Of the nearly fifty project participants [in my Talking with God Project research], about half of them have converted or changed denominations, a figure similar to the Pew Forum’s 2007 research survey. The emergence of this subgroup is intriguing to me. What was the impetus for conversion and what was the result? In particular, how did it alter their relationship with the Divine?
The impetus for converting varies widely, as does the process. Most of the converts sought a deeper spiritual or intellectual connection, a place they could call home. A few wanted to leave hypocrisy or conflict. I feel an affinity with these desires. Having grown up without affiliation to either my mother’s Protestantism or my father’s Judaism, I have chosen the latter. I know the pull to a meaningful identity and community. That said, each story is unique, and some particularities are worth noting.
Here, the focus is on the eight participants who have converted across religions rather than denominational moves. Curiously enough, all eight are women who have converted from Christianity––two to Islam and six to Judaism. Moreover, both converts to Islam are black and all converts to Judaism are German. While the former has a generous history, the latter continues to surprise me. While living in Berlin, I met many German converts to Judaism and Islam, and found the range of motivations fascinating.
The dominant force among the participants was a desire for a spiritual home, a sometimes unanticipated or unknown desire. For Beth, a German in Berlin, conversion was preceded by a wish to visit Israel. She was surprised by this and has no idea where it came from, but the desire was clear and strong. Three months after the trip, she visited a local synagogue, felt immediately at home, and kept returning, finding spiritual sustenance, knowledge and community. Ellen, on the other hand, was not surprised by her attraction to Judaism, as she came from a liberal family of Protestant ministers actively engaged in inter-faith dialogue. “I had a connection to Judaism all the time. Then there came a time when I felt a struggling between the two, where I finally had to make a decision where I belonged.”
Keren, a German academic, had the most varied draw to Judaism. Her initial attraction was intellectual. Other aspects were soon added, including the dialogic human-divine relationship, the almost physical experience of engaging with liturgy, the embeddedness of observance in life, and community. While she had encountered some of the dialogic aspect in liberation theology, it was stronger in Judaism, commenting: “I have a sense that God needs us as much as we need God. That is not very present in Christianity.”
The two Muslims also wanted a spiritual home, though their paths were different. Jeanelle, a Brit from a Roman Catholic family, remarked: “I was always aware of [God’s presence] growing up, even coming from a Christian background. Then I went through a period before I converted, when I wasn’t doing anything.” Saaliha had also fallen away, turned-off by the hypocrisy and inability to study in the church. These were not motivating factors for her conversion, however. “I can never really say why I became Muslim, because as esoteric as this may sound, I would say that Allah chose me to be Muslim.” Beyond feeling chosen, the logic of the religion was attractive. Interestingly enough, Joan, who grew up without religion in former East Germany, also commented on logic, though it was Christianity’s illogic that repelled her. After reunification she explored Christianity, then she was introduced to Judaism, and preferred its more grounded approach.
Relationship with God
Besides finding a new home, did their relationship with God change? Mostly not, though it was strengthened for some. Jeanelle remarked. “I’m more aware of Allah’s presence.” It seems reasonable that disconnection from a religious practice creates estrangement from God. Perhaps more than with human relationships, our relationship with God requires active engagement. This practice-connection-identity cycle can move us both towards and away from God.
Saaliha had a similar reaction, noting: “I don’t know that my sense of God really changed, other than me finding the appropriate vehicle for me to worship. It was very easy for me, because everything’s written out in the book: how you pray, how you dress, how you fast.” While she concedes that the connect-the-dots quality feels oppressive to some, the clarity suits her. Anne, on the other hand, was the lone participant who had felt badly about leaving Christianity. “It was always God who was the one I was praying to, and in the month before I had my first touch to Judaism by reading books, I had a really bad conscience to Jesus because I said: ‘sorry I can’t accept you but I have to accept you’. I still remember this.”
The pull to find a fitting spiritual home is strong, whether it comes from the self or God. From my small sample, they are seeking a feeling, a spiritual and intellectual connection––in short, a place to call home. However long and circuitous the route, we know when we arrive, and it feels good. The good feelings are complex and individual, however. Many respondents spoke of shifting engagement levels borne of life changes and evolving (or devolving) sense of belonging. I have had this experience myself, finding that my style and intensity of religious engagement has altered along with the larger context of my life. Also, the outward depiction of belonging does not necessarily match the internal feeling. Coming from an interfaith family, I share this underlying sense that although I have jumped through the hoops to join a Conservative synagogue, I often feel at the margins of the Jewish community made up of ‘insiders’ who went to Jewish summer camp and Hebrew school. I have mixed feelings about this, which I heard from many of the converts––a sense that the liminal space is our home and a constant in the vicissitudes of life and religious belonging, that in a way we embody interreligious dialogue and offer a unique bridge to the ‘other’.
 Pew Forum’s 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey from ‘My Neighbor’s Faith’ (83-84)
This post was originally posted on the State of Formation website on 29 March 2019 and remains available there. It was written as part of their Blogging Fellowship. Names have been changed to protect their privacy, and all quotes are given with permission.