Paul Vanderklay has been charting the influence of Jordan Peterson in bringing people to faith. But Paul Kingsnorth’s journey from paganism to Christianity shows the influence of CS Lewis, he says.
After listening to four years of conversion stories prompted by Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series some patterns have emerged. As a pastor it used to be that once someone went down the road of Western Buddhism or Neo-Paganism they never came back. In the last few years the way back to Christianity, even very conservative versions like Orthodoxy, is becoming increasingly clear and not just from fans of Jordan Peterson.
Paul Kingsnorth has been making the rounds on the conversational YouTube circuit for about a year now, most recently for a fascinating discussion on The Big Conversation with former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.
When I first saw Kingsnorth talking to Jonathan Pageau I took notice. I had never heard his name nor read any of his books but Pageau was clearly excited about this new high-profile convert to Orthodoxy. Kingsnorth knew who Jordan Peterson was but unlike the hundreds of people I had spoken with, it was not Jordan Peterson who blazed this trail; yet parallel tracks are emerging.
The Peterson connection
After Kingsnorth had spoken with Pageau I saw him speaking with David Fuller at Rebel Wisdom. Interest among the Orthodox was one thing, but it was another seeing the interest among the “heterodox sense-making” community in the Rebel Wisdom space.
Many Unbelievable? readers and listeners are likely unfamiliar with the Rebel Wisdom’s YouTube channel. David Fuller left BBC4 around the time of Jordan Peterson’s famous interview with Cathy Newman and for David Fuller Jordan Peterson was something of a revelation.
Peterson is a Jungian who didn’t turn up his nose to psychedelics. It seemed to Fuller that Peterson might be making Christianity a viable path as a way out of the various corners we seem to be painting ourselves into. After an initial wave Fuller seemed to cool on imagining that Christianity could be a way forward. Rebel Wisdom was by no means Christianity-hostile, having myself, Jonathan Pageau and other Christians on the channel frequently, but the curiosity around Kingsnorth’s conversion and his critique of “The Machine” as he calls it, seemed particularly well received by the Rebel Wisdom community.
A few months later Kingsnorth appeared again on Rebel Wisdom, this time with reactionary feminist Mary Harrington talking about the war on nature and the revolt against the given. Again the Rebel Wisdom hosts and audience seemed interested in Kingsnorth and his journey into Orthodoxy. Might there be a version of Christianity unknown to many that didn’t have the baggage of Western versions? People were curious.
Rage Against The Machine
Kingsnorth had been a radical environmental activist, hardly the sort we’d imagine lauding the virtues of Romanian Orthodoxy and iconography. In “The Cross and the Machine” and on his Substack “The Abbey of Misrule” he regularly decried the matrix of institutions, appetites and practices that the industrialized West has driven its people towards.
He had broken with other radical environmentalists when he saw that their plans for world rescue rejected limitations or restraint but instead prescribed MORE technology to address the problems that previous waves of technology had brought us. He wanted to see the road ahead turn away from technical fixes trying to control nature, turning her into a domesticated image of our own design. “The machine” as he calls it, reminds me of how the Gospel of John sometimes characterizes “the world”.
Kingsnorth is one of the best examples of how old assumptions about conversion in the West are giving way. We have a greater appreciation of how technological and political forces emerge as spiritual forces that remind us of what the Apostle Paul called “principalities and powers”. Assumptions about “liberal” or “conservative”, “left” and “right” are falling away leading to conversations of remarkable openness to Biblical ideas that many had assumed to be archaic or obsolete. What does it mean if a radical environmentalist who had pursued spirituality in neo-paganism and Zen Buddhism becomes convinced that the life he was looking for could be found in one of the oldest versions of Christianity newly accessible in the West? A lot of people are going to have questions.
The CS Lewis connection
When the Unbelievable? YouTube channel notified me that Kingsnorth was going to be paired with Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, I knew we’d be in for a treat. How would THIS conversation go? Justin does a good job of pairing guests. He knew of Williams’ knowledge and appreciation for Orthodoxy and figured this pairing could shed some light on this example of how Christianity became viable for Kingsnorth.
As I watched the conversation unfold I was reminded of the work of three men: CS Lewis, Jordan Peterson, and John Vervaeke.
CS Lewis was a terrific 20th century example of what John Vervaeke calls “the meaning crisis”. After the loss of his mother at age 6 he and his brother Warnie were left to themselves to create a meaningful world in which to live. As children at Little Lea, he and Warnie imagined the enchanted worlds of Animal Land and Boxen which for Lewis would prefigure Narnia. Lewis would reject the faith of his parents becoming a confirmed atheist under the tutelage of “the Great Knock” yet never losing his love of the wild and all things Northern.
