Is there anything left to conserve?

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Wenzel Peter, «Adam și Eva în Grădina Eden»

The chickens of modernity have come home to roost

“The whole modern world”, wrote G.K. Chesterton, “has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.”

Welcome to 2023.

But what can we do when there’s nothing left to conserve? The answer depends on what you were trying to conserve in the first place. In Britain, which has been at the speartip of the modern revolution for centuries, all that was solid has been melting into air since at least since the Enlightenment, and the consequence has been the loss of almost everything that the likes of Edmund Burke, who already had his back up against the wall two centuries ago, would have considered worth conserving. Across the modern world, the process has been the same: something I have described as a great unsettling.

In this unsettled world, the notion that the West is declining, collapsing, dying or even committing suicide is reaching a crescendo. Multiple reactions are underway to try and shore it up. The chickens of modernity, which the West created and exported, have come home to roost, and we are all increasingly covered in their guano.

But if you want to argue about how to conserve or defend “the West”, you first have to know what it actually is. And to do that, you need to revisit its origin story.

This story starts in a garden, at the very beginning of things. All life can be found here: every living being, every bird and animal, every tree and plant. Humans live here too, and so does the creator of all of it, the source of everything, and he is so close that he can be seen “walking in the garden in the cool of the evening’’ an image I’ve always loved. Everything, here, is in communion with everything else.

At the centre of this garden grows two trees, and one of them imparts hidden knowledge. The humans, the last creature to be formed by the creator, will be ready to eat this fruit one day, and when they do they will gain this knowledge and be able to use it wisely for the benefit of themselves and of all other things that live in the garden. But they are not ready yet. The humans are still young, and unlike the rest of creation, they are only partially formed. If they ate from the tree now, the consequences would be terrible.

“Do not eat that fruit,” the creator tells them. “Eat anything else you like, but not that.”

We know the next part of the story because it is still happening to us on an hourly basis. “Why should you not eat the fruit?” asks the voice of the tempting serpent, the voice from the undergrowth of our minds. “Why should you not have the power that you are worthy of? Why should this creator keep it all for himself? Why should you listen to him? He just wants to keep you down. Eat the fruit. It’s your right. You’re worth it!”

So we eat the fruit, and we see that we are naked and we become ashamed. Our mind is filled with questions, the gears inside it begin to whir and turn and suddenly here is us and them, here is humanity and nature, here is people and God. A portcullis of words descends between us and the other creatures in the garden, and we can never go home again. We fall into disintegration and we fall out of the garden forever. The state of questless ease that was our birthright is gone. We chose knowledge over communion; we chose power over humility.

The Earth is our home now.

This Earth is a broken version of the garden. On Earth we must toil to break the soil, to plant seeds, to fight off predators. We will sicken and die. Everything is eating everything else. These are the consequences of our pursuit of knowledge and power, but we keep pursuing them because we can’t see any other other way out, and anyway we need something to do with our big questing brains. We keep building towers and cities and forgetting where we came from. We forget the creator and worship ourselves. All of this happens inside us every day.

There comes a time when the creator takes pity. After so many centuries of humans eating the fruit again and again, He stages an intervention. He comes to Earth in human form to show us the way back home. Being human, we react first by torturing and killing him. But the joke is on us, because it turns out that this was the point all along. The way of this creator is not the way of power but of humility, not of conquest but of sacrifice, and his sacrifice gives us a path back home. If we follow that path, we can come back into communion again, and be as we were intended to be, which is to say holy — a word derived from the Old English halig — which means whole.

That’s the story. Now imagine that a whole culture is built around this story. Imagine that this culture survives for over a thousand years, building layer upon layer of meaning, tradition, innovation and creation, however imperfectly, on these foundations.

Then imagine that this culture dies, leaving only ruins.

If you live in the West, you do not have to imagine any of this. You are living among the ruins, and you have been all your life. They are the remains of something called “Christendom”, a 1,500-year civilisation in which this particular sacred story seeped into and formed every aspect of life, bending and changing and transforming everything in this story’s image.

