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Re-Enchantment, With Iain McGilchrist

What a psychiatrist shared with an Orthodox Christian writer on why the world has lost its luster
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[Editor’s Note: If you are a paid subscriber to Rod Dreher’s Diary, my Substack newsletter focusing on spiritual, artistic, and cultural matters (no politics, no culture war!), you know how much enthusiasm I have for the work of Iain McGilchrist, the British psychiatrist who writes extensively about neuroscience and culture. His latest book, a 1,600-page masterwork called The Matter With Things, adds absolutely riveting scientific, philosophical, and metaphysical speculation to his usual themes. I really can’t say enough good things about this book, though I should point out that in the US, only the Kindle version is available now (and it’s good to buy the Kindle, so you don’t throw out your back!). 

Well, if you are in the south of England next week, I’ll be appearing at a daylong seminar at Oriel College, Oxford, with Dr. McGilchrist and several others, to talk about his great book. Reserve your place at the “Retrieving Enchantment” seminar here.  

If you know anything about McGilchrist’s work, you won’t need convincing to be there. But if you don’t follow him, well, you can learn a lot from his website, Channel McGilchrist. And, let me give you a little taste of what he’s writing about in this new book. 

What follows is an excerpt from my most recent issue of Rod Dreher’s Diary. In it, I talk about the late British writer and Orthodox Christian convert Philip Sherrard, and his great little book The Rape Of Man And Nature, which is ostensibly about the origins of science, but is really about theology and disenchantment. In this passage from my newsletter, I tie McGilchrist’s work to Sherrard’s. — RD]

Perichoresis is flow: the mutual interpenetration between the divine and the human. You can imagine how much this resonates with me, having finished McGilchrist’s masterpiece The Matter With Things, in which the psychiatrist, based on his analysis of physics and neuroscience, concludes that reality itself is not static, but rather flow. All of reality, says McGilchrist, exists in a state of flow. This is something that the Fathers understood, and that Orthodoxy still understands in the present day.

To deny this fact, says Philip Sherrard, is to claim the independence of man from the divine source of his being:

It may even assert itself to such an extent that it has the Satanic conviction of its own independence and so denies the real source of its being: the assertion of the independence of the reason over the last few centuries — the cogito ergo sum — is an example of such Satanic possession of the soul.

We must recognize that the dualism between soul and body is only apparent, not real. The soul and the body of each of us is a unity held together by the “dynamic and creative will and energy of God.” And so:

We have become so used to viewing things in accordance with our single vision of the material world that we automatically identify our body solely with its solid material elements, its outward form. This, for us, constitutes our body. It also represents a singularly truncated way of looking at things. Indeed, unless one is to disregard many of the central experiences recorded not only in scripture but also in the lives of many saints and holy men and women, one has to recognize that the body formed of gross material elements is really a kind of condensation or husk or outer wrapping of a body of a far more subtle texture; and that within the outer material body, and interpenetrating it, is an organism of a finer kind of matter, of a finer and more fluid kind of substance. In fact, the whole of what we call the solid universe is but a hardened of crystallized form of this finer kind of matter, a spiritual energy frozen and arrested; and to this our physical body is no exception.

You will recall from our reading of McGilchrist that this parallels what modern physics has discovered about the nature of material reality. In modernity, though — that is, in the post-Descartes world — man perceives Nature not as something part of himself, but as

an object external to himself. [Modernity] presupposes a loss of that consciousness in which nature is seen as part of his own subjectivity, as the living garment of his own inner being. Consequently man has also lost the sense of his role in relationship to the rest of creation.

This is what the Fall did: alienated Man from God and from Creation. In Orthodox thought, to undertake the journey of theosis — re-integration with God — is to reverse the effects of the Fall, to allow God to remove the blinders from our spiritual eyes, and to re-Edenize (you might say) all of Creation. This is not, I hasten to say, a belief that we can re-create Heaven on Earth. That is only going to happen in full after the Second Coming. It is to say, though, that each of us, by cooperating with the Holy Spirit through prayer, repentance, fasting, and holy acts, can refine the divine within, and slowly allow God to restore the prelapsarian man. Put another way, we all dwell right here, right now, in a potential Eden; we just have to open the eye of the soul to it, and work to surrender to the healing, regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, to regain our sight.

