It was almost a century ago that Max Weber, the father of sociology, looked at the tide of history surging past him and declared the spirit of his time was no spirit at all. Disenchantment, for Weber, would be the hallmark of a new secular age dominating the new century. Religion would disappear and be replaced by a rationalism which, in Weber's eyes, would present its own problems. It would be a colder world, an "iron cage" in which people were enslaved to bureaucratic systems of efficiency, calculation and control.
"Culture’s every step forward seems condemned to lead to an ever more devastating senselessness."
Sound familiar? While there is much to Weber's description that still rings true, something happened on the way to our fully secular, fully disenchanted world. We never got there.
The rise of dangerous religious fundamentalisms of all stripes shows clearly that the post-modern world we inhabit today is anything but secular. But the need for a connection with what can only be called the spiritual dimensions of life also remained. It took new forms as diverse as interest in yoga and Buddhism to attempts to build more traditional religious communities that could be harmonized with a scientific world.
On a more intimate level the disenchantment that was also to be our fate never made it to its full tyranny. Just as the human world as a whole was growing colder and more machine-like, individuals kept finding ways to create vitality and wonder, like grass growing up from cracks in the pavement. While the march of "progress" had its share of ways to disenchant human experience, our ability to re-enchant the world in a scientific culture is only beginning to become clear to us today. It's is taking forms, including science itself, that would have taken Weber by surprise.
Last week I was lucky to participate in symposium entitled "Awakening to Wonder: Re-enchantment in a Post-Secular Age." The symposium was held at Concordia College, a Lutheran liberal arts school in Moorhead, Minnesota. The speakers made for strange bedfellows. There was Michael Saler a professor of History at University of California, Ronald Thiemann, a former Dean of the Harvard Divinity School and Lutheran Minister, Mary Evelyn Tucker, a scholar of Eastern Religions at the Yale School of Forestry and Judith Valentie a PBS journalist and award-winning poet. Some of us where atheists and some, obviously, were not. What we all had in common was a conviction that the world we inhabit today is anything but dis-enchanted and that new and radical forms of re-enchantment have emerged through science, technology and spiritual endeavor.
For my part I argued from my book, The Constant Fire, that science is an explicit means by which we encounter a very human sense of life's sacred dimension. Michael Saler looked at the ways "virtual worlds" enchant us through fictions which draw together communities of fan-participants (e.g. everything from Sherlock Holmes to the Lord of the Rings). Ronald Thiemann looked at the roots of daily encounters with enchantment within the history of protestant traditions. Mary Evelyn Tucker focused on the ways in which the natural world inspires enchantment and drives the imperatives to preserve it.
While our ontologies did not always overlap there was a broadminded sense that to be human meant to encounter the world's richness in ways that always create and enhance meaning. And meaning, that most human of concerns, was the key. So often in conversations between those inclined towards a spiritual focus and those of a scientific nature polarizations are swift pull the discussion into absolutes. But this conference, with its focus on the experience of enchantment, revealed gateways to discussion that led in entirely new directions that were entirely relevant to this singular moment in history.
The conference ended with poet Judith Valente weaving it all together during a final panel discussion. She focused on the students and their own sense of enchantment and the future. That is where my own sense of wonder was engaged. These kids were impassioned. Some where atheists, somewhere devout in their faith. But all were looking for ways to talk to each other and not past each other. Most importantly they were aware of the challenges their futures hold and hungry for ways to keep their own sense of wonder and vitality alive.
At a time when the adults running the country seem so intent on backing us all into respective corners, their engagement and openness was an enchantment all its own.