The Ambivalent Earth

“Re-enchantment of the world” is one of those phrases that tends to frequently show up within certain aesthetically inclined Christian circles. However, unlike other buzzword-y concepts that often make appearances in conversations along these lines (“human flourishing”?), this one is at least somewhat easier to nail down. Charles Taylor, one of the leading exponents of the theme, wrote in 2008:

[T]he boundary between agents and forces is fuzzy in the enchanted world; and the boundary between mind and world is porous, as we see in the way that charged objects can influence us. . . . The porousness of the boundary emerges here in various kinds of “possession”—all the way from a full taking over of the person, as with a medium, to various kinds of domination by or partial fusion with a spirit or God. Here again, the boundary between self and other is fuzzy, porous.

In Taylor’s telling, the difference between premodern and modern societies hinges on a sort of belief in the permeability of the self: is the I that is me something that can be affected and influenced by independent forces and agencies that exceed my conscious horizon, or is the I a kind of walled garden impervious to the outside, such that nature is in turn a domain upon which I impose my freestanding will?

This was a theme that regularly came to mind as I recently read through David Abram’s book The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. This genre-defying classic of ecological philosophy explores the rootedness of premodern cultures in the natural world: to the Indigenous population of Australia, for instance, the stones and mountains and trackways that structured their lives were crucial aspects of the stories they told themselves about the cosmos and their place in it. To wander the desert along certain paths was, in a kind of analogical-participationist sense, to walk in the footsteps of gods and ancestors. So too, the stories of the past told within Indigenous communities refer to real places, not mythic dreamscapes, where the events described allegedly occurred.

To be sure, Abram’s volume ranges far beyond that subject, considering the experienced realities of physical earth and physical horizon as grounding our implicit experience of memory and futurity and the ways in which the existence of air structures our intuitions about mind and consciousness. And I haven’t even touched on the book’s most daring argument: that the emergence of written language as such, with its abstraction from any particular natural context of actualized meaning, was the root of Western alienation from the cosmos. (I’m always game for a good decline narrative, and this one is really a tour de force.) But to my mind, the most memorable dimension of Abram’s study is its overwhelming powerful articulation of a world that has its own integrity and meaning wholly apart from that which humans may superimpose upon it. It is, in short, a thoroughly enchanted world.

As a bit of an aside, while considering Abram’s book, I found myself mulling a haunting historical irony. The emergence of Darwinian theories of evolution set off a great rush to posit an absolute, rather than merely relative, qualitative difference between humans and animals. On the surface of it, that was a rational concern: surely it is essential, for Christian faith, to understand human beings as image-bearers of God with responsibilities beyond simply subsistence and consumption. But to make this argument uncarefully is to take an important step toward rendering natural law arguments essentially unintelligible. For instance, if human beings are distinguished from the rest of creation by their capacity to apprehend moral truths, one must implicitly presume a Kantian reduction of morality to merely rules and duties; morality is not, on this view, something bound into the very fabric of reality and that governs the actions of all creatures, but something only applicable to those higher beings capable of articulating it in propositional terms.

Implicitly accepted in such a move is David Hume’s sharp distinction between is and ought—a distinction that is the bane of virtue ethics and natural law more broadly. How can one look to the creation to understand the law of nature if what defines human as human (and as moral beings) is their distance from that creation?

The dilemma is not unresolvable: one can intelligibly speak of the uniqueness of human beings without positing a total ontological gulf between the human and the rest of creation—consider Alasdair MacIntyre’s characterization of human beings as “dependent rational animals,” which glosses an old Aristotelian formulation. But this has traditionally not been the course pursued by many of those keenest to reconcile science and faith. What if, in their eagerness to preserve a Christian vision of the world and the human person, early critics of evolutionary theory undermined the principles by which they might make that argument more compellingly?

(For a very rich exploration of these issues in conversation with Christian tradition, I highly recommend Wynand de Beer’s From Logos to Bios: Evolutionary Theory in Light of Plato, Aristotle, and Neoplatonism.)

In any case, Abram’s book—like many texts in the tradition of “deep ecology”—is a testament to human beings’ fundamental kinship with the natural order, and a careful study of how traditional peoples lived consistently with their apprehension of that kinship. And while he uses a somewhat different philosophical grammar than does Taylor, I am reasonably confident the two men are describing the same thing: the “enchanted” cosmos.

