Seeking Personal Meaning in New Places: The Lived Experience of Religious Conversion
Brimhall-Vargas, Mark G.
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This phenomenological study explores the lived experience of religious conversion. As a study concerned with the development of religious identity (often rooted in psycho-social research where identity development usually relies on linear processes of growth), this dissertation research suggests that religious identity development, in particular, cannot easily be mapped to these models. What insights about religious identity, and identity generally, can be drawn from the standpoint of religious conversion? How do people who have experienced this phenomenon make meaning of that experience? What implications does "fluid" identity hold for educational settings? This research is done in the tradition of phenomenology drawing on the work of philosophers such as Heidegger, Gadamer, Levinas, Derrida, and Merleau-Ponty as foundational "grounding" for this study. Each of these philosophers raise key concepts used for the rendering and illumination of the phenomenon of religious conversion. Van Manen provides a detailed process by which phenomenological philosophy can be used to conduct this form of research. Initial exploration of the existential phenomenon suggests themes including the various pressures that make hiding a change in identity necessary, a deep questioning surrounding the nature of religion itself and the meaning it holds for people, and the rejection of certainty as a value in religious identity. Once themes of religious conversion had been explored, I recruited ten participants representing a wide array of identities related to religion, race, sex, sexuality, gender identity, age, and educational attainment for this study. My phenomenological data suggest that religious identity development can be deeply understood as a complex phenomenon often mirrored in the mythological "heroic journey" commonly found in cultures around the world. In this process, I develop the concept of phenomythology, a process of weaving myth and phenomenology together as an existential process to uncover and illustrate the seemingly universal search for ultimacy and liminality in life's small events as revelatory of larger significance and deeper inward meaning. Drawing from the insights I gained from my participants, I suggest that the lived experience of religious conversion can be linked to other social science theory (such as queer theory) to better prepare educators who encounter individuals who have complex religious identity. Specifically, I explore pedagogical possibilities for including insights from religiously queer identity as a way for understanding social difference. My first concern is helping educators understand how religiously queer people might "show up" in a classroom setting. Additionally, I offer a variety of ways to use this difference as a gift of perspective to learning, including a reconceptualization of identity within the setting of intergroup dialogue as phenomenological "cohabited space" to build solidarity and alliances for progressive social action.