As Charles Taylor explains in A Secular Age, we no longer live in an enchanted world, whatever we might wish. As he recognizes, the conditions of belief have changed: if we had lived at a different time we might have believed, effortlessly and without irony or self-awareness, that objects in the world had a kind of charge or magic that exerted force on and into us, either for good or ill. We would have paraded statues of the Madonna and pinned money to her hem for a good crop, we would have buried a St. Joseph figurine upside down for a quick sale of our house, and we might have feared the evil eye. Prior to baptism we would have exorcised the water and would have had our candles blessed at Candlemas to keep the demons away on stormy nights.
Now, however, we don’t find all this so easy, even if we believe it. In Taylor’s terms, we are buffered selves. The imagination of modern science reduces things to materiality, emptying them of magic; moreover, buffered selves do not think charges can transfer to them in a sort of contagion. Understanding the world as matter and force, we view ourselves as enjoying autonomy since things cannot permeate us; we are safe. Objects in the world do not exude power, and we are not porous even if they could.
Yet, while the world loses its charge and we become independent and safe from its terrors, it also loses inner depths and meaning. True, diabolical things cannot possess us, but neither can holy things sanctify. In the end, the universe is force and matter following laws of nature, and the world of magic (good or bad) becomes hard to believe, not at all obvious to us within contemporary conditions of belief.
Some of this results from the advent of modern science, but Taylor is no friend of the subtraction thesis of secularism; we don’t become secular of logical necessity once we leave the supposed superstitions of the older world behind. Instead, the conditions of our belief change, in large measure because we wanted the change; we wanted the world and ourselves to be immanent and flattened. We wanted independence from evil forces and we desired to control and master the physical and social worlds—that’s the project of modernity. Moderns chose a project of social reform bringing, or attempting to bring, everyone up to high levels of education, freedom, and autonomy. Such reform was considered impossible so long as magic existed, so the modern project necessitated removing the central “magic” of the Christian West, namely the Eucharist, and thereby also the hierarchy of magicians in this domain, the priests and bishops.
Perhaps more than anything, the target of modernity, in both its secular and religious forms, was the Aristotelian understanding of form and finality by which transubstantiation was explained, so that the offices and mediation of authority necessary for transubstantiation could be jettisoned, hierarchy abolished, and everyone could be elevated to the higher domain.
The modern project thoroughly succeeded in altering the conditions of belief for people in the West—even religious believers. So thoroughly, in fact, that Taylor suggests the starting point, for everyone, is the immanent frame, that is, a world without charge, mediation, or hierarchy, and devoid of any sense of reality transcending matter and force. If one happens to have religious belief, it is experienced over and against the immanent frame, but with immanence the default option. It’s possible to experience immanence as if it is still open to God, but experience begins with the obviousness of immanence and the optional status of transcendence. People find it easy to disbelieve, and even the believer recognizes religion is not at all self-evident, perhaps a bit strange, and an accomplishment to maintain. It’s harder to believe than it used to be, and we know it. We know our faith commitments (if we have them) are odd, and we understand why others think so.
Taylor also notes that the age of modern reform, with all its accomplishments and benefits, tends to the malaises of disenchantment. It delivers freedom and power, but we find ourselves lacking horizons of meaning. Modernity provides freedom, yes, but a loss of higher purpose, of belonging to anything worth living (or dying) for. Modernity sweeps away superstition and ignorance, replacing them with instrumental reason and natural causes, but negates sacred structure and exalted dignity—everything is resource and instrument, including humans. Modernity dissolves organic societies and their despotic tendencies, but delivers the soft despotism of democratic paternalism. In short, the buffered self discovers itself to be free, but pointless. Enlightened, but an organic robot awaiting death. Democratic, but without the spirit or will to live for anything except comfort and distraction, lacking the spirit even to propagate. Disenchantment has its malaises, and we know this.
The malaises contribute to the suffocation felt by many, a sense of pointlessness. Malaise can take away hope and meaning and direction, flattening everything into a kind of very comfortable despair. Some don’t feel the malaise, but others feel it very intensely, clawing at the iron cage for a breath of transcendence and the beyond.
