First Things has done a good thing in publishing the testimony of Jacob Williams, a British convert to Islam. Aside from the fact that I always find it fascinating to learn why people embrace a religion into which they were not born, Williams’s essay reveals how and why the pathetic weakness of UK (and European) Christianity has left a vacuum that Islam is prepared to fill. This is a fascinating essay. Williams begins by talking about the sense of meaninglessness pervading contemporary Britain:
Anomie was one thing; the ferocious renunciation of tradition I encountered at university was quite another. I had hoped that the spiritual emptiness of wider society was a result of ignorance, and that the academy—especially the ancient, venerable, Gothic academy of Oxford—had preserved what I vaguely imagined was my country’s noble heritage. Studying philosophy did provide some engagement with an intellectual inheritance, but for anyone moderately interested in public life, the campus movements for “social justice” were impossible to ignore. All of these—whether their goal was the liberation of women, of LGBT persons, or of ethnic minorities—seemed to have the same vision of man: a deracinated, protean aggregate of desires. These movements gained in strength every year. Formerly apolitical spaces were distorted by the need to appease one demand after another. The culture of the university, once imbued with the brash boyishness of the English public schools, now accommodated the sterile, strenuous inclusivity of progressive zealots.
After three years of this, I was frustrated and alienated. I needed a purpose. Philosophy classes had sharpened my inquiries, but they didn’t rectify the meaninglessness all around me. My utopian peers found their purpose in crusades against racism and homophobia, but their contempt for England revolted me. I chose a different course and embarked on a search for God.
Their contempt for England revolted me. And so he ended up becoming Muslim. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Read on:
Where could a lost soul go? Nowhere in college or country offered an answer. What the campus Conservative Party outlined was absurd: We can pick up the fragments of our culture by putting on three-piece suits, getting riotously drunk, and reviving the divine right of kings. I had plenty of opportunities to engage with orthodox Christians, and I sincerely wanted Christianity to be true. It was clear to me that what the authorities in my world celebrated—the collapse of family life, the slaughter of the unborn, the deterioration of high culture—were, in truth, social evils that followed from the decline of the Church. Christianity seemed the natural alternative to secularity.
But when I entered the chapels and listened to the ministers, the regeneration I sought didn’t happen. Christian voices sounded all too agreeable and compromising. I wanted something stronger, something that didn’t bargain with secularism. I found it in Islam.
One more bit:
At one point, a campaign was launched at my university called, “Why is my curriculum white?” The premise was that a British university should not teach British authors because doing so might make cultural minorities feel unwelcome. In other words, “Orientalism,” which cast the East as Other, had to stop. On hearing of this campaign, I recognized that the only way to create a world with no “others” is to have no self. While my Christian conservative friends objected to this denigration of the West, I saw the deeper aim, which was to eliminate the self, to deny all of us a home, a country, and indeed a religion. I had absorbed enough of the remnants of what Charles Taylor calls the British synthesis—the conflation of Britishness, Christianity, liberty, and sexual restraint—to experience such losses as catastrophic. My journey toward Islam thus began not with a rejection of the Western tradition and inheritance but with a strong desire to affirm as much of it as might prove compatible with religious truth. Faith, I hoped, could be reconciled with the secondary loves of my family and flag.
Read the whole thing. I would argue with Williams’s theological contentions, naturally, but boy, do I have a lot of sympathy with him. This was not all that different from me when I was in college in the 1980s. Islam was unimaginable to an undergraduate in 1980s Louisiana, but I was not so far removed from the seeker that Jacob Williams was. The churches I saw around me were “all too agreeable and compromising.” But I had John Paul II Catholicism to inspire me. Those days are long past.
On his road to conversion, Williams came to believe that embracing Islam would give patriotic Britons like him a chance at saving what he loves about his patria.
Tepid, half-believing Anglicanism—“almost-instinct almost true,” in Philip Larkin’s words—couldn’t stop the spread of utopian progressivism on campus or London’s arid diversity. I needed a different antidote for the hedonism of my culture.
I find it completely bizarre that Williams would believe that Islam could save British culture, but again, I sympathize with the desperation.
A decade ago, I visited an old friend who was at that time living near Bath. She and her husband and I planned to go to dinner downtown in that beautiful ancient city, and she warned me that I might see some disgusting things. Binge drinking among the young was common, and she said I should not be surprised to see a number of teenagers and young adults vomiting in the streets when we left the restaurant. And so we did. It was just an ordinary Saturday night. Mind you, I was no slouch in my undergraduate years at LSU, regarding beer and spirits consumption, but this public drunkenness and vomiting was something I had never seen, not even at Mardi Gras. It was like stepping into a Theodore Dalrymple column.
