Book | Christian Conversion by Walter Conn

71xB+vwspSL._SL1500_Conn, Walter E. Christian Conversion: A Developmental Interpretation of Autonomy and Surrender. New York: Paulist Press, 1986.


The Author

Walter E. Conn is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. He is also the editor of Horizons, journal of the College Theology Society.[1]

My Thoughts

Walter Conn explores the idea Christian conversion through the filter of developmental psychology.

“Because the great advances in psychology of the last half century have added enormously to our knowledge of moral-religious consciousness, demonstrating conclusively that it must be understood developmentally, Chapters 2 and 3 will root this study’s interpretation of conscience and conversion in a psychological context of personal development drawn from the research findings and theories of Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg, James Fowler and Robert Kegan. They will show how these psychological theories implicitly use self-transcendence as a criterion of mature personal development. They will also argue that these psychological theories establish the normative meaning of self-transcendence in a concrete and especially illuminating fashion, and thus provide an integrated model of self-transcending subjectivity.”[2]


He moves beyond the descriptive models of developmental psychology and—through the work of Bernard Lonergan—posits that Christian conversion is the movement toward self-transcendence. This movement stands in contrast to the notion of self-denial on the one hand and self-fulfillment on the other. Lonergan claims that one must come to the realization of the individual self before one can authentically transcend the self and enter into the other-oriented nature of interdependent love. This is the ultimate goal of Christian Conversion.

Conn demonstrates his ideas by connecting them to the specific story of Thomas Merton. Merton’s “conversion” was a long process that went through the cognitive, affective, moral, and religious phases that Conn details. Ultimately Merton experienced a religious conversion that moved him beyond religion and into union with God . Conn summarizes:

“In turning life and love upside down, however, religious conversion does not destroy the authentic moral autonomy of personal responsibility. Indeed, the criterion of both religious conversion and the development of personal autonomy is self-transcendence. Justice, universalizing faith, generativity, and interindividual intimacy all insist on mutuality as the norm of authentic autonomy. Only the inauthentic notions of absolute autonomy and self-fulfillment are contradicted by the self-transcending lvoe and surrender of religious conversion. Christian religious conversion is not the antithesis but the completion of personal development toward self-transcending autonomy.”[3]

Importance for my Study

This book is important for my study for many reasons. First, I am interested in spiritual formation. Conn offers helpful language and cognitive structures within which to discuss spritual formation beyond the parochial boundaries of the faith community. Second, Conn directly engages Robert Kegan’s work, which is an important part of my research. Conn suggests that Kegan’s fifth order of consciousness is akin to the self-transcendence that Lonergan proposes. Third, Conn speaks to the psychosocial dimension of conversion in that the calling of the Gospel is to interdependent, self-transcending love. I believe this is the heart of the social Trinity and perichoretic power.

Selected Quotes

“Properly understood, on surrenders not oneself or one’s personal moral autonomy, but one’s illusion of absolute autonomy. But such total surrender is possible only for the person who has totally fallen-in-love with a mysterious, uncomprehended God, for the person who has been grasped by an other-worldly love and completely transformed into a being-in-love. Such religious conversion is not only rare, it is not even religious in any ordinary sense. One need not be ‘religious’ to experience it; indeed, when it is experienced by an explicitly religious person, such radical transformation might be best understood as a conversion from religion to God.”[4]

“From on important angle, Kohlberg’s interpretation of Stage 6 can be seen as explicating the critically converted conscience’s structure of reasoning. The moral reasoning of the critically converted conscience at Stage 6 is universal, impersonal, consistent; it is rooted in the intrinsic dignity of the person and in fully reversible justice as normative for relationships among persons. The universalizing demand works against both self- and group-serving deceptions. This is particularly important in establishing a critical definition of the authentic or humanly normative conscience, for even the unconverted person—indeed, especially the unconverted—will appeal to his or her conscience as the final word. Still, postconventional reasoning is the structure of committed, loving care of real persons in the complexity of concrete situations. Converted from the illusory pursuit of certainty to the open-ended search for the concrete good, its universalizing intent appreciates the relativity of human reality as well as the limits of its own perspective. Understood in this sense, postconventional reasoning’s middle name is humility—the cognitive dimension of the fully personal humility which presses for continuing conversion.”[5]

