Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Bourgeois Liberalism of Paul Kingsnorth's Wild Christianity

"There's money in mysticism."

That's what Sally said to me when I asked her about her business selling meditation lessons in Zen Buddhism.  We were both students at the University of Chicago in the 1970s, and we met at a student party in a crowded apartment in Hyde Park.  Although the tuition was low compared to tuition today at Chicago, we were all so poor that we were always looking for income to pay our expenses.  Some of us were envious of Sally's success as a spiritual entrepreneur in marketing her Buddhism to other students.

I thought about Sally a few days ago when I read Paul Kingsnorth's essay in the March 2023 issue of First Things--"A Wild Christianity."  Kingsnorth is a novelist, poet, and essayist living in Ireland.

Kingsnorth says he is returning to the "wild Christianity" or "cave Christianity" of the ancient Christian ascetics; and in doing that, he says he is rebelling against the degrading materialist culture of modern secular liberalism.  But a careful reading of this and other essays by Kingsnorth will show that in his longing for Christian spirituality, he is not so much rebelling against bourgeois liberalism as expressing it.  

Like Sally, Kingsnorth is a spiritual entrepreneur who sells his Christian writing to consumers who long for the experience of a Christian transcendence of the world.  There is nothing wrong with that, because it shows that the bourgeois virtues of a liberal society include the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity.  The natural desire for religious transcendence is part of evolved human nature that will be manifested in a liberal social order where human beings go to the free marketplace of religion to choose among the competing religious traditions in finding the one that is most satisfying to them.

There is something wrong, however, in Kingsnorth's refusal to see that far from working against liberal culture, he is working within it, because he depends on the religious liberty in the pursuit of spirituality that is secured by a liberal social order to live a happy and profitable life as a writer of spiritual literature.  

His talent for engaging writing is evident from the very beginning of his First Things essay:

"Through the mouth of the cave, I watched the storm front move in from the east.  I could already her the approaching thunder; the low bank of cloud was gray with it.  I was perched on a low ledge inside the cave, which was just long enough to accommodate a human body laid prone.  I had filled the place with candles, which guttered and danced in the wind that was rising now with the coming storm."

"The storm broke in an instant, and then everything was roaring.  Great nails of rain hammered down on the hazels, and the rumbles of thunder were replaced by an explosion right above me.  The dimming evening sky was suddenly ripped from horizon to horizon by a great sheet of white lightning.  More rain.  More thunder.  More electricity.  It roared on and then, eventually, it roared past.  Ten minutes later, the rain had slowed, but the pause in hostilities was only temporary.  I could see another front approaching over the mountains."

"Four hours it went on.  A night of storm and screaming skies.  In the end, everything was black but for the light the candle flames threw on the weeping walls of the limestone cave, and irregular explosions of light, which would suddenly imprint on my retinas a white cave mouth like an opening to heaven or hell.  The roof of the cave was dripping now.  Outside there was nothing to be sseen unless the lightning came down, seeking the ground like a long-lost brother.  No ruined church, no well, no spring, no wood:  Everything that had surrounded me during the day had been swallowed by the Atlantic winter."

"This was how I spent the eve of my fiftieth birthday."

He explains that his stormy night in this cave was his attempt to relive the experience of the sixth-century Irish Saint Colman Mac Duagh, who is said to have lived a monastic solitary life in this cave for seven years.  Here's a picture of the cave in the Burren, a region on the west coast of Ireland:


In a previous essay for First Things--"The Cross and the Machine" (June 2021)--Kingsnorth recounted his spiritual journey that eventually led to this night in St. Colman's cave.   As a child, he had no interest in religion because it seemed to be irrelevant to his life.  Then, as a teenager, he became an atheist.  But he often visited empty churches.  And he often walked and camped in the mountains of England and Wales, where he felt the wondrous mystery of the natural world.  He thus became an animist or pantheist, and this pantheistic religion of nature was then expressed in his environmentalist activism, which included chaining himself to construction equipment to stop building projects.

Then he saw that there was a deeper issue here: the ecological crisis arose from the refusal of the liberal way of life to accept any limits to human action on the world, and this was a crisis of culture that was also a crisis of spirit.  He saw that every culture is built around a spiritual core that looks to a divinely transcendent reality that limits human action.  Without that spiritual core, no culture can survive.

He saw that every culture might need to look to one of the great spiritual traditions to provide some understanding of a transcendent reality beyond the world.  He chose Zen Buddhism.  On his fortieth birthday, he went on a week-long Zen retreat.  But then over the next five years, he saw that Zen Buddhism would not satisfy him, because he needed to worship, but he did not know what it was that he could rightly worship.

