Thinking about Disenchantment: An Assist from C.S. Lewis for Understanding Charles Taylor

In pre-modern times, people lived in an “enchanted” world. There was a world of spirits, demons, and moral forces. God acted as the bulwark against evil, the means by which to hold these forces at bay.

Taylor_Secular_compThis means that the world is intrinsically less manageable, wilder, and more mysterious; I am in a certain sense, at the mercy of the elements. But it also means that the world is intrinsically more meaningful, because my life is found in relation to an enchanted cosmos of which I am a part. I am vitally connected to a world full of powers that can possess me, inspire me, and move through me. This is what Charles Taylor means by the porous self: I am open and vulnerable to the outside world of which I am an intrisic part.

There are ghosts of this way of experiencing the world in our language (I’m drawing from Owen Barfield here). We still use the word pan-ic but no longer have the sense of Pan acting upon us; we enjoy music but are no longer sensitive to the presence of muses; we feel the wind but no longer feel the breath of a god. In words we catch glimpses of older worlds of meaning. In many parts of the world, this enchanted consciousness continues: the world is alive and filled with spirits, powers, unseen forces. But in the Western world, the enchanted cosmos has been lost, and the porous self has been exchanged with the “buffered self” (detached and disconnected from the world, all the meaning comes from within). How did this happen?

When we talk about this disenchantment, there are really only two options. Either the world was never enchanted in the first place, and that now all of the superstition has been scraped away by science, and so we have begun to live in the world as it truly is. We have, in a sense, emerged from Plato’s cave of ignorance into the sun of scientific certainty.


But the other possibility, the one that Taylor wants us to consider, is not subtraction, but addition. In other words, we have constructed an “immanent frame” that shuts out the transcendent and prevents the possibility of enchantment (though this frame has cracks). This would not be like emerging from a cave but rather descending into one, or building a stone castle and then believing that the cave or the castle, with its stone walls and ceiling, is the only real world.


If you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis’ book, the Silver Chair, it puts this in an imaginative form. The heroes Jill and Scrubb descend deep into the earth, into the Underland, where a witch enchants them and begins to convince them that the Overland and everything in it is simply an imaginative projection. They look at a lamp and imagine a much bigger lamp, and call that the sun. They look at a cat and imagine a much bigger and more powerful cat, and call that Aslan. These imaginative projections, the witch tells them, do not truly exist. (If you’ve studied theology, this is the basic idea of Ludwig Feuerbach, who deeply influenced Marx – God is an imaginative projection of our best human qualities).


In any case, in the Silver Chair, here’s how the conversation goes:

Jill: “I suppose that other world must be all a dream.”

“Yes. It is all a dream,” said the Witch.

“Yes, all a dream,” said Jill.

“There never was such a world,” said the Witch.

“No,” said Jill and Scrubb, “never was such a world.”

“There never was any world but mine,” said the Witch.

“There never was any world but yours,” said they.

You see, in the story, “disenchantment” – the stripping away of superstition – is actually an active enchantment that causes the heroes to forget the real world.

Lewis will explicitly use this language in his sermon The Weight of Glory:

“Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”

The parallels aren’t perfect, but I think that this is also what Taylor wants us to consider: that the secular is an accomplishment, a feat of human construction, and ironically a construction from theological materials. Taylor’s work is not an argument for Christianity. It is more of a provocation, an attempt to question the frame that is taken for granted in secular society, an attempt to turn a secular “spin” of reality into a more open secular “take” on reality.

Is it possible that we are in the secular frame, not because superstition has been subtracted, but because an immanent frame has been added, blocking out what is actually there? Why do so many people in the non-Western world still experience reality as enchanted, charged with force and meaning? Is it possible that for all our sophistication we have cut ourselves off from a further form of fullness that goes beyond exclusive humanism?

I certainly don’t want to return to pre-modern times. But the disenchanted world is arbitrary, alienating, and above all, lonely.

Four Favorite Books from 2014

I read about 70 books this year, including a little over 50 new books. Most of the new books were non-fiction (for my PhD studies), while the majority of my re-reads were fiction (e.g. Narnia, LOTR, Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, the Brothers Karamazov).

After a year spent sifting through words, here are the four books that stood out in 2014.


Book that Made Me Think the Most: 

When God Talks Back by Tanya Luhrmann

This was one of the first books I read this year, a book on evangelical spirituality by a non-Christian sociologist. If you’ve ever wondered how a “relationship with God” looks like to a sympathetic outsider who embeds herself deeply in evangelical culture, this is the book to read. While reading Luhrmann’s account, I often felt an ache in my stomach. Occasionally I felt patronized, but more often I felt known, as if I was reading my own story. I have written a full review here.


