Progress in Conversion: From Charles Manson’s Brainwashing to Cultivating Discernment

In my last blog (here) I made the point that peaceful non-violence was the goal, but not yet an established or fully worked out ethic in the patristic period. Tertullian could imagine delighting in watching his enemies suffer in hell from his perspective in paradise, though he was adamant that one should not even be associated with violence by accepting a military honor. Origen failed to see that beating slaves was a form of violence unworthy of his explanation of God’s discipline; a form of violence which he otherwise abhorred. This does not mean that for the first 400 years nonviolent peace was not the goal, it simply indicates obvious blind spots. The point is not that the fathers willfully tolerated and accepted certain forms of violence; rather they could not fully discern what constitutes violence. What we can readily identify as unworthy of Christian thought and behavior, they were somehow blind to.

This entails several implications for how we are to go about the Christian life. First of all, there is no golden age in which the Christian tradition is adequate, in which the kingdom of God on earth is a fully worked out reality. Clearly the Constantinian compromise is one in which we are still enmeshed but it is not enough to “get beyond” Constantine. Restoration or return to the practices and understanding of the first Christians is an inadequate goal and a passive notion of salvation (salvation as return, as simply ridding ourselves of innovations, of passively entrusting our mind to the culture of the church) is sub-Christian. Conversion is not a singular moment but a process to be cultivated and applied as part of an expanding reality. Progress in conversion, in passage from being blind to seeing and to continued exposure of blind spots, must consist in cultivating capacities for discernment. This discernment must consist of several layers, objective and subjective, such that our understanding of God and objective reality will be a coordinate working in tandem with subjective experience. In other words, putting on the mind of Christ through the work of the Spirit is not an abandonment of reasoned effort or of concentrated self-reflection.  

Certainly, there is a model to be had in Christ, there is the supposition of guidance through the Spirit, and there is corporate molding in the Church, such that cultivation of dawning insight is not simply given over to rational thought, the power of dialectic, or the phenomenology of mood and emotion. There is also the original awareness in conversion of an enabling capacity to see. What is it precisely though, that one sees subsequent to having been blind? Beginning with the constituent pillars of blindness, its inevitable convergence with violence, its dependence on oppression, I believe it is possible to identify the dynamic of darkness (to name the violence) and to cultivate discernment of the light (to expand upon peace).

 Paul’s conversion from belief in a God who prompted him to kill, to belief in the Father of Christ which prompted him to lay down his life, contains the prototypical elements of every conversion. The sinful orientation to the law posits a punishing authority (call it god, father, the nation, Charles Manson (see below), or simply the superego) which holds out the possibility of life (presence, being, authentic existence, safety) at the expense of masochistic sacrifice (formal religious sacrifice, oppressive self-sacrifice, or sadistic sacrifice of others). Life is to be had in death and the structure of this dynamic of death consists of a perfect absence or a full darkness. The Pharisaical religion but any human religion, any human salvation system or neurosis, contains the same structure.

For example, Charles Manson, nearly illiterate and almost completely unschooled, might be confused with a gnostic high priest or new age guru: “Time does not exist. There is no good and evil. Death is not real. All human beings are God and the Devil at the same time, and all are part of the other. The universe is one and all that is.” In this world, according to Tex Watson (one of Manson’s “family” members), it is fine to kill because human life is worthless. To kill someone is the equivalent of “breaking off a minute piece of some cosmic cookie,” Watson explained. Death is to be embraced because it exposes the soul to the oneness of the universe. How Manson learned to manipulate people is not exactly clear. Some say it was through reading Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. Tom O’Neill suggests that Charlie was trained by the CIA (a seemingly conspiratorial claim that he partially backs up). We know he was introduced to Scientology in prison. The mixture of his manipulative powers, LSD, sexual humiliation, reduced Tex and his friends to obedient automatons who killed 9 people at Manson’s arbitrary bidding. Cult, nation state, or run of the mill neurosis, will serve up the necessity of violent sacrifice, an oppressive depiction of god or reality, and a fundamental incapacity for discerning life.

There is an inverse relationship between what Paul (or anyone) is converted from to what he is converted to in Christ. The difference is that the refinements of death and the emptying out of evil blandly converge on violence (a limited prospect by definition) – there is no art, no refinement of sensibilities, no cultivation of discernment, as one simply learns, in Manson’s phrase, to be a “mechanical boy.” The swami on his bed of nails, the monk emptied of self and transformed into a statue, the soldier trained to stifle his humanity, the neurotic compulsively bound by repetition, or the Pharisee set to destroy his enemies, describes those hemmed in by death. Though this death like experience might be confused with self-transcendence, the isolating fixation within the self and the circumstance is definitive.

It is a more difficult task to describe how one subscribes to life and cultivates love and peace, not because these are less tangible but because here there is an infinite breadth of transcendent possibility. Knowing and loving others and the capacity to appreciate their value is the inverse sign of a developing capacity to judge the self and to escape the confines (the law) of a “given” circumstance.  The New Testament links conversion with a refocusing of values as one’s sense of worth is shifted. The pearl of great price or the treasure hidden in a field brings about an exchange, costing all that one has. The discerning pearl merchant, those well trained in the value of things, perceive what the undiscerning and untrained fail to perceive. One must undergo a “training in righteousness,” not merely to instill a new ethic but to be shaped by a new value and valuation system. To perceive God’s Kingdom, to be shaped by its values, will mean shedding the oppressive top down power of the law for a “power-under” or “bottom-up” perspective in which the subtleties of fine pearls and hidden treasures are exposed.

 A primary difference is that there is a substantive reality to be obtained as this treasure is precisely not an unobtainable object (as with the image of the idol or the ego) but is prime reality. There are substantial realities of love, peace, goodness and beauty, that do not depend upon nor are they ultimately overcome by insubstantial evil. As Robert Doran has put it, “this world is intelligible, things do hold together, we can make sense of the universe and of our lives, we can overcome the fragmentation of knowledge, we can make true judgments, we can make good decisions, we can transcend ourselves to what is and to what is good.”[1] The contrast with blindness gives no substantive or necessary role to evil or darkness but it does demonstrate that perception, sensibilities, discernment, and progress are the entry way into an alternative understanding which we must cultivate.

Maybe it is with this moral sensibility that one might appreciate Quentin Tarantino’s reworked ending for the Manson killers in “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood.” Instead of wiping out the innocent goodness of the world, represented by Sharon Tate, a true believer might reimagine a universe in which the good turns out to be the more enduring reality.

[1] Quoted from Byrne, Patrick H. The Ethics of Discernment: Lonergan’s Foundations for Ethics (Lonergan Studies) (p. 29). University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division. Kindle Edition.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.