Our Disenchanted World

For some reason that no one I have read has been able to explain “religion” is a word assiduously avoided by any self-respecting intellectual as though it is identical with superstition or Christian fundamentalism. And, at the same time, a number of very good minds have struggled with the questions that are most troublesome in our times, attempting to place their collective fingers squarely on the faint pulse of a dying culture — so faint that some have even gone so far as to call America a “cultureless” nation. Perhaps so. Perhaps culture is already dead, if the word is taken to mean the heart and soul of a society that raises it above a collection of bodies that happen to live in the same geographical region.

In any event, two modern thinkers who have actually had the courage to introduce the word “religion” into a discussion of the plight of humanity see its absence as one of the central problems in today’s world. Nietzsche famously said at the end of the nineteenth century that “God is dead.” What he meant, I take it, is that humans have taken His place: they don’t think they need Him any more. But if we take the word “religion” to mean more than simply a belief in a God or gods, if we take it to mean a belief in something beyond human science and discursive knowledge, something deeply mysterious that lies always just beyond our grasp, then perhaps we come closer to knowing what is wrong with our sick culture: we have lost any sense of the spiritual, whether it be God, the starry skies above, or the beautiful and perplexing world around us that we cannot possibly grasp in its full mystery: “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in [our science and technology].”  If we agree with Hamlet, then we must turn in our intellectual credentials. Or so it seems.

But, again, two thinkers, Christopher Lasch and Carl Gustav Jung, have openly expressed their conviction that today’s world suffers from lack of soul. As Lasch says in his chapter dealing with religion and culture in The Revolt of the Elites, speaking about Americans in particular,

“A lust for immediate gratification pervades American society from top to bottom. There is universal concern with the self — with ‘self-fulfillment’ and more recently with ‘self-esteem,’ slogans of a society incapable of generating a sense of civic obligation. For native as well as foreign observers, the disinclination to subordinate self-interest to the general will comes uncomfortably close to capturing the essence of Americanism as the twentieth century approaches its end  [in 1993]. . . . [This suggests a broader field of disregard for others and a lack of acceptance of fixed values.] We have to ask ourselves, therefore, what accounts for this wholesale defection from standards of personal conduct — civility, industry, self-restraint — that were once considered indispensable to democracy. . .

“An exhaustive investigation would uncover a great number of influences, but the gradual decay of religion would stand somewhere near the head of the list.”

Now, bear in mind that Lasch is well aware of the growing numbers of people who attend church in America — even as congregations shrink at traditional churches and the buildings are converted to apartments or taverns. But he is speaking about religion in the broader sense, as a sense of who we are in relation to something beyond ourselves, involving awe and mystery, a sense of self defined in terms of something Else, attention turned away from the self to the world. Religious people live religion, it permeates their lives. It is not something that just happens once a week in a large building with comfortable seats, coffee, and good “fellowship.” And it may or may not involve a personal god. It is something that demands that we come out of ourselves and feel deeply the obligations we all have to one another and to the earth on which we depend for our very lives.

Jung, the other thinker with nerve enough to talk about religion, contrasts “modern man,” as he calls him, with “medieval man,” by which he means Western men and women. How totally different did the world appear to medieval man, says Jung. Indeed, that world was permeated by spirit; the heart spoke louder than the five senses; the self was subservient to something beyond itself; there were eternal verities that required no proof, and they were worth dying for; hope lived in every heart despite the invariable suffering that was a certainty in a short life. We have dismissed the whole lot with a wave of the scientific hand as mere “superstition.” As a result

“The modern man has lost all the metaphysical certainties of his medieval brother, and set up in their place the ideals of material security, general welfare, and humaneness.”

And, I might add, we expect these things as a matter of course. However, without religion, or something resembling religion, we remain, in the words of Karl Mannheim “disenchanted,” left with a world that is “flat, uninspiring, and unhappy.” Jung spent much of his time examining modern men and women as they “searched for a soul,” suggesting ways to recover lost spirituality without embracing worn-out creeds. He became convinced that for all our material progress and sophistication, we are simply lost in a maze made up of our own ignorance and presumption, convinced that technology will show us the way. We have so many “things” and we live such pleasant, smug lives. But we don’t believe in anything outside ourselves, sensing at a deep, subconscious level, that we are really not up to the task. Is it possible for Western men and women to regain once again the sense of enchantment that once permeated the world? I wonder.