He decided that since he had a reverence for nature, he could worship God in nature.  That led him to become a priest of the witch gods: he joined a Wiccan coven.  Wicca is a modern pagan religion developed in the first half of the twentieth century, in which all Wiccans are priests or priestesses of two gods--the Great Goddess and the Horned God--who are two aspects of a greater pantheistic deity.  Kingsnorth observes: "My coven used to do its rituals in the woods under the full moon.  It was fun, and it made things happen.  I discovered that magic is real.  It works.  Who it works for is another question."

But he still had a vague sense that there was a void inside of him, and that the Wiccan stuff was just play-acting.  Then, he began to dream of Jesus speaking to him.  And, finally, he had an ecstatic experience: "Suddenly, I could see how everyone in the room was connected to everyone else, and I could see what was going on inside them and inside myself.  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 swagger 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."  He explains: "In the end, though, I didn't become a Christian because I could argue myself into it.  I became a Christian because I knew, suddenly, that it was true."  In January of 2021, he joined the Romanian Orthodox Church and was baptized in the River Shannon.

But notice that while now he knows that Christianity is true, previously he knew that pantheism was true, that Zen Buddhism was true, and that Wicca was true.  How is what he knows now to be true any better than what he previously thought he knew to be true?  He doesn't explain.  And yet perhaps his account of his reliving the monastic experience of St. Colman in the cave can show us how his experience of Christian truth rises above his experience of pantheistic truth, Buddhist truth, or Wiccan truth.

Kingsnorth says he was drawn to Colman because from a young age he was obsessed by hermits and mystics like Tolkein's Gandalf.  "Maybe this sort of thing is in my blood, or maybe I just read too many fantasy novels."  Above all, he loves the story of strange men who retreat to the wilds to find wisdom and God.  And so, he loves the story of Colman:

"Colman lived in his cave, it is said, for seven years.  He drank water from the spring, ate hazelnuts and berries from the forest, and wandered the 'pathless woods' praying.  He built a small oratory church, of which no traces remain, though a later stone ruin stands on the same site. . . ."

. . .

"My favorite story about Colman concerns his wild companions.  The saint, the legends tell us, somehow befriended a cockerel, a mouse, and a fly, and trained them to help him out.  The cockerel's job was to crow when he needed to get up in the morning to pray.  The mouse's role was to step in if Colman didn't feel like getting out of bed:  It would nibble his ear until he roused himself.  As for the fly, Colman trained it to walk along the lines of his Bible in the dim light, so he could follow it as he read.  A new stained glass church window in the nearby town of Gort portrays the saint with his three animal companions rather sweetly."

Notice that Kingsnorth identifies this "story" as based on "legends."  Actually, everything he says about Colman comes from a short biography posted on the St. website.  The source for this website biography is a book by Father Jerome Fahey--The History and Antiquities of the Diocese of Kilmacduagh (Dublin: M. H. Gill and Son, 1893)--which can be found online.  I don't see any evidence that Kingsnorth has read the book.  When Fahey tells the story about the cock, the mouse, and the fly, he warns his reader: "It should be remembered that those eminent writers who reproduce those legends never professed to do more than carefully reproduce what they found in ancient writings, without at all holding themselves responsible for their credibility" (60).  Fahey repeatedly makes remarks like this: "some of our medieval writers have added some incredible marvels of the usual legendary character" (62).

So, is Kingsnorth presenting this story of Colman as historically true?  Or does he see it as only a legend that might have little credibility?  He certainly makes no effort to persuade his readers that this story is historically accurate, as if this does not matter to him.

Consider this last paragraph of his essay:

"There is a wild-haired man in the desert clad in camel skin.  He is the start of things.  He lives on honey and insects and he calls us to prepare for the coming of one who will baptize not with water but with fire.  God, he says, will come in human form.  He will be born in a cave, he will walk on the water and battle in the desert and when he comes to the city it will kill him.  But that will not be the end of the story.  We can't write the ending to this story.  We can only trace the lines on the page in the dim light of the cave mouth.  We can only wait patiently for the storm to come over and for the lightning to come down, and illuminate everything."

So, now, Kingsnorth presents the stories of John the Baptist and Jesus as if they are at the same level as the stories of Colman in the cave.  If the stories of Colman are legends, are these New Testament stories also only legends?

If so, then Jesus exists as a character in a good fictional story, but he does not really exist.  If this is what Kingsnorth is suggesting, then he is still an atheist, as he was as a teenager, but now he's a religious atheist.  He is promoting the same atheistic religiosity that I have identified in people like Friedrich Nietzsche, Roger Scruton, Leon Kass, and Jordan Peterson.

If this is so, then Kingsnorth shows us that there is a global market for atheistic spirituality.  Kingsnorth's global marketing of his writing seems at odds with his vehement scorn for global capitalism and modern technology.  His first novel--The Wake--was published through internet crowdfunding.  Film rights to this novel were then sold to a global group of investors led by the actor Mark Ryland and the former president of HBO Films Colin Callender.

