Varieties of Conversion in Antiquity

I mentioned in posts last week about the need for a robust theology of conversion in order to develop a practice of catechesis. I want to continue that line of thought this week with some further reflection about conversion in antiquity.   

The early Christian historian and sociologist Wayne Meeks, in The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (1993) looks at different kinds of conversion in antiquity in order to set the context for the unique kind of conversion that existed among early Christian churches. Here we'll look at Meeks's account of conversion in the philosophical schools and antique religions. And in the next post, we'll look at the unique Christian approach.


First, Meeks outlines two ways modern sociologists talk about conversions. One kind is when a person who is living a "dissolute, barren, or otherwise deplorable life ... turns about, shapes up, and henceforth exhibits deportment approved by all." Another kind of conversion is when someone who is living a decent, upstanding life according to the customs of civil society makes a turn to deviant outsider or fanatical sectarian (21). The first kind of conversion is "the restoration of an individual," and its narratives "confirm the mores that are commonly approved, at least in theory, by those who articulate the moral consensus of the society...." (22).

Conversion in Philosophy

It is this kind of story that Meeks says is most common in Greek philosophical conversion: "In antiquity, conversion as moral transformation of the individual is the business of philosophy rather than of religion" (23).

Conversion in philosophy, especially among Cynics and Stoics, is characterized by three things: its difficulty ("the life of virtue as agon"); its loneliness; and its emphasis on the right kind of education (paideia) (24). 

The Cynic variety of conversion was especially "a conversion to a radical an austere self-sufficiency" (25). For the Stoics, however, such as Epictetus or Seneca, there was more emphasis on the importance of friendship in virtue training. Seneca, for instance, stresses the importance of learning by example rather than just words:

"Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word ... Cleanthes could not have been the express image of Zeno, if he had merely heard his lectures; he shared his life, saw into his hidden purposes, and watched him to see whether he lived according to his own rules. Plato, Aristotle, and the whole throng of sages who were destined to go each his different way, derived more benefit from the character than from the words [plus ex moribus quam ex verbis] of Socrates. It was not the class-room of Epicurus, but living together under the same roof, that made great men of Metrodorus, Hermarchus, and Polyaenus." (Ep. 6.6, trans. Richard Gummere, LCC)

But while the Stoics value exemplary models, Meeks notes that, in general, this really only applied to the teacher-student friendship, not to the community itself.

The Epicureans come closer to the Christian form of conversion in their emphasis on "highly structured communities": "in the Epicurean 'Garden,' if not in other philosophical schools, we find that dimension which, I will argue, is essential to early Christian conversion: the change of primary reference groups, the resocialization into an alternative community." (26)

Conversion in Religion

Religious conversion, by contrast, does not involve "either moral transformation or sectarian resocialization" (28). A few notable exceptions notwithstanding (Apuleius's Metamorphoses), antique religions just weren't interested in the kind of conversion that philosophies or Christians were. Meeks quotes A. D. Nock's classic book on conversion to that effect:

"Our survey of paganism has given us little reason to expect that the adhesion of any individual to a cult would involve any marked spiritual reorientation, any recoil from his moral and religious past, any idea of starting a new life" (27). 

The closest kin to Christian conversion is found in Philo, for whom conversion does entail moral transformation and resocialization, albeit with some tension. "On the one hand, the society whose religion is polytheistic appears incorrigibly benighted, irrational, and wicked: virtue can be attained only by a change of citizenship, transferring to the people of the one God. On the other, the virtues the community seeks and its way of reasoning about them are describe in the language of that same society's high culture" (30-1).

Meeks is setting up the categories in which Christian conversion is the strange and dramatic thing that it is. And, as we shall see, it is also what gives rise to an robust practice of catechesis.