The Present, Past, and Pre-History of Conversion

Longing to leave liberalism behind, everyone from Catholics to Communists is experimenting with self-transformation. What’s fueling that desire, and is it strong enough to make the break?

A protester on March 20, 2021 in London. Hollie Adams/Getty Images.

A protester on March 20, 2021 in London. Hollie Adams/Getty Images.

May 3 2021
About the author

Nathan Shields, a composer whose works have been performed by various orchestras and chamber ensembles, is associate faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research. He earned his doctorate at the Juilliard School in New York, and has received fellowships from Tanglewood and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

It is an image both grand and subtly comical: the man lies stunned on the ground onto which he has just been flung, head and torso thrust toward the viewer, arms thrown out in an ambiguous gesture as if he were trying either to embrace something or to ward it off. His face and body are starkly illuminated, his eyes shut vainly against the light. Above him stand a horse and an older man, who tends to the animal, seemingly oblivious to his fallen companion. The horse, its leg half-raised, glances toward the ground with an expression that might be annoyance.

Caravaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus captures, more eloquently than any other artwork that I know, the paradox at the heart of religious conversion. The painting exists as two simultaneous images alternately revealed or concealed with each shift of the viewer’s perception.

In the first of these images we see conversion as many have believed or hoped it to be. The force that topples the man from his horse, the fierce illumination flooding his face—these suggest a radical transformation beyond human choice or understanding, an encounter with an inexplicable and irresistible Other. In this encounter, the old self dies and a new one is born: the man falls from his horse as Saul of Tarsus, Pharisee and persecutor, and rises from the ground as the apostle Paul.

A different picture emerges when we shift our attention away from the fiercely lit rider—the apostle Paul—to the figures above him. The reproachful backward glance of Caravaggio’s horse, the distracted expression of the groom, suggest that what Paul has heard—the voice of God—they have not heard; that the pivotal event of his life unfolds in impenetrable privacy. The world has changed, but only for him.

“Conversion on the Way to Damascus” by Caravaggio, circa 1600. Wikimedia.

The literature of conversion, as a genre, is constituted by this tension or contradiction, between the incommunicability of the conversion experience on the one hand and its claims to authority on the other. The center of the convert’s being has been reoriented around devotion to some new object—God, a political cause, a philosophical doctrine—but the reasons for this new devotion can never really be made comprehensible except to those who already share it. In this opacity to outside understanding, conversion resembles falling in love, and the lyrical intimacy of the love poem might seem the only adequate register for describing it: “I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace,” Augustine writes in his Confessions.

But while the wellsprings of conversion may be private, its consequences (as Paul’s story demonstrates) are often extravagantly public. It inducts us, as romantic love does not, into a new community and a new understanding of the world, which we hold to possess an authority extending beyond ourselves. This is the essential difference between the lover and the convert: when I fall in love with someone, I do not normally conclude that it would be best for everyone else to marry her.

Converts, on the other hand, typically describe their love in the hopes of persuading others to share it. Thus conversion literature, bounded on one side by the poetry of devotion, fades on the other into the prose of apologetics: whatever the inward sources of my transformation, it is not only my concern, and I must make an accounting of it as best I can. Augustine tells the story of his life from the perspective of the present, when all his restless wanderings are revealed at last to be part of a divine conspiracy leading him, ineluctably, here.

If the convert’s tale seeks not only to render praise but to answer a question, the nature of that question changes with the audience and age. Augustine’s conversion was from nominal to fervent Christianity, from heterodoxy to the faith of the ascendant post-Constantinian Church; he sought to explain not why he had come here, but what had taken him so long.

What is the question facing the convert in our own, very different religious and political landscape? Perhaps, as for the journalist and essayist Sohrab Ahmari in From Fire by Water, a recent account modeled partly on Augustine’s own, it is why he chose this God instead of another—why, in other words, the Catholic Church rather than evangelical Protestantism, revolutionary socialism, or (greatest of modern gods) indifference? Or maybe it is the incredulous question, more closely related to Ahmari’s than you might think, with which Vivian Gornick grapples in The Romance of American Communism, her newly reissued oral history of political faith won and lost (and won and lost mostly by the American Jews who make up the bulk of her subjects): “your parents were Communists?” Or perhaps it is another question still more fundamental—like the question, inconceivable to Augustine and his contemporaries, posed by the eminent religious scholar Elaine Pagels in the title of her 2018 memoir: Why Religion?

If none of these books gives an entirely satisfying answer to its own question, they do cast some light on another question their authors do not ask. This is the question of conversion’s meaning now. At first, ours might seem like a golden age of conversions. Rarely in recent decades have so many swapped political attitudes with such speed and conviction. And never has it been easier or more respectable to move between different religious communities, different views of the world—indeed it would not be uncommon today for someone do so five or six times over the course of her life. But that is like saying this is a golden age of marriages because it has become possible to have so many of them; the ease and prevalence of conversion today might instead be an indication of its marginality.

It will be good to start (shortly but not quite yet) with Ahmari, because there’s something distinctively Christian at the heart of the modern conception of conversion, which emerges with particular force from his account. This Christian legacy consists in what we take to be conversion’s subject: the individual. Our contemporary understanding of conversion is a product of the long development of the introspective individual subject in Western Christianity, from Augustine through Kierkegaard, by which the modern consciousness has been shaped more deeply than perhaps any other force. Standing as we do on the far side of this development, even those of us who are quite indifferent to Christianity unwittingly articulate our hopes of renewal in its terms: conversion, we think, is something that happens to me, not something that happens to us.

In this individual, psychological sense, the best definition of conversion is still that proffered by William James in his classic study The Varieties of Religious Experience. Its precondition is what James calls the “divided self,” exemplified by Augustine, in whom (he writes in the Confessions) “two wills, one old, one new, one carnal, the other spiritual, contended with each other and disturbed my soul.” Conversion then is the healing and reunification of this self, “the process,” James writes, “gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities.”

Before it was an individual experience, conversion meant something more communal, and thus more political.

Yet before it was an individual experience, conversion meant something more communal, and thus more political. This collective meaning can be found in the Jewish understanding of conversion out of which the Christian one grew, and to which—as we will see—it periodically returns. And even today the passion of the individual convert, at its most intense, can point back toward this original collective meaning, the need to reunite the self spilling over into an ambition to reunite society. In this capacity for reversion lie both conversion’s fascination, and its considerable political dangers. It may also account for part of the strange self-consciousness that arises after the convert’s passion has faded.

In The Kingdom, his speculative 2014 account of the lives of the early Christians, the French writer Emmanuel Carrère looks back from the perspective of his present agnosticism upon a long-past love affair with Catholicism: “In autumn 1990 I’d been ‘touched by grace.’ It would be an understatement to say that it embarrasses me to put it that way today.” Gornick strikes a similar note in her new introduction to The Romance of American Communism, in which she castigates herself for having written “romantically”: “I read the book today and I am dismayed by much of the writing. Its emotionalism is so thick you can cut it with a knife. The same rhetorical qualifiers—‘powerfully,’ ‘profoundly,’ ‘deeply,’ ‘at the very core of his being’—disfigure thousands of sentences.” For Carrère as for Gornick, the dismay at having used such phrases is really a dismay at having been the kind of person who could mean them: they feel for their past selves, as we might for an enthusiastic but misguided friend, a kind of sympathetic embarrassment.

What both Carrère and Gornick now find distasteful is not a particular set of convictions, but conviction itself. And that distaste has its roots neither in science nor in secularization, but in a worldview that, since its origins in the religious wars of the early modern era, has made the danger of conviction its central concern. This is the worldview of Western liberalism. The ambivalence with which they regard their conversions, which contrasts sharply with Ahmari’s certainty, is thus a product not of the inevitable progress of modernity, but of a particular moment in time: the post-cold-war era of liberalism’s solitary ascendancy, during which all fundamental problems of power and ideology seemed at last to have been resolved into the universal language of a benevolent technocracy, and during which ideological conviction—though it could not be banished entirely—was compelled, when it appeared in public, to hide its face behind a mask of irony or bureaucratic calm. That moment, it seems to many, may now be ending. A great deal hinges on whether in fact it is.

