The Death and Potential Rebirth of the Liberal Self: A Discussion

Modern freedoms leave us wanting more. The author of our monthly essay joins us and a noted rabbi to talk about how conversion came to be an antidote to liberal restlessness.

From “Maternity” by Marc Chagall, 1912.

From “Maternity” by Marc Chagall, 1912.

June 1 2021
About the authors

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.

Rabbi Dr. Ari Lamm is chief executive of Bnai Zion and the founder of the Joshua Network and host of its Good Faith Effort podcast.

Jonathan Silver is the senior director of Tikvah Ideas, where he is also the Warren R. Stern Senior Fellow of Jewish Civilization. The editor of Mosaic, he is also the host of the Tikvah Podcast on which he has hosted hundreds of writers, rabbis, educators, military officers, artists, and political figures, including members of Israel’s Knesset, the U.S. Senate, and the prime minister of Israel.

To discuss our May essay about conversion and liberalism, “The Present, Past, and Prehistory of Conversion,” we invited its author, the composer Nathan Shields, to speak with Mosaic‘s editor Jonathan Silver and the rabbi and theologian Ari Lamm. You can watch that discussion below, or read a transcript of it.







Jonathan Silver:

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to a discussion of Mosaics featured monthly essay of May 2021, “The Present, Past, and Prehistory of Conversion” by Nathan Shields. My name is Jonathan Silver. I’m the editor of Mosaic. Mr. Shields is a composer whose music has been performed by ensembles in the United States and Europe. He’s an associate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, having previously taught at St. Olaf College and the Julliard School, where he earned his PhD. Our examiner today is Rabbi Dr. Ari Lamm, about whom more in due course.

The essay looks at the way converts describe their experiences in conversion literature, which of course is a very old genre. You refer, Nathan, in the essay to its earliest and perhaps most eminent expressions in the book of Ruth and the Confessions of Augustine, but you focus on the turning of soul that takes place in our particular social and religious landscape, focusing as you do on those who feel a kind of discontent with the liberal order—its politics, its economics, and even its distinctive liberal religious sensibilities. I’d like to begin by asking about what you mean by liberalism and what it is about liberalism that stimulates this turning away from it.

Nathan Shields:

So liberalism, in the sense in which I am thinking about it in this essay, is not the sort of colloquial way in which we tend to use it in American politics, meaning the politics of the left half of the broader political spectrum in the United States. But it is, in the technical sense, a kind of broader political philosophy based around a kind of individual rights. It’s a divided government and so forth, which really stems from figures like Locke, for example, in the aftermath of the English religious wars. Liberalism comes into being, at least according to its own self-understanding, as a way of trying to preserve a space of individual freedom against the demands of what liberal theorists sometimes call comprehensive doctrines, such as, for example, the various competing forms of Christianity, against which liberalism in its early forms was asserted in England and elsewhere.

Liberalism in this sense rests, as a lot of modern liberal thinkers tend to emphasize, on the notion of a secular public sphere. Comprehensive doctrines, meaning descriptions of the world that purport to be totalizing, to offer a complete image of it—such as Christianity, Islam, various forms of Marxist thought as well—that these ways of approaching the world, if they are to enter into a public political discussion, need to, in some sense, check some of their basic substantive commitments at the door. To participate in liberal society at some fundamental level is, according to a dominant understanding of liberalism, to bring to the discussion only those things that can be kind of demonstrated in the language of what is called public reason, which is to say in a language that is intelligible to anyone, including people who do not share any of your kind of broader substantive commitments.

In this way, liberalism tends to have an emphasis on procedure, on the rule of law as an equally binding force that pertains to all parties, and a sort of de-emphasis on specific substantive ideas about justice, or about the ends of human life. Whether those are, you can say, religiously speaking, the worship of God, or in some Marxist frameworks, certain ideas about equality, or about human dignity. A classic way in which this is sometimes formulated is in terms of this distinction that Isaiah Berlin famously makes a lot, of between what we would call negative freedom and positive freedom. Freedom from and freedom to—meaning freedom from coercion, freedom from outside interference, versus the freedom to live in dignity, the freedom to worship God also. So often, in some forms of liberal thought, it is said that positive freedom is not the kind of legitimate purview of liberal discussion. That what liberalism secures, is freedom from coercion rather than the freedom to do what is seen in some substantive way as being good.

Jonathan Silver:

There is a fable that liberalism tells about itself, in which it came along to redeem mankind from these wars of religion, these wars between rival totalizing systems, such as between Protestants and Catholics. Traditions of thought and action that direct all of our deeds and beliefs towards some proscribed end. Now, liberalism came along with more consciously modest claims, and again, I’m not really sure this is the case, but according to liberalism’s own mythology about itself, it had more modest claims that did not direct its adherence toward ultimate goods, allowing therefore people who did not share their deepest religious or philosophical beliefs to nevertheless live together in a kind of comity.

But what your description puts before us is one of the trade-offs that that more modest political theory introduces. Yes, liberal orders retreat from ultimate claims on the highest human good, and they allow each individual to pursue his own good in the private realm of his personal conscience. Now, with each person free to pursue his personal conscience while still governed by the procedural framework of rights, and minimal, mostly material duties that liberalism demands, a kind of division in the soul is introduced. That’s because a liberal subject could freely pursue a deepened, comprehensive way of life, say, as an Orthodox Jew, or a believing Muslim, or a faithful Christian. And that comprehensive way of life would be felt to be intentioned with the political and social order in which they live. Do you see that that division is somehow a catalyst for liberalism’s propensity to encourage conversion among its subjects?

