Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Monday, March 24, 2014


In the book I've been reading - Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer by William Barry SJ - I've come to a part that mentions Charles Taylor. I don't know much about him, aside from having once watched a video lecture by him on his book, Secular Age, but I knew he wrote about the "disenchantment" of the modern world. Here's an example of Taylor's thought, from an interview ...

Steve Paulson: Let me invoke the great sociologist Max Weber whom you've written about at length. He argued that modern society had lost its sense of living in a magical world and he made the case that we now live in a disenchanted world. Do you share that assessment?

Charles Taylor: Yeah. But I think that Weber sometimes slid around in his use of this word. I like his word “entzaubert” in German which means de-magicfication, the end of magic. And that change undoubtedly happened. We no longer, in the West, feel that we live in a world in which there are spirits of the woods that could threaten our cattle or could take us over, and so on. The sense of being vulnerable to this is really gone. We really feel we live in a deadened world, which is why some people react by saying “It’s too dead,” you know; we have to re-enchant it, right? ....

Along with the enchanted world was the idea of living in a meaningful Cosmos, a meaningful Universe, in which there were levels of being — some higher, some lower. So if you get Medieval Monarchy, or early modern monarchy, like in France, the idea was the king is on a higher cosmic plane than everyone else and therefore there has to be a king, because otherwise the society is badly ordered. And we've done away — we, moderns in the West — have done away almost totally with that, if you like, sacred canopy ...

I don't agree with the disenchantment story: the idea that modernity excludes meaning and value is untrue, the idea that the medieval period was like some romanticized "Rotary Club of the Shire" shows a lack of historical knowledge, and polls say that, in the US at least, a majority of people believe in the supernatural. Yesterday I came upon an essay by Bruce Robbins at Columbia University that challenges the idea of disenchantment (see The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now and a review of it in The New Statesman). Here's an excerpt from the essay ....

Enchantment? No, Thank You

[...] Taylor’s portrait of secular modernity is full of stale Brave New World-style cliché about Hugh Hefner, brightly-lit supermarkets, empty suburbs, and the triumph of the therapeutic. Things get a tad aggressive. Secularists, we are told, are utopians and proto-fascists by nature. And their lives, of course, are meaningless. Taylor is quite taken with the cliché that life in today’s secular world is beset with the malaise of meaninglessness. He repeats it without wondering whether, to the extent that it exists, it might be a result of rising expectations rather than disenchantment – a product of democratic progress to be set against centuries of resignation by the poor to their inevitable social fate. No, there was no malaise back then [the middle ages]. Why? Because people knew their places. Nor does Taylor bother to compare this putative malaise with the various sorts of sickness, figurative and literal, that people suffered through in the meaning-saturated medieval parishes that he is fond of evoking for contrast. The demons are not scary enough, and in any case they are casually omitted from ensuing lists of spirits, fairies, moral forces, and so on. There is not enough of the fear that vulnerability to literal rather than figurative enchantment would naturally elicit. There is not nearly enough about the ordinary bonds of work, family, play, and politics, the newly invented intimacies and the technologically-mediated attention to distant others, the infinitely varied and surprising forms of love and hope and tenderness that, despite a state of social emergency and the lack of any transcendental foundation, provide most of us, most of the time, with enough meaning to go on. In short, Taylor is telling the disenchantment story again, and telling it with a vengeance.


The call for re-enchantment cannot help doing precisely the opposite of what it wants to do. It seems to reject the disenchantment story, but it accepts too much of that story, for ordinary life must first be hollowed out and impoverished in order for re-enchantment to be granted the contract to fill it up and enrich it again. Wonder and surprise produce the problem they say they want to solve: “a consistent undervaluing of contemporary experience” (Levine, 37). The crucial move here is to present ordinary life as “routine,” which allows wonder and surprise (that is, that which is not routine) to sound like solutions to a problem. This is a terrible failure of imagination. Since when was life in history, fully experienced in all its dialectical twists and turns, ever a matter of predictable routine? .... When you look at the shirt on your back or the coffee in your cup and, for once, see through the object to the labor of the people far away who produced it, to the lives they are obliged to live, to the invisible but real links between their lives and yours, you may not find enchantment in their lives, but you cannot conclude that the world is dull. I cannot see the merit in making yourself blind to what’s in your path in order to ensure that you will be perpetually surprised. To decide that everyday life is rationalized, bureaucratized, or routinized is to kill it in order to get a pat on the back for rescuing it from the dead ....


Anonymous Richard said...

Sounds more like nostalgia than enchantment. Early this morning it was impossible not to be enchanted by the vastness of our starry sky, the little creatures(one hopes)rustling unseen in the bushes, the smell of it. There's a mystery to it, maybe even a spookyness, regardless of what I think I know.

9:28 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

It seems like that to me too :)

4:26 PM  

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