Escaping the Matrix of Disenchantment

When Morpheus attempts to explain to Neo “the truth” about the Matrix, Neo asks, very much in the spirit of Pilate, “What truth?” Morpheus tells him, “That you are a slave … born into … a prison for your mind.” Morpheus explains, “The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” The notion that perception of reality is actually the flat grid of zeroes and ones of a computer program resonates with a generation eager to take the red pill and to escape the banal reality of a flat modernism.  To refer to it as “secularism” may miss the fact that this pervasive notion of reality is promoted by a religiosity which has succumbed, whether conservative or liberal, to a mind-numbing matrix.  Max Weber, in tracing the rise of a capitalistic/secular mode of valuation described it as the “disenchantment” of our world.  He lays the blame for this disenchantment, and with it the rise of secularism, on Protestant theology. 

Luther fuses the sacred and the secular so that every vocation is holy and Calvin further flattens this holy order so that God’s blessing becomes quantifiable in the coin (literally) of the realm. Accumulated wealth is the marker of God’s blessing, but in this new materially grounded theology the angelic and the spiritual will also be downsized to their material effect.  Calvin’s reading of the New Testament, in Stephen Long’s assessment, is the midpoint leading to Rudolf Bultmann’s project of demythologizing Scripture, which completely and proudly succumbs to the flat matrix of the age. He writes, “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”  As Long notes in his commentary on Hebrews, Bultmann would make the Bible palatable to those who are accustomed to seeing the world in terms of a grid.[1]

While Bultmann will consciously set out to demythologize Scripture, an unconscious shift has occurred which functions to do the same thing.  That is, the spirit of the age is one which would disenchant the world in which we live.  Conservatives might simply project the enchanted spiritual realm to some other place and liberals might seek to do away with it all together but in terms of the present world and its situation the two views can sometimes be indistinguishable.  While John Robinson’s classic liberal bombshell, Honest to God, ridicules the notion of tiered heaven up in the sky it also betrays the same flat worldview.  As Jason has described it in an excellent blog, the choice is between the hyper-social or hyper-eschatological (going to heaven when you die) sort of Christianity but the shared realm is that of modernity.  As he explains, it is not simply conservatives or fundamentalists who have succumbed to a “prosperity theology.”  “The reason I think of this liberalism as ‘prosperity theology’ is that it seems to assume that we can work this final manifestation of the kingdom out on our own in a way in which we get to avoid the suffering of those Christians who saw themselves as an alternative to Rome.”[2]  Both liberals and conservatives, he claims, imagine that the kingdom will have to work itself out in the political realities of this world’s kingdoms.

A fully orbed biblical metaphysic – heaven and earth joined together in the person and work of Christ – is a concept which has become untranslatable and incomprehensible in this “materialized” Christianity. The resurrection and ascension of Christ, squeezed into the flat realm of the modern, is conceived of as a passage beyond and away from a purely materialized cosmos.  Both conservative and liberal Christianity devolve to a vague spiritualism in which the bodily resurrection may be flatly denied or considered unnecessary (“who cares if they find the body of Jesus, it was his spiritual resurrection and ascension which are important”) or considered a temporary measure as Christ would fully ascend to the heavenly realm by passing beyond the bodily realm of his earthly incarnation.  Naïve conservatives, I have discovered, do not recognize straight up theological liberalism as both tend to emphasize an individualized/spiritualized form of the faith.  The bodily resurrection is a “complication” (as it was put it to me) which “we simple Christians” need not insist on.  Though directly confronted by a Bultmannian form of theological liberalism, the shared consensus for this particular group was that it was unnecessarily divisive to insist on a literal bodily resurrection.  In other words, demythologization has done its work in the mere fact of the shared spirit of the age.  The requirement of a basic Christian orthodoxy, and the metaphysic and meaning this entails, is literally unrecognizable to segments of the Christian population I have encountered.  I am confounded as to whether this is liberal or conservative as it seems to all be on the same continuum.

The film the Matrix, makes a good case for the difficulty of shedding an understanding boxed in by a technological matrix.  Neo is slowly introduced to the “desert of the real” and is required to retrain all of his muscles, inclusive of his capacity to see.  The presumption of many Christians seems to be that the perspective and attitudes with which they have been inculcated and weaned are the final reality through which all things are to be effortlessly sifted.  The hard work of transforming the mind through a deep engagement with Scripture – something on the order of a reversal of Bultmann’s demythologizing – perhaps a re-enchanting – (or as Kevin Vanhoozer has termed it, remythologizing) is itself contrary to the presumption of a naturally given common-sense rationality.  Faith, in this modern understanding, does not seem to hold out greater depths of possibility; rather it is reduced to what is believable for me at the present time given my worldview.  There is no suspension of belief or unbelief in which faith might give rise to an entirely different worldview.

For a generation weaned on flat notions of reality, departure from the matrix – from the boredom and despair of a flat earth – is more on the order of taking a pill.  The film offers the choice of a pill – blue or red – and the Neo generation is answering, “Yes, two of each.”  The banality of the present age and the longing for re-enchantment can be gauged by the epidemic of pill consumption.  A 2015 New York Times article maintains that heroin overdoses in America have nearly tripled in three years with more than 8,250 people a year dying from heroin and double that number dying from prescription opioid painkillers. “Total overdose deaths, most often from pills and heroin, now surpass traffic fatalities.”[3] The church is not immune from this epidemic, and while I do not want to equate bad theology with rates of addiction, neither should we too readily dismiss the notion that an unfulfilling, unimaginative, theology is partly to blame in the desperate escapism of the day.  The simple metric of bodies being stacked in local morgues might indicate that the basic desire for a deeper truth and reality is not being met.

The re-enchantment of reality, I believe, begins with communities of enchantment; places where two or three can gather together and experience deep acceptance and unity.  Such communities are not for escaping realities of the world but they would purposely seek to escape the grid of modernity.  We might think of these communities as groups where we can exercise the muscles so at to bear the gravity of a weightier reality.  As we become accustomed to seeing further perhaps we can momentarily relinquish the flat matrix which we have constructed for ourselves.

 

[1] D. Stephen Long. Hebrews: Belief, a Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) (Kindle Locations 403-405). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[2]http://forgingploughshares.org/2016/12/27/modern-liberalisms-failure-to-produce-a-peaceable-kingdom-in-the-end-its-just-another-prosperity-gospel/

[3] https://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/opinion/sunday/serving-all-your-heroin-needs.html


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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