Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. – Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

Friday, July 16, 2021

How Not To Be Secular (a Reading of Charles Taylor)

A Few Brief Comments

by R.E. Slater

I haven't read James Smith's book on Charles Taylor but did just buy it. I have heard James a few times speak at Mars Hill Bible Church by invite by Rob Bell who was a fan of his. He also teaches at Calvin College where I am active in the CALL curriculum program. So my comments here are more from my point of view than they are criticism of his work and effort.

One of the reasons I have turned rightly from evangelical Christianity is because of its messaging. It seems that the metanarrative of evangelical Christianity has become less Christocentric and far less Love-Centered and much more focused on judgmental hell-and-damnation aerial verbosity. Many segments of "secular" society are being called out by the evangelical church for not respecting church traditions and beliefs not realizing it has become as secular as the society it is condemning.

Adding to this mud pit of self-righteousness is how the church has also fallen headlong into cultural identity politics - sic., Trumpism; which is a radical rightwing  authoritarian movement to remove the bedrock of America's democracy, the Constitution, with the intention of replacing it with the church's dogmas under the banners of Kingdom Now Dominionism.

If the European Protestant v Protestant v Catholic religious wars of the Middle Ages showed anything, they showed that religious faiths should never run governments. Which is why Thomas Paine and John Locke had saved Europe from itself when announcing the separation of Church and State. Thereby raising up the democratic ideal of many voices and views under the banners of a liberal democratic Constitution working together as a team towards equality, liberty, and justice for all.

Further, the website here, Relevancy22, is currently exploring the philosophic theology of Process Thought sometimes referred to as Open and Relational (Process) Theology in order to recenter biblical theology in atoning, redemptive, and sacrificial transformative narrative. It has been a monumental effort these past ten years but seems to be much improved over evangelicalism's secular modernisms built upon eclectic philosophic usage of Platonisms, Neo-everything, smatterings of Scholasticism and such like.

Which is where my critique of the following article comes in... more probably of Charles Taylor but perhaps equally as much, if not more, of James Smith's approach to Taylor from his own West Michigan evangelical perspective. It is with realization too that Whitehead's Process Philosophy is only recently becoming better known and written about in Process Theological articles by a number of scholars and theologians. So to Taylor and Smith's perspectives - as with mine own before stopping, questioning, and trying to work out my past indoctrinations - they, like myself, were not acquainted at the time with these newer developments.

As simple example is the dipolar problem between a natural world (they term immanence) with a "spiritual" world (commonly termed transcendence). Using psychological or sociological/cultural archetypes, the subject is approached commonly utilizing Closed World Views (CWV) and Modern Moral Order (MMO).

However, the problem lies in separating the two ideas of Platonic thought which stately says there are eternal objects out there we describe as immanent or transcendent. In Process Thought all Platonism is rejected... there are no eternal objects "out there" but only as secondary ideas we utilize in language for communication purposes as descriptors.

Further, in Process Thought immanence and transcendence are no longer near and far metaphysical descriptors but resident actualities combined together as one moment of many evolving moments neither eclipsing one another or separating from one another. All of creation is in the God who is hear and not far; whose creation is hear, now, and not in some lived fantasy world we await. Which is where classic theism fails when seen through the eyes of panentheism (I've describe these many times here on this site).

One other observation is the traditional church's need for a metaphysic which only allows enchantment or disenchantment in because of its dipolarism of immanency and transcendency of God and creation. But under Process Thought, all is as mystical as it is concrete. All is wonderous in the sciences and disciplines which had erred in the past of mechanism and reductionism (part of secular modernism).

The idea of panexistentialism says everything is related to everything and there can be nothing that is isolated or alone. The universe doesn't work this way. Hence, the examples of isolation used below cannot stand; they defy the nature of the universe as a relational living "organism". Further, panpsychism will not allow for any one thing to be so infinitely broken down to its zero state as to lose its "living life" emanating from it. The universe we live in, like ourselves, like God, is boundless in its state both in relationship to itself and to its God who gives life to all.

