Re-Enchanting The World: Education, Wisdom and Imagination

By Albert J. Raboteau

Some thirty years ago, when I was in college at Loyola (now Loyola Marymount) in Los Angeles, the university catalogue began with a sentence that bemused and intrigued me, "The Loyola man is a man of two worlds." Over the years, I have wondered about those two worlds, increasingly so lately. Two worlds. What are these two worlds? I no longer remember the rest of what the catalogue had to say. So I am free to define the two worlds in my own terms as the world of the ordinary, the regular, the everyday -- what we mean (perhaps demean) by the term mundane. And another world, the world of mystery, of fantasy, of spirit, and of glory. Sometimes these are distinguished as the outer world and the inner world, or the visible versus the invisible, but these are, I think, mistaken distinctions, because they obscure the very important fact that the two worlds interpenetrate. Or, as the French poet Paul Eluard wisely observed, "There is another world, but it is in this one." Indeed it is the very "coinherence" (Charles Williams's term) of these two worlds that is the source of enchantment. The flat world of the ordinary opens out upon hidden depths; and the intangible world of the mystery takes bodily form. Please note that I am not identifying enchantment with either one of these two worlds; I am asserting that the coinherence of the two is the source of enchantment.

To make more vivid the sense of enchantment I am talking about, close your eyes and think back to the time when you were a young child, perhaps five or six years old. As children we experience the world as an enchanted place. Usually this primary experience of enchantment is associated with nature. For me, memories of the overpowering fragrance of lilacs in summer, the last lingering light of sunset, the vibrant green of trees in the Spring evoke my childhood experience of enchantment. Once upon a time I rambled through fields, woods, rivers, creeks -- totally at home, at peace and enraptured, taken out of myself by the sheer sensuous beauty of light, smell, touch, sound, even taste-the sweet tartness of berries, cherries, apples, picked fresh from bush or tree. I was lost in the moments of the day. Simply there, free, running free; arrested by the shimmering light of the creek as it played across the rocks, or by the plunk of stones dropped one by one into the rippling surface of a pond formed by beavers. I felt secure in this natural world but also sensed its danger, the danger of the unexpected--the terrain was not just backdrop; it was alive, pulsing with drama not of my own making: a broken robin's egg, pieces of pale sky blue that would never yield a baby bird; a dead muskrat, its carcass swollen and rotten with flies; a fallen tree, its roots clumped with the dirt that used to hold them, now stretched forlornly toward the sky.

As we grow older our amazement at the wondrous quality of the world dims, our sense of awe, and intense apprehension, the keen taste of beauty and poignancy that can break us into tears-- all that diminishes. In part we lose enchantment with the world because we lose touch with nature. For me the loss was accelerated by moving in 1958 from a small Midwestern town to Los Angeles. Nature seemed despoiled, covered by concrete, ruined by smog. I no longer had time or place for solitary rambles. Everyone around me seemed too busy getting and going; too wrapped up in cars, the armor of daily struggle. I became insulated physically and emotionally from the natural environment.

As we grow older we become disenchanted not only from the world of nature, but also from the world of people. Just as we feel ourselves extended in early childhood by our intense participation in nature, so we also experience ourselves as extended by participation in a social web of kinship and personal relations. For me, the experience of kinship was most closely associated with summer visits down-home to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where I was born but not raised: I remember gathering on hot, humid evenings with relatives around a table, a table heavy with food, drink, laughter, and stories, stories about the old people, wonderful stories told on into the night and early morning, until the last sweet sip of anisette like a benediction sent me off to bed in the warm embrace of aunts, uncles, cousins, living and dead, all made vividly present by storytelling. I felt known and knew myself in the company of these my people, so that somehow I was larger than just me. Through my relatives, I extended back through time and space. But my attachment to kin, like my enchantment with nature, weakened as our moves North and then West stretched and eventually snapped old family and friendship ties. Moreover, kinship itself seemed all too fragile a web to keep us secure against a dangerous world, as I observed the sadness and the failures of my parents, their inability to protect themselves and me from the cruelty of others. And for some of us, of course, the additional shadow of racism or bigotry or sexism falls early across our young lives -- the force of evil striking at our very souls when we are most vulnerable.