It’s no surprise, then, that a good many people, perhaps especially the religious young, view modernity with distaste and cynicism. Now that we are comfortably on the other side of scarcity, tyranny, ignorance, and the likelihood of dying young, it’s easy to overlook the material, moral, and political accomplishments of modernity and note only its fragmentation, irrationalities, alienation, and malaise. For some religious people, malaise provides a motivation to re-enchant the world, and, indeed, the theme and hope of re-enchantment is prevalent among young Christians. While I have genuine sympathy for their frustrations at the state of the world, too often they express a craving for meaning more than truth, and not always in entirely reasonable ways, including ways that exacerbate the anxieties and frustrations of the moment.
From Worldview to Woo Woo
By the time I was in college in the mid nineties, the project of worldview apologetics was already tired out, though it limps on in some colleges and seminaries even now. The project asserted that Christianity was a worldview among many, entailing commitments about epistemology, metaphysics, anthropology, ethics, and so on. Conveniently, it was easy to sketch the differences between Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, deism, and secularism, to note just a few, in a tidy chart comparing and contrasting the varying ideas of the world, the human, and our purpose. One knew exactly what to defend and what to reject in a sort of cheat sheet for apologetics, and philosophical reflection was more about “bundling” commitments into coherence than the wondering desire to know.
At its best, and there was a moment when this project had genuine energy, the approach helped believers attain a differentiated account of Christianity’s interdependence on philosophy, politics, and the arts, and provided a more nuanced consideration of other religious and philosophical commitments. At its worst, it treated faith as a series of ideas, the human person as a Cartesian thinking thing, and conversion as assenting to ideas independent of the deeds and graces of baptism and the sacraments. Mostly, however, it engrained a kind of pious relativism—we think x, y, and z while they think a, b, and c, but there are no principled grounds open to natural reason on which to choose our system rather than theirs. The systems are simply incommensurable, even if ours (apparently) is more internally coherent and (luckily) the one revealed by God. Religious belief, it turns out, is a kind of ethnocentrism: this is how we think around here, you are from around here, and so this is how you ought to think. Worldview apologetics wasn’t apologetics so much as policing the boundaries for those already within the camp.
When I was introduced to this form of apologetics, it had become drearily formulaic, knowing all the answers before any questions were asked and embarrassingly attempting relevance by engaging with pop culture, finding some vestige of the Christian worldview (thus goodness) or absence (thus badness) in any and every blockbuster movie and billboard song.
Worldview apologetics also tended to overlook the fact that we inhabit more than one space or identity at the same time. We might be Christians, sure, but we are also moderns. We don’t live in a state of enchantment, and we know it. Worldview can’t solve disenchantment and its malaise, since we are not primarily thinking things, and our loves tend to follow from our imaginations rather than our concepts.
In the face of disenchantment, affirming the worldview proposition that “things have meaning” isn’t going to cut it when the social and cultural experience we inhabit is one of malaise and meaninglessness. If even the devils know the true worldview and chose to revolt, it’s far easier to understand how the young Christian might tick all the correct worldview boxes and still live in profound fragmentation, dissolution, and confusion. We’re rational animals, yes, but we are quite obviously not properly defined as thinking things. Rational animals have intellect, to be sure, but as embodied have lives of emotion, tacit bodily knowledge, practical reason, and imagination. Worldview analysis is not just tired out, it’s decadent and pointless, not merely unhelpful but obscuring the truth of our situation. It is certainly irrelevant to the current cultural moment.
It’s unsurprising, then, that apologetics has turned to the imagination. Paul Gould, for instance, articulates a vision of what he terms “cultural apologetics” shaped by “what it means to be an embodied human” and stresses the importance of imagination to grasp the meaning and truth of things. It’s also unsurprising, and this was already well underway in my college days, that C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and J. R. R. Tolkien influence such approaches. This makes good sense. Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkien held reason in high regard but accessed an older and deeper anthropology than rationalism or positivism; they knew full well, as did their ancient and medieval teachers, that the human being did more than think, and that thinking was hardly the sole meaning of intellect or reason. The tradition long knew this, and the Inklings (broadly construed) are often a way evangelicals access a pre-modern frame via the imagination.
This was true for me. At the same time, students of the Inklings can be somewhat overly ebullient, and a set of fallacies has emerged in some sectors of the Christian world, namely argumentum ad Tolkien and (especially) argumentum ad Lewis. These mistakes generally exhibit hamfisted or wooden appeals to imagination, as if re-enchantment would occur by making Christianity weird again, or by insisting the world was very odd, or that somehow the realm of fantasy could make Christianity self-evidently a live option again. When these mistakes occur, imagination is operating in its inventive sense, making up or creating what is not real but acting as if it is.