Best Work of Fiction: Lilith by George MacDonald

MacDonald is best known as the writer who “baptized” C.S. Lewis’ imagination, and Lewis’ guide to heaven in The Great Divorce. Thus most people come to MacDonald through Lewis, who is simultaneously MacDonald’s greatest advocate and greatest albatross. Lilith is MacDonald’s greatest work; it is The Great Divorce on steroids. While Lewis’s preference is to lead readers along with his clear and incisive prose, MacDonald plunges the reader into a fantastical world with all the haziness and poignancy of a dream. The final pages brought me to tears and stirred my hope as few books have ever done.

secularBest Academic-Type Book for Ministry: 

How (Not) to Be Secular by Jamie Smith

Smith’s book is a synopsis of a much larger book, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. That book is IMHO the most important book for understanding modern secularity, but is so dense and imposing that few will read it. Thankfully, in just over 100 pages, Smith has managed to make Taylor accessible for a wider audience. While no substitute for reading Taylor, Smith offers the very next best thing. I have recommended it countless times and we are using it for a class I’m assisting with in January. Essential reading, especially for those in ministry.

Death-by-LivingBest Book for Living Well: 

Death by Living by N.D. Wilson

Having loved Wilson’s earlier Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, I set out to read Wilson’s newer volume last year. I set it down, but when I picked it up again halfway through the year, I could not put it down. The subtitle summarizes its argument: “Life is meant to be spent.”It it will be particularly meaningful for people who are over 30 and who feel like life is moving too quickly. Chapter eight, The (Blessed) Lash of Time, is worth the price of the book; reading that chapter was a numinous experience.

In 2015, I’m hoping to read more new fiction. I also am planning to take my major comprehensive PhD exams, so it may be a banner year for books!

What was the best book you read this year?

What is there in my heart that you should sue so fiercely for its love?

What is there in my heart that you should sue
so fiercely for its love? What kind of care
brings you as though a stranger to my door
through the long night and in the icy dew

seeking the heart that will not harbour you,
that keeps itself religiously secure?
At this dark solstice filled with frost and fire
your passion’s ancient wounds must bleed anew.

So many nights the angel of my house
has fed such urgent comfort through a dream,
whispered, ‘your lord is coming, he is close’
that i have drowned half-faithful for a time
bathed in pure tones of promise and remorse:
‘tomorrow I shall wake to welcome him.’

Geoffrey Hill, “Lachrymae Amantis”

“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (14): Eucatastrophe

This post will conclude the series. I hope you have enjoyed it! Published on the last day of the year, it is an important reminder of the hope that drives our purpose in the new year.


When I think of Tolkien, the first word that comes to my mind is eucatastrophe, a word he coined. Eucatastrophe is his word for those sudden and un-looked-for upheavals of joy that bring tears to our eyes. These moments afford us a rare and unusual grace, for as we experience them we are convinced that evil will not triumph in the end. This is the taste of Joy “beyond the walls of the world” that Tolkien wrote about so memorably in On Fairy Stories. Samwise Gamgee experiences this glimpse of Joy, when in the depths of despair in Mordor, he suddenly sees a white star:

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

Eucatastrophe, in literature and in life, is like that star! It fills us with hope because we know that in the face of such beauty, the Shadow is only “a small and passing thing”.  We experience eucatastrophe when Eomer lifts up his sword in despair at the coming of the Corsairs, only to find that the ships bear Aragorn himself: “Thus came Aragorn, son of Arathorn, Elessar, Isildur’s heir, out of the Paths of the Dead, borne upon a wind of the sea to the kingdom of Gondor….”

We experience it when Samwise Gamgee discovers at the end of Return of the King that Gandalf is alive. The passage is worth quoting at length:

But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever knownBut he himself burst into tears. Then as sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.

“How do I feel?” he cried. “Well I don’t know how to say it. I feel, I feel” – he waved his arms in the air – “I feel like spring after winter, and sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs I have ever heard!”’

Sam’s question, “is everything sad going to come untrue” is at the core of the Christian hope, and Tim Keller writes: “The answer of Christianity to that question is – yes. Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.”

Eucatastrophe pulls our hearts towards evangelion, the good news that Jesus is Lord and He is returning to put the world to rights.

The inhabitants of Middle-Earth may have had a hope without guarantees, living with a fundamental uncertainty of what happens in the end. But we living on this side of the Great Eucatastrophe, have much more hope than that! Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is given to us as a deposit of our future inheritance (Eph 1:18). Peter tells us that we have been “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet 1:3).

We may die, but Aragorn’s words at his own death are instructive: “In sorrow we must go, but not despair. Behold! We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!”

Our living hope denies, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, universal final defeat. It does not deny sorrow; it denies despair.

Have ye then no hope?

Take heart. There is hope – more than you could dream.


“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (13): To Play Our Parts Well

This series has largely dealt with the theme of hope in Middle Earth. But what of the free peoples of Planet Earth, living in the primary world? What vision of hope does Tolkien offer us? A few themes stand out.

First, he offers us a conception of hope that takes seriously the darkness and evil that we find in the world. In our world, as in Tolkien’s, there are plenty of reasons to lose heart. Hope does not mean that we can foresee or conceive how the injustices of his world could be put to rights. It is instead the trust, the estel of Elves and Men, that a world loved by its creator will not be utterly abandoned to darkness and destruction.

Second, Tolkien gives us a powerful portrait of the perseverance and courage that can come from this kind of hope. Sam’s heroism is that of the common foot solider who faithfully accepts his place in the mission, however great or small that place may be. We are part of a larger picture, and we have no way of knowing how significant our role is in the tapestry God is weaving.

bilbo gandalf

This is the lesson that Bilbo Baggins articulates so memorably at the end of The Hobbit.  After an amazing adventure during which he has performed great feats of bravery, Gandalf says to him: “You don’t really suppose, do you, that all of your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck, just for your sole benefit? You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you, but you are only quite a little fellow in the wide world after all.”

Bilbo’s response is to laugh and to say, “Thank goodness!”  And we can say “thank goodness” with him, because we know that while we are called to play our part with all our might, the world does not rise and fall on our effort alone.  There are other forces at work, and after we do all we can, they may still have another move.

In fact, when responding to a reader who had complained about Frodo’s failure, Tolkien said that it was actually impossible for Frodo (or any incarnate mortal) to destroy the ring themselves.  And yet, Frodo played his part:

Frodo deserved all honor because he spent every drop of his power of will and body, and that was just sufficient to bring him to the destined point, and no further. Few others, possibly no others of his time, would have got so far. The Other Power then took over: the Writer of the Story (by which I do not mean myself), “that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named” (as one critic has said).

This is what we are called to do as well: to use every drop of our power of will and body to do as much as we can do. To play our parts well, and then in humility to step out of the way, and allow other powers to act: to let God be God.

Next: Eucatastrophe (The Conclusion)

“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (12): Tolkien’s Ragnarok

(I told myself that I would finish this series before the end of the year, and I think there are at least 2-3 more posts left. This post will touch on the eschatology – the end times – of Middle Earth.)


Tolkien wrote that eucatastrophe, the unexpected upheaval of good signifies that there will not be universal final defeat. So what kind of an end, if any, did he envision for Middle Earth?

Tolkien seemed reticent to speak of it beyond the tensions explored in this paper. Indeed, if the history of Middle Earth is supposed to be a pre-history of Planet Earth, then it follows that the eschatology of Middle Earth is ultimately bound up in the eschatology of the Primary World. There are, however, a few strands that we see in his earlier writings, which are worth examining. The first is the prophecy of “a greater music still”, which will be sung by the Ainur and the Children of Iluvatar:

Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Iluvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Iluvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Iluvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the the comprehension of each, and Iluvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.

Once again, this prophecy is from the Elvish perspective, and it is not spoken in terms of certainty but rather possibility: “it has been said…”.

There are also references to a final climactic battle at the end of days. Though Christopher Tolkien edited it out of the published Silmarillion, his father wrote to Milton Waldman that the Silmarillion

ends with a vision of the end of the world, its breaking and remaking, and the recovery of the Silmarilli and the ‘light before the Sun’ – after a final battle which owes, I suppose, more to the Norse vision of Ragnarök than to anything else, though it is not much like it.

The battle is not like Ragnarök principally because the forces of Good are not ultimately defeated!

At the very beginning of the Silmarillion, when Varda makes the stars, she puts two constellations in particular that anticipate a final battle at the end of days: Menelmacar (Orion), swordsman of the sky and Valacirca, the “Sickle of the Valar and the sign of doom.”