If you go to Kingsnorth's website, you will see how he markets his books and his blog to generate revenue.  A subscription to his "Abbey of Misrule" blog costs 50 Euros a year (about $53 USD).  In his use of internet marketing and in other respects, Kingsnorth has a lot in common with Rod Dreher.  This past week, Dreher was in Ireland to interview Kingsnorth for Dreher's new book on "reinchantment" movements around the world.

                Rod Dreyer and Paul Kingsnorth, Near the St. Colman Tower in County Clare

Just as Dreher argues for the "Benedict Option," in which religious believers form small local communities with their own schools, churches, and social groups of families to live out their religious faith, Kingsnorth recommends that people build voluntary associations of religious families and groups at the local level.  

Notice that both Kingsnorth and Dreher are incoherent in that while they profess to reject liberalism, they actually embrace the fundamental principles of liberalism--such as voluntarism and religious liberty--and they reject the illiberalism of theocratic regimes that would coercively enforce religious belief.  As I have indicated in previous posts, they share this incoherence (both affirming and denying liberalism) with Patrick Deneen.

When I went to Dreher's Substack website, I discovered that to read his blog, I would have to subscribe for $50 a year.  I then received this email message from Dreher:

Hey friend, if you’d like to receive the Daily Dreher, um, daily, please subscribe. It’s only five dollars per month (25 cents per day), or fifty dollars per year. Come on, it’ll be fun. Peel me a grape! French me a fry!

Why is it different from my blog? For one thing, it’s a spiritual exercise for me. On my TAC blog, I chronicle the Continuing Crisis. Here, I write in a much quieter and more reflective mode, trying to train my eye to perceive the beauty, the goodness, and the meaning in the world — reasons to hope. On this blog, I attempt to discover the truth of Auden’s lines: “Life remains a blessing/Although you cannot bless.”

I write more candidly and personally about religion here. Also, about books, ideas, travel, and food — but always striving to do so in a “what’s good about the world” sense. Crazy, innit? I hope you will join me. I also feature reader letters. Let’s make this a collective venture. We’re all trying to figure out how to “stagger onward rejoicing” (Auden again), so let’s help each other.



Notice that for every 2,000 subscribers, this brings in a cool $100,000 of yearly revenue.  And it's only 25 cents per day!

This reminds us of Sally's wisdom: There's money in mysticism.


Roger Sweeny said...

I suppose one thing Dreher could do to blunt your implicit criticism that he's "in it for the money" would be to change the subscription rate with the subscription numbers. If he is getting an adequate income with 2,000 subscribers and the number doubles, he could charge only half as much. If subscriptions go up ten times, subscription rates could go down to one tenth.

Actually, I don't think substack allows you to do this. So just a "thought experiment".

And doesn't substack take a cut, so $100,000 paid in does not equal $100,000 to the writer?

Les Brunswick said...

What you are calling "atheist religiosity" is part of what I call "contemporary traditionalism." It starts with the idea that traditional ways are best, but then mixes in large elements of modern liberalism in every area of life and society, and produces nothing like coherent, workable long-term plan.

Larry Arnhart said...


I should not have given the impression that I think Dreher is "in it for the money." I meant to say that there's nothing wrong with writers who are serious about their ideas earning some money for their writing, but then they shouldn't scorn the life of bourgeois money-making.


I agree with you that "contemporary traditionalists" want to pose as critics of liberalism while holding onto liberal ideas, so they want to scorn secular liberalism while still embracing religious liberty and pluralism.

Barto of the Oratory said...

