Theology

learning the words: conviction

fists

Today’s guest post is from Carol. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

“It’s going to be especially hard on her, because she has convictions.”

My mom was talking about my 11-year-old niece, who was about to start attending public middle school.  I had to bite my tongue and change the subject.  Did she think that I did not have the same “convictions” at that age?  To her, my becoming a liberal and dropping out of our Southern Baptist church must’ve seemed like I just…didn’t believe hard enough in the things that I had been taught. I wasn’t strong enough.

To my mom, my niece is not like the other kids her age, who are being deluded and probably have divorced parents who drink alcohol at home. And she’s especially not like those godless public school teachers who insist on exposing her to evolution and alternate December holidays.  And she’s not like me, who wavered, and then left the faith.

Just like I did when I was her age, my niece firmly believes in Southern Baptist teachings: biblical literalism, creationism, the importance of accepting Jesus as “your personal Lord and Savior,” and all the rest.  And why wouldn’t she?  Everyone she loves and trusts has told her how important it is, and she sincerely wants to do what’s right.

But to my mom, the development of your convictions should stop there.

~~~~~~~~~~

After this conversation, it struck me that I hadn’t heard–much less spoken–the word “convictions” in years. I want less to reclaim the word itself than to banish it from my vocabulary altogether, and replace it with something more meaningful.

“Convictions” was a character trait to be admired in the world I came from: it meant that you stood up for what you believed and yelled loudly for your team. But most importantly, if you have convictions, you stick to them, no matter what arguments you might hear against them. There is, of course, a very dark side to that, because it doesn’t allow any room for questions or growth.

For me, changing my beliefs was one of the hardest things I’ve done and took strength and perseverance.  It did not mean caving to a powerful argument from someone else. Instead, it meant allowing myself to examine my beliefs and change them to something I thought was better. This was in opposition to the pressure to remain exactly like I was at age 11, when my “convictions” were just right.

Ironically, leaving my family’s faith meant staying true to my real convictions more than standing still would have.  Once I started questioning and being honest with myself, my only other choices were to live in denial, or hypocritically play a part that I no longer agreed with.

~~~~~~~~~~

Everyone has convictions, or deeply held beliefs.  My niece isn’t unique among her peers in that respect. What is different in her case, however, is how those convictions are viewed.

“Convictions” should not mean a dogma that is handed down.  And standing strong in your convictions should not mean stubborn refusal to change or listen to other points of view.

It goes without saying that we should try to do what we believe is beneficial and promote ideas we think are good.  But we should also accept that those beliefs can–and should–develop.  Our dogma should not be more important than our actual, continually developing, convictions.

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  • Margaret

    Thank you. Well said.
    I ended up having the same beliefs as my parents, but they lived too far away to ever have serious discussions about it. I always thought I was too “soft,” because I prefer to listen to people rather than talk.

  • Once I started questioning and being honest with myself, my only other choices were to live in denial, or hypocritically play a part that I no longer agreed with.

    Couldn’t have said it better myself. Excellent post!!

    • To clarify, this is what I felt upon examining the beliefs I’d been taught. Neither was an option anymore.

  • >>It goes without saying that we should try to do what we believe is beneficial and promote ideas we think are good. But we should also accept that those beliefs can–and should–develop. Our dogma should not be more important than our actual, continually developing, convictions.”

    It may go without saying, but I’m glad you said it! Well done.

  • sorry for the mixed up quotations bracket.

  • I enjoyed your post, and I am glad you said:

    Leaving my family’s faith meant staying true to my real convictions.

    As a fundamentalist, a conviction I developed was following the truth wherever it led. I was very surprised when it led me out of fundamentalism.

    We also used the word ‘I felt convicted’ meaning that we felt guilty for violating some legalistic rule or principle.

    • Yes! That was typically the way “conviction” was used in my upbringing too. Also, it was generally after noticing someone else’s good works – or appearance even – and saying that “I felt so convicted after hearing that sermon/ watching her well-behaved children/ being in her clean house.” It became a way of envy and bitterness, for women anyway.

      • Issues of conviction were not just for women in my environment. We were all convicted of something on a regular basis. Those who were not were either superior or suspect.

    • Carol (guest author)

      Thanks for mentioning that usage! I had forgotten about “I felt convicted.” In my circles, that was interpreted as the Holy Spirit, um, “laying something upon your heart.” But like you and Caroline M said, more often than not, it was something negative! I definitely heard that in my church, although my immediate family mainly used “Convictions” to praise our family heroes like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell. (Wow, just typing that sentence makes me shudder now!)

      • aklab

        I forgot about that usage as well. How telling that the word meaning “your deepest-held beliefs” is basically the same word that means “feeling really guilty.”

      • Haha yes, the “Lord laid it on my heart.” Often folks had it “laid on their hearts” to confront someone about daring to stray from the party line.

        • Carol

          “Confronting” is another good one! If you’re a good Christian you’re morally obligated to “confront” someone every time they’re doing something you don’t agree with. I remember feeling like I was supposed to do that, although I never did…

  • This is what I wanted to tell my mom when I formally joined the Episcopal church. Thank you.

  • Kevin

    I work with Carol, and this essay shows the thoughtful decency I’ve come to expect and appreciate from her every day.

  • aklab

    Thanks for this post, Carol! I know it takes a lot of honesty and bravery to sort out all these issues and then speak out about them.
    For me, a difficulty in leaving fundamentalism was that it’s so hard to believe in anything so strongly ever again. As a fundamentalist it wasn’t enough to judge what you thought was true based on evidence or logic — that’s man’s wisdom, and real truth “surpasseth understanding.” Believing really really hard that your “convictions” were true, and discounting any doubts or evidence to the contrary, was what made them true. Now, more than a decade out from my fundamentalist days, I still struggle with reassuring myself that it’s okay to make judgments based on reason and evidence, without any supernatural verification. Which… is kind of a cruel trick to play on a developing psyche if you think about it.

    Anyway, sorry for the rambling comment, and thank you for this brave and heartfelt post!
    PS: I am Carol’s brother. 🙂

    • Have you read Gregory Boyd’s Benefit of the Doubt? It might be useful.

      • aklab

        I hadn’t heard of it. Thank you; I’ll check it out!

  • Heather

    “To my mom, my niece is not like the other kids her age, who are being deluded and probably have divorced parents who drink alcohol at home.”

    SO funny! And SO true – love it! I totally remember growing up and wondering what those mysterious “non-Christian” families did. Like, did they even eat dinner together??? Did they get to watch “bad” TV shows? I always figured the kids got to eat lots of candy too.