Sunday, 22 December 2019

The Enchanted World

Most human beings who have ever lived have experienced an enchanted world. In every society on earth until recent times, people have lived in a world inhabited by non-human presences, powers and spirits. Every land has its places of power, healing and spiritual danger; its sacred mountains, wells, trees, stones and rivers. Spirits, animals, plants and natural phenomena spoke to humans in dreams and signs, watched them, protected or threatened them, and could be asked for blessings or invoked against enemies.

This is what is known as an ‘enchanted world’, and it is a near-universal characteristic of all societies that have not been transformed by the culture of modernity. People in an enchanted world are vulnerable to powers, beings and forces that can infiltrate their lives, thoughts and bodies. The world is a place of spiritual threat, filled with powers that must be propitiated or entreated to ensure human survival. It is a world where collective ritual is essential for the safety and flourishing of the community. Everyone has to play their part to ensure that the gods and spirits are properly honoured, so conformity in religious practices tends to be strictly enforced.

The positive aspect of life in an enchanted world is that it is filled with places, times and occasions that are already charged with meaning and power. Human beings are held within a web of relationships that connects them intimately with each other and with every aspect of their environment; with their ancestors and the spirits of the land and other non-human beings. The characteristic modern afflictions of meaninglessness and alienation do not arise in an enchanted world. The meaning of human life is received from a powerful, pre-existing reality; a world already filled with its own radiant and mysterious purposes, to which human objectives are subordinate.

In western societies, a long historical process of religious reformation, scientific enquiry and industrialisation has steadily undermined this traditional perspective. In its place, modern societies have produced an experience of human selfhood that is sharply separated from the outside world. This process is often described in terms of humanity overcoming superstition, growing out of primitive fears and fantasies into a mature realisation of our uniqueness as meaning-creating beings. As distinct individuals, we are no longer subject to the threat of being invaded or caught up in malign spiritual forces. But we are also isolated and vulnerable in new ways. The isolated, self-contained modern sense of self can feel like imprisonment in an impersonal and indifferent universe. As the philosopher Charles Taylor describes this modern predicament (in A Secular Age), the separate, boundaried self “can also be lived as a limit, even a prison, making us blind or insensitive to whatever lies beyond this ordered human world and its instrumental-rational projects. The sense can easily arise that we are missing something, cut off from something, that we are living behind a screen.”

Thankfully, even within a thoroughly disenchanted culture that denies the existence of spiritual powers and forces, very many people have intimations of a deeper, more mysterious reality within and around them. Meaningful dreams, visions and insights from a power beyond ourselves are still surprisingly common, even for people with no explicit spiritual beliefs. Ben Pink Dandelion describes one such encounter as a young ‘atheist/agnostic ex-anarchist’:
“I had an experience aboard a Greyhound bus in America that gave me a sense of being lifted up, held, and since then perpetually accompanied by what I call God, but which I know is ultimately a mystery that is not for me to know too closely.”
(Living the Quaker Way)
Some people who experience the breaking-in of spiritual reality find themselves led towards a religious community that still maintains some link with an enchanted perspective.

We need enchanted languages to make sense of the full range of human experience. This is not necessarily in the form of religious ‘beliefs’, but primarily a collection of images, stories and symbols that are adequate to honour our lived experience.

Ideas and images derived from many different religious and spiritual traditions may help us to articulate our glimpses of an enchanted world, and different symbols may be useful for expressing different kinds of experience. These may not fit neatly into a consistent theological system or completely agree with any religious scripture. It may be that we need to accept the limitations of our capacity to grasp the totality of the mystery of the world. What is most important is not to have a tidy, logically consistent intellectual theory, but that we have words and images to represent to ourselves and others the reality of our lives, including all the aspects of experience that are excluded from a disenchanted world.

Have you experienced the world as 'enchanted'? What language or images help you to make sense of this reality?


  1. First, when I felt a desire to comment, I found off-putting the quotation you use as a heading to comments, with all its negativity. “Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language”. As if you assume one is about to do so! I do worry that I may be mistaken. I comment here in the hope that others might assure me I am not, or show me where I am wrong.