The books considered here tell the story of conversion during this era, which is also the story of the era as a whole: Ahmari’s relates the era’s present; Pagels’s, its unhappy past; and Gornick’s, its pre-history, which is also one of its possible futures. Tying these books together is the political problem of conversion: how far is this experience of transformation, of illumination, of passionate wholeness, without which so many people would have found life not worth living—how far is it compatible with the liberal vision of order and political stability? Can this wholeness flourish stably within the bounds set by liberal values, or must it eventually erode or be eroded by them?

To trace the problem’s historical unfolding through these books is to confront both the inevitable unhappiness that is a price of liberal politics and the reasons for which many have found it a price worth paying. To James, the convert exemplified one side of a fundamental human divide, separating those who experience religion as “an acute fever” from the plodding mass of mankind in whom it was a mere dull habit. This image captures the essence of the much-discussed dispute between liberalism and its critics today, when conviction seems to be resuming its old place at the center of public life, and conversion becoming once again a central aspect of political experience. Very many observers today from very many points of view agree that the liberal order is ailing. But is its fever the first step to recovery, or the sign of worse to come?


I. The Apostate


Viewed from this perspective, Sohrab Ahmari’s well-received 2019 memoir is a story not just of faith won but of faith lost—of how a writer who five years ago prophesied that “the main ideological struggles of this century will pit liberalism against illiberalism,” and called “true defenders of freedom” to the cause of the former, came to defect to the opposing side. The story of this love affair with the liberal order, from first passion to bitter disillusionment, forms a shadow narrative running behind the happier tale of his romance with Catholicism, and extending past the end of From Fire, by Water into the present. All in all it offers—for all the singularity of his experience—the portrait of a wider, generational disaffection.

Ahmari’s path to liberalism was shorter, if no less convoluted, than his road to Catholicism. Born in 1985 into the largely secular Iranian intelligentsia, he grew up among artists and bohemians, in a family at once comfortable and dispossessed, clinging tragicomically to the worldly pleasures of their pre-revolutionary lives even as they accommodated themselves as best they could to the ayatollahs’ new Iran.

Infatuated with the West, Parviz and Niloofar Ahmari—even as a child, their son addresses them by their first names—rear him neither in the bourgeois virtues of his pious grandparents nor the stringent Shiism of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s regime, but in that most Western of creeds, the gospel of authenticity. His father repeatedly enjoins him to “live in the moment” and “be yourself.” Charming, brash, with “an eagle nose [and] eyes hinting of mischief,” Parviz is also the embodiment all those weaknesses Sohrab will later despise in himself—alcoholic, intellectually self-regarding, undisciplined, self-indulgent, self-destructive.

This richly drawn background is the setup for the ideological picaresque that fills the rest of the book. Niloofar and her son leave the dissolute Parviz behind and decamp for America, which Sohrab, the fitful piety of his childhood now firmly behind him, imagines as a land of enlightened atheists, “urban and ‘advanced,’ chic and clean.” Instead they find themselves in Utah. Chafing at its ambient Mormonism, Sohrab rebels against America by immersing himself in a quintessentially American canon of European thinkers (Nietzsche, Sartre, Marx, Foucault), and embarking on an (equally American) program of enthusiastic substance abuse. His memoir relates both experiences in the same shamed tone. Marx provides a point of intellectual repose and belonging for a while, as Ahmari joins the suburban Salt Lake branch of a Trotskyite sect, but soon he tires of its dogmatism, finding himself both isolated and lost.

Strewn along this aimless road are various markers that, Ahmari suggests, could have led him much earlier onto the Straight and Narrow Path, had he heeded them: an encounter with the Gospel of Matthew in his Mormon roommate’s Bible, or reading Plato and Paul Tillich in a college course. But the impression they make is fleeting. “What a vain and fatuous creature I was!” An access of self-loathing after a night of particularly heavy drinking may move him momentarily to prayer, but “once the crisis was past, I would feel a bit silly and return to my materialist certainties.”

In Ahmari’s telling this nadir is the setup for the regeneration of his convictions. During a stint with Teach for America in Texas, he comes to appreciate Western democracy, its institutions, and the liberal ideal of the rights-bearing individual. “I now shuddered at ideas that I had entertained a few months earlier. . . . I became a conservative almost instantly.” This appreciation in turn lays the ground for his true homecoming. It starts as an intellectual sympathy, as he concludes that “the West’s humane, free civilization” is unsustainable without its “Judeo-Christian foundations.” But in time it becomes something more. Alone, drunk, filled with self-disgust, he wanders one day into a Catholic Church in Manhattan, where he witnesses in awed bewilderment the consecration of the Eucharist. “In the proximity of an awesome and mysterious force, . . . aware, too, of my own abjection and smallness,” he breaks into tears. Henceforth he will find himself drawn, slowly but inexorably, toward Christianity, a process attended by triumphs both personal and professional. He marries. He goes to law school. He ascends the ranks of conservative opinion writing, first as a hawkish Middle East commentator, then as an editorialist for the Wall Street Journal. After a dalliance with evangelicalism, he is baptized into the Roman Catholic Church, choosing Augustine as his patron saint.

The problem with memoirs is that we don’t die after writing them, which leaves open the possibility that something will happen to change their conclusions. In Ahmari’s case, that something was himself.

In its shape, the narrative of From Fire, by Water has an archetypal finality—the story of a wayward soul’s journey through the rough sea of sin and adversity to the safe port of faith. The problem with memoirs, however, is that we don’t die after writing them, which (while not without its advantages) always leaves open the possibility that something will happen to unsettle their confident conclusions. In Ahmari’s case, the something that happened was himself—or rather his views. The subjects on which those views have evolved since the publication of From Fire, by Water include liberalism (“to hell with liberal order. Sometimes reactionary politics are the only salutary path”), Donald Trump (Ahmari likes his “animal instinct”), and Viktor Orbán (“Western elites should stop lecturing Hungary”). By the time I finished reading this book, its Catholic-but-still-clubbable narrator had already completed his metamorphosis into a combative post-liberal, pledging himself “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

The end point of this evolution, at least so far, can be seen in Ahmari’s soon-to-be published book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. Here the Catholic Church, his new home, becomes an isle of sanity in a society “sliding down to a moral abyss.” Faced with these drastic stakes, old liberal pieties about power and coercion start to crumble. “To liberals,” Ahmari writes, the comprehensive religious ordering of society “is bound to yield intolerable ‘coercion.’” But “what about the eleven-year-old who encounters hardcore porn online . . . isn’t he coerced, by his own defective will and the ready availability of prurient content?” In the end, he concludes, “some orthodoxy or other will inevitably lord over our societies.” And in that case, the reasoning goes, the orthodoxy might as well be mine.

Ahmari’s embrace of illiberalism, which seems on the surface to contradict the narrative arc described in his memoir, actually completes it elegantly. Considered in its light, From Fire becomes a striking document of the spiritual dissatisfaction bred by modern liberal society—and of the ways its imaginative constraints still shape even the most seemingly radical alternatives. These constraints, which Ahmari believes himself to have escaped, are evident both in the story of his life and in his way of telling it, determining not just the memoir’s content but its style and form.


II. Confessions


That form is indebted in large part to his patron saint. The model of Augustine’s 4th-century Confessions hovers behind From Fire, by Water. Like Augustine, Ahmari “was dead, and is alive, . . . was lost, and is found.” Also like Augustine, his book reminds us that the conversion narrative doubles, much of the time, as a polemic. The ostensible targets of that polemic are those errors to which he once subscribed; his prodigal younger self is lost as much intellectually as morally, his dalliances with Nietzsche and the Worker’s Alliance a picaresque retelling of Augustine’s time among the Manichees. Behind these lies a larger target: the aimless freedom that sent him searching, and which he will later identify as liberalism. But because his discontent has not yet resolved itself into this figure, it is his fallen idols instead that absorb the brunt of his assault.

One of the disappointments of the book, given the combativeness of Ahmari’s subsequent writing, is the assault’s half-heartedness. In theory, the appeal of the memoir of recantation is fairly straightforward: we know best those doctrines to which we have ourselves subscribed, and even the most penetrating outside critic cannot match the sympathetic insight of the apostate. In practice, Ahmari’s insights resemble an elderly editorialist’s condemnations of the wayward youth, into which the first-person pronoun has at the last minute been inserted. “Like some besotted intellectual groupie, I trailed Nietzsche and his Continental progeny wherever they led me.” “I retained this Marxist habit of mind—soulless, reductionist, and terribly wrong—long after I left the ideology behind.” “My philosophy thus licensed irresponsibility and surrender to the appetites. Which is to say that it fit perfectly on a modern college campus.” And so on.

