Monday 22 June 2015

Converting modern Man. Which comes first: Christianity or re-enchantment? (Or, the synergistic twin evils of nihilism and alienation)

Owen Barfield (slightly edited from an interview with Schenkel):

My book Saving the Appearances (1957) was intended as a contribution to the healing, in the general mind, of the universally presumed Cartesian split between matter and mind - a paradigm-shift which I feel must precede the restoration of any spiritual dimension to the social structures of the West.


The two great problems of modern Western Man are nihilism and alienation.

Nihilism comes from the death of God, specifically the loss of Christian faith - so that life has lost objective reality, and has no purpose - therefore his life lacks direction and adds-up to nothing; the whole thing feels meaningless.

Alienation comes from the abstraction and literalism of modern thought; so that each Man feels solipsistically-isolated inside his own head - detached from public discourse, detached even from his own thoughts and feelings; which seems arbitrary, distant and irrelevant from the objective public world. Alienated modern Man does not participate; he is cut-off from the world; the world is lifeless, mechanical, deeply boring.


The Nihilism stands in the path of re-enchantment of the world; prevents a restoration of child-like participation in reality - because all meanings seem like arbitrary fantasies, and any healing seems as if based on make-believe. When nothing is really real, then modern Man cannot re-establish contact with reality. The death of God means that we cannot cure alienation.


And alienation blocks the path to Christian renewal - because when Christianity is conceptualized in the modern, alienated mode of thinking; Christianity becomes meaningless. To modern Man, even if Christianity is true, it seems irrelevant to the alienated soul. When the world is regarded as dead clockwork, the Gospels are just another story, just another set of rules, just another bunch of threats and promises.


This is the predicament of modern Man - he is caught in a pincer-grip: he cannot be saved by Christianity, because he is doomed by alienation; he cannot be saved from alienation because he is in despair from lack of Christianity.

So which comes first: the objective reality of Christianity or restored animism and re-enchantment?

Barfield says the first priority - even before Christianity - should be healing our state of alienation (or, the Cartesian split, as he calls it) - and I believe he is correct, for the following reasons...


Christianity comes from a pre-modern world, which simply takes for granted aliveness and the meaningfulness of the non-human. But Christianity in a world of scientism, a world of bureaucratic and legalistic discourse, cannot feed our starving souls in the way that it should.

To the typical modern Man, Christianity is perceived as the same kind of thing as the legal system, or a state office, or an NGO. It is a structure, a system, an establishment, a rulebook and a code of conduct. If modern man simply becomes a normal Christian, he will find that the moment-by-moment experience, the texture of his living, has not changed.

He will be the same-old alienated self, leading the same-old dull, un-engaged, life-at-a-distance.


The answer is that the healing of alienation should come first, but must be regarded as only a means to the end of a proper Christianity.

From the Romantic and Transcendentalist poets and essayists, through Jung, through neo-paganism, through Joseph Campbell, to some of today's Positive Psychologists; there has been no shortage of non-Christians who offer to cure alienation and re-enchant the world. But even if they delivered everything they claim, the fundamental problems of modern life - its nihilism - would be unaffected.

We might feel alive; but we would regard this feeling as arbitrary, merely subjective, a delusion - a temporary psychological state soon to be terminated by circumstances, disease, age or death.

However, if (instead of being the program of non- or anti-Christians) this re-enchantment was embarked-upon explicitly and purposively as a seamless preliminary leading directly into Christianity; then the synergy of mutual destructiveness between nihilism and alienation would be thwarted.


If this analysis is correct, then it highlights the futility - or at least extreme difficultly - of attempting to convert a typical modern Man directly to Christianity; because a single step conversion process cannot overcome the dual-blockage of alienation and nihilism.

What is needed is a double-stage conversion process, which addresses both aspects of the problem.



Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

"To modern Man, even if Christianity is true, it seems irrelevant to the alienated soul."

Yes, this is exactly the problem. Even if Christianity is true, God is just another being with his own plans and purposes -- in a universe already full of such beings. What makes his purpose the purpose? What makes his meanings really meaningful, rather than arbitrary and subjective like the meanings produced by other minds? The mere existence of God -- even a perfect, loving God -- solves none of the really frustrating metaphysical problems. Whatever it is that solves the problem of nihilism for so many Christians, it must be something deeper and more fundamental than what most people think of as typical Christian beliefs -- some basic unarticulated assumption without which the surface doctrines of Christianity are metaphysically useless.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - In a sense, what is missing is paganism.