And so, this despair Charles Taylor has proposed to find a way around, cannot be simply had through the crutches of "secularizing" everything and blaming it on this principle alone. No, the despair of the human species comes from its disconnectivity from one another and from this world and from its God. Atheism is an idea that isn't. So too is despair if looked aright when seeing how this world is meant to lift us up and heal us in so many abundantly wondrous ways. Despair is only despair when we allow societies, communities, churches, families, or individuals remove us from life. It is not life which works against us but those entities consuming wholeness and health.

R.E. Slater
July 16, 2021

* * * * * * * * * * *

How To Not Be Secular;
Reading Charles Taylor

by Bill Bilbier
July 30, 2017

I often describe my pilgrimage as from a 1974 tiny rural HS, 1978 no name university BS graduate, culturally flat technical hick; to autodidact idiot savant pseudo-intellectual student of Western civilization, Christianity, Philosophy, Literature and Science hick, as a series of pitches going up a mountain on which I often THINK that I have seen the peak, but realize at various junctures that all I have seen are outcroppings, many of which involve yet another LONG pitch I must traverse to gain a glimpse of the next dizzying (to me) height. I've ceased to imagine it will be the peak -- that will be in the life to come.

This is a review of  Smiths sort of of extended cliff note narrative summary of Charles Taylor's 874 page mountain of a book, "The Secular Age" which I now have on order (don't expect the review blog anytime soon)! Here is a review of The Secular Age"  if you want a different / more extensive take on the larger work. 

Smith says that Taylor "gives us an account of our cross-pressured situation -- suspended between the malaise of immanence and the memory of transcendence". Immanence meaning "matter and the physical is everything" and transcendence meaning this is not all there is -- there is a higher Platonic /  spiritual / metaphysical reality that is more real than what our imperfect senses can apprehend. 

Taylor perceives and makes plain to us "that transcendence and immanence bleed into one another; that faith is pretty much unthinkable, but abandonment to the abyss is even more so;" ... 

"Employing a kid of intellectual colonialism, new atheist cartographers rename entire regions of our experience and annex them to natural science and empirical explanation, flattening by disenchantment. (graveyards of the gods are always highlights of this tour). 

My favorite diagram from the book is this one -- I apologize for having to resort to taking a picture of it. 

I think a reasonable attempt at tiny summary of the Smith book is that Taylor tells the story, AS A STORY, of how it became possible to exist in a disenchanted immanent world where the most important thing is the Buffered Self -- meaning the self devoid of attachment to culture, history, religion, or even family. A detached self that is never the less haunted by being "pushed by the immanence of disenchantment on one side, but also pushed by a sense of significance and transcendence on another side, even if might be a lost transcendence". 

We all live by a narrative -- the pure humanist narrative of "progress" is that we once lacked physical vs metaphysical explanations for what we saw around us, so we imagined "enchantment". Spirits and  gods were all around, but we were only children. The definition of "progress" or "maturity" is NO ILLUSIONS ... we live in a cold meaningless universe that is ONLY matter. Meaning IS matter ... man is the measuring creature, measurement is meaning. If it can't be measured, it is an illusion, and therefore does not exist! 

"If one were to preserve God's sovereignty, one would have to do away with "essences", and with independent "natures". And the result is a metaphysical picture called "nominalism" where things are ONLY what they are named." 

If you can name it and measure it, it exists. If not, it doesn't. So, with the Nietzschean "demise of God, we are the only authorizing agency left" ... these two paragraphs give the barest thumbnail of the "CWS", Closed World View -- it's matter and us, that is all the material available to try to construct meaning.

And so, the disenchanted immanent "meaning" constructed is the "Modern Moral Order" (MMO) -- it is pure humanism, bootstrapped from matter and human thought and ruthlessly applied to all as the most restrictive of ancient religious -- although of course with much different tenets: 

"because of an inadequate appreciation for moral sources, modernity fixates or moral articulation -- a fixation on more and more scrupulous codes of behavior .... we don't know how to make people moral, but we do know how to specify rules, articulate expectation, lay down the law. This happens in policy, but also informally in cultural codes of political correctness ..."

