Published April 25, 2023
N.S. Lyons is the founder and author of The Upheaval on Substack, where he writes about our era of rapid cultural, technological, political, and geopolitical change. His work ranks among the best commentary currently available, with important implications for the Catholic and other Christian communities. The following WWNN email interview was conducted by Francis X. Maier.
WWNN: A very simple question first: What led you to found The Upheaval, and why now?
Lyons: By the end of a tumultuous 2020 I felt like I might be going a bit mad. It seemed to me that we were clearly living through revolutionary times: politically, ideologically, technologically, even geopolitically . . . everything seemed to have become unmoored. It felt like we were clearly approaching, or had already entered, a period of crisis—or rather the Greek krisis: a moment of radical decision and separation, a process of transformation where the old system can no longer be maintained and something new emerges. And yet nobody seemed to be talking about it openly or honestly; almost everyone I knew insisted everything was totally normal and would continue just as before, even as the ambient societal fear and anxiety grew so thick you could cut it with a knife. Gaslighting or simply ignoring reality seemed to be the new normal as coping mechanism.
So, for the sake of maintaining my own sanity, I began writing about this period of collective upheaval simply in order to try to organize my own thoughts on the matter in a more systematic way. I published on Substack in part because it seemed like the place where a few other people were beginning to explore these issues, but mostly just because it was a convenient platform to use. Frankly I did not expect anyone to actually read what I wrote. It turned out other people did read it, because they were in fact seeing many of the same things I was and also feeling like the world had gone mad. But writing The Upheaval has continued to first and foremost be something of an evolving personal intellectual investigation ever since.
What are the main factors—political, cultural, technological, spiritual—in our historical moment that cause you the greatest concern?
My initial concern was that the logical end point of this upheaval I’ve described could well be either civil conflict or totalitarianism, or both. My professional background is partly in the study of China, including the history of Chinese communism, so parallels between the destructive ideological madness of the China’s Cultural Revolution and what has been happening in the West today were immediately apparent to me and deeply unnerving. I set out to examine the ideological, political, sociological, and technological aspects of what might be pushing us in this dangerous direction.
Something unexpected happened in the course of this, however. In trying to trace back the roots of the present madness, of our various ideological and cultural maladies, I found that each kept running to a level much deeper than I expected. To be honest in my investigation, I soon found it wasn’t enough to blame Foucault, or Marxism, or liberalism, or whatever; these ideas and ideologies were only responses to the same patterns stemming from human nature. Deep atomization and alienation. A rejection of higher authority, any authority, even the authority of reality. Boundless ego of the self. A void of higher meaning. Unmitigated fear of suffering and death. Existential anxiety. Nihilism. Anger at life, anger at all of creation. A desperate, limitless thirst for technological control as a reaction. Deluded hopes for utopia on earth and the end of all suffering. Relentlessly, every issue I was investigating began to converge on our modern society’s lack of ready answers to the same uncomfortably metaphysical questions: Why are we here? What is truth? What is real? How do we explain suffering? How do we justify existence? How do we live in the world? And so on.
We thought we had resolved or at least successfully set aside these questions in our modern, secular age. But it turns out this neutrality was always impossible; they are unavoidable and have to be answered. If they aren’t, something else will inevitably rush in to fill the void, no matter how crude, ill-considered, disordered, or dangerous that something is. That is what we are seeing everywhere now: “the return of the strong gods,” in the phrase of R.R. Reno.
So I’ve had to conclude that, at bottom, our civilization’s crisis is first and foremost a spiritual crisis. And that the great struggles underlying our present upheavals are really struggles over essentially theological questions, such as whether there is any inherent dignity in human life and the human body, or whether all matter is inherently evil and only pure spirit good. Most of all, at the core, there seems to be a great struggle between two competing visions about what it means to be human: whether Man exists as, in essence, machine or Imago Dei. As someone who previously thought theology was surely an irrelevant anachronism, having it turn out to still be the Queen of the Sciences has all been a bit of a shock. But here we are.
Now I’m still worried about the rise of totalitarianism, risk of destabilization and conflict, etc. Very worried. But for a bit different reasons. Most of my previous conceptions about modernity and its direction have been shattered, you could say. Now my real concern is that the spiritual causes of our present crisis are so fundamental, and that we’ve dug ourselves into such a deep hole, so to speak, that finding a way out on our own will be exceptionally difficult.
Your work seems to have at least a “religion-friendly” undercurrent. You’ve written favorably about both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Why so? Does faith have any role in your own life?
