Re-enchantment   /   Fall 2015   /    Re-enchantment

We Have Never Been Disenchanted

Eugene McCarraher

The god Mammon (detail), drawing by Alejandro Schneider, engraving by J. Weber, 1896; private collection © Tarker/Bridgeman Images.

“Beautiful demon of Money, what an enchanter thou art!”
—Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age

One of the stories modernity tells about itself is titled “The Disenchantment of the World.” Friedrich Schiller coined the phrase while lamenting the demise of the gods of Greek antiquity, but it was Max Weber who turned it into melancholy shorthand for the modern condition of secularity.1

The broad outlines of the tale are familiar to most educated people in the contemporary world: Before the Protestant Reformation, the earth was suffused and enveloped by “enchantment,” an invisible universe of spirits and deities who inhabited the natural world and could shape the course of human affairs. These spirits animated objects, dwelled in mountains or forests, and delivered messages through dreams, oracles, and prophets. Whether they were capricious or governed by providential design, these forces could be mastered or entreated through practices of magic, divination, and prayer. The medieval Church built a Christian enclave for these beings in its system of saints, holy places, and sacraments, but its Protestant (and especially Calvinist) antagonists—suspicious, in Weber’s words, of “magical and sacramental forces”—commenced the demolition of the enchanted sanctuary. And with the victories of science, technology, and capitalism, we discovered that the cosmos of enchantment was unreal, or at best, utterly unverifiable; we cast most of the spirits into oblivion, and made room for their withered but venerable survivors in our chambers of private belief.2

Among the North Atlantic intelligentsia, at least, this story in some form is so widely hegemonic that even religious intellectuals accept it. For instance, in A Secular Age (2007), Charles Taylor—a practicing Catholic—affirms, albeit in his own peculiar way, the consensus of “disenchantment.” In the pre-modern epoch of enchantment, Taylor explains, the boundary that separated our world from the sacred was porous and indistinct; traffic between the two spheres was frequent, if not always desired or friendly. “Disenchantment” began with the church’s rationalization of doctrine and the growing awareness that Christianity was not the world’s only religion. Now, having left the enchanted universe behind, we disenchanted dwell within the moral and ontological parameters of an “immanent frame”: the world as apprehended through reason and science, bereft of immaterial and unquantifiable forces, structured by the immutable laws of nature and the contingent traditions of human societies.3

What Taylor calls the “buffered self” is a kind of “immanent frame” that insulates the inner from the outer world, thus precluding any sense of the numinous or any notion that “nature has something to say to us.” Although attempts to re-enchant the world have surfaced periodically—Romantic poetry and philosophy, “New Age” spirituality, various religious fundamentalisms—none of these bids to revitalize enchantment has succeeded in wrecking the “immanent frame.”4

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