More Sherrard:

For man is called upon to mediate between heaven and earth, between God and His creation. But when he closes his consciousness to what is above it, he obstructs that flow through which material things may be saturated by the Spirit or the Spirit may become incarnate, and the result is a disorder in creation which brutalizes both man and nature. Because it is only through man fulfilling his role as mediator between God and the world that the world itself can fulfil its destiny and be transfigured in the light and presence of God. It is in this sense that man — when his is truly human — is also and above all a priest — the priest of God: he who offers the world to God in his praise and worship and who simultaneously bestows divine love and beauty upon the world.

… It is in Christ that the wall of separation between heaven and earth, the supernatural and the natural, the sacred and the profane is destroyed in the living sacrament of the divine love and presence. God’s enhumanization has not only ‘taken manhood into God’; it has also taken the whole created world into God, has resurrected it and transfigured it in its very depths.

It is only man’s continuing alienation from the ground of his being that prevents him from realizing this, that throws a veil of opacity between God and man, God and the world, and keeps them in a state of false division and disunity. Correspondingly, it is through overcoming this alienation, and through remaking himself in the image and likeness of the divine that is at the heart of his own subjective life and that confers on him his unique quality as a person, that he shares in the priesthood of Christ and in that sacrament of love and beauty in which all things, released from their bondage, live, move, and have their being. Outside this relationship, apart from this sacrament, man has no real place in the world, or the world in him. He is but a tormented shadow of himself, and his world a forsaken wilderness, and on both he is compelled to seek ever further revenge for that crime against his own nature which he refuses to acknowledge, still more to expiate.

All of that is from the first chapter. There is much more to say, but I’ll reserve it for the next issue of the newsletter. In it, I’ll present Sherrard’s account of how Christian theology prepared the way for the radical disenchantment of modernity. It’s important to say, though, that disenchantment is not, strictly speaking, a problem of modernity. It is inherent to the Fall, in which Man, by asserting his own will over God’s — the characteristic Luciferian act — alienated himself from God, which is to say, from the ground of his very Being. Modernity, as post-Christian, only solidifies and institutionalizes the Fall, and calls the Fall liberation.

That is to say, we have all been living in a disenchanted world since the Fall, but those who love and serve God have had a bridge back to Him, and to Eden. We all recognized that we live in a world of sin and suffering, but we also had a map that showed us the way back to Eden. But this map could not be understood simply as an object of rational contemplation; it had to be known primarily through experience. That is, it is fine to think of theology, and to study the Scriptures to know the ways of the Lord, and what He demands of us. But the map is not the same as the territory, and we can only truly undertake the journey back to Eden — that is, dwelling in pure communion with God and His Creation — by using our tripartite faculties (body, mind, and spirit) to seek Him, and to bring every aspect of our lives into radical communion with Him.

What is so moving to me about reading Sherrard is how he makes explicit how far we have traveled from the world of the Fathers, even us modern Christians. I have been an Orthodox Christian for sixteen years, yet I am still shedding the false consciousness of modernity. As Boersma (who is Protestant!) says in Heavenly Participation, we Christians must return to the medieval synthesis, which is to say, more or less, to how virtually all Christians saw the relationship between God, Man, and Creation before the High Middle Ages in the West.

On our first morning in Vienna, Matt and I were up very early, and decided to take advantage of the light — so far north, the sun comes up unexpectedly soon for us subtropicals — and stroll around the empty city. (We would not have been surprised to have crossed paths with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy from Before Sunrise.) Somehow, we found ourselves talking about differences between Eastern and Western Christianity (you can well imagine how much I enjoy the company of my son). I told him that the whole question of indulgences, which were key to the Reformation, is a good example.