Well, not so long ago it really had no role in my life at all, and I was perfectly satisfied with that, even smug about it, as so many intellectually-minded people tend to be. That has changed dramatically over the course of the last five years or so.
As described before, intellectually I was forced down a path of having to take religious questions seriously. This proceeded in various stages: an acceptance that man is a naturally religious animal, and that “spirituality” matters to individual happiness and psychological stability; that ideologies mainly just function as crude replacements for religion; recognition that organized religion might be needed to avoid the breakdown of any society, irrespective of whether or not it is true; realization that the great clashes of our time are over metaphysical or theological questions, and that this is unavoidable… But by taking these questions seriously, I then inevitably had to confront my own answers to them, or lack thereof, and to interrogate what my own unstated and unexamined theological claims and assumptions must be. Gradually there grew an uncomfortable awareness, in a purely rational sense, that maintaining a sort of vague half-atheistic, half-spiritual sensibility would not be tenable if I had any commitment to truth. But at this point my relationship to all this remained purely intellectual.
Then I concluded that evil really exists. If you study history’s great atrocities, like those perpetrated under communism, for long enough, this is already a hard conclusion to avoid. But, in watching the breakdowns and fanaticisms of our current day, suddenly I could see it with my own eye—see it in people all around me, people I knew personally, taking them over from the inside, disordering them, deforming them, hollowing them out and extinguishing their spirit and replacing it with a kind of sallow, dull-eyed, compassionless mechanical madness. Frankly this transformation can even be seen on the outside too: a kind of deformation and degeneration produced by a will towards perversity, chaos, and ugliness, and an appetite for self-harm and destruction that seems to be common everywhere today. It’s chilling. It became hard not to see the impact of ideology on people as Dostoevsky saw it: as a form of possession, and not just metaphorically.
But of course once you believe in evil you’re in an awkward—really quite horrifying—spot if you haven’t yet come to believe in, or are even able to define, evil’s opposite. I found my conscience able to cry out that this or that thing I was seeing was somehow “wrong, wrong, wrong!” and know it to be inherently true—but why? This is why for me the most affecting scene in all of Lewis’ work is that in That Hideous Strength, when his protagonist Mark is being fully inducted into evil, essentially, with a kind of program to desensitize him to perversion, but this has the unintended effect of making him concretely aware for the first time of its opposite: “As the desert first teaches men to love water, or as absence first reveals affection, there rose up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight. Something else—something he vaguely called the ‘Normal’—apparently existed. He had never thought about it before. But there it was—solid, massive, with a shape of its own, almost like something you could touch, or eat, or fall in love with.” This moment, in which Mark “was not thinking in moral terms at all; or else (what is much the same thing) he was having his first deeply moral experience,” resonated with me precisely because I’ve had exactly the same experience.
So I perhaps stumbled into a kind of negative theology. To believe only in “the Normal” or “the Good” is wholly unstable. If there is a created order, and it is good, where did it come from? Why is it good? How can one recognize intuitively that it is good? How, why, is there such a connection? Is there a soul after all? The pressure, even just the pressure of reason, then rapidly becomes tremendous. There’s an experience that G.K. Chesterton recounts in Orthodoxy, about his personal journey to religious faith,when he says that, having got one big idea right, he could almost “hear bolt after bolt over all the machinery falling into its place with a kind of click,” and “one after another, all the other parts fitted and fell in with an eerie exactitude” as, all at once, “Instinct after instinct was answered by doctrine after doctrine.” I think I now know the feeling.
Paul Kingsnorth describes having been “dragged kicking and screaming” to God over the last few years. I think I might now know what he meant too. Suddenly there is a God and He is battering down your door. This is not pleasant at all. There’s a moment described, if I recall correctly, by St. Augustine in his Confessions, where he has been convinced by the Neoplatonists that God exists, but does not yet have any way of relating personally to this totally abstract idea of God at all, and it nearly drives him mad with despair. I understand. What does one even do with that sort of unmediated, impersonal truth? Reason’s God is very cold. There is awe, and fear, then, but not yet any love. The pressure is now if anything even worse; it keeps building and building, and there is nowhere to turn… at least not until one recalls the words and understands them anew: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Then, with acceptance, peace.
What does this mean for me, exactly? I don’t quite know. It’s all happened very fast. Such are revolutionary times, I suppose. Right now I feel as if I’m still just sort of rushing to catch up on all my neglected homework before the final exam.
When you look at the health and the future of organized Christian Churches, what’s your impression? To what degree do they understand the nature of the world developing around them?
