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The Wizard of New Zealand

Reenchanting

The Wizard of New Zealand
The Wizard of New Zealand

For his eightieth birthday the Wizard of New Zealand reflected in the Press (the Christchurch newspaper) on the disenchantment of our contemporary culture.

Drawing on the formative work of Max Weber, the Wizard described his own 38-year contribution to the culture of Christchurch (the city where I live) as a non-fictional, non-commercial, wizard.

Weber saw the world being robbed of mystery: our culture sees mystery as negative; we no longer seek to enter into mystery but to solve it rationally; we seek to conquer mystery.

Is the church listening to this challenge by the Wizard, by Weber?

Christmas is one of the times in the year when we can still be captured by a season of enchantment – and even then Christmas time clings onto enchantment by the skin of its teeth. Just. And then really more for children than for adults.

Having relentlessly smashed our inherited images, signs, and symbols, protestant iconoclasm turned its destruction on all that it had left – words. Biblical Higher Criticism dismembered stories, leaving dead words on its autopsy table. [Little known Science fact: If all the blood vessels in your body were laid end to end… you would be dead.]

Fundamentalists, antitheists, and the insipid are three natural results of the disenchantment.

Fundamentalists reject the enchantment of our spiritual world, accepting instead a flat rationalistic literalism. Antitheists are the shadow side of fundamentalists. Like fundamentalists, they also do not go beyond a flat rationalistic literalism. Rather than accepting the flat literalism as the fundamentalists do, antitheists reject it. For fundamentalists God is scary. For antitheists God is silly.

The third category, that I here call the insipid, is that category that one meets so often in churches: led by clergy who, if they have training at all – it consists in a university degree in the dismembering of the scriptures. These clergy have little to no liturgical study and training. Sacraments have been desiccated to things that occur solely in one’s head. Bells, smells, and symbols are reduced to a couple of candles on a table (if you are lucky). Vesture is degraded to what the majority of Christian history would regard essentially as underwear. They hold to the last vestiges of the outward form of godliness but deny its power.

Many of the mystery-starved in our contemporary culture understandably turn to crystals, scientology, cults, and anything that is a “privatized, idiosyncratic, personally satisfying stance and practice that makes no doctrinal claims, imposes no moral authority outside one’s own conscience, creates no necessary personal relationships or social responsibilities, and can be changed or abandoned whenever it seems not to work for the practitioner.”

Gandalf
A currently popular wizard

Meanwhile, the majority of the disenchanted sacralise money or grown men running around a field with a ball. Film might be one of the last places where real enchantment is still experienced (but even there, the flickering lights of cell phones in the cinema are the warning sparks in the dry grass where the suspension of disbelief is so easily burnt away destroying even this “temporary escape from our mundane lives“).

When I hear stories of people walking out, or tempted to walk out, of Christmas Midnight Mass, because even there all the enchantment has been beaten out of both symbol and story, I know it is time for serious re-evaluation.

We desperately need to rediscover the contemplative. We need agility in the apophatic. We need training, study, and formation in liturgy and symbol (well beyond getting the words right). We need to rediscover midrash – that the understanding of a story is found through telling another story.

Being fully human depends on it.

image source 1 and 2

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42 thoughts on “Reenchanting”

  1. Great Bosco
    Really appreciate your putting this together with philosophical thought and the beloved Wizard who was so engaged with the Cathedral in his Christchurch career.
    I’m right with you on the apophatic – may there be more mystery and sitting with dis-ease and unknowing. More engagement with the no-thing.

    1. Thanks for your encouragement, Sande. This post is important to me and has been growing for quite a while; I hope its message is heard by many and acted on at least by some. Blessings.

      1. George Armstrong

        Thanks a million for your great contributions Bosco here and elsewhere and a productive New Year to you.

        Your comprehensive survey of the fruits of disenchantment address complex realities which cry out for close – and very sensitive (pecause so “personal”) and probably very gentle exploration. In this respect your initial (as I hope it will be) burst of enlightened energy is very much an initial thing which may put off some of those who feel themselves targeted.

        The other thing which fascinates me is your comments on the Wizard of Christcurch who is indeed a Mystery all by himself, a sort of institutional Mystery who will certainly never by demystified – I hope. As a non-institutionizable institution he deserves a lot of the kind of contemplation that you are promoting.

        It is so heartening to expect a rebirth of liturgy and of the spiritualities associated with it, whatever forms they may take.

        More anon and hopefully from many pens/computers.