If the question of Man’s alienation from God is a forensic one — that is, if it is a legal matter — then indulgences (which are still part of Catholic doctrine) make a kind of sense. That is, if we fallen men stand in the dock, in a court proceeding, and if the institutional Church is kind of a divine bank in which merits are stored for disbursal, then it is not unreasonable to think that one can obtain these merits somehow to negate the punishment due us for our sins. It’s like the Church paying the fine. Obviously this model led to massive corruption, which is part of the reason that Luther rebelled. Yet the abuse of the indulgences system does not negate it in principle.

But the Orthodox don’t see the problem of the Fall, and of man’s reconciliation with God, as a legal matter. Rather, we regard it as organic (I say “we” because I am Orthodox, yet I too struggle to be free of the theological concepts that we in the West took in with our mother’s milk). Think of a garden struggling to thrive in the shadows. What it needs to be restored, and to thrive, is direct exposure to sunlight. What sense would it make to buy, or even to donate, “sunlight credits” on behalf of the poor little garden? Would the declaration that the garden receives twelve hours of sunlight daily, by order of the bishop, change the garden’s actual state? Of course not. But see, this is why to the Orthodox way of seeing things, the Reformation’s protest against Roman legalism was valid to some extent, it doesn’t fix matters, because the Reformed churches still follow the forensic (legal) model of sin and forgiveness. In other words, despite the justice of the Protestant rejection of indulgences, the core problem remains.

This is why we can’t overcome disenchantment by saying presto-change-o, the world is actually enchanted, we’re just too sinful to see it. That is true — that we are blind to the reality of its enchantment, because God penetrates all of reality! But overcoming this disenchantment is not something that can be ordered by church authorities, and not something that can be overcome simply by changing one’s mindset (that is only the first step). Believe me, I know perfectly well that Western Christians get this. The problem for (most) Protestants, I think, is that it leads them to think of salvation as a matter of what happens to us after death — as avoiding Hell. Sacramental Christians — Catholics and Orthodox, and perhaps some other kinds of Christians — understand that it’s not simply about the afterlife, but about rightly ordering our lives, and this world, to God. I feel sure that I am oversimplifying here, because of my lack of knowledge of the Protestant mind; I welcome your own thoughts, because they help clarify mine.

Still, Sherrard contends that the fundamental mistake made by the West was not made by Ockham and Duns Scotus — that is, by the Nominalists and the Voluntarists — but by the Scholastics themselves, by trading out a Christian vision based on Platonic concepts, which had been the Tradition for the first thousand years of the Church, for an Aristotelian one. We will explore Sherrard’s argument in the next newsletter.

I’ll leave the topic for now by quoting a passage from the Feb 19 newsletter (“Waves And Flow”):

Iain McGilchrist says that we in the West should rebalance our attention to the world to allow for flow, which is also a fundamental aspect of reality. If we don’t, we are not getting a fuller picture of how reality actually works. From The Matter With Things:

Let’s now turn briefly to look at the nature of the two great exemplars of flow – music and water – and, through them, at what in Chinese is discovered everywhere in the cosmos, the principle of flow known as li.

Music is as different from the separate notes seen on the score as life is from the language that aims to throw its net around it; when, in Robert Graves’s phrase, the ‘cool web of language winds us in’. (As an aside, score-dependent musicians rely more on the left hemisphere, improvising musicians on the right hemisphere.) In music, as in the living world, change is permanent, stasis is transitory. ‘What is perceived’, writes Thomas Fuchs, ‘is not a sequence of discrete tones but a dynamic, self-organising process which integrates the tones heard to create a melody’. Self-organising, note: it is an ‘automatic synthesis, no one actively performed by the subject’. In other words we have to escape the effortful sense of constructing something if we are to allow a flow simply to be. There must not be two elements here, but one. We must be actively receptive in relation to it, not actively expressive – as also in prayer and meditation.