Some cultural critics argue that the disenchantment of which I speak is a peculiar condition of modern consciousness. The world became disenchanted (Max Weber's phrase, I think) at a certain point in the history of Western Europe -- victim to the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the triumph of rationalism in the Enlightenment. In this view, the disenchantment of the world is a fundamental characteristic of the development of modern industrial society, which stands in stark contrast to preindustrial societies for whom the world remains enchanted. While there is some truth to this observation, I am not sure that history is so simple or so straightforward. And I suspect a good deal of romanticism disguises the fact that in traditional societies life is frequently short and brutal. At any rate, it seems impossible for us to escape the process of disenchantment within our own personal histories. Nor should we wax nostalgic for a lost Eden, if we consider disenchantment not as the inevitable price of technological advance, but as a stage of personal development, as part of growing from childhood to adult maturity. Unfortunately, too many of us get no farther, but remain stuck at the stage of disenchantment. The world becomes flattened, surface, ordinary, spiritless. And in response we succumb to the pseudo-enchantment of addiction to entertainment, to food, to alcohol, to sex, to possessions -- out of our deep innate hunger for mystery, for spirit, for glory. Like Esau, we trade our birthright. We settle for glittering treasure, dragon bait, but then the dragon wakens and eats our souls. We become the hollow men and women that T. S. Eliot described. We may not know how to name it, but we are no less deprived, impoverished, hungry. The gnawing feeling that our lives ought to be more possesses us. And we are right.

In this process of disenchantment education plays a paradoxical role as both a cause of the problem and a source of the solution. Education is one of the social processes that disenchants us, but it also has the capacity to help re-enchant our world. Its disenchanting effects are patent. Those of us who are parents have all had the poignant experience of dropping a child off for the first day of kindergarten, only to realize with a sinking feeling, "My God, how many years of sentence has my poor child left to serve!" The sheer routinization of schooling seems overwhelming. Learning requires of us separation, observation, abstraction, objectification, convention. We learn to match the particularity of our unique selves to patterns of expectation and obligation, dividing up the wholeness of experience into blocks of material to be mastered or completed. The harnessing of imagination and restriction of the free play of curiosity into performance-oriented tasks begins to happen early in the primary grades and intensifies in high school and college.

The tension between creativity and structure became most intense during the years of college with their inner turmoil, conflicting demands, alternating bouts of confidence and bewildering doubt. I remember days of incredibly blue skies and dazzling light, moments of genuine excitement and insight, intertwined with stretches of grey boredom and the dull drudgery of routine work. The free play of curiosity just got started only to be abruptly halted by structured requirements. On the one hand, I delighted in the luxury of browsing in the library--whole worlds of culture, art, music, and literature lay open to my reach as I pulled books off the shelves that had nothing to do with any assignment and, leafing through their pages, caught a glimpse of enchantment --different worlds expanding my own limited experiential one. I was traveling far in imagination to different lands and times.

On the other hand, my teachers insisted on initiating me into certain skills or habits of mind: disciplined study, critical reflection, judgment, articulation. Subjects, courses, requirements divided up knowledge into majors and minors. And yet, underlying all the fragmentation and restriction, the curriculum proclaimed, indeed institutionalized, a counter impulse--a deep allegiance to an integral vision. At Loyola everyone, no matter his major, was required to take both theology and philosophy every term. Too often this requirement degenerated into apologetics and rationalism, but occasionally its true purpose was served and we glimpsed the holy grail, what our teachers called "the perennial philosophy," an intuition of a whole in which disparate subjects came together into a unity of vision. The perennial philosophy (or, as I prefer, the perennial "wisdom") taught that we ourselves -- our knowledge, our emotions, our very lives -- fit into a pattern of meaning which we deeply desired but rarely had the perspective to see. The perennial wisdom spoke to us of a depth beneath the surface of things. The perennial wisdom taught us that there is a resonance that we are capable of experiencing in relationship to nature (groundedness), to other persons (compassion), and to the self (transcendence). The perennial wisdom taught us that enchantment means being taken outside oneself and then returned to oneself augmented. Of course, I didn't realize all this at the time. But I inchoately grasped that the perennial wisdom offered us the possibility of re-enchanting the world.

