The term "conversion" can be defined in a variety of secular and religious ways. What is common to all definitions of the term is the notion of change. Conversion can refer to anything that is changed from one use or function to another. In economic terms, it can refer to the exchange of one type of currency for another. It identifies a process in mathematics, and is also a word used to define the extra point or points scored after a touchdown during the game of football. Conversion also refers to the change that takes place when one adopts a new religion, faith expression, or belief system. This type of conversion is referred to as religious conversion.
The notion of conversion in terms of religion or religious cult may carry with it negative overtones when used in relation to a religious recruitment that manipulates people, especially the vulnerable, or "brainwashes" them as part of a conversion process. More positively, the word conversion is also used when referring to the sudden or dramatic or, most often, the gradual and developmental change of mind, heart, and behavior that is the substance of spiritual conversion. It is a deeply subjective change in the center of one's values that leads to a change in loyalties, life patterns, and the refocus of one's energies. It is quite possible to live a full life span with a spiritual sense of life and/or involvement in a religious tradition without necessarily personally claiming an experience of conversion. The issue of conversion in religious or spiritual terms can be a controversial topic precisely because the dynamics of conversion can be disruptive to people's lives. Change invariably disrupts the status quo.
The meaning of the term conversion from its Hebrew or Greek roots means to turn, turn again, and return. From the scriptural and spiritual point of view, conversion refers to the change-metanoia-that takes place in a person's thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions in connection to their personal spiritual self-awareness, relationship with the Divine, and sense of responsibility to others, even creation itself. For example, conversion points to the turning away from injustice toward justice, from inhumanity toward compassion, from contemporary forms of being in bondage toward false idols-such as money or power-to being embraced by a spiritual presence and/or spiritual community. Therefore, conversion involves the whole person in a radical reorientation to life, which includes a change in thinking, affect, attitudes, and, importantly, the actual way one chooses to live one's life as a member of the world community. The disruption and disorientation that is often involved in conversion typically results in positive new self-perceptions, empowerment, and sense of redirection in life. In this regard, the ideas connected to the term conversion highlight a radical "turning around" of the whole person and a "return" to a more authentic self, which, in spiritual or religious terms, means a homecoming in God or the divine life. The story in the Christian Testament of the prodigal son found in the Gospel of Luke (15:11-32) is a good example of the process of conversion.
The very nature of religious or spiritual conversion is rooted in a conviction that God, the Divine-Other or Spiritual Presence, is an essential component in the conversion experience. The initiator of the "converting" experience is beyond the self, but requires the person to respond to the initiation for change. For example, grace in the Christian tradition is the everpresent gift of the ever-available offer of divine life, which is core to the experience of conversion.
One cannot be forced into a conversion if conversion is about a radical reorienting of one's mind and heart, attitudes, and behaviors. Authentic spiritual conversion is without external coercion and relies on the exercise of human freedom, desire, and will to respond to the graced invitation to change. Thus, some willingness within the person exists when the experience of conversion appears, whether the experience is sudden and in the high drama of a mystical vision, an extraordinary encounter, or human catastrophe.
While there are many stories that point to a lightning-bolt conversion suddenly redirecting someone's life, such as the first-century Saul being knocked off his horse, struck blind, repenting his persecution of the followers of Jesus, and then becoming the Apostle Paul, a follower of the very ones he had previously persecuted, most conversions are far more gradual in nature (Act of the Apostles 9). These more dramatic experiences of conversion, however, suggest a process and happen within a certain context and length of time, even if the conversion appears to be a single unexpected event. With most conversions, there is an unfolding life story that is the milieu for something new to break in and offer an alternative way of thinking, feeling, and acting.
While religious or spiritual conversion is possible in the life of a child, most children do not possess the developmental maturity to adequately negotiate and integrate an experience of conversion. It is important to note, however, that children possess an innate desire for attachment to love, and are quite susceptible to the spiritual dimension of life. The psychosocial developmental theories of Erik Erikson, the moral/ faith developmental theories of Lawrence Kohlberg and James Fowler, and the work of child psychiatrist Robert Coles suggest that each phase of human development holds the potential, and even necessity, for critical change and growth, which can be viewed as connected to the processes of spiritual growth. The premise of Coles's extensive observations and conversations with children from around the world is that children possess a vibrant inner life, are capable of contemplative prayer, experience the transcendent in nature, feel wonder, and engage in making sense of their life as a sacred journey. Fowler supports Coles and relies on Erikson's developmental stage theory in positing the experience of faith as the way each individual, from infancy to old age, finds coherence in and gives meaning to the multiple forces and relations that shape human life.