Thomas Merton concretized a sentiment many of us share and have found ourselves unable to articulate: “October is a fine and dangerous season in America. It is dry and cool and the land is wild with red and gold and crimson, and all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all.” When October returns I feel refreshed, sharpened, ready for action. Summer dulls the senses with its facile delights; autumn reawakens touch, taste, and smell to usher us into its sublunary sublimities.
C. S. Lewis, in a similar though more explicitly spooky vein, attests that ghosts and ghouls and other things that go bump in the night are “welcome hint[s] of wildness and uncertainty into a universe that is in danger of being a little too self-explanatory.” The post-punk band Magazine agrees: “A frightening world is an interesting world to be in,” they sang. October, as part of the fabric out of which Halloween is woven, viscerally reminds me that I am not in control, that peril and otherworldliness still persist in a late capitalist setting as seemingly denuded of magic as ours, that there are other possibilities always lurking around the corner of the everyday. October is saturated with mystery, pregnant with the possibilities we are habituated to discount. But if the unimaginable can actualize in autumnal, spectral forms, then the other possibilities we are told are impossible could also, perhaps, become real. For a season, it feels as if anything is possible.
Some would call this re-enchantment. But this term is so ready at hand and elastically made to fit so many different uses that this designation is suspect. You who would champion re-enchantment: an enchanted world is not a safe world—it is a spooky world. We need not live in fear to appreciate this, but we must recognize the depth dimension of what it is we claim we want. A world drenched in magic will not be less dangerous for being so, but it will be invigorating; not safer, but less soul-deadening. An enchanted cosmos, in the sense sought after by most, will be a spooky cosmos, and this awaits wider acknowledgment.
Disenchantment and re-enchantment are controverted concepts, the latter implicitly relying upon the former for its meaning, and the former somewhat malleable in what it denotes. It is not a univocal concept. For some, it simply denotes the broad loss of meaning within the rationalistic, industrialized world. For others, such as Charles Taylor, it refers to the change that has occurred over the course of modernity in which belief in a magical cosmos has dwindled and become extraneous or optional. Disenchantment, for Taylor, means two closely related things.
First, the undoing of an orientation to the world as one filled with spirits and moral forces, because of which “the line between personal agency and impersonal force was not at all clearly drawn.” It is not simply that these forces existed in an indifferent manner: they were determinative of human existence by virtue of their being. Second, that the cosmos manifested a Great Chain of Being, a hierarchical arrangement whose features “‘correspond’ to each other in the different domains,” with the whole of creation “bound together by relations of hierarchical complementarity, which should be reproduced in a well-ordered state.” This belief accompanied and reinforced the first but had less direct lay influence, though “both interpenetrated and strengthened each other.”
The draining of these mutually reinforcing beliefs and their attendant practices began with religiously motivated efforts to delegitimize certain types of ritual action which were claimed to have power in and of themselves apart from God’s operation, and so either neglecting the power of God or directly going against it. In time, however, these prohibitions took on a new valence. Rather than judgments of Christian orthodoxy against a competing religious outlook, they became boundary lines of Enlightenment, delimiting what was rational and what was superstition.
Given this historical development, many in the contemporary world presume that our time and place simply is disenchanted, for better or for worse. Assessing this claim, its veracity and its effects, requires careful exactitude with what, exactly, “enchantment” first means. The problem is that many people lament the supposed loss of enchantment and seek to contribute to recovering it, but this often functions as a cipher for their longing for the world to be a place where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts, a world that is, in Hopkins’ phrase, “charged with the grandeur of God” and recognizable as such to just any observer, regardless of their formation.
This is little different materially from the conservative quest to reconstitute Eden, an irrecoverable state of impossible bliss. It is a nostalgia for a time and a way of being which no one actually experienced as such. It is, rather, an imaginative escape from the conditions of the present which goes unrecognized as a coping mechanism and so shapes piety and social action according to impossible criteria and goals.
