Yesterday I was reading a Rod Dreher article and heard him reference an English writer named Paul Kingsnorth (oh for a name like that), who converted to Christianity not so long ago and wrote a Chesterton-esque testimony in a recent issue of First Things.
Kingsnorth’s journey to faith in Christ was prompted by reading an autobiography by Irish writer/philosopher John Moriarty (d.2007) who described his own conversion. Kingsnorth’s paraphrase is beautiful:
Moriarty gave up on the simple, unconvincing Christianity of his Irish rural youth and left for Canada to become an academic, only to become equally disillusioned with the empty-can rationalism that characterizes postmodern intellectual culture. Something was missing. Was it Ireland? Moriarty threw in his academic career and moved back to the mountains of Connacht. He had lost faith in science, in the mind alone of itself, in an age that had disinherited its people. But even at home, some part of the jigsaw was missing.
Seeking it, whatever it was, Moriarty crashed into a devastating personal crisis. One day, walking in the mountains, he suddenly had a mystical vision that broke his world apart. “In an instant,” he wrote, “I was ruined.” He seemed to see into a great abyss in which all of his stories were dust: “I had been let through not to a heaven but to a void that was starless and fatherless.” For years, he wrote, he had been engaged in “a genuine search for the truth, not merely a speakable truth, but a truth I would surrender to.” Now he realized, with a terrible inevitability, that there was only one story that could hold what he had seen, only “one prayer that was big enough.” He had, he wrote, been “shattered into seeing.” Whether he liked it or not, he had become a Christian.
Kingsnorth describes what cut him most about Moriarty’s story:
“The story of Christianity,” wrote Moriarty, “is the story of humanity’s rebellion against God.” I had never thought of that ancient, tired religion in this way before, never had reason to, but as I did now I could feel something happening—some inner shift, some coming together of previously scattered parts designed to fit, though I had never known it, into a quiet, unbreakable whole.
A truth I would surrender to. What was this abyss inside me, this space that had been empty for years, that I had tried to fill with everything from sex to fame to politics to kenshō, and why was something chiming in it now like a distant Angelus across the western sea?
Kingsnorth describes how he viewed the anemia of Christianity in the ‘80s, as he was growing up.
Religion was irrelevant. It was authoritarian, it was superstitious, it was feeble proto-science. It was the theft of our precious free will by authorities who wanted to control us by telling us fairy tales. It repressed women, gay people, atheists, anyone who disobeyed its irrational edicts. It hated science, denied reason, burned witches and heretics by the million. Post-Enlightenment liberal societies had thrown off its shackles…Religion was dying a much-needed death at the hands of progress and reason…Corrupted, tired, suddenly powerless, Christianity was dying in the West. And why not? I hadn’t seen anything relevant in it. Where was the mystery? Where was the promised connection with God? Who was this God anyway? A man in the sky with a book of rules? It was long past time to move on.
It reminds me of how I once thought of faith when I first left home, and was brought to life by the likes of an atheist professor in college. He was threatened by Christianity, but I had found it lifeless and weak. What was he afraid of? His fear awakened my faith.
As Kingsnorth stepped into adulthood, he describes becoming an environmental activist, not realizing that he himself had now become a part of that story of man rebelling against God.
We would remake Earth, down to the last nanoparticle, to suit our desires, which we now called “needs.” Our new world would be globalized, uniform, interconnected, digitized, hyper-real, monitored, always-on. We were building a machine to replace God.
Yet, “activism is a staging post on the road to realization,” Kingsorth writes, because the observant activist eventually realizes that the problems he is railing against are not mere problems to be solved, but signs of a “deep spiritual malaise”.
He quotes Chesterton here: “Whereever the people do not believe in anything beyond the world they will worship the world. But above all they will worship the strongest thing in the world.” Whether he knew that quote at the time, Kingsnorth eventually plunged into a season of spiritual exploration, as he first embraced Buddhism. But eventually, its initial appeal wore thin on his heart.
