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    PloughCast 66: The Technology of Demons

    Money, Part 6

    By Paul Kingsnorth, Madoc Cairns, Alan Koppschall and Susannah Black Roberts

    August 2, 2023
    • Michael Nacrelli

      "...the hippies of the 1960s did understand something. They were right in fighting the plastic culture, and the church should have been fighting it too... More than this, they were right in the fact that the plastic culture - modern man, the mechanistic worldview in university textbooks and in practice, the total threat of the machine, the establishment technology, the bourgeois upper middle class - is poor in its sensitivity to nature... As a utopian group, the counterculture understands something very real, both as to the culture as a culture, but also as to the poverty of modern man's concept of nature and the way the machine is eating up nature on every side." (Francis A. Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man, Ch. 2)

    About This Episode

    The PloughCast team talk with Paul Kingsnorth about artificial intelligence and demons.

    Kingsnorth, an environmental activist, novelist, former Wiccan priest, and recent Christian convert, joins Susannah, Madoc, and Alan to talk about the eternal temptations represented by technological society.

    How has his recent conversion changed the way he experiences the world? What insights from his earlier life and work have persisted, which ones have been transformed, and what is the relationship between the worship of Mammon and the dangers posed by AI?

    They also discuss how to live well in the coming age, and the lessons to be drawn from the Desert Fathers.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! I’m Susannah Black Roberts, Senior Editor at Plough. Today, Plough editors Madoc Cairns, Alan Koppschall, and I will be talking with Paul Kingsnorth.

    Kingsnorth is a novelist, essayist, environmental campaigner, and recent convert to Orthodox Christianity. He lives in the west of Ireland with his wife and children. Welcome, Paul!

    It’s a pleasure to have you here. So I guess, to start off, you’ve been a writer and an activist for a long time at the heart of what seemed like one of the most hopeless struggles possible, which is the environmental movement, and you’re also a recent convert to Christianity.

    One of the things that I imagine must have been most difficult to give up in becoming a Christian was what was really kind of pronounced in your writing around 2017 or so was this real sense of despair. And you kind of have to kick the despair habit when you become a Christian, like you’re not really allowed to live there. How are you doing with that and how does your Christianity interact with your previous way of thinking about thinking and hoping about humans and the world? What’s that like?

    Paul Kingsnorth: Yes, it’s funny. Kicking the despair habit was the easiest bit actually. It was so pleasant. It was such a nice thing to do. It’s very interesting. So it’s very difficult to explain in a way. It’s something to do with the secular mindset. It’s something to do with the materialist mindset which, despite myself, I suppose I found myself marinated in as we all do because it’s the culture that we live in or the anti-culture that we live in, I would say.

    And when I look back now, I think for my whole life I’ve had a religious sensibility actually, but I was trying to fit that square peg into the round hole of the secular world. So when you’re an environmental activist or any kind of political or cultural activist, even if you are religious to yourself, you’ll probably tend to keep it quiet and the narrative is all materialist.

    So if, for example, you’re an environmentalist, you have a story in which you have this earth that we all live on, and this earth is being destroyed by humans. And you can look at all of the trends that are very real indeed, from climate change to population numbers to ocean pollution to all of the other horrors that have been kind of enunciated over years. And if all you’ve got is this materialist worldview in which the world is just matter and everything that happens is random and there’s nothing beyond that, there’s no other planes, there’s certainly no God, there’s no wider meaning, there’s no deeper meaning, there’s no other worlds in which things could be happening, then all you’re left with really is a planet that’s being destroyed by industrial civilization and a kind of tiny band of people who want to stop that happening, but who can’t.

    And it’s very difficult not to fall into despair actually. It’s very difficult not to end up being something of a nihilist. And I don’t know if I was ever a nihilist, but I was certainly in despair very often. And that’s very much a great big vein running through the heart of the green movement.

    And when I eventually came to Christianity sort of against my will, because I was on a spiritual search for a long time and I didn’t expect to be brought to the church, but then you kind of meet Christ and then all bets are off really. You go, “Oh no, I didn’t know this was going to happen. Oh dear.” And then it does. So you just go with it and it turns out that you end up in a place where the picture is very different and very much bigger. And because, as you say, because of the whole Christian story, the whole pattern of it, the whole notion that humans are here for a purpose created in the image of God, there’s a world beyond this one, there’s the whole pattern of that cosmology, the despair isn’t there anymore.

    That doesn’t mean that the terrors aren’t ... not the terrors but the terrible things aren’t happening. They are but the pattern is different because it’s not just a human struggle. So that sort of losing that despair is not a sort of conscious choice where you think, “Oh, I’m a Christian. I better not be negative anymore.” It’s just that something internally for me has actually shifted and I just don’t feel it, which is a great blessing actually, because that stuff can really, really weigh you down.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, it really does seem like it’s sort of a change. Well, the facts of the matter are different. The world is different than I understood it to be, and therefore the causes that I had for despair, which were real causes in a lot of different directions under the worldview that I was operating, that doesn’t make sense anymore. I don’t have the causes anymore, and therefore I don’t have the despair.

