Guest post: Wolf-Andreas Liebert,
Universität Koblenz-Landau, Campus Koblenz

Conversion or awakening?

Studies seem to show that conversion narratives always follow the same pattern of crisis, extraordinary experience, and a revision of life concepts. We already find that in William James (1917). But what religion means today has radically changed: many people get involved in loose networks via social media, attach importance to individualisation and are sceptical or even hostile towards traditional religions. Thus a religiosity and spirituality have developed that is globally networked but very heterogeneous and informal (cf. Hanegraaff 2015).

Are conversion narratives here still the same as we know them from traditional religious contexts? Or are there no more conversion narratives outside the institutionalized religions?

At first, you might think there are actually none left. In fact, no one speaks of conversion anymore in informal religiousness. What we find instead are expressions like “awakening”, “enlightenment”, “liberation”, “satori” or “samadhi”. These are expressions that can be historically located in traditional religious contexts. “Satori” comes from the Zen Buddhist context, “Samadhi” is found in many traditional Indian religions. Words such as “awakening”, “enlightenment” or “liberation” and their underlying metaphors are also deeply rooted in the Geistesgeschichte (cf. Liebert 2015). In late modern religiousness, these terms are used in many ways, but they are all expressions of a similar personal experience claiming to have experienced at least a glimpse of a truth which goes beyond everyday knowledge. It is connected to a kind of transcendence but not bound to any particular religious concept as in conversion. It may be the feeling of a primordial energy or the appearance of an angel – possibly without referring to any Islamic or Christian context.

Godless Grace

Eckhart Tolle (born as Ulrich Leonard Tolle or Tölle on February 16, 1948) lives in Canada and is the most famous person in the scene of informal religiousness. His books have reached a circulation of over 8 million copies and are translated into more than 30 languages. He is performing globally and maintains Tolle-TV, a webinar platform with over 30 million participants. Therefore, when we analyze his story of awakening, we can assume that it has some influence on others and their formulations of their awakening experiences.

The following excerpt is from his first book The Power of Now which begins with his awakening narrative (Tolle 1999, pp. 1-3). At first glance we may observe the well-known three-part-structure in a nutshell in these few paragraphs:

  1. the life before awakening: crisis (paragraph 1-3)
  2. the turning point: transformation (paragraph 4-5)
  3. the life after awakening: solution, becoming a new person (paragraph 6-12)

So, the basic structure seems to be similar to a classic conversion narrative. Now we can go finding out what’s different focussing on the transformation part (paragraph 4-5):

I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.” I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy. It was a slow movement at first and then accelerated. I was gripped by an intense fear, and my body started to shake. I heard the words “resist nothing,” as if spoken inside my chest. I could feel myself being sucked into a void. It felt as if the void was inside myself rather than outside. Suddenly, there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void. I have no recollection of what happened after that.

Let us take a brief look to the lexemes in the cited passage. We find pretty abstract concepts as vortex of energy or void and hearing words with no agent. The German translation “Wehre dich nicht” is rather archaic. Semantically, we may describe the transcendental concept involved here as an external force within the person and this force directs the person somehow from within, such that she seems to be in charge and a helpless puppet at the same time. This creates a kind of mysterious and paradoxical situation and atmosphere. It also shows how individual control is lost here to an unknown force, without the author having to speak of God’s intervention or divine grace.