As far as I can tell it seems to be a pretty mixed bag, to be honest. I have read and seen some data indicating that younger clergy in the Catholic Church, for instance, are actually far more attuned to what is going on than their elders, and far more determined take a firm stand and do something about it. That is encouraging if so. But they are not in charge. And, by and large, most Church leadership, in seemingly every denomination, appears to have mostly missed the boat so far (or worse). There doesn’t seem to be a strong recognition of the reality of their situation, and its seriousness, or they would be acting with far more urgency, even if only to try to protect their own communities. Ideally they would gird themselves to boldly wage theological and spiritual combat, as I’d presume they in fact exist to do (who else is supposed to lead in doing that, exactly?). The fact is that Christianity very obviously faces an existential struggle with a very dangerous competing (and arguably directly heretical) theological worldview—one that is extremely seductive, has successfully seized and merged itself with state power across the Western world, and is rapidly going global. It should now be clear that this will be a period of trial as great as any in the Church’s history.
There’s a huge amount of conflict within Christianity itself over the best way to deal with today’s emerging culture. Do we adapt our beliefs and integrate, or refuse and resist—especially on matters of anthropology (what it means to be human) and sexual morality? Any thoughts on what’s the right path?
My impression is that people today, and especially young people, are looking above all else for solid ground; for shelter in the storm. They are looking for the real and the eternal, for that which will not melt into air. They are looking for authority they can trust, when authority has everywhere else dissolved. And they’re looking for loyalty, community, and love that does not falter. Unfortunately they often mistakenly turn to the worst possible places for these things—like extremist ideological movements—because they see no other alternative presenting itself. Meanwhile they are increasingly unsure of what is true, of what reality even is, or what even the most basic aspects of what it means to be human are, because there is no one there to give them an answer with conviction. In this situation, to be liquid in character is to be subsumed into the very same sea of chaos that everyone is trying desperately to stay afloat in while finding nothing solid to clamber onto. I think in this storm the Church will either be the rock it was founded to be, and stand fast, or it will sink beneath the waves.
What are the best rebuttals—the strongest imaginative responses—to the airless world into which we’re all being sucked day after day?
I think the best rebuttal is simply that there is a real alternative available to the core conceit of liquid post-modernity’s subjectivism: that there is an objective, authoritative reality out there beyond the self (i.e. Lewis’ Tao), consisting of objective truth and objective value, that is not of our own construction; and that this reality is good, and that we as humans are a part of it. And that if willing to submit to this reality one can easily reach out and touch it, live in it, experience love in it. This is a sort of re-enchantment of reality, of creation as a good thing worth being a part of, and is I think the first step in presenting a compelling alternative worldview, whether as a gateway to an explicitly Christian one or not, that is capable of standing against nihilism and preserving our humanity. A number of thinkers and writers I really respect, like Kingsnorth and Matthew Crawford, seem to have all converged on this notion at the same time from different directions, and I think for good reason. This has occurred as part of something that feels like it could be a bit of an ongoing intellectual renaissance that seems to be happening right now as the “big questions” return to the forefront of society. (Perhaps not coincidentally, a large number of these intellectuals all seem, anecdotally, to be converting or returning to belief at the same time.) This is the approach that I probably find most inspiring right now.
However, I would warn that there are other strong rebuttals gaining ground out there too. Among the strongest comes from the vitalist or Nietzschean far right. The Church underestimates the challenge arriving from this direction at its peril. My expectation is that we are on the verge of a great rebellion that is about to occur (and indeed is already beginning) among young men. Our culture is actively de-masculinizing, dispiriting, demoralizing, degenerating, and frankly desexualizing (in the sense of putting men and women at odds and undermining truly fulfilling relationships between them, while elevating what Crawford has amusingly termed the amorphous, sexless “gender blob” as individual ideal). It provides normal young men with, quite literally, nothing to live for. And many of them have just absolutely had enough of it. So when the Nietzschean vitalists come along and say, “Rebel! LIVE life with energy and adventure, strive for strength and excellence, experience the joy of your power increasing, and trample over the weak and the womanly, who are they who oppress you for they are afraid,” this message is extremely compelling. In the face of this a Christianity that is only a “Christianity of Care”—i.e. a wholly feminine Christianity—will be in serious trouble. In trouble not just because it isn’t similarly compelling to them, but because they will, and often already do, directly blame Christianity itself as being the original cause of their spiritual and worldly immiseration—of having foisted “slave morality” and worship of victimhood onto the world, and of having discouraged all vitality and joy in this world in pursuit of the next. Considering that our present victimhood culture really can be argued to be a sort of Christian heresy (or of Christian “virtues gone mad,” in Chesterton’s quip), they have a strong point to contend with.