    Paul Kingsnorth: No. And fundamentally the difference is that, for that secular mindset, that materialist mindset, everything’s on the shoulders of people. The only actor in the world is people because we are the only rational creatures or at least we’re the only ones with the power. We’re the ones doing all the destroying so we have to save everything. We have to have a plan, we have to control and manipulate the earth. And of course, as a Christian, you don’t believe that the primary actors are people. So suddenly, as you say, the whole of the pattern is different, the whole story is different.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And then also, of course, the Christian story, I went through a phase when I was little. I was not raised Christian either. I was raised even less Christian than you. You went to church.

    Paul Kingsnorth: Occasionally.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, but I did have this anarcho- primitivist phase when I was around ten where we would be driving on highways in upstate New York, and I would see the way that the rock had been broken by dynamite to make room for the roads. And I was like, “We broke the rocks. How could we do that?” And then I went through this phase where I was like, “I’m not going to be able to experience the world as a human being if I go around knowing how to read and wearing shoes.” And I was pretty young but there is this sort of sense of everything is wrong. It’s not just that one thing is wrong, and then you kind of press into it and you start to think, “Well, maybe it was agriculture that was the problem,” but yet there’s still this sense of beauty of certain aspects of civilization. So what do you do with that?

    And one of the things that Christianity did, for me at least, and I wonder whether this resonates, is just like, “Oh yeah, no, that story is exactly correct.” Like there’s something very good in creation and in human culture, and also it’s been very bad from the beginning in very interesting ways. Does that sort of –

    Paul Kingsnorth: Yeah. It sort of does. I suppose the thing that I found most fascinating from the Bible since I became a Christian is the Genesis story, and especially Genesis 2, which just obsesses me because the quest for me, I suppose, ever since I was young has been, “What’s wrong with the world?” And, well, the story of Genesis will tell you immediately what’s wrong with the world. And it will not only tell you it from some mythical or historical perspective, it’ll tell you it in terms of the way that humans behave every day.

    But I’m particularly just fascinated by the creation story. From the point of view of someone who was a nature lover and an activist for a long time, the notion that we are effectively created to be gardeners and we’re put into this place, this garden, to tend and keep it and we’re in communion with everything else. And humans are created when God scoops up soil from the earth and breathes into it. So a human being is soil plus the breath of God, which is a really lovely image for me.

    And here we are, we’re supposed to be gardeners, we’re supposed to be managing the place. And of course we choose knowledge and power over that communion and that’s pretty much the everyday choice we continue to make forever. And that’s the story of humanity. So we’ve chosen that path of independence, that path of rebellion, that path of knowledge over the path of communion and sort of followerhood of discipleship. And that sets up a kind of tragedy.

    And once that starts to happen, it doesn’t take very long before you get to Cain and his founding of agriculture. Cain founds the first city as well, and then you end up with Tubalcain, the first metal worker, and very quickly you’re into an industrial civilization and the Tower of Babel and the mechanical attempts to build your way back to heaven and all the rest of it.

    And it’s like in the first few books of Genesis, you’ve got the whole human story repeatedly playing itself out. And to me, I looked at that and I thought, “Well, this is interesting.” Because this whole religion I didn’t have much time for seems to have an explanation for what we continue to do, and that’s how we ended up changing the climate. This is only a larger scale version of the thing we were doing thousands of years ago. And of course there are creation stories from other cultures, which will tell you a very similar story as well. We’re always trying to grow wings and fly and steal fire from the gods and all the rest of it. So we have this ambition that was always going to take us here.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m just going to ask you this now because I don’t want to forget to do it. Have you read C. S. Lewis’s Space trilogy?

    Paul Kingsnorth: Everyone keeps asking me this. It’s on my shelf and it’s actually going to be summer reading now because it’s been on my shelf for a year and it really is about time I got around to it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You really have got to, especially the third one. OK. So a lot of the things that we’re going to be talking about, which we will get into later, are kind of bizarre kinds of things for journalists to be talking with essayists about. According to the prevailing worldview, journalism deals with current events and facts and reality, but obviously we’re all Christians.

    And so the reality as we kind of want to talk about it and even report on it includes things like the supernatural, includes things like spirits and demons.

    Before you were a Christian, you spent some time at least as a Wiccan priest, and so you also had some kind of supernatural, at least in theory, belief. What has the transition to believing in the supernatural as a Christian been like? And to what degree did you actually have a supernatural worldview while you were a Wiccan?

    Paul Kingsnorth: Well, I’ve always had one I think. I think I’ve always had a supernatural worldview in the sense that I don’t even believe the supernatural exists. I just think there’s nature and most of it we don’t understand and there are all sorts of planes of reality that we can’t operate on, and there are all sorts of things we cannot see and experience. I have felt this since I was a child. I was obsessed with ghosts when I was a child actually and I’m still very interested in ghosts, in fact, ghosts and spirits and otherworldly things and stories of mysteries that can’t be explained. I’ve always had that sort of, I suppose you could call it, romantic sensibility perhaps, but it’s a sense that there’s very much more to the world than rational materialism can explain. I’ve always believed that. And actually that’s one of the reasons I became an environmental activist.