Anyway, Jacob Williams embraced Islam. You can believe that he has made a mistake — as a Christian, I do — while understanding entirely why he made it. When you see things like the New Zealand cardinal who is now encouraging Catholics to stop calling their priests “Father” — this, to fight clericalism — can you really be surprised that young men disgusted by the chaos and decline around them find nothing in Christianity to inspire? Can it really be all that shocking that young men are flocking to Jordan Peterson for inspiration and direction, and not to ministers in the churches?
Yesterday I was listening to my priest (Orthodox) talk about how central struggle is to Orthodox practice. He’s right about that. It’s not about earning salvation; salvation cannot be earned. It’s about a constant fight to walk in harmony with God, and to submit to Him. It’s about repentance as a way of life. It’s about the Christian life as a pilgrimage up the holy mountain, as Dante conceived it. This is a rather different way of being Christian than is typical in America today. This, I’m sure, is one reason why so many young men are finding their way to Orthodox Christianity. In 1968, that fateful year, the Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann wrote about the challenges American Orthodox face from the temptation to surrender to American culture by total assimilation, or a panicked rejection of America, and a retreat into a false ethnic and cultural utopia. Father Schmemann said:
I have in mind a kind of spiritual profile of that movement and of those who will take part in it. To me, it looks in some way like a new form of monasticism without celibacy and without the desert, but based upon specific vows. I can think of three such vows.
1. PRAYER: The first vow is to keep a certain well-defined spiritual discipline of life, and this means a rule of prayer: an effort to maintain a level of personal contact with God, what the Fathers call the “inner memory of Him.” It is very fashionable today to discuss spirituality and to read books about it. But whatever the degree of our theoretical knowledge about spirituality, it must begin with a simple and humble decision, an effort, and–what is the most difficult–regularity. Nothing indeed is more dangerous than pseudo-spirituality whose unmistakable signs are self-righteousness, pride, readiness to measure other people’s spirituality, and emotionalism.
What the world needs now is a generation of men and women not only speaking about Christianity, but living it. Early monasticism was, first of all, a rule of prayer. It is precisely a rule we need, one which could be practiced and followed by all and not only by some. For indeed what you say is less and less important today. Men are moved only by what you are, and this means by the total impact of your personality, of your personal experience, commitment, dedication.
2. OBEDIENCE: The second vow is the vow of obedience, and this is what present-day Orthodox lack more than anything else. Perhaps without noticing it, we live in a climate of radical individualism. Each one tailors for himself his own kind of “Orthodoxy,” his own ideal of the Church, his own style of life. And yet, the whole spiritual literature emphasizes obedience as the condition of all spiritual progress.
What I mean by obedience here, however, is something very practical. It is obedience to the movement itself. The movement must know on whom it can depend. It is the obedience in small things, humble chores, the unromantic routine of work. Obedience here is the antithesis not of disobedience, but of hysterical individualism. “I” feel, “I” don’t feel. Stop “feeling” and do. Nothing will be achieved without some degree of organization, strategy, and obedience.
3. ACCEPTANCE: The third vow could be described, in terms of one spiritual author, as “digging one’s own hole.” So many people want to do anything except precisely what God wants them to do, for to accept this and perhaps even to discern it is one of the greatest spiritual difficulties. It is very significant that ascetical literature is full of warnings against changing places, against leaving monasteries for other and “better” ones, against the spirit of unrest, that constant search for the best external conditions. Again, what we need today is to relate to the Church and to Christ our lives, our professions, the unique combination of factors which God gives us as our examination and which we alone can pass or fail.
A Christianity lived like that, including ascetical practices like fasting, could be exactly what young seekers like Jacob Williams once was are looking for. Perhaps Catholicism and Evangelicalism have versions of this too. I don’t want to oversell Orthodoxy; we have elements within the Orthodox churches who are eager to assimilate to contemporary American culture too. Still, I can’t help wondering how Jacob Williams’s spiritual journey would have ended had he found Orthodox Christianity as the antidote for the hedonism of his culture.
It might be objected that Williams was not searching for the Truth, but for an “antidote to the hedonism” of his culture, and that therefore, his search was in bad faith. That’s a decent point, but it misses the important fact that religious searches are almost never done from pure motive. Sometimes we conceal our motives from ourselves. I did not realize until a decade or so after I had left the Catholic Church the extent to which the youthful search that ended with my conversion to Catholicism had been motivated in large part for the search for a paternal authority to replace the father from whom I had become alienated. John Paul II filled that role for me. That wasn’t the only reason I converted to Catholicism, to be clear, but it played a much deeper role than I was able to recognize at the time. Again, people search for God for many different reasons. Jacob Williams sounds like an intelligent, honorable young man, and like any intelligent, honorable young man, he sought out something that could stand as an effective counterforce to the forces disintegrating his society and culture.
That it was Islam is a stern rebuke to the Christian churches of Britain.
