Conversion stories are fascinating and informative. Please feel free to post here your own story of how you awoke into tradition. In particular, let us know if you feel yourself in the midst of a paradigm shift, and think that you might be discovering that you are a tradent.
I was raised a Marxist. My family was focused on the Social Gospel, and – when the chances of implementing a socialist utopia through the church faded – to radical progressive politics and the human potential movement. We also however loved the Narnia books from an early age, and some of the things I read in those books puzzled me. I dismissed them. But they were planted deep in the soil of my mind.
Eventually, however, a series of events turned me into a traditionalist over the course of only a few years.
First, I read Robert Heinlein as a boy, and while I found his politics appalling, nevertheless the arguments he marshalled were new to me, and I could not gainsay them. They didn’t convince me, but because I respected Heinlein as a spinner of coherent tales and a competent writer, I found I could not altogether discount them as ravings of a mad or evil or stupid man. On the contrary, Heinlein was obviously brilliant, highly educated, and insightful. So I filed his arguments away for later, reserving final judgement.
Second, at 17 I began hitch-hiking around the country. I was a rebel; I was determined not to follow any conventional career path, nor ever to have a normal life. I figured normality was basically stupid, and probably wicked. When I set out, I figured that such folks as my family – highly educated, into books, interested in history, and extremely liberal – knew better than most people about most things. And what we knew is that society was organized all wrong, and that we could do it better. I figured people who weren’t liberal were probably stupid, uneducated, or evil – or all three.
About three days into my first trip, having met about 30 men from all walks of life, I had begun to think differently. None of the men who picked me up were from the Ivy League circles of my parents. Few had ever been to college. Every single one of them knew a lot more about several important things than I, or anyone I had ever known. They knew about farming or machines, or roads and bridges, or rivers and canals, or telephone and energy networks, you name it. They were intelligent, well-spoken, well-informed, and down to earth. In short, they understood reality more concretely and more completely than my family did. And they were neat guys; they were admirable. I started to think I probably didn’t have all the answers, or even any of them.
Third, when I was 20 my parents divorced. I instantly concluded that all this social reform and human potential stuff they had been into must be total garbage. Look how much good it had done them! I looked back at the things in my life that had held true, and realized that they were all ancient: ancient music, ancient liturgy, ancient cathedrals, old houses, ancient forests and deserts. I began to respect old things that had long endured, just for their having done so; and I began to look at all new things, all new ideas, with a jaundiced, cynical eye – especially when they offered to fix everything that was wrong in the world we had inherited from our forefathers, a world I more and more saw as noble, beautiful, decorous, and simply pleasant.
Fourth, I learned about economics and biology, cybernetics and cognitive science. That sealed the deal. Here was a systematic way of thinking about living things in terms of information that supported distributed computational systems, and suggested that centralized command and control were terrifically unstable and vulnerable.
Lewis and Heinlein were the seeds; learning on the road from the salt of the earth fertilized the soil; the divorce harrowed the weeds; systems theory was the sunlight. At 17 I was a Marxist. At 20 I was convinced that if people were only left to their own devices a humane traditional society, as being best fitted to the nature of man, would soon cook up naturally and organically from their free interactions.
Pingback: Orthospherean Conversion Stories | The Orthosphere
For New Year’s in 2012 I posted an autobiographical essay entitled “The Testimony of a Tory – A Brief Memoir”. It is not a conversion story, per se, as some elements of my Tory traditionalism, such as my royalism, have been with me for as long as I can remember, but a story of how my traditionalism gradually grew and developed into what it is today. It does tell of my conversion to evangelical Christianity as a teenager and how my Christianity has developed in a more traditional direction since. Here is the essay: http://www.thronealtarliberty.blogspot.com/2012/01/testimony-of-tory-brief-memoir.html
I had children and then concluded that Leftism is bad for their future.
I probably don’t qualify as I am technically an atheist, atheo-rationalist-buddhist. I think I am far more just a basic general antiliberal-antimodernist than a full ortho. But I have a story to share.
This guy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G.M._Tam%C3%A1s is more or less a far less famous version of Slavoj Zizek. Very wrong, but very learned and thus able to come accross as insightful and deep. I used to be the kind of liberal-in-the-European-sense which in the American terminology perhaps means a social centrist and economically lightly libertarian, but ultimately someone who tries to keep a distance from both left and right. David Brooks? Sort of. At any rate this guy wrote once “Centrist liberalism is a sham, you are either on the left or right. There is one very simple question: what is the cause of human suffering? If you think it is caused by human society being poorly structured, you are on the left. If you think it is caused by anything else, you are on the right.”