    I didn’t become an activist because I was political. I certainly became political but primarily it was the sense that there’s something sacred about the natural world. There’s something about, say, a forest that you cannot put into words, that is beyond human meaning or understanding, that there’s a level of consciousness in it that we can’t really explain, at least not in our culture. Other cultures have been able to, but ours can’t.

    So I’ve always been a supernaturalist in that sense. And before I was a Wiccan, I was a Buddhist. So I’ve been on this long spiritual quest in all sorts of.… As western people do, I looked everywhere except the church and the spiritual truth. That’s the way it goes in the twenty-first-century West. The church is the last place you look.

    So I was a Buddhist for a while. Of course, there’s a good deal of supernaturalism (so-called) in Buddhism as well. In Wicca, which is sort of pretty much invented out of all sorts of different bits of cloth, there are any number of claims about reality. There are demons and beings and gods and all the rest of it. And it really isn’t that much of a jump from that to Christianity. The jump is what you think those beings are and whether you think they’re benevolent or not and whether you think you should be working with them. But the actual existence of different planes of reality, of demons and angels and Nephilim and God and Christ and all of this immensely complex thing, especially in the Orthodox Church which I’m a member of, is taken for granted as it was by early Christians.

    So it hasn’t felt like a leap actually. It’s felt like a refining of my understanding of what this is. I felt like my whole life, I’ve believed in supernatural realms and Christianity has been able to show me, again slightly to my surprise, what the claims about those realms are and what’s going on. And it sort of made sense so it wasn’t as if I was a materialist atheist and I suddenly became a supernaturalist, as it were. It was almost as if I had a framework for seeing what I’d always suspected anyway.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So let’s talk about some of those specific claims. This podcast is linked to our money issue. “Mammon” is a word that in the Christian tradition is a word for money, and it’s also an actual kind of demon or false God. You’ve kind of been doing a good deal of thinking about demons lately with your work on AI. How do you understand that being or that force? How is that linked to other aspects of what’s going on?

    Paul Kingsnorth: Well, it’s a good question. I don’t quite know the history of it. I’ve read a lot of claims about Mammon being related to, say, the goddess Hera in Roman mythology, various beings that are related to wealth and power and accumulation. But obviously when Jesus talks about Mammon, whether he is talking about a specific being or a concept, he’s talking about the worship of money or worldly wealth. And he talks about that as something that you serve because he says you can’t serve two masters. You can either serve God or Mammon.

    And it seems to me that Mammon is the spirit of accumulation and it’s the spirit of greed and it’s the spirit of the desire for material things. And Christ is opposing that with the spirit of love, which is the spirit of giving away. So if Mammon is the spirit of accumulating and grabbing and grasping, then what Christ is offering instead or teaching us to follow instead and saying is the way of God, is the way of giving everything away, which of course is what the saints do. It’s what the monastics do. It’s what Christians are supposed to do, not that we all do it, but we’re supposed to give away. We’re supposed to share, we’re supposed to have little.

    And when you worship Mammon, whether that’s the actual worship of a god or a demon or whether it’s the worship of that spirit, you are just accumulating wealth. And that is, again, the spirit of the Tower of Babel. It’s the spirit of Cain. It’s the spirit of the worldly thing that I call the machine, this great technological monster combined with consumer capitalism which is basically ravaging the earth. It’s Mammon. Our entire society is worshiping Mammon. We’ve taken the seven deadly sins and we’ve turned them all into consumer opportunities. Every single one of the seven deadly sins has been monetized and is promoted as a means of economic growth. So it seems to me that we are openly worshiping Mammon.

    And the inevitable result of this worship is that we are going to start, and we’re already openly doing it now, trying to create new forms of life, trying to create beings and gods and artificial intelligences, trying to rebuild nature from scratch, trying to make ourselves live forever, upload our minds, all of this kind of increasingly demonic fantasizing that’s going on in Silicon Valley.

    It all comes down to the worship of Mammon, I think. The refusal to give away, the desire to accumulate, the desire for power. And it’s the oldest binary I think in Christianity, isn’t it? Those are the two options. You get God or Mammon and you can’t serve both. And that’s why the deeper I go into the Christian journey, the more it seems to me to be almost impossible to live as a Christian in this culture. And I don’t know what that means for me yet, but I have to work it out.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Just a little housekeeping – don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes! We’ll be back with the rest of our conversation with Paul Kingsnorth after the break.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That sort of seems to lead to Alan’s questions actually. Alan, do you want to jump in there?

    Alan Koppschall: Sure. So you’ve definitely made the shift to oppose the forces of Mammon in your own life, moving to Ireland, sort of living in this natural world, trying to resist the encroachment of mammon and possessions and that kind of thing.

    One of your recent essays, the one in First Things, “A Wild Christianity,” you discuss the stories of Celtic Christianity, the Desert Fathers, and you point to how they looked to the collapse of society around them, and it sort of drove them into the desert or into the forest caves. And as you hint at in that essay, I think we can be driven in similar directions in these times, especially with the demons of mammon, the demons of technology, that we’ve been discussing here that are so prevalent. But for the Desert Fathers, as you well know, they saw what they were doing not as a retreat into the desert but more as an advance. They were going into the desert to train how to fight these demons. They were sort of doing what Christ did when he spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.

