The unexpected conversion of the poet and author has lessons for the church on answering the spiritual longings of 21st Century people, says Erik Strandess.
Christians have been rightly concerned about the exodus from the church and have conducted numerous surveys and polls to better understand the reasons for leaving, but perhaps more importantly we need to ask why anyone would want to join in the first place? We can try to correct what we have done wrong, but we also need to concentrate on what we have done right.
At a time when we hear much more about deconversion than conversion, it was a pleasure to listen to Paul Kingsnorth’s faith journey. In a fascinating Big Conversation, Kingsnorth sat down with Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, to discuss conversion, culture and the cross and tried to answer the question – Are we ready to believe in God again?
Kingsnorth described what seems to be a common English experience of being surrounded by a shell of historic Christianity and yet finding it completely devoid of any spiritual presence. As a child he was taught Bible stories and participated in religious plays but didn’t believe a word of it. He saw only two flavors of Christianity, one he characterized as the “fusty old Church of England variety” which told old stories about a time and place he couldn’t relate to and the other led by the “trendy vicar” who “wore jeans and sang folk songs” all the while doing a very poor impersonation of pop culture. He concluded:
“The message seemed irrelevant. Across Europe, the exodus was happening. 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.” (The Cross and the Machine)
Kingsnorth half-heartedly went through an atheist phase but knew that something deeper was going on that materialism couldn’t explain. In order to give himself a respite from all the blind pitiless indifference, he immersed himself in fantasy novels where he was allowed to contemplate the supernatural without having to turn in his atheist membership card.
”I was never one of these people who believed the world was disenchanted. I always knew it was enchanted, but I didn’t know what to do with that.” (Kingsnorth)
It was ultimately in nature that he sensed something spiritual.
“Trudging across moors, camping by mountain lakes as the June sun set, I could feel some deep, old power rolling through it all, welding it together, flowing from the land into me and back again.” (The Cross and the Machine)
It was the “sacredness” of nature that prompted him to get involved in the environmental movement. Over time, however, he became disillusioned because what he viewed as a spiritual violation of nature was treated like a technological, political, and economic problem.
”Activism is a staging post on the road to realization. Dig in for long enough and you see that something like climate change or mass extinction is not a “problem” to be “solved” through politics or technology or science, but the manifestation of a deep spiritual malaise.” (The Cross and the Machine)
The spiritual void
Kingsnorth sensed a spiritual presence in nature but didn’t know what to do with it. I think we have all encountered friends, family members or co-workers who declare, “I’m a spiritual person.” They feel the need to recite this creed because they recognize that failure to acknowledge a spiritual side to life is akin to a human heresy. However, when pushed for details they just recite a litany of vague feelings that suggests there is more to life than physical existence. So, what exactly is it that they are experiencing?
It’s impossible to eliminate our obsession with spirituality. Modernity tried to clear the cultural field of religious orthodoxy, but soon discovered that the fallow ground left behind was quickly repopulated by the noxious weeds of new age religion. Nature abhors a vacuum, and the weeds of postmodern spirituality were quick to fill the empty space left behind by the modernist displacement of the Judeo-Christian God.
New age religion is a particularly noxious tare because it grows quickly in arid soil, has no nutritive value, and frequently looks like other religions. Interestingly, Kingsnorth described these alternative spiritualities not as unique religions, but as Christian heresies. I think this is one of the reasons that Christians are so willing to tack them onto their faith because it allows them to follow Jesus without all the church baggage.
Postmodernism reopened the door for the deities previously banished by the enlightenment project. However, in true postmodern fashion, it welcomed all the gods to the religious table on the condition that they not say anything mean to one another. It also demanded that the belligerent Judeo-Christian God sit quietly in the corner with an “Unknown God” sign around His neck.
Unable to find a sustainable spirituality in environmentalism he turned to Buddhism and found value in its practices but “realized uncomfortably, towards the end of that period of 5 or 6 years, that I wanted to worship…I was looking for God.”
G.K. Chesterton has eloquently summarized this human need for worship.
