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3 Steps on the Road to Re-Enchantment?
The Sunday of Orthodoxy and our access to the transcendent.
My last post really hit a nerve…
Many people reached out to ask what faith looks like in a Secular3 world.
Because how can we connect with God if doubt is a hallmark of our secular age?
Is real faith even possible in a Secular 3 world?
Now, there’s no simple answer. But it’s a question I’ve been wrestling with for a long while. In fact, we produced our old Be the Bee video series hoping to help people see Christ in all people and the Christ at work in all things.
So I’ll offer three basic steps on the road to (potential) re-enchantment using the Scripture readings for the Sunday of Orthodox—and a bit of Judgment Sunday—as signposts to help us make our way forward.
But first, a little more context…
What Re-Enchantment Isn’t
The anxiety behind some of the questions I received was palpable. And I think it grew out of two unrealistic assumptions about what re-enchantment would look like:
constantly and consistently perceiving supernatural forces at work, and
definitively and finally overcoming any doubts one might struggle with.
But both of these assumptions are way off base…
In the Scripture, for example, we read of decisive moments when saintly figures encountered the Lord—Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, for example. Yet even though “the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11) at certain times, it would be a mistake to assume that Moses saw angels and archangels whizzing by every time he looked around.
And it would be a mistake to assume that people didn’t experience doubts or temptations at a time when society was more open to the possibility of enchantment. When Moses ascended Mount Sinai to spend forty days and nights with the Lord, the people of Israel could look up and see that “the sight of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel” (Exodus 24:17).
And yet, despite standing underneath this visible glory, the people of Israel fashioned a golden calf because Moses was taking too long (Exodus 32:1).
So the bar is not quite as high as we might fear, in other words. Living in a Secular1 world didn’t guarantee a life free of stumbling. We shouldn’t long for a mythologized past but rather need to work through our current Secular3 age, much as we need to pass through the Cross on the road to Pascha and the Resurrection.
Unfortunately, contemporary attempts at re-enchantment often do exactly that: mythologize the past while being blind to their own grounding in postmodern, secular assumptions.
But that doesn’t stop us from being drawn to this immanently-grounded “enchantment”…
The Fad of Re-Enchantment
A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece on the weird way we approach young adult ministry. I mentioned how odd it was to listen to an Orthodox Christian podcast on young adult ministry and hear that the source cited more than any other was…Jordan Peterson.
(I know, I know. But we need to talk about his influence in the Church.)
I’ve often heard Orthodox Christians cite Peterson—and other similarly positioned online influencers—as an invaluable teacher who can help us “understand the Scripture” and “develop an Orthodox mindset” that will point us in the direction of re-enchantment.
And if that’s what Peterson’s work is doing for people, then glory to God!
But that seems unlikely when Peterson (who, by his own admission is not a Christian) says things like this:
I’m not going to poke at Peterson’s critique of social justice too much. After all, that’s a loaded term with plenty of political baggage. And plenty of people are more afraid of being seen as a “lefty” than facing the Lord in judgment and being placed with the goats.
So it’s conceivable that you may object to the phrase “social justice” even if you believe—especially in light of Judgment Sunday—that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
That said, I’m more concerned that anyone would take Peterson seriously as a teacher of Scripture and guide on the road to re-enchantment when he writes that “redemption salvation is a matter of the individual soul.”
But this language shouldn’t surprise you if you recall the framework we explored last week. Peterson—like all of us—is deeply entrenched in the immanent frame of Secular3.
He’s caught in the Secular3 cross-pressure between faith and doubt, groping for meaning in things like Jungian theories of the collective unconscious and a reactionary, Secular2 approach to contemporary culture (despite internalizing contemporary assumptions more than he realizes).
And the entire enterprise is dependent on the “buffered self” that naturally follows when the individual becomes the creator of meaning: a buffered self that presumes to teach Christians while pushing back on Christians when the faith he’s monetized might demand something of him.
But I digress…
None of the above offers a viable path to re-enchantment. Rather, we should dismiss it as the adult male version of what teenage girls do when they dress in black, play with crystals, and pretend to be witches: the self-directed meaning-making of a mind firmly rooted in the immanent.
But this isn’t merely critique of Peterson. It’s a critique of you, of me, of all of us who are trapped in Secular3 and don’t realize it.
And that critique is important. Because we need to sweep away the chaff if we’re going to gather wheat and feast on the Bread of Life. And it turns out that partaking of this Bread of Life (and walking the road to re-enchantment) is not an individuated pursuit…
So let’s get to it: how do we move towards re-enchantments in our secular age?
To get there, let’s first talk about a contemporary miracle…and what it reveals about our approach to transcendence.
Icons and the Transcendent in Daily Life
Let's use this icon to understand...
