THE ST. LUKE’S JOURNAL OF THEOLOGY
Vol. 31: (2), 127-141, March, 1988
Public Language, Public Confession; Critical Language
Analysis of Conversion and the History of Alcoholics
by Jeffrey L. Bullock
More than fifty years ago, in 1931, a young man by the name of Rolland H., a long suffering victim of alcoholism, found that he had exhausted all the current therapies and treatments available to him in the United States. Hearing of the therapies then available in Europe, he put himself under the care of Dr. Carl Jung. Jung supervised Rowland’s Rowland’s treatment for over a year and Rowland left, confident that he had cured his problem. Sadly, within a short time Rowland was once again suffering. He returned to Zurich, grasping at chance, but Jung told him frankly that there was little hope in further psychiatric or medical treatment. However, there was this one small hope, that Rowland might undergo “a spiritual or religious experience – in short a genuine conversion…cautioning… that while such experiences had sometime brought recovery to alcoholics, they were…comparatively rare.” More than fifth years later, Alcoholics Anonymous and historians trace the history of the recovery movement to that moment and specifically to the notion that conversion is the key to recovery.
Alcoholics Anonymous took up Rowland’s discovery of conversion as the key to shaping a recovering life and used that discovery to form the basis of A.A., the Twelve Steps. A half-century later, many men and women have had their lives spared from the disease of alcoholism, all because of this conversion experience.
A.A. has not had an easy history though. Undoubtedly, much of its troubled past simply resulted from the distaste most of society has felt towards alcoholism, but there’s more to it than just that. The idea of conversion or what A.A. calls a “spiritual awakening” has troubled clergy and lay professionals throughout A.A.’s history.
Trouble with the experience of conversion is not new to our century. Jonathan Edwards, in the eighteeth century faced great personal and public trials because of controversy over the meaning and significance of conversion. Edwards embraced the notion of conversion wholeheartedly but not uncritically. As the Great Awakening proceeded, many abuses were attached to this explosion of what then was called “enthusiasm,” and in Edwards’ eyes many conversion experiences began to take on heretical character. Much as it is today, conversion was then regarded as a purely personal matter, something worked out in election of the individual by God. Naturally, it was difficult to tell in this view if someone had experienced a genuine conversion and, if so, to what degree. Edwards set out to correct this perspective in a book called, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, where he hoped to distinguish between authentic and specious religious affections and religious conversions, based on the criteria available in the Bible. Edwards had little effect on the mindset of the rest of the Great Awakening, but this book remains an important source both for evaluating the significance and value of conversion and as an account of those troubled times two centuries ago.
The dramatic rise of religious fervor world wide in the late twentieth century once again calls our attention to the need for careful assessment of the meaning of conversion. In the Middle East, the Muslim call to profound and complete obedience demands our thoughtful investigation. And here in the United States, the quickening spread of religious fundamentalism and the increasing power of sects like the Unification Church commands an increasing respect from those who wonder at its significance.
Many clergy and lay professionals find themselves troubled by the import of these groups, some of which foster conversion experiences. Some verge on the hysterical, signifying not so much a spiritual conversion as neurotic emotion expressed in religious language. In other cases conversion appears to be demonic, as in the tragic events of Jonestown and its mass suicide. Yet many professionals feel mysteriously impotent to criticize these popular experiences of conversion. On the one hand, some who have had conversion experiences come from a cultural background that expresses a dogmatic confidence in the necessity of personal conversion: They have an historically determined, clearly defined pattern of personal conversion that cannot be swayed by logical argument. On the other hand, and far more common, there are those people who have a modern predilection for arguing for personal freedom and the integrity of the right of individual preference: Whatever feels right and profound and satisfies the need of individuals to fulfill themselves must be right for them. Both views defend themselves from criticism by a claim that conversion is both private and individualistic – private because only God can initiate it with the individual and individualistic because only the individual can determine if he or she has indeed experienced conversion.
There is, though, another perspective on conversion that claims conversion must be public by nature and, because public, open to criticism. This perspective is born of language analysis in the work of people like Ludwig Wittgenstein and George Lindbeck. I will show here both how conversion can, and indeed should, be regarded as a public experience and also how it can be criticized. Then, returning to the example of Alcoholics Anonymous, I will illustrate both how one group has grasped the public significance and the importance of public criticism of conversion, and also how they have used that conversion for healing.