This simple gap Ahmari sets up between his past and present selves has an unrelieved starkness that is unique to conversion literature. It reflects a duality that is central to the conversion narrative as a literary form, and that is linked in turn to the very qualities that make conversion a problem for liberal politics. Its roots lie, again, in Augustine.

The Confessions, like its literary descendants, belongs to two distinct genres at once: on one hand, the intellectual autobiography, of which Augustine was one of the pioneers; and on the other, the parable or spiritual exemplar, typified for Augustine and his literary descendants by the narratives of the New Testament. The tension between these genres is implicit in the shifting meaning of Augustine’s title. As we now understand the word, “confession” entails an excavation of the past self, a coming to account with who we were in order to explain who we are; and it is just this that is the purpose of the intellectual autobiography. The basic requirement of the genre is therefore continuity: my old ideas are only relevant to my new ones because they became them, through a gradual process of learning and correction.

The purpose of the New Testament conversion narratives, by contrast, is reflected in Augustine’s own understanding of the word “confession,” which is devotional rather than self-analytic: to confess the glory of God. Conversion’s primal archetypes—Saul on the road to Damascus, the blind man given sight in the Gospel of John—are images not of continuity but of rupture. So they must be, if God is to be glorified: the more inexplicable the change, the more degraded and hopeless my past condition, the more my regeneration attests to His miraculous power. Thus Augustine, after 200 pages of introspective struggle, arrives inevitably at the moment where introspection falls silent: “At once . . . it was as if a light of relief from all anxiety flooded into my heart. All the shadows of doubt were dispelled.”

“The Conversion of Saint Augustine,” Fra Angelico and workshop, circa 1430. Wikimedia.

The literary problem posed by the superimposition of these two genres, which may seem remote from the political problem of conversion, is more closely related to it than at first appears. The archaic core of the conversion narrative speaks in the tongue of miracle and revelation, which is to say that it speaks primarily to the faithful: he who has ears to hear, let him hear. By contrast, the autobiographical mode that conversion literature has inherited from Augustine seeks to give reasons for the convert’s transformation that would be intelligible to anyone, whether they shared her beliefs or not. In other words, autobiography speaks the secular language of “public reason”—the native vernacular of politics, into which all religious messages, according to the liberal understanding, must be translated before they enter the public sphere.

The autobiographical mode thus takes on a new and crucial significance in a liberal society. If the convert could translate her story convincingly and without loss of meaning into the language of public reason, she would be making something else intelligible in liberal terms as well: her faith’s claims to power. Thus, by describing the longings that drew her to her current faith, the convert seeks to show that secular liberal society raises questions and awakens needs that it cannot answer alone. Ahmari, describing how he reached his great conclusion—that “the West’s humane, free civilization couldn’t be understood, or sustained, outside the spiritual soil that had nurtured it”—combines the apologetic and political functions of his narrative into a single gesture.

Addressing liberal society like this, however, is a more complicated and contradictory project than it at first appears. The conversion narrative, in its apologetic and autobiographical aspect, habitually ends by tracing the same closed circle described by all apologetic arguments, which invariably presuppose some part of what they hope to prove. So, for example, C.S. Lewis’s famous argument for the divinity of Jesus (that he was either who he said he was, a madman, or “the Devil of Hell”) presumes the factual accuracy of the Gospels. Pascal’s Wager—in which he accepts the minor inconvenience of Christianity as a hedge against the greater inconvenience of eternal damnation—presumes that if God exists, He is the ruthless disciplinarian envisioned by Pascal’s own sect. And Ahmari, looking over his past to find the pattern inscribed there by a mysterious hand, presumes that the hand is Providence’s and not his own.

The conversion narrative thus provides no way around the impasse bemoaned by religious critics of contemporary democratic theory—namely, that the attempt to describe one’s convictions in terms acceptable to a liberal interlocutor inevitably ends in defeat. This does not mean it is not worthwhile: people persist in many activities they know will probably end in defeat, like sports, electoral politics, or reading Finnegan’s Wake, and not just out of naiveté but because by doing so they help to sustain our common world. So it is with writing about conversion, which if it cannot entirely reconcile religion and liberal society, at least helps to reaffirm the conditions of their detente. But the cost of this reaffirmation is to entangle the convert in the same doubts and perplexities characteristic of liberalism from which she sought relief in the first place.

Indeed, modern liberalism’s ideals of pluralism and tolerance rest on a political subject who is skeptical and private—a divided self to suit a divided society. “In an ideal liberal society, the intellectuals would still be ironists,” writes the late American philosopher Richard Rorty, and even the nonintellectuals “would see themselves as contingent through and through.” Unity, by contrast, presents a problem for liberalism. In the dream of a perfectly unified society, it sees the nightmare of totalitarianism; and in the perfectly unified self, which William James thought the goal of conversion, it sees the incapacity for doubt that is fanaticism.

In the best and most persuasive of modern conversion narratives, ecstatic confidence has largely faded from view, either disavowed or abandoned as inexpressible.

Addressing liberal society thus presents a problem for the convert, because it requires an imaginative identification with precisely the kind of uncertainty and internal division from which conversion is supposed to free us. Thus we find that in many modern conversion narratives—and above all in the best and most persuasive of them—the ecstatic confidence of Augustine has largely faded from view, either disavowed or abandoned as inexpressible. Like G.K. Chesterton, “attempt[ing] an explanation, not of whether the Christian Faith can be believed, but of how he personally has come to believe it,” modern converts speak more often as private individuals and ironists, aware at least notionally that it could have been otherwise. “When I sent an email inviting a host of people to my reception into the Catholic Church,” writes the literary critic B.D. McClay, “I headlined the email with secretum meum mihi—that’s my secret. . . . It’s always possible that I’ve deceived myself, that I needed things to touch and hear, and was desperate enough to believe in them.” Here the skeptical liberal reader encounters a religious interlocutor he can understand, because in many respects she is the skeptical liberal reader: hesitant, self-reflective, divided.

If such uncertainty is the price of our common, liberal world, it is natural enough to hope that we might evade paying it, either by cutting ourselves off from that world and cauterizing the wound, or by building a new one. It is this hope that lies behind the two movements whose appeal to the Christian right today has grown apace with the liberal world’s perceived decline in value. The appeal of withdrawal is represented by the inwardly focused, intentional communities championed by the Eastern Orthodox convert Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option (2017), while the appeal of a new order, achieved by the revanchist fantasy of re-Christianizing society through the seizure of the administrative state, is advocated most forcefully by the Catholic convert and Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule. Both movements are best understood as responses not to threat but to opportunity: in the crisis of the liberal order they find the hope of creating new subjects, better and purer, no longer consumed by doubt. Theirs is the hope, in other words, of completing and sealing the work of conversion.

A concept of purity requires a corresponding concept of sin, and thus we can understand what these desired new subjects might look like only in relation to what they have been delivered from. The nature of his own sin, and his deliverance from it, are therefore the real concern of Ahmari’s memoir, linking his spiritual odyssey with his subsequent political evolution. If there is a rote quality to the way he condemns his past beliefs, behind it is something rawer, more unmediated. After an inebriated collision with a police vehicle, he calls his girlfriend. “She was welcome to leave me forever, I said, because no one should have to stay with someone as useless at life as I was.” In college, he wakes up with the smell of vomit in his mouth, overcome with disgust as he remembers the events of the previous night.

At such moments Ahmari is once again the young boy, shame dawning on him as he watches the drunken Parviz humiliate himself at a party. That shame runs through even his pivotal encounter with the Eucharist: “Not sixteen hours earlier, I had drunk myself into a stupor. I had willingly degraded myself. Now I dared to show up here?” In the encounter with the heavenly Father, the inherited sins of the earthly one are never far from mind. Parviz embodies everything—the individualism, pleasure-seeking, and callow worship of authenticity—that his son has come to find empty and self-defeating in his own quest for meaning, and in the social backdrop against which it took place. Ahmari’s inherited sins are, he will later conclude, also the sins of liberal society. What he hears beneath its rhetoric of freedom, and what he hears echoing through his own years of license, are narcissism, emptiness, and disorder. It is this disorder from which he seeks refuge, first in Nietzschean self-creation, then in radical politics. And it is this disorder to which the Catholic Church provides the answer.