As the years went on, Zen was not enough. It was full of compassion, but it lacked love. It lacked something else too, and it took me a long time to admit to myself what it was: I wanted to worship. My teenage atheist self would have been horrified. Something was happening to me, slowly, steadily, that I didn’t understand but could clearly sense. I felt like I was being filed gently into a new shape.
He read through the New Testament then, and was captivated by Jesus’ words, but “he obviously didn’t die, and return to life, this being impossible, and without that, the faith built around him was nonsense.” So Kingsforth turned to nature religion, joining his local Wiccan coven. “I became a priest of the witch gods.”
At last I was home, where I belonged: in the woods, worshipping a nature goddess under the stars. I even got to wear a cloak. Everything seemed to have fallen into place. Until I started having dreams.
He dreamed of Jesus, so vividly he could draw a picture of what he saw, and remember the words that he heard. Shortly afterwards, he wife one day announced that he would become a Christian. And then he started crossing paths with Christians right and left.
It kept happening, for months. Christ to the left of me, Christ to the right. It was unnerving. I turned away again and again, but every time I looked back, he was still there. I began to feel I was being . . . hunted? I wanted it to stop; at least, I thought I did. I had no interest in Christianity. I was a witch! A Zen witch, in fact, which I thought sounded pretty damned edgy. But I knew who was after me, and I knew it wasn’t over.
The moment of final connection, where all the pieces of faith came together, occurred at a concert in his son’s music school. Reading his description of it brings a smile to anyone who remembers that similar joy.
I was overcome with a huge and inexplicable love, a great wave of empathy, for everyone and everything. It kept coming and coming until I had to stagger out of the room and sit down in the corridor outside. Everything was unchanged, and everything was new, and I knew what had happened and who had done it, and I knew that it was too late. I had just become a Christian.
Though it might surprise some reading this (especially a few of my fellow evangelicals who sometimes can succumb to smugness when surveying other Christian traditions – a smugness that ought to be abandoned for humility, especially these days), Kingsnorth found himself finding community in the Romanian Orthodox Church.
I found a Christianity that had retained its ancient heart—a faith with living saints and a central ritual of deep and inexplicable power. I found a faith that, unlike the one I had seen as a boy, was not a dusty moral template but a mystical path, an ancient and rooted thing, pointing to a world in which the divine is not absent but everywhere present, moving in the mountains and the waters. The story I had heard a thousand times turned out to be a story I had never heard at all.
(Dang. I think myself a writer, but reading these words, I quietly slink back into the cushions of my couch, wishing to disappear.)
Because of his long experience on the “other side” of movements thinking to change the world, what makes Kingsnorth’s conversion a fascination is his ability to now see the other side through the prism of Scripture. He finishes his testimonial with a razor-sharp paragraph that serves perhaps as a harbinger of wisdom to come.
Out in the world, the rebellion against God has become a rebellion against everything: roots, culture, community, families, biology itself. Machine progress—the triumph of the Nietzschean will—dissolves the glue that once held us. Fires are set around the supporting pillars of the culture by those charged with guarding it, urged on by an ascendant faction determined to erase the past, abuse their ancestors, and dynamite their cultural inheritance, the better to build their earthly paradise on terra nullius. Massing against them are the new Defenders of the West, some calling for a return to the atomized liberalism that got us here in the first place, others defending a remnant Christendom that seems to have precious little to do with Christ and forgets Christopher Lasch’s warning that “God, not culture, is the only appropriate object of unconditional reverence and wonder.” Two profane visions going head-to-head, when what we are surely crying out for is the only thing that can heal us: a return to the sacred center around which any real culture is built.
Read, then re-read this paragraph. I’ve read nothing better that shines the light of the Gospel of Christ on the dark sins of both Right and Left that are presently tearing us apart.
So welcome home Mr. Kingsnorth. Thank you for sharing your story. May your road ahead be blessed.
Bear Clifton is a pastor, writer and screenwriter. He’s latest book is “Living Under The Cross: A 40-Day Devotional Journey”, a series of devotionals based on the Beatitudes. His blogs and writing can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, and “A Sparrow Could Fall”, all available through Amazon.