While Kingsnorth was also raised in a nominal Christian culture it never really grabbed him, but as he notes his father would raise him in the tradition of long walks in the Nature giving him a love for its enchantments. For Kingsnorth that would lead to a religion of sorts in environmental activism, but the merely political won’t necessarily fill a spiritual void. Kingsnorth notes that even though his father didn’t give him what we might call a religion he did perhaps make him a Pantheist. This very much follows what Lewis saw happens AFTER Christendom loses its faith. Many who deconstruct from Christianity embrace a pantheistic spiritualist attitude imagining it is the summit of religious evolution.
Lewis thought it was just the opposite:
“Pantheism certainly is (as its advocates would say) congenial to the modern mind; but the fact that a shoe slips on easily does not prove that it is a new shoe—much less that it will keep your feet dry. Pantheism is congenial to our minds not because it is the final stage in a slow process of enlightenment, but because it is almost as old as we are. It may even be the most primitive of all religions, and the orenda of a savage tribe has been interpreted by some to be an ‘all-pervasive spirit’. It is immemorial in India. The Greeks rose above it only at their peak, in the thought of Plato and Aristotle; their successors relapsed into the great Pantheistic system of the Stoics. Modern Europe escaped it only while she remained predominantly Christian; with Giordano Bruno and Spinoza it returned. With Hegel it became almost the agreed philosophy of highly educated people, while the more popular Pantheism of Wordsworth, Carlyle and Emerson conveyed the same doctrine to those on a slightly lower cultural level.
So far from being the final religious refinement, Pantheism is in fact the permanent natural bent of the human mind; the permanent ordinary level below which man sometimes sinks, under the influence of priestcraft and superstition, but above which his own unaided efforts can never raise him for very long. Platonism and Judaism, and Christianity (which has incorporated both) have proved the only things capable of resisting it. It is the attitude into which the human mind automatically falls when left to itself. No wonder we find it congenial.
If ‘religion’ means simply what man says about God, and not what God does about man, then Pantheism almost is religion. And ‘religion’ in that sense has, in the long run, only one really formidable opponent—namely Christianity. Modern philosophy has rejected Hegel and modern science started out with no bias in favour of religion; but they have both proved quite powerless to curb the human impulse toward Pantheism. It is nearly as strong today as it was in ancient India or in ancient Rome. Theosophy and the worship of the life-force are both forms of it: even the German worship of a racial spirit is only Pantheism truncated or whittled down to suit barbarians. Yet, by a strange irony, each new relapse into this immemorial ‘religion’ is hailed as the last word in novelty and emancipation.”
Lewis, C. S.. Miracles (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (pp. 131-133). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Nature is our sister not our God
Social psychologist Clay Routledge in his book “Supernatural” noted that when people give up formal religion they seldom become rationalist atheists. They usually embrace folk spiritual beliefs looking for advice from astrology or embracing maxims like “everything happens for a reason” or “what goes around comes around.” They believe in ghosts, UFOs, try to communicate with dead relations, etc. The social respectability lid never really gets inside of us.
While celebrity atheism and pervasive social secularity may bully people into keeping mum about their own spiritual experiences and imaginations it will not stop people from having spiritual experiences or a hunger for enchantment. In modernity many efforts at making Christianity respectable sought to suppress such spiritual or “supernatural” experiences but now that modernism continues to wane, more people like Kingsnorth hunger for an enchanted world.
Williams in this conversation notes that in Christianity Nature is “God acting, God loving and God inviting”. Lewis throughout his book Miracles sees Nature as our sister. She is alive because she is made by a living God. We are alienated from her because we rebelled against our common Father. Both Kingsnorth and Lewis would assert that what we have done in modernity is subject our sister to the status of our slave and attempted to shackle her with technology in order to extract from her a world which reflects our own desires rather than our Father’s.
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A personal God
Before turning to Christianity Kingsnorth pursued Wicca, a modern nature religion but discovered that we are not made to worship our sister. He turned to Zen Buddhism which taught him something about the Self but didn’t really offer knowledge and worship of God, our maker and source. Pantheism might offer a sense of enchantment but it is always vulnerable to the force of rational personhood for the subjugation of Nature. Pantheist story telling repeatedly fails to keep to the script of Nature or The Force as impersonal. Luke Skywalker wields The Force to his own ends, as does Darth Vader.
At the climax of Avatar the pantheistic enchanted planet seems to take on rationality to fight the invading destroyers and the cry goes up “Ewa has heard you!”. Pantheists can’t resist either wielding that impersonal power or hoping it takes on intentional agency to achieve a good outcome. They forget that the impersonal can’t hear or respond to your prayers. It can only be wielded by the personal.
