Isolation and the Old Spirits

Recent weeks have brought with them some fascinating reflections on the notion of disenchantment. Poe’s “Sonnet—To Science,” a poem I recently shared, laments the inevitable banishment of magic from the natural world at the hands of Science; then there’s this excellent piece by Derek Rishmawy, in which he questions the disenchanted narrative a bit. Along similar lines, Ross Douthat’s recent opinion piece addresses paganism’s emerging credibility and attractiveness in an increasingly post-Christian world. As he notes, “the secularization narrative is insufficient, because even with America’s churches in decline, the religious impulse has hardly disappeared.”

Before going further, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m claiming no scholarly rigor in my treatment of this question. My reading on and engagement with disenchantment is admittedly limited, and I have not paid close attention to the ins and outs of this debate much before. That said, I think there are some aspects here which are accessible to careful consideration, and this is where I intend to hone in on a bit.

Because of the limited nature of my prior thoughts on this, to me, the disenchanted narrative has seemed a foregone conclusion in many ways. It feels obvious—and honestly, still does in a sense—that, during the past few centuries especially, a fundamental shift has occurred in humanity’s interaction with the natural world; that the human imagination, steeped as it is in the logic of molecular biology and astrophysics, would be much less apt to ascribe the movements of this world to anything but physical forces and the machinations of atomic matter. After all, the roar of a thunderstorm no longer conjures visions of warring gods. The dancing spirits of the wood have given way to mere moss and bark; the ravings of a madman are not the work of demons, but instead the accidents of our chemistry.

Yet, as mentioned above, Rishmawy and Douthat raise some excellent points, ones that cast some doubt on the sufficiency of this kind of comprehensive narrative. Indeed, it’s hard to read about Antifa witches hexing Brett Kavanaugh while simultaneously complaining about the wholesale disenchantment of the modern world. While both pieces focus on different facets of the discussion, the central question which emerges in both and ties them together is a simple one: if we are so disenchanted, why aren’t we acting like it?

To be more specific, both note the momentum that spiritualism has been gaining as the Christian structures (e.g. church membership, institutional influence, cultural credibility) recede into further disarray. Here’s an excerpt from Rishmawy that captures this angle well:

“Finally, (for us), the big data point is that folks don’t really seem that disenchanted right now. People all across Europe and even the US have become less ‘religious’, but they have not necessarily become more ‘rationalist’, ‘secular’ in the sense of completely rejecting the supernatural, etc. That’s too clean of a blank slate, replacement narrative. No, many recent studies have charted a rise in all sorts of alternative spiritualities instead.”

Similarly, Douthat comments on the current flavors of paganism stepping in to provide the type of existential aid typically associated with orthodox faith:

“However, there are forms of modern paganism that do promise this help, that do offer ritual and observance, augury and prayer, that do promise that in some form gods or spirits really might exist and might offer succor or help if appropriately invoked. I have in mind the countless New Age practices that promise health and well-being and good fortune, the psychics and mediums who promise communication with the spirit world, and also the world of explicit neo-paganism, Wiccan and otherwise.”

He goes on to observe that “there may soon be more witches in the United States than members of the United Church of Christ.”

This response is quite compelling, and correct as well, I think. If nothing else, it refutes the kind of nostalgic pining for the good ol’ days when people actually believed in a world fraught with spiritual possibilities.  Rishmawy and Douthat remind us that those days are still very much here, and in many ways gaining steam.

Yet I still stand by my originally intuited survey of the disenchanted landscape, and feel a few slight qualifications to their position are worth bringing up. To be fair, I suspect they would probably agree with some of my misgivings here. This is obviously anything but a simple question, and I don’t think either of them accept a  sweeping narrative, be it one of total enchantment or utter disenchantment.