“The crux and crisis is that man found it natural to worship; even natural to worship unnatural things. The posture of the idol might be stiff and strange; but the gesture of the worshiper was generous and beautiful. He not only felt freer when he bent; he actually felt taller when he bowed. Henceforth anything that took away the gesture of worship would stunt and maim him forever.”
Kingsnorth began his search for God by looking to nature and found an accommodating religion in Wicca, “because it satisfied my need to find a name for the divine.”
Most humans recognize a mysterious spiritual space that needs exploring but once they enter it, they can’t shake the feeling that Someone already lives there. They try to dismiss it as a vague essence but feel like Someone is constantly looking over their shoulders. They want to find a guilt free space but feel compelled to say “sorry” and “thank you.” They want to tame their spirituality and put it to work for them. They want it to be their personal butler but get the uncomfortable feeling that He is Lord of the manor.
Our cultural obsession with angels, demons, and ghosts suggest that the spiritual realm is personal. Religions that offer vague spiritual essences as ultimate reality have a hard time explaining why humans are so obsessed with personality. Even the nebulous Hindu Brahman or the Buddhist Nirvana still incorporate middle-man bodhisattvas or Krishnas to give their spirituality some personality. They cannot escape the fact that any religious system that doesn’t pay homage to human individuality is ultimately hollow. So, when it comes to something as precious as our spirituality, we know that it must be based on a relationship with a “person.” This, however, is where the spiritual rubber meets the physical road because true relationship must be a two-way street, and one must be willing to woo as well as be wooed.
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Interestingly, Kingsnorth’s thoughtful search for the divine became a manhunt. The seeker became the sought. The Jesus he wouldn’t even put on his spiritual menu became his only food option. He described a series of unwanted and unexpected encounters with Christianity; Jesus appeared to him in a dream, his wife prophesied that he would become a Christian, and he began to encounter Christians in every aspect of his life.
“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 Cross and the Machine)
Kingsnorth, quoting C.S Lewis, described his experience as “the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.”
We often hear friends and neighbors speak about their search for God. We admire their noble spiritual detective work, but feel the need to interrupt their investigation and ask them who is the one who is really lost? God or them? They may think they are on a safari to bag a God, but in reality, He is the One heading the search party to find them.
God isn’t a divine puppy that we pick out at a heavenly animal shelter but rather a Hound of Heaven hot on our heels. He isn’t a canine that we use for pet therapy but rather the Lion of Judah who, in the words of CS Lewis, isn’t safe… but he is good.
I used to work with men in the drug treatment program at the Union Gospel Mission. One day as we talked about our experiences with God it became clear that each one of them had already had a brush with the divine. Some reported that He miraculously saved them from situations of certain death, others spoke of Him as an unwelcome sober passenger on a drug trip, while a few even reported conversations where they brazenly told Him to go away.
The last thing on their minds was to find God yet there they were hounded by the divine. God had treed them but instead of coming down they continued to live on the skinny branches, recoiling with every cracking noise until they came crashing down and hit bottom.
Much to their surprise, He didn’t tear them to shreds but gave them new life, He didn’t inflict wounds but shared His scars, He didn’t send them packing but brought them home. It’s reassuring to know that we don’t have to find our way out of the spiritual darkness alone because as it turns out we are being relentlessly hounded by a God who never gives up on our scent.
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Luke 19:10)
The Statistical Significance of Spirituality
Kingsnorth came to the realization that something as pervasive as religion cannot be easily dismissed by a small atheist minority.
“The reason religion persists against all the odds…is that people keep having religious experiences…because if that wasn’t happening there’s no reason that 87 percent of the world would be religious.”
He recognized that spirituality wasn’t a demographic outlier but rather the statistically significant air we breathe. It wasn’t a hobby for the scientifically illiterate but one of the basic elements in the periodic table of human experience. In fact, as Williams pointed out, to deny spirituality is to deny what it is to be human.
“Ignoring it (world religion) is simply ignoring some great swathe of what it is to be human.” (Williams)
So, the real question, as Kingsnorth discovered, was not whether a god exists, but rather, Who is this god in whom we should believe?
