Some Disenchanted Evening

Some Disenchanted Evening November 20, 2007

Our ancestors viewed the world very differently than we do. This is not because they were crazy, deluded or primitive. It is because we are further along on the journey of learning and discovery than they were, and we have the advantage of standing on their shoulders. They experienced the Earth as static and unmoving. We experience it on a day-to-day basis precisely as they did, yet also know that in fact it is rotating, even though it doesn’t immediately appear to to us. Additional knowledge has forced us to acknowledge that what at first glance seems to be the case is in fact not the case.

Our ancestors perceived the world as an enchanted place. God or gods were manifest in everything, because all manner of things moved and often they moved in ways that affected people, just as actions of agents affect us.

The experience of the earth’s stability was rethought in response to a wider framework that requires us to adjust our thinking about it. How should we rethink the enchantment of the world around us in light of our changing knowledge? On the one hand, there are instances in which we’ve simply misperceived the nature of reality. But in others, we need to be sure that we find new ways of thinking about the world that do justice to the way we experience it. Deciding which is which is often a challenge, but it certainly does seem that evolution has endowed us with an instinct to detect agency that is so sensitive that it regularly leads us to treat as agents objects that are not. And some traditional religious ideas that are based on the impression that lightning bolts and hurricanes were aimed at someone will need rethinking in light of new information.

For how many people today has the world in fact become a disenchanted place? Charles Taylor, in his book A Secular Age, makes a distinction between experiencing God’s non-existence and not experiencing his existence. Many older atheists are in the former category. I recently read somewhere that Jean-Paul Sartre once said “God doesn’t exist…the bastard!” Sartre was conscious of God’s non-existence. He felt it as a loss, felt that God ought to exist. I wonder how many still feel that way, and how many who are atheists or agnostics simply live in a non-enchanted world.

The world can seem differently to different people, and sometimes it is appropriate to learn to appreciate enchantment even where we do not ourselves naturally perceive it. I think it was in the Christian book about marriage entitled Marriage Takes More Than Love that I read about a conversation between a wife and husband that ran something like this:

WIFE: That moon sure is bright.

HUSBAND: Bright enough to hit a golf ball by.

What the wife meant is that it the moon was romantic, and the husband’s response was interpreted as a lack of romance/interest or something of that sort. The husband was a “literalist”, one might say, and thought that the subject of the conversation was albedo and the resultant visibility. If such a marriage is to succeed, the literalist might very well need to broaden the range of language-usage that he can appreciate.

The debates between fundamentalists and atheists seem very different from this conversation between husband and wife. In this conversation, both sides are literalists or are attempting to be. As a rule, the atheists are more consistent at it, but the framework and assumptions are not that different. For instance, Philip Johnson appreciates having William Provine as a debate partner, because both agree that the question of whether God exists is to be answered by looking for inexplicable gaps. But the main example (which, surprisingly, I don’t seem to have mentioned on this blog before) comes from John Dominic Crossan. He describes the debate between the typical fundamentalist and the average skeptic as like a debate between two individuals about Aesop’s fables. One says, ‘See, this text shows that in ancient Greece, animals could talk!’ The other replies, ‘No, it shows that in ancient Greece people were stupid enough to believe animals could talk’. Neither is recognizing that there are other options, that perhaps these are a different sort of story altogether.

At any rate, what most mystics have perceived is not, it seems to me, the ‘everyday, mundane’ enchantment that characterized ancient religiosity. It is rather a sense of the connectedness of all things, which many who perceive enchantment and divinity behind or in everything do not perceive. Mystics have always known not only that the superficial sense of enchantment can appear to vanish, but that it must do so if we are to get beyond such surface epiphenomena to a mystical intuition of the depth of all being.

Still, for the mystic, there is something about the experience of the world that needs to be done justice to, and in the context of a disenchanted world, the language we use to express this may need to be very different than that used by past generations. It seems clear that the world around us is not enchanted in precisely the way that most of our ancestors thought. But is there an aspect of reality that corresponds to that experience of enchantment? Is the mystical perception of the interconnectedness of all things in any way dependent on that understanding of enchantment?

I’d like to suggest that it is a higher-order organization, which unifies the universe in some way, that the mystic intuits. It is similar to how emergent properties help us to account for that aspect of human existence traditionally referred to as ‘the soul’. It may not be a separate substance supernaturally inserted, but that which was referred to by this term corresponds to a genuine aspect of our experience. In the same way we can talk about life as an emergent property, and although there may be no elan vital, that which we referred to by it is there – this animate matter really is ‘animated’, even if by processes that were in previous epochs not understood and misidentified.

How do we do justice to that higher order of emergence in our experience that we have traditionally referred to as ‘God’? The framework within which we speak of such things has changed, and our ideas will thus need reformulation. But in the end, until the experience of the earth’s apparent immobility was accounted for, no satisfactory understanding of its motion could be formulated. In the same way, we cannot adequately rethink the nature of reality without doing justice in some way, even if a radically rethought and reformulated one, to the sense of meaning, purpose and transcendence that many human beings have experienced and continue to experience.

Western civilization has become secular. It has become disenchanted. This can be viewed as a sort of ‘falling away from God’, and many do view it in these terms. But it can also be viewed as a sort of ‘dark night of the soul’. Many who enter that stage of their spiritual life never make it out the other side, and certainly that is a danger for our society. But if we do not get stuck in this ‘adolescent’ stage of development, and refuse to view it as the end point of our civilization’s progress, then maturity awaits us on the other side.

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