Musing on his growing dissatisfaction with his evangelical congregation, he reflects, “I couldn’t help but detect the problem of authority in the Protestant orbit, which, I came to suspect, lay behind Protestantism’s shortcomings.” Walking out of that fateful Mass in New York, he stands mesmerized before a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, finding in it “the principle of continuous, even absolute, authority.” And at another Mass, in London’s Brompton Oratory, which precipitates his final conversion to Catholicism, he is reduced to a series of breathless utterances: “Order. Continuity. Tradition and totality. Confidence.”

In this picture, order and absolute authority are the bulwark against the instability of the divided liberal self, which perennially threatens to fray into nothingness. Ahmari’s spiritual longings thus mirror, at the individual level, the collective needs that one perceptive critic of illiberalism saw at the root of its contemporary resurgence. To fight the new illiberal movements sweeping Europe, a 2016 essay in Commentary argued, it was necessary to understand the psychological needs underpinning their political project, central among which was the need for coherence. These movements were concerned with the disintegrative forces at work in society and the self, the “social incohesion” and “inner alienation” eating away at the liberal order. Their proposed remedy to this, and the central plank of their political project, was “the restoration of a prouder, more wholesome, more coherent past.” It is just such a past that Sohrab Ahmari’s conversion memoir restores, finding beneath the waste and incoherence of his youthful wanderings the pattern of a guiding order, and revealing authority to have been his destination all along. The only thing less surprising than his subsequent embrace of the new illiberal regimes, whose needs so closely mirror his own, is the precision with which that 2016 article diagnoses his condition and predicts his trajectory. After all, he’s the one who wrote it.

This need for coherence—coupled with the sense of enmity and collective grievance by which, as Ahmari noted at the time, it tends to be accompanied—suggests that his memoir was never meant to persuade outsiders in the first place. Its real audience are his fellow Catholics, and it was written to reassure them, from the inside, of their rightness.

Before becoming a champion of political Catholicism, Ahmari could therefore be said to have explored the alternative path of withdrawal as well, a kind of Benedict Option of the mind. It is this that links his memoir with a broader contradiction of contemporary life, what might be called its parochial universalism. The repoliticization of society, the end of the so-called end of history, has coincided with a collective retreat from the public sphere into innumerable gated communities, each governed by its own canons, traditions, and rules of discourse, about which their citizens bustle in hasty indifference, peering over the walls only to scan the horizon for approaching barbarians. Our return to ideological politics apparently still embodies, in its form, the atomization of the post-political era that preceded it, and the illiberal present thus has its roots squarely in the needs and habits of the liberal past.

These needs are individual as much as collective. Some of Ahmari’s critics, who remarked that only in the liberal order he now rejects would a story like his have been possible, inadvertently capture this. Ahmari’s memoir is in one sense the quintessentially American odyssey, one of those earnest intellectual pilgrimages that defined the lives of so many people in our generation, impelled to restlessness by the thinness of the society into which they were born. That society, its complacent surface fissured by inarticulate longings, found in those pilgrimages its own highest ideals, the search for the truth and the freedom to choose our own vision of the good life. But the desire that set us wandering could never really be fulfilled within the terms set by liberalism itself. What we were looking for, as the convert knows, was not the search for the truth, but the truth; not to choose, but to be chosen.

If this new world is less a repudiation of the old one than its natural fruit, it is worth looking back at the era of liberal dominance to try to understand how one world gave birth to the other. The connection is brought out with particular poignance in a recent memoir by the historian of religion Elaine Pagels, in which the the apparent golden age of 20th-century liberalism becomes the setting for something both stranger and more painful.


III. Gnosis


In his 1924 novel The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann asks, of the world before the First World War, “is not the pastness of the past the more profound, the more legendary, the more immediately it falls before the present?” A similar sense of vertigo runs through Why Religion?, the American religious historian Elaine Pagels’s best-selling 2018 memoir of life in a liberal Protestant academia whose intellectual preoccupations and stable rituals now seem as remote as the sanatoria of prewar Switzerland must have appeared to Mann. There is a quality in Pagels’s memoir reminiscent of the Episcopalian churches she frequented as an adult: beautiful, dignified, and extremely lonely. Though it mounts an articulate and moving defense of religion, it occasionally raises the question of just what, from her perspective, there is left to defend.

It was within the world of mainline Protestantism that much of Pagels’s religious life unfolded, and against the backdrop of its liberalization and rapid demographic decline that the remarkable public impact of her scholarship is to be understood. The furor that greeted the publication of The Gnostic Gospels, her popular 1979 exposition of the heterodox Coptic texts found near the Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945, came from a readership that, like Pagels herself, was only half secularized, unable to shake its attachment to a Christianity that it had come to regard with deepening skepticism. In the 40 years since its publication, her work has played an important role in the sloughing off of that vestigial attachment, either shaping or reflecting many of those developments within the mainline churches—their growing pluralism, individualism, and suspicion toward traditional authority—in which religious conservatives like Sohrab Ahmari see proof of their apostasy and failure. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that her memoir begins where Ahmari’s ends: in a flash of luminous certainty, working its way backward from there into the shadowlands of sorrow and doubt.

At the age of fifteen she is swept away by a Billy Graham altar call, scandalizing her atheist father: “overcome with tears, I walked forward . . . as the choir and the crowd roared approval, praising God for the souls being saved that day. Now all of us who were ‘born again’ shared in a living drama of salvation.” Characteristic here is the measured sympathy with which a now-faded passion is recalled; characteristic, too, is the skeptical sadness hovering behind the page: “that day . . . changed my life, as the preacher promised it would—although not entirely as he intended, or, at least, not for as long.”

This, Pagels’s abortive conversion, has come and gone within the first chapter of her memoir. Like Ahmari’s, it represents not just a turning point in her own life but a wider moment of generational transition. In it, and in its subsequent repudiation, we can see the beginnings of a development whose reverberations are still felt today: the transformation of midcentury Protestant morality into the anti-institutional spiritual individualism of the 1960s. For those of us who now find the individualism of Pagels’s generation barren and comfortless, it is worth remembering what the institutional religion they rejected looked like to them.

For those of us who now find the individualism of Pagels’s generation barren and comfortless, it is worth remembering what the institutional religion they rejected looked like to them.

The passion excited by Graham, Pagels recalls, “lasted for more than a year and a half,” until her friend Paul,

exhilarated while riding as a passenger in a car racing nearly 100 miles an hour, broke his neck in the crash and died. . . . My Christian friends, at first sympathetic, immediately asked, “Was he born again?” When I said, “No—he was Jewish!” they said, “Then he’s in hell.”

Her response is immediate: “numb, devastated, and alone, I left the church, and never went back.” But her disillusioned departure is, characteristically, incomplete—less a rejection of Christianity than a motion to its margins, where she will remain, looking toward the center with a mixture of skepticism and longing. It is from this place of ambivalence that her scholarship comes, a perpetual wrestling with archaic texts she can never quite bring herself to turn her back on, or accept.

The main focus of that work—the assortment of early Christian esoteric heterodoxies collectively known as Gnosticism—remains the subject of various disputes among religious scholars, not the least of which concerns whether it actually exists. The word Gnostic began as a term of abuse, and it is sometimes questioned whether it names any more coherent a category than generic contemporary words for outsiders like heathen or barbarian. Most observers, however, tend to agree with Pagels that there is such a thing as Gnosticism. And the ones who talk about it most excitedly—spiritual-but-not-religious ex-Episcopalians peddling sub-Da Vinci Code fantasies about the sex life of Jesus, or Catholic intellectuals who see Gnosticism behind everything they dislike in modernity, from Stalin to Judith Butler—tend to agree on a few other things as well. They agree Gnosticism is something with a fairly straightforward meaning. They agree that it is, somehow, modern, whether as a “form of proto-feminism [and a] less authoritarian alternative to [mainstream] Christianity” (in the dissenting summary of the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch), or as a sinister utopianism with its spiritual center somewhere in the vicinity of Oberlin College. And they agree, finally, on what matters most about it, namely what it’s not: orthodoxy.

Gnosticism—and Pagels’s rehabilitation of it—thus functions in popular debates as a sort of cipher, the fantasy (or nightmare) of an alternate Christianity more congenial to modern liberal sensibilities than its mainstream competitor. Pagels cites the words of Jesus in the proto-Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” The poet Michael Robbins, a keen reader, finds in this the riddling strangeness of a Zen koan. Many more people, probably, find in it a banality straight out of Eckhart Tolle: express yourself.

