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The conversion of the mind

The conversion of the mind

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

The conversion of the mind

Aug. 2, 2005  News media contact: Tita Parham*  
800-282-8011   Orlando {0340}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

Because the Christian life is a life of total conversion, the mind of a person must be transformed along with everything else. As the apostle Paul wrote, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and pleasing" (Romans 12:2). The renewal of the mind is necessary to fulfill the Great Commandment to love God, which includes loving God "with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27).

What do we mean when we speak of the mind? The mind is the person's consciousness. Since our consciousness has several dimensions, including our feelings and our will, usually we conceive of the mind as that particular dimension of our consciousness that involves the intellectual activity of perception, analysis and judgment.

Loving God has to involve the mind, as well as the emotions and the will. If one is to be a Christian one must love God with one's mind as well as with one's emotions and one's will, or one would lack integrity or a wholeness of the self. Probably there are Christians who feel a love toward God and who seek to will what God commands, but who are afflicted with many intellectual doubts and perhaps even uncertainties about the nature of God. The Scottish theologian John Baillie described these persons as those who believe in "the bottom of their hearts," but doubt with "the top of their minds." Yet, it is hard to imagine anyone who would consider such an inner conflict as a good thing. Merely from a psychological point of view, believing in "the bottom of our hearts" while doubting with "the top of our minds" sets up an inner conflict that threatens the integrity of the self. From a spiritual point of view such a mental condition at least represents a state of arrested development of the soul who is called to love God with the mind, as well as with the emotions and the will. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how one could wholesomely love God with the emotions and the will if the mind were in a state of ambiguity or confusion about what to think of God.

The Christian life involves an intellectual conversion, as well as an emotional and volitional conversion. For many people, the intellectual conversion is relatively easy. They are not intellectually curious or skeptical about most things, and when they become Christians they give their assent to the cognitive content of the gospel of Jesus Christ as it is communicated through the liturgy and doctrine of the church. For others, there has to be a long and often painful process of changing their thinking that involves decisions to reject what they once believed.

We might think of the intellectual conversion of the Christian as a process involving faith, repentance and sanctification. It begins with faith, since faith is a gift of God. There comes a moment when one receives faith. While faith has many dimensions, it includes perception. One is able either suddenly or gradually to perceive the presence of God and to know not merely that God is, but also that God is with me and for me. This perception is a response to the gospel that one may encounter in a variety of ways, such as through preaching or the sacraments, the testimony of friends, study or some ecstatic experience or crisis. Once this faith is given, one can never be the same again. One may not understand at all the meaning of the gospel or the teaching of the church, but one knows beyond rational understanding the presence of the living God. In this experience of receiving faith there arises a hunger to understand what one believes.

The faith one receives demands that one go through an intellectual conversion by repenting of ideas that one has believed. Intellectual repentance is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the intellectual conversion of the Christian. It is hard for anyone to admit that she has changed her thinking. There is involved in this admission a kind of humiliation because sooner or later her friends will discover that she does not think as she used to think. It is especially hard to change one's beliefs if those beliefs are the ones that are accepted by most people in the culture in which one lives or by the members of one's socio-economic class.

It is not unusual to find persons in the church who like to think of themselves as intellectual rebels. They like to debate the pastor in his study or shock the Sunday School class with their heresies. Often they are persons who possess faith in "the bottom of their hearts," but have not yet gone through the fire of intellectual repentance. They perceive how the teaching of the church's understanding of the gospel is a challenge to some of their most cherished ideas and values, ideas and values they acquired from home or school or their social class, and they are just not able to make a renunciation of deeply held beliefs. Sometimes they just do not understand, and they confuse the teaching of the church as a whole with inadequate theologies taught by some Christians. At any rate, the point of intellectual conversion is a dangerous moment in the life of the Christian. In his refusal to be open to truth that may challenge his cherished beliefs or his confusion about what is the normative teaching of the church, he may arrest his own development as a Christian. There are some who remain in adolescence in their Christian intellectual development all their lives.

Once one embraces a change in one's beliefs because of her belief by the perception of faith, she may undergo what may be called the sanctification of the mind. Here the mind not only accepts the gospel as taught by the church, but it understands it, absorbs it and lets it permeate all of one's thinking, feeling and acting.

I doubt that the sanctification of the mind is possible without a deep immersion in the tradition of the church. Although it is not infallible, the tradition of the church that developed over a long period of time in many different cultures represents the mind of the church illumined by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of truth was given to guide the church into all the truth (John 16:13). We are blessed to live when we do because we are able to learn from 2,000 years of Christian tradition. Every generation in every culture faces new challenges to its understanding of the gospel and practice of the Christian life, and so every generation must pray for a fresh illumination of God's revelation by the Spirit. Yet, it is rare when there is not some guidance available from the tradition, and knowledge of how the church faced earlier challenges can be suggestive of how to face challenges today. The Christian who immerses herself in learning about the sanctification of the mind of the church over the centuries is more likely to find her own mind formed by the Spirit who formed the mind of the church.

It would be an error to think of the conversion of the mind merely in intellectual terms. There is more to it than that. When the apostle Paul urged the Philippians to have the same mind that was in Christ (Philippians 2:5) he was not thinking of the overcoming of intellectual problems, but of allowing Christ's mind of servanthood to fill our minds so that we may live not for ourselves, but for others. This is part of the real meaning of loving God with all our minds, but usually we cannot be open to this kind of renewing of our minds by the Spirit without, at the same time, going through intellectual repentance and maturation.

Jesus said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32). He was not speaking of the kind of liberty that one who is proud of his reason feels. He was speaking of the freedom that comes when the soul is in communion with God and when the mind offers no confusion or obstacles to embracing the truth of God.


This article relates to Christian Conversion.

*Parham managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.