At that point I got enlightened. Seriously, the structure of societies is just about the last reason I would propose for the existence of human suffering. All my experiences suggested the reason must be inside us and not structural. You can call it original sin / concupiscence, or samsara, or evolution being an inefficient optimization process. On the pragmatic level they all manifest as the same kind of ethical and general fallibility, a bug in the human software, a consistent inability to live up to our own standards. I rarely ever had a problem whose reason was not, obviously, me. I could not understand where this guy could come from. While he wrote this, he was drawing the decent salary of being a national academy member, while hardly ever publishing anything beyond such opinion pieces in magazines, nor showing up at his job much. So where could even the experience of such a horrible social structure come from… of course he had tougher periods like when the other kinds of Marxists persecuted his kinds of Marxists, but obviously… eh, you understand what I mean.
My point is really, being a progressive is an incredibly narrow way to go through life. They are not allowed to find any other reasons for human suffering than social structure. You and me can offer at least three from the tops of our minds (original sin, samsara and evolution), and there could be another twenty candidates. They are not allowed to blame anything but oppressors for their problems, which makes it really hard to actually solve them. They are never allowed to explain a social feature, say, gender roles, through potentially useful aspects, but only through oppressive ones. It is like thinking in an intellectual straightjacket. It gets incredibly boring – there is rarely if ever a truly interesting insight, it is just newer and newer facets of someone oppressing someone else. Things are far more interesting on the right-wing side, for example Moldbug may be completely crazy, but a creative and original kind of crazy.
I was a run of the mill twenty-something political conservative and milquetoast cradle Catholic with libertarian tendencies, listening to Rush Limbaugh, frustrated by the victory of the scoundrel Bill Clinton over the paper mâché chameleon George HW Bush, with caricature icons of the “founding fathers” and sugarplum positivist/nominalist visions of the U.S. constitution and the founding of America as the pinnacle of human political development dancing in my head. This all played to the tune of the “School House Rock” propaganda we saw over and over again as kids during Saturday morning cartoons after delivering the papers. All of this was a minor distraction from everyday real life, which had its own requirements and did not leave a lot of room for what the prophet John Valby called “philosophical bullshit”.
Then I encountered Jim Kalb on Usenet News 25 years ago or so, corresponded a bit by email, and that was that: he gently led me to realize that I had unthinkingly categorized political freedom and equality (“of opportunity”, of course) as good things rather than as the incoherent foundation of all modern horrors. From that catalyst – my errors are my own but Jim justly shares credit for anything I’ve gotten right – many things followed, including everything I’ve written at VFR (as “Matt”), my own blog, and elsewhere.
One experience that made an impression on me was being a grad student in English at the University of Illinois circa 1986 and seeing the results of a survey of these students regarding courses they wanted to be able to take. Almost everything they wanted to study was recent. Jane Austen’s era was about as far back as they ventured (I don’t remember if anyone suggested a course on the great Miss Austen). There seemed a profound incuriosity about times and authors predating modernity.
Reading Own Barfield’s Saving the Appearances around 1979 and again in later years was helpful. C. S. Lewis’s little essay “On the Reading of Old Books” should be a must for Orthosphereans. (It was originally the intro to a popular translation of St. Athansius’s On the Incarnation.) Lewis’s The Abolition of Man has likewise shaped my thinking.
Reading about Solzhenitsyn when he was kicked out of the USSR, reading his One Day in a World Lit course in 1974, etc. helped to kill forever in me any chance of a romance with communism. Isn’t Solzhenitsyn a real Orthospherean resource?
I’ve told my story here:
It will come as no surprise, I imagine, that my glimpse into liberalism’s heart of darkness is connected with my education and my subsequent attempts to practice my profession
In 1995 Central Michigan University’s English Department, where I had been teaching for six years, fired me.
The real reason was that I had dared publicly to notice that the complaints of faculty in all areas of study that students couldn’t write were traceable to the utterly stupid notions of the compositionists who controlled the writing program. The cited reason was a complaint by the local professorial union that I had violated the code of conduct by teaching a course without pay. What had really happened was that because the Department was desperately short of funds, the chair had asked whether anyone would be willing to teach an extra course without extra pay. I was the only volunteer. The chair accepted my offer. Next thing I knew – after the semester was completed – was that the chair personally sent me a note of termination. The efforts of a few friends, who knew perfectly well what was going on, proved unavailing. I was angry, but being a Platonist I channeled my anger creatively.
