Enchanting a Disenchanted World

In his book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor narrated the long process of disenchantment in […]

Todd Brewer / 9.3.19

In his book, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor narrated the long process of disenchantment in the Western world, where the rationality of the scientific worldview comes to dominate how people live from day to day. In the absence of official religion, Taylor contends that people have made themselves and their authenticity the new means of enchantment. People are not defined by their duties of callings but the pursuit of happiness. In this context, everything and nothing is religious. Food preferences take on moral significance. Political rallies begin to look like church services.  Shopping is no longer a means of meeting needs, but the religious experience of worship in the “cathedrals of consumption.” The list goes on.

As David Zahl recently argued, we live in an age of “seculosity,” where the presumed neutral spaces of modernity is paradoxically infused with ultimate meaning, enoughness. By grace, Christianity disentangles us from the web of seculosities within which we live.

If Zahl aims to de-mythologize the shiny veneer of modern life, an alternate (and complimentary) approach is taken by Glenn Packiam in his book “Blessed Broken Given.” If the retreat of religion has created the space for a new, secular religiosity, this acutely raises the issue of how Christians should view themselves in this world. On the other side of rebuking the encroachment of the world, there remains the new possibilities and promise of living within it—to perhaps see something of God’s providential hand in the day-to-day of life.

This, as Packiam suggests, is a sacramental view of life: “To be sacramental is to begin to see all God’s gifts and handiwork as icons of His glory and grace… God takes what appears to be common and makes it a conduit of glory” (p.20). The commonplace bread that becomes the eucharist is a microcosm of life in general, breaking down the sacred-profane worldview by making the profane sacred.

Packiam does not quote Martin Luther regularly, but his sacramental approach to life is akin to a theology of the cross. God is not to be found “up there,” at the height of our glorious achievements, but “down here,” in the mire of our fragility and the crucified Christ given for us. Everything, whether it be beauty, shame, love, pain, or our self-righteousness, is held by God and becomes sacred. Or, in the words of one of Mockingbird’s favorites: “It’s a gift to exist and with existence comes suffering.” In short, Packiam seeks to re-enchant our disenchanted world, to see God’s work everywhere in our supposedly secular lives.

Throughout the book, Packiam calls the reader to see the grand story of God’s redemption in their ordinary lives. The stories he recounts from his life are not simply illustrations of his point, but supporting evidence of his thesis. God is always at work, whether we see it or not. Packiam’s earnestness and gentle pastoral prose betray something of the boldness of his position. Knowledge of God’s ways in the here-and-now may not be as easily discernible as he implicitly suggests. And yet, for this reader at least, his book raises the possibility that holding a consistently low anthropology could become a sophisticated rationalization for cynicism. Packiam is not an optimist so much a fervent believer in the risen Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

On this side of the eschaton, the Christian must affirm the coexistence of two contradictory realities without resolution or synthesis. The world is broken, yet Christ is risen. We have nothing, and yet everything is given to us already. On the one side we find a rebuke to the imaginations of cavalier religiosity that ignores the domineering power of sin. Things are far worse than we think and we are far less capable than we imagine ourselves to be. On the other side we find hope, joy, and a raison d’être that guides us through this mortal coil. Despite all appearances to the contrary, all is not lost, and all will be redeemed.

It may be difficult to know with any certainty which way the Spirit blows, but perhaps it’s still necessary to ask the question and wait for an answer. We may be surprised by the comfortable words our Lord says to us. Though we live in a secular age and the days may, indeed, seem dark and dreary, the Light of the world nevertheless shines. Or, in Packiam’s words, “In our brokenness we are beloved. In our frailty, God remains faithful” (p.81).