What is lacking of course is any sense of inner motivation -- it is all external, we will yell at you if you fail to meet the ever growing MMO -- or maybe worse, we will pass more and more laws, you MUST NOT use plastic grocery bags, you MUST recycle! Thus sayeth the MMO. 

It becomes clear that the CWS / MMO / Buffered Self, etc ARE a form of metaphysic, and thus effectively a "religion" -- the self is not actually "buffered", unless can exist as an effective modern hermit of constant distraction, escape and self-delusion,  the Buffered Self  must BELIEVE that all of this is "the good", but part of the CWS itself is that it is a "good" completely made up of whole cloth.

Man STILL cannot live by breath alone, but must have a some sort of "social imaginary" (Taylor term), metaphysical dream, or every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

So what exactly is the advantage of the certified manufactured illusion with ZERO parts transcendent content of the MMO, over thousands of years old moral order that at the minimum leave the thought of transcendence -- at least in the context of age, open to the psyche? 

Well, in an immanent sense, of course NOTHING -- since there can't be anything that isn't made up by randomly developed creatures out of nothing except "stuff" (matter). Taylor -- and Smith believe that there actually aren't any honest humans that fail to sense the haunting of the transcendent. Is it real, or is it just side effect of some old cave man brain circuits that would be best excised in our modern world to allow us to be completely "grown up" as a Nietzschean disenchanted, immanent buffered self that deserves to be tamped down and unacknowledged -- even if it means they must lie about it to make it seem that the fiction of pure rational atheism exists. 

Unsurprisingly, no answers are given. The task of the book is to make Christian faith POSSIBLE in our flattened, disenchanted meaningless world, essentially by just making it clear that EVERYONE has "faith", it is only a question of "faith in what". The secular owns the world intellectual playing field today -- Taylor sees us at the possible cusp of faith no longer being "allowable", although he does not predict that will be the actual outcome ... he believes that even the merest ghost of the transcendent cannot be ignored because "this heavy concentration of the atmosphere of immanence will intensify a sense of living in a "waste land" for subsequent generations, and young people will begin to explore beyond the boundaries ..." 

Even for the subject Smith book of a mere 139 pages, I have but scratched the surface lightly. Yet again, I find myself regularly running to the Internet to bone up on my definitions in order to begin to understand what I am looking at. I feel as a non-english native speaker, who after a couple semesters of English is thrust into watching Shakespeare and asked to provide commentary. And this AFTER 100's of books over decades of my attempted intellectual improvement. I'm an intellectual slow out of shape fat man climbing into high country of knowledge. 

In the 500 years since the Reformation, science, philosophy and religion has sold us the chimera of "reform / progress" with no concept of "to where"? It seems that in some circles the thought was "to a mature human vision of a morality built on facts rather than superstition" -- however, "morality" is more than a "set of rules", and "mature human vision" is a state of perpetual change "toward" an unknown objective rather than a "goal" ... and it likely is merely going in circles chasing it's tail.

We remain LOST so badly we often fail to even detect our lostness -- does my quest for knowledge lead me forward or into the abyss? My prayer is that with Christ holding my hand, there can be no truly uncharted abyss. I KNOW the TRUTH -- this mountain of human knowledge is only like some old guy attacking Everest alone without oxygen -- I know I'll die in the attempt, but I'll die anyway.


Michael Saler - Modernity, Enchantment, and Fictionalism

Footbridge between worlds (from Un Autre Monde by JJ Grandville)
| Image via flickr user Carl Guderian

Modernity, Enchantment, and Fictionalism

December 20, 2013

The stern visage of Max Weber looms over discussions of modernity and enchantment, as does the sunnier countenance of Charles Taylor. Perhaps they should be joined by the open faced, bluntly spoken, and allegedly poker wielding Ludwig Wittgenstein. This choice might seem counter-intuitive. Wittgenstein did not write much about enchantment, and is more often considered a disenchanter who used the tools of philosophy to dispel illusions brought about by linguistic misuse. As he wrote, “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”

Nevertheless, enchantment was central to Wittgenstein’s outlook on life. By enchantment he meant a sense of wonder regarding the world. He described wonder as his “experience par excellence…when I have it I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist’ or ‘how extraordinary that the world should exist.’” Plato and Aristotle claimed that philosophy begins in wonder, and Wittgenstein’s famous last words—“Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life”—suggests it ends there as well. His later philosophy aimed at re-enchanting the world by re-describing it in new and unexpected ways. In so doing, the world does not change—things remain as they are—but our fundamental orientation to the world changes: “We see, not change of aspect, but change of interpretation.” As a result, one becomes aware of how rich, contingent and variable the world is. As Wittgenstein stated in 1948, “life’s infinite variations are essential to our life.”