Lewis knew this:
“Men are reluctant to pass over from the notion of an abstract and negative deity to the living God. I do not wonder. Here lies the deepest tap-root of Pantheism and of the objection to traditional imagery. It was hated not, at bottom, because it pictured Him as man but because it pictured Him as king, or even as warrior. The Pantheist’s God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for Him, like a book on a shelf. He will not pursue you. There is no danger that at any time heaven and earth should flee away at His glance. If He were the truth, then we could really say that all the Christian images of kingship were a historical accident of which our religion ought to be cleansed. It is with a shock that we discover them to be indispensable. You have had a shock like that before, in connection with smaller matters—when the line pulls at your hand, when something breathes beside you in the darkness. So here; the shock comes at the precise moment when the thrill of life is communicated to us along the clue we have been following. It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. ‘Look out!’ we cry, ‘it’s alive’. And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back—I would have done so myself if I could—and proceed no further with Christianity. An ‘impersonal God’—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads—better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?”
Lewis, C. S.. Miracles (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (pp. 149-150). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The immanent vs detached God
When I heard Williams and Kingsnorth talking about the immanence of God in creation I was immediately reminded of the debate between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris. At their first meeting in Vancouver it became clear to me that Peterson and Harris were talking about two different imaginings of God. Peterson, like Kingsnorth, saw God’s presence INSIDE of this world. God was not, as the old Ralph Carmichael song noted, “a God who didn’t care, who lived away out there”. He was present in creation as the seraphim in Isaiah 6 declared “the whole earth is full of his glory”. He works within and through “natural” processes. He is the God of creation and providence. To make this clear to my audience I called this aspect God #1.
Harris seemed to imagine that the Christian God was some sort of super thing up in the sky who was detached from “normal” life. Harris asserted that Christians, and other superstitious people imagined that this super-thing in the sky could be called upon to intervene in times of trouble but other than that was unnecessary for the normal functioning of a mechanistic world. This personal God aspect I called God #2.
Harris can be forgiving for imagining this given what Christian Smith called the rise of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism within the church. Many debates with more knowledgeable Christians like Rowan Williams repeatedly made the point to New Atheists that this was a reduction of who Christianity has always said God is.
The Christian God is BOTH “Holy Holy Holy” AND “the whole earth is full of his glory” as the angels sang in Isaiah 6. As Paul at Mars Hill quoted stoic poets “in Him we live and move and have our being” YET he also is a personal God who wills, chooses and acts with rationality and intentionality. He is God #1 AND God #2 together. If you have only God #1 you’ve only got Pantheism, a God that cannot rescue. If you’ve got only God #2 you’ll sink into paganism where your religious life is a scramble to broker with the spirits and gods for power and advantage. The God of the Bible is BOTH the Lord of the arena in which we live, move and have our being AND the agent who loves, seeks and rescues us.
A return to Christianity?
After hundreds of conversations with people who were turned on to Christianity through the Jordan Peterson Biblical series I’m convinced that this re-integration of the Biblical image of God’s immanence and transcendence is a vital link in the post-modern journey back to Christianity. Kingsnorth illustrates this precisely because he did NOT come through Peterson, but came through his pantheism and nature religion.
The subject of New Atheism came up in the video and Williams made the point about rationality. Rationality as promoted by modernity tended to be a very linear, almost mathematical way of thinking. It was imagined that a rational approach to a very object-oriented propositional world would be the key for rescuing humanity from all that plagues us. This image of seeing and colonizing the world is what Kingsnorth has always denounced. We imagine we can see all of the complexity in the world and with our powers of rationality can unmake the natural order of things in order to remake them according to our own liking. The technological stumbles of late modernity have suggested that the world is too large and complex for us to adequately account for our context and attempts to completely control it via rationality have only led to unintended consequences.
Williams recognized that there are more kinds of knowledge than just the propositional, surface, positivistic image of the world and that true rationality is embedded in a much more embodied approach to the world. This has been what Toronto Cognitive Scientist John Vervaeke has been preaching in his YouTube series “Awakening from the Meaning Crisis”. We live in a world that we know not only propositionally, but also in a perspectival, participatory and procedurally. Attempts to build artificial intelligence have shown us that rationality and knowing involves being embodied in the world. What Williams said about rationality is precisely what recent cognitive science has discovered. New Atheist rationality is blind to the embodiment that makes it possible.
At a deeply intuitive level people are starting to realize this and are attracted to traditions of Christianity that take the body seriously. Many traditions are adopting practices and liturgies that reinforce the sacramental nature of Christian living. This is part of the reason why we’re seeing more interest in Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Protestant traditions that invite believers to live, move and have their being in a more sacramental vision.
What we are seeing is a new way back from neo-paganism that has grabbed much public attention in recent years. As Lewis predicted the remaking of paganism also anticipates the re-discovery of Christianity. While few people are consciously connecting these dots, listening to their testimonies are illuminating this pattern. People HAVE religious experiences and at some point no amount of secular cultural pressure to deny it will stop them from looking to make sense of these experiences in a broader religious landscape. Justin begins the conversation by asking “Are we ready to believe in God again?” and it seems that many people are saying “yes” to that.