Merriam-Webster lists one definition of epiphany as: “a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.”
When I think of epiphanies of a certain magnitude, I think of conversion experiences. I’m guessing most of us have at least one good conversion in us. St. Paul sure did. We can assume that he was raised in the religious beliefs that he held when he was struck blind by that heavenly light on the road to Damascus. That most famous of epiphanies led to his conversion from a (born) persecutor of Christians to a (born again) follower of Christ. As far as we know, he had no further conversions after that, and any epiphanies that followed were of a scale to fit within his “new” system of belief.
I think that the course of most conversions follow a pattern similar to Paul’s. Listen to most “testimonies” from the converted, and they’ll refer to a previous life that consisted of early beliefs about the “essential nature or meaning” of life that had never been questioned. Suddenly a triggering event causes them to re-think their beliefs. In my case I was simply presented with the basics of Christian salvation that — although I had been raised in a nominally (at least socially) Christian home — were news to me. And so I converted.
As readers of this blog will know, I later converted again. Not back to my previous beliefs, but to a completely new understanding of that “essential nature or meaning” thing. I have often borrowed from evangelistic jargon and referred to this as my having been “born again…again”.
It’s not unusual to find someone who has had a conversion experience (though there are many who manage to skip this step without any noticeable injury to their life experience — but I was not cut from that genetic cloth). What is more unusual is to find those that have had a second conversion — an epiphany of a magnitude to re-set the orbit of the intellectual planets yet again. Yet the potential is always present, and is recognized as a true danger by the major monotheistic religions. In Christianity, it is condemned as “apostasy”, and those who go down that road are viewed with deep suspicion and considered highly dangerous to other believers. In Islam, they simply condemn apostates to death (a rather extreme version of the non-compete clause in an executive’s contract — for no-one wants a former “insider” working for the enemy).
I was fortunate in that my declension from faith did not incur death by stoning. But it has, indeed, engendered a certain wariness from my former fellow-believers. I think I know why.
A conversion experience is a big deal. On some level it is the animal suddenly realizing it is more than an animal. For many, it is the moment in which the solitary human suddenly becomes aware that there is more to life than his own selfish needs. I have no doubt that for a good number of people this is a good thing. That the higher power they believe in is imaginary is of no practical consequence to the quality (and validity) of their own emotional and intellectual experience of first encountering the “divine” in this way.
This sort of tectonic shift in one’s psyche is naturally felt to be a once-in-a-lifetime, life-changing event. (The last thing one would expect is that there should be any further need of additional internal earthquakes of this sort). After all, as the hymn goes: “I was lost, but now am found” never, it is implied, to ever be “lost” again. Yes, we may “stray” from the one, true path, but the whole point of this life is to achieve an awareness of God. And having achieved that, the rest is working to improve that primary relationship.
In short, we only need to ride to Damascus once in our life. Not over and over again. Yet — in some recognition of the possibility — it is still warned (and guarded) against.
I can tell you that I certainly wasn’t expecting to be knocked off my (spiritual) ass a second time. Which could be one reason I didn’t recognize that the disassembly of my Christian belief system was well underway during my months as a bible-smuggling missionary in Europe.
Yet if I’m completely honest, was my second “conversion” really such a dramatic conversion at all? The week before it finally happened, I asked myself — for the first time — the question: “Could I live in a universe without a God?”. Which meant that, in reality, I had never doubted (or seriously questioned) the existence of God up to that point (even in the years before my teenage “salvation” experience). So perhaps my departure from Christianity should count as my major “Road to Damascus” experience, and not a second epiphany at all.
However, as evidence that I really did have a “second” conversion I have to consider the long-lasting impact the loss of my faith had on me. From that day to this, it instilled in me a keen awareness of the tentative nature of belief: I knew that any belief system I attempted to build in place of my previous system would be subject to the next psychic urban renewal project that came to my mental town. In short: if my Christianity could be shown to be false, what was safe from future revelation?
I therefore made a considered decision to resist my emotional need to quickly fill the void left by the loss of my religion. I left the lot open, as it were, and allowed myself to drift in the great, terrifying and exhilarating existential deity-less void I found myself in (which felt, quite literally, like willing myself to dog-paddle in the deep end without grabbing for the edge of the pool). I’m glad I did. I’m proud of that decision.
Eventually (once I confirmed that the sun would continue to rise and that my self would persist in a familiar form) I formed a new sense of spirituality that was basically new-age in nature. I brought my same religious zeal to each new “truth” offered me, and tried them out. Holding on to the things that seemed to work (and the explanations for why they seemed to work), until I got better information. That phase of my life lasted as long as my Christian life had — about 15 years. But then, guess what?
Yep. Another epiphany. This time I converted not to another belief, but from belief altogether. In the parlance of Daniel Dennett, the “spell” of belief was broken in me. (Yes. It turns out that the loss of my Christianity was not at all the loss of belief I thought it was, as my believing nature simply moved on to greener — though more tentative — pastures).
It’s almost impossible to describe these events in terms that don’t echo the testimonies of the religious. But be that as it may, I now consider it possible to live a life “beyond belief”. The religious protest that everyone else operates as much from belief as they do, and that scientists are no different. There is a taste of truth in this, as we all make assumptions in order to make sense of life as it is happening to us. But this is not always the same as belief, nor is it the enormous intellectual filtering mechanism that religion is.
But believers of all types will tell you that you can’t possibly understand what you’re missing out on until you have an epiphany of your own and have the hidden revealed to your (previously) blind eyes. This is true, too. Well, up to a point.
Having once believed, I can now understand all belief (as an addict can understand all addiction without having to get strung out on every substance or temptation on earth). I don’t have to try out Islam or Mormonism or Scientology. I have experienced the activation of my believing brain, which process is the basis for all human belief. So I find myself (now) in the position of trying to describe to believers (who feel they have already gone from blindness to sight) that there is yet another world which they have never seen: the life beyond belief.
Statistics show that conversions are rare in adults. This is why most religions target the young. But late (and second) conversions do happen. I am living testimony to that. Which is why I write these sermons. For surely I’m not the only one who has been knocked off his donkey of belief more than once.