This “infinite” outlook is a secular form of transcendence that transports us beyond our finite selves and immediate needs. It awakens us to awe, possibility, difference, and a humble acceptance of the provisional nature of our understanding. Max Weber had famously defined the disenchanted modern world as stifling and deterministic, an “iron cage” of rationality. Wittgenstein’s later philosophy aimed to free us from this cage, or as he put it, “to show the fly out of the fly bottle.” It was meant to simultaneously disenchant and re-enchant the world.

Wittgenstein exemplified an attitude of “disenchanted enchantment,” one that is characteristic of modernity and is held by many, religious and secular alike. I’ll talk more about disenchanted enchantment momentarily, but Wittgenstein’s formulation of it is one reason he merits attention when we think about enchantment and modernity. A second reason is that he recognized that enchantment is an ambiguous term with multiple meanings. He asked, “How do I know that someone is enchanted? How does one learn the linguistic expression of enchantment? What does it connect up with?” This is important because many other influential writers on the subject did not acknowledge the varieties of enchantment that are available at any given time. Weber, for example, equated enchantment with a traditional, supernatural worldview, and disenchantment with a modern, rational outlook. For him, modernity and enchantment were not compatible. Wittgenstein might have brandished a poker at such a reductive notion, as he forthrightly challenged the commonplace assumption that modern science disenchanted the world. He criticized Sir James Frazer, who claimed in The Golden Bough that so-called primitive people expressed an animistic, enchanted outlook that the rational West had outgrown. Wittgenstein found this to be patronizing nonsense. Wonder, he wrote, “has nothing to do with [a people] being primitive.”

In the spirit of Wittgenstein, I’d like to look briefly at the language game of modern enchantment and disenchantment that we have inherited, and are currently in the process of revising. Following that, I’ll discuss “disenchanted enchantment,” and how it relates to the late nineteenth century outlook of “Fictionalism.” Disenchanted enchantment challenged the Weberian view that modern reason and enchantment were fundamentally opposed. It also rejected the view, famously expressed in Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, that modernity’s faith in reason was itself an irrational illusion—that modernity is inherently “enchanted” in the negative sense of being deluded. In both of these cases, enchantment was depicted as an irrational state of mind. The disenchanted enchantment of Wittgenstein and others, however, demonstrated that critical reason and imaginative wonder could co-exist and serve progressive ends.

There are at least two ways that we can understand the meanings of “enchantment” and “disenchantment.” We can define them as stages within a broader historical process, and we can define them as human affects. In terms of historical process, the narrative of Weber and others described the shift from a premodern, “enchanted” world governed by an overarching supernatural order, to the modern “disenchanted” world characterized by scientific naturalism. Scholars advanced different historical periods for the origins of this process, but their accounts of its outcome were similar. A recognizable discourse equating modernity with disenchantment emerged among the late eighteenth century romantics, was given added momentum by nineteenth century cultural pessimists, and apparent scientific legitimacy by twentieth century sociologists, philosophers, and political scientists. The constant iteration that modernity has foresworn enchantment for disenchantment made it a virtual orthodoxy in the West until very recently.

In terms of human affect, since the Middle Ages “enchantment” had two meanings in Western culture: enchantment as “delight” and enchantment as “delusion.” The pleasures of enchantment as delight could be so overpowering that one is placed under a spell—an “enchantment”—and becomes deluded. The remedy was to become disenchanted. But disenchantment, like enchantment, also had positive and negative meanings. A positive meaning of disenchantment is that of emancipation: one is freed from dangerous illusions. A negative meaning of disenchantment is that of disillusion, a hard-bitten refusal of ideals or any form of transcendence.

