Friday, 22 July 2011

Modern Christianity = Ancient Christianity - Animism


What proved important (and that slowly) about the new astronomy was not the mere alteration in our map of space but the methodological revolution which verified it.

This is not sufficiently described as a change from dogmatism to empiricism. Mere empiricists like Telesius or Bacon achieved nothing. What was fruitful in the thought of the new scientists was the bold use of mathematics in the construction of hypotheses, tested not by observation simply but by controlled observation of phenomena that could be precisely measured.

On the practical side it was this that delivered Nature into our hands. And on our thoughts and emotions (which concern a literary historian more) it was destined to have profound effects.

By reducing Nature to her mathematical elements, it substituted a mechanical for a genial or animistic conception of the universe.

The world was emptied, first of her indwelling spirits, then of her occult sympathies and antipathies, finally of her colours, smells, and tastes. (...)

The result was dualism rather than materialism. The mind, on whose ideal constructions the whole method depended, stood over against its object in ever sharper dissimilarity.

Man with his new powers became rich like Midas but all that he touched had gone dead and cold.

This process, slowly working, ensured during the next century the loss of the old mythical imagination: the conceit, and later the personified abstraction, takes its place.

From CS Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, 1953. pp 3-4 



Animism/ paganism (cosmology of animate universe ) ->

Christianity (cosmology of animate universe plus) ->

Dualism (mind and matter) ->

Materialism (matter) ->

Nihilism (nothing matters)


A slippery slope!

Deny animism (reality as 'spiritual': animate, intentional and in relation) and then you get dualism, with spirit restricted to the mind in the context of a dead, insensible, mechanical, atomic universe. But then the spirit seems insubstantial and implausible so the mind is explained as just material; and then there comes nihilism - because dead, insensible, mechanical matter cannot reason, understand or explain itself: cannot know reality. So then (i.e. now) there is nihilism - denial of all knowledge, denial of reality, reality as mere delusion.


Modern Christianity equals Ancient Christianity minus Animism.

Christianity was added-to animism: that is how it was for 1500 years: the fullness of Christianity includes animism.

From the end of the Middle Ages animism was progressively, relentlessly subtracted from life; and from Christianity: the impulse was secular, Christianity merely went along with it.


Christianity remains after the subtraction of living-ness from the universe; Christianity remains in a lifeless and mechanical universe; but what remains is indeed remains. Incomplete, ruined.

Christianity without its animistic fullness remains fully effectual but becomes purely salvific.

Without the animistic universe this worldly life becomes merely a preparation for the next: A life in a dead universe awaiting death.


I'm sorry: we simply have-to recover the pre-modern cosmology of an animated, a genial universe.

The falsity of alternatives is demonstrated by reductio ad absurdum. The truth of the animistic universe is attested by its naturalness, spontaneity and universality.

There comes a point when failure must be admitted, when we must humbly cease from imposing senseless error upon ourselves and our culture, and return to the consensus of humanity and what we all of us knew as children.



  1. Over morning coffee just now, I finished chapter VII of Barfield's "History in English Words," then booted up my computer and read this blog post. Here is the ending of that chapter:

    It is so difficult, even when we are reading the old books themselves, to blot out from our consciousness the different meanings which have since gathered round the words. If, however, we can succeed in doing this, we cannot but be struck by the odd nature of the change which they have all undergone. When we reflect on the history of such notions as humor, influence, melancholy, temper, and the rest, it seems for the moment as though some invisible sorcerer had been conjuring them all inside ourselves—sucking them away from the planets, away from the outside world, away from our own warm flesh and blood, down into the shadowy realm of thoughts and feelings. There they still repose; astrology has changed to astronomy; alchemy to chemistry; today the cold stars glitter unapproachable overhead, and with a naïve detachment mind watches matter moving incomprehensible in the void. At last, after four centuries, thought has shaken herself free.

    In case it is not clear from the context, that last "shaking free of thought" is not considered here a positive—or at least not an unmixed—development.

