Disenchanted with Disenchantment: “What World are They Living in?”

We are living in a liminal moment, a moment in which we are crossing the threshold from a familiar space to one unfamiliar. For too long we’ve acted as if we are simply passing between rooms in the same house, of similar dimensions and made of the same materials. Rooms only differentiated by furniture easily moved and tchotchkes easily replaced.

In truth, we are crossing the threshold from the inside of our climate-controlled homes defined by homeostasis to the place scripture would call “the wilderness,” a place of the unexpected, of learning, and wandering. If we are to get oriented and understand our place and how we might thrive in this liminal time, we must recognize it for what it is. Thomas Kuhn called it a “paradigm shift,” a moment in time in which thesis and antithesis collide to form a new synthesis that merges two differing realities into one.

More helpful, I think is to use terminology from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. I believe we are living in a time of competing social imaginaries. A social imaginary is “the way that we collectively imagine…our social life in the contemporary Western world.” We’re not conscious of it, Taylor argues, but it shapes daily practices of varying consequence – from how to engage in small talk to participating in an economy guided by “the invisible hand.”

For the last several centuries, the social imaginary has been one of a “disenchanted” universe: a closed, nature system that is neither for us or against us and whose sole purpose is simply to be. We operate in this imaginary without even knowing it.

  • Why did the bridge collapse? Poor engineering.
  • Why was there a bad crop yield? Drought.
  • Why is Grandpa Joe in such pain all the time? Age.

God doesn’t crush and drown random motorists. The crops need water not a ritual sacrifice to Baal. There’s no demon attacking Grandpa Joe. Even if the Western mind wonders about the role of the supernatural in events like these, it becomes at best a so-distant-it’s-basically-irrelevant part of how the world works. Our closed nature system “buffers” us; it insulates the natural world from supernatural forces, . It also cuts fully autonomous and individualized humans off from one another, too, but that’s a post for another day. It has made us neutral observers of nature, provided rich soil for medical and technological advances (both good and bad), and it is now being rejected by those disenchanted with disenchantment.

At least that’s what I see happening at this moment in the Western world, and why we’ve all been asking “What world are they living in?” a little too often. The disenchanted social imaginary has proven insufficient to help guide our lives individually and corporately. It has failed to answer the one question that humans will inevitably ask: why?

The imaginary of a disenchanted was a relatively new one. We know that for thousands of years prior, an enchanted imaginary – whether focused on gods, spirits, or cosmic forces – was a part of every known tribe and culture the world over. I think what we’re seeing right now in the United States is an innate pull to a social imaginary of an enchanted world: a “porous” world in which the supernatural has full access to the natural world (including us human beings). Where do I see this happening?

  • In large segments of the anti-vax movement who believe they are covered by the blood of Jesus or the shield of American exceptionalism. It makes them impervious to coronavirus.
  • The ever-growing percentage of spiritual-but-not-religious folks who are largely unattached to any religious tradition and yet very much open to a porous world in which the supernatural can (and often does) break into their own.
  • The continued growth of Pentecostal churches and the charismatic movement; both predicated on an active Holy Spirit.
  • Ritual/Personal use of crystals, oils, and herbs to sanctify/heal/empower the human body and/or spaces.
  • This one’s weird, but just follow me. The rise in visible tattoos. When I was a kid they were to be hidden unless you were a sailor, convict, or rock guitarist. When I see the tattoos folks from all over the social spectrum are getting in this time, they’re not the dancing lady on the forearm; they’re using their bodies as a canvas to to tell stories, create something beautiful to enrich the world, or inscribe it with runes. They are attempts connect with higher powers, cosmic forces, and other humans, and maybe even an attempt to reintegrate body and mind.

So, if you’ve asked “What world are they living in?” it may better to ask “What social imaginary do they live in?” Odds are, during this liminal time, it’s different than yours. Maybe that’s why we feel so disconnected to one another: an odd consequence of a rise in enchanted imaginaries to be sure, but almost certainly the result of many competing instead of one unifying our collective understanding of the world.

In this liminal time, there’s no real way to “overcome” this alienation between groups and individuals operating within dramatically different imaginaries, but there will necessarily be a winnowing of imaginaries as they prove no more effective in providing meaning and purpose than the disenchanted imaginary they were meant to replace. Unity comes through attrition. I think the best we can do is choose wisely, stop defending our imaginaries after we see them as false, and muster up as much compassion as we can to engage others living in world that functions much differently than your own. Our disenchantment with Disenchantment will not resolve quickly, but it will lead us to a world of whole persons, whole communities, and the supernatural wholly at work among us.

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