As I have grown older I have come to appreciate more clearly than I did then that the path to re-enchantment lies in recovering wisdom, wisdom made most readily accessible to us in story. Stories, particularly in the form of folktales, myths, and legends, convey to us the collected wisdom of the human race. They transmit the views of those who have gone before about the way the world is and the place of people in it. As the poet Robert Bly reminds us, "When we listen, really listen, to a folktale, we allow ourselves to fall back into the arms of our ancestors." We touch wisdom. There truly are "stories to grow on." Stories develop (or repair) our capacity for wonder, our ability to make believe and make belief. It is no accident that fantasy literature of all sorts has such a wide audience today. The realm of fantasy or faerie, inhabited by dragons, elves, magic, hero quests, transmits to us adults the make-believe world of children's stories and the "once upon a time" quality of old folktales. Modern retellings or imitations of ancient myths, such as Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising and its sequels, the four books of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, C. S Lewis's Narnia series, his novel Till We Have Faces, and Ursula LeGuin's The Earthsea Trilogy, all have immense appeal. In this realm things are more than they seem. Events don't just happen by chance; they are meant. A mysterious providence or fate shapes the destiny of the characters of this literature in surprising, wondrous, and amazing ways. It is a world of antinomies, light and dark, good and evil, power and weakness, love and hate -- a world of high drama in which life and death, catastrophe and triumph, contest one another in the lives of ordinary creatures, children, hobbits, plain men and women, suddenly raised by exceptional challenges to deeds of heroism. Why does the literature of fantasy appeal to us so deeply? Because it echoes within us lessons that we lose at peril of losing essential qualities of our humanity -- amazement, wonder, and mystery.

Although it is a mistake to disdain this literature as escapism, there is a danger that the desire for enchantment may degenerate into reverie, nostalgia, or sentimentality. Escapism results from losing sight of the interconnectedness of both worlds -- the ordinary and the wondrous. The escapist has yielded to the power of one world and become absorbed by it. Perhaps an image from winter in New Jersey can clarify what I mean. We had an especially bitter winter in 1994, but winter has its beauty. One of our first ice storms left a fantastic scene down by the lake where I live. The sun sparkled brilliantly off the frozen water and the limbs of all the trees and bushes were coated with ice. I walked in a woods that seemed to be made of crystal. And yet, amidst all that beauty, huge tree limbs bent and broke, unable to withstand the weight of the ice. It struck me that it takes a lot of strength to resist a false enchantment that in fact freezes us into beautiful but ultimately destructive postures of self-absorption far removed from the warmth of compassion for the day-to-day world of plain and sometimes disappointing people. Enchantment of this sort is beautiful, but frozen, sterile, and deadly.

If my insight is correct and genuine enchantment requires the strength of commitment to and compassion for the ordinary world, it occurs to me that the tension I felt in school between creativity and discipline is perhaps a necessary condition of re-enchantment. Perhaps the regimen of class, lectures, assignments, labs, note-taking, paper writing, examinations -- the sheer routine of it all -- is part of the discipline that keeps enchantment from fracturing into escapism, nostalgia, or sentimentality. The key then is to keep hold of both worlds, the world of the ordinary and the world of mystery, sacrificing neither for the other.

Easy to say, but how can we invest the routine, the mundane with enchantment? How can we see the depth behind a world that seems flat and devoid of meaning, without succumbing to escapism? Where is the underground water in the dry rocky land? How do we avoid trying to drink from a mirage? These are critical questions because we face them continuously not only in education, but in our workplaces, our marriages, our families, our religions.

Could it be that the recovery of enchantment, not for the child but for the mature person, is a matter of attitude, a stance toward being in the world, a level of consciousness? When the world becomes flat, lifeless, and inert, what can we do to recover or renew our vision? My answer is, return to story. Analysis and theory are inadequate at this level of experience. Story does not so much invest the world with meaning as require our eyes, like a stereoscope, to peer simultaneously at two objects so that our double vision enables us to perceive them as three-dimensional. This double vision does not constitute regression to the state of primary enchantment we enjoyed as children. Re-enchantment is a consciousness that develops in a person who has first had the world disenchanted but then returns to the world fully conscious of the previous stages of experience. This third stage of mature consciousness is the beginning of true wisdom.

In traditional societies, rituals of initiation help young men and women to achieve passage from enchantment to disenchantment to re-enchantment. In our society, educational institutions have taken on, willy-nilly, the functions of initiation carried out in traditional societies by elders, usually priests or priestesses of the ancestors. In our society this ritual process has been diffused over the extended adolescence through which our young people pass, we hope, in high school and college. For them, teachers and classmates constitute their elders and age-cohorts in a sporadic and truncated version of the initiation process. We who are educators perform this role haphazardly and unconsciously. I am convinced we might more adequately move our students and ourselves toward re-enchanting the world, were we more conscious of the task. To do so we have to understand education as personal transformation and not just as exchange of information.