While a small atheist minority may tell us that spirituality is just the inevitable high caused by years of mainlining the opiate of the masses, the rest of us continue to search for the cosmic drug Lord. Maybe we would be more effective apologists if we saw unbelievers not as poorly informed atheists but as humans in desperate need of becoming whole. Our commission shouldn’t be geared towards building bigger intellectual muscles but introducing people to the One who can heal their broken and contrite hearts.
As Kingsnorth suggested, our culture is spiritually hungry. A prime example of this is the plethora of books on spirituality crowding our bookstore shelves. These New Age books huddle together like unhappy people looking for love at a singles bar. We see our lonely friends and neighbors hook up with a new one every few months hoping to find Mr. or Mrs. Right only to discover a Dear John letter on the kitchen table and a drained bank account.
If these New Age spirituality books truly had answers to the perennial questions of how to obtain happiness, purpose, and meaning, then we would all have a copy, and the world would be a better place. These books however only enjoy fifteen minutes of fame and then are taken out of the Holy of Holies display at the local bookstore and cast unceremoniously into the Court of the Gentiles to make room for the next wave of “god” wannabes.
Isn’t it interesting that these alleged spiritual Holy Grails end up in bargain bins? These “gods” of man’s creation are removed from their new age thrones and tossed onto half-price street where they are demoted to fortune-tellers begging for money on the side of the road. The only book that remains a consistent best seller is the Bible. Don’t you think that fact alone suggests that scripture may contain the answers to life’s biggest questions?
Initially, Paul tried to be a Christian on his own but eventually realized he needed a church. He was drawn to Orthodoxy because it honored the sacredness of nature, embraced mystery, and emphasized the intimate connection between the immanent and the transcendent. He felt that much of the Christianity he had encountered was pervaded by a modernist mindset which emphasized the mind over the heart. Churches had become so rational that liturgies were transformed into syllogisms, spreadsheets, and attendance figures.
As Kingsnorth noted, our culture is suffering from spiritual dehydration but instead of directing them to the Living Water churches were rehydrating them with Smart Water. People who had come to know Christ through an intense experience were rewarded with a rulebook and the relationship with Jesus that got them in the church door was turned into a God seminar.
Kingsnorth, like Williams, doesn’t like the term conversion because it views a new Christ follower as a stranger in a new town rather than someone who has returned home. He described it this way.
“Weirdly, I felt like I’d been a Christian for a very long time, but I just hadn’t realized it. It felt more like that than a sudden radical conversion to something new.” (Paul)
I like that imagery a lot because when children (of God) return to their Father it should always be a homecoming.
Ancient is the New Modern
Are we ready to believe in God again?
I think the question needs to be reworded - Are we ready to identify the object of our spiritual longing? Are we ready to stop running from the One who doggedly pursues us? Our cultural souls seem tired of constantly gagging on material delicacies and seems ready for a substantial spiritual meal. As Kingsnorth said.
“I think that the church rather than asking itself, ‘how can I get out there into the modern world and talk to people,’ which it’s been trying to do since the 60s with largely catastrophic results, should be saying, ‘what’s the truth of this, what’s the deep root of the radical Christian story. I’m just going to tell it…and I’m going to tell it in an uncompromising way’ and I think that will draw people because I think we’re in a spiritual crisis…If the church can do something, it is to be true to itself.” (Kingsnorth)
Kingsnorth found the early saints of the church to be very inspiring because…
“They weren’t orthodox or catholic or protestant, they were Christian. It was one church and they were extremely rooted in the landscape and they had a deep powerful sense of the immanence of God in all things everywhere…I’m very inspired by the early saints and I actually think that if anything’s going to save the world at this point it’s not going to be technology or politics but saints. We need saints.”
So, before we devise a new recruitment strategy let’s take a page from our own playbook and reclaim the wisdom of the saints and early church fathers. Let’s not be chronological snobs but ancient enthusiasts towards our rich theological past. As a man in his 60s, who hopes that 60 is the new 50, I think the church also needs to turn back the clock and make the ancient the new modern.
Dr. Erik Strandness is a Christian apologist and former neonatal physician living in the Pacific Northwest. He is a regular blog contributor to Premier Unbelievable?