Conversion of a Cynic

Malcolm Muggeridge once distrusted all systems. Now one has met the rigors of his doubt.

 

Last December Malcolm Muggeridge — iconoclast, womanizer, and professional cynic — stunned his native England by converting to Catholicism. Muggeridge took Holy Communion in a small steepled chapel in Hurst Green, Sussex, and when the service was over he said, “It’s a particularly joyful sort of day. It’s rather like when you fall in love with a woman and ask her to marry you. You know there are no more questions to be asked.”

What does a journalist do when he runs out of questions? That’s what Muggeridge’s friends at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), condescending toward his new faith, whispered to each other. But Muggeridge would have answered: “He becomes an atheist.” It is atheism which refuses to grapple with the ultimate questions of where man came from, what he is doing here, and where he is headed. Muggeridge says, “It is one of the fantasies of the 20th century that believers are credulous people, sentimental people, and that you have to be a materialist and a scientist and a humanist to have a skeptical mind. But of course exactly the opposite is true.”

 

Muggeridge’s point is that he is a Catholic not despite his questioning nature, but because of it. He started out distrusting all systems; now one of them has met the rigors of his doubt. Of course Muggeridge’s fecund imagination will develop doubts and questions in the years to come, but the essential question has been answered; there lies the solace.

After his conversion Muggeridge remembered Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose selfless work for India’s destitute he first told the world about, who had a dramatic transforming effect on his life. Seeing the light of God illuminate the nun’s wizened face, seeing her complete trust in God, Muggeridge saw as never before the pathetic condition of his worldly cynicism.

It was a cynicism that had been cultivated from his youth in London. He was born March 24, 1903 into a lower middle class family. His father, Henry Thomas Muggeridge, was a Fabian socialist, later a member of Parliament; he taught young Malcolm “to regard socialism as the one thing that mattered,” as Muggeridge wrote later. The family did attend Congregational Church, but “for social reasons”: they were deeply antagonistic to religion because they regarded it as a vehicle of capitalist subjugation:

In 1920 Muggeridge entered Selwyn College, Cambridge. He describes his four years there as “the most futile and dismal of my whole life.” After graduation he embarked for India to teach literature at Union Christian College. Here his writing career began, rather auspiciously, with an exchange of letters on war and peace with Mahatma Gandhi, published in Young India.

Returning to England in 1927, he met and promptly married Kitty Dobbs, a niece of Beatrice Webb. The two left for Cairo where Muggeridge taught at Egyptian University. But he found the students “of inert mind” and devoted his time to writing political commentary for the Manchester Guardian.

In 1932 the Guardian sent him to Moscow as a special correspondent. He went to confirm “my strongly held opinion that capitalism had irretrievably broken down (and) the Soviet regime was providing the only convincing alternative.” But only 69 days later he wrote in his diary. “This is a very low period of my life. Insofar as I was really enthusiastic about Communism, I feel now completely disillusioned.”

Two things pained him most deeply. Obviously he was repulsed by Stalinist barbarism, and the fact that it seemed to be upheld by, indeed was consistent with, the entire Communist structure. But he felt equally hurt by “the painful spectacle of all my heroes, from Andre Gide to Bernard Shaw, displaying toward Stalin an imbecile credulity which an African witch-doctor would have found enviable.” Information about Stalin’s purges was available, but nobody wanted to listen. Muggeridge’s own paper, the Guardian, rewrote his reports to reinforce its editorial line.

He resigned and went back to India to edit the Calcutta Statesman in 1934, leaving his wife and three children in London. The immensity of suffering in India, which as a reporter he first encountered, horrified and then bored him; he diverted himself by writing a biography of Samuel Butler, titled The Earnest Atheist. Muggeridge, though an agnostic, attacked Butler’s view that “Christianity is true (only) insofar as it fosters beauty.” For Muggeridge it was all or nothing, not some tepid esthetic hoax.

Muggeridge was back in England for World War II, during which he served as a spy in Lourenco Marques in Mozambique. Like most institutions he found the Secret Service bunglingly corrupt: “My first impression of this strange and diverse collection of human beings was that they must constitute a false front or facade. When I had been fully vetted and tried out, I thought, I should be taken off to some other place, and there make contact with the real Secret Service. It took me quite a time to realize that this was not so.”

Espionage in Mozambique was a lonely business: at one point Muggeridge became so despondent that he drove out to the ocean with the intention of swimming until he drowned. It was only splashing in the water that Muggeridge realized that, inconsequential as he was, his life must have some purpose on earth; he struggled back to shore to discover what it could be.

In 1953 Muggeridge was appointed editor of Punch, the urbane humor magazine, where he spent the next four years “trying to discover what, if anything, was funny enough to make the English laugh.” In most cases, he found, institutions were not worth satirizing because they were funnier in reality than any exaggeration could possibly improve upon.

The advent of television in the 1950s made Muggeridge a nationally, later internationally, known figure. He complemented his scathing and witty reports with equally scathing and witty books. He was the Mike Wallace of his time, but he had more than a razor tongue: he had philosophical range and humor. The celebrities he interviewed, from Billy Graham to Winston Churchill, regarded him as one of them. He hobnobbed with literary figures like Anthony Powell, T.S. Eliot, George Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, and Ian Fleming.