In later versions of this story, Menelmacar comes to be identified as none other than the cursed Turin Turambar.  While there are multiple differing stories as to who kills Melkor, in the end it seems that that honor goes to Turin:

Thus spake Mandos in prophecy, when the Gods sat in judgement in Valinor, and the rumour of his words was whispered among the Elves of the West. When the world is old and the powers grow weary, then Morgoth, seeing that the guard sleepeth, shall come back through the Door of Night out of the Timeless Void; and he shall destroy the sun and the Moon. But Earendel shall descend upon him as a white and searching flame and drive him from the airs. Then shall the Last Battle be gathered on the fields of Valinor. In that day Tulkas shall strive with Morgoth, and on his right hand shall be Fionwe, and on his left Turin Turambar, son of Hurin, coming from the halls of Mandos; and the black sword of Turin shall deal unto Morgoth his death and final end; and so shall the children of Hurin and all Men be avenged.

It seems that Tolkien feels the need to vindicate his arguably most tragic character: who but Turin should slay Morgoth? This takes on added significance if, as discussed above, we see Turin as typological for humanity: valiant but self-cursed. This does beg the question, however, of how a human character like Turin is allowed to come back for this battle. But then the Author of the play is free to bring his characters back on the stage after the play seems to be over.

Might this be a hint of the hope of resurrection? If so, it is a “hope without guarantees”, at least for the free peoples of Middle Earth. At the very least, since Tolkien is writing a myth and not just a story, these impulses signify his attempt to give all his characters justice in the end.

Next: Hope in the Primary World (Some Applications)

“Have Ye Then No Hope?” (11): Sandy Hook, Sadness and Hope

So there I was happily updating my Tolkien series on a regular basis, and the last six weeks of the semester hit me like a train. I am not beginning to emerge from the chaos and beginning to do things that have been otherwise left undone.

This post, which is a continuation of the last one (from October) seems particularly poignant given the horrific shooting at an elementary school which left 28 people, mostly children, dead. I place my hand over my mouth, no words to speak of that horror, only grief. This week in general has been emotionally exhausting, and my heart has been heavy with sadness.


But somehow Tolkien is always a tonic, and a short time spent in his world always gives me hope for this one.

Last time I stopped at the point where Arwen binds herself to Aragorn, foregoing immortality for the sake of love. Yet Elrond tells Aragorn that he can only have her hand if he reclaims the throne of both Gondor and Arnor. It is under this impossible doom that Aragorn strives for many years, valiantly opposing the enemy, but unable to foresee how his and Arwen’s hopes could be ever fulfilled.

After many years Gilraen (Aragorn’s mother) is “aged by care”, ready to die before her time, unable to face the encroaching darkness. Aragorn tries to comfort her, “Yet there may be a light beyond the darkness” but she replies with a linnod: “Onen i-Estel Edain, u-chebin estil amin” (I gave Hope to the Dunedain, I have kept no hope for myself).”

In other words, her role was to bear, raise and protect the heir of Isildur. In doing so, she has given humanity its best hope repelling the darkness. And yet, no hope remains for Gilraen.

Gilraen’s statement is paradigmatic of Tolkien’s vision of the hero: a true hero surrenders to their role in the story. This is why Peter Jackson can put the line “I keep [no hope] for myself” in Aragorn’s mouth in the cinematic version of Return of the King without doing violence to the story (though he does so in other ways!). Gilraen, Aragorn, Bilbo, Frodo, firemen, parents, teachers at Sandy Hook and countless others keep no hope for themselves and yet in doing so they give hope to others.

The choice to call Aragorn Estel signifies the kind of hope that he embodies. Despite the prophecy, there is no careful campaign to restore Aragorn to the throne of Gondor. Estel is not the kind of hope that comes from experience, an expectation rooted in weighing the odds and calculating the chances.  Aragorn embodies the hope that comes from an almost blind trust, rooted in a certain conviction about the nature of the world. It is the conviction that providence exists, and such providence only works through the obedient actions of heroes.

For Tolkien, to go on without hope (amdir) is to do the right thing even when you cannot possibly imagine how things could be put right after all the wrong that has occurred, even if you cannot conceive how things could work out for the best.

The rationale here is that even if consolation cannot be imagined, there are larger forces at work in the world, and when we come the end of our strength, when we have no more options, perhaps they will take over.

At a time like this, we need this reminder.

Every small action of love, courage and compassion is a refusal to give in to the darkness that threatens to swallow us all. It is the defiant choice to believe that despite all appearances to the contrary, hope remains for humanity.

For surely in a created world, loved by its Creator, there will not be “universal final defeat”.

Kyrie Eleison.