Enchanting Evil

'Barren Landscape,' by Erin
'Newton,' William Blake, 1805

‘Newton,’ William Blake, 1805

In God and Enchantment of Place, David Brown draws our attention to the need for re-enchantment in our interaction with the world around us—that is, a renewed awareness of the possibility of God’s revelatory presence in and engagement with all aspects of our experience.  In making this claim, Brown suggests that disenchantment arises largely as a result of our modern emphasis on objective assessment in our interaction with the world: “if the natural world is treated as an arena for ‘proving’ God’s existence, then once such proofs are undermined, retreat would seem inevitable.  But the question remains why proof should be seen as the only way of experiencing the divine impact on our world.”[1] He goes on to assert later in the book: “Above all, what needs to be guarded against is a model that presupposes that the only form of truth is where the individual stands apart in independent assessment over against what is being assessed rather than as engaged actively within it.  This is disenchantment at its worst.”[2]

Finding God in our human experience, then, is not so much a matter of discovering empirical data within the world which point to the presence of God but rather living in the world in such a way as to be open to the often mysterious reality of the Creator.

This way of experiencing God may seem fairly straightforward in the case of the more beautiful, enriching moments in which we find ourselves, but what about those moments in our experiences, or those realities of the world, that don’t seem so divinely-inspired?

Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory is helpful for understanding the way in which we can still affirm God’s creative and salvific presence even when our experience of the world seems to deny the possibility of faith in anything beyond the material world. This is the universe as the militantly atheistic Lieutenant, the antagonist of Greene’s novel, perceives it: we are mere animals, living lives fated to decline towards death, in a universe which itself is in the midst of an entropic decline towards meaningless chaos. Furthermore, Greene does nothing to deny this way of perceiving the world: his descriptions of the people throughout the novel are largely centered on their animalistic qualities, and the protagonist, the whiskey priest, stands apart from the other Christians in the novel only through his acceptance of the realities of the degradation and corruption of both the physical world and the human soul.  There is no denying that the world is an ugly place.

Nevertheless, as Greene demonstrates through the journey of the whiskey priest, God is still present and active, even when his presence and activity don’t cause the world to look the way we think it ought to.  As the priest reflects, the Christian faith is centered on “the convincing mystery—that we were made in God’s image.  God was parent, but He was also the policeman, the criminal, the priest, the maniac, and the judge…[The priest] would sit in the confessional and hear the complicated dirty ingenuities which God’s image had thought out.”[3] And yet, God’s power is all the greater because of the lowliness of the humans who bear his image: “It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death.  It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful…it needed a God to die for the half-hearted and the corrupt.”[4]

Thus, as Greene’s novel shows, we can return to the state of enchantment which Brown discusses even as we recognize the realities of the world which most seem to indicate that God is absent.  It is not a matter of explaining away the presence of evil and corruption in order to prove that God exists in spite of what we see.  Instead, by living in the world and accepting it for what it is, we experience God as continually present, creatively and redemptively active even in those places where we least expect to find him.  In this way, we discover God as he is, and avoid confining him to our own narrow conceptions of where we ought to find his power and glory revealed most clearly.

Caitlin Washburn is a first year PhD Candidate at the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts and recently completed a dissertation on Kierkegaard and Historical-Critical Biblical Scholarship for her MLitt at St. Mary’s College. 


[1] Brown, David, God and Enchantment of Place: Reclaiming Human Experience (Oxford: OUP, 2004), 21-2.

[2] Ibid., 86.

[3] Greene, Graham, The Power and the Glory (New York: Penguin, 2003), 101.

[4] Ibid., 97.

 

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