversion. Most of these analyses concentrate on circumcision as the token of the Abrahamic covenant. To understand this event, then, it becomes helpful to examine the scholarly work relating to Abraham’s experience. Specifically, their insight to the history and language used aid in understanding the message of the scriptural passage.

Jewish legends describe Abraham’s conception, birth, youth, and adulthood as miraculous (Ginsberg I: 185-308). These legends specifically identify the experience of Genesis 17 (also recorded in Gen. 15) as the formation of a new identity for Abram (I: 235). This identification portrays Abraham’s background in astrology as context for the experience when Abram looks on the stars and is informed that he will have multitudinous posterity. The legends word this change as a Yahwistic statement: “Thou art a prophet, not an astrologer!” (Ginzberg I: 235). Abram accepts this statement, even though his own astrology had informed him that he would bear no children. Because Yahweh establishes this relation with Abram and changes his identity (renaming him Abraham) Abraham’s life undergoes corresponding changes.

The text makes several allusions to Abraham’s name and to his family ties, emphasizing the shift in identity inherent in this name change (Wenham I: 20-21). The relationship between a new name and a new identity has continued throughout history, making the two almost synonymous (Plaut 119; see also Kertzer I: 273-277). Genesis 15 and 17 portray Abraham as a stranger (Gen. 17: 8), significantly indicating that his ties to his father and his father’s household have been severed (making reference to the condition established in Gen. 12: 1-3). This essentially means that Abraham has been disinherited from all earthly ties. He has no “home” to which he could go for security or for gain. The establishment of the covenant between Yahweh and Abraham assures Abraham that he will “walk with [Yahweh]” (Gen. 17: 1). This assurance is followed with the promise of posterity for Abraham. This covenant is deemed “everlasting” (Gen. 17: 7), which can also be translated as “perpetual, eternal, or as the vanishing [limit] point” (Strong’s word [#5769] is םלוע or olam). Because of this promise, Abraham’s potential (or the limit point of his existence, speaking of limits mathematically) seems insured by Yahweh. This positive assurance, accepted immediately by Abraham (Gen. 15:6; Ginsberg I: 235), replaces the lost identity and inheritance that Abraham suffered as a result of his dedication to Deity.

In addition to identity and inheritance, the word “flesh” receives emphasis and significance in the text of Genesis 17. Circumcision literally involves the removal of flesh. Additionally, the promise of posterity makes implicit ties to flesh (or mortality). Yahweh specifically identifies “the flesh of your foreskin” as “a token of the covenant” (Gen. 17: 11). Being uncircumcised literally meant being exposed (Strong, word #6189, לרע, or erel). Thus, by removing this exposure, Abraham became covered (or expiated, see Strong, word #3722, רפכ, or kaphar). The irony of removing flesh (or his own body, his identity, etc., see Strong, word #1312, רשב, or basar) to cover or expiate suggests another level of depth in the covenant established by Yahweh. The irony evident in this juxtaposition emphasizes the fundamentality of expiation in the Yahwistic tradition, making use of existing ideas to convey new meanings, thus redefining adherents. This covenant would provide means of establishing an expiated (or covered) identity, different from that of the flesh or self. The establishment of this new identity becomes evident through the textual emphasis on the flesh.

Circumcision forms the token of the covenant established by Yahweh with Abraham and with his posterity after him. This practice merits consideration, as its institution forms the apex of a chiasm found throughout chapter 17. Genesis chapter 17 can be seen as a single large chiasm or as two related chiasms (Wenham II: 17-18). The large chiasm hinges on Yahweh’s third speech (verses 9-14) wherein circumcision is established as the token of the covenant being set forth with Abraham. The two related chiasms culminate with signs of oaths, one of which is circumcision. This format also falls within a larger chiastic structure of the entire Abraham narrative (Genesis 12-25) as the apex of the entire story. Since chiastic structure emphasizes the central portions, the text itself was written to powerfully show the importance of Genesis 17, and, within that chapter, to show the importance of the covenant as shown through its token: circumcision.