As it happens, First Things also this month publishes a dialogue on religion between Geoffroy Lejeune and the novelist Michel Houellebecq. If you’ve not read Houellebecq’s novel Submission, about a future Islamist France, you really should. People wrongly said that the novel is anti-Muslim, but that’s not the case at all. The protagonist, François, is a dissolute middle-aged Sorbonne professor who embodies a France that no longer has much reason to go on. An Islamist political party takes over France amid a political crisis. The reader surmises that the French have turned to political Islam out of their own anomie. The novel’s protagonist has to decide whether or not he will submit to the new Islamic order. It’s not a matter of an ISIS-like invasion, not at all, but more like Erdogan’s Turkey. That is to say, it’s an order that would not be terribly difficult for a man of little conviction, like François, to accept, because he really just wants to be comfortable. The new order, if he converts, promises him a permanent job, and multiple wives. Nobody cares if he truly believes in Islam; his conversion is only a public acceptance of the new order.
Anyway, in the Lejeune-Houellebecq discussion, Lejeune writes:
There is a wound that ought to be treated by the Church: the wound of not knowing God, or of not knowing how to find him. In the 1960s, when the Beatles were making the world dance, the Church asked itself how to continue to announce the gospel. In 1962, it called the Second Vatican Council. Wags remarked that the cardinals arrived there by boat and left by plane: The institution had just entered modernity. In drawing closer to common mores, in speaking the language of its time, the Church believed it could maintain its tie with the faithful who were thrown off balance by the liberal and sexual revolutions.
The changes, notably, concerned liturgy: Latin was abandoned, ornamentation was simplified, and the priest turned toward the congregation. Parishes invested in synthesizers, and girls began to keep the beat in the choir. But the drama of style is that it goes out of style. Sixty years later, the synthesizers are still there, and the girls too, but they have grown old, and their voices quaver—even the priests can no longer put up with them. Only the dynamic parishes of the city centers escape this liturgical impoverishment, but even there on a Sunday one can hear a guitarist trying his hand at arpeggios, and recall this cruel reality: He’s no Mark Knopfler.
This race toward modernity is an obvious failure, and the churches are considerably emptied as a result. Before Vatican II, one-third of French people stated that they went to Mass every Sunday. In 2012, this number had fallen to six percent, the sign of a major cultural upheaval.
The phenomena are probably linked: The Church tried to conform itself to the world at a moment when the world was becoming uglier. This is a sufficiently serious reason for reproach: We are right to expect that the Church will point out a path toward God, independently of the jolts and shocks of the epoch; that it will remain, subsist. Latin was thus supposed to mark a difference between everyday language and the language with which we address the Creator. The incense, rising up into the nave, pointed out a path for the soul. The priest, with his back to the faithful, was in reality turned toward heaven. The sacred was silently driven from the churches and replaced only with the cool, the festive—that’s great, but desperately human. I want to clarify, to avoid confusion, that I have also known ultra-traditionalists for whom incense, prayers reeled off in Latin at top speed, and hours spent kneeling were the alpha and the omega of faith: I take them equally for fanatics. So what should we conclude? Jesus said to his disciples, you must be in the world but not of the world. The Church should have taken him seriously.
Houellebecq says later:
After 1905, and during her vast movement of retreat, the Church confused “disappearing from the public sphere” with “disappearing altogether.” She faded away from the world. In the past, she governed souls; today, her political influence is negligible, and her role in society is reduced to almost nothing. One can live in France without seeing a priest during one’s entire life. One used to see them because they wore soutanes and organized processions for the great religious feasts; today, they dress in civilian clothes and hide, as in the time of the catacombs.
And the Church seems to apologize for her existence. Currently in France, we are experiencing a vast insurrection by those who could be termed the “leftovers of globalization,” the gilets jaunes. These people are crying out with an anger that has been growing for a long time, and they have been supported by a majority of the population. A social phenomenon of this order cannot escape the notice of any institution claiming to have a plan for men. In lieu of exercising a political influence, the Church could be offering a spiritual plan to those who are fighting against a loss of fundamental meaning. There are approximatively a hundred dioceses in France, and a few more bishops, all of whom are the representatives of the Church in the country. Only one of them has decided it would be a good idea to go to a meeting of the gilets jaunes.
Read it all. There’s more I want to write about from this dialogue, but I’ll save that for another post. The point I want to make with reference to the Jacob Williams essay is that if you read the entire exchange, you’ll see that Houellebecq and Lejeune are pretty much talking about the death of the Christian God in the hearts and minds of Europeans, and therefore the crumbling of what Houellebecq calls “the cement of a civilization.”
Jacob Williams began his search for Islam looking for something to hold together a civilization — his own, which he loved — that was coming apart. This was a wound within himself, a wound for which he was searching for healing. He found nothing in the churches, and indeed often found that churches were collaborating with the enemies of civilization. As a Christian, I wish Williams would have looked longer. But there’s no doubt that we Christians ought to have made the answer much easier to find.
A young British man has converted to Islam primarily because he is a patriot. What an extraordinary thing. Hard to make sense of at first, but I can see the logic. I can’t imagine that he will be the last of his kind, either.