“Conversion and development, then, though clearly distinct realities, are intimately connected. The adolescent and adult crises of psychosocial development occasion and provide the necessary existential conditions for conversions as well as for major structural stage transitions. In turn, optimal resolution of psychosocial crises requires conversion, as, for example, the critical moral conversion necessary to fully realize all the possibilities of adult generativity. And key structural shifts occur as the unconscious counterparts to conscious conversions, as, for example, in the correlation of the shift to the Interindividual stage with affective conversion. At key points, then, development requires conversion, and conversion always occurs within a developmental process.”[6]

“From the angle of conversion and content, now, we see again…that at the highest stages structure and content come together. Any adoption of a Christian perspective that is not accompanied by the minimal personal development specified above is a merely verbal or at best conceptual reality supported by emotional enthusiasm, not the integrated cognitive, affective, and moral transformation of one’s personal being that is the authentic Christian conversion demanded by the Gospel. In the terms that we noted in Chapter 4 about cognitive, moral, and affective conversions, in genuine Christian conversion one’s being is transformed so radically that one begins to follow Jesus in a direction diametrically opposed to the spontaneous, instinctive way of narcissistic self-fulfillment. One commits oneself to and seriously engages the personally reflective life of love. In Christian conversion, of course, serious commitment does not mean grim determination. As Häring stresses, the good news is the possibility of returning to God’s unconditional love; this transformation to a life of love is experienced as a joyous homecoming to the integral life our underdevelopment/sin had been frustrating.”[7]

We believe that an authentic Christian interpretation of conversion must be rooted not in self-sacrifice or self-fulfillment but in an understanding of the dynamic reality of self-transcendence as normative for the spiritual life. As an image suggestive of the authentic dynamism of the Christian spiritual life, self-transcendence stands in total opposition to any notion of self-sacrifice as a denial, renunciation, abnegation, or other negation of the self. Without a self, there is no self-transcendence. At the same time, the dynamic image of self-transcendence stands firmly against any idea of self-fulfillment which understands the self as a collection of desires to be fulfilled — essentially a passive receptacle whose happiness lies in being filled. In contrast to both self-sacrifice and self-fulfillment, self-transcendence proposes the paradoxical claim that authentic self-realization consists, not in the self-centered and illusory attempts either to deny the self or to meet its desires, but in a dynamic movement beyond oneself toward the good of others. After a brief further consideration of self-transcendence, we will look to the life of Thérèse of Lisieux to see how a concrete instance of conversion can be interpreted in terms of self-transcendence.[8]

One of the most profound and precise interpretations of self-transcendence has been presented by Bernard Lonergan.(3) According to his analysis, self-transcendence occurs whenever we respond to the radical, questioning drive of the human spirit for meaning, truth, value, and love. As dynamic components in this exigence for reality, questions for understanding seek meaning. But we are not satisfied with just any meaning, for once attained, we critically search for verifying evidence through reflective questioning heading for true judgments. Further, when understanding and judgment are not just speculative but oriented toward action, there follows the moral question of responsibility: Given my best value judgment of what the situation requires, what am I going to do? And last, since actions never occur in isolation but within the total cognitive and affective context of one’s character, there remains the fundamental question of one’s radical personal orientation: To what, finally, am I going to commit myself in love?[9]

[1] (accessed August 10, 2013)

[2] Walter E. Conn, Christian Conversion: A Developmental Interpretation of Autonomy and Surrender (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), 25.

[3] Ibid.,  268.

[4] Ibid.,  31.

[5] Ibid.,  131.

[6] Ibid.,  157.

[7] Ibid.,  210.

[8] (accessed August 10, 2013)

[9] (accessed August 10, 2013)