Part of our modern dilemma in understanding and criticizing conversion is that we catch echoes in our lives of the importance of conversion throughout our Christian and Jewish tradition. Everywhere, from the patriarchal narratives to John the Baptist and Paul, we discover the necessity of making the new start, taking the new direction, becoming the new people in God. That same sense of conversion continues into our Western culture in the spirit of Augustine and Luther and John Henry Newman. But now, in the latter part of the twentieth century, when men and women are culturally removed from the traditions that inform those ideas of conversion, we find individuals suspended in their own individualistic views. Nowhere has this been more painfully related than in Robert Bellah’s recent book Habits of the Heart, where one young woman, when interviewed about her religious beliefs, said that she believed in God but found it more meaningful to believe in “Sheilaism,” a religion that she named after herself; “I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. Its Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” George Lindbeck writes in The Nature of Doctrine:
“The structures of modernity press individuals to meet God first in the depths of their souls and then, perhaps, if they find something personally congenial, to become part of a tradition or join a church. Their actual behavior may not conform to this model, but it is the way they experience themselves. Thus the traditions of religious thought and practice into which Westerners are most likely to be socialized conceal from them the origins of their convictions that religion is a highly private and individual matter.”
Confronted with this deeply individualized structure of religious experience and the wholly privatized view of conversion, we are left in this time of strained credulity with the difficult task od assessing conversion, finding a critical stance to understanding it, and discovering how it takes place in the human spirit.
I have already described the two most common perspectives on the conversion experience, what I call the dogmatic confidence in a clearly defined conversion experience on one hand and the integrity of personal experience on the other. George Lindbeck has called these two views respectively the “cognitive” and the “experiential – expressive.” The “cognitive tradition” represents the views of propositional and truth claims about objective realities. Commonly these views are regarded as fixed, no matter the context of their employment. “Experiential – expressive” views are experienced as non-informative and/or non-discursive symbols or inner feelings. The experiential – expressive view of religious experience points to a deeper and more common human experience than can be received cognitively; symbols express an aspect of a much deeper and common experience.
There is not space here to delve as deeply into these two perspectives as Lindbeck does, but it is important to see how crucial these two views are to critical assessment of conversion. If we turn to the cognitive perspective on conversion, we will find that all conversion experiences are measured against the standard of Church dogma. Typically, this view can be found in worshiping communities who have inherited the piety of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The experience of conversion might approach the standard of dogma to a lesser or greater degree, but the cognitive approach cannot allow for pluralistic or culturally particular views of conversion. This dogmatic cognitive perspective serves the fundamentalist well: It provides an either-or context for understanding conversion and underlines the inner conflict and personal nature of conversion that fundamentalists commonly hold.
On the whole, the cognitive approach is easier to defend than the experiential-expressive. Because the cognitive approach presents clear standards, individuals can guage where they stand in the continuum. Not so in the experiential-expressive. In fact, we can see how this view might even vitiate the whole commonly held view of conversion. After all, what is conversion other than supplanting one symbolic expression with an alternative symbolic expression of God? Graduates of est weekends commonly refer to their weekends in the same way Christians might refer to a conversion experience; but graduates of est, conscious of what they perceive as the universality of all experience, would have to deny the particular nature of religious conversion.
Lindbeck does not mean for the cognitive and the experiential-expressive to encompass the whole range of views currently held by the religious culture. However the two do provide a “rule of thumb,” and very frequently they are the perspectives from which conversion is assessed. Thus clergy and lay professionals who are troubled by the lack of current critical understanding of conversion find themselves in a paradoxical position: They can’t criticize conversion from the dogmatic cognitive view because they fear raising the stakes of this already implicitly conflicted perspective and because it does not allow for particular cultural understandings of conversion; neither can they criticize from the experiential-expressive, for they have no basis other than the universal religious experience they already share with the convert. In short, for lack of tools, assessing conversion is left to the privatizing, individualistic view with little hope of finding public standards of the value and nature of that conversion experience.
There is, however, the tool of language analysis, which can provide clergy and lay people a method of evaluating and criticizing conversion and the conversion experience. George Lindbeck sets out a cultural and linguistic method by which it is possible to evaluate the differing views of various Christian communities. Lindbeck, who has a deep ecumenical interest, adopts this cultural and linguistic method to show how different Christian groups can carry on meaningful dialogue without compromising their convictions. His method is to take seriously the truth claims of different bodies and, without relativizing them or declaring one more absolute than the other, demonstrate on what grounds they can carry on that ecumenical conversation.