    And if you read any of the stories of the Desert Fathers, whether the Life of Saint Anthony or any of these Desert Fathers, it’s clear that the desert is where you go to train yourself how to fight these demons. If we do that now, if we sort of escape to this wilder Christianity, what sort of training will it help us go through that will allow us to fight these demons of mammon? How do you see that as a way of getting to the point where we can confront mammon?

    Paul Kingsnorth: Well, I’ve been writing and talking about this quite a lot recently but I’m very much sort of stumbling intuitively towards something as quite a new Christian. So I don’t feel I can really teach anybody anything. I’m still learning myself on what those people were doing but I’m very drawn to this. I’m very struck by the fact that, as you say, when people went to the desert, they certainly weren’t running away. They were walking toward it. In fact, a monk on Mount Athos said to me last year, “If you try to become a monk because you want to run away from society, you’re not going to last five minutes. You have to be running toward Christ.” That’s the point of this. So it’s not a retreat in the sense that you are trying to hide, but it is a retreat in the sense that you are stepping away from the values of the world to, as you say, train yourself.

    And I’m struck by the fact that the word askesis, the Greek word askesis, from which we get the ascetical tradition, it simply means exercise. So we’re talking about spiritual exercises, like you say, training yourself to fight the devil. And it’s interesting to me also that Saint Anthony, the kind of pioneering Desert Father along with a lot of other saints of that kind, who sort of left wealth and moved into poverty deliberately, he was fleeing from comfort because Christianity in his view had become too comfortable. It had become legal, it had become impossible for a Christian to be martyred now that it was becoming an establishment religion, and he wanted to be a martyr.

    And it’s interesting also that here in Ireland where I live, we have this tradition, a very old tradition called the Green Martyrdom, where the early Christians in Ireland who seem to have been influenced by the Desert Fathers far more than any kind of Roman version of Christianity, they would go off into the caves and the islands of the west here, which of course are very green rather than brown as the desert is, and they would attempt to do the same thing.

    And so you have this sort of movement away from a comfortable, centralized, imperial sort of mammon culture, which is starting to absorb the mainstream of the Christian church at least or its establishment, back toward an attempt to live in a very stripped-back way. And again, it’s always an attempt to go back to the teachings of Christ and the way that he told people to live.

    So, given that we are living in both a society that completely worships mammon and is utterly obsessed with the material to an increasingly disgusting degree and a society which is, to my mind, very clearly coming down, it’s not possible for this thing to be sustained. It’s unsustainable in every way. It seems like the time to go back to the source in the same way that the Desert Fathers did.

    And it’s not some sort of new notion. I’m interested in what our Christian ancestors did because I think it might be time for us to do the same thing in the same way they did it. There are still monastics out there doing it, there are still hermits out there doing it, especially in the Orthodox Church, but not just there. And there are still Christian communities, including the Buderhof, of course, who are attempting to live in different ways. So it’s possible and it gets done, but I have a feeling that we’re going to be ... I don’t know if this is just me, but I have a feeling that we’re going to be called to strip things back and go back to the source because I think the mainstream of the church is probably crumbling and maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If it’s too comfortable, maybe we need to go back to the cave literally and metaphorically.

    Alan Koppschall: Sure. And a lot of your work, a lot of your life’s work has been sort of animated by work for environmentalism. How do you think that retreat to the desert, to the caves, can further the cause of the environmental movement?

    Paul Kingsnorth: Well, I don’t know that it can further the cause of the environmental movement. I’m pretty skeptical about that movement myself now anyway. It’s become so captured by technology that it’s almost part of the problem. But again, I’m struck by the stories of the early Celtic Christians in Ireland and in Britain as well where I come from. There are some lovely poems that are written and verses that are written and preserved from early Christians in Ireland who lived in the woods, lived in the forests, lived in the caves, just reveling in the beauty of nature. And they’re there to worship God through the creation as well as directly. They can see Christ in the waters. They’re battling the demons in the forest, but they’re not forgetting to listen to the birdsong. There’s a great connection, a reconnection with the Creator. And I’m struck also by the fact that so many of these saints, so many of the stories of these kind of wild saints, feature them in a kind of manner of communion with nature.

    So many of them are fed by the birds, for example, as Elijah was. So many of these saints are brought food when they’re starving by the birds. Saint Paul of Thebes is buried by lions. Saint Seraphim of Sarov befriends a bear. Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne is dried by the sea otters when he comes out from the sea after praying. So many of these wonderful stories of these saints who spent so long in the wild that they almost go back to the Edenic states that the rest of nature can see them as holy people.

    So there’s a kind of return to wholeness, a kind of communion again with the creation that could be achieved through it, it seems. And that’s something else I find really fascinating too. It’s not environmentalism, it’s not activism – unless prayer is activism, of course. Maybe it is, but it’s that deep form of prayer and communion, again, that seems to be able to put us back into some form of the state that we were made to be in.