If education is to become initiation, we must dedicate ourselves to educating the heart as well as the head. In other words, we need to recover the sense of education as responsive not just to the mind, but to the whole person. I remember when, after a Mozart concert, two of my professors got into a discussion about the value of intellect versus the value of feeling. One boldly asserted the supremacy of the intellect as a source of creativity; the other asked, is not emotion -- being moved, for example, by music, song, literature, art -- an essential aspect of knowing? I believe so. In fact, the distinction between head and heart (as Jonathan Edwards argued so long ago) is false. Is any learning totally disinterested, i.e., without affection, whether the affect be inclination or aversion? Furthermore, if we perceive the heart not only as the seat or source of emotions, but in the biblical sense as the inner center of the person, the place of the whole self, how can we make education touch that center, the deepest part of the person? There is but one way: by conveying knowledge while simultaneously attending to the values and the feelings that are part of the act of apprehension we call knowing. Move the mind into the heart. Mind begins in heart. (A good test of our success or failure in this regard is to ask how the creative arts fare in our high schools and colleges.) If we attempt to disassociate knowledge from feeling, we distort learning and blind ourselves to its full human meaning. And in so doing we abrogate our promise that knowledge leads to wisdom. For to achieve wisdom, as the elders of every continent tell us, requires transformation of the whole person.

I believe that our primary task as educators is to transmit to our students the wisdom traditions of the world. These traditions articulate the hard-won lessons that human beings have gleaned about living, the place of people in every society, the inscape of the person, and the network of interpersonal relationships that constitute personal identity. Note that I said the wisdom traditions of the world. Education needs to be and now has the capacity to be catholic -- "multicultural" if you wish. There is an apt fable from the Akan people of Ghana that illustrates my point:

Once upon a time, many, many years ago, Ananse Kokrufu, the great spider, became concerned because people had become careless about the wisdom of the world and large pieces of it were getting lost. So he decided that he, Ananse, would collect the wisdom of the world, all of it, and store it in one place for safe-keeping. The place he chose was the very top of the highest palm wine tree in the forest. Good as his word, Ananse with great effort collected all the wisdom of the world, placed it in a large gourd, tied the gourd to his chest, and began to climb. Now it was a hot day, the tree was very tall, and about halfway up Ananse began to have trouble. Far below, at the foot of the tree stood Nkitea, Ananse's small son. Looking up, he shouted to Ananse, "Father, if you truly had all of the wisdom of the world up there with you, you would have tied that gourd on your back." This was too much even for the great spider. In a fit of rage he unfastened the gourd and hurled it toward the ground. When it hit, the gourd shattered into hundreds of pieces, and the wisdom of the world scattered all over the earth. By this time people had learned their lesson and they came --each with his or her own gourd -- to collect whatever bit of wisdom they could hold. And that is why it is to this very day some people have a great deal of wisdom, some have little, and others have none at all.

We might sharpen the point of the fable by observing with little Nkitea that those who think that they possess all the wisdom in the world have little or none at all. The wisdom of all peoples needs to be treasured; we can't afford to be careless or to lose any, if we hope to re-enchant the world. We might think of education in terms of the Australian aborigines' concepts of the dream time and songlines. The earliest ancestors first laid out the patterns of the world in the dream-time (the time of creation); their descendants ever since have followed these patterns according to song maps which preserve the clan memory of its own piece of earth's pattern. Songlines map the rocks, the trees, the animals of a particular area. Taken as a whole, they constitute part of a great symphonic map of song. It is only by exchanging songlines that we make our way over the land patterned in the dreamtime. Otherwise, we are circumscribed to a limited locale because we know only the songline of our own clan.

Re-enchantment requires that we encounter the songlines of other clans in order to restore our sense of wonder about the variety of the world and our sense of wonder about ourselves. Encountering other cultures can take us outside ourselves, and our habitual ways of seeing, thinking, and behaving. We are challenged by encountering difference to appreciate the unique particularities of human societies and to see ourselves anew through the perceptions of others. The area of human experience in which a particular culture may be limited may be complemented and enhanced by the wisdom of another in encounters of reciprocal criticism. Ideally, an encounter with the other leads not only to fuller knowledge but to greater understanding of what it means to be human and ultimately enhances our capacity for compassion.

