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About this episode:
Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury engages with author Paul Kingsnorth on his adult conversion to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
Paul and Rowan talk about the spiritual longings that still exist under the surface of secular culture and whether ancient forms of Christianity may provide answers to today’s generation.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1: Biology, Belief, and Covid: Can Science and Faith be Reconciled?
- Episode 3: Is there a Master Behind our Mind?
- Episode 4: Rationality, Religious Experience and the Case for God
- Episode 5: Robots, Transhumanism and Life Beyond Earth
- Episode 6: Are Millennials & Gen Z ready to believe in God?
Justin Brierley (JB), Rowan Williams (RW) and Paul Kingsnorth (PK)
JB: Hello and welcome to The Big Conversation from Premier Unbelievable, with me Justin Brierley. The Big Conversation brings the biggest thinkers together to discuss the biggest questions about science, faith and philosophy. ‘Conversion, Culture and the Cross – are we ready to believe in God?’ – that’s our topic on this week’s addition of the show; I’m joined by Rowan Williams and Paul Kingsnorth.
Rowan Williams is a member of the House of Lords and was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012, prior to which he was the Archbishop of Wales. Rowan is an influential theologian who’s held positions at both Oxford and Cambridge universities. His books include, Being Christian, Being Disciples and Being Human.
Paul Kingsnorth is an author and poet who’s Buckmaster Trilogy has earned critical acclaim. Paul has a background in environmental activism, which has gone alongside an interesting spiritual search over many years, that’s included: atheism, Zen Buddhism and Wicca. Well, in 2021, he announced his conversion to orthodox Christianity. Paul says he was as surprised as anyone to find himself an adult convert, and we’ll be tracing that story as both Paul and Rowan talk about the spiritual longings that still exist under the surface of a largely secular culture, and whether ancient forms of Christian tradition may in fact provide answers to today’s generation. So welcome Rowan and Paul to the show, it’s great to have you both with me.
RW: Thank you
PK: Yes, thanks Justin.
JB: Paul, let’s begin with yourself. I know you’ve expressed some apprehension at being invited to come on and talk theology with Rowan Williams…
PK: I’m not going to talk theology with Rowan – I’m going to listen to Rowan talk theology!
JB: I’m sure, Rowan, you see this as an equal meeting of minds, however, and I know you’re a great lover of literature and poetry yourself, aren’t you?
JB: Great, well Paul, why don’t we start with your own story – and we’ll see what Rowan has to say about it as we go along. As I said, it was told beautifully actually in this article you wrote, The Cross and the Machine. Tell us where it all began though, because you didn’t grow up in a particularly Christian or church-going household, did you. So what were your formative experiences of Christianity as you grew into adulthood?
PK: Well, I mean I grew up in the 70s and 80s as a child and a teenager, so back then I suppose Christianity was all around, actually. It was all around, but it wasn’t particularly active – not in my life, anyway. I mean, I didn’t have… my parents were not Christian; they weren’t religious at all. My dad was quite strongly atheist, but not in a particularly committed way; he just thought it was all nonsense, so he didn’t think about it much. My mum is a spiritual being actually, but not a Christian one; so we just weren’t a religious household at all and so I didn’t think about it either. But you know these were the days – I don’t know, maybe they still are in schools – the assemblies were religious and you had your RE lessons and I went to the cub and the scout troop and that was a Baptist church troop.
And so there was… Christianity was… I grew up with it. I memorised the Lord’s Prayer at school and I was in the nativity plays and I knew the gospels stories or some of them, because we had to listen to them – and I wasn’t very enthusiastic about them. But I think there was just… I felt this in England for a long time, that there was just this sense of sort of slight irrelevance about it all, actually – certainly for me. And I think that it felt like a hang up from a time that it was real, but we didn’t believe it anymore – at least those were the stories that the culture told us, you know. And they still are really – this is a sort of bit of superstition that we’d be better off without – but in a very English way, you know. I’ve always felt that the English are not particularly anti-religious, they’re just sort of not religious in a kind of polite, quiet fashion – we just sort of ignore that; certainly we did then. So that was my background really.
JB: You did have a bit of sort of teenage sort of rebellion – in your article you talk about defacing the visitors’ book of a church and that sort of thing.
PK: I’m ashamed to admit this in front of the former Archbishop, I apologise officially. We were really just mucking around; it wasn’t an anti-religious rebellion, it was just a sort of stupid thing that teenage boys do. But yes, I suppose it went hand in hand with the sort of… back then, certainly, if you wanted to be a teenage rebel – and I wasn’t a particularly rebellious teenager – but intellectually the thing to do was to be an atheist and to say that it was all nonsense, of course. Because you imagined that you were sticking it to the man – you were rebelling against the adults, even though none of the adults in my life were interested in Christianity at all. But there was a sense that this was still the hang up of the stale old culture and so you had to make it clear that you were moving onto something.
But it’s funny, because even though I was sort of doing all that in a half-hearted way, as I say, I wasn’t very committed to it. And I might have sort of mocked Christianity or not had much interest in it, but I wasn’t ever really much of an atheist. I mean, I did go through a sort of period of a couple of years of trying to be a sort of teenage Richard Dawkins, but it was never very convincing; I didn’t really believe it. Because at the same time I was mocking religion, I was a real lover of fantasy literature and a great believer in ghosts and the supernatural and fairies and all of the other sort of almost more… maybe less institutional ways, to connect with the divine actually, funnily enough. So there was a sense that religion was a kind of strange waste of time, or even something dangerous. But I was never one of these people who thought the world was disenchanted, really. I always knew it was enchanted, but I didn’t know what to do with that.
JB: So tell us a little bit about how your journey carried on, because obviously you got very involved in the environmental movement, in activism around that. And I suppose you were looking for something that connected with that sort of belief in the kind of the sacredness of mother earth and so on? Tell us about some of the ways in which that manifested in your spiritual journey, alongside your environmental activism?
