Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Paul Kingsnorth Comes Home

Atheist, Zen Buddhist, Wiccan priest ... and finally, a Christian who brings hope as Christendom enters final collapse
Screen Shot 2021-05-12 at 6.03.47 PM

Drop everything you’re doing right now and read Paul Kingsnorth’s First Things account of his conversion to Christianity. He writes of growing up atheistic in modern Britain, and how his questing took him through Buddhism and Wicca (“I discovered that magic is real. It works. Who it works for is another question.”), before Christ found him. That’s how it happened, in his telling. He didn’t go looking for Jesus of Nazareth; Jesus came for him. Here’s an excerpt:

How can I feel I have arrived home in something that is in many ways so ­foreign to me? And yet beneath the surface it is not foreign at all, but a reversion to the sacred order of things. I sit in a monastery chapel before dawn. There is snow on the ground outside. The priest murmurs the liturgy by the light of the lampadas, the dark silhouettes of two nuns chant the antiphon. There is incense in the air. The icons glow in the half light. This could be a thousand years in the past or the future, for in here, there is no time. Home is beyond time, I think now. I can’t explain any of it, and it is best that I do not try.

I grew up believing what all modern people are taught: that freedom meant lack of constraint. Orthodoxy taught me that this freedom was no freedom at all, but enslavement to the passions: a neat description of the first thirty years of my life. True freedom, it turns out, is to give up your will and follow God’s. To deny yourself. To let it come. I am terrible at this, but at least now I understand the path.

In the Kingdom of Man, the seas are ribboned with plastic, the forests are burning, the cities bulge with billionaires and tented camps, and still we kneel before the idol of the great god Economy as it grows and grows like a cancer cell. And what if this ancient faith is not an obstacle after all, but a way through? As we see the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit, of choosing power over ­humility, separation over communion, the stakes become clearer each day. Surrender or rebellion; sacrifice or conquest; death of the self or triumph of the will; the Cross or the machine. We have always been ­offered the same choice. The gate is strait and the way is narrow and maybe we will always fail to walk it. But is there any other road that leads home?

Read the whole thing. 

On the last issue of my Substack newsletter, I quoted from a wonderful novel of Hungary I’m reading, Under The Frog, by Tibor Fischer. In one chapter, the character Gyuri reflects on his friendship with Ladányi, a childhood friend who had been brilliant, then converted from Judaism to Christianity, and become a Jesuit. Fischer writes:

Gyuri hadn’t been to church since he was fourteen when his mother dragged him to Easter Mass. Naturally he had attempted to get in touch with God on several subsequent occasions when he had thought he was going to die but always on the spot, away from church precincts. This was surely the real boon of a religious upbringing: it gave you a number to ring in emergencies, which was some consolation, even if no one answered. Gyuri had met with the various arguments for God’s existence from his partisans, proof through design (“that’s what I call a well-made universe”), the craftsmanship of the universe (It did seem to be an awful lot of trouble for a practical joke) or Pascals’ way of looking at it, a hundred francs on God each way. But, all in all, the best argument he had come across for taking Jesus’s shilling was that the sharpest razor, Ladányi believed it.

If you know anything about Paul Kingsnorth’s work, you will know that the fact that someone like him has discovered Christianity — and Orthodox Christianity at that — will open the hearts and minds of others to the faith.

Kingsnorth has a Substack too, by the way, and has written today about how all cultures must rest on sacred order. We in the modern West deny this, and are therefore disintegrating. Excerpt:

In some ways, I am a roundhead at heart. Maybe we all are. The Enlightenment may have failed, but it taught modern Western people something useful: how to interrogate power, and identify illegitimate authority. But while I learned this early, it was much later that I learned something else, dimly and slowly, through my study of history, mythology and, well, people: that every culture, whether it knows it or not, is built around a sacred order. It does not, of course, need to be a Christian order. It could be Islamic, Hindu or Daoist. It could be based around the veneration of ancestors or the worship of Odin. But there is a throne at the heart of every culture, and whoever sits on it will be the force you take your instruction from.

The modern experiment has been the act of dethroning both literal human sovereigns and the representative of the sacred order, and replacing them with purely human, and purely abstract, notions – ‘the people’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘democracy’ or ‘progress.’ I’m all for liberty, and for democracy too (the real thing, not the corporate simulacra that currently squats in its place), but the dethroning of the sovereign – Christ – who sat at the heart of the Western sacred order has not led to universal equality and justice. It has led – via a bloody shortcut through Robespierre, Stalin and Hitler – to the complete triumph of the power of money, which has splintered our culture and our souls into a million angry shards.

This has been the terrible irony of the age of reason, and of the liberal and leftist theories and revolutions which resulted from it. From 1789 to 1968, every one of them ultimately failed, but in destroying the old world and its sacred order they cleared a space for capitalism to move in and commodify the ruins. Spengler, who I wrote about last time, saw this clearly. ‘The Jacobins’, he wrote of the French revolutionaries, ‘had destroyed the old obligations of blood and so had emancipated money; now it stepped forward as lord of the land.’ Revolution, he claimed, will always play the role of handmaiden to the Machine:

There is no proletarian, not even a Communist, movement that has not operated in the interest of money, in the directions indicated by money and for the time permitted by money – and without the idealist amongst its leaders having the slightest suspicion of the fact.

The vacuum created by the collapse of our old taboos was filled by the poison gas of consumer capitalism. It has now infiltrated every aspect of our lives in the way that the Christian story once did, so much so that we barely even notice as it colonises everything from the way we eat to the values we teach our children. Cut loose in a post-modern present, with no centre, no truth and no direction, we have not become independent-minded, responsible, democratic citizens in a human republic. We have become slaves to the power of money, and worshippers before the monstrous idol of the Machine.

Read it all — this is the last free entry in Kingsnorth’s Substack, so you’ll want to subscribe.

Today in Budapest, I was talking to two Hungarian journalists about the disintegration of America and its historic ideals. Both of them see it coming for them here too. They hope their country can avoid the worst of it, but they are small, and the forces arrayed against them are mighty. How strange, even unnerving, it is to learn how to see my own immensely powerful country through the eyes of people who live in a small country, and to come to understand the power that America exercises over them, without necessarily meaning to. Another Hungarian today brought up in conversation the recent construction of a Black Lives Matter/LGBT Statue of Liberty here in Budapest (it was torn down overnight by far-right activists). He can’t wrap his mind around why the local Hungarian Left has adopted American cultural conflicts as a way to lash out against their conservative opponents. He said, graspingly, “It’s … it’s a religion.”

Yes, it is. It’s a global religion. It’s the Grand March. Milan Kundera wrote:

The fantasy of the Grand March that Franz was so intoxicated by is the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies.  The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles notwithstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March. …

What makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the Grand March.

All true, but listen, Kingsnorth is correct: it’s not so much a Left vs. Right thing as it is a Cross-versus-the-Machine thing. We will scarcely be better off if we reject a left-wing version of modernity, but adopt a right-wing version. Christ did not live, die, and rise again to Make Rome Great Again, or to own the libs. To my eyes, from this perspective, the decadence that is consuming the United States is driven by the Left, but is not effectively resisted by the Right because the Right is trying to fight the Machine with the Machine. The Right does not have a concept of sacred order to defend. Choosing to vote for conservative politicians because they might slow down the decline and fall is defensible, but it’s not the way out, or the way home.

Take a look at this five-minute clip from a recent interview Jonathan Pageau did with Kingsnorth. Here, they talk about the power of ritual: