“I think one of the common reasons for everyone to be here,” the man said, “is that our societies prevent most people from making sense of their lives.”
“Here” is Paris’s famed Place de la République. The man is a member of Nuit Debout, a loose collection of students and activists who have filled this French plaza with tents and booths, food and wine, and conversation for each of the past 100 nights. Initially coalescing to protest a government attempt to change the country’s labor laws, Nuit Debout—which means “Night, Standing Up” or “Night Uprising”—quickly expanded. Each night since March 31, talk in the plaza has ranged from labor laws to climate change and from the current refugee crisis to the roles of the police and the media.
Both Nuit Debout’s inclusiveness and its lack of focus are due to its radical horizontality—it has no official leaders and has made no demands. Anyone can speak at each evening’s general session. Nuit Debout has an aim more fundamental than a policy agenda: the revitalization of democracy. Or, as their manifesto puts it, to show that “politics is not a matter for professionals, it is everyone's business.” This ought to sound familiar on this side of the Atlantic. After all, we’re not five years removed from Wall Street being similarly occupied, and, thanks to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, our own political parties are only too familiar with the upheaval political outsiders can cause.
A few weeks after the movement began, an engineer at the French housing ministry explained his enthusiasm for Nuit Debout. “They are attempting another way of doing politics,” he said. “It’s stimulating, it’s a taking-hold of conscience. A sort of vitality, a will to re-enchant the world.”
An engineer who talks of re-enchanting the world? “Only in France,” we might shrug. But is his sentiment really so foreign? Plebian French philosophers or not, we all know what it is to long for a re-enchanted world, the kind of world in which our lives and what happens in them makes sense not just because we insist on it, but because the world does.
Of course we can only try to make our lives make sense again if they don’t at the moment. We can only re-enchant something disenchanted.
The Meaning of Disenchantment
Once upon a time we didn’t have these kinds of conversations.
There were protests and rebellions, yes, and efforts to change the social order, but those didn’t happen because the world didn’t make sense. Once upon a time the world already made sense, we just needed it to function properly.
That world made sense because we knew where we stood, below the angels in their heavens and God on his throne, and at the center of the celestial spheres turning in their cycles. We found our place in the order, above and distinct from the animals, under our rightful rulers, and set upon our appointed tasks. The links in the great chain of being were tightly fit. We had a place in that order and we knew what it was because our social roles emerged from our common understanding of the world. Once upon a time the world was charged with meaning. And we no longer live then.
Nostalgia for that world is no cure. All the necessary meanings of that world were purchased at enormous price, and that price was freedom. That was a settled time, yes, but it was also immensely constraining, racist and sexist and viciously unequal. There are good reasons that people fought to open this world up, exhilarating to discover the scientific method, to finally control a world that for so long controlled us.
It was exhilarating to leave it behind, to leave once upon a time for modern time. Entzauberung, Max Weber famously named this leaving: disenchantment. “It means,” he wrote, “that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.” It meant that we had broken free of the great chain of necessary meaning. It meant becoming free to give the world a new meaning, a meaning we chose ourselves.
But this freedom makes meaning both more difficult to achieve and more fragile once found—which is not to say that our lives are meaningless now. It is to say, rather, that no one particular meaning, no common meaning, guides our understanding of the world any longer. It is to say that meaning is now an act of freedom rather than the foundation for it. It is to say that we have to construct consensus precisely because it’s not given to us.
For better and for worse, in a disenchanted world we make our own lives meaningful. Even while we enjoy the many blessings of this newfound freedom, we also feel the threat that the center may not hold. It’s because, lacking the meaning that the world once gave us, the only center that remains is the one we give ourselves. And how can we all be persuaded to create something together?
No wonder Nuit Debout aims to re-enchant the world. They rightly see that something is broken, and while that something includes French labor law, this crack in the roof runs all the way through the foundation.
The Dilemma of Re-Enchantment
Every effort at re-enchantment is an effort to tell the story of the world and of our place in it. This is what lies behind our voraciousness for, say, Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. (Haven’t we all felt like there’s another world just behind this one in which even our scars are signs of chosenness?) We’re ravenous for something—even as distraction, even as fiction—that can tell us both who we are and how we belong together, and we are deeply resistant to it at the same time.
Here is our dilemma. Like our nameless protester in the Place de la République, we want to build a society where our lives make sense not just personally but collectively. But in a disenchanted world nothing—no person or institution, not even nature—can tell us how to do it. Nothing can take away the burden of freedom, of our having to make meaning ourselves. The dilemma we face is how to connect these two live wires, how to hold tight to both ends of the rope so as to preserve the freedoms we have gained while building a re-legitimated social world in which our lives can make sense. This is the dilemma of re-enchantment.
We react to this dilemma in all kinds of ways. For many, the tension is too great and they let go of the rope, opt out of either freedom or community. Very often in our increasingly isolated and isolating world, it is the latter that is let go. It is not that the desire to belong to a community in which our lives make sense goes away, it is that it’s easier to disappear into our phones and make the world go away.
Pokémon Go is easier than reforming the tax code.
Opting out is attractive for two reasons. Some opt out as a way to reject institutions they feel have betrayed them. How many Brexit supporters voted “leave” because they were angry that the European Union advocated a reshaping of society they felt they had never signed on for? Others opt out because having to choose from among so many goods is exhausting. After all, should we devote ourselves to Black Lives Matter or the New Evangelization or ending tuberculosis? It is the endless varieties of re-enchantment on offer that inhibit our commitment to one.
Responding to the dilemma of re-enchantment by opting out is nothing new: In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville called it the American tendency toward a “soft despotism” that leaves individuals “enclosed in their own hearts.” It’s still with us today. For many, the centrifugal forces pushing us apart are too strong, the price of holding freedom and communal meaning together is too high, and so we let go of the rope and allow ourselves to be governed by a system in which we do not participate.
This is the dilemma. But dilemmas do not necessitate despair. In addition to letting go of the rope there are two other responses, “options for re-enchantment” that are being taken up, and each has a gift and a fragility peculiar to it.
The Re-enchantment of Refusal
We might call the first such option the re-enchantment of refusal.
As in Nuit Debout, the re-enchantment of refusal begins by refusing either in part or in toto the structures and meanings provided by the reigning social system. While the thing being resisted (and the diagnoses as to why it is broken) varies from movement to movement, this resistance to a coherent, often oppressive, system gathers into a loose unity what would otherwise be separate groups with differing interests. A look around the occupied plaza in Paris, a day spent in Wall Street’s Zuccotti Park with the Occupiers, shows the beauty and brokenness of re-enchantments of refusal.
It is the prioritization of the pole of freedom, rather than belonging, that determines both the gift and the fragility of re-enchantments of refusal. Freedom from constraint not only motivates such re-enchantments but also provides their vision of the good: a world free of all oppressions. This is just what drives Nuit Debout’s version of democracy—one that is so radically horizontal it refuses to name spokespeople, much less leaders. Even Frédéric Lordon, a French economist and one of the organizers of Nuit Debout, has refused to be called a leader of the movement. After all, he says, that “would be claiming a position of authority, and that’s ridiculous.” We can see a similarly horizontal organization in the Black Lives Matter movement, which gives the authority to protest itself rather than to any participants.
At their best, re-enchantments of refusal can be amazing, freeing things. They help to catalyze change in static, decayed, constricting systems. They make space for people to reject the tendency to opt out. We need Occupy and Nuit Debout because they help us resist the soft despotism of a democracy that reduces political action to walking into a voting booth.
The fragility of re-enchantments of refusal is their tendency to fly apart. The pursuit of freedom that is their gift can all too quickly turn into an allergy not only to oppressive structuring authorities but to any at all. They pull too hard on the pole of freedom and can unintentionally drop community altogether in a refusal to collaborate with another group’s agenda, and can insist on dissolution so strongly that no coherent system of meaning can ever be constructed.
We have already seen this tendency to fly apart in Occupy and Nuit Debout. Similar efforts would do well to learn from the difficulty these movements have faced: Once the unity provided by opposition dissolves—and it always dissolves—re-enchantments of refusal are ill-equipped to build a positively oriented community. Freedom-from-something does not provide long-term unity. Re-enchantments of resistance must be supplemented by a positive vision, a freedom-for-something, so that they are not ripped apart by the very desire for freedom that brought them together. And this is where the second option for re-enchantment today emerges: the re-enchantment of belonging.
The Re-enchantment of Belonging
More effective at preserving community, and more dangerous in the kind of community preserved, re-enchantments of belonging hold tight not to the pole of freedom but to the pole of stable meaning. This kind of re-enchantment is attractive because it responds to our desire to live in a coherent culture. It provides us a way out of the exhaustion of having to cope with pluralism and all the voices of resistance by reinstating a stable community of meaning within which we can know who we are and who we are meant to be.
Such re-enchantments of belonging include all the efforts we see today to re-embed ourselves in local communities—from Brooklyn to the Benedict option. These are efforts to build local places and micro-spaces where political and religious practices are, as Charles Taylor put it, “embedded in a way of life, in a culture, in a set of political institutions, in a civilization.” Knowing the ways in which we struggle to make sense of our lives, there is something deeply desirable about the re-enchantment of belonging. But along with its gift, this option also has two, exceptionally dangerous, fragilities.
The first is that re-enchantments of belonging can easily slip into re-enchantments of the strong man. Gentler versions of this look like our attraction to people like Presidents Obama and Reagan, or even Pope Francis. The danger here is not that our freedoms will be stripped from us or that everyone will be forced into a uniform mold. The danger is that we tacitly hope that another, a strong man, a superman who knows what we need, will save us. The danger is that we want somebody else to resolve the dilemma of disenchantment for us so that we can remain immersed in the solipsistic joys of a consumer culture. (It is notable that this kind of failing is impossible within the radical democracy practiced by Occupy or Nuit Debout.)
The harsher versions of re-enchantments of the strong man are much more dangerous, much more totalitarian. This in the direction in which Marine Le Pen in France leans, in which Boris Johnson tugged the United Kingdom before the Brexit vote and toward which Donald Trump is leading America with his xenophobic rhetoric about Hispanics and Muslims. These harsh re-enchantments of the strong man create stable communities by exclusion and scapegoating. They create meaning by putting the blame on an other and promising that everything will be alright if “they” were just gone—or kept in their place. Spoken aloud in the light of day many of us see these tropes for the lies they are, but we also know that human beings have not outgrown our self-mutilating tendency to slip into the darkness of totalitarianism. Re-enchantments of the strong man remain a danger for us even in an Enlightened age.
The second fragility toward which re-enchantments of belonging can tend is less totalitarian than nostalgic. Here we can place the many efforts being made to return society to a time when the dilemma of disenchantment wasn’t felt so strongly. In terms of belief this tends to look like the less-well-thought-out versions of the Benedict option, or the fantasy that more precise liturgical rubrics will fill the pews—and the seminaries. This is not to dismiss the Latin Mass or the construction of radically coherent Christian communities as unworthy practices (in fact, I think the deep versions of the Benedict option are not only laudable but necessary). Instead it is to note how often re-enchantments of belonging operate from an unspoken desire to return to a time when we all didn’t live, as Talal Asad puts it, as a “minority among minorities.”
So is this all there is? Are we doomed to remain locked in an interminable tug of war between freedom and meaning, the resolutions to which are no resolutions at all? Are these understandable, laudatory, deeply flawed re-enchantments of refusal, of the strong man, of nostalgia, all that remain?
A Catholic Re-enchantment
A confession: There are times when I think the answer is yes, that this is all there is. There are times I am gripped by the hand of doubt and I can see little but the unending dilemma of our fractured re-enchantments. But these are not the only times.
One of these other times came this past spring at the Church of St. Francis Xavier on 16th Street in New York. Along with hundreds of others I was there to celebrate the funeral Mass of one of the great and holy prophets of our time, Daniel Berrigan, S.J. As a young Jesuit I had met Dan more than once, and he was unfailingly kind to me—and, like all true prophets, unfailingly challenging.
During his lifetime Father Berrigan called me, called his brother Jesuits, his country and his to church to refuse to participate in injustice of racism or sexism or war, and his funeral was true to the prophetic re-enchantment of refusal that was his life. But Dan himself, like a true prophet, was always more than refusal, or maybe it was this: even in his refusal he knew that he needed more, needed belonging. Regardless, there was more than refusal in the liturgy we celebrated that day—there was belonging. In the prayers that were voiced and the voices that were heard, refusal and belonging were held close together.
The re-enchantment of the world may never be global, but perhaps it can be Catholic. Here are three clues as to how we might help our world look more like Father Berrigan’s funeral.
First, we have to build a society in which it is easier to opt into institutions than to opt out. We have to learn from the re-enchantment of belonging how to overcome the centrifugal, individuating forces that isolate and push us apart and instead build a society capable of resisting soft despotism. This would mean creating ways for Catholics to more intentionally bear the costs of the structures and practices that provide the benefits and goods we enjoy, and to share both costs and benefits in solidarity with those on the margins. But these practices of solidarity have to be offered as invitations, not issued as commands; they have to be spoken more in the voice of Pope Francis than Pio Nono.
Second, we have to build a society that is genuinely cosmopolitan, plural but not relativistic. In gratitude to the re-enchantments of resistance we have to learn how to make space for difference and to foreclose upon all tendencies to monopolize, manipulate and control bodies of people.
As Jose Casanova has argued, the Catholic Church is uniquely suited to this task because, well, that is exactly what we are. From the multiple spiritualities we have practiced to the saints we have named to the variety of parish cultures found under our banner, the church is an interiorly plural institution. The key to making this inner plurality a social model is to learn to celebrate the different ways human beings have learned to live kenotic lives of self-sacrificing love. This includes, especially in our hot-take culture, learning to disagree without threatening schism or denunciation.
Third, we have to build a society that is interiorly self-critical, semper reformanda. We must resist the temptations either to nostalgically imagine that any former society was the perfect one or to push responsibilities onto a strong man. As America’s own Nathan Schneider put it, we must build “a politics in which politicians are less important.”
And this entails reclaiming, individually and corporately, the doctrine of original sin. It means owning our personal and communal identity as loved sinners. It means knowing that, as Pope Francis’ episcopal motto says, someone has had mercy on us and chosen us.
That was what it was like in the body of the Church of St. Francis Xavier, standing there amid the people and the protest signs, the singing and the preaching and the crying. It was a moment where the hand of doubt lost its grip and the warring re-enchantments stood side by side, peaceful for a moment.
It must not be said that there is no place for prophets of refusal. Structures of injustice remain and so does the need for resistance. But today, on its own, the re-enchantment of refusal is not only insufficient, it is dangerous. Our social fabric is so thin that it takes not a knife to pierce it but a fingertip.
This does not do away with our need for prophets; it highlights our need for prophets of a different kind. It means we must have prophets of belonging. It means that we stand in need of more than freedom. It means that we must have prophets of belonging who stand alongside our prophets of refusal, who help us to thicken the weave of our social order.
Re-enchanting our world means not settling for critique, not being satisfied with refusal. It means relearning that we belong to one another.