PK: Well again, when I look back now, from this vantage point, I look back on my whole life as a kind of fumbling spiritual quest, which I didn’t necessarily see it as being at the time. And you know, the environmental activism that I got involved in was secondary to the sense of the sacredness of nature that I had. That was where it came from – I mean the activism, yes, it was political and economic. But that was almost a rationalistic expression of having experienced something, I think, divine in nature. I used to go on a lot of walks with my dad when I was young, he was a great long distance walker, and we spent weeks walking and camping in wild places. And I think he accidentally made me a pantheist, you know – I don’t think that was his intention, but I had very Wordsworthian experiences in the mountains. Nothing spectacular, but just an endless sense of the living power of the natural world – this is not just a material resource.
And so when you have that relationship – which I now think is a relationship to the sacred, the relationship to God actually, expressed through creation, if you want to put it in Christian terms – and then you come back and you see that the society that you’re in is systematically destroying all of it in order to turn it into money, effectively, then – certainly in my case – that made me an activist, and that was true of a lot of other green people that I knew. There’s a sense actually that something very sacrilegious is happening down below all of the conversations about climate change and carbon and all of this kind of rational level stuff; there’s a sense that something really sacrilegious is being done to the living world of which you’re a part. And so that was my motivation, even though I wouldn’t necessarily have used words like that. But now that I look back on it, I can see that that was what was going on.
JB: So this sort of led you obviously to the activism side. You were also still looking for I suppose that spiritual thread as you went through life, and this took you in lots of different directions – Zen Buddhism, Wicca… tell us about the Wicca phase, because that’s quite interesting. For those who aren’t familiar with it, they may just think ‘witchcraft’ – it’s a relatively recent sort of thought-system though, isn’t it, as you say.
PK: Yes, well it’s a very post-1968 slightly made up religion, basically, along with a lot of other sort of New Age-ish things. Wiccans would get very cross if you called them New Age, but they basically are. I mean it’s interesting, because what happened to me was in my thirties I suppose I sort of formalised this spiritual quest. And I thought, ‘ok, this is where I am, I need to find out what the truth is’, and I spent a long time practising Buddhism. And I was a Chan Zen Buddhist, in a slightly… I wasn’t hugely committed to it, but I spent a lot of time on retreats and a lot of practice, and it’s very, very valuable tradition – teaches you a lot about the self, particularly. I realised uncomfortably towards the end of that period of five or six years or so that I wanted to worship, actually – I was looking for God. And I didn’t really want to hear that, but that was what was going on. And you don’t get that in Buddhism actually, and you certainly don’t get a response to the kind of call that I thought I was feeling, even though I didn’t want to feel it. And because I was a lover of nature I thought, ‘well ok, I’m feeling quite religious here, there’s a deity involved, there’s a God involved in this, and I like nature, so I’ll find a nature religion’ – so that was really what I did. And I went looking for nature religions, and I looked into Druidry and things, and yes I ended up practising Wicca – ended up in a local coven of witches.
What Wicca is, is it’s a kind of, as I say, it’s a mash-up of all sorts of different things – slightly made up notions of rediscovered ancient goddess worship and some western mystery traditions, a little bit of Aleister Crowley in there, lots of slightly mystical Kabbalah, bit of Buddhism. I mean, you kind of mix it all in and stir it around and then you invent some gods and you’re sort of there, and the whole thing is sort of an excuse to worship in the woods. But you know, it was something, which at one level was quite satisfying, because it satisfied my need to find a name for the divine – that’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to find God, or rather God was trying to find me. And I was stumbling around and obviously not thinking that I would ever look at something like Christianity, because you don’t do that. And so yes, I ended up there, until I got sort of pulled out of it really.
JB: Well tell us about that, and we’ll then come to Rowan for some of his reflections on your story. Because in a way, going from Wicca to Christianity sounds quite dramatic. And in a way, there were one or two penny dropping moments I think along the way, where you yourself were surprised at this journey you were going on?
PK: Well again, I think now when I look back at Wicca, I see Wicca as a Christian heresy actually, weirdly enough, and I see a lot of New Age stuff as a bit of a Christian heresy. Because firstly, I mean, in terms of the way that Wiccans actually do their ceremonies, there’s a lot of playing around with bread and wine and altars and all sorts of things like that. And they would be very cross if you told them that they were satirising Christianity, but they are. And there is a sense that a lot of these New Age religions have behind them broadly Christian values actually; but they don’t want to deal with Christ and they don’t want to deal with monotheism and they don’t want to deal with the church. A lot of it actually is a rebellion against institutions, which I think is a much broader cultural issue that’s going on at the moment – they just don’t like hierarchy. They don’t like priests, they don’t like institutions, they don’t like books with rules in. So it’s very much a very contemporary, very post-war western rebellion against forms, I think.
And I wasn’t so interested in that myself – I was looking for God. And I just started having very strange experiences. These things are difficult to describe, but I was having dreams and experiences and I was meeting Christians every five minutes. I was getting emails from Christians… I used to run a writing school, and suddenly had vicars writing to me and asking me to read their sermons and give them feedback, and I had people I had known for years suddenly tell me they were Christians and I hadn’t known. And really I felt after I’d read some C S Lewis I kind of recognised what was going on, you know, because I felt like I was just being hunted, actually. I’m being hunted by Jesus, I can’t deal with this! This was not the plan. But it was happening! If I’d listened to this sort of thing five years ago, I’d have thought it sounded absurd. But it happened to me.
And I felt like I was physically dragged out of Wicca, actually. I felt like I was physically being told, ‘you’ve got to get out of here because this is not good stuff you’re doing’, and it isn’t good stuff, actually. There’s all sorts of strange forces at work that people are not necessarily aware of I think now. I really felt like I had really been looking for God, and God had come to find me; Christ had come to find me, particularly. And one of the reasons I thought that this was true – apart from the fact that it wouldn’t stop – was that I didn’t want it to be true, interestingly. You know, I’d gone looking for Buddhism and I’d gone looking for Wicca, because I thought they fitted with how I saw the world. But I didn’t think Christianity fitted how I saw the world at all! And I didn’t want to be Christian. And yes, eventually I just basically had to accept that this was happening and give into it and see where it took me. Because I’d asked for it, I had to deal with the consequence!