  2. Nice one, Bruce. We can agree on this one.
    I've long looked upon Christianity as a dead relic of something that once lived and gave life. One still honours it for its past achievements, but like Rome: who wants, specifically, to be Roman?

    A Christian Renaissance would be something to see.
    Hardly on the cards, though, is it?

    Hungering for some spiritual base in my own life, animals, birds and trees are as close as I can get to real meaning. They live, they create life, they call the natural world "home". I emulate them, as best I can, in preference to emulating humanity.

  3. Christianity was added-to animism: that is how it was for 1500 years: the fullness of Christianity includes animism.

    An interesting, and not untenable, insight. I have long considered Christianity to be an addition (or completion) to paganism (and, by extension, Protestantism to be a simple conscious rejection of that part). But I had never considered Christianity to be a completion or addition to animism. Does paganism fit into the equations? And if so, where?

    And while the slippery slope argument might be compelling, it neverless remains that Christianity does not posit, and in fact explicitly rejects, a "sentient Universe". So, where do we go with it? Yes, the Creator is both transcendant and immanent. This is one of the great (if not the novelties of Christianity. But God's immanence does not equate to a sentient Universe, though she does yearn for the revelation of the sons of God.

  4. @Daniel - thanks for this - which I didn't know.

    Barfield was different from Lewis and Tolkien in that he seemed to believe in the evolution of consciousness - and perhaps therefore the evolution of humans through various qualitatively different stages - going into the future.

    B self-identified as Christian in his later years (he was an anthroposophist from early adulthood, but later combined this - somehow - with Anglican worship).

    Clearly, B was one of Lewis's best and oldest friends - however their religious views were in substantial opposition; and B said that he never liked or got-on-with Lewis so much after his conversion to Christianity as he did before.

    Indeed, Barfield's views - followed to their conclusion - are *somewhat* akin to those of Weston and some of the baddies in the science fiction trilogy.

  5. @Crow - from where you are, you could potenitally become a Christian in a much fuller sense than most of the rest of us.

    @SN - I am here regarding paganism as 'merely' a more theorized form of animism.

    "Christianity does not posit, and in fact explicitly rejects, a "sentient Universe"

    I don't think that it right - surely the world depected in the Bible (OT and NT) is one in which creation is permeated with meaning and intentionality and something to which humans stood in relationship?

    Surely Jesus Himself seems to regard the world in that way - replete with meaning?

    I think the 'genial' universe (Lewis's term) was simply taken for granted at that time - not explicitly stated nor formally argued - just lived.

  6. The ancients made it clear that we are happiest when we understand the cosmos is a living entity that encourages life, growth and evolution. It is a fundamentally pleasant place which utterly lacks any obligation to be so, thus even hippies tend to see "love" in it (especially when the acid is quality).

    In our modern time, we deconstruct so much that we forget the whole; the whole threatens our conception of selves as little worlds in themselves. So, we break it down, and in doing so, lose the beauty of the interconnected and interacting parts that together as whole are greater than as sum.

  7. After some consideration, I suppose it depends on what we mean by "sentient." If by it, we mean imbued with meaning (as in a work of art... a good one at any rate), or having a telos, then sure, the Universe is sentient. But in general the term refers to conscious. And to say The Brother's Karamozov is replete with meaning or conveying eternal truths is not the say as saying the work is, per se', conscious. The deep consciousness behind the created work does not imbue the work itself with consciousness. The only exception are creatures created specially in God's image, i.e., man.

  8. @SN - you are correct, sentient was the wrong word. I'll fix it.

  9. The mathematical elements of nature exist. They are real. They are true. The non-animist nature of reality exists. (Whether it is a complete description of nature is beside the point: when applied to the matters such science is designed to address, it is correct and true.)

    Are you suggesting humanity would be better served deliberately ignoring truth?

    I can not ever countenance such a position. If Christianity as practiced or taught or lived is weakened or destroyed by the discovery of truth, then there is something wrong with that Christianity.

  10. @Rollory - that's a reasonable point - but ultimately (as I think we can now see, at this point in history) the question is framed wrongly, as either/or.