First, it’s worth mentioning that Douthat, when listing the various manifestations of pagan practice in our modern world, also refers to the Brett Kavanaugh silliness, albeit with a telling admission. He wonders how many that participated in the wizardry were soundly convinced of its efficacy, and how many were just participating in the latest anti-Trump zoo coming through town. I’m reminded here of free speech stunts by Lucian Greaves and his gang over at the Satanic Temple as a similar example of spiritualism-as-politics. In either case, one can certainly find the true believers beseeching Father Satan for his blessed curses, but it’s also fairly obvious that the demographic mostly consisted of eager trolls wearing pentagram T-shirts they ordered on Amazon the week before. These are not contrite adherents, but pranksters or activists mobilizing for a media spectacle, attempting to out-flex their left-wing pals who are merely sharing CNN videos online while they’re out here summoning the dark realm against Herr Trump and his Supreme Court minions.

Of course, my reason for making a mountain out of this molehill is that, to my mind, the trollish weaponization of witchcraft only makes sense in a world which has already dismantled its credibility to a crippling degree. And frankly, whether or not the small crew in attendance were truly children of the devil is somewhat besides the point; I find it more interesting how much media attention the fiasco garnered. Reading and watching the coverage gave the collective impression of observing yet another ploy to oust a repugnant political regime by accruing more clicks and tweets, not the mobilization of ancient darkness on behalf of the good liberal citizenry of America. Here is precisely where the “look how enchanted we actually are” story seems to falter a bit. The degree to which people actually believe this stuff matters, and this seems a hugely important distinction to me. It’s hard to imagine this flippant treatment of a supposedly earth-shattering event playing out within a culture that truly bought into the tenets of witchcraft, and actually entertained the possibility of calling a real spiritual dynamic into motion. At the end of the day it all seemed like a big game, both to many who were present and those watching from afar. This is quite telling, and offers a partial litmus test to gauge where we stand on this question.

Second, along these lines, it seems to me that to merely engage in a critique of the disenchanted narrative immediately demonstrates the extent to which disenchantment has transpired. Even addressing the question acknowledges its relevance to our modern situation. Indeed, in a thoroughly enchanted world, one does not even bother with these sorts of questions; efforts to refute the notion of a magic-less world would presumably be a moot point, with no contextual grounding from which to proceed. The very act of saying “actually, a lot of people believe in horoscopes” implicitly recognizes that many, on the other hand, are convinced it’s all a bunch of hogwash. Citing all the statistics about the emergence of spiritualism is only notable precisely because it is contrasted against what we already know to be true about the world: the old spirits are no longer our close companions.

Third, while the trends noted by Douthat and Rishmawy are certainly compelling, in my estimation simply relying on those numbers and percentages fails to account for the actual character of the beliefs being affirmed in the polls and studies. Merely quoting statistics only gives us part of the story. There is a need here to drill down a bit further and consider the actual potency of the spiritual belief claimed by respondents, which, I would argue, has been greatly diluted. It’s hard to deny that even the most devout spiritualist one can find today is nested within a radically different world than their counterpart in times past. Here’s a fun example: people used to worship planets back in the day; we now toss around the prospect of flying to them in space ships.

So then, what constituted adherence to a spiritual worldview during ancient or medieval times is altogether different than that passing as such now. For the skeptical reader, this is illustrated brilliantly in Eugene Vodolazkin’s recent tale Laurusthis interview with Rod Dreher and Vodolazkin and this review offer a great survey of the compelling case formulated via narrative throughout the book. Whereas an individual then (15th century Russia in Laurus) would have been firmly embedded within a saturated spiritual framework deriving its machinations from an external supernatural realm, I suspect that if one were to drill down to the very core of many modern spiritualist beliefs and practices, they would still find them rooted in an inescapably materialistic grounding—think Sam Harris voodoo naturalism here. And, even when one does find the most adamant modern spiritualist, they’re still getting their medicine from CVS, not the village witch doctor. Rather than being afforded a sort of pervasive dominance, there is a sense in which these spiritualities have been allowed to occupy small pockets of our lived experience instead. The result at a social level is predictably disorienting: not a wholesale acceptance of a mystical reality, but rather a strange cocktail of scientism, rationality, and the persistent human yearning for cosmic connection and meaning.