Nathan Shields:

I think so. I mean, in a broader way, we could say that conversion as a phenomenon is much older, certainly than the particular discontents of life in the liberal society. But if we think about the way in which conversion has classically been conceived—and a major point of reference for me in the essay is William James’s classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience—if we think particularly about this Jamesian conception of conversion, which harks back in particular to Augustine’s Confessions, maybe one of the classic texts of conversion literature, the way that James, and before him Augustine, seemed to think about the problem of conversion has a very close correspondence to some of the problems raised, as you say, by the status of the self in liberal society.

Central to James, I’m going to be quoting it exactly here, is this passage in the Confessions where Augustine is describing his agonies, his sort of spiritual suffering prior to his conversion, prior to the moment of transformation that makes him into a new man. And Augustine says, “Two selves, one spiritual, one carnal, contended with each other in my body.” Augustine feels himself to be what James calls a divided self. That there are two of him. There is one that’s that which he wants to be, and there’s that which he is. And this in turn kind of goes back also to figures in the New Testament like Paul. He says, “I do that which I would not. That which I would, I do not.” There is his will, what he wishes to be or to become, and the kind of forces, the dynamics driving him are in an irreconcilable conflict.

Conversion, to James, is the process by which that self formerly divided becomes unified, by which we are made one with ourselves. Now, and this is in much conversion literature from Augustine onward, this is seen as the goal. That beginning, one is divided in half, suffering horribly. And then in this moment of epiphany or transformation, at least in most kinds of Christian conversion accounts, one becomes a new person, like the divisions that formerly tore us apart all slide into place, and the world all becomes intelligible, we become intelligible to ourselves, and our desires are aligned, and everything, you could say, points in the same direction.

Now, this kind of experience seems in some ways to rest at the opposite pole from the forms of subjectivity or inner life that liberal citizenship prizes or seems to require as a kind of precondition for belonging to the polity. And so contrasted with this kind of Jamesian picture of unification, one of the big issues, one of the big kinds of pictures of the self that I think about in the essay is one kind posed famously by the philosopher Richard Rorty, who sees liberal citizenship as resting upon a notion of the contingency of one’s own beliefs and convictions, and particularly as resting on what he calls a kind of private irony, that when we speak of our convictions, we do so always aware that it could be otherwise. That between the kind of passions or convictions or beliefs of the self and the idea of their ultimate truth, there was always a barrier.

So as individuals with particular beliefs over here, there’s half of us. And then as liberal citizens, as members of the community, we’re over here. We are split between, you could say, the private self who may completely, substantively be committed to particular statements about the nature of the good life and what the world is, and the public liberal citizen, who, again, has to leave those things at the door when entering the public sphere.

Jonathan Silver:

Of course, just to say again, in liberalism, self-understanding, this is not a vice, but a virtue. Seen from the perspective of political life, the ability to live in some peaceable way with neighbors whose fundamental political commitments you don’t share is a source of stability and order. That’s not to be trivialized. The classic critique, perhaps a correct critique of liberalism’s aspiration is that it does not cultivate the qualities of virtue and character necessary for women and men to lead full and happy lives even if they are tranquil. Instead, this critique goes on, liberalism draws down, or some have written, corrodes the philosophical and religious patrimonies that made it possible in the first place without having the capacity to renew and replenish them. And that’s perhaps a good time to transition to the first case study that you take up in the essay. Tell us about Sohrab Ahmari and what role he plays in your thinking about conversion.

Nathan Shields:

Sohrab Ahmari, over the past few years, has become a rather famous figure on the American right in particular. He is an Iranian-American journalist who grew up in the secular Iranian intelligentsia. His parents were, and this is, I think, crucial to his background as presented in the memoir that I write about in the essay, his parents were sort of Bohemians. His father was an architect, and a self-styled artiste, you could say. And they were, in this way deeply Americanized figures, even before Ahmari actually moved to the United States. They were in this kind of Bohemian milieu, but surrounded by a strict Islamic regime, of course. His immediate intellectual formation, in a way, came much less from the broader context of Iranian society than from the more liberalized milieu of his parents.

And in some ways, that background, particularly as embodied in his father, that he sees shaping his own early life, both as a boy and then later kind of as an adolescent and a college student in the United States,  he embarks on this intellectual pilgrimage of sorts, moving between various belief systems and intellectual communities, all of which he later as a Catholic convert comes to look back on with contempt.

So as a young man, he does what many people do. He drinks a lot, does lots of drugs, and falls in love with what we might call the gospel of authenticity, narrative of self-discovery, of self-realization, of sort of becoming who you are authentically. You could say it’s this American kind of post-beat narrative, which is in itself maybe one of the closest things that liberal society possesses to an analog to the classic conversion narrative.

Now, from there, he becomes for a while a kind of Trotskyite in college. And then what happens is after college, he joins Teach for America, and gradually, through the influence of his experiences there, both experiences of the dominant cultural liberalism of the organization, which he rejects, and also of the kind of conservative commitments of a fellow teacher who he admires, he gradually transforms into a kind of older style American conservative—a believer in free markets, in liberalism in the broad sense. He becomes a writer at various outlets, including Commentary, The WallStreet Journal, and now, he is an opinion editor at the New York Post. But where this memoir leaves off is that politically, at some point, you could say that Ahmari is still an old-fashioned American conservative. He still is a defender of liberalism in the broad sense, but he has found spiritually what he sees as his final resting place in the Catholic Church. 