Lindbeck’s method depends greatly on the philosophy of language found in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and other philosophers of the past fifty years. Lindbeck holds that we have to understand three important aspects of religious language (and presumably any kind of language) in order to form a critical view of what’s going on in that language. First, we must understand that language forms how we interpret our experience and not the converse: The idiom becomes the description of reality. Second, the language describing reality is self-ratifing. And third, the strength of the language scheme is judged by its coherence with the data available.
Lindbeck’s first move will cause trouble for most people brought up with modern convictions. Caught between enlightenment rationalism and Romantic idealism, we have been led in this modern age to the notion that it is our first individual encounter with experience that forms our understanding and then our language. William James suggested nearly a century ago, however, that experience is “taken” by language; in other words, experience itself is selected by the very language that we use. A simple example of this problem can be found in modern computer programming languages. Many of the first functions that programmers sought to perform simply could not be done because the language was not available to express it. All the development in computer language has been made towards increasing its ability, to express more complicated moves; without the language, there is no possibility of complicated functions. Much the same is true of our religious language. While many modernists might like to claim that our religious experiences are purely private and form the starting point for understanding and knowledge, they cannot be correct if those experiences can be talked about. Simply put, language is public by its nature; it cannot be private; any experience that can be conveyed in language must be formed by language. Thus Lindbeck states his claim about religion this way:
“…a religion can be viewed as a kind of cultural and/or linguistic framework or medium that shapes the entirety of life and thought…It is similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of attitudes, feelings and sentiments. Like a culture of language, it is a communal phenomenon that shapes the subjectives of individuals rather than being primarily a manifestation of those subjectivities.”
Lindbeck continues by offering his own example of the formative nature of language as it has been experienced by Helen Keller and the “wolf children,” which attests to the notion that “we cannot actualize our specifically human capacities for thought, action, and feeling” except by language. Lindbeck continues, “To become a Christian involves learning the story of Israel and Jesus well enough to interpret and experience oneself and one’s world in its terms. A religion is above all an external word, a verbum externum, that moulds and shapes the self and its world, rather than an expression or thematization of a preexisting self or preconceptual experience.”
Some people will be stalled by this view but its positive factors in evaluating conversion can be quickly seen. First, this view of the formative nature of language in human experience takes all religious talk seriously at the outset. Everything we say in religious talk is formative of experience and therefore worthy of evaluation. Any kind of talk about conversion should be evaluated, something which the cognitive approach refuses to do with dissimilar propositional stands and which the expressive-experiential cannot do because language itself merely symbolizes an ultimately deeper, inaccessible experience. Second, this view of language moves talk of conversion from the purely private sphere to the public. Talk of conversion and the conversion experience itself, insofar as it can be talked about, become necessarily open to public talk and public criticism.
Some people will reject this view as one that excludes revelation from the experience of conversion. It must be noted though that the very variety of conversion experiences can best be accounted for by different religious languages, languages that shape the conversion experience. Moreover, most biblical accounts of revelation are public accounts. Does revelation that leads to conversion occur? Yes, but only if we have assimilated the language scheme that causes us to describe our experience in that way. The language scheme doesn’t make revelation, but it does shape the way revelation is assimilated as a conversion experience. The account of Jacob’s wrestling and of the angels’ ascending is very much shaped by his contemporary language scheme. A current language scheme could shape a modern day Jacob’s experience quite differently.
The concern over the place of revelation (and other like notions) in conversions leads to another important part of language and cultural criticism. The description of reality formed by language is comprehensive and subtle at levels difficult for us to identify. Language and culture are indeed complicated; part of our job is to “map out” the directions our language takes us and its interrelationships. Lindbeck argues:
“A comprehensive scheme or story used to structure all dimensions of existence is not primarily a set of propositions to be believed, but is rather the medium in which one moves, a set of skills that one employs in living one’s life . ..Thus while a religion’s truth claims are often of the utmost importance to it (as in the case of Christianity), it is, nevertheless, the conceptual vocabulary and the syntax or inner logic which determine the kind of truth claims the religion can make. The cognitive aspect, while often important, is not primary.”
