I went looking for the soul of modernity and surprisingly found it to be alive, although severely injured and in vital need of resuscitation.
Let me first comment on the “alive” characteristic of the soul of modernity.
Religious institutions, theological doctrines, and embodied spiritual traditions still inform most people’s lives and worldviews on the northern American continent. Even that growing segment of the population called “None of the Above” (for their lack of official and formal religious identification) are often deeply involved in a wide range of alternative spiritual experiences in their personal and everyday lives. These might include transcendent experiences in nature, yoga, tai chi, or other (often Eastern) traditional movement regimes, or Kaballah, prayer, or other contemplative practices, etc. Modernity, at least as it is experienced in my particular here and now experience, is still able to enchant.
This modern world in which we live, struggle, and celebrate is still so filled with marvelous and majestic moments that that zones of enchantment permeate our lives (such as our meditation classes, church services, and hiking adventures). When we learn to “Say yes to life!”, we open our eyes to see that we live on consecrated grounds that are embedded with Mystery. Everything in our natural world immanently incarnates that sacred energy which originally burst forth in that primordial instant we call “the Big Bang”. And even the most alienated and oppressed groups in our modern world are able to experience moments filled with spiritual consciousness, ecstatic joy, or magical pleasures.
Now, let me comment on the “injured” characteristic of the soul of modernity.
Our standard modern worldview is terribly lacking and needs some major revisions. Ground in 19th century sciences, it paints a realist perspective of the natural world, informed by scientific objectivity, materialist ontology, and cold calculation. It is a vision of nature lacking in spirit. Thankfully, a paradigm shift is taking place in which this modern vision is being replaced by a new vision in which spirit is returned to the natural world.
In this essay, I call for an “enchanted naturalism” — an approach to nature that is both ground in scientific evidence, as well as religious and spiritual inspiration. By regarding the world as sacred, alive, and filled with mystery we cultivate the potential for enchantment. Experiences of enchantment can cure our alienation from nature, ward off the existential resentment so common in our world, and help to develop a sense of kinship with all life around us.
The resulting enhanced bonds of intimacy with the natural world are essential for the ethic of caring we need to cultivate in order to achieve a sustainable ways of living. At the heart of this “enchanted naturalism” is a cosmology of the universe’s development and of the evolution of life and humans that is filled with reverence and particularly open to religious interpretation.
Weber and the “Disenchantment of the World”
About one hundred years ago (1918), Max Weber, the great German founder of the then emerging discipline of Sociology, walked into a room of aspiring scientists to present a lecture entitled “Science as Vocation”. In this presentation, Weber proclaimed the “disenchantment of the world” — a phrase he borrowed from Friedrich Schiller — which described a modern world in which the gods have been chased away (and for Weber seemingly replaced by soulless bureaucrats).
Weber is now known as a scholar of modern rationalization — the complex and diverse social processes of the historical development of institutional orders that facilitate the pursuits of means and ends. With his metaphor of the “iron cage” — with its Kafka-esque imprisonment of bureaucrats in endless and seemingly senseless rules and regularities — Weber pessimistically prophesied the future of humanity. While earlier ages seem governed by passions, commitments, and a magical esprit, modernity has killed that enthusiasm (Greek for “divinely inspired”).
On the face of it, “disenchantment” has some positive connotation. My dictionary defines “disenchant” as “to free from illusion and false beliefs”. As the modern era comes into being, people potentially abandon superstitions and misguided ways of thinking. Throughout the nineteenth century, the populace did become increasingly scientifically literate. This is one of the central hopes of naturalist thinking.
Yet, “disenchantment” also has some darker connotations. The word speaks to a missing element in our personal experience of the world. Rather than the feelings of awe and wonder provoked by an enchanted world, “disenchantment” brings forth a blasé attitude of bored fatigue. To “disenchant” it to literally “break the spell” and to remove the magic which formerly captured an experience. Modernity potentially robbed us of some of the passionate and positive feelings for the world. The “disenchantment of the world” supposedly allows for the subjective and individualized search for meaning, in contrast to the acceptance of a supposed “God-given” meaning.
Assessments of the validity of Weber’s thesis seem mixed at best. Most academic commentators seem to acknowledge that in some very basic ways our experiences of the world have changed, but that enchantment is not totally gone. One clear indication that disenchantment is not as pervasive as Weber seemed to imply is the significant levels of religiosity we find, for example, in the United States. The disenchantment of the world is closely related to the secularization of the world — the cultural lessening of religiosity. There seems to be general agreement that, as societies industrialize, the spiritual and material realms increasingly become separate. In contrast, (the theory goes) non industrialized societies are marked by a conception of a unified universe in which sacred and material domains are integrated.
We experience enchantment in the presence of the sacred. We know that we dwell in a consecrated cosmos and that mystery permeates our daily lives. With the processes of rationalization and secularization, the world become less magical and more knowable and potentially predictable. Disenchantment is the absence of wonder. It is the conceited notion that we humans can understand it all with no mystery left behind. Galileo, Newton and Descartes contributed to a new scientific view of nature in which everything can be explained by natural laws and mechanisms. In the modern era our conception of the natural world is as “inert matter” which serves as a resource for human fulfillment. This type of scientific worldview might be dubbed “disenchanted naturalism” and it is now seen increasingly as mechanistic and deterministic. This approach has no room for spiritual matters. It envisions the natural world as clocklike in its operations and is based upon a scientific reductionism in which sums are no more than their parts.
[to be continued …]
About the Author
Wayne Martin Mellinger, Ph.D. is a Santa Barbara-based social justice activist, writer, and educator who uses spiritual practices to create a better world. Specifically, Wayne is very active in helping our neighbors of the streets transition into permanent housing and environmental issues. He has taught at the Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Berkeley campus of the University of California, Ventura College, the Fielding Graduate University and Antioch University Santa Barbara.