There is another very important dimension of life in which education can help us to close the apparent split between the world of the ordinary and the world of imagination. When we think of education as initiation, discipline no longer appears as the enemy of creativity but as the indispensable accomplice for acquiring the skills true creativity requires. Doing and making, and the disciplined skill to be able to do or make, are ways of knowing. Art, craft, writing, speaking, painting, poetry, dance, to be done well must be practiced over long hours of apprenticeship. A poem or an essay results only from painstaking work. I remember an English professor at Loyola making this point once by stopping a lecture on Shakespeare in mid-sentence to listen to the rhythm of a carpenter's hammer outside the classroom window. After a moment he proceeded to relate the workman's skill to the craft of the playwright in hammering out the rhythms of his dramatic language. Similarly, I remember another professor taking us through T. S. Eliot's poem, The Waste Land, line by line of intense explication. Then he reread the whole poem to us aloud, much to our enchantment, lest the act of explication leave the poem in pieces dissected and dead to our imaginations. He simultaneously illustrated the discipline of creativity and the discipline of appreciating good work, but best of all he demonstrated the interdependence of discipline and creativity. Once again the lesson is clear, the worlds coinhere. Discipline and creativity together make the dance, the poem, the music that enchants. To make is also to become enchanted -- to be taken outside ourselves by disciplined work and then returned to ourselves enhanced.

Education then, if we attend seriously to its role as a process of initiation, can help young people to move successfully from primary enchantment, to disenchantment, to re-enchantment. When understood as personal transformation and not just as exchange of information, it can help re-enchant the world by training us all in the wisdom traditions, as these have been kept alive and made imaginatively real in story, legend, and myth. Education can increase our awareness and strengthen our conviction that there are indeed two worlds and that the coinherence of the two, not their separation, constitutes enchantment.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not confess another reason for believing that I am a person of two worlds. The old Loyola catalogue was of course the product of a particular wisdom tradition, that of Christianity, a tradition that continues to sustain me. In this tradition the human person is body and spirit, neither spirit only nor matter only, but both- embodied spirit, inspirited body. The dignity and the glory of us human beings is that we are the marriage of heaven and earth. There is an old theme in the Christian tradition that humans were created actually superior to the angels precisely because we are a microcosmos, i.e., in us spirit and matter conjoin. Humans stand at the midpoint of creation, between matter and spirit.

Even more mysterious, the Christian tradition asserts that through the mystery of the Incarnation the Creator has united with creation. And in becoming incarnate, God has transformed human nature and indeed all of creation. In the adage of Athanasius, "God became man, so that man could become divine." Humankind and the whole cosmos (as Teilhard so eloquently articulated) have become sacred. The icons of Eastern Orthodox Christianity illustrate this startling but utterly Christian perspective upon the world. Not only is the human person depicted as an icon of the divine presence, but bushes, trees, all of nature is depicted as aflame with the living energy of divine love. Picture the analogous vision of Vincent van Gogh whose paintings of trees, hills, clouds and sky twist, swirl, flame out with vital energy. Indeed one theme in Christianity insists that the world is better now than it was in Eden because in the Incarnation God unites with creation and so transforms it. In my Christian community the central symbol of God's transforming presence in the world is the Holy Eucharist in which the Holy Spirit transforms bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. And by partaking of that Holy Communion each of us becomes transformed closer and closer to the likeness of God in whose image we were created. In the ongoing presence of the Incarnation, particularly in the Eucharist, the worlds meet and are transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit. For me, here is the central point for the interpenetration and transformation of the two worlds. Indeed the world is enchanted because the Lord God has entered into and continues to transform it with Divine Light, Spirit, Energy. In this vision of the world, enchantment is indeed an experience of a wondrous glory.

Everything I've been saying, of course, has been said and much more eloquently in Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem over a century ago:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs-
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Author's note: After announcing this title, I discovered a book by Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of the World (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981). I share a title and some of the same concerns as Berman, but he places the issue in a very different context- the history and philosophy of science. I have benefited from Robert Coles, The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Vintage, 1989) and especially conversations with my friend John Perkins, whose fine book The Forbidden Self.' Symbolic Incest and the Journey Within (Boston: Shambhala, 1993) I recommend to anyone interested in the themes of this address.

ALBERT J. RABOTEAU, teaches in the religion department at Princeton University. This article was presented as an address at the ARIL Consultation in 1994. His most recent book is A Fire in the Bones: Reflections on African-American Religious History (Beacon Press, 1995).

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user. Source: Cross Currents, Fall 95, Vol. 45 Issue 3, p392, 11p.