Lindbeck provides an example of this process in a map. A map is an effective and often comprehensive idiom that by means of its syntax – its logic, shape, and form – gives shape to our reality. Places on the map, linked to one another, provide a comprehensiveness that is self-validating and attests to its own truthfulness. It must be acknowledged that a map can be shaped as an idiom for reality so that it misdirects people without breaking any of the rules of syntax. A map of Minnesota may well keep all of the rules north and south, roads and lakes, names and location and yet use those same rules to point out falsely the distance and size of Moscow in northern Minnesota. The problems that we will incur with these self-validating idioms for reality will be the lengthy and difficult task of checking the coherence of the map against the data available, particular point by particular point.
We can see that the cognitive and the experiential-expressive both provide “maps” of conversion that are self-validating and which abide by their own syntax or rules. Deliberate deception is not ordinarily part of such maps, and, in fact, they may offer close approximations of the data available and yet both draw conclusions pointing to references that simply don’t exist or which can’t be reached from their location. If the starting point is either a proposition or a private experience, as the respective views indicate, then the view of reality that each map presents may approximate some data and yet not give a completely accurate picture. The Mercator projection map of the world gives clear weight to the countries of the northern hemisphere, indicating that they are dominant. Actual land mass doesn’t favor the northern hemisphere so heavily; Mercator’s starting point was biased, but his idiom, his map, approximated the data available.
So we return to Lindbeck’s notion that particular language maps our experience and not the other way around. Comprehensive language schemes are self-validating and gain value the more comprehensive they become. Lindbeck puts the issue this way:
“When one pictures inner experiences as prior to expression and communication, it is natural to think of them in their most basic and elemental form as also prior to conceptualization and symbolization. If in contrast, expressive and communicative symbol systems, whether linguistic or nonlinguistic, are primary – then, while there are of course nonreflective experiences, there are no uninterpreted or unschematized ones… In short it is necessary to have the means for expressing an experience in order to have it, and the richer our expressive or linguistic system, the more subtle and varied, and differentiated can be our experience.”
One could charge that this second aspect of language criticism makes claims which are too relativistic to be useful, certainly to be the foundation of faith, and that they are in fact anthropocentric. The latter complaint has some small validity – language is our communally held human property – however it by no means invalidates any claims about God. Instead, as I’ve noted, it takes each claim seriously, one by one. Language analysis deals only with the integrity of talk about God; the importance and seriousness of that talk is a larger matter.
The former complaint, that this view of language and conversion is too relativistic, has been noted in passing in the map example. The issue in relativistic, has been noted in passing in the map example. The issue in relativism is, does the map express coherence with the data available to us? Further, is the language scheme, the map, comprehensive enough to embrace all the elements of the religious experience?
Lindbeck notes that there are essentially two approaches to truth, those he calls “ontological” and those that are “intrasystemic.” Ontological truths depend on epistemological claims that relate to information prior to language. Intrasystemic truth however depends on the coherence within the language scheme, the coherence between the language and the data. Coherence is necessary for truth in all schemes of thought. Lindbeck argues that the Christian scheme is not primarily constituted in axioms and primary truths but in stories used to interpret the world, reality. It’s possible then for any religious talk to be intrasystemically true while being ontoloically false, but the reverse is impossible. The job of religious language is to learn skills of religious talk that cohere with the available data and which are intrasystemically true. In order to learn the truth about a religion then, we must get “inside” the language, and, “in the case of religion, this means that one must have some skill in how to use its language and practice its way of life before the propositional meaning of its affirmations becomes determinate enough to be rejected.”
Does establishing intrasystemic truth remove the onus of relativism? Not entirely, but there is one last part of Lindbeck’s argument that we must consider in order to understand the test for coherence. Lindbeck argues along with others, e.g. T.S. Kuhn and Ludwig Wittgenstein, that our standards for “reasonableness” are a good deal more flexible and subtle than our earlier modernist thinking would indicate. He writes:
“Thus reasonableness in religion and theology, as in other domains, has something of that aesthetic character, that quality of unformalizable skill, which we usually associate with the artist or the linguistically competent. If so, basic religious and theological positions, like Kuhn’s scientific paradigms, are invulnerable to definitive refutation (as well as confirmation) but can nevertheless be tested and argued about in various ways, and these tests and arguments in the long run make the difference.”