    The truth of a religion like Christianity is a whole truth but not detailed nor precise; the truth of mathematics is both precise and coherent but extremely partial - indeed there is no way of knowing what, if any, applicability mathematics actually has in the real world (except by 'science', which is neither precise nor coherent in the way that mathematics is - and also is also a partial truth).

    So, I would say that mathematical truth must be embedded in Religious truth, subordinated to it (as indeed it was until probably the middle 20th century, at least residually - pretty much all the great mathematicians having been socialized and encultured in Christianity or Judaism in their formative years).

    What this probably means in practice is that formal, narrow and precise - indeed axiomatic - disciplines cannot be allowed to usurp the truth of religion. If they do we get what we have - numerous separate, autonomous and incommensurable specialist knowledge systems adrift in a sea of nihilism.

  11. @ bgc: you write:

    … mathematical truth must be embedded in Religious truth, subordinated to it … What this probably means in practice is that formal, narrow and precise - indeed axiomatic - disciplines cannot be allowed to usurp the truth of religion.

    Yes. Among the corollaries of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is that formal systems are inherently and inescapably inadequate to a description of any real. The apotheosis of the Theory of Everything toward which physics nobly tends is a precise formal mathematical system that is adequate to cover every aspect of reality exhaustively. Such a TOE would then be capable of generating all the truths that there are to generate about the world, limited only by the time available to perform the calculations. But say, tace Heisenberg, that such a precise formalisation were possible; Gödel has shown that any such formalisation that is also consistent would be capable of expressing truths that could not possibly be demonstrated from its own axioms – that, under the terms of the formalisation, did not follow, and were therefore inexplicable, and unsupported. But if the TOE really were exhaustively comprehensive, then this incompleteness of the abstract formalisation would be the reflection of an ontological incompleteness in the concrete reality.

    This is all just a way of saying that the universe cannot explain itself.

    The only way to rescue such a TOE is to refer it to a more expansive formal system, TOE[2], whose axioms are adequate to ground the truths the lower-order TOE can generate but cannot support. In other words, to do physics you need metaphysics. The fact that to really do physics you need math is just a practical expression of this fact; mathematical truth being a department of metaphysical truth.

    But then notice too that to do metaphysics, you need a supermetaphysics, and to do supermetaphysics you need pretersupermetaphysics. In fact, to think at all, you implicitly need to have (somehow, somewhere)(that is immediately adjacent to any rational intellect, so that it is available thereto) an infinitely deep stack of formal systems, each adequate to ground all the truths of their subsidiaries, in order for any of those truths of their subsidiaries to be true – or, thus to attain concrete expression in a real thing, whether by thought or deed.

    Thus for any one thing to exist, there is a logical necessity that an infinitely deep stack of nested formal systems must first (first logically) have been completed – and the only way to complete a formal system is to express it in some concrete reality. Thus for there to be a thought, or a thing, of any kind, you first need God.

  12. @ Steve Nicoloso & bgc re the sentience of the world according to Christianity:

    Christianity and Judaism do not say that there are no gods, but that, despite their great power, we should not worship them, because they are not God. Only God is God; as the Nicene Creed has it, He is the God [of the] gods. Only the God of the gods is properly worshipped. To make this clear, Christianity calls the gods “angels.” The angels run the world as God’s ambassadors and agents. There are uncounted billions of them, one (at least) for each created thing: each spring, each tree, each man has a guardian angel. Our native sense that the world is alive is then the sense that it is full of angels, and that the natural things about us are somehow thoroughly alive to the influence of the angels. This does not mean that an electron is alive in just the same way that we are; only that our aliveness and that of the electron must have at least some basic elements in common, that go along with being a concrete thing that is responsive to the causal influence of angelic intelligence. If “sentient” denotes our form of aliveness, then electrons almost certainly don’t have it. On the one hand, this is a trivial inference, because if things that are alive differ, their forms of aliveness must differ. On the other, there is no justification for an inference that the electron’s aliveness is somehow less complex or interesting, or less meaningful, significant, or important, in its own way, than ours.