    Alan Koppschall: That’s interesting. What would you think that those saints, Saint Cuthbert you mentioned, Saint Francis, the Celtic Christians that dwelled in caves, what would they say about the technological advancements, AI, which you’ve written about? What do you think they would have to say about that?

    Paul Kingsnorth: Well, I have no idea what they’d say about it. I know what I’d say about it, which is that it’s a new religion which is rising up around us right at the moment. And I think that the logical endpoint of eating that fruit in the garden and attempting to be gods, which is the promise we were made by the serpent back in the day, “Eat of this, and you can be as gods,” the logical endpoint of that is the creation of new forms of life, the attempt to rebuild nature from the ground up, the creation of new intelligences, the attempt to build God. A lot of these people in Silicon Valley, when you hear them talking about AI, when you hear them talking about transhumanism, they’re very open about the fact that they’re trying to replace God or build God or make God or be gods. They use these words. They’re quite happy to.

    So what we’ve got rising around us at the moment disguised as a kind of useful tool is I think a new religion. It’s the religion of the world. In that sense, it’s the religion of the serpent. So I don’t know what the guys in the caves would say, but I’d like to think they could recognize it for what it is. In my mind, it’s just another manifestation of the demons they went there to battle.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Put it this way, it’s kind of in the interest of Satan at this point for us to be materialists because that means that we wouldn’t believe in God and we wouldn’t sort of take those ideas seriously, but it’s still kind of always the agenda of demons to get us to interact with them. So these sort of demonic beings that are kind of disguising themselves as material objects in a way, that seems to be the workaround.

    Again, this sounds so crazy to me to be having this sensible conversation over Zoom or whatever about this sort of thing, but that kind of disguise as just a technological advance that we can call a god or something like that as a kind of way of talking but I don’t think that the people who are making these things actually believe that they’re in contact with the supernatural because they don’t believe in the supernatural. That just strikes me as a really kind of obviously diabolically clever, but quite clever workaround. Does that sort of ring true to you?

    Paul Kingsnorth: Somebody described the internet to me recently as a giant global Ouija board. I thought that was quite interesting. Think about everything that’s coming through it. Think about the energies that come out of it. Think about everything that we put into it. It’s a very, very strange thing that’s going on.

    You say that the people who are creating these things aren’t religious, but many of them are. That’s the interesting thing. There’s a book I talk about a lot called What Technology Wants which is by Kevin Kelly, who’s one of the leading Silicon Valley figures. He’s a very interesting man, and his book is precisely about technology having its own kind of telos. He says technology is not neutral. Technology is a force that is using us to create itself. It’s a force that is using us to manifest itself and, in manifesting itself, it’s going to help us to fulfill our potential and ultimately we are going to replace ourselves. It’s a form of evolution.

    And you’ll find a lot of these people who are developing AI at the moment, on the one hand, they’re frightened of it. They’re so frightened that they keep telling us to put a moratorium in place even though they’re the guys developing it. But on the other hand, they say things like, we have a duty to usher this new form of intelligence into the world. And you think, “Well, what do you think this new form of intelligence is that you’re ushering and where are you ushering it from?” They’re using religious language, they’re using spiritual language, but they don’t seem to think through what they’re actually talking about. So even the people creating this stuff, the funny thing about them is they’re not necessarily pure materialists at all. They know there’s something going on and it’s almost as if they can sense it.

    And yeah, it does sound like crazy talk, and you can imagine people from the outside saying, “Oh, listen to these nuts talking about demons coming through the internet.” But I don’t think it sounds any nuttier than a lot of the claims that are actually being made by the people who are doing this stuff. It has a clear element to it that has a clear edge to it that is very openly supernatural actually, even from the people who are putting it together.

    Madoc Cairns: I think I can say ... I don’t think Paul has mentioned this, but you’ve written a very good and very chilling short story about these kind of themes, “The Basilisk.”

    Paul Kingsnorth: Yes, I did. I wrote a short story a few years ago which toyed with the idea that the internet was a sort of portal for things to come through, and that was a bit of speculative fiction at the time, but now I’m not sure that it is. It just increasingly feels like that to me.

    Look, if you take the Christian worldview seriously, if you do believe in the demonic realm, and it seems to me that if you’re a Christian, you have to believe in that, you have to believe that there’s a spiritual war going on, that there is a force that opposes God, that there are beings that oppose God, that seek to take us away from the light all the time and into the darkness, those forms are going to manifest in the material world, and they’re going to manifest through technology pretty obviously because that’s the best way at the moment that they can get our attention.

    And they do get our attention 24/7. So if you do believe that there are beings out there who don’t wish you well and who wish to take you away from the place you’re trying to walk, which is toward God, then you need to be at least aware of the possibility that there may be means of them doing that. And Ouija boards and tarot cards are looking a bit old-fashioned these days. One thing I said in a talk I gave in Dublin last week, I did a talk with Jonathan Pageau and Martin Shaw and we talked about all sorts of different things, but I talked a lot about technology, and one thing I suggested to all the people in the room who owned an iPhone was that if you take your iPhone out of your pocket and you look in the front of it, you look at the screen, when the screen is off, you’d see a reflecting mirror.