The problem with the historical discourse was that it became conflated with the affective discourse. It equated the historical shift to a disenchanted world with the affect of disenchantment as disillusion, the end of a sense of wonder. States of enchantment might be delightful, but they were also delusory and regressive, at best suitable for children and other irrational beings, such as women, the working classes, and non-Western peoples. The historical narrative of modernity and enchantment could have positive elements—this was true of Weber’s account—but fundamentally it was one of discontent and loss. This was certainly the case for Horkheimer and Adorno, and also I think for Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. For Taylor, secular individuals have developed “buffered selves” that are less “porous” to the transcendent. He suggests that they tend to lead “flattened” rather than full lives.

Thus, the received discourse of modernity and enchantment has not been a neutral story, but a normative one. Disenchantment stands for secularization, but also discontent. It was not simply an account of the disenchantment of the world; it was a confession of disenchantment with the world. Indeed, during the nineteenth century, the term “disenchantment” was often synonymous with “cultural pessimism,” an intellectual current associated with Arthur Schopenhauer and his followers. For example, Edgar Saltus’s 1885 book, The Philosophy of Disenchantment, was a history of contemporary cultural pessimism, not a history of secularism. When Weber’s entzauberung, or “removal of magic” was translated into the English “disenchantment,” it was imbued with the pre-existing undertones of cultural pessimism.

Not that Weber would have minded. He was a cultural pessimist, and while he tried to provide a balanced assessment of modernity, his account of disenchantment was as much concerned with the deficit of delight as it was with the shift from a religious to a secular worldview. According to Weber, modernity was distinguished by the narrow “instrumental rationality” favored by positivists and bureaucrats, which prized quantification and efficiency over meaning and morality. The modern world was mechanistic and predictable, denuded of mystery and wonder. Disenchantment, he wrote, “means that there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.”

Weber also noted that a disenchanted modernity lacked the unifying beliefs and purposes that had allegedly distinguished the premodern world. Modern individuals sought enchantment through the subjective domains of art and religion. For him, irrational enchantment played a compensatory if atavistic role within modernity. This was one reason he and many of his contemporaries (notably Horkheimer and Adorno) disliked mass culture: they believed it fostered delusive enchantments.

Weber’s account encapsulated the major components of the historical discourse of modernity and enchantment that existed from the late eighteenth through the late twentieth centuries. The historical process of disenchantment was not simply about the shift from a religious to a secular world. It was also about the impoverishment of human experience resulting from the dominance of instrumental rationality; the loss of overarching meanings and purposes; and the redefinition of enchantment from a state of delight to a state of delusion. The manifold nature of the discourse, its ability so speak to so many modern grievances, explains why it has exerted such a hold on the Western imagination. It was also a performative discourse, leading people to view the world in the dour descriptive terms it provided.

Nevertheless, contemporaries contested its exaggerated claims. This was especially true for the idea that the imagination, and states of enchantment more generally, were the irrational antitheses of modern rationality. Such a stark opposition between reason and the imagination had not been expressed during the Enlightenment, or among the early Romantics. It was advanced in the course of the nineteenth century by positivists, scientific naturalists, and certain aesthetes. In turn, it provoked a reaction by late nineteenth century psychologists, philosophers, and artists, who argued that reason and the imagination were complementary rather than antagonistic. As R.G. Collingwood insisted in a series of talks that were posthumously published as The Philosophy of Enchantment, “It is only in a society whose artistic life is healthy and vigorous that a scientific life can emerge.”

This more capacious understanding of the imagination as well as reason suggested that mass culture was not a cesspool of delusive enchantments. It could be a resource of specifically modern enchantments reconciling reason with imagination, providing an alternative to instrumental rationality. Sherlock Holmes exemplified this reconciliation, which he called “the scientific use of the imagination.” He became an iconic figure, and has remained one, precisely because he demonstrated how modernity could be re-enchanted in its own rational and secular terms: as he tells Watson, “The world is big enough for us. Ghosts need not apply.” In addition to the new genre of detective fiction, the new genre of science fiction also aimed at reuniting reason and imagination after their artificial sundering by scientific positivists. One writer explained in 1928 that science fiction “takes the basis of science, considers all the clues science has to offer, and then adds a new thing that is alien to science—imagination.” Similarly, J.R.R. Tolkien defended fantasy as “a rational not an irrational activity; the keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.”