But new-age banality is one thing that can’t possibly be there, because Gnosticism is in fact neither modern nor liberal. It retains or exaggerates everything secular liberals find repellant in mainstream Christianity—its asceticism, its melancholy doctrine of predestination, its hierarchical vision of the universe—and adds to them a ferocious hatred of the body that outstrips anything in the orthodox tradition. It envisions salvation as something locked in esoteric teachings, conditional on the attainment of wisdom, and available only to the superior few. And it sees the physical universe itself is a kind of catastrophic mistake, created by an inferior demiurge in a moment of malice or inattentiveness.

A leaf of Manichean (Gnostic) priests writing made in Gaochang around the 9th century. Wikimedia.

Pagels—who sometimes has a way of making this all seem friendlier than it really was, and who delights in imagining a Gnostic adept thumbing his nose at an orthodox bishop—probably bears some responsibility for Gnosticism’s forced conscription in the culture war. But if, as many of both her critics and admirers seem to think, she was trying to resuscitate a form of historical Christianity better suited than orthodoxy to the liberal worldview, Gnosticism made an almost uniquely poor candidate. What runs through much of her writing on it, however, is a deep passion, not for what Gnosticism isn’t, but for what it is. Elaine Pagels clearly loves Gnosticism. Why?

One place where liberalism concurs with Gnosticism, and where both differ from orthodox Christianity, is in their emphasis on self-sufficiency. “While finding truth for ourselves is difficult, often elusive,” Pagels writes, “some of us can’t avoid the challenge.” Both her love for Gnosticism and her suspicion of the very institutional authority Ahmari so eagerly sought out—“why had I, or any of us,” she asks, “looked to ‘authorities’ to validate our sense of what’s true?”—are bound up with this need for self-sufficiency. And as Pagels’s life makes clear, it is indeed a need, not a choice.

That life, for all its brilliant successes, is one reviewers of Why Religion? have repeatedly described as tragic. In its form, the book resembles a series of variations on the theme of catastrophic loss, each one more extravagant than the last. Growing up amid the “clipped suburban lawns” of Palo Alto, well before Paul’s death and her subsequent break with evangelicalism, she was already acutely aware of the vast reserves of misery resting just beneath the surface of everyday life:

I also met Maria, an eighteen-year-old Hispanic girl, nearly my age . . . her arms streaked with razor slash marks, some freshly opened; had the hospital staff not noticed? . . . .  [S]he told me how she’d hated the sexual assaults of men in her family and neighborhood; . . . she asked, “Did you ever want to kill yourself?”

Pagels describes such encounters in a calm, reportorial tone that gradually begins to look less like equanimity than the numbness of shock. She will speak in this voice again when she recalls learning that her one-year-old son Mark was going to die:

Invariably fatal. I remember nothing else that was said, until finally I asked, “How long?”

And again when presented with the remains of her husband, the physicist Heinz Pagels, fallen from Colorado’s Pyramid Peak during one of his routine summer hikes:

“Ordinarily,” the doctor said, “I’d strongly advise you to see his body, but in this case, you cannot. They found it in fragments.” Unable to see it, I went to the body bag and felt it. Under the slick black canvas, I seemed to feel the flesh of a thigh, and perhaps a lower leg.

The problem with referring to these events as tragedies is that a tragedy, properly speaking, has both catharsis and chorus. Pagels’s story has neither. She confronts her husband’s body not in extravagant mourning but in a dreadful stillness, which does not break until his funeral service, where she is seized like Job with fury at her miserable comforters:

The officiating priest began to preach—which I’d specifically asked him not to do—urging the congregation not to be angry with God. Angry with God? Doesn’t he realize . . . that he’s talking condescending nonsense? . . . I crouched down and held myself fiercely in place, praying that he’d stop before I’d leap up and throttle him.

Almost invariably, in Why Religion?, it is such displays of empty piety in the face of suffering that outrage Pagels the most. That incredulous response—angry with God?—captures the perennial inadequacy of attempts “to justify the ways of God to men” (as Milton put it) in the face of the excess of human misery that seems so plainly at odds with the postulates of God’s benevolence and omnipotence. The dilemma is stated classically by the Epicureans: since evil exists in the world, God himself must be either malevolent or powerless. At Heinz’s funeral He seems evidently the latter, His impotence embodied in the ineffectuality of the presiding priest, His hapless intermediary.

The Gnostic texts’ answer to this dilemma was always more obviously satisfying than the one offered by classical Christian theology. If the world is a mistake, the creation not of the true God but of an inferior demiurge, then why should we expect it to be good? The classical answer to the problem of evil—that God, in the person of Jesus, entered into the experience of human suffering and mortality, and thus imbued it with redemptive meaning—Pagels finds by comparison uncompelling. “What kind of God is this,” she asks herself, “who, Christians say, ‘is love,’ and ‘loves the world,’ but who cannot, or will not, forgive human sin unless an innocent person—his own beloved son—is horribly tortured and slaughtered?” If the loss of her own son gives the crucifixion an unintended, bitter meaning, there is also a broader, historical reason that the narrative fails to move her. This brings us back to the absent chorus in Pagels’s tragedy.

The crucifixion narrative entails a certain vision of community: Jesus, parting from his disciples in the Gospel of John, tells them to love one another “even as I have loved you”—which is to say, self-sacrificially. This vision of a community bound together by self-sacrificial love remains the Christian ideal, however seldom approximated in practice, and only in it does the narrative of divine self-sacrifice really become intelligible. The most intense expressions of religious longing in Pagels’s memoir are bound up with hope of finding just such a community, whether at a Trappist monastery in Colorado or in her youthful evangelical congregation.

What she usually finds, instead, is—nothing. Community in this book is, for the most part, neither good nor bad: it is simply absent. Most of the figures in Pagels’s life, outside of Heinz and her children, drift through its pages shrouded in the same airy unreality: Heinz’s mother, to whom she draws near after his death, anticipating “that we would hold each other close after these losses, . . . instead, she withdrew, her lips firmly closed, stoically silent.” Her own parents, absent from the funeral as they were absent from her childhood, a time when “I longed to turn to my mother for comfort, but she didn’t have enough for herself, let alone any to share.” And then there is her evangelical congregation, united to her by the intimate bonds of shared devotion, which reveals itself in the end to be nothing more than “a club for [the] spiritually superior.” All pass out of her life, or fade into irrelevance. What we are left with, in the end, is a vision of human community narrowed to the slender boundaries of the nuclear family, from which the demiurge exacts his unforgiving toll.

Reviewers of Why Religion?, as of Pagels’s earlier work, have touched on the incongruity between her generosity of spirit and Gnosticism’s icy self-sufficiency. It’s easy to understand why a scholar would love a religion of wisdom, why an individualist would seek out a religion of self-mastery. But isn’t the repudiation of the suffering body, the retreat into a solitary search for transcendence, too high a price to pay? The incongruity vanishes, I think, if we consider Gnosticism not as the heresy of a privileged few, indifferently slipping their communal bonds, but as the refuge of those whom their communities and institutions have already failed. So it was in late antiquity, according to the 20th-century Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas. Jonas, Pagels writes in The Gnostic Gospels, held that “Gnosticism emerged in a certain ‘attitude toward existence,’” born amidst “the political apathy and cultural stagnation of the Eastern empire”: “According to Jonas’s analysis, many people at the time felt profoundly alienated from the world in which they lived, and longed for a miraculous salvation as an escape from the constraints of political and social existence.”

What we are left with is a vision of human community narrowed to the slender boundaries of the nuclear family, from which the demiurge exacts his unforgiving toll.

In more recent times, too, Gnosticism exerted its fascination less upon the prosperous than the isolated, those who witnessed the collapse of civil society in their homelands—Simone Weil, starving in exile, or Czeslaw Milosz, who experienced first the Nazi then the Stalinist occupation of Poland, and thought it indecent to believe a good God could make such a world. “It shall come to completion in the sixth millennium, or next Tuesday,” he writes in a late poem, whether with dread or yearning is unclear. “The demiurge’s workshop will suddenly be stilled.” These austere figures, in their loneliness and despair, seem remote from the halls of Princeton, or the clipped suburban lawns of Pagels’s postwar Californian childhood. But her memoir suggests they are not as far away as we’d like to think.