Ultimately these tests of truth have neither the hard reasonableness of the Enlightenment nor the idealism of later Romanticism. Instead, truthfulness of the idiom, its ability to spell out an accurate and coherent picture of reality, comes from it “assimilative powers… its ability to provide an intelligible interpretation in its own term of the varied situations and realities adherents encounter.”
Those people who have been seeking a tool for criticizing conversion and conversion experience may feel less satisfied with this last aspect of language and cultural analysis because it appears to adhere to no strict “scientific” or “logical” standards. But two things need to be pointed out. First, because of the internal coherence of comprehensive language schemes, it is impossible to “stand outside” a language scheme to criticize it. That means, secondly, that language schemes, including those which include the experience of conversion in their comprehensiveness, can be tested (and critically examined) only against their ability to assimilate all the different relevant aspects of culture. In short, the very public nature of talk of conversion makes it difficult to criticize unless we weigh its ability to assimilate different data and factors of cultural life. Lindbeck writes that confirmation or disconfirmation of different language schemes (and their comprehensiveness) “occurs through an accumulation of successes or failures in making practically and cognitively coherent sense of relevant data, and the process does not conclude, in the case of religions, until the disappearance of the last communities of believers or, if the faith survives, until the end of history.” There is no quick fix, no easy remedy to the dilemma of understanding and criticizing conversion, only the task of checking each different language scheme’s account of conversion against its ability to assimilate the experience of the communities and world it encounters. Failures to cope often result in the failure of the very society that holds the language scheme; some primitive cultures have suffered or disappeared altogether at their assimilation of another language scheme. Successes and failures collectively shape language scheme’s comprehensive intrasystemic truth.
What does this mean for conversion? Put simply, it means that all language schemes that include talk of conversion have established their own map, their own idiom for reality that includes by nature a comprehensiveness that makes it self-validating. The method of judging that coherence, that intrasystemic truthfulness, is to judge the ability of the language scheme to assimilate different cultural factors and successfully incorporate them. Old language schemes are set aside by their failures; new language schemes assimilate and change for better understanding. Different language accounts of conversion then, if they will be criticized, must be tested for their ability to assimilate new data and to make sense of it.
Wittgenstein once instructed his pupils to “look, don’t think,” meaning we must test for ourselves the real events and accounts surrounding us before drawing our conclusions. I’d like to return to the talk of conversion regarding alcoholism and especially to Alcoholics Anonymous and its Twelve Steps, as a test of our tool for the criticism of public conversion.
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous, a movement in which many people’s minds has made one of the most innovative advances in health and human care of all time. Fifty years however, measured against the history of alcoholism, presumably as far back as the earliest stages of fermentation, seems quite short. Alcoholism has been treated with humor or buffoonery (usually not by those who have lived and dealt with alcoholics) or social ostracisism or, where more troublesome, with physical punishment. Given the Protestant cast of American history, alcoholism has been treated as among the most egregious of sins, worthy of full public condemnation. Many cures were suggested, simple abstinence, confinement, punishment, and often as not, “preaching missions,” but most of the time these efforts failed. In the twentieth century, more “contemporary” efforts were tried too. Kurtz reports:
“In the America of the mid-twentieth century, the transfer of social authority from revealed religions to moralizing psychologies rendered the self-pitying plight of the drinking alcoholic even more desperate. The churches had castigated the “sin of alcoholism,” promising salvation through moral regeneration. The psychologists “understood” the “immaturity of the alcoholic” and offered the mature adulthood of diminished latent homosexual oral-fixation as the reward for acknowledging these perversions. Ironically then, more alcoholics experienced being brought low under the ministrations of psychiatrically amateurish friends than under the fulminations of religious professionals. Unfortunately, continuing modern experience taught that neither species of humiliation in itself cured many alcoholics.”
Conversion had undoubtedly been one of the instruments offered for the alcoholic’s recovery, but all of these methods, including conversion, ended unsatisfactorily. There are many ways we could talk of these various schemes or “cures” for recovery by referring to our simple metaphor; while some of the coordinates on their maps drunkeness, cirrhosis, deaths – were accurate, none of the schemes or maps was comprehensive enough to reach recovery for the suffering alcoholic.