Consider the podcast Haunted Cosmos, which a friend tells me is popular in his evangelical circles. It begins with a promising enough claim, namely, “the world we inhabit is an embattled one made up of much more than just stuff.” Good enough start, it seems to me, rejecting reductive materialism as I do. But the Haunted Cosmos approach to demonstrate this is not by philosophy or classical theology but through a curiosity shop “exploring the high strangeness woven into the fabric of God’s spoken world.” What sorts of curiosities? Dragons, sea monsters, the mothman, vampires, and aliens.
Haunted Cosmos insists dragons are real. This is stated multiple times, explicitly and unironically—dragons are real! We’ve only mapped five percent of the ocean floor, leaving ninety-five percent of it unknown, and it would be hubris to suggest sea monsters do not lurk in the unknown depths. Or, in the words of the first episode, “isn’t it possible” that modern sea traffic, with all its busyness, has caused sea monsters, for which we have solid biblical evidence (see the Book of Job) and eyewitness accounts (see letters from age of exploration sailors), to hide themselves in the unmapped parts of the ocean? Well, other than the problem of an appeal to ignorance, yes, it’s possible. It also wouldn’t demonstrate the world is more than mere stuff, since bizarre fish and the Loch Ness monster are merely unexpected, not magical.
Ah, never fear, these dragons are demons (as are aliens), and if demons there must be God. If, like me, you roll your eyes at these claims, you are met with a crushing retort: “you’re boring.” If we look for reasonable accounts, we “have bad imagination” because we “are moderns who just want to boil everything down to what we already know.” Apparently, “we want a boring world because we are a boring people” who want to “get cognitive closure as quickly as possible.”
All of this, supposedly, is in Lewis’s Space Trilogy (although they awkwardly realize they’ve cited Lewis before the Bible and correct themselves: “and the Bible, it’s in the Bible and the Ransom trilogy.” This is argumentum ad Lewis in spades.
Tolkien is far more cautious about imagination than is Haunted Cosmos. In “On Fairy Stories” he warns that such stories risk “pitfalls for the unwary and dungeons for the overbold,” although he agrees that Fairy land—Fairy, not actual reality—contains many things, including “witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas . . . and all things that are in it.” Fairy land contains all these “when we are enchanted.” Only when we are enchanted does it contain these things, but the magic of enchantment “is not an end it itself” and “not the road to Heaven.”
According to Tolkien, fantasy is not an “appetite for marvels”—like vampires and aliens and sea monsters—nor does it “trade on . . . credulity.” Fantasy is not asking us to believe what is patently nonsensical or false. Instead, fantasy is a high art in which the maker of stories successfully sub-creates a “Secondary World” the reader’s mind “can enter” and think true, in the sense that “it accords with the laws of that world” so long as you are “inside,” so long as you are in the world of fantasy. So long as you are enchanted and within the secondary world. Quite obviously, however, the inner logic of the secondary world doesn’t export to our actual, primary world. There might be dragons in Middle Earth, but none on Earth.
Tolkien admits the realms of fantasy to him “were preeminently desirable,” but still he “never imagined that the dragon was of the same order as the horse,” for in “whatever world” the dragon “had his being it was an Other-world.” He “desired dragons with a profound desire,” but he never thought they were lurking about in the unmapped regions of the sea. In fact, that would render them untrue in the sense he means it, that is, the truth of art, which is not the inventive power of imagination, for art is the link between imagination and sub-creation, that power to enchant and have us enter into a secondary world, which is, most definitely, not this world.
Our proponents of imagination are not wrong to revolt against malaise. Not wrong to insist the world is more than just stuff. Not wrong to articulate the story-formed world spoken into being by God. They are not wrong to long for something more than immanence and quite right to think imagination and cultural apologetics are more interesting than worldview analysis and its stultifying apologetics. As D. C. Schindler notes, in quite another context, Christianity is not first of all a message—a worldview and its concepts—but a deed and an integral form, for the Incarnation, Christians think, infuses the cosmological and ontological core of everything. It’s not wrong to want that form back, to think that it’s far more momentous and interesting than some propositions about epistemology and ethics.