If that loneliness was never distant even at America’s postwar height, then for many of my peers, who came of age at the end of history, amidst our own empire’s apathy and stagnation, it is a defining fact of our lives. In Pagels’s image of the past, mainstream religious communities appear repressive, their authority figures autocratic: the implacable ancient bishop, bravely defied by Gnostic adepts. But in her own life, they seem merely ineffectual, like the priest at Heinz’s funeral, mouthing words of empty comfort even he seems not to believe. It is this second image, rather than the first, that captures the way a great many people experience religious communities today—and most other forms of community as well, whether civic or institutional. Usually they are not dangerously authoritarian. They are simply inadequate. We adopt Pagels’s individualism because we have inherited her isolation.

It has become customary to measure that isolation in one of the few common languages we have left, which is the language of statistics. We count it in the stagnation or decline of life expectancies, or in the decades-long climb in rates of death by drug overdose (70,630 in 2019, according to the CDC) and suicide (47,511). The problem with numbers of this size is that they have a way of receding into abstraction. So instead I resort, for all its limitations, to my own experience. I live among young, educated, comparatively privileged people, in the wealthiest city in the most prosperous nation in the world—people who would seem, from the perspective of the statistician, to live almost uniquely untroubled lives. And still a surprising number of them over the years have expressed to me, with an air of bleak certainty, the following conviction: “I’m going to die alone.” I admit the thought has crossed my mind as well. It is histrionic, maybe a little self-indulgent, and it passes, as such thoughts do. It is also true: many of us will.

This difference in historical experience may be why something about the affirmative ending of Pagels’s memoir, hard-earned as it is, rings hollow. The parade of famous names surrounding her in its final scene—she recalls receiving her honorary doctorate alongside Oprah Winfrey, who speaks “with candor, humility, and humor, encouraging the graduates to persist, as she has, through difficulty and failure”—inadvertently highlights the exceptionalism of the spirituality she has had no choice but to embody, its stern and exacting independence. But if there is anything that seems even more inadequate than community today, it is independence.

And that inadequacy, for those of us who lack Pagels’s gifts, is not just emotional, but intellectual—it is measured not just in the stories of those who drugged themselves to death but of those who set out on journeys of solitary self-discovery, only to arrive, in the end, at truths no more profound than the bromides of Parviz Ahmari: “be yourself.” Thinking, like living, is a communal act, even for those whose communities reside largely between the covers of a book; and this means that the most likely result of setting out to find the truth for yourself is that you will fail.

What many of us feel an increasingly keen need for, then, is a way not just of being together but of thinking together—what can only be called a community of belief. When the extant communities of belief are felt, as now, to be inadequate, this need issues in the creation of new ones—in other words, in a process of collective conversion. Lying behind the birth of these new, secular faiths, as it lies behind the transformation of the old ones, is the crisis of the liberal order, which has both laid bare our need for collective transformation and created the stage on which it may be acted out. Like the young Elaine Pagels, we share in a living drama of salvation; but it is a different salvation, and a different drama.

Is this drama, as is often claimed, a revolutionary one? This question may be illuminated, if not necessarily answered, through an exploration of political conversion, and of the role it played in the great secular faith of the 20th century: the faith of Communism. Because that faith was often the property of lapsed (or not so lapsed) Jews, an exploration of it must also confront the collective experience of Judaism, in which lie conversion’s beginnings, and perhaps also its end.


IV. The Sense of an Ending


“My father was a rabbi,” an aging garment-cutter named Ben Saltzman tells Vivian Gornick in The Romance of American Communism, originally published in 1977 and reissued last year. “We had nothing, we ate dirt, but my father had the Lord, the Lord made him ferocious. Me, I hated the Lord. All I knew was the Lord wouldn’t let me play baseball, the Lord wouldn’t let me go out with girls, the Lord wouldn’t let me live.” The ferocity his father finds in religion eludes the tremulous Saltzman until his twenty-seventh year. Then one day, in the depths of the Great Depression, he is approached by three messengers. “We are members of the Communist party,” they tell him. “We’d like you to join us.”

Communism, not the Lord, makes Saltzman a new man: “I wasn’t afraid anymore,” he remembers. “In those days I had an answer for everything. Everything! . . . Everything in my life became one. Everywhere, I was the same person.” In the party he discovers a unity of action, thought and feeling, a passionate “wholeness”—the word reverberates throughout Gornick’s book, at first rapturously and later with a kind of bitter irony—that links his experience with those of converts from Augustine to the present in a common structure of feeling.

But what does it mean to speak of a Communist convert? To Gornick “the convert to the Communist party” is an invidious stereotype, a human automaton deprived of will and reason. This stereotype once had its place within a larger polemic: the Communist party, so it went, was a church, with its own dogmas, anathemas, and heresies, and its own infallible pope ensconced in the Kremlin. This comparison with religion, which by the time Gornick wrote had hardened into cliché, has lately become a cliché again, this time for the politics of the progressive left. A Google search for the phrase “the church of social justice” yields 622,000 results. We generally intend such comparisons to be invidious: if we are secular liberals, they mean that radical politics is religious, and therefore bad; if we are Christian conservatives, they mean it is a grotesque parody of the true religion, which just happens to be ours. But it is hard to say what these comparisons are supposed to demonstrate, or why they would be bad if true.

Unemployed pro-Communist workers demonstrate in San Francisco during the Great Depression. Getty.

In part this is because they border on tautology: all successful political movements answer the need for meaning as well as the need for power, and draw on hopes whose realization lies outside the realm of historical experience. In that case they are inescapably religious; but this tells us neither whether they are good or bad, only whether they are effective. The deeper problem with such comparisons, however, is that in their focus on institutions and doctrines, they ignore precisely those needs and hopes that give movements their religious character in the first place. For such a movement to be understood religiously, then, it would need its own Varieties of Religious Experience, a sympathetic consideration of the inner life animating its outward forms. Communism, at least, has such a book; Gornick is its William James. Her ambivalent examination of the Communist passion may help, in turn, to illuminate the inner life of politics today.

The narratives in Gornick’s book, drawn largely from Communism’s American heyday in the 20s and 30s, raise perplexing questions about the meaning, both subjective and historical, of the Communist conversion experience. What explains the profound similarity between the transformations of her Communist subjects and those of an Augustine or a Paul? And what is the relationship between these inner transformations and the turbulent historical backdrop against which they unfold? We may best answer these questions by first addressing another, seemingly unrelated one, embodied in the ordinary figure of Ben Saltzman: why were so many converts to the Communist cause Jews? This question perplexes Gornick herself, who proposes some possible explanations: their outsider status in their East European homelands; their experience of oppression and “social hopelessness” under the old regime. But beneath these causes she sees something older and more profound. “One of the deepest strains in Jewish life is the moral injunction ‘to become,’” she writes.

This strain runs with subterranean force through most Jewish lives regardless of what other aspects of experience and personality separate them. Thus, Jews “became” through an intensity of religious or intellectual or political life. In the highly political 20th century they became, in overwhelming numbers, socialists, anarchists, Zionists—and Communists.

Yet between the way this imperative expresses itself in Saltzman’s life and the way it might have manifested in his father’s there is a striking difference. Behind the impulse to “become” is the Hebrew root shuv, “to turn or return,” which through its Greek and Latin translations becomes the source of the concept of conversion. But in the biblical account, as in the practice of t’shuvah in modern Judaism, the primary subject of the verb is not any one individual; rather it is Israel itself, which is corporately called by the prophets to turn away from idolatry and toward God, away from death and toward life. Biblical figures later taken by Protestantism as archetypes of individual rebirth are originally emblems of the collective, as in the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel: in the wake of this confrontation, like a newly baptized Christian, Jacob is given a new name. But this new name is the name of the community he fathers, Israel. The story recounts not merely the rebirth of a man, but the birth of a people.

Because conversion in this transformative sense is a primarily collective phenomenon, the individual convert in Judaism assumes a less drastic character. The contrast is embodied strikingly in the holiday of Shavuot, observed later this month, which juxtaposes the collective birth of the Jewish people at Sinai, figured proleptically in the story of Jacob-Israel, with the more quotidian tale of individual conversion recounted in the book of Ruth.

