Monday, September 28, 2009

Here there be magical thinking

Through a bunch of web-hopping (I think from The American Scene to Postmodern Conservative to Front Porch Republic to De Rogno Christi), I've spent the last hour reading a bunch of very abstracted conservative thought with a lot of roots in critical theory as well as theology and probably a bunch of stuff I wouldn't recognize, coming as I do from a completely different direction. I wouldn't say I agree with all or probably even half of what I've read, but I definitely have found it an interesting hour. Anyway, I wanted to reproduce this from Caleb Stegall at De Rogno Christi:

Anglo-catholics like Lewis, Tolkein, Chesterton, Eliot, etc., all understood the Church as a crypt in which the essential and primary blood and soil paganism of Europe was embalmed and allowed to stare up at us out of the waters. Think Tolkien’s ghostly undead kings of the past coming back to help the heroes/true church at its time of need. I don’t know exactly what Tolkien meant by that, but they are a cursed and unfriendly lot. This isn’t really redemption but a lingering paganism that speaks to this not entirely appropriate collaboration and amalgamation between Christianity and paganism in the west, which Protestantism/enlightenment/modernity has tried to efface and now has completely forgotten. This forgetting has caused all kinds of problems which was the most basic point of Tolkein’s books. The foremost problem is that Christianity as a depaganized political religion is Liberalism, radicalized and out of whack with reality in which one must at times do evil and even commit mortal sins for temporal goods that are the charge of those with political power. And then seek absolution in the magical appeasement of the gods. The medieval church allows, or found a way to admit and cope with this. It is a deal with paganism. Take it away and you get a devolution from Protestantism into liberalism. You get the new American personal faith Christianity (evangelicalism) with the magical thinking of overbought homes on ARMS and credit cards and daycare and building democracy in Iraq and all the other delusional magical thinking of late-modernity in the capitalist-state. And you get a whole new class of materialist therapeutic witchdoctors rising up to give the newest incantations: ‘your best life now!’ ‘your purpose driven life!’ or whatever.

So now we see American Christianity “emerging” more and more into universalism. It is in the water. All roads lead to ruin as Eliot knew. And for those who see this, the desire for “tradition” or whatever you call that which is largely lost and haunting us is a partly sick desire to unearth the dead.

We are at a dangerous crossroads. Messing with the dead is dangerous stuff. But it must be done. But like Tolkein understood, it can only be done by the “true King,” by the church, and even this is not without debilitating and compromises. This is connected to what I have been arguing about being able, at least occasionally, to admit that the narratives of tradition and church history are to an extent myths that legitimize what I would call the “mojo” … or the magic … the authority of the church. The simple yet profound truth that at the very bottom, we have very little to go on other than “because the church says so.” So this is in part what I mean by repaganizing … that our churchmen need a hint of witchdoctor in them, or if you prefer, a touch of Gandalf or Merlin. They have “powers” as my kids would say. This is completely flattened out in a rationalistic modernizing deracinated disenchanted liberalizing protestant culture. And the inchoate need for magic and appeasement of the gods gets shifted in very unhealthy materialist directions which can be exploited by those who understand the psychology.

(I know that was long. But come on, it was interesting.) This is fascinating stuff for me for a few reasons. First let me say that I don't really agree with the idea that a depaganized or sanitized church is the same thing as liberalism, largely because I don't agree with what he seems to think about liberalism. Possibly this is because he is using the word in a different sense than any I can think of, and if I were to ask him what he meant maybe that section would become clearer to me in the form of something I with which could agree to disagree.

That said, I find it interesting because I think the general point that a sort of paganism or a magical thinking is endemic to being human is completely true. We all like fairy tales, we are all superstitious to some degree, we all have our rituals and our sense, however vestigial, of some kind of cosmic justice ("What did I do to deserve this?"). For me, as an atheist, this has always been completely decoupled from any sort of intermingling with religion; and as a rationalist with a lot of economic privilege I've had what is probably the luxury of avoiding magical thinking in the sense of lottery tickets, a purpose-driven life, et. al. But it's obvious to me that we have witch doctors in our society, whether they are televangelists, Alan Greenspan, therapists or dieticians. Last year I wrote this:

Current discussions of economics and the economy contain a bizarre contradiction: On the one hand, the Free Market Rulz OK because the economy is too complex, diverse, and fast-moving to be comprehended sufficiently by any planner or regulator. It is, to a certain degree, unknowable and all-powerful, if benevolent. This idea is roughly analogous to ABVC's description of a puppeteer with no will--"the laws of cause and effect. You have a will, but it is not free, it is the effect of lots of causes." [...]