The only way this will be successfully opposed is if the Church is prepared to straightforwardly address what I think are three urgent theology-related questions (here we are again with urgent theology) that it seems to no longer be very articulate at speaking to today. The first is how Christianity can be life affirming—that is, reinforcing and celebrating the joy and goodness of living in the here and now, in a creation that is good—and not just obsessed with escaping this life for another, immaterial world of pure spirit as quickly as possible. The second is how Christianity can be strength affirming. By this I mean strength both metaphorically and literally. Why is it good that a man be strong? Why shouldn’t he strive for the fullest potential excellence of body that God has endowed us with? Does Christianity only despise the body? (It is no coincidence that an enthusiasm for bodybuilding is the hallmark of today’s vitalist movement: today there is rebellious joy in strength.) Or, for that matter, why should he bother to pursue any kind of human excellence at all? Why not just sit on the couch and become a fat gender blob? Does Christ only care for the weak and the lame? The last is how Christianity can be courage affirming: Can it give a man courage to act and to struggle in defense of the Good, and for what is right, or is it only a religion for the meek, a religion purely about acceptance and turning the other cheek? All three of these questions are obviously intertwined, and related to what could be described as a masculine Christianity, or a “Christianity of Struggle.”
My limited understanding is that a “Christianity of Care” and a “Christianity of Struggle”—involving a call to intense, ongoing spiritual struggle—have coexisted from the start, and that in fact that, in proper balance, their interplay together forms part of the magic of the faith. But it seems to me that the balance is now badly off, and that this aspect of struggle needs to be recovered, and quickly, unless the faith wants to lose a whole generation of men who are craving it. If a major backlash against the softness and despair of liberal-modernity emerges (and I believe that it will), then there are two main paths down which the energy of that reaction will flow: either a return to traditional religious faith (i.e., Christianity here in the West), or Nietzschean neo-paganism. So the Church may be about to face a moment of both great opportunity and great danger; it had better be prepared for that.
At this juncture, what would a sane and fruitful politics look like? Where can the Church make her biggest contribution?
A sane and fruitful politics would be one that returns to being fully in touch with reality (the reality of the material world, human nature, and spiritual truth). Honestly most of the specifics of such a politics, like what rate to set taxes at or whatever, probably wouldn’t matter much at all. But one thing that I think is clear is that a sane politics would have to make healing the people and looking after their genuine well-being its primary obligation. The people are not in a good way right now, one could say.
I do not think any kind of integration of the Church into the political is necessary, or would be helpful, however; attempting that may even be counter-productive. I think it can have by far its greatest impact by sticking to its original and fundamental mission: saving souls. Not just for the next life, however, but also in the here and now. It can do this by providing the structure, right-order, and community that so many people today badly need to return to sane and healthy lives. Saner people will produce saner politics. That’s a contribution the Church can make. I recall that after his long and famous career as a psychotherapist, Carl Jung concluded that given its “healing effects” being a practicing Catholic was “as sane” as a person could get, and that what most people really needed to live sane and healthy lives was not a psychotherapist but a priest. That makes real sense. In the end all ideologies today are fundamentally about trying to find an answer to suffering. That’s why utopians and revolutionaries and totalitarian politicians find a ready audience for what they sell: because people are suffering, and don’t know where to turn. If the Church can serve as an example of how to forthrightly confront suffering, and to offer people a structured path to living saner, happier, less fearful lives—to, again, be a rock in a world gone mad—then I think its future can be bright despite, or even because of, the upheavals of our era.
Where’s the resistance to today’s dehumanizing qualities being successful today, if anywhere? What, if anything, gives you hope—and why?
I recently visited a lovely “Benedict option” style intentional Catholic community in Maryland, where more than a hundred families have sort of centered around the school (the St. Jerome Academy) there. I was very impressed, not just with what they’ve accomplished as a community, but by the general sense of goodness, humanity, and, well, sanity, that they’ve been able to build there, including for their children. I think these kinds of communities are likely to be a real bedrock of “resistance” moving forward; especially ones that can remain integrated yet distinct from broader society, without being totally isolated. By doing so they can serve as a “parallel polis,” providing not only community and solidarity for their members, but also serving as an example for others in society that a better life is possible.
More broadly, as mentioned earlier, I think a sort of revival is coming: a “second religiousness,” renaissance, or recommitment to inherited civilizational principles. History would strongly suggest something like this is now on the horizon. In fact I think it’s already happening, and I find that to be cause for hope. The only question is what direction this energy is going to take, and whether it will be strong enough to induce a more humane future—but that will be up to all of us to shape.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.
Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.