Christianity as Agent of Disenchantment

[please overlook the ugliness resulting from this being adapted from an abstract.  thank you.]

I’d like to argue against the received tradition that disenchantment of the world undermines religion.  Instead, I argue, Christian doctrine is responsible for the lion’s share of the creation of a disenchanted worldview.  This is due to (1) Christianity’s  monotheistic repudiation of a world full of spirits, (2) Christianity’s insistence on interiority, and (3) Christianity’s agnosticism regarding the interpretation of divine action in the contemporary world.

(1) While acknowledging a spiritual world, the epistles of James and Paul both militate against an understanding of any power active in the world other than God’s Spirit.  [What of Plutarch’s roughly contemporary De defectu oraculorum?]  Indeed, James insists that, with regard to temptation, one should not look to the world of spirits, but within oneself, suggesting (2) the Christian impulse to interiority, manifested and legitimated theologically by Augustine.  In both his experiences, recorded in his Confessions, as well as his doctrine of original sin, Augustine finds evil within the human heart.  What external calamity does occur cannot be definitively attributed to God or mischievous spirits, but in the modern age (defined by Augustine as that occurring between Christ’s Incarnation and his second coming at the end of the world), we are forced into (3) an agnosticism regarding the working of the world.  Augustine (according to the R.A. Markus’ interpretation) reserved insight into God’s actions to prophets directly inspired by God.  In the present age, after the closing of the scriptural canon, humanity is left without such  inspired interpretation, and all time becomes, like that of Benjamin’s modernity, homogeneous.

Thus Christianity, in its biblical and early doctrinal expressions, establishes an understanding of the world much like that usually assumed to be specifically modern.  It resists looking for spirits in the world; it finds meaning within the self and urges caution about finding divinity in the world now understood as ‘natural’ (cf. Chesterton’s interpretation of St. Francis).  We must thus acknowledge the constructedness of the category of ‘religion’; when it is assumed that religion is a vector of supernatural powers irrupting in the everyday, ‘religion’ is a construct built without attention to its object, in this case Christianity.

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  • Stephen  On February 17, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    I’d agree (and so would Charles Taylor in A Secular Age) that “disenchantment” is a product of forces within Christianity. But, I don’t think that they are nearly as explicit nearly as early as you claim. For example, how could one possibly read Mark’s Gospel from a “disenchanted” perspective? Practically the whole point is that Jesus has spiritual power that interacts violently with the spiritual powers residing in this world. Or, with Paul in Acts (for example with the slave girl who followed him and his companions or the fact that he was raising people from the dead). Maybe “demythologization” is a better term to describe what early Christianity did, since it wasn’t that evil and good spirits didn’t exist, but only that they were relativized by the power of Jesus Christ.

    Also, how can you explain away the superstitions surrounding the cult of the saints? As Peter Brown argues (, this kind of cult arose almost directly out of Roman spirituality during the earliest Christian centuries and continued until today. Of course, you can argue that this kind of spirituality that assumed an “enchanted” world was transformed by monotheism (and I would); but does that mean that it disappeared entirely?

    • Stephen  On February 17, 2011 at 2:13 pm

      (Sorry about the Amazon icon. I don’t believe in that kind of icon.)

  • gestalttheology  On February 17, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    i suppose i’m arguing that the intellectual resources necessary for a disenchanted worldview are present in early Christianity. i’m not too sure what to do with the miraculous, though that seems to fall off soon after the apostles, no?

    • Stephen  On February 17, 2011 at 4:07 pm

      What Anne said, about the miraculous after the apostles. I’ve been reading early Russian hagiography lately, and the word “enchanted” hardly begins to describe just how “porous” (to use a Charles Taylor word) their experience of the supernatural world was compared to ours (around 1000 AD) – an experience that is hardly atypical of cults of saints throughout Christian history. It’s one thing to (as I think you’re mainly doing) say that Christian intellectuals developed a new kind of “interiority,” but to say that the average Christian’s world (at any point before 1500, or, more likely, 1800) was “disenchanted” is a bit of a stretch, unless you mean that the world was no longer governed by a collection of arbitrary spirits (as opposed to being governed by a God to whom the spirits in the world were subject).

      • gestalttheology  On February 17, 2011 at 6:52 pm

        I’m fine with that; again, I’d distinguish between the common experience and intellectual resources/possibilities. I suppose my main point is that ‘disenchantment’ might be thought of as profoundly (that is, at its depths) Christian.
        But, I stand by what I said about my disenchanted experience (though, qualified, I suppose, by the distinction I’m wanting to make between spirits and the one true God). And given that you’re a ‘not crazy’ Pentecostal, how do you make sense of the spiritual realm’s existence in the world you inhabit?

      • Stephen  On February 17, 2011 at 9:42 pm

        Yes, disenchantment is, in some sense, “Christian.” But, as Anne asks, do we have to fully accept it as good? I think that Eric Voegelin’s stages of cultural evolution work well here: From “cosmological” to “anthropological” and, finally, to a “soteriological” culture that combines the best aspects of the earlier two types of culture.

        As for me, I don’t think too analytically about “the spiritual realm” most of the time, but, if I did, it would probably relate to literature, music, art, or natural phenomena somehow. I will readily admit that most Pentecostals have a far more visceral and existentially-meaningful experience of the spiritual realm than I do. Does that mean that there is something wrong with them or something wrong with me? I don’t think that it is particularly important to decide that either way. (To me, it’s kind of like arguments for the existence of God – I don’t find that kind of discussion the least bit helpful, even though I will admit that a strong statement either way makes me uneasy.)

