When I was five years old, I decided that I was going to prove the existence of Santa. I pulled out my Crime Catchers Science Kit on Christmas Eve and sprinkled invisible powder all over the fireplace. When I woke up the following day, I fully believed in my heart that when I shined the UV light over the hearth that I would see bootprints in the dust and put to rest the age-old question. Science killed the magic for me that day.
Science displaces magic
The Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution have brought incredible new knowledge and discoveries. But, in the wake of this advancement, we have lost our capacity to see the sublime and transcendent. The philosopher Charles Taylor says that our world is no longer “enchanted” by the sacred. We are disenchanted.
We are in a secular age
Five hundred years ago, atheism was unthinkable. Now theism is untenable.
Even just twenty or thirty years ago, everyone went to church, or at least felt guilty for not going to church. Today, church attendance is in steep decline, and most don’t even attend church on Easter.
For our medieval forebears, society was grounded in a higher reality. People lived in an enchanted world animated with disembodied beings. Today, we perceive meaning internally, and we value our independence.
The premodern self was “porous” and vulnerable to possession or curses. In contrast, the modern self is “buffered” and insulated from outside interference. Thus, we no longer see disease as a demonic incursion or mental illness as psychic possession.
Finding enchantment in a secular age
The problem with all of this skepticism is that it leaves many of us longing. As a result, anxiety, depression, and loneliness are on the rise. In Hunting Magic Eels, Richard Beck refers to this as “the Ache”:
“The Ache is the photographic negative of enchantment, the hole that’s been left in our lives because we’ve turned our attention away from God. The Ache is our disenchantment with disenchantment, our doubts about our doubts, our skepticism about being so skeptical.”Richard Beck, Hunting Magic Eels
Investigating this Ache is the first step on our way back to enchantment.
How do we begin to explore this Ache? I think it starts with experience. It’s about encountering burning bush moments. The Celts described these locations as “thin places” where the distance between heaven and earth is much closer. It might be a physical location, like a temple, cathedral, or mosque. It might also be a sacred moment.
Taylor provides another helpful analogy. He describes our reality as an “immanent frame”. This frame is a box that contains the natural order and keeps out the transcendent. We all live in this frame. For some, the ceiling of this frame is open and porous. These inhabitants regularly perceive glimpses of the supernatural. For others, the ceiling is “solid brass”. Their experience of reality is confined by what they can see and prove.
The way back to enchantment involves finding the thin places and experiences that help us see through the reductive frame that imprisons us.
I remember the birth of my first child vividly. Even though I could describe the entire process rationally and scientifically, something shattered the ceiling of my immanent frame in that hospital room. The beauty and absurdity of that moment temporarily transfigured the world around me and opened my eyes to something more. The magic came alive for me at that moment.