Now, one of the points of interest to me in this essay was thinking about the way that the conversion memoir and the discovery of Catholicism, which Ahmari positions at the end of the essay, and which in a way he very deliberately analogizes to Augustine’s story, like for example, when he enters the church, he chooses Augustine as his patron saint, so there is this self-conscious literary identification going on there. So the narrative ends with a sense of him as having reached this destination. Now, subsequently, after this book was published, he underwent a kind of further political, if not necessarily religious, evolution, and sort of turned into an exemplar of a particular kind of Catholic new rightist, who repudiates liberalism and all its work. So you could say more completely, intensely anti-liberal, and see even the form of liberalism that would have been advocated by his older, mainstream-conservative self as being a stepping stone to what he sees as depravity and cultural decay. The word “reactionary” is kind of loaded, but I think at some point he kind of uses it himself approvingly. He says, “Sometimes reactionary measures are the only path,” and this is kind of where he ends up.

One of the big questions for me in writing about the memoir was thinking about how this journey that he presents as being complete in the book actually seems to already contain the seeds of the spiritual dissatisfactions that it represents and in the form of wholeness that he seeks toward the end of his future rejection of liberalism and his plunging into this new and increasingly radical political position.

Jonathan Silver:

Right. Well, of course, it’s only radical when seen from the point of view of politics. And it would seem like a kind of contradiction when the author of a Commentary magazine cover essay worrying about the worldwide crisis of illiberalism then turns out to be a post-liberal critic of liberalism himself. But that’s perhaps why politics is not the deepest level of analysis, and why focusing on the religious dimension of Ahmari’s journey, as you do in the essay, uncovers continuities between his earlier and later selves. Looking at it from the perspective of his reception in the Catholic Church, Ahmari’s movement from secularism to progressive hedonism to ordered liberalism or classical liberalism or something like that, and then to something yet in his view, even truer to what he’s called to be, that is an ever-advancing and continuous movement in a particular moral direction from dissolution to authority and meaning.

Nathan Shields:

I think that’s correct. I also think this maybe brings us back to something we mentioned earlier, but this desire for authority that’s so marked in the depiction of his inner life in the memoir, and that finds expression in his politics later on, is itself a product of a lot of these longings that are themselves quintessentially of the problem of living as an individual in liberal society. Through so much of the memoir, there is this profound sense of being unmoored, which, again, feels very Augustinian. The sense that one is wandering lost, desperate, without any solid ground to stand on. And in the church, he finds what he perceives as, at last, solid ground.

Jonathan Silver:

So, perhaps maybe the problem of restlessness and the search for something more stable sewn as it were into the fabric of the universe is an appropriate time to transition to the next case study in the essay. Tell us about Elaine Pagels and what her conversion story reveals.

Nathan Shields:

So, Elaine Pagels is a great scholar of early Christianity, of early Christian heterodox movements that are often called Gnosticism, which were rejected by the mainstream church and very much repudiated and demonized for a very long time in Christian history, and which have recently, partly through the work of Pagels herself, become the subject of more disinterested scholarly curiosity again. Broadly speaking, Pagels is a figure who would be identified with what we think of as liberal Protestantism, with the old mainline churches. I think she herself is a lot more complex of a figure than that identification would imply, but sociologically, in terms of a lot of her readership and the way that she’s been interpreted and folded into a lot of contemporary religious discourse, that connection is fairly important.

The book that I was looking at is called Why Religion?, which is an interweaving of her intellectual autobiography with this extremely harrowing story of her personal life, which is just really profoundly tragic in a lot of ways. And part of what I was thinking about when discussing Pagels in the essay was how her intellectual preoccupations and the particular forms of suffering that are so central to her memoir illuminate each other. Now, the way this fits into this broader question of conversion is that, in some ways, we could see Pagels’ early life as being an abortive conversion story.

The big moment of spiritual illumination in this classic sense of conversion comes at the very beginning of her memoir. She comes from this broadly irreligious family. As a young girl, she’s swept away at this Billy Graham altar call. So, she becomes part of American mainstream evangelicalism at the time, during this intense revivalist period in its history. And she describes it saying “All of us there were participating in the living drama of salvation.” Which is really the most classic description of conversion that you can get.

Now, this happens in the first or second chapter of the book, and by the proceeding chapter she has already fallen away from this community because of its own shortcomings. A very close friend of hers dies in a car accident, and she goes to her community looking for some spiritual understanding or comprehension of what’s happened. And she wants to know if he’s in heaven, and they say, “Well, was he born again?” She was like, “No, he’s Jewish.” And they say, “Well, then he’s in hell.” And understandably, this turns her off. And she says, “I left the church and never looked back.”

Now, she later becomes I think maybe formally inducted into the Episcopal church, so she has you could say forms of corporate membership in Christian communities afterward, but she spends a lot of her personal life, and also in some ways her intellectual life, after this experience at the margins of Christianity. And there is in some of the writing and particularly in a lot of the personal narratives in her memoir, there is a sense both of a longing for this wholeness that she experienced as a girl, and also of a skepticism or mistrust that she just can’t shake, because partly of the historical sins of organized Christianity itself.