    It’s almost like a scrying mirror that the old magicians used to look for demons. And you can also see a reflection of your own face. When you turn it on, you get access to all of the world’s knowledge, all of the knowledge of good and evil. And when you turn it over, you see a picture of an apple with a bite taken out of it. Now, I’m not sure how much of that is a coincidence, but it’s certainly a pause for thought, especially when you remember that the very first Apple computer, the Apple I, went on sale in 1976 at a retail price of $666.66.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh my gosh.

    Paul Kingsnorth: That is a true fact. I had to double check that I was so surprised. But maybe it’s all a coincidence or a funny joke, but even if it is, it’s probably worth paying attention to.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Stewart Brand who is another one of these figures like Kevin Kelly who’s kind of pre-hippie, I’m sure you know him but he’s the guy who did The Whole Earth Catalog.

    Paul Kingsnorth: Yes.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And then he was part of early Silicon Valley. His slogan from his hippie days until his kind of transhumanist days, which is now-ish, is, “We are as gods and we might as well get good at it.” And the through line from kind of hippie spirituality to technology is fascinating to me because there’s so much also of hippie spirituality that seems good and that seems like a pushback against those forces of the machine. Was there a kind of alternate path do you think that could have been taken in the sixties and early seventies that got missed or something like that?

    Paul Kingsnorth: Yes, it’s very interesting, isn’t it? I’ve written about Brand a few times because he’s such an important figure in that move. There’s such a thin line between the hippies and Silicon Valley, such a thin line actually between the hippies and the yuppies. It didn’t take very long for the people who started the counterculture to go into making vast amounts of money in the eighties. There was a kind of smooth link there.

    But it’s very interesting to watch Brand’s movement because of course he started off as this kind of classical sort of low-impact back-to-the-land technology. And then he managed to convince himself that computers were that kind of technology. And his initial move in The Whole Earth Catalog was to say, “Well, look, computers are a convivial form of technology. They can link us all together and we can move into this new world.” And then off he went and, as you say, now he’s effectively one of the transhumanists. And it is interesting because, as you say, in theory at least the counterculture was supposed to be opposed to the man, and it was supposed to be against Mammon.

    I suppose my best understanding of it as a Christian would be that, because there was no real theology behind the counterculture, what it ended up being or actually what it started off being was all about the liberation of the individual. It was really all about how we shouldn’t have to live within structures anymore and there shouldn’t be any rules and we should all define ourselves. And again, that’s a subtle version of what happens in the garden, isn’t it? That’s pretty much what the snake tells you you can do. You can go and live by your own rules and you don’t need to follow God’s.

    And there’s almost an obvious through-line between, on the one hand saying, “Let’s break all the systems and just follow our dream” to saying, “Well, in that case, let’s just make the world completely anew with technology from the ground up.” Because again, if you don’t have a Christian worldview, if you don’t believe there’s a God, if you don’t believe there’s any kind of bigger spiritual structure that you’re supposed to be following, then again, it comes down to a kind of pure materialism, which is really what the counterculture was. So it’s materialism and individualism and you end up in the place of saying, “Well, yeah, okay then, let’s use the tech. Let’s make a better world.”

    And if you listen to Brand and if you listen to all these technologists and transhumanists, they’re all still utopians. That’s the thing that connects them. They all believe that they can use technology to create a completely equal just world with no suffering and no misery. They’re all trying to immanentize the eschaton. They all want to effectively be gods, but they’ve always got a good argument. They’ll say, “Well, we could end disease. That would be good. We could stop misery, we could stop children dying.” And it’s difficult to argue against it from that materialist perspective.

    So that I think is the line. You can use technology to pursue your utopia.

    Madoc Cairns: I think that’s quite interesting. The Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, said something very interesting about the counterculture. He said it was as if one of the great apostolic movements of Christian Reform had somehow arisen entirely out with the church and headed off away from Christianity than towards it. So he saw kind of certain similarities between the Franciscan movement, for instance, or the Rhineland Mystics and the counterculture.

    I guess there’s a kind of follow-up question from that, is you’ve correctly talked about how we are passing through this kind of enormous and unprecedented change into this properly proposed Christian society, but this is, I think, made more complicated and harder to address because – and you yourself have written about this in the past – so many Christian ideas and virtues and principles are still circulating throughout society. It’s just they’re no longer attached, as it were, to the kind of animating principle that cohered them and made them make sense.

    What’s the best way to respond to that kind of mix, this kind of alloy of post-Christian elements and ideas and themes that are, in some important way, Christian?

    Paul Kingsnorth: Yeah, it’s very hard, isn’t it? Because I think it was Chesterton who said that the virtues running wild are far worse than the vices. And it seems to me, when I look at a lot of progressive politics on the left at the moment, the real extremes of it, which is so common now, so many of the institutions of society, they are like the Christian virtues run wild. They’re like the Sermon on the Mount without God or forgiveness or love.

