May 19, 2018

the process of disenchantment is irreversible

From “Disenchantment—Reenchantment” by Charles Taylor (within The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now edited by George Levine):

These terms are often used together, the first designating one of the main features of the process we know as secularization, the second a supposed undoing of the first, which can be either desired or feared, according to one’s point of view.

But their relation is more complicated than this. In some sense, it can be argued, the process of disenchantment is irreversible. The aspiration to reenchant … points to a different process, which may indeed reproduce features analogous to the enchanted world, but does not in any simple sense restore it.

Let’s speak of “the enchanted world” to designate those features which disenchantment did away with. There are two main ones.

The first feature of this world is that it was one filled with spirits and moral forces, and one, moreover, in which these forces impinged on human beings; that is, the boundary between the self and these forces was somewhat porous. There were spirits of the wood, or of the wilderness areas. There were objects with powers to wreak good or ill, such as relics (good) and love potions (not so unambiguously good). I speak of “moral” forces to mark this point, that the causality of certain physical objects was directed to good or ill. So a phial of water from Canterbury (which must contain some blood of the martyr Thomas a Beckett) could have a curative effect on any ill you were suffering from. In this it was quite unlike a modern medical drug that “targets” certain maladies and conditions, owing to its chemical constitution.

One could sum this up by saying that this was a world of“magic.” This is implied in our term “disenchantment,” which can be thought of as a process of removing the magic. This is even clearer in the original German: Weber’s Entzauberung contains the word Zauber (magic). But this is less illuminating than it seems. The process of disenchantment, carried out first for religious reasons, consisted of delegitimizing all the practices for dealing with spirits and forces, because they allegedly either neglected the power of God or directly went against it. Rituals of this kind were supposed to have power of themselves, hence were blasphemous. All such rituals were put into a category of “magic.” The category was constituted by the rejection, rather than providing a clear reason for the rejection. It then carries on in Western culture even after the decline of faith—for example. Frazer’s distinction magic/religion. Only when Westerners attempted to make ethnographic studies of non-Western societies did it become clear how inadequate and instable this category is.

I talked about not being able to go back. But surely lots of our contemporaries are already ‘‘back‘’ in this world. They believe in and practice certain rituals to restore health or give them success. The mentality survives, even if underground. That is true; much survives of the earlier epoch. But the big change, which would be hard to undo, is that which has replaced the porous selves of yore with what I would describe as “buffered” selves.

Brings to mind when C.S. Lewis says:

For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. 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. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me.

See also this passage about the “premodern self’s porosity.”

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May 15, 2018

part of the dance the fireflies are dancing

From A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle:

You human beings tend to want good things to last forever. They don’t. Not while we’re in time.”

“…Let’s feel the twirling of the earth,” Beezie said, “That’s part of the dance the fireflies are dancing, too. Can you feel it?”

Chuck squeezed his eyelids tightly closed. He gave a little gasp. “Oh, Beezie! I felt as though the earth had tilted!” He sat up, clutching at the rock. “It made me dizzy.”

“…It can be a bit scary, being part of earth and stars and fireflies and clouds and rocks. Lie down again. You won’t fall off, I promise.”

May 13, 2018

we find it hitched to everything else in the universe

From John Muir: Nature Writings (an anthology):

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell, and we feel like stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly fellow mountaineers. Nature as a poet, an enthusiastic workingman, becomes more and more visible the farther and higher we go; for the mountains are fountains — beginning places, however related to sources beyond mortal ken.

…I have never yet happened upon a trace of evidence that seemed to show that any one animal was ever made for another as much as it was made for itself. Not that Nature manifests any such thing as selfish isolation. In the making of every animal the presence of every other animal has been recognized. Indeed, every atom in creation may be said to be acquainted with and married to every other, but with universal union there is a division sufficient in degree for the purposes of the most intense individuality; no matter, therefore, what may be the note which any creature forms in the song of existence, it is made first for itself, then more and more remotely for all the world and worlds.

…The scenery of the ocean, however sublime in vast expanse, seems far less beautiful to us dry-shod animals than that of the land seen only in comparatively small patches; but when we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.