About a year later the Mackinac Center for Public Policy issued my Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities and marched me around the state on a two-week publicity campaign giving interviews and participating in debates at the various campuses of the U of M. This was during the final two weeks of the Clinton-Dole presidential campaign. I was front-page above-the-fold news and Clinton and Dole were front-page below-the-fold news. The pièce de resistance came when the President of Central Michigan, the late Leonard Plachta, ordered his faculty, including the self-righteous prig who had fired me, to answer my charges in a public debate. This event afforded another lesson in the moral cheapness of the academy – of the depths that people of middling intelligence, bad education, and rigid ideological convictions would go to protect their claims against scrutiny and the facts.
The debate consisted of me, the late Richard Cutler, and education-writer Rita Kramer, and six representatives from various departments. As it happened, almost all the other side’s questions were direction against me, so that it was essentially six-to-one. CMU sponsored the local Public Television franchise and had agreed to tape the debate for broadcast. I told my friends at the Mackinac Center that they could not rely on the institution to provide them with a tape; that they should tape it themselves, but because Larry Reed (the Mackinac Center President at the time) was personally friendly with Plachta, he did not want to seem suspicious. The monopoly of representation remained with Central Michigan. This is how badly the debate went for Central Michigan: Five minutes after the vent ended, when Reed inquired about the tape, the CEO of Public Television told him that the tape had been lost! (Five minutes after it had been recorded!)
The affair launched my writing career – first at Peter Collier’s Heterodoxy and with Academic Questions and swiftly with the ISI quarterlies. I came in contact with the Russell Kirk Center – and after a stint as the executive director of the ALSC, which was honest employment that I roundly hated, I showed up at SUNY Oswego’s English Department with my credentials a couple of weeks before the semester began asking whether they could use my services. They hired me immediately and there I have been ever since.
When CMU did its dirty deed against me, the department chair and his cronies thought that they would never be called on it; that it would remain secret and – more importantly to them, I believe – that just criticism of their idiotic curriculum would be forever silenced. Instead, it became a chapter of Declining Standards. I enjoyed that debate immensely, despite the disappointment of the “missing video tape.” The fact that the institution was so ready to tell so blatant a lie to protect its reputation was a self-judgment on the performance of the hostile, ill-prepared, and rather stupid faculty who claimed that Declining Standards contained nothing of truth and that everything in higher education was hunky-dory.
Before the Central Michigan debate, I had faced other audiences. On the day that the Center issued Declining Standards, I gave a presentation and press-interview at Michigan State in East Lansing in the main campus auditorium before 3000 hostile people. There I was alone at the head of the auditorium. It was intimidating, as one might imagine, but I was extremely well prepared. One thing that worked in my favor is that, as individuals, most audience members could see that I was a solitary dissenter in the midst of an enormous mean-spirited crowd (never mind that all those individuals were contributing to the mean-spiritedness), and I suspect that the pervasive sense that none of them would have wanted to be in my position worked, if only minimally, in my favor. Nevertheless, the ambient ire was palpable. The press sat up front, hostile to a person, including a female reporter who had just completed a Women’s Studies degree at State. In Declining Standards, I had quoted a report issued by a State business professor who had polled Michigan businessmen – the employers of most Michigan State University graduates – what deficiencies they noted in their new hires. The overwhelming answer was that baccalaureate holders from the system could not read or write worth a damn and had to be expensively retrained.
The female reporter pestered with the same question over and over. Here question was, had I personally polled those businessmen? Her twisted rhetorical purpose was to suggest that the response to the poll must be illegitimate because I had quoted it at second hand. I responded repeatedly that if she doubted the results of an official publication of Michigan State, then her beef would be with Michigan State, not me – but that I had no doubt of the credibility of the report. She would not let up. Finally, I approached her to a few inches away. “Let me give you an analogy,” I said, “that I believe even you will understand: You didn’t invent air, but I notice that you use quite a bit of it.” There was an audible, if slightly guilty-sounding whisper of laughter – and after that, the harridan kept her peace.
