People who read Charles Taylor talk a lot about “disenchantment.” Well, other people to do too, but those are the folks I know. I am/have been one of them. The notion is contested, but very, very, very roughly, the idea is that part of what makes the modern world “modern” is that it’s chased out belief (and the sense) that we inhabit a world of spirits, fairies, goblins, deities, and possibly even the greatest supernatural reality of all, God.
Now, there are all sorts of explanation for what that means, why it happened, whether it’s good or bad, and so forth. One popular one says it’s largely bad and has pushed us towards a technocratic, rationalistic society that’s lost a sense of creation as a place of wonder, mystery, and so forth. And then, when you come to find out what did it, well, wouldn’t you know it’s Protestantism with its rationalistic (read ‘non-Roman’) doctrine of the Lord’s Supper that evacuated our sense of the cosmos as ‘sacramental,’ meaningful, etc., or Protestant doctrines of sovereignty that killed all sense of mediate, spiritual agencies.
I go back and forth on this quite a bit. When I read Taylor years ago, I was all in on seeing this as a thing. I had some doubts about big narratives as a whole (especially pinning the blame on Protestantism), but it sort of fit a long-running one you’ve been hearing about the West and modernity for years in various settings, so you just kind of go with it.
Then last year I read Jason Josephson-Storm’s excellent work, The Myth of Disenchantment, which casts doubt on whether things are so tidy. You can read a fantastic summary engagement with him, John Wilson, and Doug Sikkema over at The New Atlantis right now that is a welcome introduction to his thought and the wrinkle he puts in the debate.
He points out a number of problems with the big story we tell ourselves about disenchantment. For one thing, we’ve been telling stories about the loss of the fairies and so forth since about 13th century. It’s a recurring narrative trope suggesting a loss of the sense of the “magic” of the world has been with us for a very long time–at least a couple of hundred years before Calvin was born.
Second, many of the theorists of disenchantment weren’t all that disenchanted themselves. Freud believed in telepathy. Madame Curie was attending seances when she was conducting her scientific experiments. Max Weber, the grand theorist of disenchantment in the early 20th Century palled around with all sorts of spiritual weirdos. “Spiritualism” is a 19th Century, post-Enlightenment phenomenon. Indeed, Josephson-Storm suggests there is often a paradoxical relationship between theorists of disenchantment and the phenomena itself. Some theorize about it in order to bring it about, while others tell the story as a precursor to a program of re-enchantment, and so forth.
Finally, (for us), the big data point is that folks don’t really seem that disenchanted right now. People all across Europe and even the US have become less “religious”, but they have not necessarily become more “rationalist”, “secular” in the sense of completely rejecting the supernatural, etc. That’s too clean of a blank slate, replacement narrative. No, many recent studies have charted a rise in all sorts of alternative spiritualities instead.
A recent post over at Quillete, “From Astrology to Cult Politics” highlights this well:
Nearly one third of Americans report having felt in contact with someone who has died, feel that they have been in the presence of a ghost, and believe ghosts can interact with and harm humans. These numbers are going up, not down, as more people seek something to fill the religion-shaped hole in their lives. By no coincidence, infrequent church attendees are roughly twice as likely to believe in ghosts as regular churchgoers.
Americans are abandoning the pews, but are increasingly fascinated by astrology, “spiritual” healing practices, and fringe media sources that purport to describe the powers of the supernatural realm. The number of claimed “haunted houses” in the United States is growing. And paranormal tourism centered on such allegedly haunted locales has become a booming business, now accounting for over half a billion dollars in revenue annually.
And, of course, you can see this trend strongest in the least traditionally religious generation, the youngest:
Young adults, being less religious, are more inclined to believe in ghosts, astrology, clairvoyance and spiritual energy. But it also can be observed geographically: The parts of the United States where secular liberals are predominant tend to be the same areas where the market for alternative spiritual experiences and products is most lucrative. Even prominent media outlets such as The New York Times and (in Britain) The Guardian, whose readership consists primarily of secular liberals, frequently publish articles about topics such as witchcraft and astrology—even if they are careful not to legitimize the claims made by proponents of these beliefs.
Read the whole thing. It’s worth the survey.
I remember seeing this transition in real life, as a kid I grew up with in church started to carry crystals right about the time he began expressing doubts about Christian orthodoxy. Jump over to websites like the Goop and you’ll find articles on how to purchase and select the right sort of ethically-sourced crystals that give off the right energies. You can go to upper-class neighborhoods in LA and find bookstores that sell instruction books for how to arrange them around your house for the proper spiritual effect, right next the section with artisanal cookware.
Where am I going with all this? Mostly just noting a trend pastors and observers of contemporary culture should be aware of. When it comes to “disenchantment”, be careful about confusing skepticism about Christianity or traditional religion with hard-nosed, atheistic, rationalism. Most of it isn’t.
Second, you really need to be aware about this when it comes to dealing with the spiritual challenges in your congregation. The threat of syncretism isn’t just metaphorical in the West right now. You probably have folks in you congregation who come to hear you preach on Sunday, but seriously check their horoscopes on Monday, and get worried about Mercury going into retrograde, talk about a sense of their energy being off, and so forth. It’s probably time to start reading up on apologetics against new age spirituality, astrology, issuing serious warnings about witchcraft, etc.
Yes, you need to push on late-modern, expressive-individualist consumerism, but also how easily that can coexist with checking your star sign, thinking white magic is cool, and trying to find just to right crystal to balance your energy. There is more to it than that, but these modes of thinking fit hand-in-glove.
Which is to say, when it comes to preaching out of Colossians or Corinthians, talking about Christ’s defeat of the powers, not being captive to empty philosophy, or participating in pagan feasts, you may not need to find “modern”, metaphorical analogies for your applications. All of a sudden, Augustine’s sections in The Confessions refuting astrology are worth quoting from the pulpit. Maybe, just maybe, we need to start consulting with our brothers and sisters in less “advanced” countries about how they preach the gospel to their neighbors caught up in the worship of spirits, and so forth.
Finally, returning to the earlier conversation, whether or not you buy the disenchantment narrative, it’s worth remembering that for much of the early church “disenchantment” was good news. Only they had a different word for it. It was called “exorcism”, and it was the defeat of Satan, unclean spirits, and the dark, pagan gods who haunted their nightmares and held them in bondage to sin and terror.
We may begin to miss “disenchantment” in the coming years.
Soli Deo Gloria
Addendum: I completely forgot this recent piece by Ross Douthat on the “return” of Paganism, both Left and post-Christian Right. Also worth the time.