The Age of Disenchantment

21 11 2010

It’s easy to sit in church and listen to a sermon on saints and relics with their magical powers of healing, and mystic warriors who have visions of victory on the battlefield, and think it all superstitious nonsense. And from a scientific vantage point, it is nonsense. Anything that can’t be measured, seen, or accounted for by mathematical algorithms is a fiction. Some call this the Age of Fact. I call it the Age of Disenchantment, a term from J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Taylor, and others, which describes our contemporary situation, where for the first time in history, it’s possible for a lot of people to envision a meaningful life sans God.

But I think we live in an impoverished age, an age that has forgotten how to see beyond the surface of things and account for realities that don’t acquiesce to the demands of the scientific method. What if there really are miraculous healings, and divine visions, a world of spirits and saints? And what if we’re losing touch with this world because we make demands of it that it never intended to satisfy?

In a world that has become increasingly enamored with material facts and technological successes, and where our predictive powers have made former claims to spiritual causes obsolete, it would make sense that a spiritual world, if it did exist — a world that didn’t operate on any quid-pro-quo basis ~ sans karma, a world that couldn’t be reduced to complex equations, and didn’t serve at the beck and call of humanity’s whims, regardless of what the church may teach — it would make sense that we would increasingly lose touch with it.

The world of spirits and the world of material things are intimately connected, and yet not mutually reducible. Yes, for every mystical or genuinely spiritual event, there is a materialistic explanation, but must it follow that the materialist explanation explains the whole? Might there not be another plane of existence that operates by a different set of rules? Isn’t that one of the central points of scripture? The bible openly acknowledges that what we Christians believe to be true will be nonsense to the unbeliever; “foolishness” is the word. The writers of scripture understood this back in the first century, so why does it come as a surprise to us in the twenty-first?

We’ve tamed God, we Christians, so that we think he actually cares who wins a football game (both sides pray for victory, but only one side wins); we’ve woven our cultural superstitions into our faith as if the two were identical; we seem surprised and shocked that tragedy meets our lives and the lives of others on a daily basis, and yet there isn’t a scintilla of biblical evidence to support an alternative notion of life. We’ve gentrified God, in other words, to appease our contemporary secular sentiments — we’ve made him a means to our greater ends — and in doing so, we’ve cut him down to size, to the size of a straw man, and then been shocked and dismayed when skeptics knock him down.

I pity us moderns for buying into the panacea of all-knowing science and inevitable progress. We’ve lost touch with existence in all of its multifaceted reality. Yes, we’ve gained the power to manipulate our situation ~ we can forecast the weather, split an atom, recreate the Big Bang, and make snow (which has driven us to the logical conclusion that we are gods), but we’ve lost touch with the real Situation ~ life itself. We aren’t as wise as our forebears. We may be more informed, but we’re shallower. We have more information, but we’re dumber. We’ve won the game by changing the rules. We’re playing tennis with the net down (to use an analogy from Robert Frost).

Disenchantment leads to hubris (as pride goeth before the Fall), the kind of hubris one could never arrive at in an enchanted world, where at least it was accepted that for all of our unbridled abilities, there were realities that refused to bend to our wills and whose existence allowed us to see that we were not alone in claiming an exalted status; that, to put it another way, the world didn’t revolve around us.

But we live in a different time now, and though Galileo disabused us of the earth’s central place in the cosmos, the result was an even grander narcissism. The world is no longer the center of the universe. We are.

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