A world so manifestly soaked with the residue of the glory of God and transparent to his will is a safer world in which to live, admitting of less ambiguity and difficulty. It is understandable, given the hardships and horrors of our existence, that we should yearn for such a world, but we err when we locate a moment or a period in recent history at which these benefits were legislated out of existence. An inconsolable sense of loss haunts us all but it is much more a consequence of the Fall than it is of the Enlightenment, as it is the primeval rupture of what ought to have been that first ushered in the type of dislocation and evacuation of meaning we tend to understand as disenchantment. The world we lament was never actually our home and so was never lost.
The objection will be raised at this point that Scripture testifies to just such a transparency of nature to God, as in Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” But it is a superficial reading of this text that will put it to use for such a purpose. For it is not an accident that it is a faithful Israelite who is penning these words and not a resident of a neighboring, pagan kingdom. The one who knows YHWH as the Creator of all that is but also, crucially, as the Lord of the Covenant recognizes the works of this One in the creation.
But it moves in this direction, from the covenant to the creation, as a reflection which moves in the opposite direction always results in idolatry. The faith of Israel is the result of God’s intervention in history, not of intuitions assembled into a concept of a perfect being. The author of this text is not one who was persuaded to praise the God of Israel on the basis of a revelation of this God in the natural world. The God of all that is identified himself concretely as the deliverer of Israel, the One who made promises to the patriarchs and has proven himself faithful to those promises time and again. It is through knowing this God who discloses his lordship over all the earth as its creator that the Psalmist gives voice to the mute testimony of nature. A theology of the natural, therefore, is derivative, not primary.
I therefore must disagree with the claims that accompany C. S. Lewis’ wish that the contemporary Western imaginary would relapse into paganism. “A Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity,” Lewis wrote. “He is, essentially, the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian men of our own day differ from his as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin.” Lewis seems to assume here a level of preparation in pagans to which the gospel can more easily take root than in other systems of belief. But dogmatically this is false: pagans and post-Christians are both equally impossible to convert; it is always God’s prerogative to effect the impossible and create faith where previously it did not exist. Furthermore, the present shows how inaccurate this claim is: in Christianity’s present decline alternative spiritualities have filled the gap left by its retreat.
Only some of these alternatives are genuine examples of paganism, to be sure, but where they have taken root their proponents have not proven “eminently convertible,” and the assumption that they would be must be based in some presumption of significant metaphysical overlap between pagan and Christian accounts of reality as the condition of that assumption’s possibility. Christianity is not a final layer atop the sedimentation of pagan belief, leaving most of it intact in order to bring it to completion. Whatever commonalities it may share with regard to the existence of nonhuman forces, Christianity is, in its essence, the disruption of all received metaphysical accounts of reality and the crucifixion of our expectations.
This is the dilemma in which many proponents of re-enchantment find themselves without recognizing it. The Psalmist worships a God who has provided a covenantal structure and legislation for his people, and in them has prohibited certain practices their neighbors carry out which draw upon the powers of other beings who style themselves as lords. The Psalmist is aware of being a part of a world that is filled with entities other than the beasts and other human beings like himself, entities scaled somewhere in their being between God and himself, and is often afraid because of it. There is no assurance of all things being well intrinsic to the knowledge that the world is animated by nonhuman forces. It is, in fact, frequently the opposite.
What is not acknowledged nearly enough, therefore, is that enchantment is not an intrinsically exuberant thing. Taylor, to his credit, notes that there are real advantages that have been secured for human beings precisely through disembedding themselves from an order of spirit patronage, not the least among them being relief from the terror of superhuman intelligences haunting the matter of the universe itself. The terrors of this supposedly lost enchanted world routinely drew human beings bound them to systems of propitiation to beings that by nature were not gods (Galatians 4:8).