The differences in that grammar, however, are not lightly ignored. Most notably, Taylor’s metaphors of metaphysical enchantment evoke a sense of penetration or invasion: a “porous self” is something intrinsically vulnerable, something that naturally tends toward closure and self-defense. By contrast, Abram’s concept of enchantment is one of address, or call-and-response: nature speaks, both to human beings and within its own depths, and human beings may either acknowledge that communication or block it out. Language itself is embedded in the very structure of created reality.

It is probably safe to say that Abram conceives of the creation as fundamentally benign, a domain where every conscious agent can in theory find its proper place. But there is nothing in the “nature of nature” that entails that it must be thought as such. Indeed, N.K. Jemisin’s justly celebrated Broken Earth Trilogy openly rejects that vision. Jemisin’s saga describes an earth persistently ravaged by apocalyptic “Seasons,” long-lasting epochs of violent weather that are profoundly hostile to human life. In the midst of this endless fragmentation, a few humans find themselves possessing the power of orogeny, or the manipulation of elemental energy, but these are hated and feared for their perceived kinship with the planet that poses such an omnipresent threat.

Despite the series’ fantastical setting, its characters inhabit a distinctly disenchanted world, at least in their minds: the practice of orogeny is not a communion between natural and supernatural forces, but merely a technology of power to be exploited, rather like nuclear energy. (Incidentally, there’s a phenomenal paper waiting to be written that places the Broken Earth Trilogy into conversation with Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn novels, which conclude with the revelation that the metals of creation are actually the constituents of an entirely immanent divinity.) Like modern people in the world of everyday experience, Jemisin’s characters possess a view of nature that’s largely instrumental: the cosmos may be something threatening, but its material substance is ultimately malleable and psychically inert. Nature, in short, is manipulable.

Jemisin’s trilogy doesn’t stop there, though—instead building to the twist that the Seasons that devastate the world are rooted in a kind of cosmic vengeance. Following a particularly audacious attempt by human beings to use orogeny to transform the entire earth into an energy source, the earth’s moon itself was thrown out of alignment and forced into an independent orbit. Contrary to expectations, the earth is indeed a living force, and it hates what human beings have done to it, retaliating for this sin by punishing its inhabitants with savage weather patterns.

Bluntly put, Jemisin’s epic represents the dreadful subversion of Abram’s inclusive conception: an enchanted cosmos, mistakenly experienced as cold and mechanistic by human beings, that does not like human beings at all. The Broken Earth Trilogy even opens up the tantalizing and chilling possibility that our world, wracked by climate change and pollution, may one day exact a similar price.

Is it possible to meaningfully adjudicate this contest of visions, from this epistemological side of the equation? And if so, are we humans listeners and participants, or interlopers in a universe that does not need us and that may hate us? This follow-on question has weighty existential stakes: to come down on the latter side can lead, in the end, to the overt human extinctionism of authors like Patricia MacCormack.

I think it is possible to reach a resolution, and one that need not entail the dissolution of human culture altogether. First, one may credibly conceive the entirety of the created order, in all its fragmentation and dissonance, within a unity that transcends it and in which it is capable of finding its proper perfection. Jemisin’s angry earth groans in pain because it suffers from a privation, a defect in its proper being—its distance from its moon, which has upset the “right order of things.” And though Jemisin herself identifies as “spiritual but not religious,” from a classical Thomistic perspective her characters’ quest to heal that defect is—metaphysically speaking—a reorientation of suffering nature back toward the pure fullness of actuality that is God. Second, the reality of that transcendent unity entails that human beings are always already participants in a “communion of subjects” (to borrow a phrase from Passionist monk Thomas Berry). Orienting ourselves and our species toward self-annihilation not only cuts ourselves off from that communion, but also deprives the rest of the creation of the benefit of communing with us. (I daresay our cat lives a far more joyous life with us than she would’ve in her home streets of Guyana.)

It is this paradigm, I suggest, that allows us to see the creation as given, and simultaneously find in the beauty of the world a genuine reason for gratitude—which, in the end, is the ethical destination towards which Abrams seeks to lead his readers. And crucially, orienting that gratitude toward the world’s Creator ensures that it is a gratitude always inflected with the eschatological hope that creation’s defects, such as they are, are not the final truth of reality. In the moment that we experience that gratitude—recognizing that a genuine power outside ourselves ought to inhabit a space in our consciousness, and becoming porous to it—the world itself is re-enchanted. A wide-scale sociological transformation is not, strictly speaking, required.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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