I’m reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” where he writes:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, / Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

May 12, 2018

On Life and Motherhood

Life (that is the quality of being alive) is so easily seen in all aspects of creation, and this kind of seeing may be far more reliable than we know. Rocks and landscapes live lives of great loveliness, depth, and mystery. After all, the Spirit, the Giver of Life, broods over all that “is not” and encourages all that “comes to be.”

We say in the creed: “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life.” And this is expanded when we pray in the Trisagion: “O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things; Treasury of good things and Giver of life: Come and dwell in us and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls, O gracious Lord.”

All of life both contains and is contained by bewildering contrasts: wildness and welcome, threat and nurture, symmetry and divergence, predictability and volatility. In all of this layered life, there is a dependable beauty. There is also a direction or purpose that can be sensed or glimpsed but not grasped or seen.

These contrasting and developing qualities of all living things make them impossible to posses, consume, or use. Life’s independent development as well as its irreducible complexity make it impossible to fully describe or to employ. We can respond to life, commune with it, enjoy it, but we cannot have it for our own or make it work for us. In fact, our own life depends on our communion with the life around us, and any effort to have or use the life around us is a destruction of this communion and a step toward our own death. Life cannot be demanded or taken but only received in gratitude and humility.

The difference between communion and consumption is life and death. Sadly, we teach consumption in every aspect of modern life. We teach only efficient production and consumption. Find ways to learn to commune. Find an altar before which to stand in quiet anticipation. Find a eucharist to receive. Eucharist means thanksgiving, and the word comes ultimately from the Greek word for “grace” (a gift offered freely with no expectation of return).

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and in motherhood we have this same generous communion—this giving and receiving of life. It is no mistake that the first and most living image of the Spirit is that of a mother bird who spreads herself over those within her nest. The Hebrew word in Genesis 1:2 that is often translated “hover” actually means “brood,” as when a mother bird broods over her eggs to bring forth life.

Jesus takes up a long tradition of this image across Scripture (Deuteronomy 32:10-11, Ruth 2:12, and Psa. 17:8, 57:1, 91:4 for examples) when he says: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34)

Rather than seeking to seize, to use, and to hold onto life, may we all learn to receive the life so abundantly offered and to give up our own as an offering poured out. May we learn from our mothers how to live.

May 12, 2018

if the church no longer has “good” magic

How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith:

One can see how this entails a kind of disenchantment: “we reject the sacramentals; all the elements of ‘magic’ in the old religion” (p. 79). If the church no longer has “good” magic, “then all magic must be black” (p. 80); all enchantment must be blasphemous, idolatrous, even demonic. …The Reformer’s rejection of sacramentalism is the beginning of naturalism, or at least opens the door to its possibility. It is also the beginning of a certain evacuation of the sacred as present in the world. And that leads to a completely new understanding of social and cultural life as well. …The king or monarch can’t be any sort of “sacramental” reality.

…The “naturalization” that is essential to exclusive humanism was first motivated by Christian devotion. “The irony is that just this, so much the fruit of devotion and faith, prepares the ground for an escape from faith, into a purely immanent world” (p. 145).

…Most germane to understanding the point of this chapter is appreciating what Taylor calls “the triple embedding” of premodern societies, a configuration of society that goes along with what he’s been calling enchantment: “Human agents are embedded in society, society in the cosmos, and the cosmos incorporates the divine” (p. 152).

May 10, 2018

closer in a way to the original day of the crucifixion

Working to capture the first step of Charles Taylor’s argument within A Secular Age, James K.A. Smith summarizes five pre-modern ways of understanding (or of inhabiting life) that served for centuries as powerful obstacles to unbelief:

  1. Understanding of the individual person as “porous” and subject to the influence of many powerful outside realities (i.e. as vulnerable and existing within an enchanted world).
  2. Understanding that every life depends on every other life to maintain a healthy social fabric that sustains us all (i.e. that no one can rise or fall alone).
  3. Understanding shared eternal values or an aiming of all human life toward something beyond ordinary human flourishing.
  4. Understanding of a higher sense of time that is not merely linear or chronological.
  5. Understanding of a porous cosmos that is suspended within its own beyond (i.e. that we inhabit a world that is created and dependent on a reality that is greater than itself).