Shuv is the key word of Ruth, deployed to deliberately paradoxical effect: the Moabite Ruth, as she journeys to the country of Judah, is repeatedly said to be “returning” to this strange Jewish land, a land she has never known but that in another, higher sense, is her home already. The same paradox pervades Augustine’s Confessions, which like Ruth depicts an arrival that is also a homecoming: “you were within me, and I sought you without.” But after this the two stories part ways. The virtuous Ruth, archetype of the “righteous foreigner” or ger toshav, is not alienated from herself like the young Augustine. Her paradoxical homecoming—her marriage to Boaz and her assimilation into the Jewish people—is less the reunification of a divided soul than the ratification of what Ruth, in herself, already is.

In the Jewish tradition embodied by Ruth, unlike the Christian tradition, individual “becoming” is a process, not an act; the slow conformation of the will to God’s law, not a sudden moment of ecstatic rupture. If Ruth is not as degraded as Augustine before her conversion, neither is she as exalted after, and her homecoming does not convey the same sense of decisive finality. Rather her transformation was underway before we encountered her, and will continue after we have left. The moment of “conversion” properly speaking—Ruth’s incorporation into the people of Israel—punctuates but does not break the continuity of her larger story. That story in turn will broaden after Ruth’s death to join with the story of the people, as she becomes the ancestor of the Davidic kings.

In that case, it seems clear that Saltzman’s experience of “becoming” is closer to the rupture of Christianity than the continuity of Ruth; while the longing that drives him to the Communist party is typically Jewish, the way it plays out is not. This in turn reflects a larger commonality between the Communist and Christian experiences, whose historical self-understanding sets them apart from Judaism, even as it expresses, inescapably, their Jewish roots.

If we look in vain to Jewish conversion stories for images of debasement and radical rebirth such as we find in their Christian counterparts, then that is because we are looking in the wrong place. The Hebrew Bible is full of such images, only they are applied not to the individual but the community as a whole. Israel, like Augustine himself in the Confessions, is represented as God’s wayward son, whom He will restore to his inheritance; or His adulterous wife, “whoring after other Gods,” whom He will redeem through His steadfast love. It is precisely this emphasis on the collective character of conversion that makes its individual manifestations less spectacular. The adulterous Israel contrasts strikingly with the Christian image of the Church as virgin bride: becoming a part of the Jewish people cannot bear the same redemptive charge as becoming part of the Church, because the people itself still stands in need of redemption.

This collective redemption, however, is ultimately not historical but eschatological. Israel may undergo multiple cycles of apostasy and restoration, but its ultimate restoration lies not within history but at its end. The biblical prophecies of communal redemption sit side by side with images of purging destruction: in one and the same breath, God promises to consume the world in the “fire of [His] jealous wrath,” and to “change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve Him with one accord” (Zephaniah 3:8-9). This fire, which both purifies and destroys, becomes in individual conversion narratives the fire of divine eros, burning away the old self to give birth to the new.

“Ruth in Boaz’s Field” by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1828. Wikimedia.

Conversion, as both a literary genre and a lived political experience, thus has its roots in apocalyptic thought. And at its moments of greatest intensity, it is to the apocalyptic that it returns. “The consumption determined upon the whole earth hath and is passing through me,” writes one convert in the wake of the English Civil War. “[I] could not endure the devouring fire, it being so hot and unquenchable that I saw nothing that could live or pass through it, but that all as stubble must be destroyed.” The most visionary conversion narratives tend to come from such periods of violent political upheaval, and in them we see individual rebirth blending uneasily into back collective purgation: conversion, the death of the old self and the birth of the new, becomes once again what it was in the beginning—the death of the old order, and the birth of the new. In other words, revolution.

What drew Jews to Communism was its answer to a need that mainstream Jewish life simultaneously cultivated and denied. 

What drew Jews like Saltzman to Communism—what no doubt drew Jews like Paul, long before, to the messianic movement that became Christianity—was its answer to a need that mainstream Jewish life simultaneously cultivated and denied. The intensity of the Communist conversion experience reflected the imminence of eschatological expectation, the sense, tantalizingly close and concrete, of “the revolution around the corner.” It was this “sense of history . . . of remaking the world,” as the ex-union organizer Selma Gardinsky describes it to Gornick, that made the Communists into new men and women, animating their lives and giving them purpose. And in describing it, Gornick and her subjects resort time and again to the language of Augustinian eroticism. “The sense of political time,” Gornick writes, “was so urgent people could taste it in their mouths.” I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst for you. Gardinsky recalls being overcome by “a burning, all-consuming need to join the party” after she first encountered it at eighteen; “and I knew that nothing, not even the party itself, could stop me.” You touched me, and I am inflamed with love of your peace.

All the senses of the word “apocalypse”—as collective rebirth, intellectual illumination, and revolutionary potency—come together in the most luminous of all Gornick’s conversion narratives, in which a twenty-year-old Chicago stockyard worker assumes, for a moment, the catastrophic purity of Paul on the road to Damascus.

Then, one day in summer when it was so blistering hot in the slaughterhouse the sweat was pouring down into the men’s eyes, blinding them, the socialist suddenly turned to Dick [Nikowsski] and said to him: “Do you know where the owners are now? Right now while you and I are here sweating like pigs?” “No,” Dick replied, “where?” The socialist took a folded page of newspaper from his pocket. “There!” he thundered. “At the coast!” Dick stared blindly at the picture of a group of men and women lying languidly by the sea.

Then Dick’s blindness, like Paul’s, gives way to clairvoyance. “Suddenly,” he tells Gornick decades later,

it was as if everything that socialist had been saying all those months clicked into place somewhere in my head, and I saw me behind that picture, I saw me knee-deep in blood and shit all my life so that that picture could be taken; . . . something came rising up in me, so swift and so strong it nearly took the breath out of my body . . . As if it was coming right out of the center of me, as if it had been waiting there all that time, all my life, and now it had—just that fast!—run out of time.

Everything happened so quick then. I understood everything the socialist had been saying. Everything! I saw it all at once. And all at once, I saw, and I could hardly believe this, there was a way out for me. . . . I saw that being a worker was literally slavery, and that the slavery came from being like a dumb animal hitched forever to the machine, and this idea of us as a class relieved the slavery, gave you a way to fight, gave you a way to become a human being.

Here we are near the incandescent heart of the conversion experience, in an Augustinian landscape that can be described only through paradox. A man is reforged into a new self, that was also waiting within him all along; he discovers the reality of his power through the fact of his slavery; and a modern, fully psychological human being, without losing any of his teeming complexity, finds within himself the elemental single-mindedness of myth.

In the conversion experience at its visionary height, reunification, revelation, and the resolution to act fuse into one. But this is more than just the experience of an individual: at the heart of Dick’s conversion lies the discovery of class consciousness, the revolutionary formation of collective identity. Here spiritual and political power, individual and communal rebirth, become so closely interdependent as to be almost indistinguishable. On one hand, the former is a precondition of the latter, as the historian Michael Walzer notes in The Revolution of the Saints: “Before Puritans, Jacobins, or Bolsheviks attempt the creation of a new order, they must create new men.” On the other, the struggle to create the new order is the crucible in which the new men are forged. For the material of which apostles and revolutionaries are made, no other vessel is hot enough.

We might call the revolution, like the Church, one of the modalities of Jewish impatience: an escape from the boundedness of Jewish life that expresses at the same time some of its deepest longings.

We thus find that the great, paradigmatic converts, those lonesome figures, only seem solitary. In reality they must be understood against a cataclysmic backdrop: Augustine is unintelligible without the sack of Rome; Paul without the birth of Christianity; Dick Nikowsski without the Revolution. Like the fallen rider in Caravaggio’s painting, they are illuminated by something that lies outside the frame. It should not be so surprising that it turns out to be a city burning.

In the way revolutionary conversion folds individual into collective experience, secular politics into sacred history, we can see the paradoxical relationship to Judaism that exerted such a pull on Jews like Ben Saltzman and Selma Gardinsky. We might call the revolution, like the Church, one of the modalities of Jewish impatience: an escape from the boundedness and particularity of Jewish life that expresses at the same time some of its deepest longings. At the root of those longings is Judaism’s belief in the historical and interdependent character of human existence, which finds its ultimate realization in eschatology. Here the human search for purpose meets the greatest purpose imaginable: our own story is revealed to be part of a larger one, which began long ago, contains all that we know within it, and soon will be drawing to a close. Only when it is over will we finally know what it means.


V. Morbid Symptoms


If any revolution both draws its force from, and answers, an inner need—if the project of making a new order is inseparable from the project of making new selves—then it rises from a preceding disarray that is also spiritual as much as political. The liberal order’s current political paralysis thus corresponds to, and has in part been caused by, a weakening of its imaginative forms, its modes of becoming. It is when the old rites of selfhood grow threadbare that new ones become necessary.