At another, similar event, at Eastern Michigan University, one audience member, a professor from the English faculty, was determined to trip me up and that that I had handed him the ammo to do so. In a discussion about literacy, I cited a passage from a short-story by Hans Christian Andersen, whose name, because I am a Danish-speaker, I say as Ho (H) Tsay (C) Annershen (Andersen). This particular nemesis was immediately convinced that he was smart and I was stupid because he thought that I thought that Hans Christian Andersen was a Mexican named José Annershen. When I called on his raised hand, he began to lecture me superciliously about my miseducation. I interrupted in Danish, asking whether he knew that Danes commonly call their most famous writer by his initials, which they pronounce Ho Tsay? He looked at me blankly and I politely returned with an “Oh – you don’t speak Danish.” After which I patiently explained to him in front of the 1200 people who were there foregathered about these matters. And then I explained to him – and to everyone else – why he had made his comment: He was convinced that I had made an error and that when he corrected me publicly it would demolish my credibility in any matter and all. What’s the point? It’s this: Liberals never have enough information – they’re always badly educated – but they invariably think that they know everything and that they’re smarter than anyone else.
The moral of the story: The Left instinctively victimizes dissenters – it is the true heir of the Massachusetts Puritans; and in order to banish disagreement, the Left is willing to lie, cheat, and steal (e.g., the “lost” video tape). All of the utopian claims that the Left makes about itself – and that Leftwing-dominated institutions make about themselves – are items of mendacious propaganda. I had seen these things without really being cognizant of them, perhaps because they were so ugly I could not admit them. Then, because I wanted to teach students how to read and write, and this turned out to be a violation of the rules, I had to open my eyes.
It interests me how luck plays a role in these changes-of-mind, specifically the luck to read something not on the reading-list, that fortuitously crosses one’s path. One of the stages in my change-of-mind involved reading Walter Ong’s book Orality and Literacy at just the time when I began teaching at Central Michigan University, in a department dominated by extraordinarily bigoted “composition experts.” I saw quite suddenly that what the compositionists insisted on doing in their classrooms would not only not produce a higher literacy useful for college students, but it would actually degrade the literacy of students, and it was doing so. The pedagogical ideologues – they were all ferociously leftwing – could see the results of their curriculum and obviously cared not a jot about the destruction that they were wreaking. I concluded then that liberalism was an assault on civilization.
Having tripped my own memory, I must record another telling incident connected with my Michigan decade. In the early 1990s Central Michigan University had to endure a spate of bad publicity because of a rash of scandals involving sexual dalliances between faculty members and undergraduates. The administration proposed a simple rule: No faculty member could enter into a “romantic relationship,” as it was called, with any student currently studying under his or her supervision. The practical implications of the proposed rule were minimal. The horny professor needed only to wait until the semester was finished to entice the coed into letting him diddle her. The rule would not come into force, however, until or unless approved by the Faculty Senate. The vote was scheduled and occurred – and by a large margin the Faculty Senate rejected the proposed rule. What this told me, in a way that shocked me, was that these people, liberals to a man and woman, were unwilling to impose on themselves the most minimal of moral restraints. What they were saying, by unavoidable implication, is that, by God, if any one of them had the itch, he would scratch – let the appearances be damned.
Being born in 1960, I came of age in the mid ‘70s to the early 80s, with all the evil habits that came to be viewed as rather normal in the post-Vietnam era. I was raised by a family who were marginally Christian but continued to believe in magic and the supernatural as givens. So did I. After high school I took seven years off from my education to pursue life as a punk rock junkie in Los Angeles and Berkeley. This went on until I converted to Orthodox Christianity when I was 25. I went to University to study philosophy. From there I went on to graduate school in South Asian Religions at UC Santa Barbara.
The writers who got me thinking seriously about Traditionalism were A.K. Coomaraswamy and Rene Guenon. I had to read them because my professors universally warned me off them due to their baleful influence. By my reading of these men’s work, I was lead back to actually reading Plato and Plotinus. In Ennead 1.6 I read:
I was amazed that Plotinus had had my number 1700 years ago. And for me, that was that. I experienced what we Buddhists call Āśrayaparāvṛtti — a sudden moment of life-changing insight.
As Śāntideva says in his Bodhicāryavātara (An Introduction to the Path of the Bodhisattva):
I was born in Minnesota, in 1946 to upper-middle class parents but by age 14, I was part of a group of friends who would sneak out and meet in the dark of night to joy-ride those parked cars in which the owners had left the keys. I declined to join them one night and on that night the cops nabbed them. This was the first instance that I can point to where God showed His hand in my life in a blatant way. A few weeks later, I met a friend who introduced me to Jesus Christ and I became a Christian. I also became interested in books and my studies at school.
