Saturday, April 20, 2013

Picktures and Pieces 22: Conversion(s)

by Randall Auxier

Here is a smiling Malcolm X. Many think of him as the angriest black man ever, and the most famous photographs of him show intensity, conviction, defiance, an iron will. Yet, those who knew him well always talked about his sense of humor, his charm, his easy manner. Men and women of great personal power often seem contradictory to more ordinary folks. It isn’t surprising. The same exasperating spread of stories is told about Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Gandhi, Joan of Arc. Malcolm X surely belongs in such company, historically, and we aren’t likely to get any final clarity on such extraordinary people.

Still, our world is made by such people. Karl Jaspers once wrote that these sorts of people, whom he calls "paradigmatic individuals," are more like the furrows in the field of history. All that we are and all that we know grows up in those rows, but we mortals don't plow the field. Only now is there enough distance from the life of Malcolm X to begin asking clear questions. His immediate effect on the world was visceral, divisive. People feared him with the deepest fear, loved him with the deepest love. We who grow in the furrows plowed by his life are beginning to ripen, and a generous yield is in the forecast.

Crispin Sartwell makes an interesting point. Conversion experiences are not entirely "narratable," since they involve a fundamental break with one's past. How can you tell a story of that? The Autobiography of Malcolm X was a book stretched between two religious conversions. Beginning as a testimonial to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, how these had saved his life in his first conversion experience while in prison. Later, Malcolm converted to Sunni Islam during the writing of the book. Sartwell says that the book –in fact, the whole life of the man—can’t be understood unless we see the way a soul moves from one such worldview to another. He says "the conversion experience draws one across the interstices between incommensurable belief systems." Extreme Virtue, p. 121).

It isn't hard to understand how a person can turn from a life of crime or addiction and "see the light" or "find God," or something. It happens to a lot of people. But ordinary folks (like me) have a hard time accepting that religious belief can be just as intense on both sides of a second conversion. If you have invested your whole soul and half of your life in a religious teaching, and then you find out it is hollow, or hypocritical, or empty, well, it leaves a hole in your very being. Given the intensity of Malcolm's devotion to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, his despair must have been bottomless. But his religious faith had always included Islam and it was far more than a backdrop for the messenger he had lost. Malcolm X never sat still intellectually or spiritually. It is fair to wonder: was he not destined to outgrow Elijah Muhammad from the very beginning? Was it not obvious to Mr. Muhammad --who was, after all, an amazingly powerful person in his own right-- that his preacher would exceed him?

For whatever it is worth, I think there was a connection between those two men that ordinary people would have difficulty understanding, a sort of recognition from one mountaintop of human achievement to another. I don't think that Malcolm and Elijah Muhammad were of the same significance as Moses or Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad. But they do stand above the regular human fray. Both had an uncommon power to communicate spiritual meaning to those whose lives lacked it. Both could lift people out of their cesspools or doldrums and invigorate life. In short, both had the power to lead people to conversion. Both were flawed men, although not in the same ways. Elijah Muhammad had the normal human weaknesses. One thing that makes Malcolm X so interesting is that his flaws were not the usual ones, and I will take that up in a later post.

The power of conversion (as opposed to just the experience of it) seems to be, at bottom, a kind of self-mastery, coming from what Sartwell calls "radical openness." We look to the heavens and the heavens present a path, but it is up to the supplicant to recognize the path for what it is. That requires openness. Having seen the way and its demands, there is a feeling of being swept down it for a while, but then it gets harder to push forward. Most people fall off the new path after a short time. But a person who is radically open returns to the source of the conversion and demands more strength, more guidance, surrendering the self again and again to the leading of the higher power. Such a person eventually learns humility and the expect that new situations will bring unforeseen challenges in following the path.

Perhaps Malcolm's two conversions were really just one long conversion. St. Augustine speaks this way of his conversion(s). There was the crucial moment when he came to crisis, and then there was a later moment when he understood it. They were separated by years of following a path. Sometimes Augustine felt that he knew where he was going, but later he realized that was his stubborn pride, not his leading light. It wasn't two conversions so much as a single journey to which he remained radically open. I think Malcolm X's journey has a good bit in common with St. Augustine's. On the other hand, this woman's journey seems to be marked by some distinct differences. I'll take that up next.