    And what you do when you strip all of those things out is you get the worst kind of puritanism, this kind of fanatical, unforgiving puritanism disguised as love, disguised as liberation. And that’s where we’re at. And of course the problem with that, and it was true of the counterculture as well, is that the church is seen as part of the problem.

    The Christian church is seen as this great monolithic, oppressive institution, and there are enough examples of genuine oppression and cruelty in church history to be able to make an argument. So you can say, well, the church is one of the things we need to rebel against. We need to get this monster off our backs and then we can all live in love.

    And it’s very interesting. I find people often criticize me, and you’ll see this with any Christian who’s trying to stick to Christian doctrine. They’ll be saying, “Oh, well Jesus was all about love and he would just be inclusive and he would tolerate and accept,” and they’re using that sort of slightly twisted version of Christianity to promote whatever they happen to be wanting to promote. And it’s very difficult to argue with because you have a sort of version of Christianity which is basically slightly bent out of shape. It’s got truth in it, but it’s bent out of shape toward, effectively, individualism. So again, it’s Christianity ought to affirm whatever I happen to want to do at the moment, which is the new faith. It’s the faith of the individual, which, again, is the old faith. It’s the faith of the garden. So it’s very difficult to know how to do it.

    I think C. S. Lewis said it was very much harder to be a Christian today than it would’ve been in ancient Rome because what you have to deal with now is not only people who don’t necessarily even believe in anything supernatural, but you also have to confront people who have come out of Christianity. They’ve come out of the other side of it, so they’re either sick of it or they think they know what it is or it’s irrelevant to them, or they don’t understand it. They just see it as a sort of vague enemy to be moved on from. And I don’t really know how to do anything about that except I suppose probably the form in which you witness it is the most important thing. You have to try and behave like a Christian, which is the hardest part of being a Christian. You have to be able to talk about it, speak about it, and practice it in a way that makes people think Christianity is a good thing rather than just a series of arguments. But like I say, that’s always the hard bit, isn’t it?

    Alan Koppschall: What would you say has changed the most in your life since you became a Christian? What’s been the biggest transformation?

     Paul Kingsnorth: That’s a good question. I think it is just the thing we were talking about at the beginning. It’s that lifting of that sense of despair that I had when I was an activist, that sense that things are in hand and that even though I look out of the world now and I still write probably too much about the bleakness of it, but the bleakness isn’t everything because there’s a much bigger picture and I feel I’m held within that and I feel like there’s somebody on my side and we are going somewhere that isn’t just about our existence here. And it’s not a belief in a rational sense, it’s an experience, it’s a feeling that’s difficult to explain to anyone who doesn’t have it. But it’s an internal shift and it’s impossible for me almost to imagine or to remember how I saw the world five years ago, which is a very strange situation to be in. But it does feel like that. I’m the same person, but really, in another way, not at all and that’s a real blessing actually, because that feels like a weight off my shoulders.

    Susannah Black Roberts: So you joined the Orthodox, the Romanian Orthodox Church, is that right?

    Paul Kingsnorth: Yes.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Did they conditionally baptize you? Did you go through another baptism?

    Paul Kingsnorth: Well, I wasn’t baptized in the first place.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Oh, you weren’t? Okay.

    Paul Kingsnorth: Never baptized. I’ve never been a Christian. I’ve experienced plenty of Christianity in different ways, but I never had a Christian baptism, no. So in a way that was good because I could start from the beginning and go straight in. I didn’t have to unlearn anything.

    So yes, there’s an orthodox monastery that’s opened up in Ireland, the first one in the country, very small, not too far from me. And that was where I started exploring orthodoxy and that was where I ended up getting baptized as well.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I guess one of the other sort of things to think about in all this is your very early work was kind of even pre-environmentalist although it was very linked, was having to do with the anti-globalization movement and the sort of different communitarian movements that were mostly on the left. Growing up against that in 2004 before that, what kinds of hope do you have? Obviously we have a macro hope now. So to a certain degree, the concrete changes in society become less pressing but, at the same time, at least in my experience, there is this sense of, “Well, even if I can’t absolutely fix the entire world because I know that nothing good I do will be lost, there is actually quite a lot more energy that I can put forward into trying to make things incrementally better or trying to make a society in a small way, make a household or make a group of friends that is living according to kind of saner and more humane scale and set of values.

    What kinds of activism or action, I guess is a better way to put it, do you feel like you might be able to return to now that it’s not all on your shoulders?

    Paul Kingsnorth: Well, I suppose in one sense, the life we’re trying to live here in Ireland is part of that. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to come and buy a little house and a couple of acres of land, and we’ve homeschooled our children and we grow our own food and we have friends and neighbors who do similar things. And I think we’ve helped some of them to do similar things. And we’ve learned from them. We have a little bit of a community here which is rather nice.

    And since I became a Christian, I know more and more Christians here actually who are not all Orthodox by any means, mostly Catholic actually it being Ireland, but who have the same sort of vision. And I think that the more worship of Mammon becomes the increasingly explicit central core of the culture around us, the more people are starting to band together and get together and talk about how to live differently.