Jonathan Silver:

And Nathan, how does that experience reflect on liberalism? Is there something about the ambient culture of freedom that, when confronted with a moral answer you don’t like, makes it relatively easy to fall into and out of different Christian confessions?

Nathan Shields:

I think that is a part of it. So this memoir takes place at a period of rapid social transformation. The fifties into the sixties is really this formative era for her personally. And her memoir in this sense is reflecting the broader transformation of religious institutions into these things that are more porous, into which people can enter and from which they can fall away. And more broadly, you can say the rise of an ethos that parallels these institutional changes of spiritual individualism.

And that individualism, in a certain way, I think is also central to her own intellectual makeup. She speaks at one point about the importance of finding the truth for ourselves. So, there is a sense of self-reliance intellectually that she sees as very central to the religious life. It has to mean something. It has to really mean something. It cannot mean just taking things on authority, not just accepting the testimony of tradition, but it must be a matter of active intellectual and spiritual engagement of intense search for the truth, which is, in some way, deeply personal, and also deeply lonely. So, the sense of inner life then, and this is where I do think she becomes a  a paradigmatic figure of this post-war liberal era.

Jonathan Silver: 

I suppose it’s the very compulsion that liberalism encourages within us to find our truth and discover our authenticity emerging out of our inner self that authorizes the conversions of all three of the figures you look at, not only the Catholic writer Sohrab Ahmari, the professor Elaine Pagels, but also the communist fellow traveler, Vivian Gornick. Explain the background that led you to look at her work and explain also why it belongs in a discussion with these other two converts.

Nathan Shields: 

The Gornick book is, it seems at first like the odd one out among these three books, because it’s not dealing explicitly with a religious conversion, it’s dealing with something a bit different, the experiences of these men and women, mostly in the twenties, thirties, forties, who became Communists that she interviews. Gornick, in her own way, is arguably not a convert herself because she was raised already in this left-wing family. She was, so to speak, born into the faith, but her book, the Romance of American Communism, is a larger oral history of the Communist experience in America during the first half of the 20th century, primarily the Depression and pre-war years.

A lot of the figures that she interviews are people who came to Communism from a different background. In many of these, we find the inner narrative that is familiar from Augustine or particularly from Christian conversion accounts, being repeated in this eerily similar form that a lot of the same metaphors of fire, of erotic need, of hunger, that run all through Augustine. But these appear again and again in the stories of these men and women who become Communists, and that in joining the Communist Party, they experienced something of the same radical inner transformation. Often with the same abruptness and the same experience of illumination that is central to Augustine and various later Christian conversion stories as well. And in looking at Gornick’s book, one of the big questions I wanted to puzzle out is why you have this remarkable similarity of experience across gigantic spans of time and seemingly gigantic differences of ideology, as well.

The other aspect of Gornick’s book that was fascinating to me is the centrality of Communism to the lives of American Jews, that she herself is Jewish and many of the figures that she interviews who have these Communist conversion experiences are from Jewish backgrounds as well, and often only slightly secularized. She’s writing about the lower East side tenements and places like this in New York in the early part of the 20th century. So, many of her subjects are maybe the children of immigrants, of rabbis and observant Jews, or of sometimes barely secularized Jews. She finds a somehow archetypically Jewish quality in the passions and desires and inner needs that impelled them toward Communism.

Jonathan Silver:

I have a question for you about time. One of the goals of liberalism, it seems to me, when looking especially at its earliest philosophical expressions, is to locate social life within history and to constrain the human imagination from utopian fancies. Liberalism doesn’t really have an end to which it’s pointing such that mankind is healed and whole, and that liberalism safeguards the market economy, constitutional constraints on executive power, diffusions of power in divided government and federalism. There’s not a next stage of history when these safeguards are not any longer going to be needed. In the liberal account, we’re all of us self-interested, and that won’t be cured. What’s that famous line from Adam Smith? To the effect that it’s not by benevolence that the butcher supplies meat and the baker supplies bread, but by self-interested motivations. That’s just who we are. And liberalism in this account is a coping mechanism for human sin in history.

Now, one of the things that unites the three figures that you look at is that, each in their own way, they want to escape history. They yearn for an end to history, whether that be in a Marxist utopia or a Catholic order that does fully conform to the Catholic truth of the human person. There is this desire to convert out of history and into a more wonderful messianic or utopian age.

Nathan Shields:

Yes. And a central strand, I think, of my argument in the essay is this end of history character, what we can say this eschatological character of conversion that explains, in some ways, a lot of both the psychological features of how it is experienced at its most intense, and also, its political potentialities, and particularly in a figure like Ahmari or in many of Gornick’s communist subjects, the way in which it impels one toward some form of radical politics. And you would say the question of the historicity of liberalism is a central part of what makes conversion and what makes the converts’ experience push against it or push one outside of it.

I think the best way of thinking about this is to go back to the Hebrew Bible and to think about a lot of the biblical doctrines that get reshaped into this notion of conversion as we experience it later in Augustine. What’s I think central to these original biblical notions is that all the talk of things that might be described as conversion in this radical Augustinian sense in the Bible are collective. They are communal experiences of some form or another. And one image that I think about a lot is the image of adultery, of infidelity and redemption, which we find in other places like in the Prophets. There is the idea that Israel corporately, collectively is God’s faithless spouse who he returns to and draws back to him and redeems through his love. Or another image is that Israel is like a wayward son who God will accept back.