On the other hand, we flatter ourselves that with enough math, studies, models, and theorizations we can understand how these things work.... This effort is roughly analogous to the notion of "seeing the strings", or trying to.

We understand the economy as both a reflection and the driver of our entire world.... This is a bizarre combination of The Economy's being by and of us while simultaneously being completely alien to us. We do things to it, we figure it out and profit off it, we game it, we live in it, but occasionally it completely swamps us. It's a force of nature--it is to us as the sea is to fishermen, or the Euphrates was to Mesopotamian farmers (floods are a central mythic trope in ancient Mesopotamian religion).

Furthermore, even when I come out of my academic funk enough to take the crisis at face value, the degree to which nobody has any idea what is going on or what is to be done about it, and the degree to which any one opinion can be convincingly argued against, certainly suggests that while the phenomena at hand are real, our understanding of them is merely a comforting fiction.

[...] But we persist in believing, very firmly, that policymaking and many other arguably more quantitative fields are rational processes of improvement, whose wildly unpredictable results are owed more to the complexity and difficulty of the problems or questions these disciplines engage than they are to the complete disconnect between what we think we are doing and what is actually going on.

This, of course, is the joke. We think we see the strings, but they are far too long for us to comprehend them as such.... The punchline is that we don't actually understand the economic forces around us, nor do we understand our interactions with them. It's all fooled by randomness with a healthy dose of storytelling and myth. A form of paganism, if you like--believing that human actions affect natural phenomena. (Thank god we burned a Yule log this year, or the sun might not have come up in January either.)

I stand by that. And in my own rationalist, atheistic life, I have still harbored a fascination with the pagan or the mythic. For as long as I can remember I was fascinated by mythological traditions--Norse, Irish, and Anglo particularly--and I've read a few theoretical unpackings of fairy stories (notably Diane Purkiss's At The Bottom of the Garden) that have left me convinced that fairies are the things we fill in in liminal spaces: life changes (from childhood to adulthood, maidenhood to motherhood, prince to king, maturity to old age) and events (birth, death, loss of virginity, quest fulfillment); literally liminal spaces and moments like threshholds, twilights, and borders; unknown areas like forests, the bottoms of ponds, mountain fastnesses.

We still have fascinations with these liminalities, and we still have ceremonies surrounding them. Boomer fascinations with pre-birth rituals like reading baby books and carrying eggs around and such are basically magical rituals intended to make birth and becoming parents easier, to ensure it goes well. We still have sweet sixteens and graduation parties and the insane coming of age ritual known as applying to college (which is a process chock-full of magical thinking). The old magical rituals are basically the same as our current endeavors because they both represent attempts to colonize and control these spaces. Leaving offerings for fairies before, during, or after birth is not that different from, say, insisting that your boyfriend light candles and strew the bed with rose petals when you plan to lose your virginity. Neither will have much effect on how this completely scary and unknowable (till it happens) event goes off, but hey, at least we tried, right? There may not be fairies in the forest these days, but we still make movies about giant octopi preserved in glaciers since the Cretaceous (or whenever) at the bottom of the ocean. Even the notion of extraterrestrial beings who sweep you up in their ships and do weird things to you maps almost perfectly onto the fairy kingdom under the hill.

And of course this kind of pagan ritualism has its analogues in religion. What else is a Confirmation or a Bat Mitzvah? Christmas is famously full of old English pagan rituals.

My point is that even without a personal connection to what one might call a paganized church, and even without what I would call a spiritual identity, I get what he's saying (for the most part) and I find the discussion interesting from the point of view of my own interest in paganism, mythology, and their persistence in a supposedly rationalist contemporary world.

And it's become clear to me that I really need to read more T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis.

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