JB: And your wife had in a funny way prophesied it I think, over a meal or something? You tell this story that she said…
PK: She did actually…
JB: You’re going to become a Christian…
PK: My wife comes from a Sikh background and she’s rediscovering her Sikhism as we kind of grow together. And it’s interesting actually, she’s very good at quietly prophesising things – she’s much more spiritually intelligent than me. And yeah, one day we were just out for dinner, a couple of years before any of this happened, and she suddenly said – apropos of nothing – she said, ‘you’re going to become a Christian’. And we weren’t even talking about religion. I said, ‘what are you talking about?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know, I just knew that so I had to say it’. And she was right, as she usually is. And a lot of things like that happened – a lot of very strange prophetic things that you don’t believe until they happen. And I was asked to write a piece about it – I wrote the piece you talked about – and since then I’ve inevitably had a lot of emails from people who’ve said, ‘something really similar happened to me’. So it’s surprising – maybe not to you – but it was surprising to me how common this kind of experience is.
JB: Well it’ll be very interesting to trace some of those other stories and the experiences you’ve had since coming out as a Christian. And we want to talk about the specific tradition that you’ve been baptised into, the Orthodox tradition. And that’s partly why I wanted to bring you into this conversation, Rowan – thank you very much for being with us on this one. Tell us a bit firstly, of your initial reactions just to Paul’s story, which you’ve obviously read in the article form as well?
RW: Well I was immediately reminded of what C S Lewis says, which is that God is very unprincipled in his search for converts – that he’ll take any opportunity you offer. And I’ve sometimes said when I’m preaching, ‘God is like water – water finds a way in, even if there’s the slightest little gap’. And I think the energy, the activity of God is like that – you leave any gap and something comes through. So that really does ring a bell for me. And the other thing, I was taken with that phrase about Wicca being a Christian heresy. And there’s a sense in which a heresy is always some aspect of mainstream Christianity that hasn’t quite landed or expressed itself as fully as it ought to it in the mainstream, and needs to be foregrounded. That sense of a real attunement to and attention to the active wisdom of God in the world around, that surely is something that a lot of so-called mainstream Christianity has not paid enough attention to, and all sorts of New Age and other religious views do bring that back into focus.
JB: Tell us about your own journey in this respect, Rowan. Because Paul is obviously an adult convert. Would you say that the way your Christian faith came into focus was in any sense a conversion, or do you use a different kind of language to that?
RW: I don’t think I’d speak about it as a conversion; I grew up in a Christian family, fairly formally observant Christian family – not wildly enthusiastic. But I had the great good fortune as a teenager of having a very active, vital, reflective, intelligent church environment, with some brilliant clergy around who just encouraged me to think that what I was discovering in school studies – in my study of literature especially; my first steps in philosophy – that all of that had a place in the church, in Christian orthodoxy. There was room enough for that. And I felt therefore being a Christian was an expansive thing; it gave more room for thinking, feeling, understanding and imagining – it never felt like a constraint. And the more I reflected and studied, the more that felt true.
JB: I know that part of your journey Rowan, there was an interest in the Orthodox Church – and we’ll come to Paul’s own… the fact that he’s become part of the Orthodox Church. What was it that drew you to that particular tradition initially?
RW: As much as anything, it was a sense of the complete integration of thinking and worshipping. It was the sense that you weren’t thinking of ideas and then as it were doing visual aids for them in worship; it wasn’t that you found yourself swept up in ecstatic worship and had to find sort of justification for it. The two just went hand in hand. And when I started reading about the Orthodox Church – experiencing a little bit of Orthodox worship and studying the history of it – I could see that that integrity was there. That worship was a way of thinking; thinking was a way of worship. And that deep interaction I think has been the thing I’m most grateful to the Orthodox tradition for; that’s I think what I’ve most deeply learned from it.
JB: Paul, why did you become attracted in the end then to the Orthodox tradition specifically?
PK: Well, there’s the rational answer and the irrational one. And the irrational one is more important, as usual, which is that when I became a Christian, I spent a while trying to be this sort of Christian on my own. Because again, I was still slightly resisting the notion that I was going to be part of a church or part of a wider group, and I’ve always been somebody who doesn’t like joining things – I’m very bad at joining things. I kind of mask my social awkwardness as politics in that regard, so I’ve never been a joiner. But I thought, in the end, the reading I did and the listening to people and talking to people, I thought, ‘well look, I need to be in a church, clearly’. It’s difficult to be a Christian without doing that. But then which church? I mean, I live in Ireland, I’ve never been in a church, I don’t know which is the real church, I don’t know where I should be? What am I supposed to do here?
And so I spent a long time actually visiting churches, sitting in churches, reading about churches. But I was also praying a lot actually, and I actually just said, ‘look, please send me a priest. Please send me to a church, show me where to go’. And I said that a lot. And then quite soon after I started doing that the first Orthodox monastery in Ireland opened near me – it was very small and very new, and it’s a very wonderful place. And I sort of plucked up the courage to ask if I could go along to a liturgy – it’s a Romanian monastery, but there are non-Romanian people that go along as well, and the liturgy is partly Romanian, partly English and a little bit of Irish. And I just went along, and I was really very just swept up by the liturgy actually, even though I didn’t understand most of the language of it. It was an astonishing experience, and as Rowan says, the integration of all the senses is so strong in the Orthodox tradition. It’s not a matter of your intellectual engagement or not just that; it’s everything – everything happens at once. And things really did happen in that liturgy.
And then I got talking to the priest, and the priest was a very good, solid man as well, and he didn’t try to particularly encourage me to join the church or to discourage me, he just said, ‘well here’s the tradition, here’s where it was’. And there was a kind of seriousness right from the beginning about Orthodoxy. No-one was evangelising me, you know – they were clear about how serious it was, especially for an English man in Ireland going to a Romanian church, which is a strange thing to do as well. But there was something about it that I couldn’t keep away from. And intellectually I suppose, rationally, I think I probably broadly agree with Rowan, but I’d also say that in Orthodoxy the emphasis on God being both transcendent and imminent, you know – everywhere present and filling all things, as it says in the Trisagion Prayer – it’s very, very real. And in that sense – and this wasn’t why I became Orthodox, actually – but in that sense, it kind of satisfied the need I had for a God that was in creation, as well as beyond it.