Now, these images in the Bible suggest this final return toward God, which is positioned in the future, is on the other side of, say, the eschatological horizon, when history ends. At this final time then, Israel, and then also perhaps the other nations, will be finally converted. They will turn toward God for the last time in this act of collective redemption. Now these same images, when we get into the conversion narrative properly speaking as in Augustine, they become individualized. So, the sense of carnal desecration, of having been unfaithful and strayed away from God, in the Confessions becomes something that Augustine experiences in himself. We think about the narrative of the lost son who then returns to God. This is captured in Augustine’s gloss on Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, where the same narrative, again, of straying and returning becomes individualized. It becomes, instead of the story of the community, it- the narrative of the individual’s soul in a kind of Neoplatonic sense, falling away from God and returning. 

Now the interesting question here, and I think that this is something that applies to Communist conversion stories as well, is what is it that moves this kind of narrative from being a collective event that happens in the future to being an individual event that in some ways happens in the here and now? Transformation has to do with the change in institutional character that we find both in the Church and also in Communism or particularly in Marxist thought, for example. And that is what you could call the inauguration or the appearance of a, at least partially realized eschatology, which is to say that the future, the kind of messianic or apocalyptic future, which in the Bible is  on some distant horizon. In early Christianity, and also in, for Marxist thought, it moves right here, in front of us. We are in the midst of great apocalyptic transformation. Now, this may change in various ways in later Christian history when apocalyptic horizons recede, but it’s a very central part of the way that the early Church conceives itself. You could say what happens is because the community then is already in some sense redeemed, then communal membership, joining the Church, as opposed to joining the people of Israel can become the locus of the individual redemptive experience.

And something that’s very similarly true of the kind of institutional identity of the Communist Party during the period that Gornick writes about is something that bears already within itself the force of the utopian future. And it is because there is here now in the world already existing the infallible embodiment of the redemptive future and the person of the church or of the party that we individually can transform this communal or collective narrative into a story about ourselves and our own division and reunification.

Jonathan Silver:

Well, the evocation of the profits of the Hebrew Bible means perhaps that the time has come to submit ourselves to today’s examiner, Ari Lamm. Rabbi Lamm attended Yeshiva University, and then on a Fulbright scholarship studied at University College London before returning to New York for his rabbinic ordination, then unto Princeton, where he earned a PhD in the religions of Mediterranean antiquity. These, of course, fade in the luminescent glow of his most distinguished educational credential, his year as a Tikvah fellow in New York. Rabbi Lamm is currently the CEO of Bnai Zion and the host of its Good Faith Effort podcast. Rabbi Lamm, I turn it over to you.

Ari Lamm:

Many thanks. So Dr. Shields, in your essay, you identify the conversion experience and crucially the act of narrating that experience for the public as the expression par excellence for seeking not just personal, but political and social transformation. And you note as well, the idea that conversion as revolution has its immediate origins, at least in the Christian notion of conversion, rather than the Jewish one. And in the Christian tradition, conversion is rebirth. It’s salvation. It’s the answer to the greatest human question of is it possible to be redeemed? 

And while Jewish sources do talk about conversion as rebirth, you could argue it’s even the dominant metaphor of conversion in Jewish law. It’s much more in a familial sense, right? You’re part of a new family now, right? You’re a brand new being. So if you want total transformation as an answer to liberalism’s apparently thin account of human existence, in Judaism, at least you shouldn’t be looking to conversion, but to Jewish Hebrew biblical notions of eschatology as you just talked about, meaning the transformations we look forward to in the end of days. And it’s out of these visions of transformation at the end of days that the individual transformation in the Christian tradition is modeled upon. So it’s sort of like everyday eschatology.

But eschatology aside, the point is that Jewish conversion, like liberalism, was never, as you write in the essay, a reliable source of the transformative satisfactions that converts sought in the party of the Church or in Communism, as you talk about it in the rest of the essay. So the tension you set up is between conversion as process in Judaism and conversion as transformation in Christianity. But I want to probe a little bit on how conversion in Judaism might actually show up differently in your argument.

So Judaism seems to conceive of conversion, or a prospective convert, as if he meets all the conditions for conversion, of which there are many, then it’s almost akin to a right. It’s at least an obligation upon all of Israel, right? So a Jewish court is commanded to accept a fully qualified convert. And this is important because it emphasizes that for Judaism, conversion isn’t something that we seek to do. It’s something that we have to do. So in Jewish tradition, conversion can’t be about—and here, I think this goes directly to the argument of your essay–demanding coherence from the world, because if it were, we would want everyone to be Jewish, but we don’t. And in fact, to cite George Washington’s favorite verse from Micah, chapter four, Judaism envisions everyone at the end of the day sitting under their own vine and fig tree.

So each nation is going to recognize the sovereignty of God, but apparently will do so via their own tradition, history and story, and via their own relationship cultivated over eons with God. So it turns out that the difference between Christian conversion and Judaic conversion is emblematic, I think, more of a fundamental difference between Christianity and Judaism writ large. In other words, Christian conversion is a problem in the liberal dispensation, precisely because Christianity is universalist. It’s totalizing. And so ultimately on this reading, it can’t abide liberalism because liberalism is a cosmopolitan philosophy.