  2. Great post Bosco. I have been thinking similar things recently (but you have expanded and expressed them much better than my fragmented thoughts). A local church with declining membership is being turned into a cafe style centre. While it is great to open the church up to others, who might otherwise not venture in, there seems to me a danger of ‘demystifying’ the space. The planners have wisely IMHO sought to keep a ‘sacred area’, but I still think to enter a sacred space, perhaps spacious and uncluttered, an area that engages our senses in a very specific way, is an important component of the mystery and sense of liminality.

    It is also important, that we have a Gospel that is supported by 21C theology, as a viable alternative to three groups that you have identified.

  3. You and your website are one of a handful of spiritual sites I follow. Loved this article. I was a lay carmelite for a short whole but ended up evolving into a non consistent, non practicing catholic. I am currently reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. This topic alone provides for an interesting juxtaposition on the subject of mystery. But Kant’s argument is that knowledge can be gleaned without any empirical knowledge or past experience– a Priori. How so? I am still early in the book and it is still a mystery to me. Everything I don’t know is a mystery to me. Mysteries abound–especially in the metaphysical realm. I am hoping Kant does not dispel all the mystery too soon for me in the book. So I digress. How can we as individuals move towards contemplation, or rather a contemplative lifestyle? Is it putting away our gadgets and making time for quiet and reading spiritual writers? Are mystery and contemplative lifestyles necessarily intertwined?

    1. I am so pleased, Rusty, that you find a home in the community here. Good luck when you get to thinking through synthetic a priori knowledge 🙂 I don’t think that gadgets and mystery are inherently in conflict. I do agree it is important to make space, and time, and not over-cluttering our lives, and not amusing ourselves to death. Blessings.

  4. Hear! Hear!

    Of course another word for this is ‘Holy’ although that often gets purloined by literalist moralists

    Sad that so many churches think the answer is ‘relevance’ which means a stripping away of anything remotely Other, and also that much children’s and youth ministry mindlessly panders to the same instincts

    But not all . . . 🙂

    Blessings on your musings, Bosco!!

  5. Julianne Stewart

    I increasingly think that discipline or “faithfulness” is crucial to our experiencing a sense of enchantment or mystery. I have been re-watching “Of Gods and Men”, the film about the French Cistercians killed during the civil war in Algeria in 1996, which, among many things, shows a deep integration between a lifetime of faithful following of Christ, a deepening of the mystery of their relationship with God in Christ and the love which led eventually to their deaths. And today I also coincidentally read something from Michael Casey on the Rule of St Benedict. In writing of the spiritual life as expressed in monasticism he notes: “We do not stay at anything long enough for it to begin to work its magic on us” (Road to Eternal Life, p.174). It is important to persevere, to stay with what spiritual journey we have committed to. Having said this, it’s important to acknowledge my frequent personal failures in living up to this ideal!

    1. Thanks, Julianne. I have long found the story of the Tibhirine Cistercians inspiring, and the movie (as my post suggests movies still do) enchants that. The monks were reading the book you mention when I was on retreat, and I have since purchased it, but not started it. Drawing from your examples, I wonder if another word might be “stability”, the Benedictine/Cistercian vow. Blessings.

  6. For someone who has become completely disenchanted with the church it is so heartening to discover these wonderful words. More please.

    1. Thanks, Sue. And sorry, and totally understandable about your disenchantment. I constantly meet wonderful, ordinary (non-church-going) people who are extraordinary; and encounter church experiences which (to me) have all the required elements there but no fire lit. Blessings.

  7. “a university degree in the dismembering of the scriptures”

    As a new professor in an Anglican seminary (sorry, “theological college”), let me say that I think you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    Thank you for your commitment to the Mystery of our Tradition, Bosco. I’m doing my best at my end to rehabilitate it in theological education.

    By the way, in the “fun” category, last night I assisted at a 1662 BCP Holy Communion — a “historical reconstruction” for the benefit of students learning liturgical history. Surplices and hoods. Ping-pong position at the altar (I was pong), a traditionally baked pure wheaten loaf (I was the baker!), metrical psalm-singing from Sternhold and Hopkins, and, best of all, an actual, honest-to-goodness first edition 1662 copy of the BCP from our library’s rare books collection for me to read from. I provided the congregation with a booklet that included Eucharistic devotions by Andrewes, Brevint, and Vickers, to help them “actively participate”. One communicant said to me afterwards that the experience of entering and kneeling in the chancel at the Offertory was “transporting”. Not a bad result!