    I read many commentaries by Quakers, speaking as Quakers, like yours above and like our Recording Clerk’s recent one. I find myself warmly agreeing with most or all that’s said. But I also find myself repeating, “Yes, but...”.

    In addition to current Quaker writings I also read stuff from many other organisations. The Alister Hardy Society, George Ferguson Fellowship, Bede Griffiths Sangha, Churches Together, Christian Mysticism, as well as non-religious ones such as Remain, Green Party etc. In all of them I find information and opinion which is in line with the purpose of the organisation. You get what it says on the tin.

    My ‘yes, but’ is,”That’s fine. I agree. But is it Quakerism?” Your article is under the banner of Quakers in Transition. Are we? Have we agreed for instance in YM that we wish to be? If so, transition to what? Judging from the context of these article the aim seems to be to cease to be a religion. Is the aim to resign from Churches Together? To drop “religious” from our name? As indeed we should if only due to our testimony to truth. While we agree that our peace and social witness activism is an imperative, are we perhaps deliberately forgetting our drive is the Spirit (of God, of Christ), and would rather work on the assumption the drive is no other than our human conscience? If that is to be our strategy, should we not discuss it and agree it in YM, rather than have it eat away at our vitals unacknowledged? Should not our transition, once we’ve agreed to undergo one, be as led by the Spirit? Should not our Clerk and most other Quaker writers mention God outside of inverted commas?

    We were well-served when our principal non-theist said he wished that the NTN had called itself “Quaker Humanists”. At last we understood what was their motivation, their philosophy. I have nothing against humanism, but is it compatible with religion? If I were to join the Humanist Association, should I rail against humanism, and advocate religion? Should I and many other religious members have a say in the HA’s annual general meeting where the purpose of the HA was to be decided?

    While we agree that not all Quakers need accept all aspects of Quakerism (as described in “Quaker Faith and Practise”), surely as members of a corporate body we should not, outwith due process, allow Quakerism to morph into a philanthropic, liberal, reformist, environmentalist pressure group. All these characteristics are admirable, but are they all there is to Quakerism?

    I might be happier if I was shown where I am mistaken, and was then able to relax into the secular mainstream.

    P.S. In reply to your two questions: “Have you experienced the world as 'enchanted'? What language or images help you to make sense of this reality?”, I reply:
    1.YES. In Hindu and Buddhist temples, in Hindu-type meditation, on Caldy Island, in prehistoric stone circles, in some Christian churches and cathederal chapels (noting that these were often built on top of pagan ‘thin places’) particularly when they are empty, and above all in truly gathered Quaker meetings for worship.
    2. Quaker language and Quakerly silence.

  2. Hi Stephen,
    You seem to be attributing to me views that I do not hold. I have never advocated that Quakers should 'cease to be a religion', but quite the opposite. Of course I don't speak for any other Quaker authors, or for the Yearly Meeting as a whole, as this is a purely personal blog.
    In Friendship,

  3. The enchantment of any thing or any situation can be dependent upon how we each perceive it ..... if we do at all.
    There can be enchantment in any given moment in any given situation. We need to be open to it and / or we need to learn / relearn how to experience it.
    I am not sure I need to make sense of an enchanted reality. I am not sure if it can be adequately explained in words and images because it is in essence experiential. Any words or images I may use to explain may help to paint a picture of my experience but may not convey the the full impact of that experience I have had. It is still important to share these experiences though and it is more important that these experiences are not "rubbished" by those they are shared with.
    I believe that the sharing of our experiences and the recognition of the validity of them to the individual is fundamental to Quakers.
    The acceptance ..... not agreement with .... of the validity of any one individuals personal experience and the meaning for them is important. If we do this we then have the same right for our own experiences to be accepted. If we do not then we may as well follow a creed.
    I feel I am in a constant state of transition as I journey and I am passing through many transformations all the while retaining and discovering my integrity. My transition does not need to be agreed by anyone else before I am able to undergo this. Experiencing the enchanted enables transition and can lead to transformation, even if it is in small increments. I believe it is led by the spirit or whatever you choose to name it or recognise it.
    I also feel it is important to recognise that, whether at Yearly Meeting or right across any Quaker Meeting or Grouping, we are not agreeing any minute produced but we are accepting of it.


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)