Here are a few excerpts from Smith. On the 3th understanding:

We miss this if we retroactively impose our “privatized” picture of faith upon abbeys and monasteries and imagine that the monks are devoting themselves to personal pursuits of salvation. The monks pray for the world in the world’s stead. So the social body loves this tension between transcendence and the mundane by a kind of division of labor.

Second, the social body in Christendom has a sense of time that allows even those daily engaged in domestic life to nonetheless pursue rhythms and rituals that inhabit this tension between the pressures of now and the hopes of eternity. Rhythms and seasons create opportunity to live the tension.

On the 4th understanding:

Higher times “introduce ‘warps’ and seeming inconsistencies in profane time-ordering. Events that were far apart in profane time could nevertheless be closely linked” (p. 55). This is somewhat akin to Kierkegaard’s account of “contemporaneity” in Philosophical Fragments: “Good Friday 1998 is closer in a way to the original day of the Crucifixion than midsummer’s day 1997” (Secular Age, p. 55). Our “encasing” in secular time has changed this, and so we take our experience of time to be “natural” (i.e., not a construal): “We have constructed an environment in which we live a uniform, univocal secular time, which we try to measure and control in order to get things done” (p. 59). So nothing “higher” impinges upon our calendars — only the tick-tock of chronos, and the self-imposed burdens of our “projects.”

On the 5th understanding:

It’s as if the universe has layers, and we are always folded into the middle. If the premodern self is “porous,” so too is the premodern cosmos.

May 10, 2018

the social bond itself was enchanted

How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith:

Not only were things invested with significance in the premodem imaginary, but the social bond itself was enchanted, sacred. “Living in the enchanted, porous world of our ancestors was inherently living socially” (p. 42). The good of a common weal is a collective good, dependent upon the social rituals of the community. “So we’re all in this together.” As a result, a premium is placed on consensus, and “turning ‘heretic’” is “not just a personal matter.” That is, there is no room for these matters to be ones of “private” preference. “This is somethingwe constantly tend to forget,” Taylor notes, “when we look back condescendingly on the intolerance of earlier ages. As long as the common weal is bound up in collectives rites, devotions, allegiances, it couldn’t be seen just as an individual’s own business that he break ranks, even less that he blaspheme or try to desecrate the rite. There was immense common motivation to bring him back into line” (p. 42). Individual disbelief is not a private option we can grant to heretics to pursue on weekends; to the contrary, disbelief has communal repercussions.

May 8, 2018

to be human is to be essentially open to an outside

How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor by James K. A. Smith:

To sense the force of this shift, we need to appreciate how this differs from the “enchanted” premodern imaginary where all kinds of nonhuman things mean — are loaded and charged with meaning — independent of human perception or attribution. In this premodern, enchanted universe, it was also assumed that power resided in things, which is precisely why things like relics or the Host could be invested with spiritual power. As a result, “in the enchanted world, the line between personal agency and impersonal force was not at all clearly drawn” (p. 32). There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power (p. 35). Things can do stuff.

At this point Taylor introduces a key concept to describe the premodern self: prior to this disenchantment and the retreat of meaning into an interior “mind,” the human agent was seen as porous (p. 35). Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace. “This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment” (p. 36)

May 8, 2018

the natural elements of bread and wine are so affirmed that they acquire personal qualities — the Body and Blood of Christ

By the Metropolitan John Zizioulas (shortened version of a lecture given at the European Orthodox Congress given in October, 1993 that was reprinted here):

Theology and Church life involve a certain conception of the human being: personhood. This term, sanctified through its use in connection with the very being of God and of Christ, is rich in its implications.

The Person is otherness in communion and communion in otherness. The Person is an identity that emerges through relationship (schesis, in the terminology of the Fathers); it is an “I” that can exist only as long as it relates to a “Thou” which affirms its existence and its otherness. If we isolate the “I” from the “Thou,” we lose not only its otherness but also its very being; it simply cannot be without the other. This is what distinguishes the person from the individual.