Of course. But you can’t have the imagined form without the substance of the form and it be true, and here’s where cultural apologetics can run aground at full speed. Even if one avoids the obvious mistake of supposing the magic of a secondary reality entails magic within actual reality, any cultural imagination that wants the images without the substantial form giving them depth and life wants meaning without truth, which is a kind of idolatry. The most obvious example of this in the disciples of Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton is a mistaken version of the so-called “sacramental imagination.”
The sacramental imagination resists the disenchantment and flatness of the world by insisting that the world is not really flat and disenchanted, however much it seems: “Strange, peculiar, and glorious things happen all the time, but their sheer regularity blinds you to the magic. Your problem is not a want of wonders, but a want of wonder.” Or, to put it in the patois of the Haunted Cosmos, because “you’re boring.” Instead, you should let “imaginative fiction . . . awaken within you the elemental sense of wonder you had when you were young.” This points to the sacramental imagination, able to “see the divine splendor that lies concealed in the stuff of ordinary life.” One might think the “spiritual life is an invitation to regain this elemental sense of wonder . . . so that we can begin seeing the halo of sanctity in all natural things.”
I don’t object to this entirely, and the author formulates it helpfully well. What I do think is a nonstarter is attempting to enjoy the sacramental imagination without believing in the sacraments, for then it is nothing more than a mood toward the world without ontological grounding—it is the imagined form without the substantial form, meaning without truth. That is, it risks becoming a concocted and invented romanticism/paganism that might provide interior solace but that is not warranted or reasonable to affirm. Or, more bluntly, it’s odd to deny the sacraments but affirm an imagination in which everyday things of the world are “occasions when God has been especially near to us” because we experience wonder. That is not a sacramental imagination; it is enjoying a certain mood enabled through your imagination. But it is you who are enabling the experience, and you have the experience without affirming the underlying reality without which the experience corresponds to nothing.
The malaises of modernity are difficult to inhabit and withstand, but we do not truthfully resolve them by concocting experiences. To do so treats the modern malaise as if it were a mindset or an emotional tendency that in principle is resolvable by a different mindset or a different emotion. The malaise of modernity is not, however, a feeling that things don’t matter. If we do not consider it possible that the form of God is present in the deed of the words of consecration, then there really is no other option but that God is not really present in the world. Not really. And then the magic is in fact gone, and all that remains is a message, a story, a narrative about God, but about a God who is gone, who is not with us unto the end of the world. There is no romance without the real presence of God, no sacramental imagination without the sacraments, and the wonders of fantasy cannot be asserted of primary reality itself.
Thomas Aquinas did not write the Pange lingua to avoid being boring or to concoct a sense of good-weird feelings, or for aesthetic ethnocentrism, but because he had faith that the bread of nature became the Word in its actual form—and thus he could adore it. And from that reality came all the architecture, all the songs, all the stories and art of the world prior to the discarded image.
No cheating. If you deny the form, you are bereft of its comforts, and a message about God is not the same as the deed and form of the presence of God. I note, as well, that Tolkien, Chesterton, and to a lesser extent Lewis, all had thick understandings of the sacraments, and it was this that grounded and made their imaginations truthful.
Sad Catholics at the End of the World
One might think that with a thick sacramentology, Roman Catholics would avoid these issues. Not so, although there are differences. In addition to the low percentage of Catholics who affirm their tradition’s teaching on the sacraments, Catholics grapple with the effects of the post-Vatican II changes in custom, ritual, and discipline. Here again one observes many younger Catholics, perhaps especially the most faithful, struggle against the formlessness they find so prevalent in the modern world and in their own religious communities, often by turning to external forms to resolve the confusion and thinness of how the substantial form is presented.
Some years ago I read an essay I cannot now find containing a line something like this about Vatican II: “The Church rightfully attempted to clean the cobwebs out of the rafters but accidentally knocked down the beams.” Now, the interpretation of the Council remains a disputed and contentious thing, but I take this quote (or how I remember it) as helpful in articulating Vatican II and its aggiornamento, or refreshing. The Church viewed itself as not sufficiently responding to the challenges of modernity, and in fact, there was decadence in the midst of the impressive trappings of the time. But the confident attempt to refresh itself and embrace some aspects of modernity, for various reasons (all highly disputed by various schools), did not lead to the expected results, and there was, quite obviously, chaos and confusion in its aftermath.