In 1964, I entered a good, midwestern, four-year liberal arts college. It was fairly easy to get into, cost $1,900 for the full treatment, including room and board, and sent me off into the world well prepared. (Today, it’s hard to get into, costs $50,000 and actually leaves you less prepared for life than you were when you entered as a freshman.) And when I say that my school prepared me well, I mean it planted the seeds, not the flowering plants themselves — I emerged in 1968 a soft liberal.
Late one evening in 1977, I stood in the moonlight (I suppose the picture requires moonlight whether there was any or not — can’t really remember) on the shores of a nearby lake in Minneapolis and pleaded with God to spare my life (I was a hypochondriac at the time) and I heard these inaudible words: ‘I’m going to let you live but I want you to make something of your life’. That pathological fear of death left me and, 38 years later, has not returned.
I pondered what I believed to be God’s words for a year or so. At the time, my wife and I had been reading C. S. Lewis (I was especially taken by the Space Trilogy) and he helped me to sort this thing out. The result is broken into two decisions. First was the decision to proceed on the assumption that the voice was indeed the voice of God and here, for brevity, I will quote Shakespeare, not Lewis: ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men . . ‘. Lewis’s hero, Ransom, was involuntarily taken up in the tide. I decided to accept the voice, to deliberately take that tide, to chance the gamble, to grab that chance to be carried away into the core of the meaning of my existence, as I was to understand it. The second decision concerned methodology. Could I embark on this course using resolutions and self-discipline? No, I would ask God to assume all of the initiative. I made a sort of contract with God, I gave him my life, I asked Him to accept the responsibility for fulfilling His command of making something of my life and I added that if I ever asked to be excused from all of this, that He should ignore me and carry on. I entered Ransom’s space ship.
Not to be cute about this, but what followed was my life. We (I say ‘we’ since my wife understood and approved all of this) waited for God to make the first move. We tried to help things along by deliberately putting ourselves at a disadvantage in the world with the idea that it would make us more exposed to God’s hand. One night we gave away half of all of our money (both savings and working funds) to a poor couple we knew. I walked the envelope carrying the checks to the mailbox that night so that there would be no chance of changing our minds the next day. Every year we gave away what we should have saved (and yet we did save which is to say that we attended to first things first and the secondary things just fell into place — that’s a sort of hackneyed bit of fundamentalist teaching, a bit stale but true nonetheless). We also learned the trick of sabotaging our own ambitions as another method of making ourselves more vulnerable to God’s intentions. We lived a life, which is to say that it has been full of ups and downs at one level but full of meaning and import on another and we were continuously aware of both levels. We are still married, we have three happy children and seven happy grandchildren. We live in comfortable retirement. In 1977, I was a successful municipal bond salesman and am now a retired barber. My wife was a homemaker and mother and she’s now a retired nurse. We didn’t really have careers, we had a life. It all makes sense to us, we didn’t plan it that way, God did.
I want to say something about philosophy but first I will say that, as I believe that the voice I heard was indeed God’s voice, I also believe that three other events in my life were supernatural in nature and it seems that one of them, a recent event, has placed me in the position where one might well ask God to be excused although I have not asked for that because I suspect that it carries with it the fulfillment of everything — or nearly everything — that can be fulfilled this side of the grave. I am speaking of the fulfillment of God’s intentions.
I think I can cover philosophy and politics in one paragraph. Abortion shook me out of my liberal fog and it shook me hard. I have a sense that the famous abortion video showing the naked fetus on the lab tray distills all political and moral philosophy. It is fully comprehensible to all, it transcends reason. For myself, I have to allow for the possibility that God’s intention might be that it is the end of us.
Well, one more paragraph on philosophy. I am hugely indebted to Professor Bertonneau who introduced me to Eric Voegelin through his writings at Brussels Journal and now here. I have slogged through some of the writings of Voegelin himself as well as some writings about his thought and yet I keep coming back to Bertonneau’s extremely lucid essays. I have a sense that Voegelin comes close to resolving the famous Jerusalem-Athens dichotomy although I am not a trained philosopher so don’t hold me to that. Voegelin’s thinking has both deepened my faith and explained the world and Bertonneau was there all along the way.
I became a conservative when my first college course in Economics coincided with Jimmy Carter’s first year as President AND my outrage that a hefty portion of my “student activity fee” was going to Nader’s PIRG organization. I joined a movement that led to a decision permitting refunds for those funds for those not agreeing with Nader.
My over-lengthy description is here: http://nooilforpacifists.blogspot.com/search?q=ask+the+neocon