The Conversion of Saint Augustine, ca 1430-1435. From the collection of Musée Thomas Henry, Cherbourg-Octeville. Artist Angelico, Fra Giovanni, da Fiesole (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty)
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In praise of conversion

Like LGBT campaigners Augustine of Hippo found conversion to be an unbearable assault on his identity

In a garden in Milan, a young man is weeping. The reason for his anguish is not immediately obvious: he has experienced no personal tragedy, his career is progressing well to the level of minor local celebrity, he is good looking and healthy. More importantly to 21st century Western tastes, he is a man whose voracious sexual appetites he has never had trouble finding partners to satisfy. And yet he weeps. For he has discovered the emptiness of endlessly chasing pleasure, the futility of looking for answers inside himself; and he stands on the brink of a transformation which will make him into a wholly different man, and ultimately one of the most significant figures in the history of Christianity. The year is AD386; the man is Augustine, later Bishop of Hippo; and this is the day of his conversion.

One of the current fixations of LGBT campaigners is that governments need to act to ban “conversion therapy”. Boris Johnson’s government, responding, included in the most recent Queen’s Speech a commitment to put this into law. A consultation on how, not whether, to do this, is planned for the end of this month. So what is this “conversion therapy” that so desperately needs to be banned?

Denying yourself is not, despite what LGBT campaigners say, the greatest catastrophe that could befall a person

It has become clear that the campaign is a Trojan horse. The phrase “conversion therapy” conjures up images of quack faith healers shrieking and wielding electrodes; images reinforced with regular references to “abhorrent practices” (a phrase used twelve times in the Westminster Hall debate on “conversion therapy” in March), including something horrifically called “corrective rape”. If such things exist, and in this sad world they probably do, they have nothing at all to do with Christianity or conversion, and Christians are the first to condemn them. But thankfully they are already illegal, and so are clearly not the intended target.

No, that target appears simply to be Christian conversion itself. By rolling together in a single nonsensical category horrific things that no Christian would countenance with the profound — and wonderfully beautiful — change in the understanding of ourselves which Jesus Christ calls people to, the latter could well end up being criminalised in the name of the former. Indeed, it seems that, for some at least, this is what is intended.

Conversion is a central, and treasured, part of the Christian gospel. What Augustine of Hippo realised in that garden in Milan was this: human beings are not designed or intended to be centred on self but centred on God. “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”, he later wrote. True humanity is found not by looking inwards but by looking upwards; not from following your heart but following the Son of God. Jesus’ mission was and is to “convert” us from the former to the latter.

It is this turn from self to God, which Jesus Christ came to make possible and Christian ministers like me are charged with calling people to, which “conversion therapy” campaigners apparently want to make illegal. The reason for this is not hard to find, for it is antithetical to the entire understanding of humanity on which LGBTQ is based — for what those letters represent is the belief that our identity is found by looking inside ourselves. Our desires define us. Our feelings — particularly our sexual feelings, in this hypersexualised world — are the foundation of who we really are. To deny this is something close to blasphemy, for where the self is our deity, woe betide anyone who questions its supremacy. If, for example, the “Ozanne Foundation”, led by the eponymous Jayne Ozanne, gets its way, any Christian leader who dared to question the LGBT orthodoxy that sexual or gender identity is absolute, or suggest that sexual behaviour should ever not be determined by our feelings, would be breaking the law. For, as Charlotte Nichols MP said in the Westminster Hall debate, “Being gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans … is a fundamental part of an individual’s very identity”.

But what if it is not? What if human identity is grounded elsewhere? What if, in fact, we are not self-created beings, but created by a God infinitely greater than us, to be images of him? What if, by looking inwards, we don’t find ourselves but actually lose ourselves because we’re trying to sever ourselves from the true ground of our humanity?

That is the Christian conviction. It is what makes Jesus’ character and teaching utterly compelling and radical. Jesus is so profoundly human because his entire life was focused not on himself but on the love of God, his heavenly father. His actions were so profoundly good because of his resolution to act “not as I will, but as you will’. And his teaching is so profoundly challenging because he calls all people to “deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me”. The self, understood as the desires I find swirling inside me (including, but certainly not exclusively, sexual ones) is not a deity to be obeyed but a false idol to be denied. Follow Christ instead, the eternal Son of God in human flesh, and then you will find what it means to be human. That is what it means to be converted by Jesus Christ.

If that conversion is to be banned, the only way to do it is to ban Christianity

And that is why Augustine wept. No doubt those wanting to ban conversion consider this teaching of Christ to be an unbearable assault on their identity. Augustine did too: “The nearer I approached the moment of time when I would become different, the greater the horror of it struck me… my old loves held me back. They tugged at the garment of my flesh and whispered, ‘Are you getting rid of us?’ … ‘From this moment this and that are forbidden to you for ever and ever.’… the overwhelming force of habit was saying to me, ‘Do you think you can live without them?’ ”. It seemed to Augustine that the surrender of self which Christ called for would destroy him.

And in a sense it did. It destroyed who he had thought he was. But what he gained was far, far better. “What I once feared to lose was now a delight to dismiss. You turned them out, and entered to take their place, pleasanter than any pleasure… And I was now talking with you, Lord my God, my radiance, my wealth, and my salvation.”

Augustine’s experience is just one out of the countless millions of Christians who have found the same. Denying yourself is not, despite what LGBT campaigners and countless others say in our self-centred age, the greatest catastrophe that could befall a person. Rather, to turn away from self in order to follow the Son of God is the gateway to heaven. The conversion to which Jesus calls us is a conversion to a glory infinitely higher and better than anything we can find in ourselves. It is conversion to the glory of the living God himself.

If that conversion is to be banned, the only way to do it is to ban Christianity. That has been tried many times of course, though Christianity itself has always outlasted the bans. We will continue to preach that those who deny themselves and follow Jesus Christ will truly find life. For, as Augustine found, God made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in him.

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