But Judaism is not a universalist project. And therefore, converting to Judaism is not part and parcel of that universalist project. And yet, as you know, in the essay, Judaism certainly does believe in the transformation of society. So the idea that making a new political order requires making new selves doesn’t really appear in Jewish thought, right? Doesn’t Judaism demonstrate that transformation, radical transformation, is indeed possible within a non-universalist system? Maybe even a cosmopolitan system like liberalism?

Nathan Shields:

Well, I guess a lot hinges on sort of what we mean by the word radical, right? So if I think about sort of a central sort of difference of metaphorical shading in Jewish and Christian discriminate descriptions of conversion, one thing I would think about is the contrast between two terms that seem almost identical, but you have the Christian notion of being born again, and then you have rabbinic sources sometimes talk about converts as being like newborn babies. These seem almost like the same term, but there is this really very important difference of shading that the being born again, in the Augustinian sense. can mean somewhat different things at different times and places, but it tends to mean again, becoming sort of a new man, being radically and all at once made into something that is new. Christianity certainly doesn’t posit the convert as being perfect, but redeemed, in some sense, that one is transformed by God’s grace. 

Now, when rabbinic texts talk about the convert as a newborn baby, it means something a little bit different. It means among other things that they are helpless, that they are freshly inducted to the community, that they are still kind of weak and vulnerable. That they need to be helped and moved along on their path. So the newborn baby, in this sense, is at the beginning of a very long journey rather than at their destination. And this seems to speak to the more gradualist way in which Judaism conceives personal renewal. It’s by no means that it doesn’t believe in such renewal, but that renewal often is kind of part of a long gradual sort of educative process, that one becomes sort of assimilated to the tradition rather than being in one of our classic Christian images of conversion, just sort of having the scales fall from our eyes, like the Apostle Paul.

So then the question, I suppose, is how do we imagine political change in the here and now in keeping with this kind of rubric of process rather than sudden sweeping change? I mean, arguably you can think of this asimplying a sort of gradualism, that society can be changed in some sense radically, but that radical change is at least within the bounds of sort of normative rabbinic Judaism, like sort of remaining within those confines. Then that change would seem to be before the Messiah in fact comes that change would seem to be something that is gradual, and that has no absolute end point. That is a matter of kind of the gradual mending and improving and making better of the world. But it does not have the eschatological hope of mending it all at once. 

Now, when we get to the messianic side of Judaism, then of course this changes very much.

Ari Lamm:

Excellent. So what I want to push on there is the question of what it is that liberalism does not supply, and that I think can help us clarify how and whether conversion narratives and the worldviews that they embody, or in some way speak for and spirits speak publicly for, can help us solve those problems. 

So I want to actually take Ahmari’s latest book, The Unbroken Thread, which I believe just came out, or at least I just got my copy. If From Fire By Water, which is the book that you talk about, describes what he’s rejecting, then in The Unbroken Thread, he lays out an argument for what he’s arguing for, namely tradition as a resource for social and political renewal. But what’s remarkable about The Unbroken Thread is that contrary to what you might expect from sort of the caricature you might draw from From Fire By Water, where he must be arguing for the establishment of Vatican rule over the American nation. What Sohrab does in The Unbroken Thread, I think beautifully, is that he just draws in so many traditions that are outside Catholicism. Judaism, for example. And he just had a whole column in the Wall Street Journal arguing for an American Sabbath in which he drew really quite exclusively on Abraham Joshua Heschel. Lately he’s expressed deep admiration for ancient Chinese tradition, which is outside the biblical tradition, in a much-maligned tweet. So you can charge Sohrab with a failure of nerve here, of course, but I actually see it as the opposite. I think it reflects this sort of wise and virtuous recognition on his part that you don’t actually need the perfect coherence that Sohrab himself, as you note, criticized in a 2016 Commentary essay defending liberalism, right? So the problem with liberalism on this view is not that it doesn’t supply perfect moral and social coherence, and therefore Catholic conversion would be a protest against liberalism’s lack of perfect coherence. It’s that liberalism is purely procedural.

To borrow a phrase, “Man cannot live on procedure alone.” So couldn’t you say that what Sohrab wants is not a rejection of democracy in the name of Catholic supremacy, but actually just the rejection of political philosophies that are layered on top of democracy, like liberalism, that don’t rest on a positive account of human existence. And the next move wouldn’t therefore be tearing up the Constitution, but right? Wouldn’t it be just figuring out how American democracy can somehow put its thumb on the scale on substantive questions? Wouldn’t that be the project that Sohrab wants to undertake? Not perfect coherence, but any positive account of human existence rather than liberalism’s negative accounts?

Nathan Shields:

Clearly if you look at the new Catholic right, and in Sohrab’s most recent book, and also if you look at other figures like Adrian Vermuele, there’s a wider kind of intellectual purview than we would expect if we were to think of them purely as Catholic reactionaries. Now, the meaning and nature of that interest is something I guess I’m a little less confident about than you are. It’s true that very central to this, in the interest of various forms of Confucian thought and maybe in Judaism is perhaps creditable. I do not know that this implies a weakening of the political commitment to a particularly and substantively Catholic political order in the long run.

I guess the question is, are these traditions endorsed as being kind of good qua traditions? And also good simply in so far as they are kind of sticks to beat liberalism with? Or does the interest in them allow for a genuine kind of plurality and one’s vision of a future society? I’m a little up in the air about that.