The ancient practice of circumcision antedates Abraham’s biblical encounter with it. Historically, the practice was often associated with puberty or marriage as a coming-of-age experience (Plaut 118-119). Egyptian circumcision is attested by archaeological finds dating as early as 2400 B.C.E. (Gollaher 1). This practice, explains Gollaher, was most likely not a procedure for health benefits, but “was partly about purification” (5). He goes on to describe the ancient Egyptian circumcision as “a matter […] of moral, spiritual, and intellectual refinement” (6). This historical context of circumcision allows for reinterpretation of the token given to Abraham in terms of the previously existing traditions regarding circumcision. Abraham probably saw this token as a sign of his spiritual rebirth, to be relived in each child born into his family just as would an Egyptian father, but would see that ritual differently due to its timing. The rebirth would take place almost literally at birth, as the practice was prescribed to take place at the age of eight days, (Gen. 17: 12) giving new meaning to the existing practice. The element of grace becomes significant in this reinterpretation, emphasized by the covering (atoning or expiating) suggested in and emphasized through the irony of removal of flesh to cover as mentioned above. This history of circumcision indicates that the ritual instituted in the Abrahamic narrative incorporated an existing practice to be used differently than it had traditionally been used.

Abrahamic Conversion and General Conversion

From this exegesis, Abraham’s experience reveals itself as clearly being a conversion as described above. The faithful reader finds this experience both troubling and reassuring. This recognition of the narrative as a conversion account yields a dialectic between individual conversion experience and the account of Abrahamic conversion, where the two experiences inform and change one another. The individual may read Abraham’s conversion and interpret it according to his understanding, thus informing the narrative through his own background. Similarly, the reading of this account can change the individual’s understanding of his own conversion experience like Paul understood his own conversion in terms of Abraham. This relationship forms a dialectic through this process of mutually informing one another to form a hybridized understanding of conversion. The questions of why one’s experience differs from Abraham’s and of how one’s experience conforms to the pattern set forth in Genesis 17 naturally arise from consideration of Abraham’s experience as a conversion account. To answer these, one cannot resort to simple comparisons of components of each experience, for such comparison yields two absolutely distinct phenomena, the individual’s and Abraham’s. Rather, one finds the typological patterns that hold in each (for example, the figure of spiritual rebirth may recur in many conversion experiences). These patterns can expand our general and our religious definitions of conversion to yield a more precise and more specific understanding of conversion. We can consider what Abraham’s experience as recorded in Genesis 17 teaches about conversion in general and how it portrays Yahwistic conversion. These issues bring us back to a phenomenology of conversion (and of Abrahamic conversion), returning from our excursion into the realm of exegesis.

Yahwistic conversion comprises a basic tenet of the Abrahamic conversion narrative. The narrative forms the basis of Israel’s national identity. As such, the Abrahamic experience introduces a covenant of election. This election identifies the members of the Yahwistic community. Abraham and his descendents are circumcised to indicate their membership in this household of faith. As such, they submit to a “father” figure of authority. This submission is represented in circumcision and signifies that the circumcised individual considers himself a member of Yahweh’s elect people. Further, this covenant establishes a dichotomy between the covenant people and the others (Gentiles) who remain uncircumcised. This dichotomy forms a key identifier for subsequent generations who participate in the everlasting covenant. Thus, Abraham’s experience establishes his role as a “king,” drawing on the kingship undercurrent in the text as Abraham is portrayed as being inducted into the kingdom of God with the patriarch-kings (Plaut 116). This kingship relies on his relation to Yahweh, making it contingent on his conversion experience. Additionally, this theme of kingship contrasts to the recurring examples of wicked kings prevalent in the Old Testament (as in Nimrod, king during Abraham’s life). Thus, Abraham is set up as an example of righteousness, alluded to by subsequent adherents to Yahwism.

Another precedent established in the Abrahamic conversion narrative introduces the complete or perfect nature of the change. Just as circumcision involves the complete or perfect (Hebrew does not differentiate between the two) circle, Abraham’s experience indicates complete and everlasting submission to Yahweh, who further tests this submission in the subsequent account of Isaac’s sacrificial ordeal. Because of the emphasis in the narrative of the everlasting nature of the covenant, these elements of perfection and everlastingness evident (though not obvious) in the language of the text draw extra attention to the complete submission involved in the covenant. The Yahwistic conversion as portrayed in Abraham’s experience serves as a model for submission, which can be followed in other experiences.

Probably the most significant overarching theme in the Abrahamic conversion narrative shows his family and worldly ties. These relations illustrate the depth of Abraham’s conversion experience and provide the rationale for so naming this narrative. Abraham has been previously (Genesis 12) instructed to leave his father, his kin, and his household. These specifics also represent the entire identity that Abraham (Abram) had built for himself within his world. He is essentially removed from the world. Further, by renaming him, Yahweh literally removes Abram, himself, from the world. He is replaced by Abraham. The significance of a name in the ancient world underscores this change of relation (Kertzer I: 273-277). Abraham loses himself completely before being restored to existence by Yahweh. All former ties are broken, only to be replaced more fully by his “new” father (Yahweh). This replacement involves receiving (not choosing) a new name. Further, Abraham not only receives much more than he had lost as an inheritance: he is promised land and posterity and he receives (through the experiences recorded from Gen. 18-25) an enormous estate, which the text deliberately emphasizes. In addition to these new ties to the world, he is introduced into the household of Yahweh. These textual nuances emphasize the family nature incorporated into the Yahwistic covenant, and hence into Yahwistic conversion.

Finally, the circumcision ritual introduced in Genesis 17 and its changes in purpose help to explain the textual emphasis on flesh. In circumcision, flesh is literally removed. This removal can represent the many removals to which Abraham was subjected. By portraying this in the token of the covenant, his experience is relived in the ritual undergone by his descendents. The faithful adherents to the covenant receive a renewal of the promise just as Abraham’s relations, represented by the flesh, were replaced by the covenant as explained above.

Abrahamic Conversion as “Informing” Personal Conversion Experiences

This exploration of conversion began with general statements regarding conversion. To succinctly describe conversion, the change of relations within a person and between that person and his world comprise the phenomenon of conversion. Clearly this process of relational change continuously renews itself. Abraham’s experience illustrates the theme of renewal and of submission. These elements seem to appear in religious conversions aside from Abraham’s, marking a type or pattern for religious conversion, which many have seen and continue to see in terms of scriptural examples of conversion. They might represent themes or types that could enhance one’s understanding of his conversion experience, but this dialectic cannot be reduced to one causing the other—an individual’s conversion being caused by her understanding of Abraham’s conversion (for example) or her understanding of Abraham’s conversion being caused by her individual conversion. Instead, each scriptural conversion narrative can help to illustrate different aspects of the entire conversion process. Among analyses and examinations thus performed, the Abrahamic elements of conversion can be seen through such themes as renewal and submission. Narratives like those of Paul, of the Book of Mormon’s Alma the Younger, and of Joseph Smith, Jr. merit attention to Latter-day Saints exploring the vastness and depth of scriptural conversions as well as of their own. From such analyses, a fuller, generally understandable conception of conversion as a phenomenon can result. Textual narratives allow for specific conversion experiences to influence our understanding of religious experience and conversion, past, present, and future. The examination of conversion through scriptural examples enables the religious person to understand his conversion in terms of Abraham’s experience (as Luke arguably understands Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus). This understanding changes the phenomenon of conversion and contributes to the interpretation of his past experiences as he finds the types evident in the Abrahamic account in reinterpretations of his own conversion. This complicated process enables the philosopher to examine the complexities of conversion phenomena and to evaluate the interconnectedness of conversion narratives and conversion experiences on an individual level.

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