My colleague and friend Dr. Jason Baxter has published a delightful quiz at The Imaginative Conservative to show us how thoroughgoingly modern we all are. He takes his cue from Dr. Charles Taylor, whose gigantic book on the modern age argues that we live in a “disenchanted” world—all us inhabitants of the North Atlantic region, inevitably, without any choice in the matter. While our medieval forbears lived in a sacred and magical cosmos, we live in an autonomous, scientific universe.
To be more specific, Taylor says that there were four pillars in the pre-modern world that made it difficult not to believe in God: 1) the enchantment of the world; 2) that the world was imagined as a “cosmos” and not, as for us, as a “universe”; 3) that religious practice was woven into the fabric of the social world; and 4) that pre-modern man even experienced time differently, as a rhythmic unfolding of “sacred” time (or “higher” time) with ordinary, or secular time.
Dr. Baxter offers his quiz to illustrate the point that “we are all ‘secular,’ by which [Taylor] means, denied of the ‘naïve’ experience of religion as encountered in the pre-modern world.” The quiz is a clever piece, much easier to read than Taylor’s behemoth, and carries the attraction that all online quizzes somehow do. You should take or at least read the quiz here before continuing on this page.
[While you’re doing that, allow me to insert an advertisement for Dr. Baxter’s tremendous online Dante course. If you are at all interested in Dante, you should listen to this course; Baxter is among the best. If you are not at all interested in Dante, you should listen to this course; Baxter will get you interested!]
Have you read the quiz yet? Because the rest of my comments depend on your reading the quiz.
OK, now for my comment: I think Dr. Baxter’s quiz inadvertently depends on a false assumption, namely that there is only one possible “enchanted” worldview. If anyone in the modern world were to acquire an enchanted worldview—so runs the assumption—he could only do so by going back to the medieval worldview in all its concrete details. So if you do not jive with vomiting on Fat Tuesday, you are probably a modernist. Either you hold “the” modern worldview or you are a medieval: there is no third alternative.
The problem can be illustrated by supposing an ancient Akkadian takes the quiz. Right away at Question 1 (“On what day was the world created?”), he identifies himself as a modern by choosing option A (“What? This is the weirdest question I’ve ever heard”). He has never thought about the world’s mythic beginning as having a definite temporal relationship to the present day. Question 2 simply puzzles him: “Do you believe that ghosts and goblins are less likely to prowl about the world on Christmas Eve?” Of course he believes in malevolent beings that prowl about and try, e.g., to snatch newborn babies, and of course he believes that sacred times keep them at bay, but he has no idea what we mean by “Christmas Eve”. He skips the question.
Of course, one need not be an ancient Akkadian to find the quiz difficult. Taylor himself says that modern-day citizens of Islamic countries may still have the “naïve” experience he denies to us in the North Atlantic region. But my concern is with us here today in North America or Europe.
Suppose one of us were to forge a new cosmic vision, one that takes in contemporary knowledge about astronomy, for example, but sees that astronomy as “enchanted.” Such a person would remain undetected by Dr. Baxter’s quiz. He would choose some answers that sound modern and some that sound medieval; at several points he would hesitate, failing to see the incompatibility between the choices offered; sometimes all the choices would seem false to him.
Is such a modern, western reader with a newly enchanted vision impossible? Does modernity exclude an intuitive vision of the world as magical and God as the magician, so to speak? I don’t think so. To make my case, I would like to summon a witness who cannot be suspected of adjusting his views to respond either to Dr. Taylor or to Dr. Baxter: G.K. Chesterton.
Chesterton’s little book Orthodoxy does not offer an argument or a theory, but rather describes Chesterton’s intuitive vision of the world. It gives an account of how he sees things rather than a case for how things are. In the chapter titled “The Ethics of Elfland,” Chesterton explains that his pre-reflective vision of the world was gathered from fairy tales, and that in consequence his pre-reflective vision was always of a world enchanted:
Here is the peculiar perfection of tone and truth in the nursery tales. The man of science says, “Cut the stalk, and the apple will fall”; but he says it calmly, as if the one idea really led up to the other. The witch in the fairy tale says, “Blow the horn, and the ogre’s castle will fall”; but she does not say it as if it were something in which the effect obviously arose out of the cause. Doubtless she has given the advice to many champions, and has seen many castles fall, but she does not lose either her wonder or her reason. She does not muddle her head until it imagines a necessary mental connection between a horn and a falling tower. But the scientific men do muddle their heads, until they imagine a necessary mental connection between an apple leaving the tree and an apple reaching the ground. They do really talk as if they had found not only a set of marvelous facts, but a truth connecting those facts. …They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing.
Chesterton goes on to emphasize that the element of astonishment in fairy tales translated for him into astonishment at the world: “These tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” That delicious cool stuff that refreshes us on a hot summer day? You mean you have rivers full of it, literally flowing through the country side?
Of course, this is the boy Chesterton speaking. As G.K. grew to adulthood, one could reasonably expect that he would encounter the grey modern worldview and lose the enchantment of boyhood. But that is not what happened:
Well, I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I have not found any books so sensible since…. But the matter for important comment was here: that when I first went out into the mental atmosphere of the modern world, I found that the modern world was positively opposed on two points to my nurse and to the nursery tales. …I found the whole modern world running like a high tide against both my tendernesses; and the shock of that collision created two sudden and spontaneous sentiments, which I have had ever since and which, crude as they were, have since hardened into convictions.
The shock of this collision between enchanted and unenchanted worldviews led, among other things, to Chesterton’s spontaneous belief in God. Again, his progress was not argumentative but simply a matter of vision or imagination:
The modern world as I found it was solid for modern Calvinism, for the necessity of things being as they are. But when I came to ask them I found they had really no proof of this unavoidable repetition in things except the fact that the things were repeated. Now, the mere repetition made the things to me rather more weird than more rational. It was as if, having seen a curiously shaped nose in the street and dismissed it as an accident, I had then seen six other noses of the same astonishing shape. I should have fancied for a moment that it must be some local secret society. So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot. I speak here only of an emotion, and of an emotion at once stubborn and subtle.
He goes on to recall the modern supposition that “if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork.” And yet in Chesterton’s own experience, young people full of vitality are the ones who want to go on doing the same thing again and again, while old and tired people are the ones who want to do something once and quit. What if marvelous things happening over and over and over again are the result, not of deadness, but of life? What if someone says “Do it again!” to the sun every morning?
Here is how Chesterton explains his shift in view:
This was my first conviction; made by the shock of my childish emotions meeting the modern creed in mid-career. I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were WILFUL. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician. And this pointed a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious; that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.
Chesterton was neither a medieval nor nostalgic student of the middle ages. Despite his modernity, and in part due to his encounter with modernity, he intuitively saw the world as enchanted—in the full, fairy-tale sense of the word. His believe in God was naïve in the sense of being direct, intuitive, and—for him—unavoidable.
Of course, Chesterton’s vision is not the only way forward. We do not all need to see the world through the lens of fairy tales. But Chesteron’s example suggests that a door is open to all of us who would seek a new cosmic vision, a naïve religion—an enchanted modernity.