Intermission: Saints of the Greenwood
Wild Christianity and the future of the West
When I began my series of essays here at the Abbey nearly two years ago it was because I had certain things to say and a certain way that I liked to say them, and I couldn’t find any other outlet to do it in. Also, I wanted the freedom, in an increasingly unfree land, to be able to speak my mind, and the space to be able to articulate my ideas. I thought this platform might be the place to do that, and so it has turned out.
Most of all, I was attracted to the idea that I could spend as much time and space as I liked trying to distill and properly articulate the ideas I have been developing for the last quarter of a century about the state of the world I have walked through. In that time I’ve written nine books, and they’ve mostly circled around the same inquiry: the nature of the modern crisis, which has accelerated in my time in Earth. I wondered if I could boil those ideas, such as they are, down to a final form, and lay them out to my own satisfaction. This is what I have been trying to do here. With any luck, it will mean I never have to lay them out again.
But one of the interesting things that has happened since I began is that those ideas have changed - or perhaps not so much changed as shifted their emphasis. In many ways I see the world pretty much as I saw it when I wrote my first book two decades ago this year. But the one big difference is what I now believe the core of the crisis to be. Back then I thought the crisis was about politics: the systems that governed us didn’t work. Intertwined with that was the idea that it was all about economics: capitalism was bad. Later, as I read more and lived more, I decided that the crisis was actually about culture: our values were wrong, and our relationships - with each other and with the rest of nature - were skewed.
I still believe most of those things, but in the writing of these essays I have come to believe something else: that in fact the root of the crisis, beyond and beneath all of this, is spiritual.
My readers will know, whether they want to or not, that over the last few years I have become an Orthodox Christian. This has, as it is designed to, re-orientated my entire worldview. I’m able to see things now that I couldn’t see before; and one of those things is that no society in human history, anywhere, has ever survived for any length of time without a religious core.
I’ve circled back to this theme several times over the last couple of years, perhaps most directly in this essay. I think that every culture has a throne at its heart, on which sits its deity. We have dethroned the deity that built the West - that would be Christ - and you don’t have to be a Christian to understand that a culture with an empty throne at its heart is headed for a spiritual crisis, which will echo up through every aspect of its everyday life. This is where we are.
I thought about this a few days ago as I read this new essay by Sebastian Milbank in The Critic magazine, exploring the implications of the end of Western Christendom. It’s worth a read whatever your beliefs. ‘Post-Christian Western civilisation,’ writes Milbank, ‘is increasingly unable to articulate what it believes in, ever more subservient to its direst foes and rivals, able to find moral purpose only in deconstructing its own ideals and achievements.’ He’s spot on. That ‘Christian civilisation’, though, is not coming back any time soon: so where does that leave us? And what of the faith that founded it, which so often today seems exhausted, corrupted or simply irrelevant? How should a Christian respond to the dangerous spiritual vacuum of the times?
I’ve attempted my own small version of an answer this week in a new essay in First Things magazine on the need for a ‘wild Christianity’. Followers of my essays here will have heard me say some of this before, and you can be sure I’ll be saying it again … but this is my most focused attempt so far to argue that in order to go forward we first need to go back: back to the roots (literally) of the old faith here in the West. Back before the might of medieval Rome, back before ‘Christendom’ and all of its worldly trappings. Back to the woods and the caves and the islands that formed the Christianity of the ‘green desert’ of the early warriors of the faith.
What we need now, if you ask little old me, is not more synods or Youtube channels, but more of what I’m here calling Cave Christians. We have plenty of examples to draw on: many ancient, some very recent. The late Orthodox theologian Anthony Bloom once wrote that people like this ‘leave everything because they have understood that in torment, disorder and purely earthly seeking they will not find the answer to the problems of their contemporaries . . . They have to find their souls again, and with their soul, the nation, the soul of their people, the soul of their contemporaries.”
In a culture in freefall, we have to find our soul again, and that task comes before any other. One day, when these essays are finished, I’d like to write a little book about the men and women who can lead us by example: Lives of the Wild Saints, perhaps. For now, though, I’ll leave it here. See what you think: and do add your own thoughts below, whatever they may be.