Now more broadly, I think part of the question you’re putting your finger on is the question of liberalism’s relation to preexisting and substantive accounts. And the question of whether it can in fact provide us any sort of workable, thick description of human life in the absence of this older implicit metaphysic that it wants to upon. And I think this is one part in which you could say a lot of the anti-liberals are broadly correct in the sense that a liberal political philosophy cannot by itself either preserve the social institutions and intermediating forms of collective life that we need to kind of sustain a healthy society, and nor can it really provide the sort of personal fulfillment that it itself places at the center of its account of the world.

But I also think the attempt to get around this problem runs up against a lot of obstacles that Sohrab, for example, and many other anti-liberals don’t totally grasp. One way of thinking about this broadly is that if we think about the contemporary Catholic right as that if it conceives of itself, as being traditionalist, it is in fact, in some ways, a very ultra-modern phenomenon, actually, and this belongs to a broader tradition of the weird sort of dialectical relationship between Christianity and particularly right-wing Christianity and the forces of modernity that it reacts against. A classic example of this would be the rise of Protestant fundamentalism, which is, on the surface, a kind of reaction against various trends in Enlightenment historiography which tries to fight those by reasserting the primacy of certain basic Christian commitments: the virgin birth, the resurrection, the divinity of Jesus, and so forth. Now, in the very process of reasserting these claims, what it does is it transforms them into factual propositions. It transforms them into items of data that one ascents to or descents from. In other words, it re-conceptualizes religious ideas or knowledge along the lines laid down by Enlightenment thought. So then, a religious belief becomes a sort of fact in this modern, Baconian sense.

I dwell on this because I think it’s a really important paradigm for the way in which religious thinking, confronting the problems of modernity and trying to build a bulwark against them ends up being formed and reshaped by them, and in some ways, remade in their image. And I think, in some ways, if we look at what’s going on with Ahmari or figures like Vermuele, is that we see something similar happening in that their supposed embrace of tradition and rejection of modernity is, in some ways, profoundly modern and is absorbing not just these various openly-acknowledged forms of traditional thought, but also is in dialogue with some very quintessentially modern tendencies, some of which are non-Christian and some of which are in many ways quite authoritarian as well. The classic example of this would be Vermuele’s flirtation with almost Leninist ideas, and sometimes, with some of these figures, a kind of surprisingly friendly attitude towards the Chinese Communist Party as well.

So, I do see the description of tradition in The Unbroken Thread a little bit in the light of this ambivalent status of Ahmari’s particular political faction, vis-à-vis tradition and modernity now. That the very way in which they defend and try to rehabilitate or embrace tradition betrays their modernity.

Ari Lamm:

When you talk about Dr. Pagels’s book in the context of conversion narratives old and new, it made me sensitive to the idea that there actually are two types of conversion narratives present in your essay, and you might even be able to say these are universal categories. There’s the eschatological conversion and there’s the protological conversion. So, just to kind of break down what those terms mean. So, eschatology is looking forward to the end times and is proceeding through life with your eye on the future. Protology is proceeding through life with your eye on the past and bringing yourself into conformity with the way things once were as sort of a virtue. Augustinian conversion is eschatological. He’s looking forward to the city of God and trying to make the city of Man, and bring the city of Man into communion, as it were, with the city of God.

But, Dr. Pagels’s preferred or expressed preference is what I would call protological, right? Because she wants to bring herself into comportment with the way things were always supposed to be from the beginning of time, and this is rooted in her reading of the gospel of Thomas, one of the texts that she helped make famous, as being a commentary on the book of Genesis. And in fact, a lot of Dr. Pagels’s most excellent work is in showing how the gospel of Thomas, usually gnosticism, is kind of thrown around as something that’s extra-biblical or anti-biblical. One of the correctives that I think that Dr. Pagels has introduced into the world not only of high-falutin academic scholarship, but even into the public conversation and the popular conversation, is the idea that the Gnostics actually were reading the Bible and interpreting it in this wider world of Jewish thought, and that you need to understand them against that backdrop.

So, the gospel of Thomas, which is a work which, in Why Religion? Dr. Pagels has a lot of sympathy and seems very excited about. And I actually remember taking Dr. Pagels to Yeshiva University to talk to the students there about interpretation of Genesis and the gospel of Thomas. It was a lot of fun. But, does this maybe point to a defining feature of liberalism? In other words, to the extent that Dr. Pagels represents, at least sociologically as you put it, the brand of mainline Protestantism that for so long was the foundational stone upon which liberalism rested, and maybe arguably sort of mooched off of for its spiritual and cultural vitality, but wouldn’t this point to maybe a defining feature of liberalism, qua-liberalism? Namely, its inability to cope with eschatology or its inability to have an eschatology? Right?

