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.