7 thoughts on “Our Disenchanted World

  1. Two points resonated with me. The first, “…It is something that demands that we come out of ourselves and feel deeply the obligations we all have to one another and to the earth on which we depend for our very lives,” almost made me cry, as it seems that many people have lost this gift of caring for each other and for our planet.

    The second, “…without religion, or something resembling religion, we remain, in the words of Karl Mannheim “disenchanted,” left with a world that is “flat, uninspiring, and unhappy,” made me think of some intellectuals that I know. They do care about the earth, yet they lack apathy for their fellow man and are often needy, impatient and judgmental. A friend of mine once used the term ‘soul rot,’ which fits. They openly state that they are atheists. They seem quite dead inside, and it saddens me.

    You also mentioned ‘enchantment; my walk in the Andes a few days ago was pure bliss, and I loitered every five or so minutes to absorb the panoramic views and note the absence of man-made sounds. One doesn’t need to escape to the Andes, however; even a park or a museum will help one reconnect with a soul that has atrophied.

    Trading the televisions and telephones for books with eloquent prose or reconnecting with nature might help them reclaim their sensitive side, and by doing so they might also hear the whisperings from a higher power.


    • I must admit that while I was writing this I was thinking of you and your world. You are the exception to the rule. You delight in your world and the people around you are obviously happy even though they have so little. It’s not about what we have but what we love. You are an inspiration to us all, Z.

  2. Hugh, very thoughtful post. To me your last sentence says it all. And, Z’s comment embellishes your point further. We need to believe in a greater purpose, otherwise we are destined to live unfulfilled lives. This could be religion, or it could be in a devotion to help our fellow man or woman. Or, it could be in search of an enlightenment. Like Z’s example, experiencing profound beauty or excellence, is nirvana.

    But, at its heart is a soul. If we are narcissistic, then we lose our soul to ego. If we give ourselves to others or a passion of excellence, beauty, religion, then we have a larger goal. Our soul is nurtured as we give of ourselves, we get back so much.

    Not totally off the subject, but there is data that shows people who attend AA meetings have more success if they believe in a higher being. The author of the study notes it is not that there is a divine hand making your alcoholism become more controlled, but a belief in something bigger than you are. It gave you a purpose to beat this demon of alcohol.

    I am reminded of the line from the baseball movie, “Bull Durham.” In short, the ballplayer notes that if you believe you are on a winning streak because of some outside influence, then you are. In other words, the person will perform better because of this belief whether it is related or not.

    Thanks again for your post. Z, you are a great commenter, no matter where we find your remarks. Never cease offering your learned counsel. Take care, BTG

  3. Hugh, eloquently and strongly said. There is much in here to actually use as a basis or guide for how to live better lives. Along with what Z and btg quoted, I also like your line that truly “religious people live religious lives.” Every day – and as much as humanly possible. Trying to do that should immediately open us up to living more selflessly, to act and live for others. There are efforts within behavioral science to bring more religion or qualities of religion into the practices of building richer inner lives. Dr. Brene Brown at the University of Houston is one such leading advocate, talking a lot about such topics as worthiness and “an imperfect life,” meaning it’s OK to be imperfect and allow yourself more time for thinking of others and the wonder of things around us. Of course, I really enjoy science – hard science as much as the theoretical. I get excited about Mars rovers! But I also share Whitman’s famous view – we can’t let data overwhelm or replace the beauty and mystery of what is actually before our eyes:

    “When I sitting heard the astronomer
    where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
    How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
    Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
    In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
    Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

    • Science can not only inform but it can inspire. But we cannot insist that it will yield all the answers. That’s called “scientism,” and that I reject. Thanks to you and Walt for the insights! And Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

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