As these examples indicate, by the late nineteenth century mass culture had become a locus of enchantment consonant with the rational and secular currents of modernity. It seems a slim response, however, to the weighty issues raised by the discourse of disenchantment. Yet this turn to the rational enchantments of mass culture was only one facet of a much larger response to the discourse of modern disenchantment: an outlook of “Fictionalism.” Fictionalism was coined by the philosopher Hans Vaihinger in his 1911 The Philosophy of ‘As If.’ He argued that the self-reflexive character of modernity resulted in traditional beliefs being replaced by provisional fictions, which provided practical guidance as well as spiritual enchantments. Vaihinger’s Fictionalism was a form of disenchanted enchantment, in which both belief and disbelief were held in suspension through the use of an “as if” perspective.

Vaihinger drew on Immanuel Kant and especially Friedrich Nietzsche for his ideas. Nietzsche was an early exponent of disenchanted enchantment. He believed that consciously held illusions were indispensible for human existence, insisting that “the most erroneous assumptions are precisely the most indispensable for us, and a negation of this fiction is…equivalent to the negation of life itself.” Unlike Weber, Nietzsche did not mourn the loss of shared beliefs that allegedly characterized the premodern world. For him, the modern turn to plural meanings and provisional perspectives was both liberating and a genuine source of enchantment in its own right. As he put it, “the world has become ‘infinite’ for us all over again, inasmuch as we cannot reject the possibility that it may include infinite interpretations.” This Fictionalist recovery of the infinite within the immanent was a secular form of transcendence that Wittgenstein also endorsed in his later philosophy. As he commented in 1948, “Life’s infinite variations are essential to our life.”

Fictionalism was expressed in numerous ways during and after the fin de siècle. There was of course Aestheticism, in which art no longer imitated life, but life art. There was also the process in which religious texts were redefined as morally improving works of literature. This began in the eighteenth century, but was given exemplary expression in Matthew Arnold’s 1873 Literature and Dogma. By the early twentieth century this move to recast religion as fiction had progressed to such an extent that devout Christians like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis tried to stem the tide by redefining all fiction as religious: writers, in their view, were sub-creators emulating the Creator. Other instances of turn-of-the-century Fictionalism include Georges Sorel’s call for the self-conscious creation of new myths for revolutionary purposes, and William James’s explorations of the pragmatic outcomes of the “will to believe.” The list only expands for the twentieth century, culminating in postmodernist thought.

While fictions continued to be used for delusory purposes, Fictionalism aimed at providing narrative enchantments that delighted without deluding: disenchanted enchantments. Indeed, by the late nineteenth century fictions were being entertained in a more ironic, self-reflexive, and autonomous fashion than they had been only a century earlier. Literary scholars have usefully identified new understandings of “fictionality” in the eighteenth century, a contributory current to late-nineteenth century Fictionalism. Nevertheless, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the middle classes remained highly ambivalent about fiction and the powers of the imagination. They feared that the delights of the imagination would incite dangerous desires, and consequently subordinated fiction to religious and utilitarian imperatives. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1817 statement that we experience poetic fantasy or enchantment through the “willing suspension of disbelief” reflected this restrictive attitude. The default outlook is one of disbelief, which can only be circumvented temporarily through a conscious act of will. This is a labor-intensive way to relax with a good book, which the early Victorians intended it to be. But their encumbrances to the free play of the imagination were gradually undone during the nineteenth century, for a variety of reasons. The end result was that imaginative play with imaginary worlds became more permissible for adults as well as children.

Among the contributing factors was a shift in definitions of selfhood, from the early Victorian ideal of a unitary self to a greater recognition that the self was multiple. For example, psychologists exploring the unconscious in the 1830s began to discuss the phenomenon of “double consciousness,” in which individuals self-reflexively entertained illusions while acknowledging them to be unreal. As one psychologist observed in 1844, individuals had “two distinct and perfect brains: One brain was… watching the other, and even interested and amused by its vagaries.”