We do well to remember that Neverland is not itself without pirates, that there is no Shire without the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood to the east. There can be no question: it is a dull, morose thing to live and move and have your being within a world characterized by bureaucracy, waste, and unfulfilling labor, but this focus on what is insipid and unjust only looks for the light side of an enchanted universe. It is an under-informed grasping after certain benefits of our world being a certain way that neglects this. Because being a participant in such a universe necessarily entails being neighbors with nonhuman powers, some of them terrifying, which populate that universe and in many ways are responsible for its operations. One cannot only sign on for the auspicious and cheerful aspects of enchantment: if you want in, you get the entire package. Ask Saul if his meeting with Samuel made him feel warm and fuzzy inside.
The lament over disenchantment is often predicated upon moral outrage at the exploitation and waste that characterize our era and it finds in the story of disenchantment a cause and an answer. But the period of unchallenged enchantment is often also a story of human beings clamoring after power, destroying one another in their bids to ascend to the position of chief intervener between God and world. In the present there is little material change, primarily a formal one, as the technologies of capitalism that have enchanted us and promised ascendancy and liberty have wrought catastrophic consequences for our planet. The means of devastation have improved exponentially but the aims of a fallen human race are little different and little worse between now and then.
The apologists of enchantment seem to yearn for a world in which meaning is translucent in the apprehension of the things of the world, in which magic rather than machinery is the means by which we shape the world, in which there is strong continuity between the world’s purpose and future and the present, in which paradise is regained but without a cross and without a creation apocalyptically groaning for redemption (Romans 8:22). “The idiom of a superficial cosmic optimism, often expressing itself ritually in patterns of liturgical symbolism, is currently fashionable,” Donald Mackinnon complained half a century ago, “as if a world that knows, as ours does, extremities of terror as well as hope, could be consoled by a remote metaphysical chatter.” Things are little different for many of the more liturgically-minded of our day, for whom “re-enchanting the church” is the best evangelism there is to offer.
What we need is disenchantment from the re-enchantment call to arms and the story of an enchanted Golden Age upon which it depends. In The Myth of Disenchantment, Jason Josephson-Storm does not refute Taylor so much as he complicates the argument of A Secular Age to show that disenchantment, rather than a value-neutral prognosis of history, is, itself, a story told to serve certain purposes.
Josephson-Storm marshals historical evidence that demonstrates that many of the principal protagonists of the story of disenchantment were, in fact, deeply involved in the occult and the magical. But how can this be so if they were dedicated to uprooting superstition and magical thinking? It is because, as with so many grand narratives, historical detail was sacrificed when it was inconvenient to the story being told, and for some, the story of Reason’s overcoming of irrationality in the form of magic, superstition, and religion, was too important to be disturbed by historical refutation.
Our world is never emptied of nonhuman forces and has never lacked for people who believe in and experience them. However, disenchantment’s effects become real whenever we are persuaded to behave as though these forces were either nonexistent or simply superfluous. Disenchantment is only actual when and where human beings succumb to stories of disenchantment. There can be little doubt that there have been and are disciplinary efforts to rule out the possibility of the supernormal and spiritual by structuring our public discourse and coding such things as unlikely at best or impossible. But as Josephson-Storm shows, this regulative ideal has never been completely implemented and has been only weakly enforced; thus “widespread belief in spirits has not historically been used to ‘refute’ modernity as a paradigm, but instead has generally been taken to mean that modernity had not yet been completely actualized.”
This steep gradient of implausibility is a story circulated by certain people for whom it is advantageous. It is not an objective description of the world as such—the sheer quantity of reports of paranormal experience which persist to this day rule this out absolutely—but a canon of prescriptive grammar. Disenchantment is a project some have sought to carry out, but it is not a completed project. But there are other, similar projects. Indeed, there are always multiple enchantments in competition with one another, seeking the disenchantment of one or another of its competitors. The school of re-enchantment is just as dependent upon the story of disenchantment as its more rationalistic opponents, but for the opposite reason: they require a story of a fall and a state to which we can return, whether or not it is in fact a “return.”
It is too simple, therefore, to say our world is disenchanted; we must instead ask ourselves, By what story are we presently enchanted? What story is served when we believe we are disenchanted in the strong sense and who benefits from it? And if the world of metaphysical hierarchies is not one we must recover for Christian belief and practice to be Christian, then in what sense are we interested in re-enchantment?
