If you’re going to read only one piece of writing this weekend, it should be this autobiographical essay by Paul Kingsnorth about his conversion to Orthodox Christianity, which is published in the June 2021 issue of First Things. Kingsnorth is one of England’s greatest living novelists, a fact which, if you didn’t already know, you’d be able to adduce from the quality of the prose on display in the aforementioned essay. His path to faith has been that of a restless seeker who has tried nearly every other way of relating to reality out for size. “This was how I ended up a priest of the witch gods,” he informs the reader at one point, after explaining why Zen Buddhism just wasn’t quite cutting it for him.
One of the most interesting and original aspects of Kingsnorth’s conversion story is the outsized role that environmentalism and economic history seem to have played in his becoming a Christian. These are not stepping stones to faith that one often hears referenced when reading or listening to the reasons that human beings habitually give for believing that Jesus of Nazareth is divine. But the theological analysis that Kingsnorth provides of our relationship with wealth, the natural world, and the divine is utterly compelling.
Here is how he describes the way in which the natural world captured his imagination as a 16-year-old atheist wandering through the English countryside:
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. With Wordsworth, I was dragged under by “A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things, all objects of all thought / And rolls through all things.” Nothing humans could build could come close to the intense wonder and mystery of the natural world; I still believe that to be self-evidently true. This was my religion. Animism, pantheism, call it what you will: This was my pagan grace.
As Kingsnorth continues, “years of environmental activism followed,” spurred on by the observation that “the rebellion against God manifested itself in a rebellion against creation, against all nature, human and wild. 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.” What Kingsnorth is getting at is the replacement of nature with technology, the basic project of modernity. As I wrote here in January:
Technology allows human beings to shape reality in such a way that it conforms to their own needs and desires. This is probably the most basic and generally applicable definition of the word that has held true over the centuries. Our primal ancestors were confronted everywhere and at all times by the basic indifference of the world to their own existence. Hunger, thirst, heat, cold, pain, and disease all taught them that nature doesn’t often conform itself to the needs and desires of Homo sapiens. Starting with the spear and the shelter, technology emerged as a method of taming, cajoling, and coercing nature to bend to the will of mankind, and so our task continued for millennia.
During the agricultural revolution, we discovered techniques that allowed us to make the earth’s yield serve our needs, and something like civilization was born. But from that time until the 18th century, progress was slow and uneven. Every man, woman, and child ran into the brutal indifference of reality to their own appetites and aspirations at almost every moment of the day.
The industrial revolution changed all that. A combination of free markets, cheap energy, and a population boom led to a quantum leap in technological advance. We seemed to accomplish more — shaping the world to suit us — with each passing decade than we had in the previous 10,000 years.
The long-term social effects of the industrial revolution, and the civilization it brought forth, were investigated by one of the most important 20th-century thinkers, Jacques Ellul, in his book The Technological Society (published in French in 1954). Ellul believed that technology (which he included under the broader term technique) was the dominant ideology of the modern age, encompassing both capitalism and communism. The project of this ideology is essentially to replace nature with technology, so that human beings no longer have to bump up against any intractably resistant reality that might hamper the fulfillment of their desires.
The logical endpoint of technological development, as I pointed out later on in this piece “is virtual reality: a technological end-state in which no individual has to confront anything contrary to his own desires.” I further predicted that “the emergence of this kind of technology, and religious opposition to it, is likely to be the defining culture war of this century,” a claim I still stand by.
This modern project’s ultimate enemy is limitation. In fact it’s the lack of any limitations placed by humans upon their own desires that is the chief cause of Earth’s ecological woes and of our own mass unhappiness as a society. As Kingsnorth notes,
Early Green thinkers, people like Leopold Kohr or E. F. Schumacher, who were themselves inspired by the likes of Gandhi and Tolstoy, had taught us that the ecological crisis was above all a crisis of limits, or lack of them. Modern economies thrive by encouraging ever-increasing consumption of harmful junk, and our hyper-liberal culture encourages us to satiate any and all of our appetites in our pursuit of happiness. If that pursuit turns out to make us unhappy instead — well, that’s probably just because some limits remain un-busted.
Following the rabbit hole down, I realized that a crisis of limits is a crisis of culture, and a crisis of culture is a crisis of spirit. Every living culture in history, from the smallest tribe to the largest civilization, has been built around a spiritual core: a central claim about the relationship between human culture, nonhuman nature, and divinity. Every culture that lasts, I suspect, understands that living within limits — limits set by natural law, by cultural tradition, by ecological boundaries — is a cultural necessity and a spiritual imperative. There seems to be only one culture in history that has held none of this to be true, and it happens to be the one we’re living in.
Technological capitalism is extremely proficient at producing all kinds of goods for human beings, but it is most proficient at producing desires. The manufacture of new desires is the real business of much of our modern economy. Advertising, for instance, exists, as an industry, to create in customers want and discontent where there might have been satisfaction and contentment with what one already has. This proliferation of desires is what makes us treat the planet as nothing but a standing reserve of natural resources ripe for exploitation — the raw material of an ever-receding goal of final satiation.
A spiritually centered society would be able to tame the free economy by way of virtue so that it becomes the servant, rather than the master, of man. The promise made by our credit cards that ringing them through the till once more time will bring us beatification is false, and a culture that unmasked this lie would perhaps be one finally capable of living within its financial means, avoiding economic, as well as ecological, devastation all the while.
But in the meantime, it is no surprise that secularization, crazy levels of debt (both private and public), and ecological devastation are all proceeding apace hand-in-hand in the modern world. We are all of us chasing desires that are multiplying and reproducing at a faster rate than we can attain them, and than our wallets — and planet Earth — can sustain them.
God, as it so happens, is the final and ultimate enemy of this proliferation of desires. At least as the Christian tradition understands Him, He informs all of us that He Himself is the source and end of every desire, and that every commodity promising satisfaction apart from Him is nothing but a tiresome ruse. Moreover, He asks every human being to take up His cross, which is hardly an appealing marketing pitch to prospective consumers. In fact, the story of the Incarnation is the story of a person descending from a world of perfect and impregnable love and voluntarily experiencing the most painful, bloody, and impersonal aspects of reality, purely for the sake of others. As an image of the good life, this is an exact photo-negative of the person who seeks to escape from the harsh realities of the real world into a virtual paradise of pleasure purely for the sake of his own enjoyment, which is what our technological economy — and in extremis virtual reality — aspires to provide us with. In this way, the road that our present economic development is taking us down — toward a world of unfettered and instant access to every conceivable desire — is, in a very technical and specific sense, anti-Christ.
Nor would a turn toward statism help the situation. The state merely seeks the same replacement of nature with technology through different and more-violent means. As Kingsnorth writes,
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.
The upshot of Kingsnorth’s conversion story is simply this: that in the end, our civilization’s religious destiny, its economic destiny, and the fate of the planet might all hang together in ways we haven’t even begun to come to terms with. It’s a possibility worth pondering.