Published November 30, 2023
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim and now a former atheist, recently declared that she has converted to Christianity. This is a cause for great rejoicing.
It is also a fascinating sign of the times. Her published account of why she is a Christian is somewhat odd, given that it mentions Jesus only once. It is, however, unreasonable to expect a new convert to offer an elaborate account of the hypostatic union in the first days of faith. This is why churches catechize disciples: Conversion does not involve an infusion of comprehensive doctrinal knowledge. And whatever the lacunae in her statement, the genuineness of her profession is a matter for the pastor of whatever congregation of Christ’s church to which she attaches herself.
Here is what makes her public testimony a sign of the times: She states that she converted in part because she realized that a truly humanistic culture—and by that I mean a culture that treats human beings as persons, not as things—must rest upon some conception of the sacred order as set forth in Christianity, with its claim that all are made in the image of God. “Western civilization is under threat from three different but related forces,” she writes. These are resurgent authoritarianism in China and Russia, global Islamism, and “the viral spread of woke ideology.” She declares that she became a Christian in part because she recognized that “we can’t fight off these formidable forces” with modern secular tools; rather, we can only defeat these foes if we are united by a “desire to uphold the legacy of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” with its “ideas and institutions designed to safeguard human life, freedom and dignity.”
The last few years have seen a number of unexpected voices strike hard against the mores of our time, particularly in the realm of sexual ethics and its close relative, the ethics of embodiment. Mary Harrington has written against the dehumanizing tendencies that lurk just below the surface of a society that sees transgenderism and transhumanism as legitimate. Louise Perry has pointed out that, despite its own propaganda about itself, the sexual revolution is very bad news for women and for children. Conservative Christians have, of course, been saying such things for years. But because Harrington and Perry are feminists and do not wear any obvious religious commitment on their sleeves, their voices have sounded louder and been more culturally shocking. As far as society is concerned, they should know better than the benighted simpletons of the religious world.
And now we have Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She too is concerned with how the West is dismantling its traditional cultural norms and with what it intends to replace them. Others have said similar things before. Philip Rieff and Sir Roger Scruton are two that come to mind. But the impression both of them leave is that, yes, they think God is a very good idea for grounding a civilized culture, but they are not entirely sure that he exists. What Ali has done is taken the obvious—and indeed necessary—next step: She sees the necessity of a sacred order and is not afraid to say so. It will be interesting to see if those others who have so astutely analyzed the sicknesses unto death that grip the West at the moment will follow her lead.
Yet there is a challenge here for Christianity: the perennial problem of the connection between the transcendent and the immanent, too often resolved in church history by instrumentalizing the gospel in the service of social activism. This has always been the vulnerability of liberal Protestantism, with its traditional support of the dominant moral consensus. Whether beating the drum for anti-communism in the 1950s or flying the rainbow flag from the church steeple in the 2020s, liberal Protestants do not so much offer prophetic criticism of secular power as provide a religiously informed idiom for its expression. The current progressivism, committed to the disruption of all stable categories, is a far more complicated creature to express through a Christian idiom—which means that much more of the traditional language needs to be jettisoned. Man and woman. God as Father. Jesus as male. All of these tenets offered little or no threat to anti-communism, but they cut into modern identity politics. And all speak to the lack of any sense of the transcendent, indeed any sense of the sacred, in liberal forms of Christianity.
Liberal Protestantism is dying, however, with mainline denominations fracturing and disintegrating at a striking rate. And today, we must also be careful that the truth of the gospel is not instrumentalized in the service of a different cultural campaign—even, for instance, a cause as worthy as that of opposing the leftist culture warriors who seek to overturn everything from parenthood to women’s rights. The most striking omission in Ali’s testimony is the one thing necessary to prevent such: a sense of the transcendent. God does not exist because he is useful for combatting wokeness or any other threat to Western civilization. He is useful because he exists, in holiness and transcendence.
This is not meant to cast doubt on Ali’s testimony at all. Indeed, her words are a cause for rejoicing, not cynical carping. Hopefully they are also a courageous example that others who see the problems of Western culture as clearly as she does might follow. I write this merely to echo the emphases of the Apostle Paul, whose understanding of this world was rooted in his understanding of, and preoccupation with, the glories of the next. Even the collapse of Western civilization would be a light, momentary affliction in light of the weight of eternal glory that is to come.
Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.