Perhaps most significantly, this increasing spiritual incredulity has even found its way into our churches.  This is noteworthy precisely because of the inescapably supernatural character of Christian teaching. Remember the bit about the man who claimed to be the Son of God, performed miracles, and then eventually rose from the dead? Or when he was conceived, but not really, because the Holy Spirit—of a triune Godhead, don’t forget that part—took care of that? Against this backdrop, many—both within and without the Church—find themselves in the uncomfortable position of acknowledging the cultural and institutional value of religious practice, while increasingly unable to resolutely affirm even the most basic supernatural claims of orthodox teaching. Corner any intelligent, well educated attendee on a Sunday morning, press them hard on their belief in the veracity of every ounce of the supernatural stories coming from the pulpit, and you’ll get a lot more hemming and hawing than you might expect. Increasingly, the strident materialism of our intellectual zeitgeist holds too strong a claim on their sensibilities for such unremitting affirmations. Of course, speaking it out loud is often the thing which reveals to us that which we had been content to tuck away, safe from discomfiting examination. I’m reminded here of Tolstoy in Confessions, reflecting on his return to the Russian Orthodox Church:

“When listening to the church services I tried to grasp every word and give it meaning whenever I could. At mass the most important words for me were ‘Let us love one another in unity.’ But I disregarded the words that followed—’We believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost’—because I could not understand them.”

(A pdf of this short book in its entirety can be found here. It’s hard for me to recommend it highly enough.)

With all this considered, let me offer here a position that I think incorporates the truth coming from both narratives, and allows for each to offer their own unique insights. As I see it, we are indeed far less enchanted than we ought to be, yet much less disenchanted than we might expect. The reach of science, rationality, and supernatural skepticism is increasingly ascendant; somehow though, there still remains stubborn limitations to its powers. Ironically, my sense is that those limitations actually reside deep within our human nature, bolstered by an embedded immunity to the best contrived efforts of the modern scientific project. We are spiritual creatures. We also happen to inhabit a profoundly spiritual world.

The fascinating dynamic at play here is that while this remains true, there are few circumstances which are capable of bringing us face to face with these sorts of admissions. All the trappings and noise of the modern world render the conditions necessary for such reflection extremely difficult to achieve. Consequently, it is only in rare moments that we afford them the kind of time and weight which they deserve. It is also rare that when we happen to do so, we are able to escape less convinced of our spiritual constitution than we had originally conceived. The more one spends time in isolation, accompanied only by their own human impulses and the old spirits animating the natural world, the more they become convinced of their participation with and existence within a spiritually saturated reality.

I recently came across a short film from The Atlantic which beautifully captured this truth. It portrays the life of solitude which Alexandra de Steiguer, the winter caretaker of an island off the New England coast, undergoes for a season each year.



The film is haunting, yet magnetic somehow. While I was left to ponder many things after watching it, perhaps the most salient was the deeply spiritual undertones of such thorough isolation. As one progresses from shot to shot of the abandoned buildings, of the structures which humans have erected and then left for a time, they feel that to neglect these sorts of questions would be to leave a gaping hole in the film. To come upon these markers of human civilization devoid of their occupants evokes an uneasiness that demands attention. The absence of noise raises all sorts of supernatural questions.

To their credit, the filmmakers do address this: de Steiguer speaks of the “welcoming” presence which inhabits the island, claiming that if ghosts do indeed haunt the grounds, they are “extremely kind to me.” She relays an episode in which she discovered a wayward kayaker who had wandered into one of the buildings; before encountering each other, both heard suspicious sounds and feared a ghost was roaming the halls.

In this vein, when watching through the film, one begins to gain a glimpse of just how much this kind of pervasive isolation awakens us to all the spiritual dynamics we had missed before. In that sense, it both confirms the case made by Rishmawy and Douthat as well as tempers it with the appropriate qualifications.

We have not escaped our religious impulse. Modernity has not shattered our human proclivity for spiritual communion with each other, our surroundings, and with God; yet it has also done a masterful job of hiding this reality from us. I prefer to envision the encroachment of disenchantment using the imagery of a veil. It has been thrown up and left in place for long enough, disconnecting us from our ability to abide fruitfully in this enchanted world.

Perhaps then, only a radical freedom from the noise of our world affords us the ability to reconnect with the enchantment it still can provide. For this we will continue to yearn, ever more so as the veil of disenchantment increasingly removes us from our spiritual communion with God’s creation.

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