      • gestalttheology  On February 18, 2011 at 4:37 pm

        No, we certainly don’t have to accept it as fully good; I’m only interested in seeing how far we can press it as a good thing, amenable to Christian faith. Also, ‘stages of cultural evolution’; even as I argue for a process of disenchantment, I feel funny about such terms.

  • maximustheconfessor  On February 17, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    I would like to step in and ask a stupid question: what do you mean by disenchantment, and why ought I be interested in a Christianity that is disenchanted?

    Also: I am not confident you are using Chesterton’s interpretation of St. Francis correctly, since the book appears intent on making the opposite point you would like to make. That is, St. Francis looks almost wildly outward because God is to be found everywhere. This is much more like the impulse behind the Catholic cult of saints.

    Finally, the miraculous does not fall off soon after the Apostles. Or in any case, we should be clear about what does and does not happen soon after the Apostles. There are still a great deal of miracle stories that run rampant straight through to the present day. Not to mention the immense experience of the liturgy! (At least as far as Catholics are concerned. Perhaps you could clarify what you mean by “miraculous.”)

    Thank you for any clarification you might give.

    • gestalttheology  On February 17, 2011 at 3:18 pm

      What is disenchantment? Great question; I’m really not entirely sure. I suppose it has something to do with where we locate meaning, and while I don’t wish to dissolve creation’s meaningfulness, I think there’s something in, say, Paul’s rhetoric about ethical meaning, at least, that is disenchanting, that dissociates, say, physical acts from necessary interpretations. I’m supposing that there’s something about Christian monotheism that is different from seeing an enchanted world. Also, for conversation purposes, it’s helpful to examine how much we have in common with our disenchanted post/modern fellows.

      Chesterton has a comment about Francis being able to say the things he does about the ‘natural’ world because it had been purged over the centuries of the pagan spirituality which found in it gods, goddesses, etc.

      And I’m not entirely sure about the miraculous, the apostolic era, etc. I think I was being provocative with that comment, and you’re provoked, so that worked, but I don’t know what to say now. I suppose in large part we don’t seem to live in a world of miracles, do we? I don’t distrust those who report them to me, but they don’t form a great part of my experience.

      I’m also interested in whether we can parse belief in the working of the one Spirit from an enchanted world of spirits. I mean, do ‘powers and principalities’ exist in a real sense for you?

      Thanks so much for stopping by!!

      (also, some of my thoughts relating to the miraculous are here: )

      • maximustheconfessor  On February 17, 2011 at 3:23 pm

        Thank you for your swift reply! I see now that you are resisting the total collapse of God and the world, resisting a sort of mythological assessment of worldly meaning. That is a good thing to resist. I would desire more caution about a total separation between God and the world on the other end of that spectrum; that is just as dangerous. What a wilderness these theological investigations are!

        Yes, Chesterton does argue that the world for Francis has been purged of pagan impulses. His total argument is more complex, however, because that same purging also means that the world is made much more radically and obviously dependent on God – much more intimately filled with God’s presence:

        “If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and towers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasise the idea of dependence. There is a Latin and literal connection; for the very word dependence only means hanging. It would make vivid the Scriptural text which says that God has hung the world upon nothing. If St. Francis had seen, in one of his strange dreams, the town of Assisi upside down, it need not have differed in a single detail from itself except in being entirely the other way round. But the point is this: that whereas to the normal eye the large masonry of its walls or the massive foundations of its watchtowers and its high citadel would make it seem safer and more permanent, the moment it was turned over the very same weight would make it seem more helpless and more in peril. It is but a symbol; but it happens to fit the psychological fact. St. Francis might love his little town as much as before, or more than before; but the nature of the love would be altered even in being increased. He might see and love every tile on the steep roofs or every bird on the battlements; but he would see them all in a new and divine light of eternal danger and dependence. Instead of being merely proud of his strong city because it could not be moved, he would be thankful to God Almighty that it had not been dropped; he would be thankful to God for not dropping the whole cosmos like a vast crystal to be shattered into falling stars. Perhaps St. Peter saw the world so, when he was crucified head-downwards.”

      • gestalttheology  On February 17, 2011 at 6:57 pm

        Thanks again. (By the way, mind if I link to your site on my main page?) This article is a bit polemical, aimed at a conference which seems to wish to assert ‘religion’ as something weirdly supernatural and opposed to the modern world. (I’m not saying Christianity favors the modernity, only that it’s as opposed to it as to any other age.) So these aren’t strictly my views, though I suppose they come close. My experience isn’t of the supernatural regularly irrupting; I suppose this is a thought-experiment in how far a strict non-supernaturalism can be resonant with biblical faith. I keep, however, your comments and Stephen’s close to mind.

  • maximustheconfessor  On February 17, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    Sure! Enjoy your thought experiment!

  • Steve Harris  On March 14, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    I’m pretty late here, but anyways, I think there’s something to what you’re getting at. Understanding that this is for a conference that tends heavily in the other direction, I think the right place to land is in the middle. (Easy way out, isn’t it?) To #1, as a Pentecostal I’m pretty wary of ruling out talk of spirits. Maybe not territorial angels and such (though who knows?) but a long, long spiritual tradition links temptation and the demons. The important point is certainly Stephen’s: all spirits are subject to God their maker.

    To #2, yes! For a while now I’ve been wondering if it’s actually Christianity that “invented” the individual. Of course, an interiority that’s objectively judged: “My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:4).

    I’m ambivalent about #3, but I don’t have anything more profound to say. I don’t think open parking spots are divine intervention, and I wouldn’t want to say the earthquake was an act of God (though maybe I should?), but I’m sure thankful to God I always seem to have enough food and money.

    I’m really curious though about what you mean by “Paul’s rhetoric about ethical meaning, at least, that is disenchanting, that dissociates, say, physical acts from necessary interpretations.” I think that’s really onto something.

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