Christianity was mostly built-on, added-onto paganism (apart from when it was built on Judaism). Pagans were usually easily converted to Christianity, which they recognized as superior - but they brought with them all sorts of assumptions abut the reality of the soul, that it survived death, that 'nature' (or at least some of nature) was alive and conscious and in communication with men, transformations of souls and bodies, soul travelling in sleep and trances... all sorts of things which bound men into the world; made them feel at home in the world.

Converting modern men to Christianity is a different and much more difficult business than converting pagans; because habitual nihilism is inclined to rear-up and attack anything which threatens to provide purpose; perhaps because nihilism is equated with realism, and realism is felt to be necessary to survival.

Modern Christianity (and by 'modern' I mean over the past few hundred years!) can be an awfully thin, dry gruel - following rules in a dead world (much like being a functionary in a bureaucracy).

I expect that is why charismatic/ pentacostalism is the fastest growing type of Christianity worldwide (apparently) - probably because it is (or can be) full of spiritual signs, healings, miracles etc - very shamanistic - very animistic.

Another direction for opening out is mysticism.

Of course there are dangers in all of these, yes they are all risky directions; but as Barfield said (paraphrase) - You can't ever do *anything* if you keep stopping because it *might* go wrong.

David said...

Another post that is 'just what I needed to hear' Bruce. I do wonder how you keep doing that but again what are 'coincidences' really? Another metaphysical assumption in action; nowadays I prefer to assume meaningful links to what I experience from reality and what is brought to my attention by conscious agents playing a role in my mortal education.

The initial quote from Owen Barfield resonated with me because of the 'Cartesian Split' observation. I have felt for a long time that this was a mistaken 'finding' of philosophy which has then echoed through the ages since Descarte; effectively severing the link of the modern man from his embedded reality. The mind-body duality is now universally assumed as fact and in some ways seems like a surgical severance of the soul from its animistic context. Indeed, it seems so counter to the intuitive beliefs of magical thinking that something important happened here to confound the modern man further still in the enlightenment.

Reading this post reminded me of scene from an old movie with Robin Williams that I watched recently called 'What dreams may come.' The film itself was
a mixed bag and had a very nauseating Hollywood feel at times but, unusually for a Hollywood film, it did tackle some serious spiritual themes with some earnestness, sensitivity and surprising insight. There is one scene that particularly came to mind on reading this post. Robin Williams character has just died and his soul begins to experience a re-enchantment, including a reversal of the usual mind-body duality e.g. Thinking of a thing can make it happen, being able to travel in time, space, through lived mortal memories at will, etc. Far-fetched but also, at least for me, an inspiring glimpse into imagining what post - mortal life could be like and how our metaphysical assumptions in modern, nihilistic and alienated mortality are quite different to how things actually are once the mind has reconnected to reality. Here is a link to the film review if it is of interest:

Nicholas Fulford said...

There is a sense of alienation from nature - I experience it at any rate. We have constructed a highly artificial world, and my backpacking hikes prove this to me again and again as I feel restored by the direct experience of nature. Yes my old bones hurt, and mistakes can be lethal - though with proper care, skill, and intelligence the risks are acceptable. As stated, however, my return to nature brings with it a sense of reconnection, of being once again a part or the warp and weave of existence. It is a tonic to me, and I find it most unfortunate that more people do not avail themselves of it.

Nihilism - well that depends doesn't it? I can negate the symbols and still experience something that has tremendous state altering power. I can dance, and play music, and experience a sense of both unboundedness and Presence. Emotionally these experiences are very satisfying, though I approach them through negation rather than affirmation. I don't see anything particularly wrong with the affirmative way, except that it can create divisions and conflict over issues of belief and practice. I have also seen it used politically where a message is grafted onto it to by leaders who are far too concerned with matters of ego, power, money and state. Being an "introspect", I have an aesthetic preference for parting the veils of my delusion to arrive at something far closer to direct experience. Infinity in it countless variations entrances me in a way that stopping at a symbol does not. For me the correct use of a symbol is as a talisman, to revitalize, not to act as a substitute for or a marker on a map to delineate the borderlands where order and chaos intertwine.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ David "Another post that is 'just what I needed to hear' Bruce. I do wonder how you keep doing that but again what are 'coincidences' really? "

Thanks. Insofar as this really is what you need, it cannot be my doing - at least not directly.

bbrown said...

Nicholas Fulford's ideas seems close quite to Eastern Orthodox, including the use of icons. I do think we can learn something from the Byzantine tradition.