My grandchildren are all young enough to live in an enchanted world. Our back garden on Saint Simons Island is inhabited by faeries. This is an established fact. My grandchildren have empirical evidence for this fact.
When Grace or Clara or Anderson visit, they know that if they leave a gift which they have made in the faerie mailbox and put up the flag, the faeries will leave them a gift. Grace and Clara have amassed quite a collection of faerie gifts. Anderson has too, though he tends to be much more focused on riding on his boat and fishing when he visits.
Most of us, along with Saint Paul, tend to see the process of disenchantment as positive. “When I was a child, I thought as a child.” The implication being that it is well and good to “put away childish things.”
But we often forget that it was Jesus who taught that unless we become like little children we will never see the reign of God.
Both observations are true, but how do we hold them both in our heads?
I think the key may lie in the thought of the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur.
Ricoeur understood the development of our imaginative relationship to the world in three stages:
- The first naïveté, the enchantment of the child, the state of what poet William Blake called “innocence.”
- The long encounter with the world in which we become “disenchanted,” as the innocence of the child is eroded, worn away by “experience.”
- The second naïveté, a re-enchantment, in which we see through what we have long taken for granted, and discern as mature persons the wonder of life and being.
Some folks, having become disenchanted never achieve the second naïveté. They may chafe at anything that smacks of wonder. Perhaps they have established in their minds an edifice of beliefs, hard impediments of faith or information, which they take to be self-evident. This is where hard-lined atheists and fundamentalist are most alike, the one boiling down all existence to a thin materialism, the other adhering to strictly observed dogma.
This is also the shoal on which many starry-eyes optimists lie wrecked, becoming cynics in their disappointment. Realists and pragmatists almost never become cynics, because they refuse to reduce existence to grand ideologies. This is why I think the healthiest perspective on life tends to be a kind of reverent agnosticism, holding life and experience more lightly, always ready to revise one’s understandings in light of new experiences, resisting the hardening of the categories that makes mental-arterialscelrosis so deadly.
Children find it easy to believe in faeries, not because they are unsophisticated or ill-informed, but because they possess the capacity of wonder. They see the natural world, not as a closed system, but as delightfully open. They are braver than we are, of course, “fierce and free” as G. K. Chesterton called them, not because they are foolish, but because they have not yet constructed the systems of fear and control that, in the absence of enchantment, are what adults cling to for security.
What children see is that imagination and faith and knowledge go hand-in-hand. If they meet a physicist courageous enough to explain quarks to them, they will find it just as easy to imagine these unseen denizens of the subatomic world as it is to imagine that faeries live under the sage leaves in their grandparents’ back garden. Their world is richly inhabited by things “seen and unseen,” which, according to the Nicene Creed are all created by a Triune God.
Can I become re-enchanted, asked Nicodemus, now that I am old? Can I turn back the clock, become a toddler again, pet the fur on the back of the bumblebee without fearing he’ll sting, or might I see beneath the wind the puffed cheeks of God?
And the Lord Jesus said unto him, old fella, you’ve got to go even further than that. Your imagination must be born again, or you’ll never see the kingdom of God, which, by the way, surrounds you even now.