The Orthodox understanding of the Holy Trinity is the only way to arrive at this concept of Personhood: the Father cannot be conceived for a moment without the Son and the Spirit, and the same applies to the other two Persons in their relation with the Father and with each other. At the same time each of these Persons is so unique that their hypostatic or personal properties are totally incommunicable from one Person to the Other.

Personhood is inconceivable without freedom; it is the freedom of being other. I hesitate to say “different” instead of “other” because “different” can be understood in the sense of qualities (clever, beautiful, holy, etc.), which is not what the person is about. In God all such qualities are common to the each three Persons. Person implies not simply the freedom to have different qualities but mainly the freedom simply to be yourself. This means that a person is not subject to norms and stereotypes and cannot be classified in any way; its uniqueness is absolute. This means that only a person is free in the true sense.

And yet one person is no person; freedom is not freedom from the other but freedom for the other. Freedom becomes identical with love. God is love because He is Trinity. We can love only if we are persons, allowing the other to be truly other and yet be in communion with us. If we love the other not in spite of his or her being different but because they are different from us, or rather other than ourselves, we live in freedom as love and in love as freedom.

The other is a condition of our freedom. Freedom is not from but for something other than ourselves. This makes the person ecstatic, going outside and beyond the boundaries of the self. But this ecstasis is not to be understood as a movement towards the unknown and the infinite; it is a movement of affirmation of the other.

This drive of personhood towards the affirmation of the other is so strong that is not limited to the “other” that already exists but wants to affirm an “other” which is totally free grace of the person. Just as God created the world as free grace, so the person wants to create its own “other.” This is what happens with art: the artist creating a totally other identity as an act of freedom and communion. Living in the Church in communion with the other means, therefore, creating a culture. The Orthodox Church has always been culturally creative.

Finally, we must consider the ecological problem. The threat to God’s creation is due to a crisis between the human being and the otherness of the rest of creation. Man does not respect the otherness of what is not human; he tends to absorb it into himself.

This is the cause of the ecological problem. In a desperate attempt to correct this, Man may easily fall into the pagan alternative: to absorb Man into nature. We have to be very careful. Out of its tradition, Orthodoxy is called to offer the right Christian answer to the problem. Nature is the “other” that Man is called to bring into communion with himself, affirming it as “very good” through personal creativity.

This is what happens in the Eucharist where the natural elements of bread and wine are so affirmed that they acquire personal qualities — the Body and Blood of Christ — in the event of the communion of the Holy Spirit. Similarly, in a para-eucharistic way, all forms of true culture and art are ways of treating nature as otherness in communion, and these are the only healthy antidotes to the ecological illness.

May 8, 2018

perhaps that is exactly what encountering “the soul of a tree or a dryad” is like

We experience only a fragment of what is happening in the world. And what is out of our sight and sense is also, mostly, out of mind. Our conscious experience and intention run alongside the merely material happenings in our brains and bodies. Similarly, the presence of “fairies” is not ruled out merely because what happens “naturally” also involves the motion of material parts. Nor is it ruled out by the fact that there are very general “laws” to describe what happens: The laws of nature that we discover are not explanations but very general descriptions—and real explanations, if there are any, may lie in the conscious intention of spirits with their own agendas and inclinations. Martin Buber once remarked:

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it—only differently. One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity. Does the tree then have consciousness, similar to our own? I have no experience of that. But thinking that you have brought this off in your own case, must you again divide the indivisible? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.

But perhaps that is exactly what encountering “the soul of a tree or a dryad” is like. Something is really there, and we describe it in the terms with which we are most familiar, while also knowing that those familiar terms are strictly inapplicable. Or rather, in applying them to trees or rocks or stars, we may suddenly find that they are unfamiliar terms, and that we hardly know even what other human creatures are. We may find that we are in Fairyland already.

From Stephen R. L. Clark, professor of philosophy emeritus at the University of Liverpool in this article for First Things.

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