Muggeridge’s critical nature led him to discover the pretentions of the very progressive world view he had been raised to espouse. In his own life he found sex turned from a process of loving into an end-in-itself. Covering local mores in Racine, Wisconsin, he discovered a flood of pornography titillating locals at a drug store. And he realized what the lofty ideals of Voltaire, Havelock Ellis, D. H. Lawrence, and Freud, had come down to — “This sordid display of printed matter; not in Sodom or Gomorrah, but in Racine, Wisconsin; not in Byzantine scenes of debauchery, but in a drug store; no vine leaves to put in the hair, but only hamburgers and ice-cream sundaes to swallow; no nymphs and satyrs, but only cheesecake, and the sad dreams of forlorn lovers whose mistresses come to them through the camera lens, that most ubiquitous of panderers.”

In a famous essay “Down With Sex” Muggeridge had the insight that sexual promiscuity is fundamentally anti-religious because it reverses the Christian formula: “We are to die in the spirit and be re-born in the flesh, rather than the other way round.” Muggeridge deplored the obsession with sex: “We have all got sex on the brain, which is a most unseemly place to have it.”

Muggeridge considered conversion to Christianity in the early 1960s, but held back because he could not give up drinking, smoking, overeating, and promiscuity. “I felt it was necessary that my personal life should not be a disgrace to the Christian religion.”

But he wrote wistfully about the decline of Christianity. Witnessing the social tumult of the 1960s in America, Muggeridge commented, “Previous civilizations have been overthrown from without by the incursion of barbarian hordes. Christendom has dreamed up its own dissolution in the minds of its own intellectual elite. Our barbarians are home produced, indoctrinated at public expense, urged on by the media, dismantling Christendom.”

He surprised media colleagues in 1967 by declaring, “We today need faith more than any other thing on earth.” But Muggeridge meant for others, not himself. He saw religion as a social cement, a civilizing force for the unruly. He also appreciated the cultural contributions of Christianity — which inspired Shakespeare, Raphael, Pascal, and Dostoyevsky, all Muggeridge favorites — but felt he could savor them from outside the Church. Muggeridge believed in believing in God, but he wasn’t a Christian — not yet.

It was his encounter with Mother Teresa which brought the change of spirit. He was filming a documentary on her Sisters of Charity for the BBC. She taught him that it was not all the good deeds of the world which finally mattered, but in whose name they were performed. Welfare programs served a purpose, but Christian love was for a person. Christianity is not about numbers, it is about a man who was also God.

Muggeridge articulated the difference between Christianity and the Welfare State in his famous book on Mother Teresa, Something Beautiful for God: “Imagine Bernard Shaw and a mental defective on a raft that will hold only one of them. In worldly terms, the obvious course would be for Shaw to pitch the mental defective into the sea, and save himself to write more plays for the edification of mankind. Christianly speaking, jumping off and leaving the mental defective in possession of the raft would give a greater glory to human life itself of greater worth than all the plays that ever have been, or will be, written.”

In 1971 Muggeridge declared that he was a practicing Christian. He wrote three books about Christ: A Third Testament, Jesus: The Man Who Lives, and Jesus Rediscovered. He said he did not believe in the theory of evolution, which he commented “will be one of the great jokes in the history books of the future.” He said he felt that “In this world I’m a stranger. I don’t belong here. I am staying here for a bit, arid it’s a very nice place, an interesting place, but I don’t belong here.”

Muggeridge’s Christian convictions did not sit well with students and faculty at the University of Edinburgh, where he was Rector and honorary lecturer. In 1973 Muggeridge resigned his posts rather than approve the students’ request for permitting drugs and birth control pills to be distributed on campus. Ironically the university chaplains were the ones who denounced Muggeridge’s position the most.

In the last decade Muggeridge has grown increasingly pessimistic about the fate of the modern world. But Christian hope has sustained him. In a moving essay “But Not of Christ,” he wrote, “Let us then as Christians rejoice that we see around us on every hand the decay of the institutions and instruments of power, see intimations of empires falling to pieces, money in total disarray, dictators and parliamentarians alike nonplussed by the confusion and conflicts which encompass them. For it is precisely when every eartly hope has been explored and found wanting, when every possibility of help from earthly sources has been sought and is not forthcoming, when every recourse this world offers, moral as well as material, has been explored to no effect, when in the shivering cold the last twig has been thrown onto the fire and in the gathering darkness every glimmer of light has finally flickered out; it is then that Christ’s hand reaches out sure and firm.”

Recently Muggeridge interviewed Alexander Solzhenitsyn for the BBC when the Russian dissident came to London to receive the Templeton Prize for Religion. Muggeridge said during the conversation that the most heartening development in the last 50 years was “the revival of the Christian faith in Russia, the one place in the world where I would have expected it would have no chance of surviving.”

After the interview Muggeridge commented that Solzhenitsyn could have remained in the Soviet Union as a successful and indulged writer, but “the reason he didn’t choose this was that in his prison camp he learned something he hadn’t known before. He learned in the prison camp the one thing you would have expected him not to learn, what it really means to be free. He realized that we can be free only if we are free in our souls.”

Muggeridge has since made several documentaries on the anti-religious movement in the Soviet Union for radio and TV. He says, “The strange and mysterious and highly amusing thing is that probably you would have very great difficulty in finding a single Marxist in the U.S.S.R. You would only find Marxists among left-wing Jesuits in the faculties of universities in the West, which is one of God’s little jokes.”

Finally, last year, the great British journalist decided to take the final step and become a Catholic. He consulted his wife and they decided to do it together. Muggeridge says it was the most profound moment in his life. He says he felt “a sense of homecoming, of picking up the threads of a lost life, of responding to a bell that has long been ringing, of finding a place at a table that has long been left vacant.”

Dinesh D'Souza

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Dinesh D'Souza is an American conservative political commentator, author, and former college president.

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