So, in religion, religions can have eschatologies. Or, at least, in biblical religion, you can look forward to a future when you’ve brought things into perfect conformity with the will of the Creator. But, in liberalism, you can’t have eschatology. There’s simply the end of history. There’s this dystopian, Messianic era, which Fukuyama described. The end of history is not the triumph of liberalism, it’s the slow and agonizing comatose period of liberalism. So, there’s no place to go. In the liberal dispensation, there would never be any place to go but back, so you need protological conversions in liberalism. So, isn’t this really the problem that liberalism faces? And it’s not one that you would necessarily need to reject liberalism for, but you would need to acknowledge it straightforwardly. Even if we weren’t facing challenges from aspiring converts out of liberalism, the problem that liberalism would still confront is that it doesn’t have the capacity to spin out in eschatology. It doesn’t have a vision for the future. And at a certain point, it simply runs out of steam and we get to the point where, now, you have economists like Tyler Cowen talking about the complacent class that Americans represent. Or, you have social critics like Ross Douthat talking about being in a period of decadence. Shouldn’t our worry be that liberalism has no way out of that because we have no eschatology, only protology?

Nathan Shields:

So, that’s a fascinating distinction. I wouldn’t have thought about it before, but certainly in relation to Pagels, it makes a lot of sense. In one way, I guess I’m tempted to say that the distinction is important but maybe not ultimate. Even eschatology is often conceived as a return to the way things were in the beginning. Certainly, if we look at Augustine, there’s that neo-Platonic narrative that we fall away from God and then return to Him, but it’s a return to the beginning, but a return to the beginning in a transformative guise.

Ari Lamm:

I think of Peter Thiel’s observation that the Bible begins with a garden and ends with a city.

Nathan Shields:

Yeah. If there is return, it is return that is also transformative, that we come back to the beginning, but we come back as something new.

That’s just one question about it that I guess I find myself thinking about as I mull over this distinction. More broadly speaking, I think that this problem is correct; that liberalism, to the extent that it has eschatological yearnings within it, that they come from outside of it somewhere. We think about maybe the classic eschatological trope in liberalism is the arc of history, which is slow, but does have a destination. In a way, that seems to be a classic example to secularization of a very Protestant concept, of a particular kind of Christian idea of providence, which informs liberalism with its religious character left somewhat unacknowledged. Now, it’s not really an idea that I think liberalism in and of itself, absent the religious foundations that feel into it, could generate.

Ari Lamm:

Right. Its most popular expositor was Martin Luther King Jr., who was drawing, not upon liberalism, but upon Isaiah and Jeremiah. It’s another case of just mooching off of the Bible, right?

Nathan Shields:

Yeah. It’s a religious concept that enters from a really explicitly religious thinker and then gets taken over into a secular liberal discourse that’s sort of where its original meaning gets forgotten.

In one sense, this would seem to say to us that liberalism maintains a certain eschatological character or eschatological yearnings, but on the other hand, that those come into it from an outside source, and as it gets disconnected from that source, that aspect of it will weaken and that this will present, problems for its ability to create a meaningful narrative, both of communal, and also, meaningful narratives for individual life. If we don’t have a sense of ourselves as oriented in history towards some goal, then any stories that we tell about ourselves, personally and individually, stop somewhere. And where they stop does not seem to have, in of itself, any sort of final meaning.

So, the personal narrative in a historically oriented religious system is always referring to the grand narrative of history. I think this is something that remains true in Judaism or Christianity, that history, as a whole, is a single story, and our story is how they’re going to place within it. Any form of utopian socialism has some sense of a unified, historical narrative too. Insofar as liberalism denies ultimate ends, I think it also denies an ultimate end to the story, and this is what gives us, as you say, this Fukuyaman picture, that the end of history is not the ultimate goal toward which we are moving, but it is the kind of paralysis or stasis in which we exist now.

I would say this particular neo-liberal modernity, which is what Fukuyama is describing, in which, from his perspective, if there was an end towards which history was moving, it was the triumph of liberalism. Now that we’re there, so it’s kind of like, “So, now what?” Implicit in Fukuyama’s account itself, actually, is that the revitalization of those senses of collective or individual meaning and goal-directedness can come only through a kind of breaking back out of that back into history. This desire to break back into history, is the kind of thing we feel so potently in the Ahmari memoir, that the desire to return to a world in which our story, once again, is oriented towards a recognizable destination rather than wandering around in the wastes.

Jonathan Silver:

Nathan, the essay is called “The Present, Past, and Pre-History of Conversion.” Why is it called that?

Nathan Shields: 

Well, I think because of what I’ve just been talking about, this question of the way in which conversion played out in relation to the unfolding of this post-war era of liberal ascendancy and ultimate dominance. In this, I’m kind of imagining Gornick as the pre-history, the image of personal transformation, conversion, in an era that was not unipolar, when you had these opposing worldviews truly contending for dominance at a fundamental level. So, there, we are kind of seeing the way in which the human hope for transformation and rebirth plays out before the end of history.

And then Pagels we could say is kind of the past. She is showing us the motion into more or less this era of liberal dominance. And then, finally, the Ahmari memoir is a picture of the moment that we’re in right now, which is this profoundly uncertain moment, one in which many people see a hope finally to break free of what they perceive as the impasse of liberalism, both politically and spiritually. But, in which, in other ways, those forces of inertia that he rebels against seem to persist.

Even if this old world is dying, what’s going to happen next is, as yet, unclear. And it may be dying for a long time. So, this is the broader, historical narrative, traced by the three books. And in each of them, with that kind of transformation of the historical and political character of the broader world in which the writers live, the inner life and the way we narrate and understand the inner life is transforming from a realm of radical contention and potential explosive transformation to one of increasing loneliness, and finally, into this terrain that seems to be lost and aimless, but may be a prelude to some sort of future radical rebirth.

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