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The obstacles to religious enchantment in a secular age
It is open to us as long as we don't preclude a call from God
 
"The conversion of Saint Augustine" by Fra Angelico.
"The conversion of Saint Augustine" by Fra Angelico. Wikimedia Commons

In the week and a half since I wrote critically about philosopher Charles Taylor's view of religion in our supposedly "secular age," the online conversation about the topic has gone in an unexpected direction, becoming a debate about the character of religious experience and conversion.

First, David Sessions mounted a partial defense of Taylor, arguing that under modern conditions conversions to and from religious belief are distinctive in that they tend to involve a mixture of experience and rational reflection. This is certainly the way Sessions describes his own de-conversion from fundamentalist Protestantism to his currently secular outlook — and he insists it's important that the person undergoing conversion in either direction not "abandon intellectual rigor." By which he seems to mean taking account of the latest findings of critical biblical scholarship and contemporary trends in academic theology.

This led Noah Millman to deny that Sessions has accurately described the character of religious experience, which is often more radical and involves the "experience of being commanded," the "feeling that an authority" is giving instructions that must be obeyed. Millman concludes that those trying to understand religious experience (including Sessions) won't get anywhere in "start[ing] from the proposition that God's commands ought to be reasonable."

Finally, Rod Dreher seconds Millman, using as evidence some passages from a memoir by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a lesbian cultural studies professor who underwent an intense religious experience, converted to Christianity, and subsequently married and had children with a man. Here is Dreher's summary of her account of her conversion:

She has a numinous experience in prayer, one that convinces her that God is real. Even though she does not feel that anything she's doing is wrong... she is told by the Bible that it is wrong, and now she's experienced a numinous presence that she interprets as a manifestation of the God of the Bible.... She concedes that the biblical view not only seemed unreasonable based on what she believed to be true, but it also felt unreasonable. And yet, how was she to deny her mystical experience? [The American Conservative]

My own modest contribution to the conversation is simply to say that I think Millman and Dreher are quite right about this. Religious experience — in modernity no less than in premodern contexts — transcends intellect and reason. After the revelation has ended, one may employ reason to make sense of it and determine its meaning, but the experience itself, phenomenologically speaking, often involves an extra-intellectual and extra-rational call from beyond the realm of merely human thinking and reflecting.

Here is a passage (worth quoting at length) from the controversial political philosopher Leo Strauss that does better at capturing the texture of a certain kind of classically monotheistic religious experience than anything I've ever read:

God's revealing Himself to man, His addressing man, is not merely known through traditions going back to the remote past and is therefore now "merely believed" but is genuinely known through present experience which every human being can have if he does not refuse himself to it. This experience is not a kind of self-experience, of the actualization of a human potentiality, of the human mind coming into its own, into what it desires or is naturally inclined to, but of something undesired, coming from the outside, going against man's grain; it is the only awareness of something absolute which cannot be relativized in any way as everything else, rational or nonrational, can; it is the experience of God as the Thou, the father and king of all men; it is the experience of an unequivocal command addressed to me here and now as distinguished from general laws or ideas which are always disputable and permitting of exceptions; only by surrendering to God's experienced call which calls for one's loving Him with all one's heart, with all one's soul, and with all one's might can one come to see the other human being as his brother and love him as himself. [Strauss, Liberalism Ancient and Modern, 232-233]

God can call at any time, at any place, overturning a lifetime of thinking and acting and living — including a lifetime of thinking and acting and living within established, settled religious traditions. The call requires and demands an act of surrender to an externally issued, absolute, unrelativizable command.

Read in the light of Strauss' description of primal religious experience, Sessions' insistence that the potential convert not abandon "intellectual rigor" appears to be an example of how one can foreclose the possibility of religious experience by refusing it pre-emptively. Accepting the authority of critical biblical scholarship and academic theology (among other modern intellectual pursuits) may guarantee that the authoritative call of God will never be heard, rendering genuine religious experience impossible.

And that, more than anything fundamental about modernity as such, is what I think Taylor is really talking about when he describes the challenges faced by the devout (or potentially devout) in the modern world. "Enchantment" and "disenchantment" apply not to historical epochs but to individuals. And there are a lot of individuals in the modern world who have been disenchanted — by a combination of skeptical intellectual developments and a sense of human self-sufficiency or pride. We think we've figured it all out — or that we eventually will — on our own, without God's help. And so we ensure our own disenchantment.

But the possibility of enchantment, of hearing the call, of receiving the command, and of undergoing conversion — all of it remains a living option, in our time no less than in premodern eras, so long as we don't refuse ourselves to it ahead of time.

 
Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also a consulting editor at the University of Pennsylvania Press, a former contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.

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