Re-Enchanting the World

My 11-year-old asked, “How does the voice work?”

The voices of her older brothers, brimming with secondary school erudition, replied in unison: “The human voice is created by airwaves pushing over the vocal cords.”

And immediately I added, “Well, that is true, but really, it’s… well, it’s magic.”

This sibling interaction over breakfast featured the collision of a scientific reductionism with childhood wonder. A great mystery was noted in God’s creation (the range and beauty of the human voice—wow!) that was summarily demystified by a mechanistic explanation (air vibrating vocal cords—easy-peasy, ho hum).

This was a scene of disenchantment. 

Now, many scientists are filled with constant wonder, and ply their crafts with astonished joy. But through the gristmill of modern history and cultural change, one of the trends Western societies have inherited is a reductionistic approach to knowledge. As Charles Taylor observes in A Secular Age, the world has been mechanized in order to become more knowable within our frames of knowing. Once the mechanical explanation is provided, the wonder is gone. Knowing eliminates awe.

Taylor calls this “disenchantment.” 

From a contemporary Christian perspective, a healthy epistemology (i.e., an approach to knowing) affirms that air vibrating vocal cords produces chords of a different sort while retaining awe over such a marvelous act and recognizing its source as the inscrutable wisdom of an all-knowing Creator. No matter how finely we may dissect his creations, they cannot be truly sterilized of his supernal beauty or purged of his supernatural power.

Secularization, however, has eviscerated the numinous from our investigations of the world. In fact, we have come to associate the loss of wonder as a true sign of maturity. Chesterton memorably writes, 

…when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. 

Parenting is the oversight of a child’s process of maturing. As a dad, I have mourned the loss of wonder in my home (like when the glories of the human voice are reduced to a mechanized process in the throat). But there are a lot of doors to open in life, and a kid cannot stand in fear of a dragon behind each one. Besides, marveling over closed door slows down the rushed routines for getting everyone to school.

Sadly, I must admit that my own parenting is a constant exercise of disenchanting the world for my children:

“Dad, I’m scared.”

“Son, there are no such things as monsters. Go to bed!”

“Dad, I saw a dragon! It was flying over there near that hill!”

“Whatever you say, dear.”

One of my favorite cinematic scenes of parenting appears in the 2014 film Boyhood. The boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), is in early adolescence and falling asleep on the sofa next to his father (Ethan Hawke). 

“Dad, there’s no, like, real magic in the world, right?

“What do you mean?”

“You know, like elves and stuff… people just made that up…?”

“Well, I don’t know. I mean what, what makes you think that elves are any more magical than something like, like a whale? You know what I mean? What if I told you a story about how underneath the ocean there was this giant sea mammal that uses sonar and sang songs, and it was so big that its heart was the size of a car and you could crawl through the arteries? I mean, you’d think that’s pretty magical, right?”

“Yeah. But like, right this second, there’s like no elves in the world, right?”

“No. Technically, no elves.”

In this scene, a father tries to re-enchant the world for a kid whose process of maturing demands he relinquishes a world of elves and magic. He resists a return to what we might classify as “medieval” superstitions. But he awakens in his son a sense of wonder over the world that exists (an approach many scientists would welcome). 

Since the world is not just full of marvels, but reflective of a marvelous Being, I want to live as someone whose age and experience are marked not by a loss of awe, but by layered depths of mature wonder. I want my children to keep a curious eye on the door, the stairs, the wardrobe, the horizon—because God is up to something… and I do not want them to miss it.

Photo by Dima Pechurin on Unsplash