There is nothing new in this double-consciousness: it’s an innate human aptitude, manifested by children at an early age. What was new was the wider cultural acceptance of it by the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Readers no longer approached fantasy through the willing suspension of disbelief. Instead, they willingly believed in them with the double-minded awareness that they were engaging in pretense. In short, by the later Victorian period we see the rise of what could be called an “ironic” imagination, through which adults were given permission to live in fantastic and real worlds simultaneously. This double-minded consciousness enabled people to be enchanted and disenchanted at the same time.

But isn’t this simply escapism? Yes, but Fictionalism wasn’t merely escapist. By the turn of the century psychologists and philosophers acknowledged that imaginary and real worlds were mutually constitutive, and that fictions enabled the revising of the real. Nor did Fictionalism imply absolute relativism or a rejection of normativity. Vaihinger, for example, distinguished fictions, which were acknowledged to be false, from scientific theories, which did have claims to truth.

Normativity could also emerge through the consensus of interpretive communities devoted to fictional works and worlds. These communities, which I’ve called “public spheres of the imagination,” blossomed in the late nineteenth century, alongside the growing acceptance of fiction as autonomous from Victorian religious and ethical precepts. Readers communally imagined fictional characters and worlds by discussing them in the letters pages of fiction magazines, or by forming clubs, issuing magazines, and organizing conventions devoted to them. In such public spheres, debates about imaginary worlds and characters frequently elided into productive discussions of their real world analogues. Essentialist interpretations were often challenged, to be replaced by more nuanced understandings. In addition, these public spheres countered the anomie of modernity with elective fellowship.

Fictionalism, then, redressed many of the discontents advanced by the discourse of disenchantment. The ironic imagination generated both wonder and meaning, while remaining rational. Its exercise could appeal to the religious as well as the secular. Normativity was not lost, nor was community. In fact, the Internet has become an enormous repository of imaginary worlds and of public spheres of the imagination devoted to them, from James Joyce’s Ulysses to online computer games. Like religious communities, these secular communities devoted to fictional worlds promote fellowship and guidance, and are frequently sustained by their own rites and rituals. But unlike the traditional enchantments of religion, Fictionalism fosters awareness of narratives as provisional and contingent, rather than as essentialist. It provides forms of enchantment that delight without deluding.

Let me conclude by summarizing my main points. Enchantment and disenchantment are ambiguous terms and have been used in diverse ways, notably to describe historical processes and human affects. Too often we use them without defining what we mean. This was the case for the dominant discourse of modernity and enchantment that we have inherited. It conflated disenchantment as historical process with disenchantment as disillusioned affect; it was a cry of cultural despair masquerading as impartial social science. It became pervasive by the end of the nineteenth century, but at this time it was challenged by a variety of specifically modern enchantments. One of these was a turn to Fictionalism, assisted by the wider acceptance of the ironic imagination, a double-minded form of consciousness that enabled one to be enchanted and disenchanted simultaneously. Fictionalism itself suggests that the human imagination has become a major resource of modern enchantment, permitting the redescription of the immanent world in infinite ways. As a result, transcendence is preserved within a secular orientation. We also see an important shift from narratives demanding uncompromising belief to those that emphasize the contingent and provisional, an “as if” approach to the world. Rather than seeing the world in terms of the sacred and the profane, many now see it in terms of the fictional and the real, both of which are avenues to enchantment.

Perhaps this is why Ludwig Wittgenstein made an invidious comparison between the philosophy journal Mind and his favorite magazine, Detective Stories. As he wrote to a colleague, “If philosophy has anything to do with wisdom, there’s certainly not a grain of truth in Mind, and quite often a grain in the detective stories.”

- MS


Michael Saler is professor of history at the University of California, Davis, where he teaches modern European intellectual and cultural history. He is the author of As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (Oxford University Press, 2012) and The Avant-Garde in Interwar England: Medieval Modernism and the London Underground (Oxford University Press, 2001); coeditor of The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age (Stanford University Press, 2009) and editor of The Fin-de-siècle World (Routledge, 2015). He is currently working on a history of modernity and the imagination.

