The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 3 (Fall 2015)

From the Editors

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 3)

Re-enchantment: What is it? Who wants it? Good questions, and ones that we explore from various angles in this issue. But some readers may question why we bother to address the topic at all. They may share the general outlook that informs The Joys of Secularism, a volume of sharply reasoned essays dedicated to the proposition that “building our world on a foundation of the secular is essential to our contemporary well-being; and that such a world is capable of bringing us to the condition of ‘fullness’ that religion has always promised.”

One of the contributors to that volume, Bruce Robbins, a professor of literature at Columbia University, announces his position in the title of his essay: “Enchantment? No, Thank You.” He then proceeds to address the murkiness of the word itself, beginning with the ambiguities of Max Weber’s concept of disenchantment. As Robbins helpfully reminds us, Weber used the German word Entzauberung (the elimination of magic)—itself a loose appropriation of the poet Friedrich Schiller’s word Engotterung (de-divinization)—when he introduced the concept in his seminal 1917 lecture, “Science as a Vocation.” But what Weber meant was never exactly clear. If he intended the word to mean the eclipse of religion in the modern world, then what did he mean in his earlier work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, when he argued that religion, and particularly Christianity, had been responsible for the elimination of magic?

Elusive as it is, Weber’s concept has been generally taken to mean the displacement of the numinous (including, but not restricted to, orthodox belief) by the powers of reason and science, the so-called “rationalization” of the world. And as Robbins notes, “Orthodox belief is not the object Weber is chiefly mourning. Whatever magic is a figure for, nonbelievers suffer from its loss as much as believers do.” Well, some nonbelievers may, but Robbins is clearly among the many who don’t. Indeed, many secularists—and particularly those who might be called secular fundamentalists—see the advance of the rational-scientific perspective not only as a good in itself but also as strong justification for excluding religion from public and political life. To them, the disenchantment of the world is a consummation greatly to be desired.

Up until the last two decades or so, even more moderate believers in the rising tide of secularization, including most Western scholars and intellectuals, regarded disenchantment as the inevitable corollary of progress and enlightenment. But facts on the ground, including certain epochal events, defied received ideas and theory. Not only did religions and religious passions reassert themselves around the world (in both inspiring and terrifying ways), but growing doubts about the overly reductive claims of scientific reason opened the door to new understandings of cause and value, and of their possible connections. If the world had been truly disenchanted in the first place, was it now undergoing a kind of re-enchantment? Or were at least some secularists beginning to have second thoughts about the once and final disenchantment of the world?

At the very least, we appear to have entered a liminal age, poised somewhere between the secular and the postsecular, when the deepest questions about value, meaning, truth, human well-being, and community are being re-examined in light of new understandings (or at least a renewed appreciation) of religion, religious experience, and the very dynamics of religious change. As Benjamin Schewel shows in his contribution to this issue, explanations for the persistence and transformations of religion and our conceptions of the sacred are themselves very much part of today’s global religious and spiritual landscape.

It is hardly news that we moderns tend to see and do religion in highly self-conscious, even consumerist ways. Less and less is religion something into which a person is born and raised; increasingly, for those who choose it at all, religion or some looser form of spirituality is a choice from among (or even within) many possible alternatives, a choice which is subject to the individual’s ongoing subjective evaluations and, in some cases, creative modifications. A remarkable instance of the latter, as contributor Dominic Green points out, is the growing number of self-declared American Christians who quite comfortably embrace reincarnation or other notions that orthodox traditions have long deemed heretical. So, then: Are we all gnostics now?

If the Sea of Faith’s “melancholy, long withdrawing roar” was only a tidal fluctuation, the reverse flow is not bringing back “that old-time religion” so much as exposing the complex interconnections among things we once considered separate and distinct from one another, or even at odds. Some even insist that the world only passed from one form of enchantment to another (see Eugene McCarraher’s essay). Debates about the sacred take subtle and interesting form in our time, whether in attempts to understand the power of images in contemporary culture (see Anna Marazuela Kim’s essay) or in scholarly efforts to subject texts to computational analysis in ways that possibly redefine the meaning of reading and literature (see Chad Wellmon’s essay). Secularity itself, as contributor Matthew Scherer argues, might best be understood as the product of something close to the process of religious conversion:

It is particularly difficult to see how modern secularity is produced by a process of conversion because of the deeply entrenched assumption that “the modern” and “the secular” are the opposite of “the religious”—or, if they are not the opposite of the religious, that they are nonetheless categorically distinct from it…. Conversion seems to require the production of a simplifying narrative that posits a stark rupture with the past.… Modern secularity, I will suggest, is just like this: It presents a stark and simple surface of a free-standing, self-reflective rationality, but this surface enfolds contradictory depths, including persistent attachments to an unacknowledged but inescapable religious past.

Yet at the same time, as contributor Charles Mathewes elaborates, religion, and the deepest impulses that drive people to seek meaning through it, cannot be relativized or explained away by describing them merely as elements of a self-transformative enterprise, a “practice” (in philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s formulation) whose disciplines have little relation to transcendent claims that such a practice may (or may not) make. In short, the locus of authority and agency matter—and indeed matter supremely to those who believe that “fullness” can be found only through acknowledgment of an authority beyond the self.

But the modern world is one in which a modus vivendi must be found among those claiming radically different first principles. Although his essay, “Across the Great Divides” is not part of our thematic treatment, legal scholar John Inazu makes an apposite case (drawn from his forthcoming book) for a stronger, more confident pluralism in American society—a pluralism that, in law and civil behavior, respects real differences of principle and the reasonable expression of such differences: “The right to differ,” says Inazu, “means that we must be able to reject the norms established by the broader political community in our own lives and voluntary groups. We must be able to dissent from those norms…. A political community that fails to honor this right to differ is not pluralistic—it lacks confidence in itself.”

Re-enchantment: Who wants it? The various and often opposing answers to that question animate our times. We can only hope they do so in ways that leave us honoring those differences.

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.3 (Fall 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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