This is a copy of the Kardiotissa, an icon of the Theotokos that spent a long time gathering dust in a closet. When a myrrh-streaming icon visited the parish (St George’s Orthodox Church in Taylor, PA), this icon was placed alongside it.
That's when the Kardiotissa icon began to stream myrrh.
We may look at miraculous icons and think we've internalized an enchanted worldview. That we're exempt from the secular mindset that dominates our neighbors…
After all, unlike modern secular people, we believe in miracles! We believe in myrrh-streaming icons. In angels and demons. In a host of supernatural forces and phenomena.
But maybe this doesn’t say what we think it says about us.
After all, as we’ve already explored on this blog, our ministry efforts are grounded in contemporary assumptions and based on the work of non-Christian influences. Our superficially Christian ministry is grounded in something non-Christian.
So here’s an idea: maybe our belief in the supernatural doesn’t indicate that we’re somehow free of the modern age’s disenchantment.
Maybe all it proves is that we're modern, secular people who want to believe in magic because we’re haunted by the emptiness of the immanent frame.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s focus on icons for a bit…
A Surprising Case Study in Disenchantment
Okay, sure, we believe in myrrh-streaming icons. But—and this is an axe I grind a lot—we also print thousands of icons on t-shirts and parish bulletins that end up in the trash.
We look at some icons as treasures, and others as trash.
Because we’re postmodern people who have internalized the assumptions of disenchantment.
Seriously, have you ever stopped to wonder just how many icons we Orthodox Christians throw out every year? How many images of the Lord and His saints end up buried in filth?
We've living through a modern-day iconoclasm…
And we're too busy sharing icon memes on social media to notice.
Because, even in our piety, we are trapped in the immanent frame: in the disenchanted worldview that dominates our contemporary age.
Yes, even we Orthodox Christians are deeply secular.
And, when we distinguish between miraculous and mundane icons, our secularity is on full display. We reverence those which offer tangible proof of our "rightness" because materialism is all we understand.
The Kardiotissa is special (to us, anyway) because she streams myrrh. But the icons in our homes gather dust on our walls and shelves, un-reverenced and forgotten because they don’t present tangible proof of anything interesting.
Because sure, we say all icons are windows into the Kingdom. But we only care about those windows if they perform magical tricks for our wondrous amusement.
So what's the difference between this secular, magical thinking and real steps towards re-enchantment?
We’re finally getting to the punchline of this piece…
(But you may not like it.)
Three Steps on the Road to Re-Enchantment
Living in a world that has been re-enchanted is beyond professing our belief in miraculous, myrrh-streaming icons. Rather, it's about seeing them as a revelation of the truth inherent in all icons.
It's not about merely believing the miraculous: it's about having the eyes to see Christ at work in the mundane.
The Kardiotissa icon is a beautiful testament to this. It's a simple, paper icon that spent long years forgotten in a closet.
Yet it was no less a treasure when it sat in solitude. The icon was no less miraculous before it started streaming myrrh…
We just couldn't see it.
On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we parade all icons in triumph. Not just the "miraculous" ones. Because each is a treasure.
But we haven't cultivated the eyes to see the true glory of these treasures.
Just as we haven't cultivated the eyes to see the glory of the living icons of Christ which we encounter every day.
Treasures which, again, we cannot truly see.
Because we seek after signs and wonders while persisting in blindness.
We think the world will be re-enchanted when we profess belief in the miraculous and grandiose. But that’s not necessarily true. This clumsy effort at “re-enchantment” can still be magical thinking that's grounded in a deeply materialist worldview.
(By the way, disenchantment was helped when Christians began professing belief in discrete sacraments rather than seeing all existence as sacramental: seeing the entire cosmos as Eucharist and mankind as priest offering all things back to God.)
So how will we re-enchant the world?
In short, there’s only one way: the way of repentance.
Because no, the world won't be re-enchanted until we see Christ in the face of every person we meet.
The world won't be re-enchanted until we see that God really is present in all places and filling all things.
So here are those long-promised steps on the road to re-enchantment:
Seek Christ in the services and prayer; and
Love Christ (and your neighbor) in concrete acts of service to your neighbor.
And here’s a bonus fourth step: start again with step 1 and repeat the above.
There. That’s it.
At this point, you may be wondering: “wait, that’s it?!?! I was expecting something more compelling…more cinematic.”
But if loving God and neighbor is inadequate, what does that say about us?
May our heavenly Father open our eyes to see all things for what they really are. May we look upon the face of Christ in every face we encounter.
And may "re-enchantment" be more than just another boring fad that leads to a new, more deeply entrenched form of bland materialism.
PS Here’s one last video that I hoped could be a call to repentance along these lines. Maybe it can be that call for you.