    My politics in that sense are pretty much the same as they’ve always been. I’m still an anti-globalist because I’m a localist, because I think that we should have a relationship with our place and our people and our culture and our land wherever we happen to be in the world. And we should try to live simply. It seems to be a good thing to do, seems to be a Christian thing to do as well. It seems to be the easiest way to share, it seems to be the easiest way to embrace the kind of values that actually make a human world. Having a family, having a community, having a faith, having connection with the soil, getting your hands dirty, breathing fresh air, all those kind of things that used to be very common but are now almost exclusive things.

    Funny thing is that twenty-five years ago when I said things like that, I was called a communist, and now people tend to assume I’m right wing. You could be a communist, and you’re a fascist now, and you just say the same thing. It’s very strange the way that the politics have shifted around that. But fundamentally, that’s sort of almost an anarchist vision or localist vision, distributist vision, whatever you want to call it. It’s always the one that’s inspired me. It just seems to me the obvious way to live.

    And in terms of what can be done, it seems to me to be the only thing that’s sort of worth doing at this point and it’s doable as well. It’s workable. It doesn’t involve a grand ideological system or saving the whole world in a hundred days or anything. It’s sort of small, slow, local work and it’s rewarding when it happens. It’s hard work as well, but it’s rewarding too.

    Alan Koppschall: What’s the future of your community there? What do you see as the future of you guys coming together and living with each other?

     Paul Kingsnorth: Well, we’re not really living with each other. It’s more that there are different people around in different properties who have similar sorts of values. And in some ways they have been for a long time in Ireland. A lot of people have always moved here to escape the rat race elsewhere. It’s still quite a small quiet place.

    So yeah, just there’s more people sharing seeds and vegetables. There are more people talking about what the future’s going to hold as society becomes much less Christian and much more materialist. And I do think that one thing that has stayed with me from my days as an activist and my days as a writer around this sort of slightly doomery side of things is I do think this society is unsustainable, which means it’s going to start coming apart. I think it’s already coming apart. And the age of cheap money and cheap stuff and global supply chains I think is coming to an end.

    And when that happens, people are going to have to ban together more and they’re going to have to know how to do things more. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll get back to a point where it becomes more practical again to actually start living locally, living with your own skills, living with your own hands, rather than just relying on the banks and the superstores to do everything for you. We’ll have to see. But in the meantime, as I say, it’s worth doing however you can do it anyway.

    And it seems to me to be potentially a Christian way to live. And I’m certainly not suggesting I’m living as a very good Christian, but I think the logic of the Christian faith, as far as I can see it, is that you do have to try and live as simply as you can. I can’t see any way around that, which it puts pressure on me because I feel like I’m not living simply enough, actually. So I need to think about that.

    Madoc Cairns: Do you think there are ways in which ... I know you’ve used the imagery of gardening quite often to describe how you’re trying to practice a better way of life on the ground in Ireland. Do you think there’s a way that people who are living in cities, who aren’t necessarily in the position to work from the land, do you think there are ways to, as it were, garden in that context? Or do we need to more think of ways to get out of those kind of highly mediated kind of habitats?

    Paul Kingsnorth: Well, everyone’s situation is different. I spent most of my life living in towns and cities. I was over forty before I managed to get the ability to escape which I’d wanted to do for quite a long time and I did so. There are lots of people who live in cities and there are lots of things that can be done. You can have an allotment, you can have a community garden, you can have a window box. You can garden in your community in terms of gathering people together and living in simple ways.

    In some ways, it’s easier to live simply in a city than it is in the country. You don’t need a car for a start. I mean my ideal life is to have as much nature around me as possible and as much clean air and as much birdsong, but it’s not always possible to do that.

    So you take the circumstances that are given to you when they’re given to you. I suppose you take what God gives you and you try to be a gardener in that situation, whatever that represents to you. I’m lucky enough to be here at the moment. Who knows what the future brings? But I do think there’s that, maybe even that sense that you can garden a community as well as garden the land.

    Madoc Cairns: Yeah. And, of course, I mean there’s the beautiful image of the church itself as a garden, isn’t there? The vineyard. Yeah. Sorry, I interrupted.

    Paul Kingsnorth: Yeah, no, I think so. Yes, I think so. It’s a nice one, the vineyard. The vineyard of Christ. It’s a lovely idea.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, we are going to have to wrap up because we are coming to the end of the hour. But, Paul, thank you so much for joining us and I do hope to have you back on and to convince you at some point to write for Plough.

    Paul Kingsnorth: I’d love to, I’d love to and I’ve enjoyed the conversation. Thanks for it.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thank you so much.

    Madoc Cairns: Thank you so much.

    Alan Koppschall: Thank you, Paul.

    Contributed By PaulKingsnorth Paul Kingsnorth

    Paul Kingsnorth was the publications editor for Greenpeace and deputy editor of The Ecologist.

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    Contributed By MadocCairns Madoc Cairns

    Madoc Cairns is an editor at Plough, and a freelance contributor to the New Statesman, The Observer, and The Times Literary Supplement.

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    Contributed By AlanKoppschall Alan Koppschall

    Alan Koppschall is a managing editor and an event coordinator at Plough.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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