    1. Thanks, Jesse. Yes, I am convinced that it is possible (necessary) to be rigorously academic, committed to all that is accepted and good in contemporary scholarship, and also to hold to mystery and enchantment. And fun. And next time (unless you did it this time) you do your historical reconstruction – please video it, and consider uploading it to YouTube (at least send it to me privately). Blessings.

  8. What a lovely post, Bosco. Thank you for the wisdom of the Wizard. Each year, either in Advent or sometime during the Christmas season, I post the following, which reveals my thoughts on enchantment.

    A favorite passage from one of my favorite books is the quote below from Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”. Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte, two young Englishmen, meet at Oxford in the period between the two world wars. Charles is not a believer, and Sebastian is from an aristocratic Roman Catholic family. After they’ve been friends for a while, Charles brings up Sebastian’s faith and Catholicism. What follows is the dialogue between the two:

    (Sebastian) “Oh dear, it’s very difficult being a Catholic!”

    (Charles) “Does it make much difference to you?”

    (Sebastian:) “Of course. All the time.”

    (Charles) “Well, I can’t say I’ve noticed it. Are you struggling against temptation? You don’t seem much more virtuous than me.”

    (Sebastian) “I’m very, very much wickeder,” said Sebastian indignantly.

    (Charles) “… I suppose they try to make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?”

    (Sebastian) “Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”

    (Charles) “But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”

    (Sebastian) “Can’t I?”

    (Charles) “I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”

    (Sebastian) “Oh yes. I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”

    (Charles) “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”

    (Sebastian) “But I do. That’s how I believe.”

    I love the passage, because Sebastian describes how I believe, too. It’s very much the stories, the myths (not myths in the sense of something that’s not true – myths in the sense of universal truths) that draw me into Christianity.

    1. Thanks, June. A lovely quote. How does it work for you to repost a piece more than once? I think about doing that – but tend not to. Have you read the Life of Pi? And/or seen the film? If not – please do. Blessings.

  9. Thanks eveyone for such inspiring, interesting posts. As such I am now renting Of Gods and Men, may even buy Brideshead and Road to Etenal Life!

  10. Bosco old chap. Thanks for bridging the gap between the real ever-changing world, which is mysterious and full of magic, and the world based on lies by frightened control freaks.
    However I was shocked to see that you allowed a picture of an well-paid actor in the wicked cinematic world of lying commercial illusions to be placed next to my picture. Both both of us are described as “wizards”. Actors in escapist films and characters in books are often the bane of real wizards.

    I love fictional films and good actors like Sir Ian, and adore fantasy stories, but we must never mistake fiction for reality or let the spin doctors throw throw fairy dust in our eyes just to make money or gain political power over us.
    Some advice from a real wizard for readers of your excellent website-
    “Avoid Kant, give up on Reason… follow your feelings and (if you need, as I did, to reason your way out of reasoning) plunge into the strange world of A.N.WHITEHEAD who sees and explains that the cosmos is essentially unpredictable creativity driven by feeling.. not objects in space moving purposelessly towards heat death”. Truly awesome!
    Perhaps Henri Bergson(elan vital) is a better starting point for the journey.
    Logic Love and Levity
    Jack

    1. Dear Wizard,

      I wonder if there is a real virtual really virtual way to frame a comment!

      I befriended Whitehead in a Level 4 Philosophy of Mathematics course at Canterbury. There were two students in the class, the other audited. Great debates about what a number is, and do they exist? And the examination consisted of a list of words – I had to write everything I could about that word (eg. “truth”).

      Thanks for the visit, the comment, and the logic, love, and levity.

      Blessings.

  11. I have wanted to read Whitehead since reading the awesome graphic novel called LogixComics. I will do so for sure now. I watched Of Gods and Men last night and it was excellent. Thanks readers for the suggestion.

  12. I have just, belatedly, discovered your blog of January on Reenchanting. A fine piece. Here is my affirming two cents worth, lines from John Keats in which helaments the disenchanting effects the fruits of the Enlightenment were producing even then. His ‘philosophy’ could be seen as the Enlightenment’s ‘love of sophistry’.

    Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,
    Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
    Empty the haunted air, the gnomed mine,,
    Unweave a rainbow.

    The late Peter Witty and I played this out on the NZ Prayer Book Commission when it seemed new revisions would lose the “angels and archangels” at the Sursum Corda, and Cranmer’s “the thoughts of our hearts” in the opening Collect of the old Communion Service.

    This threat of disenchantment of the world also was a recurring theme in my 1998 book, Moving Between Times.

    Brian.

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