Clinging to the Enchanted World

Don Cupitt argues that "We need to make a clean break with heritage religion and create something better suited to our own time". From the Guardian, 27 December 2001.

Twenty-odd years ago, it was Tolkien and CS Lewis's Narnia stories that one read to the children. I got through both cycles, complete, twice. Today it is Harry Potter and Philip Pullman: but the older books are far from dead, and the Tolkien film is now out.

I've been attending carol services and noting as usual that dons who wouldn't dream of taking any of it seriously themselves are nevertheless quite determined that their children shall have been exposed to it. Indeed, they very often want to send their children to church schools.

Why is it that people continue to feel such intense nostalgia and longing for the old magico-religious view of the world? Even Philip Pullman, who puts a death-of-God spin on the old myths and whose better world is not the kingdom of heaven but the republic of heaven, invokes all the old supernatural apparatus even as he is trying to show us that we are going to have to learn to live without it.

This is crazy. The old sacred and pre-scientific universe passed away long ago. It was given up by degrees, very slowly and reluctantly, between about 1500 and 1900, Erasmus to Nietzsche. Today it is irrecoverable, and nobody seriously thinks of returning to the view that earthquakes are acts of God, that sickness is a divine visitation, or that a human being may wield supernatural powers.

Since about 1880 the old world-view has been finally dead. But still we cling to it—in fact, more determinedly than ever. The carol service, a classic example of popular supernaturalism, may pretend to be medieval but it dates in fact from 1918—after the birth of modern physics! It is as young as fundamentalism, which it resembles in its rejection of biblical criticism and its passionate affirmation of the old enchanted world.

Part of the blame for our present religion of nostalgia-for-religion must lie with the Romantics. They created a culture and a literature of childhood that sees the child as recapitulating in its development the spiritual history of the entire race. Accordingly we still think of the youngest children as living in the mental world of the childhood of the human race, and give them an environment in which the lives of humans and animals are interwoven, and animals can speak. The primary-school child is still given a medieval Christian world-view, and only in the secondary school is the child finally inducted into the truth of our modern, secular science-based world. This educational development has taught us all to associate religion with the lost paradise of childhood—like Christopher Robin leaving his wood, we look very regretfully back at it as the day comes to grow up and leave it behind.

If, like me, you are a member of the clergy, you will have met some of the incongruities that result: harvest festival in an inner-city church, for example, with people setting out in the church tinned foods that they have purchased in the local shops. More generally, the clergy spend most of their energies in staging re-enactments of the old sacred world-view, and devote their sermons to explaining its symbolism and commending it. In fact, we are so busy trying to market our heritage-religion that nobody has time to think what kind of religion we'd come up with if we threw out all the nostalgia and the sentimentality, and tried to keep strictly within the parameters of today's world.

In their own way, Christians resemble the Jews in that the past weighs too heavily upon us. Our souls are poisoned by too much hopeless yearning, regret, grief, victimhood, loss. We have the feeling that the modern world, as Blumenberg put it, lacks legitimacy. We are exiles in a strange land. Somehow, at the beginning of modernity, we walked out of the sacred world and into the fallenness of modern history, and now we can't find our way home again.

It's time to throw off the nostalgia and the illusions, and make a fresh start. Fantasies of wielding supernatural power are not of much help to children, and the belief that unseen powers will look after us and make sure that nothing very bad ever happens to us doesn't do adults much good, either. If we could see the old pre-scientific culture more clearly we wouldn't really want to go back to it. If we weren't so weighed down by false nostalgia, we might be able to create something very much better, and more suited to our own time. The very fact that we call literature about the old supernatural world's continuing imaginative hold over us "fantasy" is surely a warning that we need to make a clean break with it, for our own good.

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