Ghosts in a Secular Age

Originally at:

by Ross Douthat

During Pope Francis’s stateside visit I wrote a post arguing that his rapturous reception from our ostensibly-secular media was partial evidence for secularism’s relative weakness, notwithstanding certain recent de-Christianizing trends in the United States. For a very different sort of evidence, I recommend this personal essay in the latest Elle Magazine, in which Lisa Chase, the widow of the late Peter Kaplan — the beloved New York Observer editor, dead untimely of cancer in 2013 — describes her experiences communicating with what she thinks (not-unreasonably, on the evidence presented) is Peter’s “discarnate” spirit.

The essay is a dispatch from the heart of what we think of as hyper-secular America: Not just New York City, not just upper-middle class white liberal New York City, but literary/journalistic New York City. But it’s clear as the story progresses that the author’s experience is not some outlying intrusion of the pre-modern into a thoroughly materialistic milieu; from the beginning her experiences are informed and steered and ratified by a social network (friends, psychiatrists, doctors) in which encounters with the numinous are accepted, however quietly and slightly nervously, as a part of the normal run of human life.

I wrote a little bit about these kind of experiences, and what they tell us about the nature of our allegedly-secular age, in a post last year about ghost sightings in post-tsunami Japan. In that post, I invoked the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor to suggest two possible ways of understanding the secular world-picture’s influence on religious/numinous/supernatural experience. In the first scenario, people in a secular society have the same basic kinds of mystical experiences as their ancestors, but the secular “immanent frame” imposes a particular interpretation on those experiences, encouraging people to interpret them as strictly internal/psychological events. (In that post I cited the example of how the Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven reacted to what felt like a divine incursion in his youth; another example would be the aside in this interview with the atheist-intellectual couple Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein in which Goldstein mentions how hard she had to work to “reason away” an experience where she felt like she was being contacted by the dead.) In the second scenario, though, the secular frame somehow changes the very nature of numinous experience, so that it feels more attenuated and unreal, and the human self is more “buffered” against its enchantments, terrors, and pull.

As I said in that post, this distinction is important for how we estimate the durability of secularism:

To the extent that the buffered self is a reading imposed on numinous experience after the fact, secularism looks weaker (relatively speaking), because no matter how much the intellectual assumptions of the day tilt in its favor, it’s still just one possible interpretation among many: On a societal level, its strength depends on the same mix of prejudice, knowledge, fashion and reason as any other world-picture, and for the individual there’s always the possibility that a mystical experience could come along … that simply overwhelms the ramparts thrown up to keep alternative interpretations at bay.

But if the advance of the secular world-picture actually changes the nature of numinous experience itself, by making it impossible to fully experience what Taylor calls “enchantment” in the way that people in pre-secular contexts did and do, then the buffered self is a much more literal reality, and secularism is self-reinforcing in a much more profound way. It doesn’t just close intellectual doors, it closes perceptual doors as well.

But the Elle essay suggests yet another understanding of how secularism interacts with spiritual experience. In this scenario, the key feature of the secular world-picture isn’t that it requires people to reinterpret their numinous experiences as strictly psychological events; it’s simply that it discourages people who have such experiences from embracing any kind of systematic (that is, religious/theological) interpretation of what’s happened to them, and then as a corollary discourages them from seeking out a permanent communal space (that is, a religious body) in which to further interact with these ultimate realities. Under secularism, in other words, most people who see a ghost or have a vision or otherwise step into the supernatural are still likely to believe in the essential reality of their encounter with the otherworldly or transcendent; they’re just schooled to isolate the experience, to embrace it as an interesting (and often hopeful) mystery without letting it call them to the larger conversion of life that most religious traditions claim that the capital-S Supernatural asks of us in return.

What secularism really teaches people, in this interpretation, isn’t that spiritual realities don’t exist or that spiritual experiences are unreal. It just privatizes the spiritual, in a kind of theological/sociological extension of church-state separation, and discourages people from organizing either intellectual systems (those are for scientists) or communities of purpose (that’s what politics is for) around their sense, or direct experience, that Something More exists.

This interpretation – which I think is clearly part of the truth of our time — has interesting implications for the future of religion in the West. One of the big religious questions going forward is whether the large swathe of people who have drifted from traditional faith but remain dissatisfied (for excellent reasons!) with strict neo-Darwinian materialism constitute a major market for religious entrepreneurs. Is there a version of theologically-liberal Christianity that could actually bring these drifters back to church and keep them in the pews? Is there some new synthesis –pantheist, deist, syncretistic — that could seem plausible and nourishing and intellectually satisfying enough to plan an actual new religion in “spiritual, but not religious” territory? Is there enough residual Christian orthodoxy knocking around in the West’s cultural subconscious to make a revival or Great Awakening not only possible but likely? Etc.

My suspicion is that eventually someone will figure out a new or refashioned or revivalist message that resonates with the fallen-away but still spiritually-inclined; man is a religious animal, nature abhors a vacuum, people want community and common purpose, and above all people keep having metaphysical experiences and it’s only human to want to make sense out of them and not just compartmentalize them away from the remainder of your life.

But what you see in the Elle piece is that in the absence of strong institutions and theological systems dedicated to the Mysteries, human beings and human society can still make sense of these experiences through informal networks, private channels, personalized interpreters. And to the extent that these informal networks succeed in satisfying the human hunger for interpretation, understanding and reassurance — as they seem to have partially satisfied Peter Kaplan’s widow — then secularism might be more resilient, more capable of dealing effectively with the incorrigibility of the spiritual impulse, than its more arid and strictly materialist manifestations might suggest.

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