A different Darwinian interpretation:
1. Dr. Arnhart writes:
“Notice that both Kingsnorth and Dreher are incoherent in that while they profess to reject liberalism, they actually embrace the fundamental principles of liberalism…”
2. I interpret this to mean NOT that Kingsnorth & Dreher are cynically working to deceive, but rather that Kingsnorth & Dreher themselves doesn’t understand what they are doing.
3. To me, this is just one instance of our common state. Most of the time we do not grasp what we are really doing. We use the evolved tools of language, religion, philosophy, & art to put or see facades on what’s going on.
4. What we are REALLY doing? I find the answer in Darwin’s book ORIGIN, where he said that all the phenomenon of biological beings:
“have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms.”
Darwin then made clear in his book ORIGIN that these laws never stop operating within biological beings (with no exception for human beings):
“whilst this planet has GONE CYCLING ON according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and ARE BEING, evolved.” (That’s the last sentence in the book.)
5. In Darwin’s book DESCENT (1871), published 12 years after Darwin’s ORIGIN book (1859), Darwin seems to have contradicted himself by saying that Natural Selection biological evolution no longer operates among “civilized races.”
6. I interpret this as a case of Darwin not recognizing that he had comprised the integrity of his original theory by giving in to intense social & intrapsychic pressures to limit the operation of the savage Natural Selection biological evolution to lower animals & to the “savage races” of human beings.
7. Assuming that Darwin did what I think he did, I think it is understandable. He was under terrible pressures. These pressures are recounted in the book “Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist,” by Desmond & Moore. The original theory that Darwin gave the world had killed the credibility of the history of man & God presented in the Bible. Doing that, wrote Darwin, "is as if one were confessing to a murder." Murderers have much to fear from society. Murderers (excepting sociopaths) experience much guilt. So, some psychobiographers speculate that, having killed the Biblical God, Darwin, being full of guilt & fear, couldn’t bear the intrapsychic & social pressures of also being responsible for killing off the fiction of Western Civilization.
8. Freud picked up the original Darwinian insight that we are all always under the control of mindless, mechanical biological laws that we (most of the time) don’t recognize.
9. Darwin’s book DESCENT could have been titled “European Civilization & Its Grandeur.”
10. By contrast, Freud in 1930 published “Civilization and Its Discontents,” which explained how civilization is largely a fictional façade constructed over an always savage underlying biological reality.
11. But isn’t it widely held that savage Natural Selection biological evolution DOES NOT operate among civilized people? Isn’t that a common conviction of, say, all the members of the U.S. Congress & all the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court? Yes. And doesn’t practically every professor of philosophy, psychology, sociology, & anthropology hold to the common belief that savage Natural Selection biological evolution doesn’t operate among civilized people? Yes. I think only a few professors, mainly the ones who are convinced of Evolutionary Psychology or Sociobiology, would disagree.

Roger Sweeny said...

@ Barto of the Oratory - Why do you refer to "savage Natural Selection"? Is it something different from plain natural selection? After all, natural selection need not be savage at all. It could, for example, simply be smarter people finding that having more than one child doesn't fit into their lifestyle, and thus modifying the gene pool toward lower average intelligence.

Natural selection is differential reproduction leading to a different gene pool. (Assuming no one is above it all, deciding who can reproduce or who can survive; a slave owner could potentially change the gene pool by artificial selection.)

Roger Sweeny said...

@ Barto of the Oratory - I am reading Frans de Waal's The Ape and the Sushi Master: Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist (2001) and came upon this:

"[Mariko] Hiraiwa-Hasegawa '[characterized Kinji Imanishi as saying] that natural selection based on competition between individuals is a distorted view of the organic world from a western point of view.'

"[The Englishman Beverly] Halstead drew a parallel with Kropotkin, who also selectively looked for and found examples of cooperation in nature. Yet throughout his life the Russian prince remained a staunch admirer and follower of Darwin. The target of Kropotkin's wrath was not Darwin, but Thomas Henry Huxley and his narrow outlook--often described as 'gladiatorial'--that pitted every life form and every individual against each other. Kropotkin rightly noted that many animals survive not through struggle, but through mutual aid. Huxley's cardboard version of Darwinism was exactly the sort of caricature that Imanishi also objected to, and that he may have mistaken, quite erroneously for Darwin's own perspective." (pp. 121-2)

Perhaps you have a Huxley-like understanding of natural selection? Natural selection does not need to be savage. Take a fruit-eating species, in which some members get a mutation that makes them better able to see color and thus eat riper fruit. Those without the mutation will eat less well and eventually die out. This is natural selection but not savage.

Paul said...

A religious atheist? Blimey. Now I've heard everything.

I'm flattered to be written about, but you're quite a way offbeam here. And I'm certainly not 'selling spirituality' to anyone. Otherwise I'd probably be running expensive courses or monetising some Youtube videos or something. I'm just trying to make a living with my writing, as I always have, so that I can feed my children.

I'll plead guilty to being bourgeois though, and probably being at least partly liberal, even as I can see the great holes in the whole worldview.

By the way, I never 'knew' that Wicca was true. I always doubted it, as it happens. I did think - and still do - that Zen contains great wisdom and truth about the reality of the human mind. But Christ came to me unbidden, and there was no denying what happened or what it meant.

Of course, writing about any of this is a risk, and possibly a foolish one. It is common to be misunderstood.

All the best,
Paul K

Larry Arnhart said...


Why do you refer to the stories about Colman as "legends"? Certainly, Fahey suggests that as legends these stories should not be taken as historically accurate. Do you agree?

If so, are you suggesting that the stories in the New Testament about John the Baptist and Jesus are legends, and thus not historically accurate? If you believe that the Biblical stories about Jesus are psychologically satisfying but not historically accurate, that's what I call religious atheism. This would make you like Nietzsche's Zarathustra who was said to be "the most pious of all those who do not believe in God."

Paul said...

Of course I don't believe the life of Christ is a 'legend.' I'm a baptised member of the Orthodox Church.

I would suggest before attacking other Christians that we all ought to make something of an effort to find out what they believe, rather than relying on our own suppositions and prejudices.