we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things

Modernity is what comes …when Christianity has been displaced from the center of a culture and deprived of any power explicitly to shape laws and customs, and has ceased to be regarded as the source of a society’s highest values or of a government’s legitimacy, and has ceased even to hold preeminent sway over a people’s collective imagination. …Modernity is not simply a “postreligious” condition; it is the state of a society that has been specifically a Christian society. …The ethical presuppositions intrinsic to modernity, for instance, are palliated fragments and haunting echoes of Christian moral theology. Even the most ardent secularists among us generally cling to notions of human rights, economic and social justice, providence for the indigent, legal equality, or basic human dignity that pre-Christian Western culture would have found not so much foolish as unintelligible. It is simply the case that we distant children of the pagans would not be able to believe in any of these things—they would never have occurred to us—had our ancestors not once believed that God is love, that charity is the foundation of all virtues, that all of us are equal before the eyes of God, that to fail to feed the hungry or care for the suffering is to sin against Christ, and that Christ laid down his life for the least of his brethren.

From David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (2009). Recalls Fr. Stephen Freeman and others who say thatCharles, helpful. Thank you. This question brings to mind a claim that modernity is best understood specifically as a heretical distortion of Christianity. Also brings to mind this point by Charles Taylor that “the process of disenchantment is irreversible” (and Lewis describing post-Christian culture at the bottom of this post).

the process of disenchantment is irreversible

From “Disenchantment—Reenchantment” by Charles Taylor (within The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now edited by George Levine):

These terms are often used together, the first designating one of the main features of the process we know as secularization, the second a supposed undoing of the first, which can be either desired or feared, according to one’s point of view.

But their relation is more complicated than this. In some sense, it can be argued, the process of disenchantment is irreversible. The aspiration to reenchant … points to a different process, which may indeed reproduce features analogous to the enchanted world, but does not in any simple sense restore it.

Let’s speak of “the enchanted world” to designate those features which disenchantment did away with. There are two main ones.

The first feature of this world is that it was one filled with spirits and moral forces, and one, moreover, in which these forces impinged on human beings; that is, the boundary between the self and these forces was somewhat porous. There were spirits of the wood, or of the wilderness areas. There were objects with powers to wreak good or ill, such as relics (good) and love potions (not so unambiguously good). I speak of “moral” forces to mark this point, that the causality of certain physical objects was directed to good or ill. So a phial of water from Canterbury (which must contain some blood of the martyr Thomas a Beckett) could have a curative effect on any ill you were suffering from. In this it was quite unlike a modern medical drug that “targets” certain maladies and conditions, owing to its chemical constitution.

One could sum this up by saying that this was a world of“magic.” This is implied in our term “disenchantment,” which can be thought of as a process of removing the magic. This is even clearer in the original German: Weber’s Entzauberung contains the word Zauber (magic). But this is less illuminating than it seems. The process of disenchantment, carried out first for religious reasons, consisted of delegitimizing all the practices for dealing with spirits and forces, because they allegedly either neglected the power of God or directly went against it. Rituals of this kind were supposed to have power of themselves, hence were blasphemous. All such rituals were put into a category of “magic.” The category was constituted by the rejection, rather than providing a clear reason for the rejection. It then carries on in Western culture even after the decline of faith—for example. Frazer’s distinction magic/religion. Only when Westerners attempted to make ethnographic studies of non-Western societies did it become clear how inadequate and instable this category is.

I talked about not being able to go back. But surely lots of our contemporaries are already ‘‘back‘’ in this world. They believe in and practice certain rituals to restore health or give them success. The mentality survives, even if underground. That is true; much survives of the earlier epoch. But the big change, which would be hard to undo, is that which has replaced the porous selves of yore with what I would describe as “buffered” selves.

Brings to mind when C.S. Lewis says:

For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is, essentially, the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian men of our own day differ from his as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me.

See also this passage about the “premodern self’s porosity.”

I certainly can’t conceive … any grosser abuse of language than to call a discussion a meditation

Delightful collection of “less commonly used quotes” from the letters of C.S. Lewis:

  • Many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light but also the natural light which pagans possess.
  • I certainly can’t conceive any less suitable preparation for Holy Communion than a discussion or any grosser abuse of language than to call a discussion a meditation.
  • I really believe I would have come to Christianity much less reluctantly if it had not involved the Church.
  • There is much to be puzzled about. There is nothing to be worried about.
  • It has been my experience that the rich of any country are usually the least attractive specimens of that nation.

if we brought them garlands or sacrifices

The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton:

If we were at rest in a real paganism, instead of being restless in a rather irrational reaction from Christianity, we might pay some sort of pagan honour to these nameless makers of mankind. We might have veiled statues of the man who first found fire or the man who first made a boat or the man who first tamed a horse. And if we brought them garlands or sacrifices, there would be more sense in it than in disfiguring our cities with cockney statues of stale politicians and philanthropists. But one of the strange marks of the strength of Christianity is that, since it came, no pagan in our civilisation has been able to be really human.