Just as Ben Saltzman’s Communist faith drew its force from desires that his Jewish milieu could no longer satisfy, so does our current rebellion reflect liberalism’s inability to answer the very longings to which it gives rise. Like Judaism, liberalism was never a reliable source of the transformative satisfactions that converts sought in the party or the Church; but today, even such thinner compensatory narratives as it offers have increasingly lost their pull. The restless search for meaning in Sohrab Ahmari’s memoir, and its impatient disgust with the cant of authenticity and self-realization, convey a malady more generally felt, however few of us would agree with him about the cure.

Any force in contemporary politics that hopes to transcend the crisis of the liberal order—whether the illiberal right represented by Ahmari; the socialist descendants of the old left portrayed by Vivian Gornick; the embattled liberal establishment represented by Elaine Pagels, in both its progressive and conservative forms; or the maximized liberalism of social-justice activism—must therefore also transcend the crisis of the liberal self.

Unsurprisingly then, our supposedly secular era turns out to be awash in the language of conversion. Its real significance does not lie in the most obvious instances of such language, which are typically applied by skeptical outsiders. When journalists write, half jokingly and half nervously, about the “great awokening,” they are capturing both progressivism’s outward success and their own dismay at its fervor. What they do not capture are those inward conquests that will be necessary, if its outward success is to become a basis for lasting power. To observe those, we must turn to the protagonists themselves.

One of the most striking examples of recent conversion literature, though seldom recognized as such, is Ibram X. Kendi’s bestselling How to Be an Antiracist.

One of the most striking recent conversion narratives, though few of its readers would recognize it as such, is Ibram X. Kendi’s influential 2019 bestseller How to Be an Antiracist, whose autobiographical passages reflect today’s broader political struggles much as the lives of Gornick’s subjects reflect those of the revolutionary past. The comparison between the two books, in turn, says much about the distance between that past and our present.

The form of Kendi’s book, which interweaves a series of policy prescriptions with the story of how he arrived at his current beliefs, establishes the symbolic correspondence between self and society familiar from so many accounts of conversion. The effect is to tinge Kendi’s account with a subtle mythic light, like the shadow of Jacob wrestling with the angel. If the two sides of his story, public and private, reflect one another, then both, to Kendi, are divided. He quotes W.E.B. Du Bois, in a passage of that with minor modifications could have come from the Confessions: “One ever feels his two-ness . . . an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” (Two wills, one old, one new, one carnal, the other spiritual, contended with each other and disturbed my soul.) The question, as in all conversion stories, is what has caused that division, and what could heal it.

To Kendi the source of the division, within society as within himself, is the disease of racism, which he likens to the cancer that nearly killed him at thirty-five. In his prose the two afflictions, one rending his body and the other the body politic, converge until at last they become indistinguishable: “I have cancer. . . . My society has racism. . . . Forgive me. I cannot separate the two, and no longer try.” The convergence prepares us for the moment when the cancer in his soul, like the cancer in his body, will be healed, to pave the way for one day healing the cancer in society. No such moment ever comes. By the end of the book Kendi has recovered physically; but his soul remains divided.

The effect is as if Saul had gotten lost on his way to Damascus. Kendi’s life loses its sense of narrative shape, becoming, like so many of our lives now, a journey without a destination. The effect of this failed conversion can be seen in both his final prescription for society, and his account of himself: politically, Kendi’s journey ends on a note not of triumph but of striking pessimism, tempered by the hope that we may “give humanity a chance to one day survive.” And in his own life it appears to have issued less in apocalyptic faith than in a modest commitment to self-improvement: “I used to be racist most of the time,” he writes; “I am changing.” Which is a good sentiment, but not necessarily a slogan to chant while storming the Bastille.

Kendi’s book thus expresses, spiritually as well as politically, the same incongruity that haunts Pagels’s memoir and that frustrates the ambitions of Ahmari’s. On one side is our sense, pervasive and deeply felt, that the liberal order is ailing. On the other is our collective inability to find any medicine strong enough either to cure it, or end its misery.

Nowhere is this incongruity felt more keenly today than on the socialist left, where Gornick’s Romance was met on its republication with a peculiar kind of elegiac wistfulness. Alyssa Battistoni, reviewing the book in Dissent, found in it a sense of something irrecoverable, a “fantasy of finding your way to socialism and really believing . . . that revolution is just around the corner.” And recent readers on the whole have found it easier, as we do with most romances, to identify with the story’s unhappy conclusion than its rapturous beginning.

This resigned wisdom about us—about what it is possible to believe and feel today—has its counterpart in a claim about our world, and what we can make of it. In describing our political predicament, it has become common to reach for an old line from the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci: “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

That crisis, however, is in us as much as around us. Any force capable of cutting through this impasse—of leading us forward out of the interregnum—would have to cut through another impasse as well. It would have to create not just new men and women, but new imaginative forms, through which those men and women could articulate their experience both to themselves and to others. It would discover how to translate its claims to power into a language of passion, one capable of communicating what the language of public reason cannot. In other words, it would solve—if only for itself, and only for the time being—the literary problem of conversion. In the process it might solve the problem of power as well.

It is significant, then, that each of the major factions in contemporary political life has tried to conjure up such forms, to offer a compelling account of such claims; and that so far each, on these terms, has failed. If Pagels’s memoir portrays the old liberal world as a sphere of paralyzing solitude, none of the present alternatives offers a clear way out. In Ahmari’s book we confront a right whose dreams of rebirth mask incoherence and self-loathing; in Kendi’s, an attempt at self-transcendence that collapses back into the liberalism it hoped to escape. And in Gornick’s, we encounter a portrait of transfiguring political passion, which its author and admirers alike can imagine only as belonging to a now-vanished past. Gornick’s Jewish subjects became Communists in the same way they became so much else: “powerfully,” “profoundly,” “deeply,” “at the very core of [their] being”—in short, in all the ways she now finds embarrassing to describe. Her embarrassment is one of the hallmarks of our current mood; what has proven hard to summon, so far, is the collective passion strong enough to overcome it.

It’s appropriate, then, that perhaps the most famous recent convert is a fictional one. This is François, the venal antihero of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission, whose noncommittal lassitude and spiritual paralysis are the inward reflection of Gramsci’s bleak political diagnosis, an interregnum of the soul. Famously, François’s final conversion, like that of the nation whose name he bears, is to an all-conquering, wholly fantastical vision of Islam. The scandal greeting this vision of Islam, when it appeared in 2015, tended to obscure the book’s far bleaker portrait of France: even in fiction, Houellebecq can conceive his protagonist’s transformation, like his country’s, only as the result of an exogenous force. To him their internal capacities, whether for renewal or destruction, are entirely exhausted.

In this respect the pivotal moment of Submission comes not with François’s final embrace of Islam but with another, abortive conversion scene from earlier in the novel. During a journey to the medieval heart of France—which is to say, of himself—François finds himself seated in bewilderment before the Black Madonna of Rocamadour. In the face of this figure, archaic and primal, he is overcome for a fleeting moment with a vision of apocalyptic fury:

It seemed the Virgin was rising from her pedestal and growing in the air. The baby Jesus seemed ready to detach himself from her, and it seemed to me that all he had to do was raise his right hand and the pagans and idolators would be destroyed, and the keys to the world restored to him, “as its lord, its possessor, and its master” . . .

But the vision does not last: “Or maybe I was just hungry. I’d forgotten to eat the day before.” The next day he returns to the chapel, where he finds “the Virgin wait[ing] in the shadows, calm and timeless.”

But little by little I felt myself losing touch, I felt her moving away from me in space and across the centuries while I sat there in my pew, shriveled and puny. After half an hour, I got up, fully deserted by the Spirit, reduced to my damaged perishable body, and I sadly descended the stairs that led to the parking lot.

In the vision of this statue, grown immense then comically deflated, we find an apt image of the present moment. François’s fleeting hope, no less than his venality, makes him representative. What is around the corner remains uncertain; but what more perfectly characterizes our imaginative lives, right now, than this disparity between grand causes and petty effects, the fantasy of transformative commitment and the persistent, trivial reality of our selves? Caught between the two halves of Caravaggio’s painting, we dream that we are Paul, and wake to find we are the horse.

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