It was fifty years ago then that the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, and the Oxford Group, came up with a scheme for dealing with alcoholics, a scheme of language incorporated in the Twelve Steps. The Steps were divided into roughly two groups, the first three and the last nine. The first three are characterized as the steps of “surrender” and popularly as the steps that lead to the alcoholics understanding that they are “not-God.” The first three steps read, “1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable, 2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity, and 3. Made a decision to turn or will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” If this sounds very much like a call to conversion, it is. The Twelve Steps stand at the confluence of two powerful American traditions, the Pietist and the humanist. Insofar as dealings with churches had soured many alcoholics; explicit talk of “conversion” had to be avoided; “surrender” was adopted instead. Bill Wilson tells, “In all probability, the churches will not supply the answers for a good many of us.” Wilson continues, “The record of the missions who had tried to salvage alcoholics through a complete Christian teaching” had been terrible, and “some of these theological propositions were tremendous obstacles to sobriety.” Still Wilson asserted this important point, “The spiritual worked.”
“The spiritual worked.” Wilson, long familiar with the work of Jung and William James, especially The Varieties of Religious Experience, knew “conversion” was the key to recovery, but the methods tried up till then had failed. He and his Oxford Group put together the comprehensive scheme of the Twelve Steps so that they included not only surrender (and conversion) but a humanitarian inclusive language that could include all the troubled history of the alcoholic. Looking back, Wilson’s move to expound conversion was natural, but the next simple steps indicated the brilliance of his insight; he took the life experience of the alcoholics, an experience that was viewed as sick and fragmented by all the other treatment policies, and using the language of the Twelve Steps, turned that fragmented experience into a tale of genuine tragedy. That was Wilson’s breakthrough – the Twelve Steps offered a language scheme comprehensive enough to embrace the history of alcoholics and show that it wasn’t sick, but tragic. And because tragic, it could be turned to healthy ends. The last nine steps do just that, turning away from the individual, the persons who have discovered they are no longer in charge of their own lives – i.e., they are “not God” – to the victims of the alcoholic’s alcoholism and all others who suffer from the same disease. The famous Step Five reads, “Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs” and leads on to Step Twelve, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”
At this point, Alcoholics Anonymous might appear to have only a singularly humane and spiritual view of alcoholism, but the last component, the A.A. meeting, was the component that made it successful. The A.A. meeting provides for the testing of every alcoholic’s “spiritual awakening” under the most rigorous of circumstances. Joined by others who suffer the same disease, the alcoholic is expected to tell and retell his or her story until he or she gets to the truth. This is the test for coherence, the test against the available data that establishes the intrasystemic truth of the alcoholic’s story. Returning to the metaphor of the map, the Twelve Steps and the A.A. meeting combined provide for a comprehensive scheme of language that’s self-validating, a scheme that has become the idiom for the reality of recovery. The test for validity is the checking and rechecking of the coordinates of the alcoholic’s recovery by other alcoholics who have traveled that way before. By this last step, the meeting, the alcoholic discovers an idiom for reality that allows him or her to fully assimilate the tragic nature of the disease. Kurtz writes:
“Sharing this acceptance with others who were similarly limited – the price of admission, so to speak – in turn made possible acceptance of self and those others as not-God, as men and women made whole by the acceptance of limitation….Mutual honesty about shared vulnerability followed from acceptance of self and others as other-than-perfect. It led in its turn to the shared honesty of mutual vulnerability that enabled at least a reaching toward ultimate reality and the touching of ultimate reality at least in human relationships.”
Bill Wilson did not of course have language analysis in mind when he shaped the Twelve Steps, but weighed against Lindbeck’s standards, A.A. has done very well. Alcoholics Anonymous has provided a language scheme that has become an idiom for reality, a tragic reality, that’s comprehensive enough to take in the tortured experiences of both the alcoholic and the alcoholic’s victims. And finally, A.A. has provided a method of public evaluation, a test for coherence in the weekly A.A. meeting.
I have shown but one method of evaluating conversion and the language of conversion; undoubtedly there are many others. But I hope that I have shown through discussion of Lindbeck’s work and the example of Alcoholics Anonymous that conversion is primarily public in nature because it is first of all a language that shapes the reality of the convert, whether Christian, “Moonie,” or alcoholic. And just as importantly, I have shown that we need not stand impotent in the face of troubling conversion experiences and accounts, but we can, by entering into the language scheme of the convert, criticize that scheme for its coherence and intrasystemic truthfulness. By this method, we can move beyond our modern privatism and individualism to a better understanding of religious language and experience.