This image from music is a perfect example of a philosophical insight into life that is otherwise hard to express explicitly. And Fuchs sees that our lives as social beings must belong to something that is best expressed as a dance or a piece of music, if we are to enmesh, engage, connect: Single pulses appear to interrupt flow, having the nature of points, much as is a single beat on a drum. It is perhaps not accidental that the potentially disjunctive element in music, rhythm, is underwritten commonly by the left hemisphere, while the potentially conjunctive elements of music, harmony and melody are usually dealt with by the right hemisphere. Together they go to make the structure of music’s flow, a union of division and union: however, within this flow, rhythm is wholly transformed and becomes itself a unifying force.

This transmogrification of an element of differentiation ultimately into a force for union is essential to the nature of creation. To quote Dewey: individuality is a ‘phase, though a decisive and outstanding one, of a process having continuity’. The everyday business of describing the world uses a structure of symbols – language, and in particular nouns – that leads us to believe that there are non-unique things, and that our representations of reality are the reality itself. By transcending language one may see the world as unique wholes that themselves together constitute unique wholes at a higher level, and so on without limit. As William James remarked: The essence of life is its continuously changing character; but our concepts are all discontinuous and fixed, and the only mode of making them coincide with life is by arbitrarily supposing positions of arrest therein. With such arrests our concepts may be made congruent. But these concepts are not parts of reality, not real positions taken by it, but suppositions rather, notes taken by ourselves, and you can no more dip up the substance of reality with them than you can dip up water with a net, however finely meshed.

Reality, like the river, is a flow, which only seems to be composed of discrete drops when we try – and fail comprehensively – to catch it in the net of language: the bits that we do catch, the drops from the net, are an artefact of our process of investigation. No net, no drops.

Similarly modern physics tells us that the entities that we discover when we probe the subatomic world are shaped by the process we use to investigate it – famously so, in the case of particles and waves. What seems to be fundamental is pattern and relationship, not the semi-distinct entities that are patterned and related.

Yet immediately we sense that our everyday language is inadequate to what is meant: some differentiation is necessary for there to be anything out of which a relationship can be constituted. And yet what is differentiated can never be separate, because it is what it is only in relationship to everything else. This is the very essence of music.

However to the Eastern mind, though processes may not follow programmatic rules, they are far from being any kind of mess. An ancient Chinese concept that stems from Confucianism is that of lǐ. It indicates a formal principle in all things, that is considered, together with ch’i (a vital force or energy, also written qi), ontologically prior to the cosmos itself, and to have given rise to it.

This idea of generation as an energetic force entering into a receptive form is itself deeply generative. According to Joseph Needham, lǐ indicates,

“the order and pattern in Nature, not formulated Law. But it is not pattern thought of as something dead, like a mosaic: it is dynamic pattern as embodied in all things living, and in human relationships, and in the highest human values.”

And it is not just in the living, as I understand it. Lǐ, as the ordering principle in the world, is something like ‘reason’, according to Alan Watts, but not in the now normal, Platonic, sense of that word. It is perhaps more like what Heraclitus called the logos. At that stage logos had not yet come to mean ‘reason’ in the rather limited modern sense, instead meaning the common principle that makes complexity, beauty and meaningful order arise in place of chaos, both in the living world and what we consider the non-living; and gives rise to a fittingness, or rightness, or dignity, in human affairs where they arise. Lǐ is closely related to the idea of the tao, the flowing formal principle of the cosmos.

If I understand my McGilchrist, the right hemisphere receives information, sends it to the left for analysis, and then the left returns the analysis to the right for incorporation into a holistic view of reality. Our problem is that we in the modern West have become stuck in the left side of our heads, mistaking a partial analysis for the only true analysis.

End of quote from Rod Dreher’s Diary. If you like that kind of thing, please consider subscribing. And if you are in or near Oxford, please reserve a spot at the Retrieving Enchantment seminar with Dr. McGilchrist and others. It’s free, but I imagine space will be limited, so get on the list now.

UPDATE: Ah ha, I see there will be a separate event with Iain in the evening, for those who can’t come to the symposium in the day. Register for the evening event here; in it, Iain and I will be discussing with Dr. James Orr themes of re-enchantment. Also free, but you have to register! Details: