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The Cross and the Machine


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The Free Press

After years of atheism, I went searching for the truth. I found Buddhism, then witchcraft, and eventually, Christianity.[/]

Paul Kingsnorth

December 25, 2023

Readers of The Free Press know that I am as Jewish as the Pope is Catholic. But several of my favorite writers—especially when it comes to making sense of the chaos of our current moment—are devout Christians. One of them is Paul Kingsnorth.

Kingsnorth is an English essayist and a novelist. Once a leading environmental activist, Kingsnorth now lives in rural Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, where he and his wife homeschool their children, keep a farm and generally live out the values that others put on placards.

Here is how Paul describes himself: “I am an animist in an age of machines; a poet-of-sorts in a dictatorship of merchants; a believer in a culture of cynics. Either I’m mad, or the world is.” He continues: “My most strongly-held belief is this: that our modern crisis is not economic, political, scientific or technological, and that no ‘answers’ to it will be found in those spheres. I believe that we are living through a deep spiritual crisis; perhaps even a spiritual war. My interest these days is what this means.”

That spiritual crisis—and the searching that it demands—is the subject of our Christmas offering to you: a brilliant essay, originally published by First Things, in which Paul describes the journey that has taken him from atheism to Orthodox Christianity, with a few detours along the way.

“I grew up believing what all modern people are taught: that freedom meant lack of constraint,” writes Paul. “Orthodoxy taught me that this freedom was no freedom at all.” 

To our readers who celebrate, Merry Christmas. — BW 

(Snip)

 

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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.

Up on the mountain like Moriarty, in the ­Maumturk ranges in the autumn rain, I had my own vision, terrible and joyful and impossible. I saw that if we were to follow the teachings we were given at such great cost—the radical humility, the blessings upon the meek, the love of neighbor and enemy, the woe unto those who are rich, the last who will be first—above all, if we were to stumble toward the Creator with love and awe, then creation itself would not now be groaning under our weight. I saw that the teachings of Christ were the most radical in history, and that no empire could be built by those who truly lived them. I saw that we had arrived here because we do not live them; because, as Auden had it:

We would rather be ruined than changed.
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

It turns out that both the stuffy vicars and the trendy vicars were onto something: the Cross holds the key to everything. The sacrifice is all the teaching. I am a new and green pupil. I can talk for hours, but ideas will become idols in the blink of an eye. I have to pick up my cross and start walking.

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? 

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