But we can’t live for long among ruins. Humans are builders, and Nature abhors a vacuum. God abhors a vacuum too, I think, and whether we like it or not  and mostly these days we don’t – humans need God. This is why every human culture, forever, everywhere, has directed its gaze towards the divine.

This is what we should understand if we are going to think or talk about “conserving” or “returning” or “restoring” anything. If you want to “defend the West”, you are talking about defending Christendom and the values it created, and/or the post-Christian liberal culture it gave birth to, which itself was based upon those values.

Every culture is built around a sacred core. When it begins to rot, as all cultures do, it is because that core has been neglected. Usually its people have taken their eyes off the sacred centre and directed them somewhere else; towards false gods, golden calves, or their own dolled-up image in the mirror. Chesterton, again, took issue with Marx on this one. “The truth is that irreligion is the opium of the people,” he wrote. “Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world.” This is the process which Christianity used to condemn as “idol worship”, and today’s West is at it in spades.

A lot of people who talk about “defending the West” these days are either trying to defend red in tooth and claw capitalism – the system which has done more to destroy culture and eternal values in the West than anything else – or they’re trying to defend free speech, individualism and the right to be rude on the internet. I would suggest that these things in themselves were the results of a settlement designed, in the process now known as “the Enlightenment” to replace the West’s original sacred story with a new, human-centred version.

This was the liberal settlement. It assumed that humans were disaggregated individuals who could roam the world speaking freely, consuming freely and imposing a rational science-based order on the world, the better to achieve progress. It combined the moral values and universalism of Western Christianity with rights-based individualism and a faith in science and technology, and it brought with it a new origin story, to replace the one about the garden and the snake.

This new story told of how we were saved from superstition and ignorance by the holy trinity of modernity: Reason, Science and Technology. Along the way, we stopped believing silly stories about gods and monsters, which had been made up by our ignorant ancestors before we could see the harsh but bracing reality that the universe is just a meaningless swirl of matter-energy which came from nothing for no reason, and human beings are just gene-replicating machines. Now here we are, working out how to rationally manage the whole show. Now, here we are, a new kind of being: post-religious Man.

I grew up sort of believing this story. I thought religion was over and we had moved beyond its stupid superstitions. I don’t believe that anymore. Now I believe something else: that in a significant sense, everything is religious.

I became a Christian – an Orthodox Christian – in 2021, much to my own surprise and initial horror, after a very long search for truth. The subsequent immersion in the Christian story gave me a much clearer sense of what was happening around me in the 2020s. Most of all, they gave me an understanding of the sacred underpinning of human culture. Marx claimed that the history of all hitherto existing society was a history of class struggle, but it looks to me more like a history of religious belief. “Belief”, in fact is the wrong word. A better one might be “experience”, or “immersion”.

The more I attended the divine liturgy, the more I realised that what I had once dismissed as silly superstition was in fact the stuff of life. In the the pre-modern West, as in much of the world today, there was no such thing as “religion”. The Christian story was the basis of peoples’ understanding of reality itself. There was no “religion”, because there was no notion that this truth was somehow optional or partial, any more than we today might assume that gravity or the roundness of the Earth are facts we could choose to engage with only on Sunday mornings.

Again: everything is religious. The only people who believe otherwise, in fact, are a few people in what we liked to call our “secular” corner of the world. We once thought that by abolishing religion we had got ahead of the rest of the world. But suddenly, this story is being told less confidently. The wind has changed, and secular liberal modernity no longer looks like a good bet for winner of the End of History board game.

So if everything is religious, but our old religion is dead, and the thing we tried to replace it with – rational, secular, humanist progress – is failing because it doesn’t meet real human needs, then where are we? What is coming next?

A good person to ask is the perennialist thinker René Guenon, a favourite of our new king. Guenon was a Frenchman who became a Muslim, migrated to Egypt and dedicated his life to trying to save the West from its own materialism. He predicted that, save for a turn back to religion, the early 21st century would see the arrival of what he called the “Reign of Quantity”: the age of pure materialism in which we now live, in which every aspect of life would be be measured, quantified and subject to scientific assessment and technological management.