If you’re a young person in 2023, it’s tempting to look at the Church of the 1950s with its overflowing seminaries, large religious orders, maturing colleges, and intellectual confidence, and feel pangs of loss. What happened? How did we go from those signs of flourishing to the priest shortage, collapse of orders, loss of identity, empty pews, and endless dissent, handwringing, and ambiguity? It’s not unreasonable (although it is illogical) to place the blame on the Council itself, as many do, and attempt a reversal or return to a time when things seemed secure.
For the faithful Catholic, this is a quandary. The Catholic believes in tradition and the authority of the Church, and the Church affirms Vatican II, but things seem to have gone wrong, so what is one to do? Some retrench, go against the Church, choosing to become more Catholic than the pope (perhaps denying there even is a pope) and seek security and comfort in an extra-ecclesial manner. Others, less inclined to schism, remain within the Church but find themselves increasingly alienated from and frustrated by its forms.
It’s hard to blame them. If you show up at your average parish it is, to put it kindly, thin gruel. There can be irreverence, impiety, and a palpable loss of vitality. One can sympathize with a young person, pious and devout, who looks at all this and politely declines, opting for something older, more confident, and obviously more beautiful. The loss of beauty in the Catholic Church, a self-inflicted wound, offends the fervent spirit of the young person looking for transcendence rather than the immanent frame. They can feel robbed of their birthright. We had this thing, this transcendent thing, and we got rid of it? Everything else is trapped within the immanent frame, and we put ourselves into the same frame? Why?
It’s unsurprising to observe a resurgent traditionalism among many of the young. The impulse makes sense and is entirely understandable. (I cannot myself comprehend why so many older Catholics are confused by this resurgence, the causes of which are quite obvious.) But I do find it confusing when energy is directed to external forms as if they equaled the reality those external forms reflect, or as if recovering those external forms will manifest the substantial form. (In this, the Catholic return is an analogue to the evangelical sacramental imagination.) If an external form has meaning in light of what it represents or reflects, the real attention and purpose are on the reality indicated (the actual, inner form of the thing) not the external representation. To attend to the external is to misdirect one’s attention. It is akin to fantasizing the sacramental instead of recognizing the sacrament.
For example, a friend sent me a picture of a sign at a parish reading the following: “While it is not a sin to attend Mass without a veil”—this meant for women, obviously—“it is fitting.” That (apparently) it is necessary to clarify this point means a mistake has been made, a conflation of a permissible external as somehow essential to the substance of the real form. Thomas Aquinas suggests that conscience can err in forbidding a morally required act, or by commanding a morally forbidden act, or by commanding or forbidding what is morally indifferent. If there is a need to remind people that a permissible choice of freedom is not a matter of sin, it indicates a temptation to make externals more binding or essential than they actually are.
This is just an example; others could be used instead. It’s interesting because the canonical requirement for women to veil began only in 1917, although clearly there were customs long before then, including the words of St. Paul. Still, custom and law are not the same thing, and the canon law requirement to veil began only in the twentieth century—and ended in the twentieth century. The legal requirement lasted fifty-nine years. Fifty-nine out of two thousand. That’s not the tradition, but better described as a tradition. To think it is a requirement would misunderstand how tradition works and what it is.
If some evangelicals attempt to escape the immanent frame with appeals ad Lewis which feel a bit concocted, some Catholics attempt an escape through mimetic norms that can be wonderful, helpful things, but won’t in themselves break immanence. I’m borrowing the language of mimetic norms from a 1994 essay by Haym Soloveitchik, “Rupture and Reconstruction.” There he explores the changed “nature of contemporary spirituality,” including a “new rigor” observable among younger Jews. As Soloveitchik explains it, the Jewish experience in Europe, including moments of assimilation into Christian society, as well as the ideologies of modernity, socialism, communism, Zionism, and, horribly, the Holocaust, disrupted older patterns of mimetic knowledge. Jewish law is so comprehensive that it constitutes “a way of life,” and a way of life is less memorized or read about than “absorbed” mimetically, through imitation of the actions of friends, parents, family, the neighborhood, and all the other institutions in which people participate and from which they learn.
Interestingly, Soloveitchik notes that there are instances where mimetic norms differ somewhat from the letter of the law in the books, and yet no one concluded the practice of a community was in violation: mimetic norms were real norms, guiding proper conduct. The Holocaust and later migration “wrenched these people suddenly from a familiar life and an accustomed environment” and put them into new cultures and social norms. The older habitual forms of life “could not be adequate, for the problems of life were now new and different.” As a result, he argues, the role of texts—of books—expands to fill the space where mimetic norms functioned as the default.