Charles Taylor - Fragile Faith in a Secular Age


Remembering memorials against time

The unreal is more powerful than the real,

nothing is as perfect  as you can imagine it,

it's only intangible ideas, concepts, beliefs,

fantasies that last. Stone crumbles,

wood rots. People, well, they die.

But things as fragile as a thought, a dream,

a legend - they can go on and on...

- Chuck Palahniuk

* * * * * * * * *

Charles Taylor:

Fragile Faith In A Secular Age

One of the most important books to be published in these opening years of the 21stcentury is philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. It is the story of a cultural journey, tracing the steps involved in moving from a world in which belief was considered normative to the world in which we live today where that is no longer the case. The downside is that the book consists of 776 pages of densely argued prose. So we can be glad for James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular, weighing in at 139 pages, that admirably extracts and summarizes the heart of Taylor’s arguments and conclusions.

One fascinating point that Taylor makes is that the movement to secularism in society has an intense effect on how believers believe. Even if we are careful to remain orthodox in our religious convictions and practice, living in an age of unbelief means that our relationship to our faith will be markedly different from that of believers who lived, say, in Europe in 1500.

One way things are different, Taylor argues, is in what he terms the fragilization of belief. Smith defines it this way in his helpful Glossary:
Fragilization  In the face of different options, where people who lead “normal” lives do not share my faith (and perhaps believe something very different), my own faith commitment becomes fragile—put into question, dubitable. (p. 141)

Taylor discusses the phenomenon in various places in A Secular Age, and in one place describes it this way by saying we need to imagine what things were like 500 years ago:

At that time, non-belief in God was close to unthinkable for the vast majority; whereas today this is not at all the case. One might be tempted to say that in certain milieux, the reverse has become true, that belief is unthinkable. But this exaggeration already shows up the lack of symmetry. It is truer to say that in our world, a whole gamut of positions, from the most militant atheism to the most orthodox traditional theisms, passing through every possible position on the way, are represented and defended somewhere in our society. Something like the unthinkability of some of these positions can be experienced in certain milieux, but what is ruled out will vary from context to context. An atheist in the Bible belt has trouble being understood, as often (in a rather different way) do believing Christians in certain reaches of the academy. But, of course, people in each of these contexts are aware that the others exist, and that the option they can’t really credit is the default option elsewhere in the same society whether they regard this with hostility or just perplexity. The existence of an alternative fragilizes each context, that is, makes its sense of the thinkable/unthinkable uncertain and wavering.

This fragilization is then increased by the fact that great numbers of people are not firmly embedded in any such context, but are puzzled, cross-pressured, or have constituted by bricolage a sort of median position. The existence of these people raises sometimes even more acute doubts within the more assured milieux. The polar opposites can be written off as just mad or bad, as we see with the present American culture wars between “liberals” and “fundamentalists”; but the intermediate positions can sometimes not be so easily dismissed. (p. 556-557)

The irony of all this, of course, is that Taylor may be correct in this—I am convinced he is—while we remain more or less unaware of the situation. We weren’t around 500 years ago, have grown up in our secular age, and so whatever it consists of is simply part of our normal. As I have read Taylor, on the other hand, my experience has been less learning something utterly alien so much as seeing what’s been in front of me all along but that I haven’t been able to name.

And so my question to you—Does fragilization strike you as correctly identifying some of the reality of life and faith we experience today? Where do you see or experience it? I invite your comments.

- DH

Denis Haack

I call this A Glass Darkly because we always see things incompletely, as though we're peering through a window caked with grime. And because a glass of finely crafted beer is a great help when we are trying to think things through. I am interested in all sorts of things, and you'll find that reflected here. I invite your comments because I want to learn, and to generate thoughtful, civil conversation. May we all come to see the small things and the things that matter most with greater clarity.

Denis and Margie Haack

Ransom Fellowship was founded by Denis and Margie Haack in 1981. Together, they have created a ministry that includes lecturing, writing, teaching, feeding, and encouraging those who want to know more about what it means to be a Christian in the everyday life of the 21st century.