Re-Enchanting the World, Part One

I’m off to Ottawa for the weekend, so won’t be checking on comments till I get back, but in the mean time, here is the text of a talk I gave last night at my church. As it was given within a church setting, it is very much from within the Christian position — but I hope you will find it interesting even if you do not agree with me. The full title is “The Re-enchantment of the world: fantasy, the imagination, and Christian life.” It’s a little long, so I’ll split it into three parts scheduled for the next few days. Those who have been reading along will see a number of similar themes to my A to Z posts …

In Kenrokuen

 

The Re-enchantment of the World: fantasy, the imagination, and Christian life, Part One

In the Middle Ages it was often said that God had written two books: Scripture, and the natural world. This is not a position commonly held today. In his account of the ways in which it is the post-Reformation way of reading Scripture that led, first, to modern science and, secondly, to the New Atheism, Gary Thorne – in a paper to which this was originally a response – suggested that we could not adequately counter the New Atheists without also countering the sophisticated form of reading espoused by liberal Christianity that led to their form of atheism. We are not to turn to a literal reading, however, but to a manifold and multilayered approach of the sort that was taken by patristic and medieval authors.

This is a way, he argued, to re-enchant Scripture. In my view it may also be a way to re-enchant the second book, that of nature. I have no wish to deplore modern science, but I do think the gains we made in dividing the numinous from the material also incurred a grievous loss. The advances in science are probably worth it, but that doesn’t mean we ought not now try to redress what we can. We have in general lost the idea of the numinous, that the material can point to the spiritual, that there is a real world behind and within the one that we know by our senses, that there are significances to the signs before us.

To understand what we have lost, and to see what we can do to regain it, I think we should turn for help not only to the pre-modern writers – medieval and patristic theologians and poets – but also to those modern authors whose forte is enchantment. It is no accident, I believe, that many of the most popular Christian apologists of the twentieth century were often both novelists and medievalists: G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien, Madeleine L’Engle, and Robert Farrar Capon. This is so evident in their writings that one of the New Atheists deliberately set out to write an atheistic fantasy novel to counter Lewis’ Narnia books.

I am not particularly concerned about the New Atheism, the name given to the forceful evangelical movement of atheism that includes Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, but I do find it interesting that the only one of their number I’ve been at all inclined to read for the sake of his work is Philip Pullman, the author of several fantasy series including His Dark Materials. This is by far his most successful (commercially, at least) trilogy – you may be familiar with the title of the first one, The Golden Compass, which was made into a movie with Nicole Kidman a few years ago.

I read Pullman’s books because I read a lot of fantasy, and they looked intriguing – they begin in an alternate-history Oxford, and that was enough to pique my interest. I didn’t know anything about his theology nor his purpose when I began to read the series, took them purely at face value. I read The Golden Compass and liked quite a lot about it, though not the main character, Lyra. I read the second book, The Subtle Knife, and liked it a little less; Lyra had not improved, and I felt the story was unravelling while the plot pushed forward. There was too much in the way of axe-grinding, and too little in the way of wonder. Then I read the third, The Amber Spyglass, and disliked it intensely, for the author had transformed his story into a polemic, and quite apart from the fact that I disagreed with him, that’s bad novel-writing.

I gave Pullman another chance with another trilogy of his, and found exactly the same thing – I liked the first book, liked the second less, and found the third quite disappointing from a story and structure point of view. So I shrugged and thought little more of Pullman until I discovered that he’d deliberately set himself up to write atheistic fantasy novels, explicitly to set them over against the predominantly Christian fantasists of the twentieth century I have mentioned – particularly C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle. Most of all C.S. Lewis and his Narnia books.

At this point I found the irony of Pullman’s inability to successfully write trilogies both understandable and hilarious. They cut against the grain of his philosophy. Yet he writes trilogy, and fantasy novels – novels about the imagination, about the soul, about metaphysics and things beyond the material – and why?

To him fantasy novels were, or I should say, are, an appropriate vehicle for theology. I don’t disagree with that premise, although, in my opinion, he did it rather clumsily; others say the same thing about C.S. Lewis. I find Lewis’ theology congenial and his characters and world-building (and writing style) generally delightful, enough so that I return to the books again and again. I find Pullman’s characters unpleasant, his writing only occasionally memorable, and his metaphysics and his plots deeply unsatisfying, so though I liked The Golden Compass enough to buy the trilogy when I found them in a used-bookstore, I can’t say I’ve ever actually gone back to them. I do think about some accidents of his universe quite often, because they were inventive and intriguing and cool. There was magic in his universe; and though its root was not to my taste, it has lovely flowers.

 

We cannot return to the medieval geocentric worldview that C.S. Lewis writes of,[1] where we stand at the centre of the universe and look – not out – we look out – but in­ – if only because we cannot dissociate the the physics from the metaphysics; though perhaps we should try. Nevertheless, there are a number of things we can learn from the geocentric cosmos. The first is that it is a cosmos, a beautiful and an ordered thing. Let us not forget that the Greek kosmos is the root of both cosmic and cosmetology. It is an aesthetic unity; that is what makes it a cosmos.

The second point is that the Earth is in the centre of the Ptolemaic cosmos because it is the least real thing. It is the heaviest material substance (with the exception, possibly, of Satan), the furthest from the ideal and the truly real. For a poet like Dante or a theologian like Aquinas, the phyiscal world is the inverse of the metaphysical. What seems the centre to us is actually the edge; what seems the infinitely far away is the home of ours souls and our hearts, what Dante calls the Empyrean, the dwelling-place of God. Our work is to find our way back, learn to see things by those other proportions of the soul. The appetites and the passions and the intellect all take us part of the way, but tend to make us focus on inessential necessaries. We are immortal beings; we always focus on what we’re having for supper. Not that this is wrong … but the daily bread is part of a mystical ordering of the universe not quite the same as our day-to-day one.

As Christians, we know these puzzles – they are there in every parable Christ spoke. They are there in our hearts, in our beings, in our humanity. And in some ways I think this is what we have lost as a culture. We have gained the universe by divorcing the numinous from the physical, the real from the material: and we have lost our home.

Still, I do think we can learn to re-enchant the world, see it as a system of signs and significances, and begin to retrieve the central paradoxes of Christianity. As Capon describes it, Christianity is in many ways a fairy tale that happens to be true.[2] Reading medieval literature, theology, and philosophy can help us understand what we have discarded along with the Ptolemaic astronomical system, but we should look to those who understand magic if we want to understand the art of enchantment.

 

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964).

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, The Third Peacock (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1971), especially pp. 115-119.

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One thought on “Re-Enchanting the World, Part One

  1. I love the idea of the scientific method — I think it is often a helpful way to describe the natural world — but I agree with you that it is lacking. It may describe the behavior of objects very well but it doesn’t do much to tell us about the human experience. I’ve read far too many studies where by the time a investigator factors out all the variables the actual study turns into something so reductionistic that it becomes meaningless. I believe that the humanities tend to be more satisfying descriptions because they sometimes attempt to find meaning or at least describe a situation with an attention to aesthetics. This reminds me of James Hillman’s work — who seems to have gone out of favor — where he separates the concept of ‘soul’ from ‘spirit.’ Spirit describes the ethereal which is all very nice but perhaps not all that meaningful whereas soulful things inform us of the stuff of being human — the hard knocks, the pain and the amazingness/terror/wonder of being aware of being alive.

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