  13. Finally, note the isomorphy between the hierarchy of formal systems, and the hierarchy of the choirs of angels, and the hierarchy of worlds, worlds without end – “in secula seculorum.”

  14. Thanks Kristor - I always find your insights worthy of serious pondering, but I haven't come across any blog comments for a while.

  15. This is such a fascinating subject. I cannot be alone in feeling that we miss something very important in our modern perception of reality, something we sense as very much present in the older literature and in sundry ancient artifacts and architecture. We sense it also in little children and the way they seem naturally to see things before being ‘put right’ by the arid spirit of our age.
    Increasingly, at least for some of us, this spirit of the age is felt as a straitjacket from which we long to be freed.
    As you so nicely illustrate, in just a few hundred years the Western mind has travelled from a situation in which consciousness, both benign and malign, was recognised as present in everything around us, to now find itself in a situation where hardly any consciousness is recognised at all except in man and perhaps some of the higher animals (dolphins, dogs?).
    Even that reduced sentience is in process of being progressively downsized and dismissed as mere ‘brain events’. Even the existence of free-will is questioned, there being only the illusion of such. The whole of existence is seen as just a mechanical outplaying of insentient laws.
    Thus the vibrant pageant of dramatic possibilities, narratives and creative interplay experienced as reality by former ages has been eclipsed and smothered by a new reality, a grey, fatalistic process of dead machinery, with not even the whiff of a person present, just the illusion of one. What a dreadful world we have created for ourselves!

  16. @SoM - well expressed.

    To which can be added, should be added, CS Lewis's frequently reiterated point that IF it is true that 'everything' including ourselves is merely contingent brain events then this undercuts completely all the receding analysis - which is merely the output of contingent brain events. Therefore it is NOT true.

    What I was trying to get at in this post was the extent to which modern Christianity has absorbed this secualr nihilism, such that the Christian message is presented as a Truth in a void of unmeaning. This is, of course, much better (infinitely better) than nothing - but it is neither convincing nor appealing to the human spirit - which thirsts for meaning, purpose and relationship (MPR) with the world: even while ackowledging that world as permeated with evil.

    Hence many of us seek nourishment in fantasy such as Tolkien, Narnia, Harry Potter - where MPR are everywhere - even though such worlds are full of deprivations, terror and death.

    We need - and I mean *need* - to restore to Christianity this MPR - this assumed animism (coming before Christianity, assumed by Christianity, necessary to the completeness of Christianity)

  17. That's it, Bruce. a fine point.
    Christianity sanitized, sterilized and packaged is not Christianity at all.
    Real religion needs heft, odour, bulk, presence.
    It has to do something, not just have the appearance of it.
    A coat one wears, that actually keeps out the cold.
    A song one sings that actually lifts one upwards.
    A suit of armour that actually deflects arrows.
    A salve one uses to actually heal one's ills.

  18. Superb post. Give me my animism back!

    Just curious: Have you read Christopher Alexander? Narrowly defined he's an architectural theorist. But he's clearly using architecture (and architectural theory) as a way of articulating a huge vision of life, science, art, consciousness, living things, the deity ... He makes a distinction between buildings and spaces that have "life" and those that don't, for instance. Seems to me that your view and his overlap quite a bit.

    His major work is a four-part thing called "The Nature of Order." It's, ahem, a wee bit long-winded but I think it's also genuinely great.

  19. Thanks for this. I came here from Rod Dreher's blog.

    I think it is notable that Jesus rebukes both diseases and stormy seas--taken at face value this implies their sentience.

    Perhaps this is old hat for you, but the seventeenth century poet Henry Vaughn was also a devotee of the idea of the animacy of the "inanimate" world. In one poem on the stone of witness in Joshua, for example, he takes that concept as the basis for stones as sentient.

    I have often been struck by the possibility that consciousness is reciprocal, that it is a combination of the sentience of both partners, like a multiplication sum. If my sentience is 1 and a rock's is .000000005, say, then virtually sentience is normally available to me (1 x .000000005 is still .000000005). But if God's sentience is infinite then anything with even the slightest sentience is fully sentient to Him.