This is the heart of the complaint against this paradigm’s evangelists, for as Josephson-Storm astutely notes, the myth of disenchantment names a “process by which Christendom increasingly exchanged its claim to be the unique bearer of divine revelation for the assertion that it uniquely apprehended an unmediated cosmos and did so with the sparkling clarity of universal rationality.” Christian discipleship and engagement with the world would benefit from the discipline of acknowledging this exchange and forsaking the latter to faithfully inhabit the position of the former.
With re-enchantment sufficiently problematized I propose, instead, that we draw upon and employ the concept of spookiness. “Spooky” covers a wide swathe of phenomena and sensibilities and so may not be overdetermined in the way “enchantment” commonly is. Einstein could dub the seemingly impossible “spooky action” and subsequent physicists aver that our universe is very spooky, indeed. If Christ’s resurrection is the meeting of two ages—that of Sin and Death and that of the future in Christ—and the arrival of the Holy Ghost initiates an inaugurated eschatology in which the dead presently hear the voice of the Son of God (John 5:24-25), then we are always already enmeshed within a spookiness superintending our world.
The problem of reception to spookiness is the contemporary Christian overemphasis on light and positivity. There are two strains within the polyphony of Christian faith: a major and a minor. The major strain finds its tonal center in God’s triumph over Sin and Death while the minor strain emphasizes a sober acknowledgment of ruinous powers present in the world. Life as a Christian is to be a dialectical interplay between the two prior to the resolution of the eschaton, for neither strain is adequate in itself to characterize reality. And yet this is so frequently precisely what takes place.
For all of his focus upon the major strain—the triumph of grace—in his work, Karl Barth did also bring attention to the minor in his doctrine of creation. In his exposition of providence he elaborates on what he styled the shadow side of the creation. He does this to differentiate the Nothingness out of which sin concretizes from the negative side of the creation God called “good.” For it is a perfection of the creature that it inclines towards darkness just as it does towards light. All that God has made praises him and is therefore good, even the darkness.
The shadow side testifies to the creature’s absolute dependence upon God in that it is continually confronted by its limitations. Pain, loss, decay, and other related elements belong to it and are properly creaturely. And because of this shadow side there is nothing facile about the goodness of the creation or the joy that is possible within it, as the world comprises a harmony to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy.
The confession of this shadow side is more than simply awareness of these dangers: it is an appreciation of, even a consolation in, the darker aspects of creaturely existence. Not of Sin and evil as such, but of the dimensions of the world’s being which testify to our limits, to our needfulness, to our insufficiency, to inexhaustible mystery. These aspects of creaturehood can be imposing, can impede our projects, and can threaten our existence, but they are not in and of themselves evil for being and doing so.
This is fitting as the darker hues of created being are good, just as much as the brighter ones, for it is both in their conjunction which God judged good. This confession remembers that it is not only the darker hues which are liable to capture by the forces of evil, but the brighter ones as well, and just as much so: the Adversary is most effective when he presents himself as an angel of light, Scripture warns (2 Corinthians 11:14). Apart from this we tend to try to insulate ourselves against the influence of these powers by excluding the darker hues from our consideration.
Furthermore, Christians are already living and thinking within paradigms which, upon examination, cluster around and gather towards concepts and images we otherwise, in other contexts, identify as spooky. This does not mean that any and all instances of spookiness are really concealed theology, waiting to be unmasked. But it does mean that Christian faith is able to interrogate such formal similarities to uncover an interpretative surplus in light of the gospel.
Darkness, after all, is not univocal in the pages of Scripture. Christians default to portrayals of God as light as it is a widely present symbol. But fascinatingly, the revelation of YHWH at Sinai which formally instituted the covenant with Israel is characterized by thick darkness upon the mountain (Exodus 20:21). But this is not the only instance: “The Lord has said he would dwell in thick darkness,” 1 Kings 8:12 testifies; “Clouds and thick darkness are all around him,” the Psalmist writes (Psalm 97:2). God is light, yes, but his light is such that darkness is not automatically or diametrically its opposite. It could not be so if the climactic disclosure of God’s character and intentions for the world were determined from the beginning to come in the agony of a Galilean peasant, in the darkness that should have been day.
If we operate with abstract notions of divinity and do not attend to the texture of the canonical narrative then we will expect the fullest revelation of God to be accompanied by manifest displays of glory and beauty and we will be scandalized by Scripture’s depiction of Christ’s enthronement at Golgotha—just as the neighbors of the first generation of Christians were.
Many of them also found the claims of the Christians and the imagery in which they traded not only shocking but morbid. A cross as the instrument of humanity’s deliverance; a rite in which the initiate undergoes death and arises out of the waters of the underworld to life; another rite in which believers eat their savior’s body and drink his blood: an unmistakable obsession with death and darkness.
Contemporary evangelicalism, however, could never be misunderstood in this way as its imaginary has no room for darkness as anything other than undesirable. Typical evangelical habituation, funded by reductionistic principles and an uncritical acceptance of commodified, sanitized portrayals of the good and beautiful, by and large does not accommodate this sensibility precisely for these reasons. There is a capaciousness that is necessary to do justice to human psychology, to ontology, and to aesthetics without which we cannot be receptive to it and it is this capaciousness which evangelical formation tends not to foster.
Such a sensibility is not necessarily morose or morbid. Sometimes people ask appreciators of the spooky, “Why do you enjoy such depressing things?” But this is gravely mistaken. Three Percenter bumper stickers are depressing; UNMASK OUR KIDS—MASK BY CHOICE signs and billboards for “gentleman’s clubs” are depressing. Spookiness, however, defamiliarizes the routines to which we are accustomed and reminds us we are alive. It is closely akin, in fact, to what thinkers of another time would have called the sublime.
The sublime is a kind of exaltation which is rooted in fear, awe, and uncommonness. The experience of the sublime is grounded in both “the precarious predicament of the individual and at the same time one’s own security,” Julian Young writes. On beholding the Alps, Joseph Addison remarked that they “fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror.” In his essay, “On the Sublime,” Friedrich Schiller observes that “the feeling of the sublime is a mixed feeling. It is a combination of woefulness, which expresses itself in the highest degree as a shudder, and of joyfulness, which can rise up to enrapture.” Crucially, he thought, the sublime “procures for us an exit from the sensuous world, wherein the beautiful would gladly keep us imprisoned.”
The sublime and the spooky do not perfectly overlap, but the formal and material similarities are such that the sublime can show the way forward for Christians who long for a way of being and a way of apprehending the world with a gravity they have not been taught by churches preoccupied with the light and dismissive of the creation’s shadow side.
Spookiness intimates there is more yet to uncover, that our understanding is incomplete, that what we are habituated to understand as significant is often anything but, and that there are more adventures yet to be had. Undoubtedly, not everyone will have the same emotional response as I would, or have it to the same extent, to a dark afternoon of fierce thunderstorms, but even a stranger can recognize that response as a joyful one, that it is expansive of soul, not constricting. Cemeteries, decaying castles, dilapidated estates, unexplored caves, clouds of bats, and fog-enshrouded forests elicit joy for those with eyes to see. There is a vivacity which comes from embracing this sensibility, one that is not readily deceived by facsimiles of light and beauty and prestige but instead draws its life from the grave in which we are incorporated into Christ.
That Christianity will reject spookiness which is insufficiently moored to its own spooky origins and is ruled instead by a theology of glory, seeking God and the good only in those categories the world has trained it to apprehend as good and true and beautiful. It represses the fact that there is no mandate, either dominical or apostolic, to paint in exclusively bright hues, to sing in only major keys, to shun the sublime. It forgets that even the Christian virtue of hope is not simply optimism projected skyward: it is acquainted with grief, pain, and horror. It knows that things can still go extremely badly, and it knows that none of us get out of this alive.
In comments on Romans 8:38-39, Ernst Kasemann differentiated the naive optimism of the enthusiast from the sober vision of the apocalyptically-minded. However, it is David Way’s translation of these comments which best renders the sensibility I have in view here:
In Paul apocalyptic does not lead to enthusiasm but to an experience of the world which is ruled by horror. It is against this background that the confession of the predestined cosmocrator Christ, of libertas christiana—as an anticipation of the resurrection and the joy of conquerors—gains definition. Even when inferno threatens on all sides, the Christian is stigmatized by the lord who is present for him, and is set in parresia.
Parresia as free, unbounded speech, certainly, but also as cheerful confidence, a cheer which obtains not only in spite of the pervasiveness of horror but due to the revelation of its pervasiveness. This is vivacity made possible by the acknowledgment and embracing of spookiness, not by its exclusion. It is just as paradoxical as the apostle’s assertion that we are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing in the midst of calamity and need (2 Corinthians 6:10).
Contempt for the shadow side of enchantment has enabled the very conditions decried by the proponents of re-enchantment with the result that Christian discipleship and evangelism have been distorted through this exiling of the sublime. We have not only failed to draw our attention to the shape of our world but even normalized the quotidian unreality which many of us find more frightening. We have allowed truisms and ideologies to commandeer our existence in such a way that we are bereft of purpose beyond quantities and dividends and time clocks determined for us by masters who do not love us. Forget the Great Chain of Being—we are better off without it. The shape of our ennui and misery is the impress of the regimes which dictate our days and work us to death. We do not need the reinstatement of an older hierarchy to displace this one, and the integralists who insist we do must be resisted.
“We must watch the popular imagery of our own time as it develops,” Theo Brown concluded, anticipating Josephson-Storm’s admonitions. “Probably this is needed now more than ever, since in our own age of disillusion and questioning we have submitted to popular myths about science to such an extent that our generation is as credulous and superstitious as any which has gone before it.”
We are enchanted, that is, by a story of Reason’s victory over superstition to such an extent that we are ruled by credulity and deference towards the promulgators of that story. Disenchantment is just as much an enchantment as Hopkins’ and Lewis’ stories of the way things were and are and may yet be. We who long for more must learn to live under the shadow and with its resources and resist grand narratives of a returning light. We will settle only for the living Light who took darkness upon himself for the world’s salvation.
The world has never not been spooky. And for this we can be grateful to the God who destabilizes our efforts to stabilize a weird and wild world. We do not need anyone to “make” theology weird again: we simply need eyes to see how weird it always has been and will always be, world without end, amen.
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- Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1998), 165-166. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), 122. ↑
- “Because You’re Frightened,” The Correct Use of Soap, 1980. ↑
- Charles Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections: Selected Essays (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2011), 290. ↑
- Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections, 291. ↑
- Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections, 292. ↑
- Taylor, Dilemmas and Connections, 288. ↑
- This is not to say there is no common ground whatsoever between Christians and non-Christians. It is, rather, to insist that all concepts are corrigible and in need of disciplining against extensively public criteria and, when speaking of God, against the standard of God’s self-disclosure. There is no pure language which unproblematically comprehends reality: all any of us have are the same words shared by everyone else. No concept is isomorphic with its object, but some concepts are truthful insofar as they become adequate to their object, and they only become so through testing. ↑
- C.S. Lewis, “Is Theism Important? A Reply,” Socratic Digest (1952). ↑
- Donald Mackinnon, Borderlands of Theology (Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1968), 92. ↑
- Jason A. Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 310. ↑
- Josephson-Storm, Myth of Disenchantment, 8. ↑
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, trans. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (London and New York: T & T Clark, 2004), 295-296. ↑
- Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, 299. ↑
- Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3, 298. ↑
- Julian Young, Schopenhauer (London, New York: Routledge, 2005), 119. ↑
- David Way, The Lordship of Christ: Ernst Kasemann’s Interpretation of Paul’s Theology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 153. ↑
- Theo Brown, The Fate of the Dead: A Study in Folk-Eschatology in the West Country After the Reformation (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1979), 91-92. ↑