Conversion and subconscious

William James argued at length that God’s interaction with the person occurred primarily within the subconscious. The fact he was trying to account for was how conversion reframes and re-organizes all the facts of experience.  The conversion is not like becoming aware of some new fact among facts but is more like waking up. You don’t just keep your old life and add to it a thought like “God exists” or “love is the foundation of all things” or “death is not the end” – it’s that the forces that structure conscious thought re-align so that the full force of ideas like this can be seen. To tell the story of such a subconscious re-alignment makes it clear that it is both an interruption in the story and yet that it somehow makes sense in light of the antecedent events. Flannery O’Connor made an entire career out of telling such stories.

All this is in keeping with Thomas’s axiom that grace builds on nature, where “nature” is here being understood in the sense of that force that works with reasons, but beneath conscious awareness. Seen in this way, the impossibility of accomplishing salvation by works becomes immediately apparent – to accomplish things in this way we need to be conscious of them. Faith comes from hearing in the sense that it’s content we can accept the truth of after the forces that shape and structure our consciousness have a fundamental re-alignment. The fact that we’re born broken and wounded so that we don’t just spontaneously see this, and that we can lose sight of it even after a conversion, is original sin as a psychological fact.


  1. Socrates said,

    August 18, 2015 at 10:55 am

    I have two questions:

    1) In this context, would personal sin then be something that reinforces the structures of conscious thought that make conversion impossible?

    2) Would the heresy of Gnosticism then be conversion as understood as “becoming aware of some new fact,” with these new facts being “secret knowledge?”

    Christi pax.

    • August 19, 2015 at 9:11 am

      1.) Sin can do that, though one can say more. What I here called the subconscious the Scripture calls the heart, and while conversion is a dilation and empowerment of the heart to take joy in doing things that were too onerous for it before, sin is a hardening and constriction.

      2.) It would certainly count as a sort of Gnosticism to overlook conversion and replace it with science/ gnosis but I haven’t read enough Gnosticism to know if it could count as a general description of it. It does seem like a promising avenue to describe what is wrong with making religion primarily gnosis or instruction – though this is an error much more broad than gnosticism.

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