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American Culture Embraces Religious Conversion - 2003-02-01

Almost everywhere in the world, people are born into cultures that carry their own ready-made sets of religious beliefs and customs. And in most places, people are expected, even pressured, to carry on their culture's religious traditions in their own lives, and to pass those beliefs on to the next generation. In American culture and law, however, people are permitted to change their religious affiliations and beliefs, and the way they live as a result.

In America, a person may be free to be who they are but just who that is can change sometimes several times within a single lifetime. Take the case of Lauren Winner, the 26-year-old author of Girl Meets God.

It's an account of her path from her minimally religious family in North Carolina, where her father was Jewish and her mother was Christian, to New York City, where she converted to orthodox Judaism, to England, where she became a devout evangelical Christian before returning back home to a new life in the United States.

"It's a story that in one way is characterized by a lot of ruptures, but I see at one unfolding. In certain ways it was quite painful," she said. "Leaving Judaism necessarily meant leaving a lot of relationships that were quite important to me and hurting a lot of people who invested a lot of time and energy in my Jewish formation."

Still, Lauren Winner acknowledges that her ability to change religious identities without fear for her safety or even the necessity for shame or an apology is part of a larger American story.

"Well, I definitely also think it's very characteristic, and has been for most of American history, that people feel they can reinvent themselves," she explained. "That is sort of the great American story. We reinvent ourselves politically, we reinvent ourselves economically, and we certainly reinvent ourselves religiously. People go to church on Sundays but do Zen meditation on Tuesday mornings or what have you. So I think, in a certain way, I had cultural permission to do this."

Throughout the centuries, whether through verbal persuasion, cultural pressure or the threat of death, many Jews have converted to Christianity or Islam. But Gavriel Aryeh Sanders took the opposite path. As a high-ranking Evangelical minister, he felt it was his special calling to convert Jews to Christianity.

Yet after years of studying the Bible in the original Hebrew, he decided to convert himself to Judaism. Mr. Sanders says this was a frightening move given the precepts of the Christian life he had been leading. "… Because I was selling eternal fire insurance: 'Believe in Jesus or you are going to hell!' And the worst thing a person could ever do would be to turn away from that posture. It would be a guarantee of frying eternally so to speak," he said. "And to embrace Judaism of all things, of all the options in the world. And observant Judaism [would have really surprised everyone]!"

"Some people look at life and other people like a photograph, as a still image," he continued. "I tend to look at life like the frame of a film. So what right now we are doing is one frame in today's 'film.' But the film is dynamic. It's moving. Life is about growth. From the cradle to the grave we are all involved in a process of physical, emotional, intellectual, and, I like to think, spiritual growth."

Mr. Sanders says that while his personal odyssey has been mysterious and painful, as well as rewarding, his path was smoother than it might have been because he walked it in America.

"One of the things that have made America strong has been the opportunity for people from various backgrounds to create a lifestyle where they can support and sustain each other and yet allow individuality of expression," he said. "Sometimes that expression is a community expression, and sometimes, it is just one individual. America can support that process through … the government that we have, [and] through the democratic system that is in place. Even the separation of church and state that enables us to do this kind of searching….

"I've been in parts of the world where you can't do this," Mr. Sanders added. "If you deviate from the public norm, you can get in trouble. But that is not the case here. America as it stands today still affords the greatest and richest opportunity for people to grow and explore and become everything they have the potential to be."

When Mr. Sanders was a Christian, he tried to convert others to his faith, but as an orthodox Jew, he merely encourages people to find their own way.

"Go out on a starry night anywhere in the world and take a quiet moment and look up at the universe, the physical universe, the form, the function, the design that is there, the balance, the dependency and ask the Creator to bless your heart with a new deep sense of understanding of who He is and what He is and to lead you and to guide you. That's it. We are all trying to find our way home. He is there to help," he said.

In restless, diverse America it seems, the journey itself can be just as important as the destination.