Crucially, in the Reign of Quantity, religious feeling would become quantitative too. Humanity will never be able to shake off its desire for transcendence, but it will become unable to manifest that desire on any level other than the material. The object of worship during the Reign of Quantity, then, will not be some mysterious, untouchable, numinous force outside of creation: it will be the force of will in the material realm.

This, I think, is where we are today: the religious impulse is manifesting in material form, primarily through the use of technology to promote the human will. This phenomenon, which I like to call the Machine, is a material manifestation of the human desire for liberation through technology, in which all forms are dissolved in favour of the final and only sovereign: the independent rational individual, freed from the obligations of history, community and nature.

In the Orthodox Christian worldview, all of us are icons of God. Humanity was made in the image of the creator, and even though we endlessly fail to live up to this responsibility, it  gives us a clear point of reference. We know what humans are, and what the world is for. Once that story goes, what is the still point of the turning world? Nobody can agree. The only reference point in the post-Christian, post-liberal West is whatever we happen to want or feel. And since consumer liberalism has taught us that desire is not something to be transcended or controlled, but something to be surrendered to immediately and then valorised, reality itself becomes open to endless redefinition. Who’s to say what’s right or wrong or real?

But let’s go back to our founding story again: back to the garden. What does our current state look like from that perspective? To me it looks simple enough, and I think it would have done to a citizen of Western Christendom too. We are following the path of the snake rather than the path of the creator. This is hardly a new development: the Bible is effectively an 80-book warning against it, and most other religions have their own cautionary tales. Once you reject God, you are fated to try and replace him.

This is where our path is now leading us, and it is, I think, the main reason that the waters of age seem so disturbed. Transhumanism, artificial intelligence, the “transcending” of everything from gender to biology, the growing of food and babies in labs: openly now, we seek to break all given limits, remake nature, build the world anew. We seek to become gods. The people who are building our new digital Tower of Babel are very open about what they are up to. If you don’t believe me, let them explain it for themselves.

Transhumanist writer Elise Bohan, detailed a conversation she once had with a biologist at a conference on the future of transhumanism. “He looked me in the eye,” she says, “and whispered to me: ‘We’re building God, you know,’ … I looked back at him and I said: ‘Yeah, I know.’”

Similar sentiments are expressed by transhumanist philosopher Martine Rothblatt, who claims, “We are making God as we are implementing technology that is ever more all-knowing, ever-present, all-powerful and beneficent. Geoethical nanotechnology will ultimately connect all consciousness and control the cosmos.” Ray Kurzweil, Google’s head of engineering and philosopher-general of of the robot apocalypse is more succinct. “Does God exist?” he asks. “I would say: not yet.”

To return to where we started, we might say that transhumanism – the silicon manifestation of our new faith – aims not so much to eat from the tree of life, as to genetically engineer a new one, and plant it wherever the hell we like. We are on the verge of a revolution now, and it may make the Enlightenment look like a tea party. The entire basis of reality is being rewritten, or so we tell ourselves. Whole generations are growing up with a closer relationship to screen-based abstraction than to manual work or to the natural world. They have been convinced that the world is our playground, and that everything from history to human nature to sexual dimorphism can be changed at will.

We are consciously making ourselves post-human, even as we strive to make the world post-natural and post-wild. If the age you live in is starting to take on the flavour of a war over the very meaning of reality itself – which is to say, a religious war – well, that’s because it is.

What, in this world, can we possibly “conserve”? Nothing. In a culture which does not agree that nature exists, or that we have some basic, shared assumptions about reality, the question barely even makes sense. The challenge now is not to ask what we can “conserve” or “restore”. We have to go much further back. We have to dig down to the foundations.

Our challenge now is to choose our religion. Try to avoid the challenge and your faith will be chosen for you: you will be absorbed by default into the new creed of the new age: the quest to build the digital Tower of Babel. The attempt to “build god” and replace nature through technology. The path of the snake.

What can we do when there’s nothing left to conserve? Pray.

Source: unherd.com / Author: Paul Kingsnorth

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