I’m drawing no equivalence or parallel from the Jewish to the Christian experience in the last century. That cannot reasonably be done. Soloveitchik’s idea of mimetic norms and what happens when such norms are disrupted is not limited to any particular religious community, however. Christian mimetic norms were not ruptured by anything like the same mechanisms and nothing to the same extent. Yet the American Catholic or evangelical finds herself in a social world unlike those of her ancestors, and where the mimetic norms have often disappeared out of memory. One can read about them, can imagine them, can try to return to them, but this is a project, an attempt, a reconstruction of a world of practice and belief not present at the moment.
As Taylor notes, the attempt to reconstruct a tradition cannot but be experienced as somewhat discombobulating, like when a new college is created and a committee forms to invent the school’s traditions. They cannot but be viewed as a little suspect. Within the immanent frame, bereft of transcendence, and within post-1960s America, bereft of old social scripts and memory, we can expect a whole lot of attempts to imagine ourselves back to normalcy. But we have to admit we are imagining these, not inheriting them, and while they might provide meaning, they do not necessarily deliver reality—however much comfort they might provide.
Immanence and the Long Game
While tradition includes norms of action, it is more than what is done around here, since it provides a “perception of God as a daily, natural force,” says Soloveitchik, a kind of “simple reality” present and known. Losing tradition, he suggests, corresponds with a sense of the loss of God’s hand in human matters and of his “immediate presence”—there is a rupture, one that not only breaks the traditional sensibilities—but constitutes a rupture of God’s intimacy. For those within the immanent frame, this can be a painful reality, one we might wish to escape.
In the descriptions of Charles Taylor, the loss of God’s immediate presence, and indeed the immediate presence of all sorts of supernatural forces and powers, gives us deism and then a flattened, immanent universe. But the sense of God’s immediacy cannot be reconstructed with fantastical accounts of oddities alone, for those oddities are not God. Nor can one simply imagine oneself into a universe with fairies and trolls and gods lurking in woods and rivers and thereby have intimacy with the actual God. This isn’t reasonable.
Neither can one externalize certain forms and thereby guarantee a recovery of the lost necessary and substantial ones. Soloveitchik observes a spirituality grounded “less on a now unattainable intimacy with Him, than on an intimacy with His Will.” That is, rather than tradition, a code: “having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.” For the Christian, our culture of immanence, and our communities’ feeble responses to this, can leave a sense that the presence of God, his immediacy and obviousness, are gone. Frankly, this loss can be awful, a source of profound sadness, and sometimes anger. It is an entirely reasonable motivation to want that presence back, to reconstruct the conditions allowing that presence, to overcome the absence, however it can be accomplished.
But the presence of God is not constructed; it is given. It is not in the worldview, or in our inventions, or in our externals, however good and helpful these can be. We are living in a time that feels bereft of God, as if a vacuum has become real, and the absence of God can seem more obvious than his presence. Some turn to politics, others to fiction, some to art, to beauty, to forms. God is none of these things. Not only in our political life but in so much of our religious life there is a sense of urgency and anxiety, and in the midst of such a mood also frustration with others who do not sense the urgency, or who do not choose as we do to reconstruct things, to make things good again. There’s a mood of conflict, in both politics and religion—party against party, school against school, practice against practice, charism against charism—all of which feeds back in a loop of more anxiety and frustration.
Here, it is wise to think slowly and to think the long game, not to press too hard in a mad scramble to construct the experience of God. We are living through the project of modernity which consciously and intentionally replaced God with deism, and deism with remaking society, all of which quickened since the summer of 1968 and again since 2015. We are living amidst deep confusion and upheaval, when all the institutions, including the religious, feel wobbly. It’s understandable that we want stability, security, clarity, and even better things, like enchantment, beauty, fullness, order. That is not our lot, it seems, but we do no good if we confuse an external form—which we can see and hold on to—with a substantial form that seems to slip out of our grasp, let alone to place hope in the external form and our imagined meaning about it. We do harm if we turn against each other about that external form, and by so doing push the substance to the corners while convincing onlookers there was no substance to begin with, all while emboldening our cultured despisers.
Patience, thoughtfulness, watchfulness, charity, kindness, prayer, and gentleness with each other—these things are good both in season and out, and are especially needed just now. No cheating.