Because I think that was always the notion that I had when I was young, which was wrong, actually, but it’s the cliché about Christianity – that God is sort of somewhere else, and it’s not actually the case, but it’s what people think is the case. And I think in Orthodoxy, there’s a real emphasis on the living… panentheist, as they call it – the manifestation of God in the natural world. And I think Rowan’s dead right about one of the reasons that a lot of people become, say, neo-pagans or go into nature-worshipping and the rest of it today, in an age where our abuse of nature is so obvious. And it’s that Christianity hasn’t really met that need at all; the institutional church hasn’t met it. But of course you don’t meet that need by rewriting Christian doctrine. But in Orthodoxy I found that there was no contradiction between experiencing God in nature – which I thought I’d been doing for years – and the teachings of the church. Which was a revelation to me, because it hadn’t occurred to me that that was the case before. So that’s still unfolding in my life, actually – it’s quite something.
RW: I think that this is a really key insight, because it seems to me that Christianity properly understood, tells you there’s no such thing as dead matter – there’s no such thing as just stuff lying around. It’s all of it carrying the energy of God in some way. So creation around you, within you – the creation that you are, the creation that you are part of – is all God-acting, God-loving, God-inviting, here and now. And we still have this kind of default position that God made the world and then sort of put it on a shelf and looked at it admiringly and stepped back. Rather than God making the world in the sense that a pianist makes a sonata – the involvement, the energy, is in what’s done; it’s what’s made actively, moment by moment. And that, as you say, that is both an affirmation of utter transcendence, because it’s the freedom to create, but the freedom to create in this way – with involvement, with commitment, with that outpouring in everything of grace and love.
JB: And to that extent, what have been the aspects – even though you’re not part of the Orthodox Church yourself, Rowan – what have been the things that you’ve taken from your knowledge and experience of the tradition, into your own spiritual journey?
RW: Well most practically I suppose, from the age of about twenty, I’ve been using daily the Orthodox prayer – the Jesus Prayer – ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner’ – as the centre piece of my daily reflective or silent prayer. Sitting with that prayer, repeating it, going into silence by that route – that’s something that has been part of my daily practice for I suppose getting on for fifty years or more now.
Connected with that I think is the very strong emphasis in the Eastern Christian tradition on what’s called Apophatic or negative theology, which is you never have a definition of God that’s going to satisfy you, because God is never an object that sits there waiting to be walked around. Again, God is always acting, and that acting is part of the mystery, because you are the one being seen, being loved, being held, and you can’t walk around it – you can’t see it from the distance. And so the paradox is that to talk about negative theology and the mystery of God is not so much talking about how God is unimaginably distant from you, it’s talking about how God is unimaginably close to you – precisely because you can’t sort of get out of sight and walk somewhere else and do something else. So there’s that.
And then the third thing that comes to mind is something which really came into focus for me as a graduate student, encountering one or two theologians – not just from the Russian, but from the Greek world. I’d been working on Russian Christianity, but I was getting to know the Greek world a bit better. And one of those theologians, still alive – Christos Yannaras, who’s a very formidable Greek theologian – he likes to say that Christianity is not a religion – it’s life. And the issues around morality are not between good and evil, but between life and death. And the church is not an institution; it is the community where you grow in life.
And all of these things I think are crucially important, when we’re tempted to think of the church as a struggling institution that has to get recruits to manage it’s image in the world and all the rest of it. My heart sinks a lot when I hear that language. I’m all in favour of mission, but as Paul says, the more we do – the more we fuss, the more we struggle to market our product – somehow the less it looks like life, and the more we put across a message of feeling anxious. It’s the difference between saying, ‘come to church and you will live’, and the church saying, ‘come to church because we will die without you – we’re ready to disappear unless you join us’. Which is not quite the message…
JB: There’s a sort of a bit of desperation to some of the ways it can be put across. We’re going to go to a short break, and I want to come back with Paul’s thoughts on that, and also just what the response has been Paul since you’ve announced this. And then we’ll dive into some of the bigger cultural issues about the search for meaning and purpose and God, in our culture. Special show edition of The Big Conversation today on ‘Conversion, Culture and the Cross – are we ready to believe in God again?’ Paul Kingsnorth and Rowan Williams join me.
JB: Welcome back to today’s edition of the show; really pleased to be joined by Rowan Williams and Paul Kingsnorth, on today’s edition of The Big Conversation. We’re talking about conversion on the show today – are we ready to believe in God again? Paul, you’ve got this pretty extraordinary story – so well written as well, I’ll make sure there’s a link to the article about it – of being an adult convert. You were surprised by this – how surprised were people around you when you announced this? Do they think you’re just having another one of those funny turns, this is the next thing after Zen Buddhism and Wicca – what’s the story there?
PK: Well there have been a few responses like that, certainly. I actually feel I agree with Rowan on this actually, that I don’t really like calling myself a convert. Because weirdly enough I’ve felt like… It’s a funny thing, when you join the Orthodox Church, a lot of people say, ‘welcome home’ – which is a really wonderful thing to hear. And it’s a strange thing to hear if you’re English and joining the Romanian Orthodox Church, because in a fundamental way it’s not your home at all – obviously, culturally, but actually in a deeper way it really is. And weirdly I’ve felt like I’d been a Christian for a very long time, but I just hadn’t realised it. And it felt more like that than a sudden radical conversion to something new; felt like that was something that was always there.
So some people were surprised. My mum took a while to understand it. It helped that I wrote the article actually – I’m always better at writing things down that explaining them. But anyhow, I think that people… I mean, look, some of my readers were very excited, because they were Christian. Some of them were intrigued. Some of them were disgusted and said they were never going to read me again. But broadly speaking, I think I’ve been surprised that there’s been maybe less shock and hostility, at least obviously, than I thought maybe there would be. And actually it turned out that a lot of people I’d known or who were reading me were quietly Christian anyway, but sort of hadn’t mentioned it, and that seems to be quite a common thing. But it’s still unfolding really, I think. But it’s been less hostile than I thought it might be actually, which has been really nice.
JB: There you go. You say it’s not really been exactly a rational journey. In fact, there’s a lovely line where you say, ‘none of this is rationally explicable, and there is no point in arguing with me about it. There is no point in my arguing with myself about it: I gave up after a while.’ Was it just a very sort of internal pull – something that sort of is not necessarily irrational, but might be non-rational?
PK: Well, I’m not suggesting you can’t argue for Christianity – of course you do. I’m talking to a renowned theologian, so very plainly you can expound on the Christian faith in a very rational fashion. But that for me, what I mean to say there, was I didn’t calculate my way into it. I didn’t think, ‘well this is a religion that makes sense according to x,y and z of my criteria, so I’ll go there’. As I’ve said, I felt like I was pulled into it; I felt like… I really love what Rowan said at the beginning, ‘water finding a way’, you know. I felt like I’d said, effectively, ‘ok, I think there’s a God and I want to know the truth, please show me what is going on’. And that was a kind of prayer that I put out to the world, and this is what came at me, so this is why I believe it – this is why I’ve chosen to take it seriously.
Because things are happening and because things keep happening, you know; there’s an unfolding that happens. Every time you go to the liturgy every week, you try to keep your prayer life, you attempt to live as a Christian and mostly fail in my case, but we stumble along, and there’s an unfolding and there’s a deepening, all the time. And there’s a deepening understanding, and the understanding is not intellectual. And the intellectual understanding is very useful – I do a lot of reading, I’m a writer, I love to read theology, I love to read the desert fathers, I want to find out as much as I can about the traditions of the Church. But that’s not what is deepening the faith. What’s deepening the faith is, as Rowan said, practising it – and it’s very much a lifestyle.
There’s a word, I think it’s a Greek word, phronema, which means – I don’t know if there’s a direct translation – but it really means the sort of mind-set, the attitude, the way of life of the Orthodox. And a lot of my Orthodox friends have said to me – who’ve been Orthodox all their lives – it is, it’s a way of life; It’s a way of being, rather than a thing you do on Sunday. Which again is obviously supposed to be and will be true of all Christianity, if you’re living it – that’s what it does to you. But it’s just that my regret is that this didn’t happen to me twenty years ago or thirty, but it’s better late than never.
JB: I’m fascinated to know from you, Rowan, what part the rational aspect plays then. Because you’ve obviously done those debates with Richard Dawkins and Phillip Pullman, you know – the new atheist pushing rationally back against Christianity, and you having to present a sort of rational case for. But ultimately is there only so far you can go in… has there got to be another component that goes along side that, presumably?
RW: I think one of the things that I always want to put into those discussions is to raise the question, ‘what we actually mean by rational’, at the end of the day. Because it’s a word that’s being captured by a certain segment of the intellectual population, as if rationality always meant a kind of near mathematical kind of reasoning, where contusions were tight, arguments were neat and operating in straight lines. And one of the great things about one strand of Christian thinking is that it would say, yes, we claim to be rational, but reason is a much bigger thing than simply mathematical contusions. We reason our way in and out of all sorts of positions; we accumulate relevant experience without quite knowing how we’re doing it. You might even say we reason our way into learning to ride a bicycle – not because we are taking the instructions off the internet, which I suspect is a very bad way of learning to ride a bicycle – because somehow our embodied imagination and thinking learns a way of being in the world. And that’s reasoning, in the fullest sense.
And again, I think the Eastern Christian tradition, when it talks about nous – the intellect, as it’s often translated – is about something much more than what we usually think of as intellectual activity. It’s the deep call of all this learning, responding, adjusting to, and acclimatising to a reality, which is giving us a huge range of mysteriously diverse signals. And there’s a tiny sliver of that, which is the signals that our logical mind picks up. But to be reasonable I think is to be in tune – to be picking up the signals that we need to pick up and responding with our whole being to them. So one of the things I’d want to say certainly to Richard Dawkins is, don’t imagine that thinking is just one thing. Thinking is a richer, deeper, stranger thing than you imagine.
PK: Yes, that’s really… one of my favourite translations of nous is ‘the heart of the mind’. A lot of theologians talk about that and again, it was one of those things that really brought me up short when I first read that – you know, the Orthodox notion that you mind is in your heart, quite literally. Obviously you have your intellect up here that does that thinking and that’s fine and important, but as Rowan is saying, you’re experiential thinking mind is in your heart; it’s connected to your heart. It’s interesting once you start to think about that, you realise how much western culture has separated the notion of heart and the notion of mind. And as Rowan said, we’ve created this notion of a kind of etiolated reason, which somehow can take the rational individual to truth, which isn’t real. And it’s a very disconnected, inhuman, weird way of thinking about things. And it’s not, as Rowan also said, it’s not the way actually most of us experience human life at all. We don’t work like that. But it’s a myth that keeps clinging on.
RW: It’s a very persistent one, isn’t it? I’m thinking back to that lovely book by Mary Midgley called The Myths We Live By, published a decade or more ago, which is a wonderful diagnosis of the curious stories that western civilisation has invented to make itself feel better. And Mary Midgley was very good at pointing us back to the fact that the narrative we’ve lost is the narrative of being part of something. And if you’re part of something then when you’re singing in a choir or swimming in the sea, you have to feel your way into something that is acting upon you, much greater than you, and that is thinking at the deepest level and thinking of the heart. I think also it’s the theme that Iain McGilchrist has been elaborating in his books, especially in this formidable new fifteen hundred page book called The Matter With Things, which I’m trying to read at the moment. But that’s a great sort of witness to the way in which we are involved in our thinking and our perceiving, in ways that a narrow scientism doesn’t begin to get hold of, and yet there’s nothing anti-scientific about saying so.
JB: You and I are both trying to grapple with that book, Rowan, by Iain McGilchrist. Our next addition of The Big Conversation is a live conversation with Iain McGilchrist and Sharon Dirckx who’s a Christian neuroscientist, so this is all tying together very well. Speaking of that rationalist approach though Paul, I mean what would you say to a Dawkins if that were the person that was opposite you instead of Rowan? I mean, do you have to go somewhere sort of more rational to try and explain your story or do you just say, ‘it is a mystery and I accept that you are not going to see things from my perspective’.
PK: Yeah, well I wouldn’t have said yes to an invitation to talk… no, I’m sure it would be very interesting and everything, but it’s not going to go anywhere. Look, you start off assuming that the thing that you’re talking about is nonsense, then there’s not much of a conversation to be had really. And again, there’s that sense of resistance when you talk about anything, if the person that you’re talking to about it basically thinks that you’re wrong and you have to be corrected. Or more to the point, with somebody like Richard Dawkins, if they just don’t accept the terms of discussion or perception. I mean, that’s really what’s going on there – he just doesn’t have any interest in it. And what interested me about a lot of the kind of new atheist conversations and some of the sort of slightly cruder versions of atheism – because there are some sophisticated ones – is there’s no room for a discussion of actual religious experience in them.
And it’s very interesting, there’s a lot of atheist stuff about how religion is just a prop – people are scared of dying or they want hope at the end of their lives or it’s a useful social glue, all of these kinds of thing – which may be true for some people, some time. But actually, it seems to me that the reason religion persists – against all the odds in some ways – is that people keep having religious experiences, which is to say they keep experiencing God. Because if that wasn’t happening, there’s no reason that 87% of the world I think it is would be religious today, which is more than it was ten years ago, you know. Something’s happening. People are having experiences, which are not explained sufficiently by simply saying, ‘oh this is an old-fashioned series of structures that people are just propagandised into and we need to break them by making rational arguments’ – which they’ve had a good ten years of trying to do that, the new atheists, and it didn’t really work. And it doesn’t work, because you can’t argue people out of something they haven’t argued themselves into. So at some point, yes, I’m happy to sort of try and explain things that have happened to me. But at the end of the day, it’s experiential. And it’s easy enough for people to say, well, those experiences are just fantasies or psychological delusions or Freudian needs being met or something – and I can’t say anything to that.
And another thing I like about Orthodoxy is that you know a priest will often say, if you ask him a question, he’ll say, ‘it’s a mystery’. And it’s not because he doesn’t know the answer. It’s because, as Rowan was saying, it is a mystery, and there are some things that we ought to say that you know, what is the essence of God – well it’s a mystery, and we’re never going to know that. You shouldn’t even be discussing that really! How exactly does God permeate matter, how exactly was Christ human and divine – it’s a mystery, you don’t know, you can have ideas but I can’t justify my belief in these things using that method, and that method is a trap, really. The method is set as a trap for people who can’t justify their experiences by using it. And I often think if you were to ask Richard Dawkins to prove that he loved his wife using that kind of method, he would not be able to do it. But that wouldn’t be a legitimate question.
RW: I’ve always been impressed by the fact that Richard is a great lover of JS Bach, as I am, and I’m always puzzled by just what he thinks Bach is about, so to speak, at the end of the day, or where Bach comes from. Because surely, you have to say at the end of the day, all of this rather anecdotal evidence, like the number of people in the world who have religious belief, does suggest that ignoring it is simply ignoring some great swathe of what it is to be human. And that’s one of the points where I think one needs to keep – I won’t say keep the argument going, but to keep the witness going. Saying, what if the unbeliever at the end of the day is missing out on some great tract of the essentially human; what if the world is smaller.
Back to what I was saying of my experiences as a teenager, of which I am so grateful. The sense that to be involved in the practice of a sacramental church was actually opening doors and windows for me all the time, not closing them down – making me feel that whatever humanity could throw up, there was place for it in Christian vision and Christian understanding. And we’ve so almost accepted the terms of an argument which says, well, religion is out to diminish your humanity or to demean or reduce your humanity. And that’s utterly, utterly the opposite of the truth.
PK: Yes, I’ve found exactly the same; I’ve found exactly the same – the freeing nature of it has been quite astonishing. And again, it sort of comes back to that notion we had earlier, which is almost a political argument, that the church has been an oppressive institution. Which obviously you know, churches have been – we can’t deny the realities of some of the things that have happened and the abuses of power and the rest of it. But as you say, the actual path – the way, the faith – is enormously freeing, and that was again a shock to me. Because you sort of grow up with these unquestioned assumptions about how Christianity is a thing that just wants to take stuff away from you and somehow control you, but it isn’t. As you say, it’s a way of making you fully human, and once you realise what you were missing… I mean, certainly for me I’ve only been baptised for a year and a bit, so I’m still very excitable and hungry for all of the kind of goodies. But it’s astonishing that you put yourself into that place of surrendering your will effectively to God and saying, ‘ok, I’m going to do this, I’m going to try and follow this’. And it’s an enormously rich thing; it’s very fulfilling.
JB: It strikes me that there have been a number though who have sort of walked away or rejected faith, because of the institutional nature of it, and have had bad experiences. I mean even in your own tradition, the Orthodox tradition, Paul, we know that the Russian Orthodox Church at this point as we’re recording there is this on-going conflict in Ukraine and people have said they have not said enough and perhaps have even colluded to some extent with Putin and the Kremlin and so on. And that alone can maybe make many people go the new atheist route, saying, ‘that’s what religion does for you’. What’s your response to that? I know it’s not your specific branch of the Orthodox Church that is involved at that level, but what’s your response to those sorts of problems that do arise in the kind of human aspect of the churches that bear this message?
PK: Well it’s just inevitable, isn’t it. As you say, I’m not Russian Orthodox, quite thankfully, at the moment, because I know Russian Orthodox people are having a difficult time with what some of their church leadership is currently doing. This is kind of the story of churches through history and obviously just to say it’s clearly not just a Christian story, I think this is what happens when religion gets close to power anywhere – any religion. I’m not trying to make excuses for Christianity, but there’s no faith that hasn’t done the same thing. And there is no ideological framework of left or right that hasn’t ended up doing the same thing either, when it gets hold of power. And you know atheist regimes don’t have a great record, put it that way. So I think it’s a very difficult question to answer, because I think that there’s something really… I don’t quite know what to think about this, because at one fundamental level, Christianity does not coexist with power, it’s a religion which challenges power deeply at a radical level – not it in political way, in a shallow left/right way. But the path of Christ is the path that subverts all power, actually, and that faith doesn’t fit well with institutional power. And yet the reality of the world is that churches have had to make alliance with institutional power just to survive, in many cases.
I live in Ireland, the early church here – St Patrick, St Kieran, many of the early saints – they had to make alliances with the tribal kings so that their monasteries didn’t get plundered. So the politics is kind of inevitable. So maybe it’s just inevitable that corruption arises in churches and then movements arise in the churches to challenge the corruption, and I think that’s probably been the story of Christian history in the east and the west. And it probably will always be, because we’re all fallen humans, and when you put humans in an institution and give them power, this is what happens to them – or at least some of them.
JB: And you’ve presided for many years over such a fallible institution Rowan, so I’m sure you understand where Paul’s coming from…
RW: Tell me about it. It seems to me that the point is absolutely right here that Paul’s flagged up. There is a fundamental tension, to put it no more strongly, between Christianity and the exercise of power. And yet, Christianity is constantly seduced by this; it’s made alliances with various unsavoury elements. It’s constantly, repeatedly demonised and dehumanised others, especially Jewish people – that’s a strand running right through the history of Christianity so painfully, so centrally. It’s not got a great record on women. It’s also got a very painful record in my own church and in others, as regards the safeguarding of children. You know, it’s pretty bad. But it seems to me at the end of the day, that I wouldn’t feel half so angry about these abuses and failures if I weren’t in the church. You know, it’s the very church which fails, which also gives me the perspective I need in order to see evil for what it is, whether that evil is anti-Semitism or child abuse of whatever. It’s precisely that perspective of standing in the body of Christ, that should give us that resource of seeing exactly where we need to identify the works of destruction and evil.
JB: I’m interested in turning the conversation towards the fact that obviously for some time you were finding if you like arguably the meaning and purpose and the story you were looking for, in your activism, Paul – the environmental activism. But in recent years you’ve kind of come to be a bit disillusioned with that whole movement, almost because it’s become quasi-religious in itself, in your view, and it’s sort of trying to take the place of God in that sense. I mean, talk to that, because I think in a sense is that one example of the way in which people naturally gravitate towards a story, a purpose, an idol almost, you know, potentially – even if maybe for a good cause, the cause of the environment – it can still take the place of the worship we should be offering to God, ultimately?
PK: Well I suppose it could be; I mean that wasn’t my specific disillusion with green activism. It was more that in the name of attempting to save the planet – often with good intentions, sometimes not – much of the mainstream green movement has effectively been hijacked by the forces it was basically opposing, which are the forces of technological industrialism, as far as I can see. And there are a lot of greens out there at the moment who are… You know, when the movement which I became part of, which I thought was working towards sort of small scale, humble living I suppose, ends up shilling for giant wind farms on mountains and solar races in the deserts and almost taking away the conversation from how should we live in this world to what technology should we use to make industrial society sustainable, then you’ve got a very different kind of movement. I think it was a lot of… the mainstream green movement, any of those, basically hijacked by capitalism effectively, used to sell things, and that’s where it’s gone. There are still plenty of good activists around.
But the other bigger issue, which I suppose is a religious question or a spiritual one, is the ability and the limits of human power, actually. Because you can’t actually save the world; the world isn’t yours to save. You can change small parts of it, you can do things in the world, you can act in the world – you have to do that. But you can’t create a great mass movement to attempt to reset the whole plant. And if you do that, you’re very likely to become a tyrant, which has happened many times before. So I mean, I wasn’t thinking in these terms particularly back in the day; I was more disillusioned with how the movement I thought had been hijacked by power again. But yes, there’s certainly – I don’t want to push this too far – but there’s certainly a desire in all of us to be part of something bigger and something transcendent and something that has a great spiritual purpose to it. And saving the planet is certainly an issue that can do that for people, legitimately. But I always come back to this question of how much power should we have and how much power have we got? So yeah, they might be slightly related issues I suppose.
JB: Yes. Rowan, I mean do you see sort of in some of the contemporary I suppose ideologies and causes that people ally themselves to, are those misplaced to some extent – people still searching for that cause, that purpose, that ultimately you believe is only there in God?
RW: It’s very easy I think to have that fantasy, that if you just get a few more things right, you will save the world. As Paul says, the world isn’t ours to save, in that sense. We do what we can with the integrity we can bring to it, in the context we’re in, and I think that’s hard work enough. We push back at certain kinds of exercises of power that are dehumanising; we keep our expectations human, which means understanding that we don’t have infinite resources. Now that doesn’t mean we don’t commit to protest activism, whatever, wholeheartedly. It does mean that you constantly remind yourself, ‘I’m doing this as a human being; I’m not a messiah’ – that’s been done, so to speak! So keep that in proportion. When I speak, as I quite often do, to environmental groups, one of the things I always want to say is just remember that it’s actually not about concocting the ultimately successful programme; it’s about the integrity of your humanity in the place you’re in. And changing a lifestyle is worth doing because it’s worth doing, not just because it’s going to be useful for a slightly more manageable international economy a couple of decades down the line. It’s the worthwhileness of what you do now.
JB: We’re going to go to another quick break and we’ll be back with the final part of today’s show in just a moment’s time. We’re talking about Conversion, Culture and the Cross – perhaps we’ll get to that as we look at Paul Kingsnorth’s story of conversion in conversation with Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, today here on The Big Conversation.
JB: Welcome back to the show. Paul Kingsnorth and Rowan Williams join me today on The Big Conversation, asking are we ready to believe in God again? It’s been fascinating to hear of Paul’s own journey as an adult – though he wouldn’t necessarily even use the word conversion to describe his story – in conversation with Rowan Williams today. I think we were just talking about environmentalism, your own journey wanting to reconnect with nature and the way that you found that there was a way of doing that in the tradition you’ve stepped into, Paul. But yes, you had a question for Rowan on that front I think as well, for people today.
PK: We were talking earlier Rowan about why people may become say neo-pagan, or they may become sort of nature worshippers, if you like, because there’s – this certainly was true of me and it’s true of other people I know as well – this sense that the church firstly is quite rigid and institutional. But almost more than that, that the Christian God is seen as something very distant. As you said earlier, he makes the world and then wanders off and then we have to believe in Jesus and hopefully good things will happen when we die. And there’s a sense of a lack of involvement. And as I said, this isn’t actually the teaching of the church, but there’s a sense that that’s what it is – that’s what the church is teaching. So I suppose my question to you is why do you think we have that impression? Is this the fault of Christians? Is it the fault of the culture? Is there a way of reconnecting people to this sense that actually God is imminent and that the experiences you may be having in the world are actually experiences of God? Because this seemed to me to be certainly what was happening to me, and I have a sense that there’s not an understanding of… that’s a Christian story.
RW: Absolutely. People don’t know where to take their experience. They have these experiences; they have a sense of the sacredness of what’s around them, they have. And it’s interesting, I’ve heard this language used, a sense of almost the sacrilege or the blasphemy of what we do to our material environment. But they don’t know where to put it, all this. They don’t have that overall big picture of what creation actually means and what God actually means. I suppose it comes into existence partly because in the western Christian world especially, one of the most seminal and important periods in the life of the western Church is the 16th/17th century, the Reformation upheaval. Which of course coincides with one of the great intellectual upheavals of western history, where the scientific world-view begins to get traction. And it’s as if the negative elements in both of those upheavals feed each other during that period of say a century and a half – 1550-1700 – producing a very eccentric philosophy of mind, a very detached and overambitious philosophy of science, and a very cerebral and dry form of religion. And it’s not just a Protestant problem; you can see these things happening in the Catholic world as well – so these things kind of play off each other.
But at the same time during that period you do also have remarkable figures who do try to hold it all together. You have the great mystical writers in Spain like Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross; you have Thomas Traherne in England in the 17th century, a priest and poet of the natural world – so you have people doing their best to keep the ship balanced. But the cultural capital accumulated in that period is on the whole pushing heavily down on one side – pushing on the left-brain side, as Iain McGilchrist would say.
So how do we get it back? I think we do have to reconnect with the sacramental life of Christianity and understand that what we do together is not just gathering to instruct ourselves or share ideas, but gathering to be transfigured by doing something together physically – like eating together, in a very ritualised form of course, but opening ourselves to the act of God in that way. I think we also ought to be, as churches, out there campaigning just a little bit more about our educational assumptions as a culture. Perhaps creating more schools of a religious basis – not a sort of brainwashing indoctrination basis, but the kind of educational environment where young children are always being exposed to the realities of the natural world and the mysteries of the natural world, in a way which on the whole they don’t have time for these days. But I think if we try to create those spaces around us in our cultural world, we’ll be doing more effective mission than perhaps if we just bang on about what we’re worried about.
JB: I wonder Paul what your thoughts are, as a relatively new Christian, in terms of what you think the church should be doing, either to engage people like yourself, but equally a generation that frankly assumes Christianity is irrelevant, hasn’t necessarily had the background you’ve had. But without it becoming, as you said earlier, sort of evangelistic programme with obviously can be a turn off in itself anyway? If it is about finding this place where we can engage people with the earth, with nature, and put that in its proper context in terms of a faith that genuinely does that, where would you even begin? What advice would you give the church at this moment?
PK: Well I wouldn’t presume to give the church any advice, as somebody who’s been a Christian for a year! But I’ll tell you what I can say. I can say again, I mean, I found myself in the oldest version of Christianity – arguably, certainly – and the most traditional and the most I suppose ceremonial. And there’s a reason for that. I didn’t go to a modern church, because the modern churches have had too much stripped out of them. As Rowan was just saying, probably since the Reformation or maybe before – you could argue about that historically forever of course. But something’s missing. Something’s missing in western Christianity. And I’m not trying to make a sectarian point that everything’s rosy in Orthodoxy at all. But we’ve made some accommodation with modernity and with this kind of dry rationalism and scientism and with the notions of growth and progress and all of these things, which are actually destroying the world. I mean they’re literally – they’re pulling our culture apart, they’re changing the climate, the whole of the modern project is in crisis.
And there’s a way in which I think Christianity is a deep challenge to that – again, not a political challenge, in the sense that you ought to be out there calling for activism in the name of Christ or something. But this is one of the things I was trying to say in that piece I wrote: if we’re living the way we were called to live by Christ – and I’m certainly not claiming that I am – but if we were, this wouldn’t be happening, would it. We wouldn’t be here. And the teachings of the church… You know, I wanted to go to a church that had the deep, route of the teachings as intact as I could find, which is why I went to Orthodoxy. And I think that actually the church, rather than asking itself how can it get there into the modern world and talk to people – which it’s been trying to do since the sixties with largely catastrophic results, I think – 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. I’m going to tell that story 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. And I actually think that the essence of everything that’s going on in our culture at the moment is not political or economical or technological – those are manifestations of a deep spiritual brokenness that we have. And more and more people can see that and that’s why you have… there’s such a spiritual search going on and people are ending up in all sorts of places, some healthy and some not. But that’s because people can feel the brokenness at the heart of the story we’re telling. And so if the church can do something, it’s be true to itself.
And I mean I’m really personally interested in the sort of Pre-Schism church – the early saints of Britain and Ireland, that’s a personal little interest of mine. Because all of the old… you know, Saint Patrick of Ireland, Saint Edmund the Martyr – the first English patron saint, Cuthbert, Aidan… they weren’t Orthodox or Catholic or Protestant, they were Christian. There was one church and they were extremely rooted in the landscape and they had a really deep powerful sense of the imminence of God in all things everywhere. And that actually it seems to me is this incredible mixture, this powerful mixture of melding of imminence and transcendence; the place you are with the place you’re going to end up in; the kingdom and the world. And I’m very inspired by the early saints and I actually think if anything’s going to save the world at this point, it’s not going to be technology or politics, it’s going to be saints – we need saints. Maybe they’ll come – they’ll come when they’re needed! And I think we can find the inspiration for that in the saints that we once had…
RW: I’m sure that they’ll come when they’re needed – the trouble is you can’t get saints from mail order catalogue, can you!
PK: No you can’t buy them off the shelf unfortunately!
RW: But no, I absolutely share your enthusiasm. As a Welshman I feel my roots there in the way that you describe and that is part of what we have to offer, that sense of history, which is not just about Christian failures but also about the way in which these lives have – to use the language again – opened doors and windows.
JB: Do you agree then, as we close out here Rowan, that it’s going to be about going back rather than trying to modernise, when it comes to how perhaps the church can reach out again to today’s generation?
RW: I would say neither going back nor modernising, but going in – going deeper. We can’t reinvent the age of the saints of the Celtic church; we can’t reinvent 13th century Kiev; we can’t reinvent 15th century Byzantium or you know, wherever you find your ideals. We go, we hope, with the grace and the Holy Spirit, deeper into the heart, and find the energy flowing from there.
JB: Thank you so much for being with us both today, Rowan and Paul. It’s been a fascinating conversation, wish we could carry on for longer, but we’ll draw it to a close and I’ll make sure there are links to both of your websites, your books and where people can find out more from today’s show. But for now, thank you so much for joining me on The Big Conversation.